Perfect World Chapter 20 – Winter Break

on 03 7, 2013

Shooting through a gentle shower of crimson autumn leaves, a pair of sleek, grey-featured wings flapped stridently amidst a high-pitched pulsing screech that resonated their desperate nature throughout the calm and silenced forest. The eyes of a sitting figure remained downcast, his hand holding still the sleeve of a long white robe as he took another long sip of wu long tea. Placing the miniature cup back on the large stone table in front of him, the figure folded his hands within his sleeves and watched as another yellow-green leaf dangled gracefully into his lap. As he picked it up between his hairless fingers, in the corner of his wrinkled eyes, he spied the owner of the screech that had just echoed through the dying trees.

Auron sailed towards his master, twisting in the air as he morphed into his human form. He landed on his knees facedown before the sitting figure with his hands outstretched in a bowing position, trembling on the inside despite his rigid exterior. Putting his hands together, Auron rose his body slightly and greeted Ming Jian.

“Auron greets shi fu (master).”

“You’re late. I hope you have good news for me, Auron.”

“After flying ahead, I used white lightning to barrage the flying sword. Li Xiao Yao fell from the sky after suffering a direct hit from behind. The wound itself should have been fatal, but Master Lin leaped after him anyway. It would not surprise me if both men lay dead, impaled into the earth!”

Ming Jian allowed his disciple to finish as his expression changed from one of anxious expectance to despondent inquiry.

“What do you mean, ‘should’?” Auron fell silent. “You did not confirm the outcome, I assume?” Ming Jian’s grip on the leaf in his fingers tightened.

“I…stayed until they returned to the main grounds of Mt. Shu, shi fu, after they sent out a search party. But the wounds inflicted by my attack should have been more than enough to – ”

“Silence!” In a flash, Ming Jian flicked his fingers and turned to his side. A thin streak appeared on Auron’s pale cheek with fresh droplets of blood following soon after. “Do not underestimate the strength of our enemies, especially Master Lin. Unlike many before him, he attained the title of being the strongest in the martial art’s world through sheer ability. His strength, at present, overwhelms even yours. Do not take him lightly.”

Auron stared at the ground, frozen, not daring to wipe the clean cut made by the striking leaf. How could that old man’s martial arts ability possibly peak higher than his own? Diving from that altitude with intent to fall more swiftly, with the burden of not slowing down too quickly because of Xiao Yao, he would have had to gauge everything perfectly for the entire duration of the rescue. Judging from the circumstances, the impact of the fall would still have had to be significant. Otherwise, there would be no hope for Xiao Yao with the injury he sustained. Surely, the old master knew that much.

“If Xiao Yao lives, that will pose a major setback in our plans. You understand, don’t you, Auron?” Auron’s face looked grim.

“Yes, shi fu.”

Ming Jian searched his disciple’s expression. Things had been quite successful until now. The country of Bei Feng Guo knelt obediently before his might; Nan Zhao Guo was within his grasp. Though not completely unprepared for this setback, Ming Jian was surprised that his disciple would be in such haste as to neglect confirming the status of Xiao Yao. He had yet to fail a mission, on any detail. Auron, along with Mei Xian, were part of Ming Jian’s trump card team. Its members always completed their missions flawlessly, or died trying. With the loss of Bai Yue, however, the old master’s tolerance for imperfection had dimmed dramatically. Their perfect world was close at hand, a world where only the superior would exist. No more useless lives would remain to waste precious resources, detouring the progression of humanity. Humanity would evolve freely without the burdens brought upon by the lacking in strength, mind and will – the perfect species. All who failed to comprehend this utopian reality, those who valued the feeble, the wavering, the flawed, must be annihilated. The world would have its perfection. And he, Ming Jian, would lead the way.

“You look dissatisfied, Auron.”

The disciple’s lip quivered. Despite his training in concealing his thoughts and feelings, he had never succeeded in withholding something from his master.

“I…I don’t understand, shi fu, why we can’t attack them directly? Should Xiao Yao have managed to survive, killing him along with any other who opposed us would not prove a challenge by any means, especially at this point.”

“You forget the mission’s purpose. We shall destroy our enemies, but in due time. We must first coax one over.”

“You speak of the girl, Zhao Ling Er.”

Yes.” Ming Jian hissed as his voice filled with fervent excitement. “With Nu Wa’s descendent, imagine the possibilities! Her offspring alone would insure perfection! We must have her, Auron, we must…But, if Xiao Yao lives, we’ll have to alter our course of action.” Pausing for a moment, Ming Jian stroked the fine hairs of his long, white beard. “This serves just as well. The emperor of Nan Zhao Guo is no less rubish and a waste of life than his miserable, inferior excuses for subjects.”

“Shall I inform Mei Xian?”

“If Xiao Yao lies dead, there would be no need. No, return to Guo Bing. Bring him a message commanding him to increase efforts with the princess…With this stone, I shall kill many birds.”

Auron hesitated before speaking again.

“Are you certain the girl can be won over, shi fu?” With chilling eyes. Ming Jian stopped and glared at his disciple, causing his nerves to rattle.

