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Su Lei was beginning to think that he might have made a mistake. That he should have done like that fat bastard Yen and stayed with the labor crew. Apparently, they were building houses for the newcomers rather than walls now.

The offer to join the militia had been too tempting though…

One silver. A week.

Laborers received a salary of four copper a week. Paid for by the most beneficent new lord of Jiangshi. By contrast, guards were being offered one silver. Which was just over half again as much. Xin had checked. Twice. Using his fingers.

It had seemed a good deal. Generous even. Which was something the people of Jiangshi – and the recently arrived newcomers – were coming to expect of the new Overseer.

Say whatever you liked about the strange cultivator and his abrupt disruption of many a local’s life and livelihood, he was providing security to the town and paying any man who cared to help for the privilege.

That had won him a lot of support from the townspeople.

It was after all, a lot more than most had expected from him when he’d shown up - and a hundred times better than they’d feared. Certainly, the loss of the mine had been unfortunate, but none of the local wives or daughters were being harassed, no drink had been stolen, nor men killed in fits of pique.

The Hidden Master had strange mannerisms, kept only his own counsel and was reclusive to a fault, but he wasn’t bad.

Or at least, that was what this Lei had believed, the former hunter thought as he started his second lap around the town.

Now he couldn’t help but wonder if that had all been a façade – and that Fat Yen was going to have the last laugh for seeing through the man’s ‘generous offer’ to join the town’s militia.

“Run, you maggots!” Instructor Gao bellowed from the back of their group, using his thin stick to swat at any recruits that weren’t performing to his specifications. “One more lap – and I don’t want to hear any bellyaching about it! You think a horde of ravenous wolves are going to let you stop to take a rest? No, they’ll tear you all to shreds and then do the same to your friends and family!”

Lei desperately pumped a little more energy into his flagging stride, despite the way his lungs and legs screamed for him to stop. He ignored them. Whatever pain his own body might inflict on him was nothing compared to the painful swat of one of the instructor’s batons.

Fortunately for him, his body was better suited to the task of maintaining the instructor’s punishing pace than many of his fellow recruits. He might not have been the most talented hunter in Jiangshi, but his former vocation had left him better equipped for this run than the sweating laborers, heaving miners and grumbling farmers around him.

Still, it was enough to make him long for his days as a hunter. Unfortunately for him, hunting was no longer an option. Not when a man was expected to take his life in his hands every time he stepped beyond the town walls.

At least, moreso than usual.

Because these days, you weren’t the one seeking prey. Now the prey was seeking you too. And that changed the dynamic considerably. It didn’t matter what it was. Lion or deer. Snake or rabbit. Any of them could spell an inattentive hunter’s end. Because any man who didn’t think an ornery buck could be as deadly as a mountain lion in the right circumstances had clearly never encountered one.

The only bright side of the ‘corruption phenomenon’ was that not every animal had become corrupted by this ‘unfettered chi’. Not even most had. Dong’s dog was still just the same as ever and Gren’s cows were just fine. All told, of the town’s domesticated beasts, only a single pig, one cow and two chickens had gone rabid.

A miniscule amount compared to the whole. And Lei had a feeling that number would be reflected out in the forest. To his thinking, only about one in one hundred animals would be corrupted.

Still, that was enough to make it risky - and not particularly worth said risk.

Not when every now and then fur and meat literally ran toward the village at breakneck speeds. These days, those items just weren’t the valuable commodities they used to be.

“Move it, you louts!” Lei winced as he heard the distinctive whack of wood hitting flesh.

So when the call had gone around that the cultivator was forming a new militia – a proper one, not just Lu and the boys playing at it – Xin had signed up. Sure, guard-work also carried risks, but he figured they’d be lessened by being amongst others.

Plus, it beat long days performing unskilled menial labor. To that end, the extra coin had just been additional honey in the tea. After all, one silver a week to stand on a big wall and occasionally poke down at ornery beasts from beyond their reach sounded a hell of a lot better to him than being ambushed by them in the middle of the forest – or long days shifting bricks.

