“Are you seriously doing this?” the man whispered in her ear. “Hui Gui Mao Qing, I knew you were crazy, but not to this degree.”
“Drop the ‘Hui Gui’ part,” she said. “From this day on, I’m no longer part of the clan.”
“Hui Gui Mao Haoyu, no, even Hui Gui Mao Longwei will kill you if you do this.”
Mao Qing crossed her arms. “Neither grandfather nor father will do such a thing.” She looked deeply at the servant in front of her. “And that’s because you will not tell anyone about my departure, at least not for several weeks.”
He mirrored her movements, crossing his arms in defiance. “And what will I tell your father about your sudden disappearance?”
Mao Qing pondered for a moment. “Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but grandfather gave father the [Speedy Growth] En from the locker of the immortals.” The servant gasped in surprise, holding a hand over his mouth. She continued, “and so he’ll be busy meditating for a while. If he ever comes out, you will tell him that I’m playing with Meilin.”
“What about Hui Gui Mao Feng?”
“Little brother won’t question my disappearance. These days, he’s usually having fights with his friends or playing with that spear of his.” She put a finger to her chin. “Or is it a sword now? I can never keep track.”
“Hui—I mean—Mao Qing, but why is it that you want to… to go to the East? What’s over there that makes you want to leave your home?” he spoke quietly, not wanting to wake anyone up.
She stared into his eyes. “If you aren’t going to keep this a secret, then I’ll kill you.”
“I believe you,” he admitted.
Mao Qing sighed. “I’m going to join the Silver Knights.”
The servant in front of her gasped again, louder this time. “That vigilante group?”
“Shhh,” she put a finger to his mouth. “Remember, I swear that you will die if you rat me out.” He nodded and she removed her finger, wiping it on her clothes. “They aren’t a vigilante group like everyone seems to believe they are. I believe in their cause.” She looked around, gazing into the night to make sure no one else was around. “Anyway, it’s time for me to go. Tell Meilin I’ll miss her.” The lanky, orange-haired girl climbed onto a horse, with a worried servant watching over her.
“Do you have enough food and drink?” he asked. “Is money an issue?”
“Don’t worry about me too much,” she replied, already moving. “I’m not so weak that I can’t survive a couple of months in the wild.”
The man watched her horse trot away, wiping the sweat from his forehead. As someone who had watched over the Mao family for years, he was worried about her even now. He waited until the sun had risen before returning to the Mao family abode.
“I have something important on the agenda today,” Zhang Shi said, holding up a finger. “And it’s something you may already know about, but I’d like to review it in a more comprehensive manner from your new perspective as a cultivator. After all, awakening your dantian is a vital milestone in your life, and it changes how you should perceive things.” He looked around at his students. “It relates to history.” The students groaned, and he chuckled. “Yes, unfortunately, we do not fight every single day, though combat will surely be an important thing to learn, especially for those who will grow up to be guards or warriors.”
“But,” he started, “this lesson I will review today is also paramount for your edification.” He pointed his index finger up. “First, we will start with the history of our village. What can you all tell me about Hui Gui clan’s history? Anyone?” Zhang Shi looked over at me and Dao Xing. “Hui Gui Dao Xing,” he pointed at him, “could you tell us about the founder of our clan and village?”
“Yes, sir,” Dao Xing said, standing up. “Hui Gui was just a mortal cultivator of the third rank when he founded Hui Gui clan, a small village at first, but a place that was destined to be a thriving piece of land. Many people migrated here and he had many wives, resulting in even more children. Over time, the foreigners who had come to visit merged into the family, and that was how we grew to our current size.” Dao Xing spoke clearly and loudly, reciting what we had learned in our basic education.
