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True to her word, Min Kaijing left the Zhao home shortly afterwards, saying that she was going to go fix the revenant’s voice. The Zhao’s were all left alone.
“The nerve of that woman,” Ji Wei was the first to speak. His brows were furrowed so tightly, they had practically turned into one solid chunk of hair.
“She’s similar in age to our Sect Leader. As the tortoise wizens with age, so does its shell thicken… you know how it is,” Zhao Mao answered, sounding thoroughly exasperated. “This is just how she’s always been; blunt, and knowing exactly what to do and say to get what she wants.”
“And does that make it okay? Saying things like that is a mockery to being an elder!”
“She’s had… experiences in life, and I think she’s beyond the point of caring about her own face. Or others’.”
“So, she’s shameless.”
“I know how you feel, but don’t speak about her like that. Especially not in front of Yi’r.”
Ji Wei paused, then looked back at Zhao Yi, who was very much sitting next to and staring at them both. “Oh.”
Her parents very quickly ushered her away from the courtyard and into her room, leaving her alone to contemplate her existence (while lying in bed, of course) at long last.
Auntie Min’s confession that she could happily set things on fire at any time paled in comparison to the revelation that Zhao Yi’s days were apparently numbered.
Her first thought about that was various curse words that she probably shouldn’t know, but had overheard adults saying at some point in her life anyways. It was quite cathartic.
Her second thought was more a wordless mental attack of panic, dread, more panic, some freaking out, more dread, existential terror, a sinking feeling in her everything, and an overwhelming desire to go running all over the place while screaming, all of which happened and concluded in the span of about five minutes that felt more like five days.
Her third thought was to calm the heck down and not freak out, because she had already been given a solution: go clear across the continent to the palace, away from everything she had ever known, including her parents, to go be a student for a stranger of questionable motives. What did that Tang whatever person want, exactly? ‘Studying’ her? Hiring her as a ‘lackey’ when she was older, like Auntie Min said? What did all that exactly entail? Was it going to be worth it at all?
Her fourth thought was that that sucked.
Her fifth thought was that dying sucked more, especially when it would apparently be a very, very slow death.
Her sixth thought was that this was too stressful, so she was going to take a nap.
And so she did. She hadn’t even needed an erhu’s song for it.
A few hours later, she woke up from getting gently pat on the head by someone. Upon groggily opening her eyes, grumbling, and stretching her resting muscles, she saw that her father was the one that had disturbed her from her impromptu slumber.
“Yi’r,” he started gently, his smile present, though strained. “One of the Sect Leader’s disciples is in the yard waiting for you, dear. Get freshened up before you come out.”
She blinked some more, after which surprise shook her fully awake, causing her so sit straight up from the bed, her blanket (and messy hair) whipping forward due to the momentum. First it was Aunt Min, now it was the Sect Leader?
As quick as she could, she got dressed, brushed her hair, pinned it up, and did her best to not look like too much of a mess. The Sect Leader’s disciples were about as important as the Sect Leader herself.
Ji Wei, who had been waiting outside the door for her, led her out to the courtyard. The disciple was Ren An, Huailu Cong’s second-eldest. As soon as they entered the courtyard, the young man looked up at them from a bowed head, then smiled kindly. “I have already explained things to Mr. Ji, little sister. The Sect Leader is waiting for you two just outside the gates. There’s a bit of a situation.”
What? The Sect Leader herself was waiting, now? Outside the gates, a situation… Auntie Min must have melted through the ice on the revenant, and something had happened. It had been more than enough time for it, even for enchanted ice and whatever the woman had said was wrong with her fire.
Zhao Yi gave a nod, not needing to ask after the obvious, and Ji Wei placed a hand reassuringly on her shoulder. They both followed Elder Cang out, passing through the various streets.
The scene that greeted them beyond the sect was not too inviting.
The once-unmoving revenant was now unhappily straining against its ropes, continuously giving off an inhuman growl similar to one a particularly baritone tiger would make. Even from her fairly distant vantage point, Zhao Yi could make out its face that was twisted up and baring its teeth in rage, which was compounded by it visibly giving off some kind of red aura, which probably wasn’t good news. The array around it kept pulsing white light against its attempts to break free.
