Actions

Work Header

A Game for the Fool

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Life is a Dream for the Wise, a Game for the Fool, a Comedy for the Rich, and a Tragedy for the Poor." Sholom Aleichem


Chapter 1: How it starts

How do you want to be remembered?

Despite the fact that it looks like a fairly easy, rational and straightforward question, it is not in the least.

How do you want to be remembered?

Obviously one will always want to be remembered as a good person, someone great whose virtues outweigh the flaws, of course they'd want to be remembered as someone who did something in life, who accomplished something with the time they were given, someone others could be proud of, or remember fondly of, years down the road.

Everyone always wants to be remembered when they were at their best and not at their lowest.

Certainly, you want to be remembered in laughter and joy and bittersweet longing. You want someone to be there to remember you at all, to mourn after you, give proof that your life had meaning.

But is that how you will be remembered?

We all have dreams and hopes and expectations, we all strive to achieve something.

But did we succeed?

I do not know how to answer that. How do you measure your life and actions and say "I did it"? Did what?

I like to believe I was a good person, funny and smart and kind, someone who proved to be a good role model for future generations. But, at the same time, I am aware of what is said behind my back, "crazy", "disappointment", "outcast".

I know I won't be fully remembered as the odd lady from down the street who owned that lil' quaint bookstore cafe, nor as the aunt who always had sweets tucked away in her pockets, the storyteller on weekends who read fantastical tales to wide-eyed children, or just as the aspiring artist that had all the creativity and talent to make it big in the world but lacked the health to make it so.

That said, I was not, by any means, sad to go, nor was I lonely. Although my marriage to my (ex) husband hadn't worked out, he and I remained on good terms, so much so that his family never stopped treating me as anything less than family.

I had never had any children of my own, would never be able to conceive at all, but I had witnessed every milestone of my nieces and nephews and shared their parents joy and sadness of watching them grow.

Even if I failed in reaching stardom with my art, I still passed my teaching on to my student, who I saw more as another sibling than a rather persistent brat who conned me into agreeing to teach her anything.

Even if my parents and blood siblings never acknowledged our relationship and went to great lengths to not be associated with me, who saw me as a stain in their family's otherwise 'spotless' history. I was the one who had the last laugh, though.

I made a life for myself without any connections or underhanded moves. My life was my own and that was enough for me.

Could I have done more? Been something more?

Possibly. If situations had changed and somethings different, then certainly.

But I wouldn't trade the life I'd lived away.

I died of age-related complications in a hospital room surrounded by family and close friends. The man who I had once thought to be the love of my life, before the passion simmered down to mutual respect and admiration, holding my hand and reminiscing about the good old days.

The children I had watched grow were all adults now, with lives and families of their own, and my student would be fine without me.

I died in comfort. I died knowing I was loved.

I died content.

I wonder why, then, did I find myself in such a peculiar situation?

"A New Quest has become Available!"

"Do you wish to view New Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

I stared at the floating letters, glowing with a faint blue light in the pitch black void I found myself in.

I reached out to the [YES] button, because I was curious to a fault and by god had my nephews 'schooled' me about the wonders of video games, and I had honestly nothing to do at the moment other than stare at the letters (which would get boring pretty fast), mildly interested in the fact that my body, still wearing that goofy hospital gown with the mickey mouse faces on it, was wrapped in intricate lines of the same glowing blue light as the letters.

"Quest: Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation"

«You find yourself in the body of Wei Ying, thrown years into the past, with the knowledge of the war all that has happened up to your death.
You decide to change your future.
But will you be successful?»

"Will you accept this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

I blinked, thought my old eyes had finally given up on me, and proceeded to read it again slowly. And again after that. And once more, just to be sure.

No, the letters didn't change. The content remained the same. And I pondered on what that meant for my failing sanity that what bothered me wasn't the sheer madness that was this situation (half convinced I was hallucinating the whole ordeal, and it wouldn't be the craziest hallucination I'd had) but the fact that I recognized that title.

One of my nieces had asked me to read this novel she's found on the internet titled "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation", written by a chinese author. She'd wanted to have someone to talk to about the book but none of her friends was interested in reading it and, in her words, her mother was out of the question. I easily accepted, there were worst things the kid could be doing other than reading a book in the cafe under my watch, and even if the book turned out to be a bore, well... I had read encyclopedias growing up, I knew worst ways to spend my time.

In the end, it wasn't neither the longest or weirdest novel someone had asked me to read, and as for my niece's interests... I wasn't in any position to judge anyone's reading preferences but if she felt that I was a safe person to talk to about doubts or the pains of 'being different', well my door was always open.

I had loved the plot of the novel, well-thought out and with well-written characters and meaning, it was easy to love.

Actually, for that niece's birthday I had painted her a portrait of the two main characters, Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian.

Whose birth name happened to be Wei Ying.

If this really was some sort of daydream or hallucination then kudos to them, because they were clearly going the extra mile on this one, it really looked like this whole thing was real.

What if it truly was?

I pursed my lips. Although I had loved the novel, I obviously had some bones to pick with the author, changes I would've liked to see, but that was to be expected of a fan.

Looking at this objectively, Wei WuXian did not have a bad ending, it wasn't a fairy-tale happy ending by any means, but it wasn't a bad ending either.

Question was, should I change it?

Whilst it was all very well and good to believe you can change something for the better, the same held true for changing something for the worse.

I reread the 'Quest' once again, "Found myself in the body... up to your death."

I was going on a limb and assume this meant the siege of the Burial Mounds, so no Mo XuanYu.

'And no knowledge of his "happy ending", go figure.'

The information was too vague, I needed to know more.

Would I forget who I was? Would I really only remember being Wei WuXian and these two years after the war?

This made no sense...

"Will you accept this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

My heart quivered in my chest. I hesitated.

Why would I do this? Should I do this? At what cost? For what?

What do you have to lose?

I twitched and drummed my fingers over my crossed arms. I was already dead, even if this was all some highly detailed hallucination, I would still be dead very soon. My body wouldn't be able to hold on much longer.

