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To Zhao Yi’s service, Xunya had apparently memorized the winding route much better than she had, wasting no time in swerving its massive body around the web-like ice pillars while it never slowed its full-on sprint. Every once in a while, she could sense it using its wings for balance whenever its hooves slipped on the ice. She only ‘sensed’ this, of course, because she was clinging to its neck for dear life, and that did not exactly offer her a wide range of view.
Miraculously managing to never fall over despite constantly teetering like a fallen log at the edge of a cliff, Xunya eventually charged out of Everice, its hooves clacking against the bare seafloor of the path Master Hu had previously made. It slowed to a trot as it ascended the half-ice slope, then emerged onto the shore where the rest of the tianma were.
Zhao Yi speedily quit hugging Xunya’s neck to straighten up on the saddle; Xunya shook off its head in response, braids bouncing all over the place as it continued to approach the rest of the herd. Aside from said tianma, all of which were looking over with their ears perked in alert, there were four Manor members sitting in a small circle similarly facing them. Unfortunately, Min Kaijing had never had the time to make one-by-one introductions, so she had no idea which masks corresponded to which person.
“Th… they started moving!” she blurted out, still mentally reeling from the rapid-fire events that had just transpired.
The masked people looked at each other, obviously not understanding her. “Are you okay, young lady?” one with a tiger-looking mask eventually turned to her and asked.
…Right. They hadn’t actually been there, so they wouldn’t know who ‘they’ referred to. “We went really, really deep into Everice, I think into the middle of it, and there were people! Or, just one corpse, and one living person? They were in the ice, so the other Manor people got the living one out, but the corpse one started breaking out of the ice, and Auntie Min told Xunya to get out, so we got out— whatever! You have to go help them!”
The masked people looked at each other again, then turned back to her. “There’s no need for that. They will all be fine,” the tiger-masked one said again.
After that, they all turned back towards each in their circle, and proceeded to… play cards. On the ice.
Where had those come from? Why did they have them? Had they been in someone’s pocket? Did they literally just carry cards on them at all times?
Wait! More importantly, what did they think they were doing?!
“Hey! What?! Stop playing cards! What’s the matter with all of you?!” Zhao Yi shouted at the adults of this situation, grabbing Xunya’s reins in an attempt to make it stop going forward, though she pointedly didn’t yank. The horse reared back a bit, then turned to look at the circle of four along with her.
The Manor members paused in their play to exchange more looks with each other, which really, really set her off.
“Quit looking at each other so much! What is there to look at, huh?! Your Manor friends are in trouble, and you’re sitting here playing games! Do none of you have a conscience? A brain?! Get up and go help! Quit dawdling!”
The masked people’s expressions were impossible to gather, but she could just tell that they were resisting the urge to look at each other again. “Young lady, you’ve misunderstood,” a boar-masked one spoke up. “It isn’t that we refuse to help, it’s that we’re very likely unneeded. The qi readings here aren’t that strong, and we still haven’t felt any spikes. There are more than enough people down there to deal with the threat.”
“Plus, Ah-J… uh, Lord Min picked us out to stay topside specifically because we’re not as good at fighting as the others,” another person piped up, their mask human, but painted with reds and purples. “Even if we did go to help, we would probably just get in the way. Don’t worry, little niece, it’ll be alright.”
“Don’t call me ‘niece’. I don’t know you,” Zhao Yi coldly rebuffed.
The human-masked person made a sound like she’d choked. The fourth and final person, whose mask was dhole-like, just laughed. “Kaijing was right, she’s spunky. She reminds me of her father, always telling the Manor Lord what was what.”
“You don’t say. What a mouth, and no respect for elders,” the human-masked one grumbled.
Huh? What? They knew her dad? And what were they talking about? He was always nice to her, though, admittedly, Min Kaijing less so. How would they have known him, if he had been in the Reviver sect ever since he married into it…?
Actually! Nevermind! How dare they insult her dad, right to her face!
