A gentle breeze flew in through the window, stirring me out of my daze. I looked up outside, to see the rising sun peeking over the horizon as my eyes widened in surprise. Somehow, an entire day seemed to have passed by while I read through the many scroll I’d been given access to in the Lord’s manor.
The books contained all sorts of topics pertaining. Mundane stuff like the harvest observed from various parts of the empire, decrees from the emperor, to things like the nature of heavenly tribulations and discussions about the nature of each realm’s purpose, and how one is supposed to walk their Path.
I’d read many books regarding various herbs, and recipes of pills that made next to no sense to me. There were arts that seemed like they were describing teleportation, and even some studies on transformation of spirit beasts into humans. I picked a scroll regarding such for Labby, before reading further into other similarly interesting topics.
My attention didn’t stay in the books and scrolls for long, and soon after, I’d picked up a jade slip. These primarily consisted of things pertaining to cultivation arts, techniques, forms and so on. But a lot of it was also regarding the behavior rules and codes to be followed by a cultivator, alongside deep dives into the core martial arts.
I was tempted to say that I held no interest in those, yet that would most certainly be a lie. I remembered a younger me wondering what sort of fighting arts the cultivators used. Which was slightly odd because I had never held any interest in martial arts during my previous life. Yet, in this one, I had been obsessed. Desperately chasing strength and power.
I could remember memories from my childhood here. They were still separated by the chasm of identity caused by the split in my soul. It wasn’t easy to just merge two separate people that I’d lived as into a singular. It was an odd chaotic situation regarding my own identity. Was I the boy who was chasing strength, or the guy who’d felt he was born too late to truly experience the joy of a mysterious and undiscovered world?
I flipped another page of the book in my hands, watching the diagrams illustrate a martial art’s forms. I took in the information in front of me, watching the motions of the arms and the legs.
I carefully read the words, explaining the flow of Qi from the dantian, through the body and out. It was a curious scroll, not describing any form of art to generate something using the Qi itself, but merely expelling it from the body in a controlled manner to generate force.
Letting curiosity take hold of me, I set the scroll down, and watched the illustration. Standing straight, I pushed one leg behind me, drawing a hand in as I took up the stance given. Then, letting my weight shift, I grabbed my feet ahead, twisting my body to let the weight flow up my legs, through my core, into my arms.
It was a simple motion, yet I could sense the little details that were off about it. I took the stance once more, changing the angle of my feet. I twisted my core a little further, raising my arm up as I shot out with my punch.
The Chi from my core followed the motion of my body, almost without thought, bursting out of my fist with a cracking noise. I smiled, a silly grin at the cracking sound, feeling every bit like a wannabe martial arts kid in a kung-fu movie.
Excited about my success, I tried the next form. I moved my arm in a sweeping arc, Chi flowing through my limbs and giving strength to my motions. The movements flowed gracefully, as I stepped around, almost as if in a dance. The last form was a graceful sweep that brought me back into the stance I’d taken at the start, completing the cycle.
I continued to practise, trying to perfect the flow of my Chi. Within a few moments, I had memorised the forms, going through them one by one. My steps tapped the floor, sweeping and moving with the grace only afforded to a cultivator.
It was a silly moment, and more often than not, I found myself smiling at the thought of how ridiculous I must look, yet I felt a childlike joy at performing the forms, at the crackle of wind with my fists, as if getting to live a dream I’d had throughout both my lives. Afterall, which kid wouldn’t love to be able to do sick kung-fu? Certainly none I knew of.
My elbow jammed into one of the shelves rocking it back. Hurriedly, I grabbed the wooden furniture as a couple of books fell off, clattering onto the floor.
“There is a sparring chamber, if you wish to practice the forms,” the Lord’s older son said, standing near the entrance of the chamber. “Apologies, I didn't mean to spy on you like that. But I thought it worse to interrupt someone who seemed to be enjoying themselves so thoroughly.”
I stared dimly for a moment at the polished and refined young man, brimming with young talented master energy. “Enjoying myself?” I asked the boy.
“You were smiling as you practiced the forms,” the boy said, walking further into the chamber.
“Ah. No, I was just thinking how clumsy and stupid I must look, and smiling at that,” I replied, scratching my cheek in embarrassment, as I put the books and scrolls back where they belonged.