My life was complete and all my worldly affairs were sorted out, even if I forgot I had ever been Sarah Windsor. So what would it matter? She would be gone either way and if I accepted... A new world.

A new life... One filled with the potential to be someone great.

The next great adventure!

I chuckled and uncrossed my arms, musing on what led me to this very moment.

When all was said and done I was a crookedly old woman with all the snark and wit of a twenty-year old stuck with the curiosity and wonder of a five-year old child.

Really, what else would be my answer?

I pressed the button.

"You have accepted the Quest: Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation."

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Fate laughs at probabilities." - Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton


Chapter 2: A new life begins

Moment of honesty here, out of all the numerous possibilities of how I would wake up in this brand new life, I was not, truly not, impressed with waking up as a three year old.

Waking up as a preteen Wei WuXian in Lotus Pier? Possible.

Waking up as a teenage Wei WuXian in Cloud Recesses or just before that? Likely.

Waking up as an adult Wei WuXian just trying to get out of the war alive and attempting to not die immediately after? Probably.

When the damn Quest read "thrown years into the past" I was not anticipating it meant more than a decade into the frikin past.

To remember my previous self was a toss-up, so I wasn't overly concerned that, yes, this had actually happened and the interesting game-like interface that greeted me with a cheery little ring was all just a part of this new life's charm, I was guessing.

Oh, and cherry on top of the ice-cream sundae?

I woke up as a three year old that had just managed to fall over and hit his head pretty bad.

"Owww..." I sat back on the ground and pressed my palms to my throbbing head. It hurt!

"A-Ying? Are you okay, baby?" A soft voice called out to be from behind," That was a big fall!"

Everything is literally a big fall to a three year old, they can barely reach someone's knees...

I look behind me to see a couple standing beside a donkey, placing bags and other stuff into the pockets of the saddle it had on, wearing simple robes and both having impossibly long hair. The woman was looking back at me, grey colored eyes shining with worry, and her mouth was pressed into a thin line.

I probably shouldn't have just stared at her in shock, because holy hell this was Wei WuXian's mother, the Great CangSe Sanren!

She looked beautiful, not in the 'drop-dead gorgeous' sense of the word mind you, but something about her coloring and the way she held herself made my mind go blank for a second. Of course, when it comes to mothers, one second hesitation is enough to assume something is wrong with their child.

Wait... Did that make her my mother now?

I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about that, I had no doubts that CangSe Sanren was a good mother for Wei WuXian, so much so that the boy turned man respected her and loved hearing about her. Understandable given the circumstances.

But, unfortunately, the word 'mother' would forever be associated with a stormy faced woman who saw isolation and deprivation of basic needs as completely normal punishments. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law had helped curb those misconceptions and I could logically understand that the actions of one woman did not mean every single person did the same, but it was... hard.

"A-Ying?" The woman called out again and started walking towards me without waiting for a response, "Are you hurt?"

I opened my mouth to answer her but barely hold in the flinch when another cheery ring sounds right beside my ear (and oww, my head!) and a new message in glowing blue letters opens up in front of my eyes.

"New (Main) Quest Available!"

"Do you wish to view this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

Okay... Could you please give me a heads-up before, loudly, announcing that right beside my ear? Or better yet, could you not announce that right beside my ear?

The words floated right in front of my eyes, just solid enough to read but still translucent so that I could see through them, and I immediately focused on them because, wow they were really shiny and how cool!

"A-Ying?" The woman was suddenly just there, kneeling in front of me, and I jump in surprise.

I stare at her and blink, what the hell was I supposed to do?

"My head hurts..." I tell her, dazed.

Her grey eyes show worry and she pulls my hands away from my head so she could see what the damage was.

"How many times have I told you not to run too fast, you'll trip over your feet!" Typical mom's voice, right there, let me tell you, "It's okay, it's just a bump."

Well, thank goodness it wasn't something like a split skull, that would just make my dramatic entrance into this world all the more ridiculous!

She picked me up and settled me against her hip with the ease I had only seen on husbands and body-builders, like I weighed next to nothing, which was explained by the muscle I could feel underneath her robes.

...Holy hell, I wanted to be like her...

Didn't Wei WuXian take after his mother? I vaguely recalled that he looked very much like her... Or was it a comment my niece had made?

"He's alright then, honey?" A man's voice sounded above me and I looked up to see dark eyes shining with love and a rueful expression on his face.

Apparently my father also had a stubble... Would wonders never cease?

"He's fine, just a bump," She sighs, "This is what happens when you go on about all the adventures and 'beasts' you've defeated right before we're set to leave."

"Heh? It's my fault now?" His face does this comical little fault before he sighs and shrugs, "Whatever you say, darling."

I was not proud to say that I laughed at that.

Goodness, this was so funny! I hadn't seen such a well domesticated husband since Cynthia brought home that comely young man that she's somehow conned into acting as a dress-up doll for the bored older ladies of the household while the rest of the family went around bustling like ants getting ready for the wedding.

Good times.

"A-Ying, how could you laugh at your poor father!" The man gasps in fake-hurt, clutching his chest.

"He knows who's the one in charge here," CangSe Sanren answers back without missing a beat.

Oh, I was so going to be like her. Prime role model right here!

And then my thoughts soured.

Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren died when Wei WuXian was around four years old.

It would be incredibly easy to say 'Not if I can help it!' or 'Not on my watch!' but I hesitated. Truthfully, I was not expecting to even meet them at all, in all the scenarios that played in the back of my mind before I accepted that "Quest" Wei WuXian would already be an orphan, furthermore he would already be involved in what I would call 'canon timeline'.

This was so far out of canon I felt myself flounder for a moment.

"A-Ying?" A hand presses against he bump of my head and I whine, trying to get away from the offending hand, I look up at my... at Wei WuXian's mother, and pout.

"That hurts..." I whine.

She huffs and shakes her head, " Are we all set to go?" She asks her husband.

"Yeah, all the things packed, the house is empty," He tells her, "Want me to carry him on my shoulders or do you want to have him on the donkey?" He asks.

"Shoulders?" I perk up.

