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Ole-Mang’e was but a stone’s throw from the Reviver sect’s hideaway, needing only about a shichen of time to reach by horseback. As Min Kaijing’s Xunya was a tianma, once they were a distance enough away from the sect to not draw any attention (no one particularly cared about them in Xing, really, but it was better safe than sorry), she executed the same maneuver she had done coming here, where she took to the sky, thus cutting the travel time down even further.
True to her word, Min Kaijing made Master Hu walk — or, technically, run to keep up with Xunya — but now that the revenant wasn’t frozen solid, it was terrifyingly fast. From up on high, clinging to the front of the saddle, Zhao Yi watched as Master Hu’s bean-sized silhouette on the ground below darted quickly, intermittently running and launching itself off of trees, rocks, and whatever other surfaces it could.
She had never seen a revenant move so fast before, as she was used to the revived ones in the sect, which were made of family members that died of old age, sickness, or other stuff that didn’t make them very active. “Do you ever see revenants like this on the outside?” she asked Min Kaijing, who was seated behind her and holding the reins.
“All the time,” the lady answered, her voice coming over Zhao Yi’s head. “The Guardians of Xing prevent them from cropping up in this country, but in Yan, which likes to be filled with drama at every moment, they’re everywhere. Let’s just say there’s a lot of things there that can drive one mad. There’s also some artificially-made ones, but they’re rare.”
“Xing doesn’t have drama?”
“Well, it does, but it’s drama over personality clashes, or land, or money, or some other stuff. Not things like, say, your own murder, the murder of your entire family, some brutal attack that left you paralyzed, some other violent brutality that befell you… things that would make one angry enough to defy death itself, y’know?”
Zhao Yi nodded, absent-minded in thought. It was a shame there hadn’t been enough left of her grandparents to revive them back in the day, though she kind of wondered if they would have been angry enough to turn themselves into revenants. Their end had not been pleasant. Ah, well.
They arrived at Ole-Mang’e uneventfully, whereupon Min Kaijing stayed true to her word, bringing Zhao Yi to Jaderock. Once the girl had happily eaten her fill of seafood and noodles and was now munching on yagkwa, they headed for the inn the rest of Blackblood Manor was patiently waiting in.
“Don’t tell your parents I let you eat so much,” Auntie Min warned her as they walked, giving her a side-eye while she was at it. “They’ll complain that I’m spoiling you.”
“They always complain about that, though,” Zhao Yi answered, continuing to horf down her dessert like she had never been taught manners.
“Ai… you always eat so much, yet you’re still such a short and skinny little thing. Where does it all go, if it’s not going to you growing or gaining weight?”
Zhao Yi glared at her. “I am still growing!”
“I heard that girls quit growing by the time they’re fourteen. Cultivation will give you a little bit of a boost, but I think time is ticking for you, short stuff.”
Brows furrowing into a V shape from annoyance, Zhao Yi fought the urge to throw her bag of snacks at the woman’s head, because that would be a waste of deliciousness. “I’m not that short for my age! Who asked you?!”
Min Kaijing just chuckled, not taking offense at a junior’s rudeness. She never did, for various reasons she had previously listed as ‘I’m too old to care about niceties anymore’, ‘I look too young for anyone to be treating me like an elder’, ‘being stuck-up like that is boring’, and ‘why take offense at the random blabbing of children, they just speak the truth’. It was really hard to tell at times whether the lady thought herself as old, or forever young.
Coming to the inn, Zhao Yi noted that it was one of those smaller, local places, and was small to the extent that the Manor had taken the entire place over, with Manor-owned tianma, flysteeds, regular steeds, and people in full-body, black-and-blue outfits with masks standing around its front courtyard. Anyone that didn’t know who exactly these people were would be freaking out at the creepy display… though, they would also have to be overlooking the individuals that were innocently playing cards and cheering on some outdoor table in order to feel anything resembling fear.
The Manor-goers all wore clothes that completely covered their skin, which shared the same colors as Min Kaijing’s own, and the masks were unique to each individual, having been sculpted into shapes and painted with colors and patterns according to their own whims. It allowed each of its members to be easily identifiable despite the anonymity, beyond other tells like their individual auras and statures. As Zhao Yi had been told before, many of them had been horribly disfigured by the Bloodmorphers way back when, and although they had been… reassembled fully, it was apparently not a pretty sight for onlookers. Thus, they all actively elected to just be covered up at all times.
