Recent Statuses

16 days ago
Current So it appears either a time traveler fucked up WW2 and we all speak German now, or we have a very determined spambot.
2 mos ago
With calm joy, the handsome young author used another em dash--he cherished the versatility and smoothness that such punctuation offered to both writer and reader.
3 mos ago
Wow, the acoustics in this chamber are great! (Great...great...great...)
6 mos ago
As a former professional necromancer I assure you we can't do anything with fossils. They're impressions in rock, not bones. *The More You Know...!*
7 mos ago


On CST time, United States. Typically busy most of the week and do most posting/replying on weekends.

Most Recent Posts

"Shixiong, take care of us!" Tai whirled around as a vein pulsed in his forehead.

"I ain't takin' care of nothin'! Why ya gotta ruin the mood!?" he snapped, before turning a cold shoulder on the girls. "Whatever!" With a stiffer, longer stride he hurried down the path--and of course, the two other students followed despite his protests.

No matter how he hurried, they kept following him. Maybe he could lose them--at least the little one--if he just sprinted full tilt, but he didn't feel like wasting his energy this early on. He kept quiet throughout their annoying chatter, even when Na Jiayi insisted on acting stupidly cute and trying to make him laugh. He had better things to do, dammit!

Soon they reached the "proper" entrance to the forest, a great gatehouse built to offer some meager ward against the beasts and dangers that lay within. Tai supposed if they'd taken any shortcut or the various game trails they could have entered the forest by other means, but better to have a starting point they could actually identify on the map--No! Better for him to have a starting point on the map! He was not going to play babysitter!

"Alright," Yan Huiyin started, turning to Feng Tai, "What's the game plan?" He huffed as he pushed open the gates with a grunt.

"Find a fruit before any of the other dummies! What, you want me to hold your hand?" His lilting voice of mockery trailed off as they walked down the path, which now turned from proper cobblestone to packed dirt. It didn't take long before grass and vines encroached upon it, eating away at the road. Soon their only guide would be their own sense of direction.

Perhaps if they had come in the light of day, the outer edge of the forest would have been quite pleasant. The greenery was lush, but trees had been cleared away from the gatehouse so the canopy remained thin. Flowers, without the bright sun overhead, had closed themselves up in tight bulbs. Nonetheless they displayed bright hues of every color and filled the meadow with pleasant smells. Soon tall grass and thick, broad leaf bushes gave way to roots and thickly layered detritus--leaves from last year's fall season that crunched over head, and fuzzy green moss that coated every rock and patch of dirt.

Thick wooden trunks trailed vines from their lower branches. The night dew dripped, wet and cold, down the back of their shirt collars more than once. The weighty silence of night was broken by their presence...a disturbance that seemed to ripple outward, and awakened glistening yellow eyes. By handfuls they rustled and growled, just out of sight--then, when Tai stomped on a dry branch or shoved a woody bough out of his way, they scattered. Once, a bird exploded in a cloud of dark feathers almost under Na Jiayi's foot, and the girl squealed. Tai immediately turned and grabbed her, slapping a hand over her mouth to muscle the noise. Whatever animal it had been seemed more terrified than the small girl--they could already hear it some distance away, crashing through the underbrush.

"Bah! Why'd you come out here in the first place?!" grumbled the elder brother as he sat her back on her feet and turned up his nose.

Several minutes' walk had carried them deeper, enough so that the white moonlight now struggled to push its dappled rays through the green mesh up above. Suddenly, Tai stopped--sudden enough that the two girls bumped into his tense shoulders and broad back like the unforgiving side of a brick wall.

He crouched down and began brushing at something in the dirt. It was an animal's footprint, though what type it seemed he had yet to figure out.

"...Toes press apart for boar, press together for deer? Yeah, that's right, isn't it?" he mumbled as he traced the shape with his finger. "...Very big..."

Whatever the creature was, it had dug a pit destructive enough that it appeared like a pothole in one of the King's roads not too far ahead of the trio. Rooting for food, Tai figured. Maybe...if they followed it, would it perhaps bring them to the Spiritual Heart Fruit? Did animals or Spirit Beasts eat them? The thought occurred to him that Huiyin might know. And just as he turned, a dark shape barreled out of the nearest bush.

The Crimson Razor Boar--a beast considered physically on-par with the Third Rank of Training Foundation Realm--stood five feet at its shoulder, and its massive body had to be over a thousand pounds of raw, terrible muscle. When it saw the three, it bellowed and shook its enormous head. Spittle steamed in the chill night air as it slobbered all over the grass. Then, it lowered its tusks and, with a single paw of the earth, charged at all three of them like an avalanche--!

Xincai, Henan

Finally, a Fight Scene!
@OwO@Cu Chulainn

"Well met again, Yang Family's Young Miss!" Hyun-Woo bowed after the scholar's introduction. "Please forgive my rudeness, for not giving you my name this whole time. This one is Yi Hyun-Woo, of Goryeo." As she left the inn to speak to the caravan's master, Hyun-Woo turned to Jin and bowed to him as well. "I would be glad to work with you, Sir Jin! If it were not for this perchance meeting, I feel I would not have found this opportunity. Let us meet again on the morrow!"

With things soon settled for the evening, the young man found himself alone in one of the inn's cheaper rooms as the moon began to rise in a darkening blue sky. His sword lay in the corner as he sat on the floor--for the room had little more than a bedding pallet and a cushion seat, lacking even a table or chairs. There was neither fireplace nor even a candle. But the lack of light did not bother Hyun-Woo; he had spent most of his life in the dark, after all. And he did not need to see for this particular task--or at least, not for this part of it.

To My Descendants - The Inheritance of the Azure Cloud, The Art of the Flashing Sword.