They share a look before the man shrugs with a small smile.

"Take him, and make sure he doesn't fall and really hurt his head this time!" CangSe Sanren just sighs, "You're truly your mother's child and I feel Shizun would be laughing at me if she saw me now."

"And think, he's not even old enough to try to sneak off on his own!" Wei ChangZe chortles.

His comment was not appreciated and I'm sure he regretted it once he saw the glare he earned with that quip. He quickly took me from her arms and let me clamber on top of his shoulders, holding onto my ankles to make sure I wouldn't tumble off.

He was tall. Like, really tall. Sure, my perception of heights was screwed because I was, like, really tiny but, holy hell, I was going to grow just as tall or I'd file a complaint to whoever thought genetics would make me handsome as all hell but shorter than most of the characters.

Actually, Wei WuXian was one of the tallest characters, around 186cm? Before dying, that is. Mo XuanYu was short.

...I was not going to die. No way, no how.

Wei ChangZe took hold of the donkey's reigns and started walking, his wife sitting primly on the back of their donkey with their bags, and I was excited to get on with the trip.

Which is just as well because the damn cheery ring sounds once again right next to my ear.

Thankfully, I neither flinched nor jumped out of my skin, but I sure as hell frowned at the glowing letters in front of me.

"New (Main) Quest Available!"

"Do you wish to view this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

'Yes, yes... Show me the damn Quest,' I grumbled in my mind, picturing clicking on the [YES] button. No way in hell was I 'clicking' on empty air and make my... huh... caretakers? question my sanity.

The Quest box opened.

"Quest: Welcome to the Basics!"

«You are now a three year old and ready to take on the world!
(Except not really)
There's adventures to be had and mysteries to uncover, but, beware, danger lies in every corner.»

"View Quest Objectives?"

[YES] [NO]

'Well... that certainly doesn't sound very helpful,' I blink at the description.

Truly, how was this my life now?

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"A decision without the pressure of consequence is hardly a decision at all." Eric Langmuir


Chapter 3: What's that?

"View Quest Objectives?"

[YES] [NO]

Why ask if there's only one answer that will keep you from bothering me and let me enjoy the scenery?

'Yes,' I mentally press the button.

"Welcome to the Basics Quest Objectives:"

|o Explore the Player Menu (Incomplete)|
|o Level Up (Incomplete)|
|o Acquire a New Skill (Incomplete)|

"Bonus Objective:"

|o See a ghost (Incomplete)|

"Accept this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

'So... This was like a tutorial?' I wondered,' With easy objectives meant for you to figure out commands and how the game is played?'

Would this actually have like an interactive HUD letting you know what you could or could not interact with? Somehow I couldn't exactly picture that seeing as I was firmly living the environment and not staring at it through a screen.

I'd be understandably pissed if I couldn't jump over a fence or something like that. Once I was physically old enough to jump over anything, of course...

I accepted the Quest and looked around, nothing had really changed and no other pop-ups showed up to explain how to complete any of those objectives. I figured this meant it was up to you to find out the commands for yourself, which was fine by me. Gave me time to actually look around me and see the world I found myself in.

Wei ChangZe was walking at a sedate pace and the donkey didn't look to be in any hurry to get him to pick up the pace. The sky above me was a clear and bright blue, the wind was cold but the sun kept me warm enough. Speaking of warmth...

I looked down at myself, seeing the clothes I was wearing for the first time. They were simple robes, rather thick and sturdy, to obviously survive a rambunctious toddler getting into everything, and were very plain. Either I was used to brightly colored clothes or I was expecting to see the 'gorgeous' robes that people supposedly wore in these stories.

Except this isn't just a story anymore and we're not exactly in a position to wear pretty clothes.

Oh, right.

I really didn't want to get involved with the elephant in the room, but I was brought up to be a rational, if not overly analytical young woman, in attempts to curb the symptoms of my illness and the obvious signs that something was not quite right with me, but I digress.

So, I needed to think this out.

I was in the body of Wei WuXian, the one who would one day be called the Yiling Patriarch, the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, the flipping Bogeyman of the Cultivation World. I needed to get my act straight and get ready to play for keeps.

What did I know about Wei WuXian?

He was orphaned at around age four, the son of two Rogue Cultivators who were quite hard to pin down, as evidenced by the fact it took years for Jiang FengMian to discover the then seven year-old Wei WuXian in what I chose to believe had been Yiling.

He was brought to the YunmengJiang Sect and lived there and was the Head Disciple of the Sect, treated as part of the Jiang family despite the tension that placed on the Jiang Clan's relationships.

He would go on to study at Cloud Recesses and be a menace to their proper and strict teachings and mentality. Meet his future husband there.

...I was not going to get anywhere near that topic at the moment. Maybe not even in the next ten years, just no...

Then there's the war. And after the war there's suddenly this snowball effect of bad decisions and consequences that eventually leads to Wei WuXian's death and the destruction of his life's principles.

That was what had happened in the novel. But I was being given some sort of Carte Blanche to change that, problem was, what did I change and what did I keep as is? I had to think of the Butterfly Effect and the consequences of changing a seemingly inconsequential event.

I thought about it, really thought about it, and I reasoned I wouldn't change Wei ChangZe's and CangSe Sanren's deaths.

It sounded callous of me to say this but, well, they weren't quite... real yet. And although I had no doubt I would eventually grow fond of them and like them, even if I tried to acknowledge that they weren't just characters made of paper and ink, but actual living and breathing human beings... Their deaths were what set canon in motion.

Had they not died, Jiang FengMian would've never tried to find him, or brought him to YunmengJiang.

If I started changing things willy-nilly then 'canon' would become unrecognizable and I wouldn't be able to predict anything. I'd be caught flat-footed all the time, and if I was being honest, I was low-key terrified of what was in store for me in the future.

I was a bookstore owner, cooking and brewing coffee to feed the people coming in to read my book collection. I had been an aspiring painter! I wasn't that excited to grow up to wield swords and face droves of people trying to kill me.

Hell, the thought of having to kill anything made me queasy.

But I would have to, eventually, because this was my life now and I didn't want to lose it.