Zhang Shi smiled. “Yes, but there are some other things that must be mentioned. There are many living in Hui Gui village that are not of the Hui Gui clan, meaning that they do not possess our blood. This also means that they do not, under the current laws of the village, have the right to gain from the sacred locker of the immortals when they turn fifteen. So you all should feel privileged.” He looked down in silence for several seconds. “But these are all things that should be common knowledge. What I really want to teach you all about are the customs that are imposed in other villages or cities.” He opened his mouth and pointed his head to the ceiling. After several seconds, a blue mist flowed from his tongue, and it separated into two while midair.
“This world is unfair and there is a division between mortals and cultivators. Keep in mind that true mortals are those without the talent to use qi, while mortal cultivators are cultivators ranked one through five. This is a clear distinction that must be made.” One side of blue mist transformed into a giant person while the other turned into a small, ant-like entity. “Their strength, when compared to each other, is like night and day. Mortals are much weaker than cultivators, and that is just the way things are.” The mist disappeared.
“Now, what I wanted to teach you all about was how Hui Gui village treats mortals, and how you should treat them as well. The Hui Gui clan, standing in stark difference to many other places, integrates mortals into their life. You may have seen qi-less individuals working as servants or maids. Other places, on the other hand, often segregate mortals into the outer edges of their domain, so that they may act as a buffer against enemy forces.” He nodded. “Treat all well, and you will live an enlightened life. A good cultivator is a good individual.”
A man with a bald head sat in the lotus position, a tanned robe covering his body. An eternal white surrounded him. “Zhang Shi,” he mused. “He speaks quite well.”
“Do you have to shave your head constantly, or does it do that on its own here?” a pale, handsome man asked, grinning.
“The Memoryscape does not allow for the passage of time, Undead King,” the monk replied. “It is a conundrum how we are able to speak to each other when the river of time does not flow. But perhaps temporality does not exist as a linear progression, but has occurred and will occur all at the same time.”
The Undead King rested his chin on his fist. “I have no idea what you just said, Warrior Monk, but I’d say that sometimes, the weirdest things are impossible to understand.”
“Possibly,” said the Warrior Monk. “Human beings may delude themselves into believing that they are more intelligent than other beasts, but the truth of the matter is that we are just as lost as anyone else.”
“AARGH!” a boy yelled. “When is he going to use his En again? I’ve been waiting and waiting.”
“He doesn’t want to waste his qi,” said a bandage-faced man. “It’s actually quite understandable for a rank one cultivator like him since qi for him takes a while to replenish.”
An old man with squinty eyes walked over. “Nothing we can fucking do about it for now, eh?”
“We should watch and wait,” the Undead King said, twiddling his thumbs.
On the windward side of a mountain, a scene was playing itself out. A man with a bulging belly struck fast and true, slitting the neck of the person in front of him. Next, he turned around and quickly sidestepped an attack from a woman with a mask. He grabbed her ponytail and she tried to struggle out of his grip, but it was no use. He turned the edge of his blade down to the back of her neck, and in one swing, sliced off her head. He grunted and inhaled a deep breath.
It was over. He splashed the blood covering his sword onto the ground with a thrust, then returned it to its scabbard. The rocky floor was now dyed with the lifeblood of the bandits. He walked over to the line of carriages, some boxes now lying on the ground in a scattered mess.
“Did anything get taken?” he asked a frail man who had emerged from a corner. The man had been hiding when they were attacked and now mustered the courage to walk out.
“No, Hui Gui Dao Fu, sir. But you were most impressive defeating those bandits. As expected of a rank two cultivator!” The man clasped his fist.
“They were nothing,” Dao Fu said. “Mere mortals. It’s unfortunate that they had to resort to banditry in order to survive.”
“Not all places are as friendly as the Hui Gui clan, sir,” he replied.
“Yes, I understand that,” Dao Fu replied, picking up a fallen box. “They saw our meager store of goods and thought we had no cultivators in our midst. I guess that’s the way you have to think in order to survive as a mortal.”
“Such is the way of the land. Strength rules above all.”