Fuming, she loudly slapped the saddle. “Don’t talk about my dad like that! And don’t try to distract me! It doesn’t matter if you’re old, you’re sure not acting respectable! You say you won’t be any help, but I don’t—“
Her rant was interrupted by loud boom, the entire mountain quaking slightly. Xunya lifted a hoof in shock, looking downwards, while Zhao Yi kept her balance.
Before she could even think about asking what was going on, Everice was seen to crack open at the base of a spire far up above, chunks of ice and slush spraying from a freshly-made crevice. Not even a split second later, something else was sent flying out of said crack, but from the way the person-shaped object was splayed out, accompanied by a bunch of detritus on the exact same trajectory and velocity, it might as well have been considered as ‘spraying’ from it, too.
With a near-comical thud, the person landed hard on their back further down the mountain, though still several zhang away from the tianma herd. Some non-ice debris managed to bounce further away from the figure, clinking all the way down to the foot of the mountain, near to where they were.
Zhao Yi stared wide-eyed at the newcomer. They weren’t in Manor uniform, and certainly weren’t that white-haired person, which only left whoever had been breaking out of the ice. Their robes also happened to be dark, in the colors of black and purple…
Then, she looked at the debris that was now mere chi away from where the circle of four was. It was quite clearly the remains of some old sword, broken neatly into three chunks.
It appeared that Mr. Mother-Attacker had not won this fight.
Back at the newly-made cavern he had been blasted out of, more dark-clothed figures calmly jumped out, one after the other. Min Kaijing and Master Hu were amongst them, as was the big lion-masked person carrying the ‘mother’. There were eleven people total; no one was missing, nor did any of them look harmed.
Oddly, even though they had very obviously just been fighting the corpse, all of their swords were sheathed. Zhao Yi had even caught some of them sheathing their swords immediately upon jumping up.
The inside of Everice was a mess of icy pillars and natural geometries, meaning it was basically a labyrinth. They had to have done a lot of jumping-while-fighting to have started out at below seafloor level, then end up coming out near the top. The fact that they had busted through Everice’s supposedly-impenetrable armor was a lot less surprising after learning that they were all powerful fire-wielders, and also witnessing them make quick work of the ice previously, making the fact that they had the leg strength to quickly scale-slash-hop up a mountain’s worth of height quite intimidating.
Strong cultivators were scary.
It didn’t take long for the unnamed ‘evil’ man to get up from his prone position — even from this distance, Zhao Yi could feel the malaised qi roiling off of him. She could also clearly tell that the man was dead, having long turned into a revenant like Master Hu, the distinct undercurrent of yin poisoning added to his aura.
Huh. She hadn’t been able to sense this before, perhaps because of the ice and qi once masking it. Master Hu had turned into a revenant, this guy had turned into a revenant… why hadn’t that ‘mother’ character turned, too? She had gotten a decent sense of the latter’s qi, and while it had been weak to the point of concern, it hadn’t been tinged with yin quite yet.
No one moved while the revenant man stood up, rage practically radiating off of him. However, the instant he straightened up, gripping his sword, something completely off-the-wall happened — he was struck by lightning, hard.
It wasn’t the yellowish-white type of lightning that came down vertically from the sky. It was silvery-white, and streaked horizontally across empty air, coming from the direction of the mainland. The sound boomed in the ears as the force of the impact sent the revenant flying off, clearing Everice, then clearing a vast stretch of sea, causing him to splash-land somewhere in the ocean that surpassed the horizon.
Zhao Yi was flabbergasted. The tianma all reared some from the noise and surprise, whinnying in alarm. Every single one of the Manor members, by contrast of body language, were nonplussed.
The girl watched blankly as Min Kaijing motioned to the other Manor members, then headed for the herd. Upon closing in on Zhao Yi, the black-armed woman grinned cheekily at her. “Guardians are no joke, eh?”
Zhao Yi nearly balked. That lightning had been a Guardian activating?!
She had heard of the xiezhi-shaped statues being able to ‘shoot lightning to strike down evildoers’ and whatnot, but they always sat in their spots like lumps, never actually doing anything. Imagination was inferior to reality, indeed!
