Today has been a busy day. After curing Zhang, I decided to plan a quick celebration for him with Su Lin and the others. The villagers, though, seem to have gotten the news and had decided to chip in, leading to a bit of a crazy rush to get the part ready, without letting Zhang in on the news.
I stirred a batter around in the bowl in front of me, reading and scratching out the trial and error recipes written upon it. You’d think after making literal magic bombs from herbs I would have an easier time with something as simple as a cake, but as it’d turn out, magic-cooking skills did not translate all that well to actual cooking, especially without any modern tools whatsoever.
“Pass me the sugar Labby,” I asked my assistant. Labby perked up, white powder splattered over her face, as she hurriedly passed me the bowl of sugar. I glanced at her, and Labby slowly retreated from powdered bowl of whipped cream I’d made through a lot of effort.
Mixing the sugar into the batter, I continued to mix, before I found the consistency to be just right. Moving my bowl over, I quickly walked through my lab, near the kiln that’d been made for my cauldron, as I transferred the batter into my cauldron. With a flick of my wrist, I set the flames on, and all that remained was to wait.
Stepping back, I took a seat near Labby, wiping the sweat off my brow.
“Is this cake really so good?” Labby asked, leaning over the counter as she looked at the cauldron curiously.
“It’s pretty good, yeah. Though what I’m making is sponge-cake since manufacturing baking soda artificially was a bust, but it’s good. Though maybe not as good as a pizza, which I should also make one of these days.”
“Pi za?” Labby asked.
“It’s a thing. Back from my home. I think you’ll like it,” I told Labby, who kicked her legs around from her chair and hummed happily.
We sat for a while in silence, as I focused on controlling the flames and heat. After I felt it had been long enough, I moved to the cauldron and took off the lid.
“Alright, it’s not a goopy sludge or a charred husk this time, so progress,” I said out loud, before poking at the cake once. The cake itself was firm, though there was no real bounce to it, which I wasn’t surprised by. Using a knife, I took out the cake form the cauldron in all it’s rounded top glory, before quickly setting it on a tray.
“Okay! You’re up Labby!”
“Squeak!” Labby jumped up at the task, grabbing the spoon and the bowl of whipped cream. With a smooth cut of my knife, I evened out the cake on all sides, before spinning the tray around steadily.
Labby took the cream on the spoon, before bringing it near the cake as she began to coat it on all sides. Different smaller bowls had different colors that I’d made with the help of ground herbs, primarily spirit herbs for their brighter colors, and I watched Labby now play around with the colors freely, her eyes intently focused on the cake.
A knock on the door interrupted me, and I sent a pulse of Chi to open the door.
The door opened a crack, as Yan Yun poked her head inside. “Is it ready yet?”
“We’re on it,” I replied, as I continued to spin the tray around.
“Zhang is outside, so be quick,” Yan Yun said, walking out.
“You heard her,” I told Labby, as we continued to layer the cream. After feeling she’d done most of the task, I took out my knife, using it to clean off the rough edges on the cake.
“Alright, I think we’re done!” I exclaimed, grabbing the cake. “Let’s go Labby,” I said, picking up the cake tray, as we made our way to the living room.
A bunch of people and villagers, were gathered, standing around quietly. A table had been setup with food, and I shuffled the thing around, setting up the cake in front.
Glancing out through the window, I gave my mental nod of approval to Sheldon who was guarding the gates, and in a quick few moments, Zhang walked inside, led by Su Lin through the door.
“Congratulations on your recovery!” I shouted, my friends, the village head, a couple of the villagers who’d joined in and my spirits all chiming in. Just for the spirit of it, I threw up the cut outs made of coloured paper in the air.
Zhang stood, staring at everyone in surprise and confusion. “What’s… this?”
“it’s a feast!” I replied cheerfully, before explaining further when that didn’t seem to clear up the confusion. “We celebrate birthdays every year back at my home. I know it’s not a big thing here, but given that this was in some ways, a new beginning for your Path and cultivation, we wanted to celebrate it.”
Zhang looked around, confused, when Su Lin grabbed his hand and walked him in.
“It’s a feast in your name, Brother Zhang, don’t just stand there,” the boy said, walking the man of the day in.
“We do not know, the customs of cultivators and such, but even we understand the importance of such a day. It is a blessing to hear of your recovery, and we want to thank you for all you’ve done for us and our humble village,” the village head said, standing in front of the table.