There was a troupe of Elders surrounding it, Zhao Mao, Huailu Cong, and Min Kaijing included in the crowd. Upon catching sight of the new three that had arrived, Huailu Cong, stationed just a few paces from the edge of the array, quickly ushered them over with a wave of her hand, sleeve twirling. “Come.”
Huailu Cong was a woman of eighty years that looked to be in her sixties, and was much stronger than typical people of either age. Her grayed hair was always bound into simple buns like the one she had now, her robes forever as plain as the ones lower in rank than her; the only real indication that she was of higher rank was the silver hairpin in her hair, something that looked like it held more value than the rest of the sect combined. To her credit, at least, the object had been inherited from Sect Leaders past, not bought with the money Min Kaijing claimed she wasn’t spending.
Once the father-daughter pair was close enough, Huailu Cong gestured for them to stop right outside the array keeping the revenant in check, focusing her freezing-cold gaze upon Zhao Yi. “You brought this revenant here, and it will not answer any of our questions, let alone obey. Either you will get it to listen to one of us, make an oath with it, or get it to go away. Recall the principles of Reviving that you must have learned by now.”
Ji Wei’s fingers lightly clenched upon her shoulder, but he made no objection to the other’s words, looking down to meet his daughter’s eyes instead. “Go on, Yi’r. It’s safe with us all here. Don’t go past the edge of the array.”
Zhao Yi felt some nervousness, both the good and bad kind. For one, she had no idea what to expect, here, and for two, the revenant’s sudden rage was making her a bit anxious.
However, when she looked back at the allegedly-infuriated revenant, it was no longer struggling or growling, instead staring right at her. It must have noticed her presence when they had gotten closer, and she had just been too focused on the Sect Leader to notice.
Its unblinking eyes were really giving her the creeps.
Gulping nervously, she timidly walked forward to the very rim of the array, and tried to be brave as she met the revenant’s stare. From the far corners of her mind, she drew forth the methods for speaking to revenants to its forefront. “What is your name?”
The revenant lifted its head a bit higher. The ropes around it were stuck into the ground and further secured by the array’s power, having long forced the creature into a bent-backed kneel with its arms bound in front of it. For all intents and purposes, it was both literally and symbolically being forced into submission.
A horrid grating sound came from the creature’s throat for a few seconds, after which it stopped for a few further seconds, then tried to speak again. If nothing had ever left Everice before, that meant the revenant had likely been in there since… the Great Wrath a thousand years ago? Was that right? If so, no wonder its voice was taking a minute to warm up. What would it have had to talk to, inside a giant ice chunk?
“Hh… Hu… Sao,” the revenant slurred out, sounding not unlike rusty chains painfully grinding together.
…Hu Sao? Hu wasn’t the ever-common surname that was a part of ‘erhu’, right? That would be too on-the-nose. And, sao… sao as in an aunt? Sweeping? Or, could it be… no, no way. Right? There was no way.
“Hu Sao? Is that your name?” she tried to verify, not letting anything show on her face.
‘Hu Sao’ suddenly looked frustrated, beginning to try again. “Ss… sao… sao…”
Clearly, this was not going to work. The surname seemed to have gotten across just fine, at the very least. “I can just have you write it down later. I’ll call you… Master Hu, okay?”
She had chosen ‘Master’ out of respect towards its erhu abilities, which she was assuming were quite high, since its song had sounded nice to her ears. It was also a gender-neutral term, and she couldn’t tell whether this person was a man or a woman or something else completely.
The revenant simply nodded, so she trekked on. “What is it that you wish?”
The other wheezed some more before it could talk. “In… the ice… someone. Save…”
It didn’t get to the rest of its sentence before it started coughing, but everyone in the vicinity could put two and two together with just those few words.
There was someone else in the ice? On top of this one that already shouldn’t be there, according to logical sense? Was there anything else in there that everyone needed to know about? Really, now…
Zhao Yi took in a deep breath. Okay. She could do this. “We can help you get them out, but you have to form an oath with one of us… why wouldn’t you speak to anyone else here?”