“Maybe,” Dao Fu mused. “I believe my two sons are no longer mortals now. It’s unfortunate I couldn’t be home on their birthdays, but I should be meeting them in about two weeks or so.” He entered the carriage and beckoned the frail man to join him. “Get some rest. We will be entering Gao city soon.”
Time passed quickly, and after a night’s rest, Dao Fu found himself in a grassy part of the mountain. The atmosphere was clearly filled with qi, something that a cultivator like Dao Fu was able to sense, jolting him from his slumber. Traveling as a merchant from village to village was a stressful job, and the only thing protecting him was the trust given from strangers, so he had to be careful how he approached people.
The walls of Gao city soon came into view, and Dao Fu woke the rest of the people riding the carriages. Unlike him, they were all mortals and were unable to sense the qi in the air. The stony walls rose high in the sky, though some parts were crumbling and had not been maintained. Within the exterior of the city, there were camps of people living and milling about. The tents were strewn all over Gao city’s outside, and Dao Fu could predict why this was the case.
“Pass some bread to the hungry,” ordered Dao Fu, as they passed by the poor living establishments.
“Yes, sir,” some men said. They were already used to Dao Fu’s actions, and were no longer surprised that he treated mortals so kindly. “I believe you’re needed at the front, Hui Gui Dao Fu, sir.”
“Thank you for telling me.” He stepped out of the carriage and walked to the front of the line, noticing two armored men, one’s face twisting in anger.
“You!” the man shouted. “Are you the boss of this merchant caravan? Mortals will not be allowed in Gao city.”
“Hey, dude,” said the other armored man, carrying a wry smile. “Calm down. How about we have them leave the women with us and let them carry on?”
Dao Fu’s face darkened. “We will not do that.” He clasped his fist, and a glow appeared in his dantian. “I am a rank two peak stage cultivator named Dao Fu, and you will not harass my employees.” In return, the two men in front of him took on a battle stance and their cores started to shine. The merchant with the bulging belly was not worried. He would be able to fight these two people on his own if the need arises.
“Stop,” a tall woman emerged from the city gates and placed a hand on the shoulders of both armored men. “Gao city allows mortals to enter if a cultivator is in charge of them.” She glowered at Dao Fu, indicating to him that he should deactivate his qi, something he promptly followed. “I’m sorry for the way our guards treated you. How should we call you, respected merchant?”
“I am Dao Fu of the Hui Gui clan. You may call me Hui Gui Dao Fu.”
“I see,” she replied. “The Hui Gui clan is quite respected here if you did not know.”
“I did not know of this,” he admitted.
“Gao city once had relations with Hui Gui clan. As you can tell, though we are a city of cultivators, we are not a clan or sect, and do not train as much as we should.” She looked at the two guards. “They are only peak stage rank one cultivators and do not know the heights above the heights. If we could one day train with Hui Gui clan again, it would be much appreciated.” Dao Fu looked around at the mortals suffering outside the walls of the city and doubted the village head would be okay with it. But he was a merchant, and he did not want to risk angering Gao city. A city like this, even if only moderately large, would contain several immortals backing them at the very least.
He bowed his head. “Thank you for the offer, miss. I will relay this to the village head.”
“Call me Zheng Fen, Hui Gui Dao Fu. It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”
Bing Meihui watched her father’s disappearing figure, a mixture of relief and yearning in her soul. Zhang Shi’s lesson that day made her wonder about mortals, mortal cultivators, and immortals. Did immortals treat mortal cultivators in the same way that cultivators in the mortal realm often treated qi-less people? She started to return back but hesitated thinking about how her mother would treat her after her father had gone.
Suddenly, a noise could be heard from her left. It was a thudding noise that resounded throughout the forest. She believed that another family lived close to them on the outskirts of the village, but wasn’t sure who they were. Out of curiosity, Bing Meihui started to walk in the direction of the sound, making sure not to make much noise in case it was some beast or dangerous person.