“Everyone has their limits, their price – everyone! Have I taught you nothing? Or, are you merely displeased, that I did not send you to win her?” Auron started to speak, but was interrupted by an undermining scoff. “I have my purpose in who I send to accomplish which tasks at what times. Question me again, Auron, and I’ll finish the job I started five years ago.” A chill ran down Auron’s spine as his master released a threatening taunt. The bloody image of his broken body flashed in his mind as he blinked repeatedly, trying to force the memory from thought. Mei Xian, hugging their master’s leg, begging him with fresh tears in her eyes to spare his life as he lay dazed in a large pool of his own blood, struggling to remain conscious. It was then that Auron began to suspect his master’s true intentions for his martial arts sister. The bastard wanted her for himself. Trying desperately to control his breathing, Auron knew it was futile. His master must have seen through his vexation yet again. Before he could react, Auron’s vision blurred and he found himself laying against the sturdy trunk of a large tree with the remainder of its flowers and leaves falling before him. Wiping the lower portion of his robe, Ming Jian dusted himself off before scoffing again, dismissing his disciple, whose mouth filled with the tang of his own vital fluid. Staggering to his feet, Auron leaned his arm against the tree and coughed out a mouthful of blood as he breathed deeply, trying to regain focus. Should he remain any longer, Ming Jian would attack again. Concentrating on his transformation, Auron wobbled away from the meeting place and flew quickly until he felt he was out of sight. Then, crashing on the far side of a small clearing, the remainder of his strength left him as he collapsed in a natural fallen pile of crimson leaves.

 

Two months later…

His eyelids felt heavy, as if he had been sleeping for an eternity. Try as he might, he failed to open his eyes, let alone move. The intense, shooting pain in his head felt like it was placed there through the repeated pounding of a large hammer. Laying perfectly still, he could hear the low sounds of a small fire, crackling in the distance. The quick shuffling of feet became more audible as a figure approached his seemingly lifeless body. His breathing remained slow and constant as the figure removed a dry cloth from his forehead. Within moments, he felt the warm sensation of a new, moist rag placed right above his eyes. Taking in the welcomed comfort, Xiao Yao could feel the aching of his head subside slightly. After inhaling deeply, he snuggled within his warm blankets and returned, once again, to his peaceful slumber.

Sheng Gu sighed deeply, shaking her head for the third time that afternoon. Sitting down in an old wooden rocking chair, she hummed softly to Yi Ru, eyeing the two small beds in front of her while rocking back and forth. She frowned at the familiar scene, wondering to herself how many more times the young couple would have to endure such hardships, would have to heal together. Well, at least they’re both still alive, she assured herself. A faint knocking on the door distracted her from her thoughts. Lin Bao Zhu entered and smiled at her, walking towards the opposite side of the room where his daughter lay.

“Finish your session with Jian Sheng?” she asked tenderly. Nodding, Lin Bao Zhu approached her and offered out his arms. Grateful for a break, Sheng Gu rose and handed the sleeping Yi Ru into his waiting embrace. Lin Bao Zhu sat down slowly and gently continued the rhythmic rocking motions where she left off. Completely healed from his injuries, Lin Bao Zhu frequently visited the guest room where his friends and Yue Ru stayed, when he was not busy training with Jian Sheng, that is. The rescue operation for Xiao Yao, though successful, showed him he was sorely out of practice. And with the enemy looming in the shadows, he needed to be prepared.

Their nights have oft been sleepless, in full wonder of what may lie ahead. Lin Bao Zhu hummed his favorite lullaby, the one he would sing to Yue Ru as a child, as his glances shifted from Xiao Yao to Ling Er, the only potential saviors of his daughter’s life. Through many hours of meditation and a number of precarious probings, Jian Sheng managed to disclose the true intent of the reconstruction of the tower – revenge. The only ones allowed successful entry without certain death would be those who have survived it in the past, those who caused its original destruction, the individuals that lay resting on the beds before him. Thoughts of his daughter’s soul once again took hold of Lin Bao Zhu’s being. He was a man of action, a strategist who executed on opportunity. Yet, he was forced to sit idly by, and wait. His mouth opened, releasing a long sigh in hopes of turning back the growing apprehension in his being. Was she okay? Was her soul being slowly tortured? How was Yue Ru bidding her time as a wayward ghost, trapped in a sinister tower with walls brimming with malicious intent? Too many unasnwered questions left Lin Bao Zhu in a state of severe distress.

A reassuring hand was placed on Lin Bao Zhu’s shoulder. Sheng Gu looked sympathetically at the old master. Exchanging warm, thoughtful smiles, they fixed their attention back on the sleeping couple, hoping that they would awaken soon. They estimated Xiao Yao to rouse any day now; however, Ling Er’s circumstances were unknown. The blinding light that filled the scene was still a mystery to them all, both in its origin and its full effects. Ling Er had fallen onto her husband’s body when their vision was restored. The only thing they knew for certain was that she was in no danger, and the light had sustained her life. Against Sheng Gu’s wishes, the girl had given too much blood and should have died from the delicate transference. In the best case scenario, she would wake soon after Xiao Yao.

Lin Bao Zhu’s mouth gaped open as he yawned and stretched his sore neck muscles. He had made the mistake of falling asleep in the rocking chair the night before after putting Yi Ru to bed. The cool, dry air was a welcome change of environment from the warm confines of the small guest room. Laying back with arms spanned away from his body amidst the light powdered snow, he stared into a cloudy sky that promised another snowfall by the morrow. Thinking of how quickly the times have changed, he reminisced about the days before this unsettling mess, when his greatest concerns were upholding his own reputation and taming his daughter’s rebellious and tom-boyish nature. He laughed to himself as he recalled how Yue Ru would run away from home, only to be found or return shortly after making her ‘escape’. Those were the days. Closing his eyes, Lin Bao Zhu calmed his nerves and allowed himself to be swept away in broken memories of his once thriving family as he listened to the melodic sounds of tranquil running water.