One book held yellowed pages of dry parchment, bound between two thin slats of wood with rusted iron rings. The other book, held open by Hyun-Woo's palm, instead held slips of bamboo sealed together to create flexible tablets. And in Hyun-Woo's other hand, a very small knife with a dyed deer-horn handle scraped and chiseled at the bamboo like a scholar's ink brush.

For as long as he could remember, an ache had persisted in his bones. It was not the same kind of debilitating, crippling pain that he experienced when he was still sickly and frail--rather, like a muscle that needed to be stretched or a joint that needed to be popped, the aches merely tugged at his awareness until he did something about them. He had to walk a certain way--keeping his steps light and balanced, his movements smooth. He had to use his cane as more than just a tool to haphazardly knock into things in his path--it had to be an extension of his arm. And he had never once questioned why he had these aches, until the night his legs had insisted he get up from the bed and walk towards a distant mountain.

The Azure Flash Sword soothed the aches like nothing else, and in a way it soothed Hyun-Woo's heart as well. But still, they arose from time to time, and he found himself happy for them. Now, he knew neither his fingers, nor his thoughts, could rest this night until he had completed this page. From ink, to carving--from the sight he had been blessed with, to the senses he knew he could rely on even if the heavens ever saw fit to blind him again. For that fear, too, still ate away at him in the moments where he found himself all alone, and far from home. But as his fingers traced each character, feeling the same words, the fear would ease.

From ink, to carving. From his mind to his body. From knowledge to memory, and from memory to instinct. His mouth moved silently as he allowed the teachings to flow through him, the same way he allowed Qi to traverse his Meridians.

Breathing and Walking is a key concept in Martial Arts of all kinds. Though it affects physical fitness, it is also a reflection of one's connection to the world. One's breath, in a sense, comes from the Heavens, and one's feet stand firmly upon the Earth. When one can Breathe and Walk properly, their entire being forms a Circuit to conduct the natural energy of Qi...

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Yi Hyun-Woo blew dust away from the channels in the soft wood, and traced it with his finger to be sure the characters were accurate. His eyes remained closed as his breathing stilled...

Step Movements, or Reduced Earth, are general techniques attained by Breathing and Walking. To cut down the distance between opponents in an instant is more than mere quickness. To disappear, and reappear in a blink as the Xian do requires that you are aware of the opponent...

And now Hyun-Woo did open his eyes, in order to turn the yellowed pages of the original Sage's tome. He knew exactly the page needed even without seeing it, for he had read the book more times than he could count. But his eyes sought the faded, painted image spread across two pages. The technique's title used similar characters to what he had just inscribed: Earthward Step.

Scritch, scritch, scritch. Qi entered his lungs with the breath, and parted like a hair passing over a freshly honed blade. The "positive" mass filled the Governing Vessel; the "negative" cloud flowed down the Conception Vessel. Up through the top of his skull, and down the back of his spine--down through the Middle Dantian into the Lower Dantian, and the sea of Qi within it waiting to be boiled, purified, like water in a furnace. The two Qi continued to circulate, like two stars orbiting the center of his being.

A deep thrum, like a tuning fork below the range of the human ear, hummed within his bones...

The Next Morning

Hyun-woo and Jin found themselves turned away at the gate. It was honestly to be expected. They were both, in all honesty, no-names who found themselves in possession of a placard denoting the job. They didn't exactly go through the recruitment process that everyone else did. Perhaps they could have gotten away with it if they had a strong reputation or connections, but neither did. As such, the guards outside of the escort agency seemed to try to shoo them away. It wasn't until a familiar voice called to them that things turned more favorably...

"Please forgive my rudeness, Young Miss." Hyun-Woo said, unusually prickly given what they'd seen of him so far. Holding his sword by the mouth of its scabbard, he folded his left palm over the handle and hilt in the same fashion a martial artist would salute with the palm and fist clasp. He bowed deep at the waist, before springing back up to look the caravan master in the eyes. "But I cannot allow myself such a boon! It is only right for this good sir to put the quality of his hires foremost--to achieve my goal non-meritoriously doesn't sit well in the stomach!" He bowed again, extending his arms in further salute. "Please allow me to demonstrate my skill, if it will assuage your worries about my qualifications!"

The caravan master looked from the white haired boy to the little scholar, then to the other white haired boy who already had two shoulder-loads of rice. With a roll of his eyes, he made a "tch!" sound and gestured to one of the other third-rate warriors accompanying the convoy.

"Make it quick." he told the man, before crossing his arms and glaring at Hyun-Woo. "If it turns out you stuck your hand too far down the gift horse's gullet, too bad."

"Thank you for the opportunity, sir!" Hyun-Woo thrust his sword into his belt for a moment, and happily picked up two more sacks of rice to deposit on the ever helpful Jin's shoulders. "I shall just be a moment, Sir Jin!"

"Confident runt." grumbled the man who'd been picked for the competition. He too unloaded the rice bags onto Jin--whose legs might be starting to shake at this point.

As the two warriors squared off, Hyun-Woo now holding his weapon loosely near his left hip, some of the others who had already loaded their cargo gathered to watch.

"Kid's got a sword. Even if he ain't much, is it fair?" muttered one.

"Dong Yu's an apostate monk." shrugged another. "Raised in Shaolin--I hear his Iron Body is pretty good for a third-rate, cause he used to do the performances. You know, the one where they bend a spear with their necks? A non-cultivator probably couldn't even draw blood."

"Thank you for teaching me, Senior!" Hyun-Woo called across to his opponent. "I am Yi Hyun-Woo of Goryeo--and my style is the Azure Cloud Flash Sword! I am ready."