“Alright, now, I’ve made something special for you,” I said, walking up to Zhang. “It’s called a cake, and on birthdays, well, we typically blow out a candle before we make a wish, but in this cake you can just make the wish before you cut the cake,” I said, handing the knife to Zhang.
“Brother Jie, all of this—”
“Shh, no arguments,” I cut off Zhang, before he could speak. “Just cut the cake, and celebrate. You’ve been so out of it today, and I want you to celebrate a little.”
Zhang stared in my eye, unspoken words hovering in his expression, but he nodded, turning to face the cake.
“I’m supposed to make a wish. Is that correct?” Zhang asked, and I nodded.
Zhang looked down at the cake, closing his eyes for a moment, before he opened them. “I… had never expected for this day to come. For me to… to have a glimpse at my path again. Hope itself had become a dagger in my chest, too painful to even endure. Yet, by a miracle, Brother Jie had found me, and helped me bring me here. He gave me a brand new life, returning what I thought could never be returned,” Zhang said, glancing around everyone that stood nearby, with glassy eyes.
“Not once, did he hesitate to hand over Silverlight to me, something he’d had to compete for in the tournament of the sect, facing grave danger for himself. I did not know how to repay him. I did now know if I ever could. I had felt lost, burdened by the thought that there was nothing I could do that would ever be able to repay the gratitude I feel. But… I understand now, what I must,” Zhang said, before turning towards me.
“With the heavens as my witness, I pledge my life in your name, brother Jie. Any weapon I ever wield, shall be in your name. This shall be my Path,” Zhang proclaimed, bowing deeply to me.
And then he cut the cake.
Qi shuddered and pulsed, circling around Zhang before sinking into him. I felt the tie that connected us, strengthen into a powerful bond, as the Oath found it’s purchase and broke Zhang into the first realm, flaring his Qi out brightly into the world.
“The wish was meant to be for you, silly,” I said, smiling, before I went in and gave the boy a hug. We remained that way for a few moments, as I felt the weight of Zhang’s words settling on me. Trying not to get the mood too weighed down by heavy emotions, I separated, a smile still held on my face. “Though I don’t seem to be the only one who wants to meet you today, Zhang,” I added, turning around.
The gate to my house opened, as the villagers walked in, holding all sorts of gifts and trinkets. The gift giving custom had taken on pretty quickly, and even the children had decided to join in, bringing in flowers and whatever they could find.
I smiled as watching as one by one everyone came in and handed in their gifts, thanking Zhang for whatever he’d done to help them.
Stepping back, I guided everyone in through the party. Su Lin, Yan Yun and the village head’s daughter Yin helped me through the setup. Yin had been a great help with the preparations, but somehow I hadn’t been able to talk to her. I’d noticed her eyeing the cake I’d made and looking at me, as if she wanted to say something, but if she did, she had never asked.
Time flew past in a rush, as the people came, and ate, congratulating Zhang. Taking my chance, I slipped out for a brief moment to catch some fresh air, a glass of liquor that I sipped on, though it did nothing to intoxicate me. A celebratory mood filled the air, as I walked through the people of the village, finding their hesitation and boundaries starting to melt.
No more, was this a gathering of cultivation of mortals and cultivators. Instead, this was the gathering of the village Taizhou. My new home. And I had a lot to do to ensure I could protect it.
I sensed something stir behind me and sighed.
“It’s time, Lu Jie,” a voice echoed from behind my back. I turned around to face the voice and found Elder Tian Feng, now wearing robes carrying the mark of Lord Zhou standing behind me.
“I don’t really see a carriage,” I asked with a light chuckle.
“I see you feel merry, but I suggest you don’t make the Lord wait on your first day,” the Elder said, taking a glance around at the village.
“Right, I shouldn’t piss off my boss on the first day of work. That’d get me fired real quick,” I replied, smiling.
Tian Feng nodded, as mist burst around the man, a spectral carriage forming behind him.
I let out a whistle at the display, impressed by the pair of pristine horses with manes that turned to mist.
"I'm heading out for a while," I sent to Zhang. I sensed the boy's surprise, likely both at being able to hear my voice like this again, and the message, but I soon received his acknowledgement. Glancing back, I took a look at Labby, contemplating for a moment if I wanted to bring her along with me.
Hearing her squeals and laughs of joy as she tumbled and tussled with the kids, I decided to leave her be, as I stepped into the carriage.
“Let us depart,” Tian Feng said, stepping into the carriage behind me, as the world began to zip past in a blur.