Kang shifted uncomfortably where he stood – and only some of that discomfort came from the throbbing of his injured leg.

He and the rest of the former guards were once more in the Hidden Master’s queer inner sanctum. The only difference was that rather than it being the gloomy and dark place he remembered, it was instead brightly lit and almost… inviting.

The room they had been guided to was doubly strange on that front.

It was filled with gleaming steel machines – not altogether different from the pill-condensers the sects used – and the walls were tiled with gleaming white porcelain. There was a strange scent in the air as well. Acrid and unnatural to his nose, yet with just a hint of lemon.

A strange room indeed, he thought as he stared at the owner of the place.

The hidden master was crouched over one of the odd devices, tapping away at something as he muttered in some strange arcane tongue.

Then he stood up.

"Alright, everything’s set up and we’re ready to go," he said with a tone that indicated neither warmth nor disdain. "Now, before I continue, I’ve got to get a few particulars out of the way. Specifically, I need to hear all of you consent to this procedure before we begin. Otherwise the, uh, spirits in the devices will get all pissy at me.” He looked around the room – his gaze lingering on where his student stood at the back. “For the record, that includes you too, An.”

“Me?” The tiger woman asked, her single remaining eye opening in confusion.

“Aye.” He gestured to the four of them. “You didn’t think I’d fix up these guys but leave you running around with one eye, did you?”

The surprise in the woman’s features suggested that she either did think that – or more likely, hadn’t given it any thought at all. Which was only to be expected. She was a cultivator. While her injury was annoying, it wasn’t truly debilitating. Certainly nothing that would stop her from advancing to the next realm of cultivation, at which point the injury would be as if it had never happened anyway.

Personally, Kang thought that was one of the greatest contributors to why ordinary mortals considered cultivators to be so… odd. The average Imperial citizen had little enough interaction with the veritable demi-gods that ruled over them. The only place someone like that could really see a cultivator do their thing was in the arena.

And without context, it was difficult to reconcile a young woman losing an arm and then simply… shrugging it off. A sensation that only got worse when you could see a stately elder one match later suffer an identical injury and go wild with rage. Or start weeping.

Being apathetic to a crippling injury was alien enough for the average man – being inconsistent about it was simply a step too far.

Of course, Kang was not an ordinary man and was thus privy to knowledge beyond most. Which was why he alone didn’t find it too surprising that Guo An seemed honestly surprised – and dare he say touched – by her master’s consideration.

After all, to waste healing reagents on a group of mortals that would otherwise never recover was one thing, but to heal someone who would recover on their own in time could be called nothing else but indulgent.

“I – ah,” the young woman started to say before her master simply waved his hand.

“Yes or no. I consent or I don’t consent.”

“I consent.” An said with an almost unseemly haste.

“Good.” He turned to the rest of them. “What about the rest of you? We’re kind of in a hurry here. Now that I’ve pulled it out of deep freeze we’ve got a pretty limited window before my stock of Panacea goes rampant and turns into cancer juice “

Kang didn’t know what Panacea was, but he was willing to bet it was the light blue substance that was even now flowing into a pool in the center of the room.

Not that his mind lingered long on that at all.

“I consent,” he shouted, almost in perfect unison with every other man there – even Gao, who was wracked with coughs a moment later.

The cultivator nodded before he pointed at Gao. “Alright, you seem to be the most uncomfortable, so I figure you should go first. Come stand in front of the medical scanner.

Gao did as he asked, clearly fighting down the urge to cough now that he stood directly in front of the hidden master. A wise precaution in Kang’s opinion, because while he’d never seen it happen, he’d certainly heard tales of men being killed for daring to cough or sneeze in a cultivator’s presence.

“Gao, right?” The man prompted and Gao nodded cautiously. “Alright, just stand still and let the machine work. I should warn you that while you might feel a sort of heat, and maybe a little discomfort, it’s nothing to worry about.”

Before Gao could say anything, the machine he stood in front of whirred to life – and Kang was not the only one who let out a small intake of breath as strange blue lights flickered across his fellow guard’s form. Gao, to his credit, frowned in discomfort, but did not step away from the lights.