“Run boy!” Another whack rang out. Closer now. And this time it was accompanied by a rather womanly squeal of pain.

Which in turn directly circled back to his ponderings on whether or not he was actually going to live long enough to stand on said wall and receive said coin.

Or if this poor Lie’s heart is going give out right now, he thought haggardly.

“Sergeant Kang, I- I can’t…” He heard from directly behind him.

“If you have the energy to complain you clearly have still have the energy to run. Another loop for lying.”

Lie felt his spine stiffen. He’d learned to hate that word. Loop. A loop meant going to the back of the running group. Then running to the front. He knew that because he’d done it a number of times already.

He might have resented those who had yet to do it once, but they looked as pitiable as he did.

…Besides, it was far easier to hate the instructors.

The demon guards from the city were utterly ruthless. At the start, some of the fitter recruits like himself had tried slowing down to save their strength. That had been a mistake. The instructors didn’t care how fast a man was.

They only seem to care that he was suffering. Or so Lei assumed. Some might have suggested they were preoccupied with every man putting forth every effort, but those people were morons.

The instructors just wanted them to suffer.

Suddenly he was shaken from his thoughts by the loud ringing of a bell from the wall.

North side, closest to us, he thought as he triangulated where the sound was coming from. He almost sighed in relief as he slowed to a halt. Oh good, that means we’re under attack.

Then he yelped as he felt sharp pain lash across his wrist.

“Don’t stop until we tell you to stop!” Instructor Kang yelled into his ear as he shoved him forward. “Do you want to be trampled by the man behind you!? What if he had something chasing him? You just suddenly became an obstacle!”

Awkwardly, wrist smarting in pain, Lie started to run again.

“Troop. Stop!”

Only to nearly trip as the stop order came. Which had to be preceded by a ‘Troop’ command. The instructors had quite a bit of fun at the start yelling at them to stop and then lashing any man who did so. Then they had fun lashing anyone who failed to stop when the ‘correct’ command was given.

“Form up!” The shout ran down the line, and the haggard runners quickly formed what was hopefully a close approximation of a square.

“Pathetic,” the instructors started shouting as they waded into the block, jostling and shoving men into the correct positions. Lie himself got away unscathed. Predominantly because he’d shoved the man on his right into the correct position, exactly one arm length away. For which he’d received a foul glare. At the time. But now as other recruits were being literally whipped into position, Lie realized the man on his right was giving him a solemn nod of thanks.

It was a strange thing, to be thanked for shoving someone. It wasn’t even like Lie had been trying to help the other guy. The instructor’s just had a nasty habit of punishing all parties involved when something went awry and he’d been hoping to avoid that.

“Eyes front!”

A baton lashed out out and Lie winced. Ignoring the pain – why was it in the same spot! – in his wrist as he determinedly kept his gaze forward lest the Instructor Meng see fit to lash him again.

Fortunately, for all of them, this particular attack happened to be coming from the front of the group. On more than one occasion, they’d all been forced to look in a completely opposite direction as some manner of furious beast charged towards them.

Those occasions had sorely tested just how afraid they were of the instructors relative to the beasts beyond the wall.

Initially the beasts had won out.

…Initially.

It didn’t take long for the attackers to come into view. Cresting a small hill, they were a pair of wolves. Covered in wounds, patches of missing fur and forest debris, the once majestic creatures now looked almost diseased as they heedlessly ran at them.

Lie knew he wasn't the only one who wanted to scatter at the sight, but the instructors had them hemmed in on all side.

“Mrs, An, if you please.” Instructor Kang bowed.

Striding forward from where she’d been tailing the recruits, the beautiful woman harrumphed rebelliously. Nonetheless, she loped forward to stand between the training group and the forest. Incredulously, Lie couldn’t help but notice that not a single bead of sweat marred her brow, despite the fact that she’d been following them all morning.

How is that fair!? he thought. Aren’t we both Tiger-Kin?

Ignorant of his thoughts on the unfairness that was chi, Guo An was grace in motion as she neatly bisected both charging beasts. Neither blood nor entrails marred her robes as she deftly stepped aside to let the corpses crash to the ground.