So, I would try to keep the timeline as close to canon as possible.

"A-Ying, you're so quiet!" Wei ChangZe spoke up suddenly," Is your head still hurting?"

His voice brought me out of my spiraling thoughts, I blinked and poked at my head. Ow.

"Yes?" I answered.

He laughed and jostled me slightly, "When we reach our next stop, we'll ask mom to kiss it better, it always works, doesn't it?"

Huh, the constant child-friendly comments would grow old quickly.

"Yes..." I nodded, "Where are we going?" I asked.

"A nearby town, they're having some problems with their cattle. Might be the work of an evil being!" He tickles my ankles and tries to make his voice deeper at the end of his sentence.

I wasn't impressed.

"What kind of evil being?" I asked him.

I got the impression that he was pouting at me, "Hmm, might be a Hungry Ghost or maybe just an Yao being mischievous and causing trouble," He answers.

"Hungry Ghost? Yao?" Those peaked my interest.

He huffs and mutters something too low for me to hear, "Hungry Ghost are always hungry and feed on the life-force of any living animal, usually cattle or forest critters; Yao are a wide range of beings, too many too name. But don't worry, they shouldn't prove to be a challenge for your mom and I!"

I gave him a 'hmm'. Not that his explanation wasn't interesting but I really wanted all the small details and gritty little descriptions. His child-friendly approach sated children's curiosity but failed to quench my thirst for knowledge.

So I went to try and find something else to occupy my time with.

Found it by pointing at every single plant that we came across.

"What's that?" I would ask and point.

Wei ChangZe would huff and answer.

After about twenty or so off these exchanges, I heard his wife start laughing and he would just sigh whenever I went to point at anything.

"New Skill Acquired!"

"Foraging Skill leveled up!"

...Huh... Wasn't that interesting?

"Quest Objective Completed!"

Also, interesting. Go me!

I gave myself a pat on the back and reasoned that if there was any skill worth learning about before being out on the streets all alone, then foraging was probably the best to go for.

Or thieving.

...How the hell do you practice thieving without getting killed the moment you get caught?

Well, obviously not getting caught would be the way to go, duh...

I should probably get on with checking out that Player Menu stuff, shouldn't I?

Yeah, probably. Most likely. Certainly.

Mentally picturing something popping up with the words 'Player Menu' failed, so I went ahead and thought 'open Player Menu'.

Surprise, surprise that worked.

«The Player Menu contains all the Player's Stats, Info, Equipment (in use), and Skills.
Further information can be obtained by using the command 'Help'.

Example: "Help, Stats"»

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 1
Class: None Fatigue: 10

Stats: 10 Points Available;
Intelligence: 5 Stealth: 3
Strength: 3 Charisma: 5
Agility: 3 Senses: 3
Stamina: 5 Luck: 5

Skills:
Language: 5 Writing: 2
Foraging: 1

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

I was faintly bemused by the fact that this actually looked like a character menu from a video-game and I was not expecting this. Then I noticed faint little tabs on the side of the menu, reading things like 'Inventory', 'Talent Tree', 'Advantages', 'Quest Page', and 'Story Arcs'.

Guess things just got a whole lot more interesting.

I dearly hoped my devilish grin didn't show on my face, children should be seen as perfect little angels and not as devils in the making.

I failed.

Oh, well... Wei WuXian's brand of craziness had to start somewhere.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Discovery is the ability to be puzzled by simple things." Noam Chomsky


Chapter 4: So many shiny things!

So, first things first: Stats.

'Help, Stats,' I try out.

«Stats: The Player increases their Stats with Stats Points (ST) gained through leveling up and completing Quests.
All Stats increase over time.
There are eight stats: Intelligence, Strength, Agility, Stamina, Stealth, Charisma, Senses, and Luck.

Intelligence helps the Player learn skills from books faster, leveling (mental) skills, and increases the processing speed of their brain.

Strength allows the Player to hit harder and withstand hits better, while also allowing the Player to carry/lift heavier objects or people.
Strength does not change the outward appearance of the Player, so caution is advised with showcasing superior strength in front of eyewitnesses.

Agility increases the Player's reflexes, how fast they can dodge, jump, or generally make a menace of themselves.

Stamina is what enables the Player to keep fighting, perform actions and how long they can keep certain skills active. Stamina is also connected with the Player's health and speed of recovery.

Stealth involves not only going undetected but also to control ones own presence and how easily they can hide/take things.

Charisma is how well the Player can schmooze their way out of trouble or get information out of unsuspecting targets. Being a generally comprehensible citizen and have minimal social skills is tied with Charisma.

Senses are the Player's hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. The ability to be aware of their surroundings, enemies and attacks.

Luck influences outcomes of actions, Quests, battles and events. Increased Luck tends to cause things to go favorably well to the Player and horribly wrong to their targets.»

Whoever had made this had clearly gone through a whole lot of trouble to make these...

So, I have points to spend...

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 1
Class: None Fatigue: 10

Stats: 10 Points Available;
Intelligence: 5 Stealth: 3
Strength: 3 Charisma: 5
Agility: 3 Senses: 3
Stamina: 5 Luck: 5

Skills:
Language: 5 Writing: 2
Foraging: 1

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

And since I liked to round things up, I was putting everything at an odd 5, then increasing Intelligence and Senses.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 1
Class: None Fatigue: 10

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 6 Stealth: 5
Strength: 5 Charisma: 5
Agility: 5 Senses: 6
Stamina: 5 Luck: 5

Skills:
Language: 5 Writing: 2
Foraging: 1

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

Looked pretty good, even if there was no outward effect on increasing the Stats. Deciding not to question it for now, because there were newer shinier things to get to, I instead focused on the faint tabs on the side.

'Open, Inventory,' I say.

The Player Menu shifts into a blank square with several different subdivisions under the word 'Inventory'.

«The Player's Inventory is where all items retrieved from mobs, Quests, or bought from the Store are automatically sent to.
The Player can place any item (minus living creatures) in their Inventory and bring them out at any time.
Extreme caution is to be practiced when using the Inventory in front of eyewitnesses as all items retrieved 'appear out of thin air'»

Oooh... I liked this. I really, really liked this. I had my very own hammer space!