Above the resting man, across the bridge and on their way to participate in their methodical morning exercises, a pair of Mt. Shu disciples made their way towards the main training grounds. Stopping on the stone bridge, they looked over the edge and watched their obscure reflections in the passing stream below. Jian Sheng had been stringent in increasing the frequency of their training sessions as well as the amount of guard duty each disciple was responsible for. Their drooping eyes saw exhaustion and forced insomnia reflected upon their pale faces.

“How long do you think we’ll have to endure this work load?”

“I don’t know, brother, perhaps just until Li gong zi and Ling Er gu niang recover properly from their ailments.”

“Perhaps. Did you see the sparring session between shi fu and Master Lin?” *whistle* “Now that was some flashy martial arts. Who do you think is stronger?”

“I’m not certain, but if I had to pick, of course I’d pick shi fu. Master Lin seems a bit unaccustomed to high intensity battles. I’m willing to bet he hasn’t fought a real battle in a long time.” His companion nodded quickly.

“And did you hear the news? Master Lin lost his villa in a large fire that consumed his entire estate. Luckily for him, his finances are well in order with a few trusted friends. He was smart; well prepared for a crisis like that to occur.”

“Well, he has to be, right? With the reputation of being the strongest fighter, he’s bound to have made many enemies.”

“Right. And to just disappear like that after an incident of such proportions, I’ll bet a lot of people are wondering what happened to him, thinking he ran away, like a mere coward.”

“You’d think he’d stay and fight, though, strong as people say he is.”

Lin Bao Zhu blinked. Were they talking about him? His eyes danced around in disarray. How could they gossip so freely about another’s, a stranger’s, personal affairs? Had they no common courtesy, no social propriety? Slightly disgruntled, he cleared his throat, rose to his feet, and walked away from the two disciples without taking so much as a glance at them. The young men stared after him with their mouths hanging open.

“Was that…?” The other disciple clenched his teeth.

“I think so…” Hanging their heads low, they prepared their hearts for the discipline that would probably await them because of their rudeness.

Shaking his head, Lin Bao Zhu quickly dismissed the conversation he had just inadvertently eavesdropped. He had more important matters to attend to. Knocking politely, he slowly opened the door to the guest room. It was time to apply another dose of medicine to Yue Ru. As he busied himself with attending to his daughter, a pair of eyes stirred across the room, eyes that have not seen the world in months. Groaning, a figure turned itself over, fully stretching to and fro before releasing a prolonged, drawn out yawn. At the loud disturbance, Lin Bao Zhu’s body froze. Wide-eyed, he slowly turned his head towards the other side of the room.

Like a newborn child, Xiao Yao stared around him with impatient curiosity, grumpy and irritable from just waking up. Daring something to cross his path, with his eyes squinted and expression pouty, he wrinkled his nose and puffed out his lower lip. With his back slouching over and his head hung low, Xiao Yao had managed to sit up, his hair clumped to one side. Dulled from inactivity, he rubbed his tired eyes in an attempt to reacquaint them to proper focus. For a brief moment, his eyes locked with those of Lin Bao Zhu. Neither man moved. Blinking, Xiao Yao’s confused mind was completely void of any comprehensible thought. A low sounding giggle became hysterical and delirious laughter as Lin Bao Zhu called the young man’s name with joy. Shaken from thoughtless reverie, Xiao Yao’s eyes shot open as he grabbed the right side of his chest. Everything hit him at once like a bullet train. Jerking his head towards the bed beside him, Xiao Yao stared at his wife’s resting body. What had happened? How long had he been sleeping? Searching his memory for answers, he continued to stare at Ling Er’s pale face. Sheng Gu, wakened by the commotion, stared towards Lin Bao Zhu before following his line of vision to Xiao Yao. Both scrambled to his side, asking whether or not he was okay.

“What happened?” Xiao Yao’s eyes begged sympathy and testified to the desperation swelling in his heart. The merriment in his comrades’ behavior dimmed as they exchanged calm smiles.

“She should be okay, Xiao Yao. She’s just resting.” Sheng Gu placed a warm hand on the young man’s shoulder. “After you were knocked from your sword, Lin Bao Zhu dove after you. We found you both in a deep hole created by him while trying to rescue you. Lin Bao Zhu was not seriously injured, but you were in dire need of blood. Ling Er…”

She didn’t have to continue, he already understood what his wife had done for him.

“How much blood did she give me?”

“Quite a bit, from what Sheng Gu tells us. She should have died, but it seems that charm you made at Gu Ma’s shop sustained her life. We don’t know how, exactly, but a white light was emitted and she was unconscious by the time we regained our vision. You’ve both been asleep for a little over two months.”

“And our attackers?”

“Unknown. Jian Sheng has sent many of the Mt. Shu disciples to investigate, but information is slim. Though, Nan Zhao Guo seems to be entertaining quite a visitor, a young woman, who is said to have convinced the rebel members of the Lunar Sect to repent from their ways. From what the reports say, Ling Er’s father is quite taken with her.”