“Guardians haven’t tolerated violence for centuries, so everyone in Xing is too soft to set them off, at this point,” Min Kaijing helpfully explained as she came within poking range. “That revenant was doomed to be in for a world of hurt, coming out of there with all that murder about him. Now the Guardians are going to fry him to death, and we can all rest easy.”
“That’s it?” Zhao Yi asked doubtfully.
“That’s it. We can go home.”
For some unclear reason, Zhao Yi felt scammed. She had been expecting more from some ancient unsealed evil, maybe.
Min Kaijing mounted Xunya behind her, the rest of the Manorlings following suit on their own tianma. The lion-masked one in charge of the ‘mother’ had a particularly large horse to ride on, thankfully.
“Ah, it’s nice to have a mission where no cleanup is needed,” Min Kaijing stated happily, stretching her back and arms. “No bodies to clean, no people to comfort, no evidence to collect, no etiquette to consider…”
You woke up an ancient evil, and you consider this relaxing?
Auntie Min either had her priorities on backwards, or this was just an average day for her.
With a shout of command, the tianma took off from Everice in the exact same manner that they had come in, flying back towards Ole-Mang’e. Poor Master Hu had to repeat the stone-skipping action he had taken to get here, looking like he wanted to eat someone at the end of it. It was a good thing that dead people couldn’t eat.
Once back at the inn, Min Kaijing left Zhao Yi, Master Hu, and all but three Manor members behind at the inn. Those three went with her and a flysteed back to the Reviver sect, with the explanation that she was going to pick up Zhao Yi’s parents and belongings.
Zhao Yi decided to remain outside in the inn’s courtyard, accompanied by Master Hu. She had already taken a panic nap earlier in the day, so she wasn’t tired enough for another one, in spite of the recent excitement. Instead, she had thieved a book from the inn to pass the time, called Tragedy of the Pear Blossom. With a title like that, someone beautiful was definitely going to die in it.
Partway through her read, Master Hu began to speak. Your family is moving out of your sect?
Zhao Yi grunted noncommittally. This wasn’t a topic she was enthusiastic about.
The way your Sect Leader spoke to you was strange, he pointed out, and I’ve never heard of a sect kicking its own out unless it’s for exile. Have things changed over these centuries?
She sighed, bookmarked her page, closed the book, and set it to the side. A long conversation was coming. “No. The Sect Leader just doesn’t like us. She never has, for as long as I remember. I think it might be because of me.”
Your powers, you think?
Zhao Yi nodded in response. “The Sect Leader is always kind of… flippant, when I talk about how I can hear ghosts? The elders, too. It’s like they don’t want to acknowledge it. At worst, they refuse to admit it exists. They don’t do that for anyone else.
“And my parents never speak up against her, even if she orders them to do things they don’t like. She likes to send mom on outside tasks that get her away from home, and my dad is always being put on farming duty. The weird thing is that my dad grew up being a rogue cultivator, so he’s better with foraging, hunting, and navigation and stuff, while my mom has a better green thumb. I’ve heard them complain a couple of times that they’re not suited to the tasks.”
Ah. I recognize pettiness when I hear of it.
“You think so, too?” Zhao Yi wondered, a bit relieved. “They don’t like for me to say anything bad about superiors, but I just don’t get it. If dad’s better at outside tasks and mom’s better at gardening, their jobs should be reversed. Why are they the other way around? That just doesn’t make sense!”
Petty-minded people will readily cut off their noses to spite their faces. However, I don’t know the full situation. Have you asked your parents?
“I have! A lot! But they just… they just say that I’m too young to worry about it! I try to argue that I’m not a baby, but they shut it down! And Auntie Min wants to tell me, I can tell that she does, but dad always gets mad when she ‘interferes’ and makes it so that she doesn’t say much — maybe I want her to interfere! She’s the only one who tells me anything!”
Master Hu gave a mental hum of contemplation, crossing his arms in the physical world along with it. I don’t know them, but perhaps they will be more forthcoming now that you will no longer be a part of the sect.
She sighed once more. “I hope so. I’m tired of just knowing that something is wrong, but not knowing why it’s wrong.”