The revenant’s only expression aside from ‘murderously angry’ had been ‘complete and vacuous blankness’ thus far, and this didn’t change that. It tilted its head to the side. “…Won’t… work.”
“What won’t work?”
‘Master Hu’ just shook its head, not elaborating. How helpful. Why were adults always trying to be mysterious? “Okay, um… we can help you, but you need to form an oath with one of us, which will bind you to our will. Would you be willing for that?”
The revenant nodded, no hesitation. Easy enough. Zhao Yi nodded back at them.
An awkward silence stretched out as no one said anything else.
“Dad,” she said, leaning in leftwards to her father, eyes not leaving ‘Master Hu’, “I don’t know the oath ritual. I’m not fifteen yet.”
Hence began a rather boring scene of all the Reviver adults present beginning to create some kind of array within the array that was already set up, while Huailu Cong was busily talking at Master Hu, describing at length all the persnickety details of the Reviver oath, as well as the persnickety details of this reviver oath in particular. Master Hu looked put-off, to say the least, but it was obviously listening, judging from its occasional nods.
Min Kaijing had also been redirected to the side due to not being a Reviver, and was currently standing and watching the excitement alongside Zhao Yi. The two shared a comfortable quiet between them.
“Auntie Min,” the latter suddenly said, looking up at the lady.
Min Kaijing blinked, then turned to her. Her weird clawed hand was currently twirling the end of her fairly long braid, and wasn’t about to stop, apparently.
“I made a decision.”
“Oh, already? That was quick.”
“…” It was supposed to take longer to decide on ‘instead of a slow and uncomfortable death, I’d rather not’? The only reason she had even taken this long was because she had fallen asleep!
Thinking about it, though, maybe she was talking about the whole ‘leaving the sect’ thing, in which case, yes, she wasn’t too happy about that. “I’m going to be sad to leave my parents, but if that’s what I have to do to, ah… not die, then I have to do it.”
“Leave your…? Oh. They’ll probably be coming with you.”
Huh? “…That’s allowed?”
“I said you could take teachers with you, since Chancellor Tang doesn’t teach cultivation. She also doesn’t teach fighting. Your parents are teachers, your mother knows your main cultivation style, and your father has certainly imparted his own tricks to you. The Chancellor herself has already given me the go-ahead to bring whoever’s necessary.”
Well, why didn’t you say so earlier?! That was the only thing I was even worried about! I worried for nothing! Nothing!
Silently fuming about adults not telling her things up front, she decided to turn the subject around some. “Why does Chancellor Tang even care to do this?”
“She’s a library jing, the oldest Paragon in the world at about nine hundred years, and her mind doesn’t work like the minds of us mere mortals. Her main priority is expanding her own knowledge, then spreading that knowledge, a lot of times even discovering things herself. It typically doesn’t matter what kind of knowledge it is, nor how superfluous; as long as it’s new to her, it’s game. Don’t underestimate, or ever think you fully comprehend, very old, very bored immortals that were never human to begin with, missy.”
“…Auntie Min, you said ‘us mere mortals’, but you’re not mortal? And you’re almost a century old, too, so does that apply to you?”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me…”
They chatted for a bit more, all the way until the other adults were finally done. Master Hu looked even less pleased than it had some minutes ago, but it still wasn’t as angry as it had been at the start. Huailu Cong motioned for Zhao Yi to approach once more, from where she herself stood at the edge; the girl obediently came over, catching sight of the inert grooves of the secondary array made within the pulsing white active ones.
“The rules the revenant will have to follow have already been explained to it, and are built into the array itself. There is no need to worry about them. Your end of the bargain — agreeing to grant the revenant’s wish — is also included. What is left is the verbal confirmation of the revenant’s wishes, after which you will confirm your willingness to grant them. Should the revenant ask for something you refuse to do, say as much, and the ritual will be cancelled.”
Zhao Yi nodded at Huailu Cong’s placid face, then turned to Master Hu. The array yet forced them to be a distance away. “Please state what you want from this oath.”
Master Hu’s shoulders rose and fell, as if it was sighing. “Save… mother, from ice.”
Wait. Mother? “Your mother is in the ice?”