The boy did not respond to that, merely watching me. Right when I began to feel awkward at his continued stare, he walked in closer. “Zhou Fang, the lord’s eldest son.”
“A please to meet you. I’m Lu Jie,” I replied with a bow. “Still wondering how I got here.”
“I’ve heard quite some things about you, Lu Jie. You’re the talk of the city right now, as you must surely know,” the boy said, smiling.
“Not really, to be honest. I have been preoccupied with certain things to pay any attention to rumors or the like,” I said.
Zhou Fang shook his head, though he did not further comment. “Let us forget that. Come with us, I would like to show you the sparring room.”
The Lord’s young son rested his arm on my shoulder, his bright black eyes and tight radiant smile pressuring me into being unable to say no. I could most certainly see his father’s likeness in him. They had the exact same unreadable smile.
I didn't resist' the boy’s invitation, walking behind me as he escorted me out. I watched Zhaou Fang in silence, as he walked past, being greeted by the servants and workers, and often greeting them back by name.
“Do you know everyone who works here?” I asked, surprised by the display.
“Most have been in my father’s service for at least a year. But I do try to make an effort to remember all of their names,” Zhou Fang replied.
“That feels… unusual,” I replied a tad hesitantly.
Zhou Fang looked back at me in surprise, and laughed. “Yes, it certainly is. But I have a great mentor, who has taught me to respect those who serve us. After I am Lord, it will be these men and women that I shall have to rely on. It would do me well to treat them with respect.”
A surprising amount of sense, coming from someone I’d expected to be extremely entitled and arrogant instead.
“I must say, while I had heard of your straightforward nature, and frankness, it is still quite unusual to see. Despite what is said, I am treated like the son of the lord of the seventh peak by everyone I have met. I have come to expect it of the people I meet. To not see any of that in how you talk with me, it is quite refreshing. I’d almost wondered if you were trying to insult me,” Zhou Fang said, smiling at me.
“Oh, forgiveness. I did not intend to disrespect the young master,” I said, quickly shifting into a formal talking manner.
“No need, no need. I soon realized it is just how you behave. It is quite a free way to live. Unfortunately, I do believe many in my position may take it as a sign of insult so I’d suggest being wary if you ever have to encounter with other nobility,” the young lord said, and I held back a grimace.
“We are here,” Zhou Fang added, standing outside a chamber covered in sparring mats. Sunlight filtered in through the wooden windows, a pleasant garden view outside, with flowing streams traveling through a mini forest of plants.
“An oddly relaxing view for a sparring chamber,” I said, stepping inside behind the young master. The mats were coarse under my feet, yet provided a strong grip. I tapped my feet once to get a better feel of the floor, before looking up at Zhou Fang.
“As my mentor would say, it is not the angry warrior we fear, but the calm one instead,” the boy said, walking ahead instead. Turning around with a smile, he watched my expression with his calculating eyes, hidden behind that smiling visage of his. “Would you like to participate in a little spar?”
There was something in his gaze that made me decide against politely refusing the offer. I raised my hands in a stance, feeling a lot more uncertain that I put on my face, and gave a nod.
With a flicker, the boy in front of me vanished, my vision replaced by a fist descending right at my face. My body moved before I could think about what I was doing, as I twisted my feet, turning. Muscle memory from a lifetime of training I’d forgotten took over, as I swept my feet out, trying to strike at Zhou Fang’ feet to knock his down and take him into a grapple.
The strike didn’t work as the boy swirled sideways instead, landing a well placed kick into my sides. I rolled with the blow, flying a few feet into the air. Using my moment, I spun around and slid onto my feet.
A droplet of blood dripped down that I wiped, feeling a nervous excitement as I watched Zhou Fang standing straight, with a smile on his face.
“You clearly know how to fight. The training is in your body. Yet you fight as if you’d never actually learnt how to, unless pushed enough that you cannot think,” Zhou Fang said, flickering once more. Another punch shot towards my face, and I ducked, but the strike predicted my move, following my motions as I flew across the mats once more.
I didn’t get time to react this time, as the onslaught continued, a kick aiming for my chin launching off right after. In a blind panic, I blocked the kick with my arm, trying to wrap my legs around Zhou Fang’s. My attempts were warded off with another kick from Zhou Fang, as he moved sideways, not letting me find my balance with constant strikes that knocked my off balance.