Almost instantly, two bell tolls rang out from the wall, quickly taken up by their brethren across the town. Not a single dissenting toll answered the first’s proclamation. That meant the coast was clear.

“Yen. Mex.” Instructor Kang, gestured to two of the larger recruits. “Collect the corpses then return to us.”

“Yes, Captain!” The two responded quickly, placing one arm over their breast as they had been taught.

The man nodded, before turning his gaze on the rest of them. “Troop. Jog!”

Deep in his heart, Lie prayed for another animal attack, even as he started running along with everyone else.

--------------------

Yijun was beginning to wonder if she was making a mistake. Her husband had been gone from the camp for less than an hour when the summons had come. A runner boy had bid her to come to the castle.

The same one that had appeared overnight.

Many in the camp said it was to be the home of the great master. That he had erected it in secret, using an even more advanced alchemy than that which had allowed the locals to build the town’s wall. Apparently the mayor had been uncharacteristically silent on the matter.

Yijun didn’t know about any of that though. What she did know was that she was worried. Even in their small fishing village, they often heard tales of cultivators and their… appetites.

Not Lady An, of course. The young lady was a saint, and Yijun would box the ears of anyone who dared to say otherwise. Not after the poor dear had nearly exhausted herself entirely, protecting their small procession of refugees on the trip to Jiangshi. Certainly, her husband had done what he could, but he and other men of the village were of little real aid, exhausted as they were themselves.

Though she’d never dare tell him that. The silly man’s pride was all too easily wounded. She was half certain that it was said pride, more than his sense, that had caused him to throw his lot in with Jiangshi’s militia at the first opportunity.

…Her Wei was not a man accustomed to feeling helpless, and she knew how much being forced to abandon their home weighed on him. So if he sought to alleviate that weight and regain some of his lost face from the loss of their home, she would do her best to support him.

Even if it means walking into the belly of the beast, she thought as she eyed the looming castle.

Because, according to what she’d heard, the overseer of this town was both a cultivator himself - and male.

And while she was no great beauty - her daughter was.

Behind her, she had no doubt her Lin was looking up at the great house with undisguised interest, her curious green eyes flashing over the structure in that way they always did when they caught sight of something new.

Those same eyes had captivated many a young fool in the years since her Lin had blossomed into a woman - a fact her daughter was more than willing to exploit as she lead the young men of the village around by their noses.

Empress have mercy on parents with beautiful daughters, Yijun thought as they reached the gathering crowd outside the massive double doors of the mansion.

For she was soon to meet a powerful man. And powerful men were dangerous to beautiful women.

Something she was not entirely sure her beautiful daughter realised.

Nor that said danger went double for male cultivators, for everyone knew that male cultivators were a lusty lot.

Why else would they cultivate such great harems?

Part of her wanted to dismiss those thoughts as unworthy. That any man who accepted her family in their time of need could only be of the most righteous sort. That the saintly Guo An would never be a student of a man of ill repute.

…Yet it was hard not to draw conclusions of the worst sort when she glanced around and saw that the crowd was made up entirely of women and girls.

And some boys, she realised, eying a nervous young lad clutching at his mother’s skirts.

That was good, wasn’t it?

…Or was it worse, she pondered.

She didn’t know. Nor did she have long to dwell on the possibility of her liege being in possession of deviant tastes as the doors to the great structure opened.From which strode the harried form of the mayor of Jiangshi, though the massive ox-man’s presence was totally overshadowed by the form that followed after him.

Standing a good few inches taller than even the mayor himself, the cultivator – for it could be no one else – was a mountain of a man. Clad in a steel suit that covered his entire body, the very ground rumbled with his passage. Helmet held casually in his hands, Yijun was surprised to gaze upon the broad powerful features of a man of the northern clans, his blonde beard and hair tied into a series of intricate braids. Even without a stage to stand on, his piercing blue eyes were able to sweep across the entirety of the crowd, regarding them all with solemn dignity.

Yijun couldn’t help but lose herself in those deep blue eyes - before a slight shuffle to her right caught her attention.

Of course, she thought glumly, lashing out with her hand.