Min Kaijing herself was the sole exception to this, parading around with her unblemished face and purposefully-sleeveless arm. Once before, when Zhao Yi had asked why she didn’t cover her arm, instead drawing attention to it, Manor Lord Min had proclaimed that if anyone had a problem with her arm, then it was their problem, not hers. Beyond that, she had apparently taken on the responsibility of showing the world what exactly the veinticks did to everyone in the Manor, while still having a face that was ‘acceptable to the world at large’.
Zhao Yi still didn’t really understand the ins and outs of all that, but she assumed it was something political and societal that she hadn’t fully grasped yet. The world didn’t like ugly people, maybe? There were plenty of ugly people in the sect, but she was never mean to them. But the Blackblood people weren’t actually ugly, they were just scarred…? Hm.
The Manor people were already equipped and ready to go, their herd of tianma geared up. The flysteeds were going to be left and guarded within the inn. Without any pomp, they set out for Everice.
Just like how they had flown in here, Zhao Yi sat in front of Min Kaijing on Xunya, but they were trotting along the city’s streets this time around, going east towards the coast. The girl was occupied with looking all around at the city they were passing.
They weren’t taking a main road in order to avoid congestion, so what surrounded them was a less affluent section of Ole-Mang’e. That said, though, ‘less affluent’ basically translated to ‘there’s less bling and glowflies burning the eyes like all those restaurants and shops like to put all over their storefronts’. It was a residential road where the courtyards weren’t fancy, yet still well-kempt, laid with sturdy wooden doors and stone gates for protection, and decorated simply with guardian beasts and auspicious symbols. Just over the gates, the gently-sloped eaves of moderate-sized buildings could be glimpsed.
Every once in a while, a window would open, or someone would peek outside their front doors at them, boggling at the display of a bunch of black-clothed people in crazy masks riding expensive steeds. It was extremely likely that they had never seen such a thing coming down their unremarkable neighborhood road before.
And yet, compared to this place, the sect was genuinely nothing more than a collection of hovels.
“Auntie Min, how rich are the people that live here?”
“Hm? Oh… probably not very. Low-tier, in terms of Ole-Mang’e’s wealth.”
“Really? But their houses are so big!”
“Big to you, maybe. For this area, there’s only one type of courtyard that’s smaller than these, and after that are the communal ones, which are about as not-nice as they get. They certainly don’t have any pieces to them that are sagging and falling apart, at the very least.”
Zhao Yi blinked, then looked down at the road, thoughtful.
Aside from the main streets, where everything was purposefully flashy and held fun things to do, she had never been elsewhere in Ole-Mang’e. Never had she thought that even what was labelled as ‘low-class’ here would blow the Reviver’s nicest home out of the water.
She typically didn’t mind such things herself because it was what she was used to, but Min Kaijing’s perpetual unhappiness with their living situation was… put into perspective. The ‘sagging and falling apart’ bit of the other’s speech, she was well aware of being a jab, and, to be quite blunt, she was aware of some bits of sagging roof and collapsed fencing in the yard of her own family home. No one really bothered to fix anything beyond cursory repairs, anymore, to quote her dad.
Well, palaces were palaces. That would surely be a nicer place to live in, right?
“Your Sect Leader finally spilled on why she refuses to move or fix anything,” Min Kaijing continued, voice quiet. “She plans to pack up and move the sect back to its ancestral location in Yan, once she has enough funds saved up for it.”
Zhao Yi blinked. “Back there? Where everyone was hunted down?… Is ten years not enough time for funding?”
“It is. She coincidentally plans to do it shortly after you and your parents leave.”
Min Kaijing’s voice was carefully blank, which typically meant that she was displeased and trying to hide it. She knew as much from hanging around her so much, and from what the ghosts had told her some people tended to do. They still provided useful information, in extremely specific circumstances.
Frankly, Zhao Yi wasn’t sure what Auntie Min was displeased about this time. First, she was unhappy about them not moving, now she was unhappy about them moving… which was it, really?
There had been a weird emphasis to her words, though. Was she unhappy that the others were leaving right after their Zhao family was? If so, why? Zhao Yi was certainly missing some critical information, here, but felt like it wasn’t her place to ask. Min Kaijing was more forthcoming about information to her than her parents were, but the woman had admitted before that she wasn’t going to supersede them on the parenting front. If she deemed something necessary for Zhao Yi to hear, like that conversation about her ‘terminal illness’ from before, she would say it anyways, but if she deemed it both non-imperative and violating her parents’ boundaries, she would clamp up.