Xiao Yao didn’t care for such news. His concern was only on the well-being of Ling Er, and paying back his attackers for the suffering they’ve caused. Casting a glance around the room, he noticed Yue Ru’s child body laying peacefully across the room.

“What of Yue Ru? Any news on how to save her?”

“Yes…but only you and Ling Er are capable of that task…” Xiao Yao looked confused at hearing Lin Bao Zhu’s words. “The tower will only accept visitors who have survived it in the past, those who caused its original desctruction. Anyone else who approaches would be quickly disposed of in the poisonous mist that now surrounds the structure.”

Xiao Yao looked back at Ling Er. Once again, he felt it was his responsibility, his fault, that circumstances were as poor as they were. How many times would the ones he loved and cared for have to suffer and sacrifice on his account? Holding her soft hand in his, Xiao Yao’s heart felt a familiar pang of guilt course through it and throughout his body. Clenching his fist, he was determined to fulfill his duty in being a man, a husband – a protector.

Xiao Shi Tou quickly made his way through the forest. In his miniature form, his speed was hindered in favor of the ability to avoid being spotted. Jian Sheng and the others had sent him back to update the guardian spirit, who happened to be Jin Yuan, of the current situation. It had taken him a few more days than expected to reach the forest with the coming of the season’s first snow storm. The once lavish trees and tropical scenery had been replaced with a white wonderland of crystalline paradise. Approaching the center of the forest, Xiao Shi Tou enlarged to his human size and looked towards the statue before him. The stone figure opened its eyes and welcomed its visitor. Opening its hand, a gorgeous butterfly flew from its palm and danced in front of Xiao Shi Tou. Smiling, Jin Yuan left his statue and came before the little spirit.

“Hello, friend. What brings you back so soon? Eh, where are the others?” Jin Yuan’s smile slowly faded as Xiao Shi Tou passed along the latest events and details of their friends’ well-being.

“UGH!” Xiao Yao found himself thrown to the ground yet again. He hadn’t been able to land a single hit on Lin Bao Zhu the entire day. Since rousing from his long slumber, Xiao Yao took each day as an opportunity to improve in his martial arts abilities. And, though Jian Sheng sometimes joined in their training, he seemed to be avoiding Xiao Yao, despite the initial pleasure he showed in hearing of Xiao Yao’s recovery.

“Xiao Yao, there’s too much anger in your attacks. You won’t be able to fully control your strength like that. Now, come at me!” Nodding, Xiao Yao leaped into the air and swung his leg at his instructor, following with a flurry of hand strikes. Dodging each attack with ease, Lin Bao Zhu maneuvered his body so that Xiao Yao hit nothing but air.

“You’re too direct. The enemy can see your attack long before you execute. You’re strong, Xiao Yao, but not quick enough – and too predictable!” Xiao Yao continued his assault, trying to adhere to everything Lin Bao Zhu was telling him.

Jian Sheng stood rigidly as he watched the pair spar energetically in the distance. Shaking his head, he returned inside and walked to the rows of candles and statues against the wall. Memories of their first visit resonated in his mind. He thought of when he told Ling Er to forget Xiao Yao, making her swallow that pill, of when Yue Ru pushed the couple out of the way, sacrificing herself for their happiness. Sighing, he frowned as he continued to shake his head. Why wouldn’t these memories, these thoughts, leave him be? He was already fully convinced of his innocence – the decisions he made were wise and well founded. Why did he suddenly feel uncomfortable around Xiao Yao, around Ling Er? Breaking himself from his thoughts, he turned to see Guo Bing walk in. After making arrangements for his new guests, he had allowed the youth to enroll as a Mt. Shu disciple after seeing what he was capable of. Guo Bing reminded him of his younger martial arts brother, Jiu Xian Jian, when he first came to Mt. Shu. Normally, he would not have accepted another disciple so easily. Was his nostalgia getting to him? Jian Sheng had not been so emotionally driven in a long time. Now, with Ling Er, Xiao Yao and Guo Bing, he noticed the change in his disposition well. He chuckled to himself at there being two women on the grounds now, and a little girl, too. What has Mt. Shu become?

“Shi fu, I’ve swept the training grounds. Is there anything else you would like me to do? Some training, perhaps?” Jian Sheng laughed.

“In a hurry to become stronger, are you?”

‘You’re nothing but a tick in the presence of my real master, old man, what do you know of strength…’ Guo Bing smiled and nodded. “With your training, I’m sure I’ll be a top tier fighter in due time.”

Letting his fingers glide along Yi Ru’s fine hair, Xiao Yao cradled his daughter against his chest, rocking her gently while her eyes were closed in enjoyment of a slumber. Like mother, like daughter, he thought to himself as he clasped Ling Er’s hand within his own. He had removed the colored ribbons that decorated his wife’s hair, hanging them on the wall beside her bed. Looking at her now, she looked so at peace, tranquil and undisturbed by the troubles of this world. Would it be better if she never woke? No, Yi Ru needed a mother, and Xiao Yao had little faith in his own ability to live without his beloved Ling Er. Taking a quick glance out of the window, Xiao Yao peered to the other side of the training grounds, where dinner was still being served. He had finished his meal quickly and returned to the guest room while Sheng Gu and Lin Bao Zhu had decided to go for a walk along the mountainside to help digestion. They invited Xiao Yao to join them, but he wanted to spend more time with Ling Er and their child, whom he had hardly any part in raising thus far. His eyes had become transfixed on his wife again. Her breathing was slowly paced and heavy, foretelling the need for more rest. Xiao Yao felt a large weight of pressure on his shoulders. He was a family man now. What kind of world would Yi Ru grow up in? The future had become something to be feared, to be contemplated, and he was apprehensive towards his ability to adapt to what was in store. He had never fared well in the face of change, and he was tired of having to depend on people for everything. Feeling incompetant, Xiao Yao’s lower lip protruded and he hung his head. Well, at least he managed to force Lin Bao Zhu into blocking one of his attacks towards the end of his training that day. Though slowly, he was making progress. Lin Bao Zhu told him to use this opportunity to develop some patience, as everything else had come quickly and easily to the talented youth.