Which I couldn't use all the time because showing up with no baggage and suddenly have I-don't-know-what in my hands was bound to attract attention.

...We're going to mess with so many people using this...

Next, Talent Tree.

«The Talent Tree contains all abilities, special attacks, and 'power-ups' that can be unlocked as the Player levels up.
Talents are divided into 4 categories; Martial Arts, Spiritual, Demonic, and Social.
Abilities have 4 alignments; Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and Void.
A mark of a well-grounded Player is to know which alignment to use at any given situation.

Warning: These abilities are no longer known to the world at large and may bring unwanted scrutiny.»

So, in other words, I can have superpowers, but I can't use them because no one else has superpowers?

That's bullshit, whatever happened to everyone's special in their own way?

The memory of how Wei WuXian was treated for creating Demonic Cultivation kind of pops up in the back of my mind and I have to concede the game might be onto something by telling me to not show-off.

I go to click on those categories, because now I want to see what there is to unlock, but the following message dashes that.

"Player has not yet reached necessary levels to unlock this function."

...Not fair.

I try the store next.

«This is where the Player can buy virtually any item, although some can only be obtained after they are foraged, crafted, or acquired from mobs.
The Store also allows the Player to sell items for Quest Coins.
Items have different prices, rarity, and quality, and can be found under several categories: Weapons, Equipment, Accessories, Consumables, Materials, Recipes, Books, Misc, and Gifts.»

After closing that message the Store appears blank for a second before the previous message shows up again.

"Player has not yet reached necessary levels to unlock this function."

Oh, frik off... Shopping is shopping and one is never young enough to like shopping!

'Open, Quest Page,' I grumbled.

Interestingly, but still doesn't improve my mood, there's a map visible on this page with a smiley face pin showing my location on it. Too bad the whole map is covered by fog, telling me I have a whole world to explore and too short legs to travel all of it.

«Quest Page is divided into two sections: Accepted or Ongoing Quests, and Available Quests.
The first section allows the Player to view the Quests Information and its requirements, as well as its rewards.
The latter contains every single unlocked and available Quest, regardless if it's a Main Quest or a Side Quest, where the Player has to go and who to talk to in order to 'start' the Quest.»

There was a single ongoing Quest, which was Welcome to the Basics, and everything else was empty, so it was pretty obvious I'd only get things unlocked after I get this Quest over with.

"A-Ying, look!" Wei ChangZe suddenly spoke up.

Like a teenager caught red handed, I close the screen so fast and sit up straighter, immediately trying to find what he was pointing at.

A screech sounds above me and I look up, startled, to see this huge bird swoop down on the field beside us and come back up with a rabbit caught in its talons.

"ChangZe!" CangSe Sanren scolds.

Oh, yeah... Poor toddler just witnessed a fragile rabbit be taken away to serve as the main dish of the big bird.

T'was Life.

"I didn't know it was going to do that!" Her husband yelps.

"Does rabbit taste good?" I asked out of nowhere, stopping the conversation in its tracks.

I could pratically taste the awkwardness that question brought up, and I took my job as complete.

"Yes... Rabbit can be quite delicious," Wei ChangZe finally answers.

"Can we eat rabbit?" I ask him.

"If your father could be so gracious as to catch us one," CangSe Sanren reasons.

I quickly turn to look at her with wide eyes, "Can I catch a rabbit?"

I could imagine worse ways to spend a day than to frolic in the tall grass trying to chase after nimble little buggers with this two stumpy little legs.

Probably fall over again and really do crack my head open.

Meh...

"Maybe," She answers, which was mother language for 'hell no'.

"Okay," I chirp and go back to look around at my surroundings.

If either adult found my behavior odd or different, none pointed it out and just kept going on with their journey. I spent a few more minutes asking after the plants, critters and generally anything under the sun before I got bored of it again and went back to my Player Menu.

There were only two pages left to view, Advantages and Story Arcs, but I honestly couldn't find it in me to view them right now.

Oh, sure I was curious about them, but I wanted something more exciting.

I guess I started fidgeting a bit too much because Wei ChangZe finally stopped and took me off his shoulders and handed me to a bemused CangSe Sanren.

She held me close to her and I shamelessly snuggled closer to her. I wasn't going to lie, it felt pretty great, whether it was because I've always been a very touchy-feel-y person, because I lacked a physical connection growing up and was borderline touch-starved by my late teens, or simply because this body recognized its mother, I melted right into her embrace.

She laughed and stroked my hair, nearly making me purr because, oh yes, I loved this.

I shouldn't be too surprised I promptly fell asleep shortly after and woke up as the adults were settling in a rundown inn.

In hindsight, my confusion at my new surroundings and indignation that I had fallen asleep, were very, very amusing.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." - Ellen Parr


Chapter 5: The Woes of Boredom

"Why do I have to stay here?" I ask, and no, I am not pouting.

"Because mom and dad have to go deal with that evil being, and you have to stay here where it's safe," CangSe Sanren repeats once more.

"I want to go with you," I clutch at her robe, doing the best puppy eyes I'd learnt from my nephew Colin.

She wasn't impressed, clearly someone had mastered the art of puppy eyes in their youth as well, "I've already said no, A-Ying."

And that was that.

So, here I was, alone in a room. In some inn god knows where. And bored out of my mind.

"Ughhhhhhh..." I grumbled from where I was lying face down on the straw mattress that could, very politely, be called a bed. There was barely anything closely resembling a blanket, which was an automatic downgrade for me because I liked my blankets, I was also locked in because no one in their right minds would let a three year-old in an unlocked room with no supervision.

Even if they thought it was fine to do it if the room was minimally locked.

Only reason I wasn't freaking out was because the room was quite airy, like big windows that had no glass on them because... well, because for some reason they didn't have glass.

So, my claustrophobia wasn't acting up and I was minimally relaxed.