Her parents’ defense for themselves was that she was ‘too young to be worrying about this stuff’. Well, wasn’t she worrying about it already? Then, obviously, she was old enough! Feh!
Maybe she could try asking…? “Are you upset about that?”
“You could tell, huh. I’d tell you why, but your parents wouldn’t like me to ‘excessively comment’ on your elders.”
Dang. Just as she had expected.
As they passed through Ole-Mang’e’s auxiliary roads, viewing the greenery and neat scenery laid out throughout it, the homes petered out into fishing and marine businesses, the scent of saltwater encroaching upon the nostrils. Humidity that hadn’t quite been present in the city itself began to stick to the skin.
Zhao Yi wrinkled her nose. The sect was technically close to the city, but the mountain range it was in was more inland, high-up, and barren. It never got this humid and gross there.
Soon after, she became distracted from her discomfort by sharp, towering, spear-like tips that glinted in the sun peeking out over the obstructing buildings. Once the road came to an end, opening up into the forest partitioning the shore from the city, she got a good look at Everice.
The mountain was always there, always distantly visible from the sect’s higher vantage point, always sighted by her whenever Auntie Min took to horseflight, and yet… looking at it right now, it was even more ominous than usual. Those spires were not inviting in the least.
…Actually, to be honest, it was a really weird shape. It was a pile of ice, sure, but now that she was actually thinking about it, it kind of… kind of looked like… a splash?
Yeah, a splash. That got frozen mid-splash, somehow.
She felt like she had just grasped something important, and looked back to tell her inference to Min Kaijing. The woman just grunted. “I’ve noticed that, too. Maybe we’ll actually get an answer today.”
Zhao Yi was both disappointed and completely unsurprised that she hadn’t discovered anything new, but at least she had confirmation that she wasn’t crazy for thinking so. It also had weird implications that she didn’t completely grasp yet.
Once they came past the trees, they were greeted with the grumpy sight of Master Hu, who was terrifying all the wildlife and fisherpeople from where he sat on a particularly tall boulder on the grassy cliff above the shores, giving off an aura of annoyance. As it were, once they had touched down on the grounds before Ole-Mange’s southern gate, Min Kaijing had pointed out that a corpse traipsing around the city would shock society too much, so she had suggested that Master Hu wait on the coast that they would eventually make their way over to. Zhao Yi had simply complied with the orders.
(She had also finally asked what gender Master Hu was, which had slipped her mind due to lack of importance. He had croaked out a, “Not… obvious?”, then appeared to get moody, confirming that he was a man.
At the time, she had wanted to be like, “Hey, it’s hard to tell with your bulky robes, long hair, and no beard, and also you’re kind of chubby which makes it even harder, and I was taught not to assume because my parents say that’s rude,” but she had refrained herself.)
Master Hu slipped off the boulder to reconvene with them, looking slightly pouty. Sheesh, was he really still mad? Over nothing?
“Yi’r, tell your revenant pal that he needs to make his own way over to Everice,” Auntie Min instructed. “We’re out of tianma, no one wants to share with a dead man, and the horses wouldn’t like it, either.”
“Uh…” Well, how was he supposed to get over, then?
Zhao Yi watched as Master Hu’s expression darkened further, and the revenant skulked off towards the beach without another word, practically stomping in the sand. She had already told Master Hu to just listen to everything Min Kaijing said.
“Hmph. He could understand me perfectly fine… what was all that stuff about not ‘hearing’ me that your folks were talking about?” Min Kaijing mumbled, nevertheless spurring Xunya onwards, then getting the steed to beat its wings and take fligh. The other Manor people followed suit, one at a time.
Zhao Yi curiously looked down at Master Hu as he stood at the edge of the churning seawater below, wondering what he was going to do. Shortly after about half of the tianma were in the sky, he leapt straight out over the waves in one powerful bound, then dropped down a bit, and… jumped right off the surface of the water like it was solid ground, continuing to do so the entire way, resembling a stone skipping across a lake’s surface.
“What a show-off,” Min Kaijing idly commented from above her, though her voice lacked real heat.
“Auntie Min, we’re flying on about twelve really expensive horses out in the open sky,” she couldn’t resist idly retorting, still watching Master Hu’s jumping show.