"Dong Yu, Shaolinquan--although I decided I liked meat and girls more than Buddha." The well muscled young man, whose head was still bald, certainly resembled a disciple of the legendary monastary. He popped his neck from side to side and took his stance. "Never heard of Azure Cloud Flash Sword. But I'm ready when you are, runt."

The caravan master leaned against one of the carts and spat to one side. He chopped a lazy hand through the air.


Neither moved. One second passed. Then two. Hyun-Woo's hand still hovered over the hilt of his blade--he wasn't going to draw yet? One might think he had lost his nerve...if it wasn't for the look in his eyes.

Three seconds passed. Dong Yu's back foot edged slightly forward. Hyun-Woo didn't react.

I can feel the wind on my skin, blowing from his direction. The sun felt warm on Hyun-Woo's back, but it wasn't high enough to be in Dong Yu's eyes or offer any other advantage. Whickering horses stomped their feet--a porter slammed a box down on a cart. The vibrations traveled through the hard packed dirt under their feet. One man in the crowd took a breath--Hyun-Woo didn't startle when the shouting and jeering began.

Thirty seconds had passed. Dong Yu's nostrils flared.

"If you're not--"

Hyun-Woo's breathing stopped. In one-tenth of one second, it happened. He had felt the wind blowing against him die. The vibrations through the earth had passed over his feet. The men in the crowd had stopped talking.

Positive and negative Qi came together at the bottom of the sole of his foot. His body went completely limp, and he fell towards the ground having tripped over nothing. With no muscle holding him upright, every ounce of his strength went into the bottom of his foot and his hand fell naturally onto his blade. Like a wet towel drapes over a clothes rod, his fingers wrapped around the grip. His foot did not so much provide his own speed, so much as it redirected the speed of gravity itself. And when the grounding circuit broke away from the earth, the "spark" leaped.

In three-tenths of one second, Dong Yu had fallen prey to his own body's nature, a fitting irony for an apostate monk. He had blinked.

The Azure Cloud Sword flashed.

Yi Hyun-Woo's eyes were wide open as he stared into his opponent's from below. A single drop of blood welled up from a paper-thin line across the former Shaolin's adam's apple. The white haired boy's other foot still resonated with a stomp so heavy it made his knee shake. Over his shoulder, Dong Yu could see the spot where the swordsman's movement had begun--and the deep half-print carved into the dirt, by all the weight focused on only the forward motion.

One second had passed.

"Oh, thank goodness I was able to stop!" Hyun-Woo stepped back from the his sparring partner and flourished his sword to clean it. When Dong Yu looked down, he saw that the place Hyun-Woo stomped had a sliding trail behind it--the boy had killed his own momentum so as not to kill his opponent.

"...You dropped below my line of sight at the moment you stepped in." The apostate lifted one trembling hand to his neck, and wiped the red smear. The tiny cut was already clotting, and only stung because of his own sweat.

"Yes, sir. That is the Earthward Step technique of Azure Cloud Flash Sword." Hyun-Woo flipped the blade in his grip and once more saluted with his left palm clasped over its hilt. "Have I proven satisfactory?" Dong Yu turned his head--very carefully--towards the caravan master.

The man rolled his eyes, and jabbed a thumb back towards the rice cart. Dong Yu clasped his own fists, and bowed deeper to Yi Hyun-Woo.

"Thanks for training with me, Junior Brother. I won't forget Azure Cloud Flash Sword anytime soon!" He grinned as he straightened, and clapped the younger boy on the back hard enough Yi Hyun-Woo coughed. "Alright, get to work! We gotta go!" As he walked away, the murmurs began amongst the onlookers again, and Dong Yu heaved a shaky sigh while rubbing his neck again.

Hyun-Woo sheathed his sword, and breathed out slowly as he turned back towards Yang Mingmei and Jin. But with every step he took towards them, he shook a little more--and his smile grew a little wider. Then, cheeks trembling...he pumped both fists in the air.

"I did it! Sir Jin, Young Miss, did you see?! I won my first ever duel in the Jianghu!"

Xincai, Henan

A Sign From...Some Guy

"Euuergh..?" A steady breathing rhythm changed, and the deep exhalation was tinged with the stink of alcohol. A wide surface displaced air as it was drawn back, a wooden chair creaked as weight changed.

Hyun-Woo took a half-step to one side, and the wooden tablet whiffed past his leaning tower of scrolls. Unfortunately, he couldn't say whether Jin would sense the placard coming. Regardless of further impacts, when the placard settled he could read the inscription. A supply wagon, en route to different sects within Henan?

@Cu Chulainn"Sir Jin, are you alright?" For that man to toss such a thing their way...He looked back at the drunkard, and from his slovenly state put the details together. How odd, for a martial artist to drink to such excess before a mission...unless this fellow had some dark sorrows, perhaps? Nonetheless, it seemed the Heavens were offering Yi Hyun-Woo an answer.

"Ah...Many thanks to you, sir!" said the white-haired swordsman with as much of a bow as he could manage to the inebriated warrior. "I shall certainly repay this kindness in the future!"

@OwOBy this time, surely the little scholar had secured her room and found a place to deposit the first armload of scrolls. When she returned for the ones Yi Hyun-Woo held, he would crouch to pick up the placard, and show it to her as well.

"Young Miss, this supply train seems to be visiting several sects in the area, and I plan to go with them to fulfill my own quest. But perhaps, if you can't afford escorts of your own, you could still secure passage with the driver?" He offered, thinking that it was the least he could do to offer some help. "I don't know if they'd go all the way to Sichuan, but perhaps you'd get closer than you are now with at least some measure of security?"