"Alright.” The hidden master had raised a single hand, and projected from it into the very air itself floated illusionary arcane script. “Christ almighty, you weren’t kidding when you said your lungs were fucked. It says here that something scorched your insides.”

Gao wheezed. “Some kind of powder. A stray pellet. From a cultivator fight. Landed near me. While forming a perimeter.”

"Fire Lotus Dust," An said, expression flat and neutral. "Popular amongst those cultivators whose martial Dao confers some manner of fire or poison resistance. They tend to use it liberally as an irritant and distraction in combat."

“Magical tear gas basically.” The hidden master’s tone was curious. “I assume this shite wears off pretty quick for a cultivator?”

An nodded slowly. “Once no longer exposed, the effects will subside in minutes if not seconds, master.”

The man exhaled slowly. “So this stuff is a minor irritation for a cultivator – but lethal for mortals. A chemical weapon, basically. And someone was chucking it around in a street fight.” He turned to Gao. “It was a street fight, right?”

Gao’s scowl deepened. “Over the affections of the young master of the Obsidian Scale Sect.”

Kang resisted the urge to roll his eyes. There was a tale as old as time. While he knew that the real reason for cultivator’s obsession with their male counterparts was a result of rarity and value rather than personal desire, he sometimes couldn’t help but wonder if there was some truth to the rumours that cultivator women were possessed of a little more… desire than their strictly mortal equivalents.

Them all being pent up would certainly go some ways to explain why every one seems to be such a colossal cunt, he thought philosophically.

"Classy." Master Johansen took a step back, and patted Gao lightly. "Alright, strip down and we’ll see what we can do to fix this.”

Gao frowned a little, sending a single glance An’s way – though the woman in question couldn’t have looked less interested if she’d tried – before doing as he was asked.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. Even before the last few weeks of travel to reach Jiangshi, Kang knew Gao hadn’t been eating well or regularly. How could he have been? What work could a man who couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath possibly do?

The young man had likely been surviving on whatever meagre savings he still had and whatever charity his friends and family could spare.

Which likely wouldn’t have amounted to much at all.

Master Johansen continued. "Alright, here’s the hard part. And I stress hard because this is only going to be as hard as you make it." He gestured to the pool. “I need you to get in there and breathe in the liquid. Then stay there for about…” He hummed, once more consulting the floating arcane script that leapt from his hand at a single twitch. “About twenty minutes.”

Gao looked like he barely heard the latter part. To be fair though, he wasn’t the only one. Kang knew he was certainly feeling a lot less sure about this whole enterprise.

“Master, you wish for him to… breathe liquid.”

“Aye.” Master Johansen said. “I know it sounds odd, but that’s how this shit works. He won’t drown. This is the good shit. The kind that’s designed for full immersion therapy.”

An still looked hesitant. Fortunately for all of them – except perhaps the man himself – Gao chose that moment to speak up.

“I’ll do it.” He wheezed. “If Master Johansen says it will work…it will work.”

Personally Kang thought that assertion came more from a lack of other options than any great faith on Gao’s part as he stepped toward the pool.

“Good on you, kid.” The hidden master patted the guard on the back as he stepped toward the pool. “Don’t worry. This’ll be scary as shit, painful too, but you’ll be fine.”

Gao nodded, slowly clambering into the liquid. In moments, he was submerged up to his neck, and given the way he held onto the edge of the pool, it seemed his feet had yet to touch the bottom.

Then he paused.

“I, uh.” He looked sheepish. “I apologize Master Johansen, but I’m not sure how to well… drown myself.”

Kang could certainly understand that. After all, how did a man willingly stick their head underwater and simply… inhale.

It couldn’t be done.

Fortunately, the hidden master seemed unperturbed.

“Oh, don’t worry.” He said, crouching down. “That’s the easy part.”

Then he dunked the boy. His massive fist closing around the young guard’s head as he held him under the liquid.

And kept holding him under.

Despite the thrashing.

And there was a lot of thrashing.

And despite knowing this was ostensibly a medical procedure, Kang knew he wasn’t the only one who shifted uncomfortably as they all watched what was by all appearances a man being drowned. Even the hidden master’s fellow cultivator looked uncomfortable, the tiger-woman’s ears peeled back against her head even as she kept her features placid.