Minimally because I was bored and there was nothing to do in here. Well, the adults had left a smattering of toys here with me but really, I was a grown woman and I would not be entertained by a couple of straw dolls and a rattle drum. At least not for long.

I remember getting my nephews rattles similar to this one when they were little, to the dread of their parents, and it made me feel slightly upset.

The weight of the situation was settling in, and despite the fact that I understood that I wouldn't have ever seen them again regardless of whether or not I took this chance, I missed them.

...Goddammit, I wasn't doing this.

I needed something to occupy my mind with.

'Open, Player Menu,' I said.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 1
Class: None Fatigue: 40

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 6 Stealth: 5
Strength: 5 Charisma: 5
Agility: 5 Senses: 6
Stamina: 5 Luck: 5

Skills:
Language: 5 Writing: 2
Foraging: 1

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

My fatigue had risen, and I could feel my body was slightly more tired than it had been this morning, but it made sense when it would be dusk soon and night fell pretty quickly from what I understood.

So bedtime. Great.

I remembered I still had two tabs from before, Advantages and Story Arcs.

Tough decision.

'Story Arcs,' I ended up deciding, laying belly down on the bed and propping my head on one hand.

«This page allows the Player to view the memories of Wei WuXian relevant to the current Story Arc.
It also records the Player's progress and how they have impacted the world around them.
There are fixed Checkpoints throughout the Story Arcs that the Player has to overcome.»

Peculiar.

The Page itself looked to me as a linear map with odd little marks here and there.

A timeline.

Curious.

Well, I won't be bored now, I guess.

I sit up straight on the bed and make a 'come here' gesture with my hands so the screen would get closer to me. Which it did, because this system was awesome like that, and I took a closer look at those odd little marks. Something about them tickled me funny.

Upon a closer inspection, it was easy to see why.

They were actually knots.

Like, someone had put a bunch of sewing threads in the same box, shook it or scrambled them together, and when you went to pull them apart you find them all tangled together at some point.

My money was on these 'Checkpoints' being those knots.

But what were they?

"Help, Checkpoints," I call out, being alone had its privileges.

«Checkpoints are fixed events of a Story Arc that the Player has to go through in order to advance to the next Story Arc.
They can be delayed and can be changed, but the Checkpoint event will always come to pass.
It is the Player's choice on how to overcome the event.
All changes are recorded at the end of the Story Arc, showing the Player's impact on the world.»

...Fixed events...

I felt faintly sick to my stomach and I had this buzzing in my ears that let me know I was staving off a panic attack.

There were fixed events I would have to go through that I could not prevent from happening.

Logically I understood it, there had to be a semblance of a plot for a 'story' to happen, there had to be an insurance that whoever they picked up to take over their 'main character' kept to the script, but this... This wasn't just a story...

What were the Checkpoints?

I could easily count Wei WuXian's parent's deaths as one. What else?

Going to Gusu? The Burning of Lotus Pier? Being tossed into the Burial Mounds?

The Wen Remnants dying?

Breathe in. Count to 5. Breathe out.

Think... Calm down... Think...

The Checkpoint will always happen, but it can be delayed or changed.

Changed.

This just meant that the scene happened but the outcome wasn't certain.

So I could still work things out.

...Crisis averted then...

I slump over the bed again and groan, I don't need to check my profile to see that my fatigue had risen. I wasn't going to try and open the Advantages page after that emotional roller coaster, that one can wait. I closed the Story Arc page and rolled over on the bed.

I wasn't tired enough to sleep so I just laid there for what felt like hours but must've been only around ten minutes before boredom set in again.

Ughhhh... What is this torture?

I expected awesome adventures, shiny swords and cool stuff happening all the time. I had already spent months in the hospital stuck in a scratchy bed with scratchy and silly gowns, boring nurses (though they were very nice, the overworked dearies) and a complete lack of intellectual conversations until my family came to visit, I had done my time being bored!

I demanded entertainment!

"Tip: No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess."

I stare at the unprompted words floating above my eyes.

A bold guess, huh?

I roll of the bed and kind of titter for a moment. What could there be that I haven't discovered yet?

I open my Player Menu.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 1
Class: None Fatigue: 45

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 6 Stealth: 5
Strength: 5 Charisma: 5
Agility: 5 Senses: 6
Stamina: 5 Luck: 5

Skills:
Language: 5 Writing: 2
Foraging: 1

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

It looked to me to be a simple and generic video-game character profile. There was the main information, the equipment, the points thing-y and...

Skills.

What were skills?

Language, writing and foraging?

Foraging seemed like an obvious skill to have in a video game, but language and writing? Wasn't that...

Wasn't that a given thing that people would already know?

Or were they?

I close the menu and walk up to the wall nearest to me. There's a really big piece of furniture with drawers and shelves on top. It looks sufficiently sturdy.

...Here goes nothing.

I start climbing the furniture, a foot there, a hand there, and pulling myself up to the shelves. The whole thing kind of shifts and bit but doesn't topple off and fall on me.

I make it to the top shelf.

"New Skill Acquired!"

Oh, my god, I'm a genius.

I open the Player Menu back up.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 1
Class: None Fatigue: 40

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 6 Stealth: 5
Strength: 5 Charisma: 5
Agility: 5 Senses: 6
Stamina: 5 Luck: 5

Skills:
Language: 5 Writing: 2
Foraging: 1 Climbing: 0

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

Oh, my god, they aren't kidding.

That's actually a skill?

What else is a skill?

I quickly make it back down from the furniture, it wasn't that high to begin with, and look around the room.

What else can I use?

...

I pick up one of the straw dolls and chuck it across the room.

"New Skill Acquired!"

"Player Leveled Up!"

... Well, I was definitely entertained now.

Through the course of the next couple hours I found out a few more things. There was an action named Sprint that I could activate and drained my Stamina like nobody's business, that I had a very squeaky singing voice and that I was more flexible than I had ever been.

Oh, and that, upon reaching 90 or so of fatigue, you got constant warnings to get in bed and sleep.

I would've liked to have been awake when Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren came back though.