Tai slung the heavy canvas sack over his shoulder, and slipped out of his room with no one the wiser. The moon hung low yet in the sky, as most students went to their beds. Many had spent the afternoon absorbing their pills, or forming groups to attempt braving the forest in numbers. Tai wondered how many of them would turn on each other the first time they actually found a Spiritual Heart. Grouping up with others would no doubt ensure their safety, since even a strong Spirit Beast could be taken down with good teamwork, but this wasn’t just a preliminary test for the Exam–it was a contest, pure and simple, put there to weed out the unworthy.

Despite there being few people left awake at this hour, Tai still moved stealthily over the grounds. Between the shadows of the dormitories, and under outcroppings of rock high above the Outer Training Grounds, he crept low and set each step down with as little weight as possible. He only made some degree of noise when he clambered atop some storage crates, and from there hopped to the red-tiled roof of a long walkway. Now he moved more swiftly, confident that most people kept their eyes to the ground when they could barely see their feet in the dark.

But from up here, he could see more than he cared to see. Two people walked towards the gates–and their slow, deliberate pace spoke of an unknown resolve. They took up stances, and here he recognized the two girls from before!

”Did you hear?” said one student as they stuffed their face with rice at the evening meal. “That shrimp, Na Jiayi, says she’s going to get a Heart Fruit too!” The boys around the table all laughed, but Tai only growled when one of them bumped his shoulder. He kept shoveling food into his mouth, happy to take more while the others made their idiotic jokes. He would need fuel for tonight, enough to last him if he couldn’t find anything to eat after dawn.

“Ha! What stage of Training Foundation has she even achieved? She’s no bigger than a flea!”

“It won’t even be a Spirit Beast that kills her–a squirrel will gobble her up in one bite!”

“Ah, but brothers, we shouldn’t joke so. It’s true, Na Jiayi has no chance–so if anything, we ought to stop her.”

“Yeah yeah, I guess so. She’ll probably give up on her own when she actually sees the–o, oi! Feng-Shige , leave some for us!”

“Fack offh!” He had grabbed another bowl.

Tai knew before it started how the fight was going to end. As soon as Na Jiayi extended an arm, Yan Huiyin yanked it towards herself & twirled her into a light armlock. The elder sister maintained control, when she could have slammed her junior face first into the dirt. Yan Huiyin sighed, and her face looked like she had something troubling her. Tai, in the meantime, had crossed from one roof to another and now to the top of the gatehouse.

"A-Yan..." The girl, whose face was mere knuckle's length away from the ground, whined miserably. As Huiyin mercifully let her go, no doubt to finish scolding her and send her back to bed, the two girls straightened up–just in time for Tai to drop down behind them. His feet landed on the dirt with a hard thump, leaving twin impressions of his shoes as his knees bent. He didn’t seem troubled by the impact, and looked at them for only a moment before he walked between them.

“Listen to the seniors, squirt. Try again next year.” he said, throwing a harsh tone at Na Jiayi. She sniffled, rubbing her arm as she looked up at him. But her face became angry, and she swung her fist at empty air.

“I would, if there were any here! I, I don’t have time to listen to you!” Tai stopped–was she trying to throw his own words back at him? Slowly, he turned to her and narrowed his eyes. Na Jiayi flinched.

“...The strong survive. And the weak are eaten alive.” He growled at her. Palpable killing intent was evident on his face. “That’s the rule of the world, brat. Get used to it.” The small girl whimpered, and wiped her eyes with one sleeve.

“B-but, Jiayi wants to be strong too! Like, like A-Yan, and Xue-gege, and…and Tai-gege too!”

“Hmph. None of us are strong yet, fool.” Tai turned away from her, adjusted the weight of his carrybag, and shoved his other hand in his pocket. “But so long as you don’t die…then there’s nothing that says the weak can’t become strong.” He now looked at Yan Huiyin. “Listen to Xiao-Yan’s nagging for now. And just watch me.” The young man set his shoulders and began walking down the path. “I’ll show you how it’s done this time, so you can do it yourself someday!”

Na Jiayi sniffled again, but her expression changed as she watched her senior leave the two girls behind. Then she looked at Yan Huiyin.

“D-do…do you think Tai-gege is right? That I’m weak now?”

“You didn’t say what?” Tai growled as he crossed his arms. The younger girl with Yan Huiyin took an opportunity to run away, and he spared her only a passing glance. Who was this woman and why was she throwing things at him? A friend of Lu Xue’s, maybe? Planted in the crowd? Or was she just one of the hangers-on who thought he was hot stuff? What girls saw in a fool like that, Tai could only guess.

Yan Huiyin didn’t answer his question.

"Shixiong should take Elder's advice," she said, as she moved up in the line to receive her spirit medicine from the shopkeeper. The person who had been behind her started to move up, but Tai glared at them. When she passed by him again, she added, "Will you not be going to the forest?"

“I’ll go when I’m damn well ready, don’t you worry.” He turned away from her. “If you’re asking for a match, then don’t feel like you gotta wait. Bring it on anytime!”

Whatever. He had better things to do, and the girl seemed to think herself above answering his demand. What matter to him was it if she had some stupid crush on stupid Lu Xue? The pretty boy wouldn’t be so pretty after Tai caught up to him…

Tai turned on his heel, and left Yan Huiyin to her own preparations. Those students who wanted to leave nothing to chance would likely absorb their Foundation Establishing Pills as soon as possible, then gather their supplies and make for the Spiritual Beast Forest. But the quicker one could do this, the better–after all, they only had one week, and the Spiritual Heart Fruits weren’t known to last too long after they ripened.

As he reached the boys’ dormitory hall, Tai nodded to himself. He would save absorbing his pill for later–after all, with only Breath Cultivation, adding a year’s worth of Qi or less didn’t seem like it would be enough to break through into the Fifth Rank. He felt he’d be much better served by gathering what he needed, and leaving around nightfall. The students who absorbed their medicine quickly would likely spend the evening preparing, and then getting a good night’s sleep before heading for the forest at dawn. Tai could get a head start on them by skipping the first step of that process–by the time they got there, he’d already be searching for a fruit. Yeah, that was the ticket! He slammed one fist into his palm as he set his resolve.