Using his free hand, he brushed aside the bangs that covered Ling Er’s face. Despite the circumstances, Xiao Yao still considered himself an extremely lucky man. He received martial arts training from the strongest in the world. He had a beautiful daughter. There were always people there to support him, to befriend him. And most importantly, he had Ling Er. She was, for a lack of a better word, perfect. Well, at least to him, anyway. Even now, she continued to surprise him and make his heart jump. Watching her sleep, Xiao Yao gasped at how pure and innocent she looked. In his eyes, even though her hair was flayed in multiple directions and her face was still slightly pale, she was gorgeous, plain and simple. Yi Ru suddenly reached up and grabbed at Xiao Yao’s adam’s apple, causing him to cough and hack as she squealed with joy, clapping her small hands. Xiao Yao smiled and nuzzled his nose into Yi Ru’s stomache, making silly sounds as she continued to yelp excitedly.

After settling down, Xiao Yao could see that his daughter was wide awake and would not being falling asleep any time soon. Instinctively, he began telling her of her mother, of her personality, her lineage, how she made him feel. Talking about Ling Er made him feel excited and overwhelmed at the same time. Though teary-eyed, his smile was genuine and he did not take his eyes off of Ling Er. The sounds of conversation filled the air, causing Xiao Yao to turn towards the door. Sheng Gu and Lin Bao Zhu had returned from their walk. Looking around frantically, Xiao Yao blinked quickly and wiped his eyes of the tears that had just formed while still holding Yi Ru. The door opened, and in walked his comrades, refreshed by the mountain air and the hearty meal they had consumed not too long ago. It had been a long day for all of them. Xiao Yao pretended not to notice them as he nonchalantly stared straight ahead, slowly rocking Yi Ru back and forth.

“Hey, Xiao Yao” Lin Bao Zhu walked straight to Yue Ru without paying too much attention to him.

“OH! You’re back. Hi guys!” Xiao Yao tried faking a giant smile, which, as a result looked goofy planted on his face. Eyeing Sheng Gu as she walked over to check on Ling Er, Xiao Yao kept his silly expression planted firmly without moving his head. Giggling innocently, he asked how their walk went.

“Relaxing, though cold, and – Xiao Yao, are you okay?”

“What are you talking about? I’m fine.” Xiao Yao tried to widen his smile.

“Have you been…crying?” Sheng Gu bent down to take a closer look at the evidence on his face. Curious, Lin Bao Zhu paced over and bent down as well, narrowing his eyes. He slid his thumb across Xiao Yao’s face under his eye and sniffed it before inspecting the residue.

“Hm, it looks like a tear to me.”

“Let me see.” Sheng Gu grabbed Lin Bao Zhu’s finger and nodded. They both focused their gaze on Xiao Yao. Shaking his head from one person to the other, he stopped rocking in the chair and blinked a few times.

“I haven’t been crying.” Xiao Yao tried to sound as innocent and sincere as he could, but in vain. His prosecutors narrowed their eyes at him. “What?…Something flew in my eye, okay?” Unconvinced, they each sighed as they patted one of Xiao Yao’s shoulders and walked across the room. Realizing what was going on, Xiao Yao walked towards Yi Ru’s crib. Tucking her in, a cocky look appeared on his face.

“A real man isn’t afraid to cry.” he added confidently, walking to the door to return to his quarters that he shared with Lin Bao Zhu. Just as he was about to walk out, the wooden door creaked open. Xiao Yao stood there, disgusted, as his face became distorted. Why did it have to be him?

“How is Ling Er doing?” Walking right past Xiao Yao, Guo Bing went straight to Ling Er’s side. Xiao Yao had managed to avoid being in a close proximity with Guo Bing since he woke up. He wished he had kept it that way.

“She’s resting. Leave her be, Guo Bing.” Sheng Gu instructed.

“All right, then I’ll report that to shi fu.” Sensing Xiao Yao approaching, Guo Bing turned quickly, tossing his long, white mane in the air. Xiao Yao opened his mouth to speak as he found himself with a mouthful of Guo Bing’s hair.

“Oh, gross!” Hanging his tongue out, Xiao Yao quickly ran out of the room and began spitting around, trying to spit out any traces of the invasion of his mouth. Chuckling, Guo Bing walked out standing tall with his hands at his sides.

“I should be the one gagging, Xiao Yao. Your filthy mouth touched my beautiful hair. I have another reason to wash extra hard tonight. It’s just as well, I sweat so much today while training with shi fu.” While he continued to sputter madly, Xiao Yao glared at the young man as he walked towards Jian Sheng’s lodgings. Oh, how he hated that man.