There came a slight pause. All of a sudden, Min Kaijing barked out a loud laugh, then clapped her free human hand kind of roughly on Zhao Yi’s shoulder, her monster hand still holding the reins. Ow.
She turned to glare at the woman, glad that she was clinging to the saddle so that this brute’s smack hadn’t sent her hurtling off the side of the horse. Min Kaijing just grinned back at her, all teeth. “Point taken,” she said, both amused and sly.
The shores of Everice had a small amount of sand to them, but they were mostly made of frost and snow, with only the areas where the seawater creeped upwards instead being a shiny, slippery sheen. Above, the ice towered in its strange, dangerous points, and ahead, the ice warped into bizarre, unnatural twists and turns. Zhao Yi had never been allowed anywhere near this place, let alone on it — now that she was, it was really hard to label this place a ‘mountain’, but ‘complete mess of ice’ probably had less of a ring to it to the populace at large.
Once all of the tianmas had touched down in a clatter of hooves and mess of feathers and manes, Master Hu came lagging along, jumping off the water one last time to land upon the shore. The physical labor had made the expression on his face even more severe, and now his already shoddy robes were drenched on the bottom hems with ocean water.
Min Kaijing arranged for two Manor members to stand by on the shores to watch the tianma, and left another two to circle around the mountain and kick out any civilians that were mining ice, due to the potential dangers of the operation. Xunya alone would be kept for the assignment, as he was carrying Zhao Yi, and Min Kaijing wanted it to ferry her straight out of the mountain if danger happened. Tianma were fairly intelligent spiritbeasts that possessed moderate powers (they wouldn’t be able to fly with those heavy bodies of theirs, otherwise), so there was no real concern for when it possibly came time to run, given their reaction time was fast enough.
Zhao Yi was a bit nervous upon hearing Min Kaijing’s explanation, fidgeting a bit from where she now sat alone on the saddle. She had never actually ridden a horse before. Her Aunt assured her that Xunya could direct itself, but, still.
“Okay, ‘Master Hu’,” Min Kaijing said, turning to the sulking revenant. “Lead the way to your mom.”
Master Hu gave her a dirty look as he began to trek forth, though he avoided going into the internals of the mountains, rather edging along the sandy banks. The Manor crowd followed, leaving the team of horses behind to graze on absolutely nothing, because everything was ice.
At least Everice wasn’t that big, and they weren’t going to be here for very long… hopefully.
Eventually, Master Hu stopped on an inconspicuous part of the bank, took his erhu off of his back, sat down with his knees out in front, set the foot of the instrument on his lap, and began to play. Zhao Yi furrowed her brow, because…
It was absolutely dreadful. Like, seriously awful. It was kind of hurting her ears. She was ninety-five-percent certain that her own erhu skills were better than this.
The strings of the erhu were screeching in pain from getting rubbed against by the bone-dry bow, while the notes itself were no semblance of on-key or on-tempo, sounding broken and disturbing. Even Xunya was snorting and pacing from being irked by the noise.
However, Zhao Yi could also hear the nice, soothing, ever-familiar tone of the erhu from her memories, which was saying hello after a long absence, overlapping the terrible playing and sending its song into the air. It was playing a different melody than normal, but that sound was unmistakable.
It was coming from the same strings, with the same player, and was the same melody… so why were the physical notes and spiritual notes so vastly different? Her elders had taught her before than revenants tended to lose finesse in their actions, but this was a little excessive.
She shoots a secret glance at the Manor crowd. Everyone but Min Kaijing was in a mask, which made their reactions boring, while Min Kaijing herself was deadpanned, no reaction to be seen aside from a disappointed quirk of her lips.
Finished, Master Hu mercifully quit moving the bow, allowing it to hang limply. The sea, almost miraculously, parted by itself, peeling away from the seabed to create a narrow path that went, down, down, down to the seafloor, then curved away to parts unknown, two straight walls of ocean on either side, damp and muddy seaweed-covered ground below. Zhao Yi, eyes pretty much bulging out of her head, couldn’t help but gasp.
Cool! Super cool! Also really scary, but cool!
“Your performance could make audiences weep with tears, Master Hu,” Min Kaijing gave a veiled snipe. “I’ll ask you to lead the way. All of you that put qi shields up to protect your ears, put them back down and stop being dramatic. We’re going in now.”