Deep within the Spiritual Beast Forest, birdsong erupted into a stampede of wings. The treetops writhed as hundreds of feathery shapes, silhouetted in black against the sky, spilled out of their boughs. Down below, on the damp forest floor, an enormous weight settled on a clawed foot.

Whiffling sniffs from an unbelievably large creature sounded like the rapid notes of an enormous horn, played in reverse. It picked its head up from the densely covered ground, and gazed out through the lush, thick greenery. An almost human intelligence glittered behind two slitted, golden eyes.

A bush to its right rustled. A dark shadow–smaller, weaker–bolted between the trees. Within an instant, the beast slammed its feet against the ground in chase. Its form blurred as it raced past trunks and threw clods of soil in its wake. A shrill scream–the crunch of enormous teeth. Tearing, and gulping. A roar of triumph.

Again, the trees shook. Birds continued to flock in fear. The sound echoed through the deep mists, a challenge to all who dared enter the great beast’s territory…

From the corner of his eye, Tai barely registered something small and fast. Without thinking his hand snapped up, and he caught it in a firm grip–which to the rest of the onlookers, looked like he was raising a fist to Lu Xue. His eyes locked on the origin of the projectile–Yan Huiyin–and he raised an eyebrow as his lip curled.

“Who the hell–”

“You dare?!” One of the two students with Lu Xue suddenly dropped his weight, and struck out with a closed fist. The solid impact against Tai’s ribs pushed him away from Lu Xue–small clouds of dust swirled around his feet as his heels dug a furrow in the dirt.

“Ah, cease this!” Lu Xue said, raising a hand to his chin. He hid his smirk, but Tai could see it twinkling in his eyes. “Outer Disciples should not fight amongst each other outside of a proper match!”

“Oh, it ain’t a fight yet.” Tai growled, before crushing the pickled plum in his fist. He pointed at the boy who had hit him. “That was barely a punch.” He took a step forward, and the grin he flashed them bore white canines like a beast’s fangs.

“Then how about this!?” The other lackey took a step forward before raising his leg. With his hip and knee behind the thrust, his stomping kick was aimed for Tai’s gut–

It struck his chest instead, and unlike before Tai’s feet didn’t shift an inch against the ground. He had dropped: toes turned inward, knees bent, fists at his hips. A basic horse stance, one of the most fundamental movements of martial arts.

“What–?” The kicker suddenly cried out in pain as Tai’s hand snatched his leg at the ankle. The veins and sinew in the back of his palm stood taut against the skin–this was the fearsome tiger claw style grip of Dragon Slaying Tiger Fist, Grasping Deer! It was so tight, the grinding of bone against bone could be heard. Then he jerked the other boy’s foot and twisted, and the cry rose sharply in pitch as the attacker was forced to do the splits before he hit the ground.

“You bastard!” Now Lu Xue looked angry again, and as he took a stance of his own the circle of other students expanded outward with several gasps and a ripple of gossip.

“OI, YOU BRATS!” boomed a voice. Everyone present stopped and turned to the Elder in the shop. He leaned out of the small building’s only window, holding the awning up above his wizened gray head. There was a glint in his eye that shone brighter than Tai’s own maniacal grin, but it rested in a face that might’ve been carved from granite. Such focused power produced an almost tangible weight over all the students, as if the mountain under them were rumbling. “Save it for the Spiritual Beast Woods! Get outta my line already!”

“Forgive us, Elder!” Lu Xue immediately straightened, holding himself with poise and dignity as he bowed with a clasping hand salute. “My friends only wished to defend me, but they were overeager! We will depart from this ruffian in peace!” The first lackey helped the second get up, but he was still noticeably limping. As they moved away, though, Lu Xue shot one last venomous look back at Tai. It clearly said, “Only for now.”

“Heh. Pissant.” Tai responded, flipping a rude finger gesture at the so-called Outer Genius. Then his brow furrowed again, and he whirled in place. As the crowd began to disperse, he caught sight of that fur collar again–and immediately stomped in that direction.

“Hey! You there! What’s the big idea?!” demanded Yan Huiyan’s fellow disciple as he closed in. “I wanted to fight that pompous asshole, not his two cronies!”

But to the astute observer, something didn’t add up. The two students known to pal around with Lu Xue all the time weren’t exactly slackers–both of them were either fourth or fifth rank in their Training Foundation. At least as capable as Tai himself, if not stronger, according to common logic. And yet he had seemingly taken no damage from their attacks? Was he wearing armor under his clothes? Or did he have some other hidden secret? Had he intentionally picked a fight for some reason?

Xincai, Henan

A Chance Meeting
@Cu Chulainn

“I’m...fine,” came the unconvincing reply from the floor. If the squeak had been any lower, even Hyun-Woo wouldn’t have been able to hear it. “Yeah, don’t worry about me.” The older young man had quick, darting eyes. Hyun-Woo wondered what that meant–he was used to changing pitches in voice, or the cadence of footsteps. And he had gathered a few basics of smiles, frowns, tense cheeks, and the like. But what did it mean, when a person’s eyes moved so quickly? Were his own just slow because he lacked practice?

"I’m used to getting stepped on. Most warriors tend to do that when they run into a loser like myself wallowing on the ground. Your kindness is appreciated.” Hyun-Woo tilted his head. He didn’t realize it, but one of his eyebrows made an unpracticed attempt to raise up.