A bright streak of fire whose form was that of a sleak blade flew across the field and exploded against a large boulder, shattering the rock into small pieces and melting the surrounding ice and snow. Xiao Yao’s jaw dropped as he stared at the traces of flame that remained from the attack.

“That, Xiao Yao, is the flaming sabre.” said Lin Bao Zhu proudly. “It’s a Lin family move that has been passed down through the generations. It’s one of our most advanced attacks, one even Yue Ru has yet to master.”

Xiao Yao nodded quickly. Excitement raced through his veins as he continued to stare at the effects of the flaming sabre. Like a child, he ran to the remains of the boulder and bent his knees to inspect the charred bits of stone. Lin Bao Zhu frowned and shook his head slightly when he saw Xiao Yao rub his hands together near the fire, soaking in its warmth. Though it hadn’t snowed for a few days, the temperature remained low and forced extra clothing during the day and extra blankets at night.

Several Mt. Shu disciples peeked over the wall and looked at the pile of rubble and then Lin Bao Zhu before quickly retreating back down. Xiao Yao and Lin Bao Zhu had begun an unofficial relationship of tudi (disciple) and shifu and the young disciple was learning quickly. Their training differed from that of Jian Sheng and his disciples. One trait that was automatically noticeable was that Lin Bao Zhu was much more personal towards Xiao Yao than Jian Sheng was toward any of his disciples. There was much less meditation time as well. Some of the Mt. Shu disciples were even considering asking Lin Bao Zhu to train them, though they would never admit it in public for fear of their shifu’s wrath.

A sly grin cracked on Xiao Yao’s cold face. With Lin Bao Zhu’s back turned, he lunged towards the old master soundlessly. Sensing the oncoming assault, Lin Bao Zhu stretched and yawned as he bent down just in time for Xiao Yao’s palm strike to miss the back of his head. Xiao Yao landed on his hands and blocked an approaching fist with a speedy kick while he pushed off from the ground, causing Lin Bao Zhu’s leg to sweep the air as he flipped to his feet in a defensive stance. Almost immediately following his landing, Xiao Yao was forced to jump backwards as Lin Bao Zhu launched a flurry of hand strikes. Catching one of his attacker’s wrists, Xiao Yao pulled him inwards and extended his free arm as hard as he could.

“HA! – OW!!!” cried Xiao Yao as Lin Bao Zhu ducked forward and arched his leg, connecting his kick with the end of the young man’s fist. Hissing and shaking his fist, Xiao Yao continued to engage his senior friend in hand to hand combat. Kicking a patch of snow into the air at his opponent, Xiao Yao hoped to gain an advantage in the spar, but was surprised when he found no one after leaping through the airborne sheet of white. A slight tap on his shoulder told him that Lin Bao Zhu had used his own ploy against him, taking advantage of when Xiao Yao lost sight of him to sidestep and await his landing. Lin Bao Zhu chuckled and patted his pseudo disciple’s shoulder firmly.

“Nice try, Xiao Yao. Hehe you’re getting better. I see improvement in your tactics. You attack defensively more often now and less directly.”

“One day, Master Lin, one day, I’ll land a hit.” promised Xiao Yao as he lifted a single finger.

“Ha ha. Hmph. Don’t get overzealous, now. It’s almost time for lunch. Let’s eat first and then resume our training.”

Xiao Yao nodded. The audible grumbling of his stomache told him it was indeed time to rest for a while, and he was very anxious to begin learning how to execute the flaming sabre. Giggling excitedly, Xiao Yao rubbed his hands together and followed Lin Bao Zhu towards the meal hall. Upon entering, they found that they were not the first to enter the hall. Jian Sheng and Xiao Shi Tou were already seated and conversing. Both seemed to be relaxed and Jian Sheng even had a rare expression of contentment on his face.

Xiao Shi Tou had just returned from Jin Yuan’s woods and sharing what he had learned there. When he saw Xiao Yao and Lin Bao Zhu, he rose to his feet and walked straight to Xiao Yao.

“Ah, Xiao Yao, it seems you’ve awaken, finally. Though it might become troublesome for me once again now that you’re conscious, I’m glad that that you’re okay.” Xiao Shi Tou playfully punched Xiao Yao’s shoulder. Smiling, Xiao Yao thanked the little spirit and asked how his assignment went. Noticing the friendliness in Xiao Yao, Jian Sheng and Lin Bao Zhu exchanged glances. The young man had grown yet again in their midst. They knew that the two still had their differences, but at least Xiao Yao was being more civil now.

“I was just telling Jian Sheng of my meeting with Jin Yuan. I told him what happened to you and Ling Er and how the charm you made for her seemingly saved her life. And boy, do I have good news for you.”

Xiao Yao’s brows furrowed as Xiao Shi Tou’s continued delivering his news.

“Jin Yuan thinks he understands Ling Er’s condition. According to him, she’s simply replenishing her blood supply. Just because she’s Nu Wa’s descendant doesn’t make her any less mortal. When her body’s blood supply has returned to a stable level, she should awaken.” Xiao Shi Tou smiled proudly at having explained what Jin Yuan had told him. It wasn’t common that people hung off of the words he had to say.