I'm sure the sight of a wrecked room and an angelic looking toddler sleeping soundly must've looked like a scene straight out of a comedy flick.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul." - Luther Burbank


Chapter 6: Checkpoint

Chickens were surprisingly fast. And noisy. And they let loose more feathers than I expected.

That said, chasing around chickens was pretty fun.

Even if getting chased by a chickens was not so fun.

"A-Ying, what were you expecting?" Wei ChangZe is laughing at me," You've been chasing it non-stop for half an hour, of course it would get angry with you."

"I didn't touch it..." I grumble, clutching the hand the smug looking chicken had pecked.

"You still chased it and scared it," He points out.

I pout at him and went back down to the ground and show these chickens who's boss.

I've been living in this world for two weeks now. Fourteen days doesn't really sound like much but they had been the longest I'd felt in ages.

In someways this world was the same as mine, but in others there was an obvious difference on how I expected things to go and was confused by what actually happened.

Back in my world, traveling on the back of a donkey with a small child and no fixed residence was an automatic call to CPS, here no one batted an eye at me trailing after my parents or, in this case, entertaining myself by chasing a farmer's chickens while CangSe Sanren barters with him for rice and other food supplies. In fact, given that Wei WuXian lived on the streets with other orphans and fought over food scraps with dogs, I shouldn't be too surprised that my 'sheltered' lifestyle in comfortable living conditions from the 21st century was... unprepared for what was in store for me.

I needed to plan ahead, I realized that, but at the same time I was just starting to get into the mindset that I was now Wei WuXian. I still stared at my own reflection, awed by how different I looked from how I pictured Wei WuXian to be like, and had a distinct reluctance to call either Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren 'father' or 'mother'. Even 'mom' and 'dad' were hard for me to say, because some part of me was still very much aware that they weren't.

I was a stranger inhabiting their child's body. And they didn't know, couldn't possibly think that their child was replaced by someone else when he tripped and hit his head on the ground.

Sometimes it was really hard not to let it show I was an impostor pretending at being a child.

Other times, this life was like a breath of fresh air. Letting me have another go at life with higher stakes and even bigger rewards.

I dived after another chicken and dropped that line of thought.

"Stat leveled up!"

During these last few days I had discovered new things about the System. Apparently there was a fixed number of Skills that they could show on the Player Page, and after I spent a couple hours trying different things under the sun and asking a whole bunch of questions, I'd discovered a couple more skills (and leveled them up, in turn raising my Player level, because I was just that good) the System basically sent me a message that said something along the lines of:

Due to constant skill acquirement, we're upgrading your Player Menu to make it easier to sort the skills out.

Or something.

It was late, and I had been tired, so I just said 'ok, let me sleep' and closed the notification.

So my Player Menu now had tabs sorting my skills out.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 3
Class: None Fatigue: 60

Stats: 3 Points Available;
Intelligence: 7 Stealth: 6
Strength: 6 Charisma: 5
Agility: 7 Senses: 8
Stamina: 8 Luck: 5

Skills:
-Martial
Acrobatic: 1 Throwing: 2
Climbing: 1
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
-Mundane
Language: 5 Writing: 2

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

Also, if you performed certain actions Stats leveled up naturally, but it was still faster to just use Stat Points. And speaking of Stat Points, every time you leveled up you got 3 Stat Points to spend, whilst completing Quests game you around 5 Stat Points and some Quest Coins.

Speaking of Quests, I'd completed the 'Welcome to the Basics' two days ago. Finally coming around to stop goofing off and actually open the last page of the Player Menu. Surprise, surprise I couldn't actually use it yet but I got the impression there was cool stuff in there.

The description read:

« Advantages are perks the Player can unlock through performing specific actions or tasks an unspecified number of times, or by using Player Points.
These help the Player in various situations much like Talents and Skills, but are constantly active and have no maintenance cost.
But, be cautions, Advantages can easily become Disadvantages, if the Player fails an unspecified number of actions/tasks or because of an injury, for example.»

Which sounded pretty cool, but was entirely blank for now as per usual.

"A-Ying! Come on, we're leaving now!" Wei ChangZe called out to me.

Well, no need to say it twice. I closed the screen and ran back towards them, raising my arms in the universal 'pick me up' gesture.

He gave me this long-suffering sigh but complied and put me up on his shoulders. I grinned and messed up his hair, giggling when he tickled my ankles in retaliation.

Today was a good day.


This world was beautiful.

Like, my niece had told me all about that animated series they had been doing when I started falling ill and then gossiped about the pretty actors of the Live-Action adaptation and the beautiful sets but I hadn't actually seen any of it. For the portrait of the characters I had painted for her I'd just used some fan art as reference and did my own interpretation of what they looked like.

(Imagine my surprise at seeing my cute ass face for the first time and gaping at my reflection)

But this world was, without a doubt, beautiful.

The adults had decided to stop by this open field near a river and rest for a while before continuing on the journey to Qinghe, or Unclean Realm as I understood it. There was a posting of an upcoming Night Hunt they wanted to participate in at our last stop and so their travel plans had changed a bit.

We were supposed to head to Gusu but were instead going further north and then, finally heading all the way down to Gusu. Why I didn't know, but knowing what I knew of their travels, which was absolutely nothing, I wasn't overly surprised.

Wei ChangZe had quickly sprawled out on the grass after tying the donkey over by the shade, and CangSe had sat down near him, pulling out a calligraphy set to pen down a letter or write in that book of hers.

Which I had tried to read but the characters looked like squiggles to me, my writing skill wasn't high enough to let me read it. Understandable, but frustrating.

So, instead, I went exploring.

I was perfectly aware that despite not actually looking in my direction both adults were keeping a tight watch on what I was doing.

The field was really big, with tall grass and critters jumping around. Summer was nearly over so they were gathering the last bits of resources they could before they had to bunker down for the colder weather, or if they were lucky, the still had the whole fall to do so.

So I was just jumping around the tall grass when I stop.

Because, holy hell, those were a lot of flowers.

There was a whole sea of them! What the hell?!