“Ah...I’m sorry that others haven’t treated you well.” he said, as the baggy-eyed fellow dusted himself off–not that it did much good, given the state of his dress beforehand. A cloying, sour smell, with earthy undertones...Did this man often fall to the ground, or sleep on piles of leaves? That cloth around his neck...this weather wasn’t cold enough for scarves, so was it a traveling hood for rain? Was he...a beggar? The little scholar had mentioned the Beggar's Sect as a potent source of information. Or perhaps he was a refugee from the war--Hyun-Woo had heard tales of martial artists too crippled to keep going as a result of the many vicious battles. Maybe this man was one of those...although he seemed too young?

“You’re new here, then? I don’t believe I recognize you.” The man lifted a hand to scratch himself, and Hyun-Woo blinked. It might go unnoticed by those with sight, but Hyun-Woo had felt many people’s movements around him. Within an arm’s reach or so, the surface of his skin picked up the disturbances in the air if someone did something sudden–if they walked past him at a brisk pace, he felt the cool draft in their wake. If someone waved their hands in front of his eyes–which they had done surprisingly often, whenever he had to explain his disability to other children–he could follow the arc without needing to see the hand, because of the wind it created.

This young man’s movement barely disturbed his surroundings. It was the lack of motion that made it stand out to Hyun-Woo, whereas others would likely not notice for the same reason. Was he one of those martial artists who were skilled in stealth arts?

He introduced himself, with a bow, as...Jin. There was a halt to his voice, and a shift in his breathing.

“This one is Yi Hyun-Woo, of Goryeo. I am not worthy of recognition--My journey upon the Way has only just begun. It is a pleasure to meet you, Sir Jin.” He nodded his head, balancing the pile of scrolls as best he could. Luckily, it looked as if the scholar had secured her room, and he would soon be rid of this burden. “Being that this seems to be a gathering place of the Wulin, from what I can...see...Maybe you would be able to help me? I am in search, you see, of a small school known as the Mountain Ravine Fist. I have a letter to deliver to them, but only know that they are somewhere in Henan Province.”

All began with One.

One had no Origin, and no Pinnacle. Whatever the nature or intent of One, all that is certain is that One recognized Itself. And from the delineation between One and Not One, came Duality. And from Duality came the Myriad Things: infinite possibility, creation, and destruction. That which turned Potential into Reality came forth from The One, the Prime Mover. Thus, the Primordial Origin was set, and from One flowed out the energy that catalyzed the transformation of the Potential into the Actual: Qi.

To attain Oneness, and acquire an unchanging vessel capable of controlling Qi, Humans learned to Cultivate. Through Cultivation, they attained stronger bodies, and harnessed the energies flowing from One throughout the Myriad Things. Through mastery of their bodies and harmony with these energies, they created Martial Arts. And through mastery of Martial Arts, they Ascended beyond their limits.

The world of Cultivators, a secret society called the Wulin, became a place where only the most powerful dared to trod. The strong oppressed the weak, though there were always Cultivators who claimed to stand for ideals of justice and honor. Upon one great continent, in the Kingdom of Longhu, the grip of the Righteous Alliance cemented itself with an iron fist, while wearing a velvet glove. Though the Chaotic Factions and the Demonic Sects contended with them throughout the centuries, the Wulin and the world of laypeople eventually gained an uneasy peace.

Among these many factions, the Three Supreme Peaks Sect distinguished itself in the eastern provinces. As its Founders grew in power and prestige, they attracted many Disciples who became Masters in their own right. In the current era, the Sect is known for distinct martial styles, fearsome masters of blade and spear, and powerful Cultivation Arts. Its numbers have swollen, and a natural hierarchy has formed. Now, all who join the Sect must trek to the First Peak in order to become an Outer Disciple…and only after years of grueling training, will they be granted the opportunity to become Inner Disciples of the Middle Peak–the “real” training grounds of the Sect.

For two young warriors, that opportunity nears…

Outer Training Grounds

Elder Sun Jian watched the crowd of young men and women gathering in the courtyard with glaring appraisal. Most wore some form of the Sect’s proper uniform, blue shirts or jackets for the boys and red for the girls, or robes of the same along with dark colors on the legs and bodies beneath. Their attire was simple and undecorated, just like their lives–many were still dirty from carrying out their daily tasks. As Outer Disciples, they could be considered closer to servants than to true pupils. While they were given daily regiments of exercise and training in physical combat, the majority of their education revolved around what was generally needed to be effective adults–literacy, mathematics, and so forth. But there were still those whose roots made them suitable as martial artists, and as cultivators. They ranged in age from little more than babes, at nine or ten, to young adults about to enter their twenties. For the latter, if they could not show results here, then even if they continued to progress in their cultivation they could only ever hope to become like himself–an “elder” in name only, regardless of age or true venerability, destined only to pass on what little he knew in order that the next generation might succeed where he had failed.

He stepped up onto the raised platform. The courtyard, in truth, was little more than a large, flat space of rock encircled by a narrow moat. The water was fed from above by a gentle fall–its sound was little more than a low rumble–and emptied below, into another fall, which zigzagged between a series of rocks to a shallow river much further down. The wooden platform he stood on had been erected upon a semi-circular section of the courtyard’s northern half, covering perhaps a fifth of the courtyard’s area in total. The rocky ground had been graded smoothly long ago, though as time passed the wear and tear of many feet, and a few shifts in the earth itself, had created cracks and dips. That was much the way of this place–the craftsmanship of the Zuigao’s Outer Training Grounds were not dilapidated, merely…aged. Thus the Outer Disciples were often kept busy keeping the place clean and maintained, but no matter how much they scrubbed they couldn’t remove the years from the place.