The revenant tilted its head, brows furrowing in its first new look on concentration. Eventually, it shook its head, paused, then nodded.
What did that mean, now? More obtuse stuff! Great! Her favorite thing!
Whatever. Moving on. “Alright. Will saving your mother need anyone or anything to be hurt, or attempt to bring about the end of the world?”
…Many things had happened in the Reviver sect’s history, to say the least. She’d heard the stories.
Master Hu’s eyes widened slightly. “No,” it answered, rather quickly, “none… of that.”
Zhao Yi nodded tentatively. They would see for themselves whether that was true, but at least she had its word that its ‘mother’ didn’t need a blood sacrifice or something evil to be saved… not that the creature knew of, anyhow.
“Then I accept,” she announced.
The instant she agreed, the glowing white array flashed, quickly after which the secondary one began to glow red, buzzing with a high-pitched sound. The light then moved inwards, flowing like blood itself along the lines, leaving nothing behind as it drained itself, crawled up the ropes, slipped beneath Master Hu’s clothes, and visibly crept along its skin, creating vein-like marks wherever it went. The revenant’s brows scrunched, lips curled, and fists obviously clenched harder, as if it disliked the sensation.
Zhao Yi knew it didn’t hurt, because revenants weren’t supposed to feel pain anymore.
Then, once the light had left the ground and fully infused itself into Master Hu’s skin, it flashed again, then vanished, leaving the flesh as blank and grey as it had been prior. Just a moment after, the white holding array also flashed, then deactivated.
The buzzing was abruptly gone. Just as abruptly, the ropes binding Master Hu went slack, bouncing upwards, then slipping down, released from the array’s hold. The revenant wasted no time in getting to its feet, standing up to its full height once again, face bland and emotionless.
Zhao Yi made to come forward and examine Master Hu, only for Huailu Cong to suddenly grab her by the shoulder. “You do not come to the revenant,” she stated gravely, “the revenant comes to you. This is not your family. Respect is not needed.”
The girl looked up at her with furrowed brows that expressed her disagreement to that statement, but she couldn’t exactly defy the Sect Leader to her face. Looking back to Master Hu, she clearly enunciated, “Master Hu, come here.”
The revenant jolted, but quickly obeyed, kicking away the ropes from where they had fallen at its feet. It tread heavily upon the deactivated grooves of the array, returning them to regular level dirt with its weight, and leaving footsteps behind as it came up before Zhao Yi.
For the very first time, she was getting a good look at it from a distance that couldn’t be described as ‘way too far away’. From this close-up, she could tell that Master Hu was kind of chubby, with an inoffensive-looking face that was around the higher echelons of average, and shaded with the gray of death all revenants possessed. It appeared to be a man, but she wasn’t completely sure, as it had no stubble to speak of. Its hair was in total disarray, falling out of its pin-crown that hung sadly from a few strands, and its robes had probably been nice a thousand years ago, but were now a mess of faded, rotting fabric in hues of brown and beige, with brocade, hemming, and embellishments that were curling away from what they were supposed to be.
Carefully, she took its hands and started inspecting it over. Since Master Hu’s hair was black, that signified that it had died young, and people that died young typically had to be murdered for that to happen. It didn’t appear to be malnourished, either, so it clearly hadn’t died of sickness or starvation.
However, her brief inspection yielded nothing. As she wound around back of the revenant, she did manage to get a good look at the erhu; it was a pitch-black thing with clawed paw-shaped pegs, a tiger’s head, white-gray snakeskin, and… blue-gray strings? What kind of horse did those come off of?
What she had thought had been wings earlier were actually stylized claws, but the much weirder thing about the object was that, in spite of being used non-stop for presumably a millennia, the thing barely seemed aged; only with a closer look had she even been able to tell that the black paint was peeling in places. In comparison to the state of Master Hu’s robes, it was practically pristine.
“Master Hu, how did you die?” she asked, coming back around in front of the one in question.
The revenant blinked its black eyes once, then lowered its head for a moment. “I don’t know,” it said after thinking about it.
It didn’t know? How did it not know? Manners of death were the cause behind the overwhelming majority of all revenants!
“Maybe… played too… hh… much,” it added on.