“Good job, little brother!” she heard someone shout. “Do it faster!” She looked through an opening between two trees and saw two boys fighting, both carrying wooden swords. They were… who were they again? She scratched her head, trying to remember who her classmates were. She knew who Yong Qiang and Mao Feng were, but that was because her mother would shout their names into her ear all the time. She believed one of these boys managed to defeat Mao Feng the day before, but his sister Mao Qing was always considered the more talented out of the two of them, anyway.
“Elder brother,” the smaller boy panted. “I’m too tired to do this much longer.”
“Nonsense!” said the bigger boy. “You defeated Hui Gui Mao Feng, so you can do this much.” He continued to attack the smaller boy with his wooden sword, not giving him time to rest.
“That’s because I used my En.”
“Then use it!”
“I can’t do that when you’re fighting me at the same time,” the boy whined. “It took me fifteen minutes to imbue my engraving token with the qi needed to activate it.”
Bing Meihui almost laughed out loud. Fifteen minutes? It only took her a couple of seconds to create an icicle or a thin ice wall. This was truly too absurd, even if she was more talented than most.
“You have to become stronger, little brother. Even other C-rank En users only took four minutes at most to tattoo their engraving.”
“I’m not sure why my Primary En takes so long.”
The bigger boy whacked the smaller boy as he tried to defend himself and laughed. “How about we both use our En at the same time and see what happens?”
A glint appeared in the smaller boy’s eye. “I’ve been wanting to use it again after the fight with Hui Gui Mao Feng, but didn’t have an opportune chance.” He closed his eyes and sat down in a lotus position. “Let’s do it.”
As Bing Meihui turned around to leave, she heard a voice coming from the bigger boy. “I know you’re there, Hui Gui Bing Meihui.” Her heart leaped into her throat, but she put on a look of indifference.
“Hehe!” the boy said, a gloating look appearing on his face. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice you?” She looked at him silently. A sly grin crept to his face. “Were you perhaps peeping on us?”
She only then remembered who this boy was. Wasn’t this the person who had called her a ‘frail girl’ in front of everyone in their class? She was irritated. Very irritated.
“No,” she replied, not hiding the cold tone in her voice. The smaller boy opened his eyes and looked up, worried.
The bigger boy remained unfazed. “I’m Dao Xing and that’s my brother Dao Mei. How about we have a challenge, Hui Gui Bing Meihui?” She glowered at him. What was this challenge? “We were going to activate our En already, but since you’re here, let’s see who can hunt the most boars within the period between now and midnight.”
Tch. What a farce. There was no way she was going to lose to these weaklings.
“Fine,” she replied. “The prize?”
“Prize?” Dao Xing looked like he had never heard of such a concept.
“I’m not going to play along with you if there’s no point to it.”
He furrowed his brows and looked deep in thought. “I guess we do need some sort of prize. Our father is a merchant. How about, if you win, you get something for free from one of his carriages? And if we win we just get bragging rights?” Bing Meihui could tell he just had too much time on his hands. She looked around. Zhang Shi had ended his lessons early, but the sun was already setting. Midnight was going to approach quickly at this rate.
She nodded. “Deal, but I get to choose whatever I want.” Dao Xing hesitated for a second before agreeing. Dao Mei, the smaller boy, nodded as well.
Bing Meihui and Dao Xing went their separate ways, but she noticed that Dao Mei decided to sit and meditate. Maybe he believed his En would help him win, something that she scoffed at. There was no way a C-rank En user would win, especially not one who took fifteen minutes to channel his qi properly.
Patches of large bodies of trees were scattered throughout the exterior of Hui Gui village, and they contained natural food chains where boars stood in predominance. She started hunting, gathering icicles into her hands and hurtling them at the boars. The first icicle missed, and she frowned, the boar quickly running away. She very soon realized just how difficult it was to hunt animals, something that had not occurred to her earlier in her life.
But she wasn’t going to lose. Not now or ever again.