“Attention, Disciples! Quiet now, everyone! I must speak!” The murmur of voices died down as he walked along the edge of the dais. Those who had been here long enough already knew what this gathering was about, but no one would dare speak up once he began talking. Though they had a great deal of respect for the Outer Elder, it wasn’t solely a desire to know the purpose of his announcement that held them as rapt listeners.

“The time for the Inner Court Exam has arrived again, this year. For those of you who may not know–which, for this generation, I do not believe will be many–this is the test conducted by the True Masters of our illustrious Three Supreme Peaks, to select those among you that are worthy! As Outer Disciples, we have raised you, and started you on the long and difficult journey. If you have trained diligently, then you will be allowed to move on from this place!” He saw the many hopeful faces beaming up at him, and inwardly sighed. Many dreams would be shattered this year, as always. “Those who meet the requirements set forth by the Exam will become Inner Disciples, and be allowed permanent residence at the Central Grounds upon the Middle Peak! Your Cultivation, and your Martial Arts, will no doubt reach greater heights if you continue to work hard, and make proper use of the resources granted by the Inner Court!” He whipped up one hand, rustling his voluminous sleeve, and swept it across the air to emphasize the grandeur of this statement. “But!” And then the hand came down with all the seriousness of an executioner’s blade, “In order to be admitted into the Exam, you must first show that your training here has been…fruitful!”

He couldn’t help chuckling to himself. He saw the students look at one another in confusion. And then, some others began to brighten–good. They had realized the purpose of his little joke.

“At this time of year, in the Spiritual Beast Forest on the western side of the mountain’s base, the trees bearing Spiritual Heart Fruits are ripening! This year, we expect to see a larger crop of these fruits than usual. If you are not aware–” Which they should be, considering that the Foundation Establishing Pills they were allowed to receive once every month were sometimes made with the processed flesh of this same fruit, and other Internal Alchemy ingredients known to stimulate the Qi within the body– “the Spiritual Heart Fruit Tree can only grow in areas where the Ambient Qi is fairly thick, enough so that even mundane Breath Cultivation becomes half-again as potent! All of the trees’s Qi, and that which it absorbs from the environment, is concentrated for many months within the Spiritual Heart. For humans, this much Qi can be worth as much as twenty years!”

The amount of Qi in a human body, being roughly analogous to their very life force, could roughly be measured by years. Normally, humans were born with an amount of Inborn Qi–usually not incredibly large–inherited from their parents. The food and drink they consumed, and even the air they breathed, supplied more Acquired Qi from the environment. The Acquired Qi would naturally be refined by the body to refuel the Inborn Qi, for if the Inborn Qi was ever used up, the body would weaken and even die.

Thus, the purpose of Cultivation was to further refine both the Acquired and Inborn Qi, and to expand their capacity by many, many times. Doing so would not only lengthen the Cultivator’s natural lifespan, but change their very essence as mortal beings. Greater strength, sharper senses, faster healing…those who mastered the flow of Qi could do any number of things. But, the amount of Qi required for this was immense–so much so that, to break through from the Training Foundation Realm to the Qi Condensation Realm required a whole sexagenary–60 years’ worth of Qi, calculated by the average human lifespan before the natural expenditure of Inborn Qi would begin to deteriorate until natural death by old age.

Many of these Outer Disciples were well along in their development of the Training Foundation Realm. With something like the Spiritual Heart Fruit, providing a full third of their required energy, their cultivation could make an incredible leap forward!

“In order to qualify for the Exam, you must accomplish at least one of these two tasks: through your own training, reach the Seventh Rank of the Training Foundation Realm; OR, you may present a single Heart Fruit Seed! The flesh of the fruit may be kept, for whatever purpose you desire. But, be warned! The Spiritual Beast Forest is named as such for a reason–the creatures there are dangerous to such low-rank Cultivators as yourselves! If you dare to brave this journey, go prepared!” A Spiritual Beast could not be considered as the same kind of threat as a wild animal. By living for unusual amounts of time or feeding on rich sources of Qi, a beast acquired a “new” sort of life–Spirit Beasts that lived long enough and got stronger could rapidly surpass their mundane species in intelligence, size, or any other factors.

“In light of these requirements, we will be handing out this month’s Foundation Establishing Pill early, and myself and the other Outer Elders will be available in our book room, as well as the training yard. Come to us if you need advice, or to practice more of your techniques! You have one week before the day of Exam Qualification! I wish you all luck, but also pray for your safety! You are dismissed!” He watched as the crowd rapidly began to disperse in different directions. Some students immediately made for the small shop where the Foundation Establishing Pills, along with general supplies students were allowed to trade for, would be available. Others headed back to their bunkhouses, or to the training yard, to make plans and perfect their cultivation. A few even headed straight for the gatehouses–would they really rush off to the Spiritual Beast Forest without making any preparations? Sun Jian sighed. Sadly, depending on the challenge and the quality of that year’s students, it was not unusual for Outer Disciples to be gravely injured, permanently crippled, or even killed by the trials they faced. But, baby birds could not stay in the nest forever–and only those strong enough to fly would be able to avoid the hungry vipers of the world.

Tai–his full name was Feng Tai, but unless forced he hardly used his surname; why use a family name when you had no family?--pocketed the Foundation Establishing Pill given out by the Elder who manned the shop, and glared at the ground as he walked away. Maybe he should go back to his room to think things over and cultivate…then again, since the Outer Disciples didn’t actually know any of the three Cultivation Arts taught by the Inner Court, he wouldn’t get any results there that he hadn’t already experienced before. The same would be true if he went to the training yard and practiced his forms again…maybe it was finally time to ask the Elders if they would teach him the second form of Dragon Slaying Tiger Fist, or even the third form…

No. He clenched his fist. He hadn’t yet mastered the first form. There was something crucial he just hadn’t been able to understand yet, and despite other students leaving him behind to practice more advanced techniques, he felt that if he couldn’t grasp these concepts then the higher forms wouldn’t be of any use to him anyway.