They fell into a short silence, with Zhao Yi in no mood to continue her garbage tragedy, sunken into thought.
I have one more question, Miss. Is the one named ‘Cultivator Ji’ your father?
She blinked. “Yes.”
But that Sect Leader called you ‘Niece Zhao’. Is that your mother’s surname?
Why do you have your mother’s surname, and not your father’s?
“Why would I have his?” She had no idea as to where this conversation was going.
Do children not take their father’s surname anymore?
“Um… it depends. The Reviver sect does surnames according to rank, I think. My dad was a rogue cultivator with no home sect, so he’s much lower in rank than my mom. The Zhao ancestors used to be big names, too.”
Used to be?
“Ten or so years ago, the Revivers suffered an attack and had to flee to where we are now, which is why our sect is rundown. I was too young to remember anything from it, but I was told that my grandparents and great-grandparents died in it, as did a lot of people.”
An attack? From who?
“The Reviver practice isn’t liked. I’ve never been told who exactly attacked us, but it probably has something to do with how hated the Corpse Puppeteer is, even though he isn’t a Reviver… oh, I guess you wouldn’t know who that is. They call him the ‘Corpse’ Puppeteer, but he actually controls people while they’re still alive, they’re just corpse-like because of what he does to them. He can’t ‘revive’ anything.”
I see… false conflation. It seems that some things change, while others stay eternal.
She nodded in response.
A few hours later, when the sun was starting to set and the fall cold was starting to come in, the Manor’s flysteed came rolling back, now carrying Zhao Mao, Ji Wei, and all of what scant few valuables the Zhao’s had to their name. Zhao Yi hurriedly welcomed her defeated-looking parents.
“Hello, Yi’r,” Ji Wei greeted with a tired smile, giving her a hug. Zhao Mao was silent, but similarly weary-looking, opting to simply pat her daughter on the head.
“That’s more than enough hustle for one day, wouldn’t you all agree?” Min Kaijing casually inserted herself into the conversation, sliding in next to Zhao Mao with a plucky grin on her face. “Lucky for you all, I’ve already rented this entire inn for one night. Sleep all you want, eat anything you want, and do what you need to do to prep for your big adventure that’s starting tomorrow. We are going to be on the road for a loooong time.”
Zhao Yi decidedly did not like the woman’s elongation of the word ‘long’. “How long is long, exactly?”
“Well, we’re going to the palace, which is about as northwest as you can get in Xing. We’re currently in Ole-Mang’e, which is about as mideast as you can get. We have top-notch flysteeds, and night travel won’t be an issue, but even they can’t work miracles, so… you’re looking at a month’s worth of travel, maybe even three.”
“Three months. Of travel,” Zhao Yi repeated.
“Yep. Potentially three months of me, you, your parents, some of my people, that whitehair we picked up, and a few tianma, all going on a trip through the major cities of Xing… it’ll be a grand ol’ time, eh?”
Seeing Auntie Min’s wolf-like grin, Zhao Yi did not feel like it was going to be any sort of grand.
“Sister, don’t tease her. Yi’r, don’t be rude” Zhao Mao impotently chided. “We’ll be indebted to you as always, Kaijing.”
Min Kaijing waved her off with her clawed hand. “What’s with the politeness? I’ve known you and your daughter since you were babes, but that doesn’t mean you have to treat me like a parent or something. I’d rather you didn’t, actually. Feeling even older isn’t something I need.”
“Yes, yes, I understand. You’re truly a Zhao heirloom.”
Min Kaijing had the guts to look smug for a second.
“Not one that’s worth any money, though,” Zhao Mao added, smiling just as smugly.
The other woman’s face quickly quirked down into a frown. “That sure is some lip, coming from someone that’s actively mooching off of my riches.”
“Did you not just say not to be polite with you? This is me being not-polite.”
“In what world does ‘not polite’ automatically mean ‘rude’? All the help I’ve given you brats, and this is how you treat me.”
Zhao Yi heard her father sigh, after which he placed a hand on Zhao Yi’s back and guided her away from the bickering women. She hardly complained; if the past was indicative of anything, they would be at this for a good minute.