“What was that for!?” Lin hissed, rubbing her nose indignantly.

“Making moon eyes at the lord,” she whispered, wary of the many ears around. “This isn’t like with the Huang boy. If you make trouble here your father won’t be able to get you out of it.”

Empress, have mercy on parents with beautiful and willful daughters, she thought.

…Though it wasn’t as if she didn’t see the appeal. Between his massive size, flawless pale skin and exotic colouring, the hidden master certainly struck a striking figure. A little too rough for her tastes, not like her handsome sophisticated Wei, but pleasant enough to the eyes.

Then again, didn’t the Huang boy have a beard too? she thought, recalling the blacksmith’s apprentice. He was also on the tall side… muscular…

…She’d need to keep an eye on Lin.

Clearing his throat, Mayor Xin spoke up. “Greetings people of Jiangshi, new and old. I’m sure many of you are curious as to why you have been summoned here today.” He gestured to the hidden master. “Likewise, many assume this great edifice to be our lord’s new home.”

He shook his head. “It is not. In his great generosity, he saw the plight of our newcomers and sought to alleviate it. This massive complex will serve as living space for hundreds of our people.” He paused, just long enough to allow murmurs to run through the crowd. “Now, I know it is not enough to alleviate our current housing woes, but it is more than enough to make them manageable until the new houses of brick are created.”

Yijun held in a small gasp. Houses made of brick? Like in the city? She’d seen a few in the town already, partially built. They were of the same material as the great wall. And apparently allowed no draft or leak.

Chastising herself for her earlier thoughts, she found herself looking upon the thus far silent cultivator in a new light.

Truly the student took after the master!

“Now, with that in mind, I know that many of you present already have homes and are wondering why you are here.” Mayor Xin continued, his deep voice carrying clearly over the crowd and forcing them once more into silence. “The reason for that is that all of those present are the families of our new vaunted militia. I am here to tell you that our master’s generous payment of one silver a week is not the only reward he intends to extend to those brave souls who defend our borders. Any man… or woman, who serves in defense of our home shall be afforded the opportunity to lodge their immediate family within the walls of this Apart Ment.”

The mayor’s arms widened, clearly getting into his role. “A place where winter never touches. Where hot water flows freely with the twist of a ring. With stoves that heat with a touch of a button. With lights that burn brightly and cleanly without smoke or the need for oil. All these mystical wonders have been provided to you by our great lord, as recognition of the bravery of your sons, brothers and husbands.”

Yijun was stunned. Everything the man had said sounded like a tall tale. Hot water on demand? How?

Murmurs echoing her thoughts reverberated – quietly – through the crowd.

The mayor silenced them once more. “Of course, should you, after remaining here for one night, decide that the miracle of this Apart Ment building is not for you and yours, you may freely leave. This is no forceful relocation.” The man smirked. “However, I doubt that will be the case. I know that I personally will be moving my family to the new Apart Ment building post-haste.”

This time when the murmurs started, they seemed to come exclusively from people who Yijun presumed were local. Apparently, the mayor had a very nice home. Twice again as large as any other in town and thickly furnished.

To hear that he was willing to abandon it to move here…

Well, it seemed to silence a number of the doubts present in the heart of the crowd. That and the fact that they were free to leave and return to their own home if the mayor’s words really were as fictitious as they sounded.

If only that were an option for all of us, Yijun thought, hope clashing with experience in her heart.

“So, without further ado, please step inside. You will find a directory inside the main hall which will tell you which rooms belong to which family. Everything is labelled clearly. For those that cannot read, please seek me out after the other families have left. I shall aid you in finding your allocated quarters.”

Suddenly, Yijun felt like she was about to be pulled off her feet as her daughter excitedly tugged her forwards.

“Come on mum, let’s go see if he was telling the truth.”

The mother wanted to roll her eyes, but her daughter’s excitement was infectious, and she allowed herself to be tugged along by her excitable offspring.

Neither of them noticed the quiet cultivator redonning his helmet and walking away, his silent steps utterly at odds with his earlier stomping gait.

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Bluefishcake

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