“That is good news! See, Xiao Yao, it’ll be okay soon.” Lin Bao Zhu smacked Xiao Yao’s back hard, making him cough and nearly fall over due to the force. “What of Cai Yi gu niang?” he asked, inquiring of his nephew’s butterfly wife.

“She seems to be doing well, a lot more energetic than our last visit. She flew around wildly, especially while Jin Yuan and I talked about Ling Er.”

“That’s strange. I don’t think the two have met before our last visit. But then again, my wife is just that lovable, huh?” Xiao Yao beamed with pride as he smiled and walked over and sat down in front of Jian Sheng. Xiao Shi Tou laughed out loud as he watched Xiao Yao.

“Yea, she is. Too bad you’re not.” Xiao Yao’s eyes narrowed before his face broke out into a grin as he looked around, awaiting the meal to be served. The Mt. Shu disciples began filing in after their morning training and meditation sessions. Though they were all exhausted, they did not dare to even leave a hint of it for their shifu. Jian Sheng was very strict. And even though they were very disciplined, they couldn’t help but wonder if all this training was necessary. Jian Sheng had said the new enemy was strong, but they didn’t consider themselves to be weaklings, either. After greeting their shifu and his guests, they sat down and took their first chance to relax that day. Xiao Yao sniffed the air.

“Mmmmm! Vegetables and rice with mantou – again!” He missed the taste of meat. As the food was brought out, Xiao Yao promised himself to a grand meal with fish, beef, chicken and pork – the works! But at this point, he would be very grateful for a plate of beef and broccoli. He picked up a man tou in his hand. Staring at the white pastry, he was reminded of Yue Ru, of how he had taught her to appreciate the simplicity and goodness of a man tou. His eyes downcast, his gaze shifted towards Lin Bao Zhu, who was seated next to Jian Sheng. Family. Friendship. Valor. This family, these warriors of virtue, had taught him the meaning of these words. They’ve done so much for him, for Ling Er. Xiao Yao furiously stuffed the man tou into his mouth as memories of both past and present filled his mind. As each person crossed his mind, a feeling of longing lumped into his heart.

 

‘Thank you, all…for your love and friendship…………thank you…’

“HaAaAaAa!” Xiao Yao exhaled while trying to control his energy. In swift motions, his first two fingers slid up and back down the blade of his sword followed by a vertical twirl of the weapon over his head. The blade glinted red and the dancing of fire erupted, surrounding it as he swung the sword across his body. Slicing through the air, Xiao Yao’s foot slid across the ground as he flipped into the air and brought the sword above him steadily with both hands.

“Hyaaa!” Lin Bao Zhu watched as Xiao Yao remained posed in a finishing stance, clothes covered with soot, his eyes fixated on the tip of his now normal blade. The smallest ball of fire had accompanied the great cloud of smoke that had been launched from the blade. A small bead of sweat formed on Xiao Yao’s furrowed brow as he felt Lin Bao Zhu’s face scrunch up into a wrinkled expression.

“What….was that?”

“I, I, I don’t know! I tried! Hey, at least I managed to get some fire this time from the flaming sabre.” Xiao Yao pouted as he lowered his sword.

“That wasn’t a flaming sabre. It was more like a smog dagger – a toothpick – and it even backfired!”

“The flame this time was bigger than the last time!”

“No, it wasn’t!”

“Yes, it was!”

“I didn’t see any difference. It was still as puny as my pinky toe. Try it again!”

“Yes, sir!” Xiao Yao gripped his sword’s handle with his hand, which was still bandaged from last week’s training. An attempt to execute the flaming sabre had caused his hands to suffer burns. Unable to control the heat that resulted from the concentration of his energy, the blade overheated and caused the entire sword to act as a red hot poker. Initially, Xiao Yao had to use his left hand to eat because the bandages covered his entire right hand, making it seem as though his hand was stuck in a round, white vase. Lin Bao Zhu acknowledged that the young swordsman was making progress, but not fast enough for his amount of talent and potential. Perhaps it was because his focus was not entirely on training, but on spending time with his family, too. But due to lack of satisfactory progress, the old master had been pushing Xiao Yao harder than he usually would. Xiao Yao, determined to improve himself, did not mind.

After three more failed attempts, Lin Bao Zhu stopped his young friend. Starting at his shoulder, Lin Bao Zhu ran his hands down Xiao Yao’s outstretched arm, feeling along his nerves, and clasped his wrist.

“You’re holding the sword too tightly. Your ferocity is forcing you to grip the handle more tightly than you should. This causes you to lose a lot of the power and control you have in the attack. Loosen up. Try again. Xiao Yao nodded. Once again, Xiao Yao’s blade was encircled in flame. Upon the familiar diagonal strike, a fireball the size of a child’s fist was sent screaming towards a nearby stone. They watched as the ball of fire crashed against the rocky surface, slightly charring a large chunk of the upper left quadrant and chipping a few grains from the surface. Xiao Yao jumped up and down in victory, pumping his bandaged fist into the air.

“Yes! The flaming sabre! I’ve done it! I’ve –“ Xiao Yao felt a sudden pang as Lin Bao Zhu smacked the side of his head.

“You fool.” In a flash, Lin Bao Zhu’s sword unsheathed itself and flew to its master’s hand. A burning fire encircled the long, sharp epee almost immediately. Stepping forward, Lin Bao Zhu slashed horizontally across his body, emitting a fireball bigger than Xiao Yao’s head towards the remaining portion of the stone. Xiao Yao raised his forearm to cover his eyes as the stone exploded into pieces.