“To have beaten the twins as you did, surely you must be far stronger than this?” Zhou Fang said. A punch hand me splayed on the ground, panting from the light injuries. Even knowing the pain would be brief and leave no lasting impact, I still couldn’t help the frustration that was building up inside of me.
“I am not,” I coughed at the brief respite given to me, as I pulled myself up to my feet. “I… was in a trance back then. I lashed out, letting anger take hold of me. If anything, I regret my choices.”
A frown appeared on Zhou Fang’s face at my words. “I’ll be attacking with the intent to hurt now,” the boy said, as he vanished.
I felt the Qi swirl in his core, as the strike launched me across the chamber. A loud crack echoed through the chamber, as I crashed into the wall, feeling blood fill my cheek. My senses picked up on the flickering strike as another punch shot towards my face.
I tried to think, but the attacks were too fast. Another punch landed in my gut and pain wracked my body. Anger began to fill my chest.
Sensing a strike at my face, I moved my neck. Another fist came up to my face. I kicked with my leg and pushed Zhou back. Chi flowed through my feet as I Stepped off the wall. The world warped around me as I launched towards him, my hand met his, as he blocked my strike, a bright smile splayed across his face.
I struck with my other fist, using the new form I’d learned today. My feet slid behind, twisting as the Chi flowed from my abdomen, up into my shoulder and out through my fist.
A loud boom shook the air around me as Zhou was flung back, tumbling across the field. I rushed ahead, chasing, but the boy didn’t give an inch. With a twist, he was on his feet, ducking down at my wide swing.
Moving swiftly, he flickered as he stepped closer. A punch landed in my gut, another at my shoulder, another in my chest. A barrage of quick strikes hit my jaw, gut and chest, and I struggled to keep up.
Chi thrummed in my core, flowing and powering the adrenaline pouring in my veins, and I found the strange sensation I’d begun feeling during the spirit hunt fill me again.
I stopped midway, fist frozen as thoughts snapped back into me. Zhou Fang, to my surprise, stopped at that moment as well.
I stood in silence, watching the boy as I panted, sweat beading down my body, and my heart pounding like a loud drumbeat.
There was no denying things. I enjoyed these fights, these moments of thrill where I could stop thinking and just move my body to its limits. I craved these moments. At least, some part of me did. A part I had not been able to fully come to terms with.
“It is fun to let go, is it not?” Zhou Fang asked me.
“It shouldn’t be,” I replied, clenching my fist. “It’s the way of violence. Mindless slaughter and murder, callous disregard for life. I thought I was better than this, utilising a path of knowledge instead.”
“You say this as if a path of knowledge is devoid of strength,” Zhou Fang said. I raised my head in surprise.
“The path of the scholar is not the path of the weak. We all have capabilities that we are born with, and limits of our birth that we must accept. Yet, knowledge is power, and a deeper understanding of the world, provides a profound strength to those who know how to wield it,” the boy said.
Walking closer, Zhou Fang put an arm on my shoulder, meeting his eye with mine. “I have heard of what has happened to you. Two souls within one. I hear you had fixed that divide, but the splitting of souls would leave a mark. You may have found unity, but have you found balance?”
“Balance?” I repeated dumbly after him.
“Indeed, balance. You had your Path before, but is that the same Path you still follow? Surely, your other self also had a Path, did he not? Have you found some method to balance those Paths together?”
“I…” I failed to come up with a response. Had I done that? Had I even tried to incorporate the path of who I had been, before my other memories awakened into who I am now?
I looked into the boy’s eyes. “What do you suggest I do?”
“Think. Meditate. Try to find balance, Lu Jie. Your martial arts are clumsy. Clearly you possess skill, but you merely follow the arts provided to you by the sect. A simpler and weaker form of it at that. Perhaps it is time for you to learn arts that would guide the martial aspect of your Path. After all, what change can the weak bring in our world?” Zhou Fang said, patting my shoulder as the boy walked out of the chamber.
I stood in silence, trying to process everything that had happened. Yet there was very little to say about the spar, or the realisation I had been led to. The message was clear, yet it was one I was struggling to accept.
Noticing the sun now rising well above the horizon, I shook myself out of my daze. Returning to the chamber I’d been led to, I picked up the scrolls I’d set aside for borrowing alongside some herbs to deal with the sparring bruises. After gathering my belongings, I asked to be escorted out of the manor.
There would be time for musings on my Path, for now, I needed to go back home.