Played too much? Like… the erhu? It played the erhu so much, it died?
That… that did not make sense. But, whatever. She was just going to file that away in her brain and move on.
“So,” Min Kaijing interjected, trotting forwards to their group, “we can get a move on to Everice now, eh?”
Zhao Yi blinked. “Right now? Like… right this second?”
“Of course. The sooner this is over, the better.”
Zhao Yi felt like she should object, and yet… she couldn’t think of a proper reason for any objection. It was only about mid-day right now. She had just had a nap, so it wasn’t like she was tired. Was she getting hungry, though? Yes.
“I’ll buy you whatever you want at Jaderock,” Min Kaijing said, as if reading her mind.
Jaderock was a restaurant in Ole-Mang’e that had the best noodle dishes in the whole city, and Zhao Yi only ever got to eat there whenever Min Kaijing was around, as it tended to be too expensive and far away otherwise. Auntie Min would always say stuff like ‘you literally can’t get this stuff anywhere else’, though Zhao Yi herself wouldn’t know how true that was since she had never been beyond the city. Whatever her sect was able to throw together and whatever was on the streets of Ole-Mang’e, like bindae-tteok.
At this time of the year, in early autumn, Jaderock was probably serving jjamppong. Ah… she could practically taste that broth now…
Curse Auntie Min. Now she was even hungrier. And for what? It wasn’t like she was going to disagree in the first place!
“I want dessert, too,” she grumbled out, pouting only slightly. Auntie Min made her hungry, so she could pay the price.
Min Kaijing clapped herself on the chest once. “You’ve got my word, little boss.”
“Now that the ritual is complete, the only thing that needs to be done now is to complete the revenant’s wish,” Huailu Cong stated, her blank (yet somehow intense) eyes boring into Zhao Yi. “Once that is accomplished, you may nullify your oath with it at any time, or keep it. Either way, it will not be coming into the sect, nor bothering us again. Be rid of it, or bring it with you when you go.”
Yeesh… they really took that ‘no foreign revenants’ thing seriously.
Distantly, Zhao Yi registered that Huailu Cong had already learned of, approved of, and assumed was already true the fact that she would be going to the palace for studies. It was, to be frank, wholly unsurprising.
She caught the look Auntie Min shot the Sect Leader. Perhaps she had noticed the same thing.
“Cultivator Ji, Niece Zhao,” Huailu Cong called out. “We have much to discuss and prepare. Let’s go.”
The rest of the present Elders had since started heading back into the sect; the array would clean itself via the elements naturally. Ji Wei and Zhao Mao, who had paired up and come in closer at some unknown point in time, looked at each other. “Sect Leader,” Zhao Mao started, “we were hoping that at least one of us could—“
“There is no need. Manor Lord Min is more than capable enough,” the other cut her off. “The details have already been discussed.”
Then, with a flourish of plain sleeves and no further room for argument given, Huailu Cong headed back towards the sect. Zhao Yi’s parents exchanged looks with each other, Min Kaijing, and Zhao Yi, then uncertainly followed after the Sect Leader.
Zhao Yi was watching them leave. Odd. What were they…? “Auntie Min, what are they going to talk about?”
Min Kaijing snorted in derision. “You aren’t the only one that quickly agreed to the whole move. I would tell you the ins and outs of this, really, but your parents told me not to talk about it. The grudges of previous generations aren’t for later generations to hold, and the complications of history aren’t for children to care about, they say. You don’t need to worry about it.”
Zhao Yi frowned a bit, but let it go. More dodgy adult crap. She almost felt like making it her life’s goal to forcibly uncover everything that was being hidden to her.
The main deterrent to that, in her opinion, was that that seemed like it would be too much work.
A hand abruptly landed on her shoulder, and she turned away from her parents to look at her Aunt. “The party’s over, so let’s head on over to Ole-Mang’e, get you fed, and be over with Everice by dinner, hm?” the lady said with a reassuring smile. “Your new revenant pal is going to have to walk, though. Xunya won’t tolerate a corpse on its back, even if this one doesn’t smell that bad.”
The ever-watching Master Hu looked impassively back at her, though Zhao Yi got possible misconception that it wasn’t at all amused.