“That, Xiao Yao, is the flaming sabre. Be content with the victory over small obstacles, but do not behave as a fool would when your attack would barely graze the ends of your enemies’ tunics.”

Xiao Yao was humbled as he nodded slowly.

“Now, again!”

Meanwhile, a pair of delicate eyes stirred and a tired moan quietly broke the silence of the guest room. Ling Er’s vision slowly focused as she inhaled deeply and she searched her surroundings without turning her head. Immediately above her hung a series of signs. It was a small stack of paper that was held to the ceiling by a single thread attached to its center. In fine penmanship, a short message was followed by another piece of string that dangled down on one side, stopping just above her right hand. On the other side, another string led to a small sized bucket, hung over her bed with care and covered with red ribbons.

“My dearest, I had wished to be by your side upon your awakening…” Smiling, Ling Er reached up and pulled gently on the string. The first piece of paper floated slowly to the ground, revealing another message as the string moved closer to the center of the paper.

“However, even if I am not here, I want to be the first to welcome you back…” Ling Er continued to pull the string in her hand ever so slowly as page after page glided soundlessly and majestically around her bed.

“I’ve missed you much…”

“Thank you for all of your sacrifices for me…”

“You are my angel, my blessing…”

“Don’t worry. Everyone is fine, including Yi Ru…”

“I shall return soon to check on you…”

“Not a single minute goes by that I don’t think about you…”

“Always remember, I love you…”

“Eternally yours, your Xiao Yao gege. Now, PULL!”

Ling Er’s heart was filled with warmth, security. Excitedly, she pulled the string a little harder, ripping through the last message and pulling over the bucket poised above her bed. Red feathers began to hover and fall towards her, surrounding her bed. Ling Er weakly lifted her hand to catch a few of them within her grasp. One feather descended dully onto her nose, causing her to sneeze.

Sheng Gu was just returning to the guest room after a small chat with Jian Sheng. Upon reaching the door, she heard a quiet sneeze. She promptly opened the door and saw a shower of feathers covering Ling Er’s bed, with Ling Er turning her head.

“Ling Er! You’re awake!” shouted Sheng Gu, rushing towards the bed.

Outside, Lin Bao Zhu had just let fly a small energy blast at Xiao Yao. Upon hearing Sheng Gu’s cry, Xiao Yao stopped instantly and turned towards the guest room.

“Xiao Yao, watch out!” Shaken back into attention, Xiao Yao swung his head around to see the approaching blast.

“AHH!” Xiao Yao jumped straight into the air, but not as quickly as he had hoped. Soon after, he fell to the ground, rubbing his butt with both hands. The blast had singed a hole through to Xiao Yao’s undergarments, leaving a black perimeter in its wake. Gritting his teeth, Xiao Yao sprung to his feet and dashed to the guest room. The pain subsided in light of Ling Er in his mind. The door was still open when he arrived and he almost tripped while trying to turn too quickly.

“Ling Er?! Ling Er!” Xiao Yao jumped over Sheng Gu’s bed and rushed to his wife’s side. The overjoyed look on his face made him appear goofy and irresistibly adorable in Ling Er’s eyes.

“Xiao Yao ge ge.”

“Ling Er! Are you okay? Are you well?” Frantically, he put his hand against her forehead. Smiling, Ling Er assured him that she was fine, just a little tired still. Sheng Gu smiled warmly at the couple. She was glad to see them reunited and happy. Her eyes traced over the messages that were now strewn along the ground amongst the feathers as Lin Bao Zhu walked in and greeted Ling Er. She remembered Xiao Yao working on the set up over Ling Er’s bed, but he had warned everyone not to look at what was written on the pieces of paper. They were for Ling Er’s eyes only. Xiao Yao caught Sheng Gu looking at towards the messages and scrambled to pick them up. They watched as he quickly stuffed the paper into the folds of his robe and turned bright red.

“Hehe…hehe…” Sitting down next to Ling Er, he glanced up at his wife repeatedly, who was giggling at him. The two elders grinned at Xiao Yao’s embarrassment. They knew Ling Er didn’t mind. She admired Xiao Yao’s inner shyness. To her, it was cute. Ling Er suddenly sniffed the air. Something smelled burnt.

“Is something burning?” she asked. Xiao Yao promptly sat up as straight as a board. Lin Bao Zhu couldn’t help but laugh out loud at his young friend’s expense. Knowing it was inevitable, Xiao Yao stood up and turned around with his hands at his sides. His embarrassment quickly left him when he saw Ling Er trying to stifle her laughter. Her mouth open with creases formed at the sides, her face struggled to remain stiff as her eyes squinted. Xiao Yao smiled at his wife. Well, at least the incident was good for something. Walking to Yi Ru’s crib, he picked her up and brought her to Ling Er’s waiting arms. It’s been too long since she last held her daughter in her arms. Lin Bao Zhu and Sheng Gu exchanged glances before motioning each other to exit the room, leaving the reunited family to themselves. Without speaking, the young couple looked after their daughter. With Xiao Yao’s arms wrapped around her, Ling Er leaned her head against him and pressed Yi Ru against her chest. The embrace brought renewed warmth and smiles to their hearts. A light snowfall had begun quietly outside; but, their attention was focused on other things.

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