They all watched as the thrashing eventually came to a stop. As did the bubbles. Soon the hidden master was holding a completely still form under the viscous pool of blue liquid.

“Christ, it took him a while to calm down, didn’t it?” The man said, glancing back to An. “You’d think he would have realized he wasn’t drowning after we passed the five minute mark. The boy should be thankful. Back when I was growing up, we only had the Avalon brand of Panacea. That shit really did make you feel like you were drowning. None of this enriched oxygen soup shite.”

“Foolishness, uh, is only to be expected by mortals when confronted by the universe’s higher mysteries, master.”

Were he not feeling just slightly terrified himself – and was even now wondering if his friend and comrade had just been drowned in front of them – Kang might have taken some comfort in just how perturbed even the tiger woman was by just what had transpired, even as she tried valiantly to hide it.

“Fair enough.” The man in question shrugged before once more glancing at the strange floating illusion. “And according to this, our friend here should be just about done.”

Then he yanked their friend’s body out of the water.

Kang had half expected him to be as still as a corpse – sacrificed as part of some mad cultivator’s experiments.

He wasn’t though.

He came out alive.

A little too alive.

“Fuck you, you great metal cunt!” The young guard swore, clenched fists battering away at the arm that held his neck. “I nearly died…”

He trailed off.

"I...I can breathe," he said. "I can breathe! Empress above, I can even shout!"

"And curse apparently.” The hidden master sounded more amused than offended. Though one wouldn’t have even be able to tell that by the way Gao paled.

The boy attempted to bow, an attempt destined to fail given that he was suspended in a pool of liquid by the man he was attempting to bow to.

The man waved it off though, simply pulling the mortal from the pool and placing him with surprising gentleness onto the floor.

“Alright, enough of that.” The man shook his head, as Gao promptly went prone. “Just head over to that door over there and go into in the next room. Be sure to follow every instruction the voice there tells you.”

He gestured to the pool. “This stuff is great, but if you have any of it on or still in you in the next few hours the only thing you’ll have to look forward to is a very short life filled with very malignant tumors.”

Kang had no idea what a tumor was, but he had a feeling it was bad. Something Gao clearly agreed with as, with a final bow, the boy walked off in the direction the hidden master had earlier indicated. Kang couldn’t even find it in himself to be surprised anymore as the door there opened without prompting, admitting the lad into one looked like another room full of bright lights white tiles, before the door shut once more and it was blocked from view.

“Alright,” the hidden master said. “Who wants to go next?”

Never before had Kang felt more conflicted about anything. He wanted nothing more in all the world than for his leg to be healed.

…On the other hand, he really didn’t want to be drowned.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the choice was taken from him.

“I will, master!” An said, stepping forward.

Kang lamented his hesitation for just a moment – before that lamentation turned to joy as the tiger woman’s hands reached for the sash of her dress.

Was… was she really going to disrobe in front of all of them.

Empress above, this lowly Kang thanks you for your kindness, he prayed.

The cultivator woman, like all cultivators, was gorgeous. Her form was fit and trim. Her skin without blemish, pale and flawless. She was in all ways that matter, a perfect example of young nubile femininity.

And he was finally about to see-

“Perhaps…” The hidden master coughed. “It would be best for you to go last, An.” He gestured to where Kang and his fellow guards stood. “When we have less of an audience.”

If Kang didn’t know any better, he might have thought the man sounded embarrassed.

Though if he might have sounded embarrassed, that had nothing on the way the tiger-woman clearly lit up a bright shade of red as she seemingly remembered who else was in the room. Of course, being a cultivator, it didn’t take long at all for that embarrassment to morph into rage.

Kang had little doubt that even as he stood there, the girl was weighing the pros and cons of murdering them all for witnessing her blunder.

Fortunately, on this occasion, reason won out, and the woman instead contented herself with refastening her robes and walking back to her spot by the wall with a huff.

Kang wasn’t the only one to let out an audible sigh of relief.

…And disappointment.

“So, who wants to go next?”



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