What was it he was missing? Was it just…raw Qi energy? Some people were born with more of it, some people could hold onto more of it when they absorbed it through cultivation. Tai couldn’t be certain how he really compared to other students–if they were of a higher rank than him, logically they had to have more Qi, and that was all there was to it.

Was it physical strength? Intelligence? Combat experience? His outlook on life? There had to be something holding him back. He was at the Fourth Rank of the Training Foundation Realm…a whole three ranks under the requirement for the exam. The Foundation Establishing Pills could provide up to a year’s worth of Qi, if they were properly absorbed by the body…but the fact that they were only handed out once a month meant that it would take, at bare minimum, five whole years for a student to reach the Qi Condensation Realm.

So, getting the Spiritual Heart Fruit would be his only option. What would he need, to make that journey into the Spiritual Beast Forest? Camping supplies? A weapon? What about–


Tai collided with someone, as he was so focused on his own thoughts he hadn’t paid any attention to the path in front of him. He was fine–the other student, however, now sat bruised upon the ground. With a hiss they shot up to their feet again, glaring at him.

“Watch yourself, fool!” said the other young man. Tai recognized him as Lu Xue–an infuriatingly competent blowhard of an upperclassman.

“I ain’t got time to watch out for you, bastard.” Tai growled, and made to push past the other Disciple–only for two of the other students following Lu Xue to block his path. He snarled at them, and they seemed to second-guess this strategy, but then their “leader” spoke up.

“Ah! Feng Tai. I should have realized only a boor like you would go around charging into people!” Lu Xue shrugged and shook his head. “And of course, you can’t even apologize to your betters!”

“Oh I would–if any of my betters were around!” Tai slowly turned. Lu Xue was older, and said to be one of the most talented of the Outer Disciples–but Tai was almost as tall as the other boy already, and stared him down eye to eye. “Get moving, and take your two oxen here with ya!”

“You want to try and order me around?! You’re courting death, Feng Tai!” Lu Xue pointed dramatically at the tip of Tai’s nose. “I’ll have you know, I have already reached the Seventh Rank of Training Foundation Realm–I am certain to pass the Exam, and enter the Inner Court! Why, I bet my Master will immediately make me his Core Disciple!” The cocky brat smirked.

“That the guy you’re always going on about? The one they say bought you, like a pig at market, and then dropped you off here?” Tai knew it would hurt–because it wasn’t all that dissimilar from what had happened to Tai himself. But he expected Lu Xue to do what others had done in the past when Tai’s cruelty cut them–shrivel up, sniffle, and ultimately shy away. Instead, Lu Xue’s face became stormy and dark. His cheeks didn’t turn red. He didn’t immediately scream in rage. But Tai recognized the look in the other boy’s eyes.

Both of them curled their hands into fists. If someone else didn’t step in, things were going to get real ugly, real fast…

Xincai, Henan

Watching One's Step

@OwOThe young man listened intently as the scholar went on, though he didn’t look at her or engage the same expressions a person commonly made to show they were listening. Simply because such things were not yet a habit to him. Still, even though the pile of scrolls blocked his sight much like it had for the girl, he never missed a step–and even moved around other passerby on the street before they could bump into him, without seeing them.

The idea of going to an information broker was one he had not considered–was that naive of him, considering how important information must be in the jianghu? But so far as he knew, the Mountain Ravine Fist was not well known or especially famous–the way his father told the story, the founder had been a rather mundane bodyguard for merchants who developed a personal martial art based on his experiences. It had grown into an art with proper forms and a completed style, but was first and foremost a “school,” rather than a Sect or a Cult. Did that mean information about it would be cheap? Or would the brokers turn him away for wasting their time over a school that never produced any movers or shakers of the Jianghu?

“I see…they are too small to be considered part of any great faction, but they do follow the orthodox methods so far as I know. I shall turn my search to the west!” he answered the scholar, as they came to the Golden River Inn. Precariously balancing the scrolls, this time his head did turn. Drifting from the kitchens, and from several still-warm plates at the tables, rich scents filled his nose so thickly he could almost taste the dishes. Steamed dumplings stuffed to bursting with vegetables or meat, fresh white rice so thick it rose out of the bowls like a cloud, crunchy bread with a soft, fluffy interior, and numerous other smells reached his nostrils. His ears felt the thrum of several whispered conversations in various corners of the room–it was somehow a comforting sound, he thought, this reassurance that within this space one was surrounded by other human beings with the same needs for food and rest.

But there was another current that he could feel, beneath the homely energy of the Golden River. The slight prickle on his skin, a vibration that lingered with each step. Those who exuded power of many sorts gathered here as well. Hyun-Woo would not say that he could feel “the strength” of those around him–his sense for Qi was not yet that developed, to be able to gauge anyone at a glance–but he could simply feel that they had some measure of strength. Swords lay balanced against tables, or across laps while their masters dined. Cups of tea were held in hands that bore many callouses across the knuckles. Sharp eyes, ever ready for danger, occasionally darted to and fro. Yes, with every step Yi Hyun-Woo felt he had truly entered “the underworld,” the Jianghu–

@Cu ChulainnAnd then he almost stepped on someone. If he hadn’t felt a pebble with the edge of his foot, he wouldn’t have paid enough attention–but the pebble clattered on the floor, and something about the clarity of its sound drew his attention. He stopped, looked down…and saw a young man perhaps some years older than himself simply lying there, face down.

“...Um…are you alright, sir?” he asked. He looked towards the little scholar to see if she had noticed anything as well, then back to the fellow on the ground. “Do you need some assistance?”

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