I grinned and ran down to where the flowers were. I remember this one time, Hannah and Abigail had decided to have a family picnic and everyone had to come or suffer through their gripping and generally making us feel like horrible human beings. They chose this old picnic park that wasn't used very often, a pretty quiet and secluded place, near this lake.

On the lakeside there grew these beautiful flowers. Really, really beautiful flowers.

The girls, especially the little ones, loved them. And proceeded to spend the afternoon picking flowers and making flower crowns and bracelets with weeds and stuff.

The next morning Hannah calls me in a panic, asking me to dust out my medical encyclopedias and look for such and such rash and symptoms.

Her daughter was completely covered in dots and very, very itchy.

Turns out the poor girl was allergic to flower pollen.

I chuckled under my breath at the memory. Hannah had been so upset that her daughter was feeling like that, and slightly disappointed they couldn't do similar picnics until a doctor cleared her.

There were dandelions, poppies, and some other wildflowers. I found their meanings under some dusty old memory of flower books I'd salvaged from a yard sale.

I weaved the flowers into a flower crown and plopped it on my head, having to work around the small ponytail CangSe always tied my hair into, before weaving a larger one for her.

Sharing was caring and all that.

Speaking of... I looked at the smaller, yet no less pretty, wildflowers and immediately thought of the severe bun Wei ChangZe wore his hair in. I could totally stick the flowers around it.

If he let me.

...Nah, unlike CangSe Sanren, he can't resist my puppy eyes. (I look too much like her for him to resist it)

I started filling my pockets with flowers and, after picking up the larger flower crown, walked back to where the adults were still relaxing. CangSe looked up when she heard me get closer and blinked at my new look, I could see her lips quirk up, and she opened her mouth to say something but I quickly made a hush gesture.

I tiptoed around Wei ChangZe, who was fake snoring (did he really think people really snored like that?), and placed the flower crown on her head, patting it as a show of praise with all the self-important air of a kind bestowing a royal title.

Her eyes shimmered in amusement, and then wickedness when I turned around and started pulling flowers out of my pockets.

There was only one obvious target for those flowers.

Wei ChangZe tensed the first time he felt my pudgy little fingers poke around his bun, but he must've done some 'spiritual energy' trick and saw that it was nothing too nefarious and relaxed, letting me play with his hair.

Seriously, these people had good hair too!

As I was placing the pretty flowers in his hair I hear the little chime meaning I had a new notification. I lifted my eyes just enough to see:

"New Skill Acquired!"

And then there was a different sounding chime, louder and less chirpy.

More like a bell toll.

"Checkpoint Finished!"

...

Checkpoint?

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Families are the compass that guides us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter." - Brad Henry


Chapter 7: Family

I recalled the Story Arc page and what I'd learnt from it, pausing slightly to process that tidbit of information, and realized I'd just crossed over one of them without realizing it.

It wasn't a particularly good feeling.

"A-Ying?" I looked back to see CangSe Sanren frowning at me.

I must've looked spooked by something.

"Are you okay, honey? What's wrong?" She gestures me to come to her.

...Well, who am I to refuse cuddles?

I finish sticking the last flowers on Wei ChangZe's hair and quickly settle on her lap, feeling her stroke my head.

"What happened?" She asks, using one hand to put away the ink and brushes back into their box.

I needed an excuse.

Deflect! Misdirection! Change topics!

"I just thought," I start, "I'm really happy with you." I tell her.

She smiles, "Then why did that make you sad? Mom and dad are also really happy to have you here with us."

And then I had a brilliant thought.

"But what if you're gone?" I looked up at her with teary grey eyes, "I'll be all alone?"

CangSe Sanren blinks and looks to ChangZe, who has heard everything and sat up to look at me with furrowed brows, before pulling me closer to her.

"Mom and dad aren't going anywhere anytime soon, silly," She tells me.

You actually are, and that is just the start of my titanic mountain of worries.

"But you leave me all the time, I get scared when you're not there..." I tell her," What if you don't come back?"

The adults share a not so subtle look, and ChangZe sits beside her and pulls me into his lap.

"What brought this on, A-Ying?" He asks.

I blink at him, and answer," The chickens."

There's a beat of silence.

"The chickens?" He repeats.

"Yeah, they all lived in big families," I tell him," But there's only us three... Do I have more family?"

He ponders for a moment before deciding to answer me," Well, my parents died when I was younger, so I lived in the servants quarters of the YunmengJiang Sect after that," He explains," I didn't have any siblings by blood, but I do consider someone my brother." He adds.

"So I have an uncle?" I asked, assuming he was talking about Jiang FengMian.

"Ah, FengMian?" CangSe smiles," We've got to send him a letter one of these days, it's been a while since we last sent one."

"Letter?" I turn to her," Can I help?"

Wei ChangZe laughed," Better to let the grownups write the letter, your penmanship needs some work."

I pouted at him.

"What about you, CangSe?" He turns to her," Do you think your Shizun has given you any new shidi or shimei?" He smiles coyly at her.

Or well, I guess I'm not supposed that's a coy smile...

CangSe turns red and smacks him on the arm, "ChangZe!" She hisses.

The man shows no remorse over pulling me closer and angling his body so I can serve as a shield.

...Great role model, I'll strive to emulate you when I grow up...

"So I have more uncles or aunts?" I ask her, pretending I didn't notice any innuendo, and bringing the conversation back on track.

CangSe throws one last dirty look at ChangZe (who's chuckling under his breath) and answers me," I don't know, A-Ying. Shizun takes in young children who's otherwise be left to fend for themselves. I had a shixiong but I never met him, he left the mountain long before Shizun took me in."

"So I have two uncles!" I grin.

She huffs a sigh and indulges me," Yes, you have a Shijiu and a Shibo."

"We'll have to tell FengMian he has a nephew then," ChangZe pipes up.

"You mean, you're going to tell FengMian he has a nephew, my name is anywhere near that letter and Yu ZiYuan will have a bounty out for my head," CangSe rolls her eyes.

I blink at that. So Yu ZiYuan really didn't like my mother, huh?

I kind of figured, from her treatment of Wei WuXian and the cutting remarks, but it was hard to say if that contempt was mutual. CangSe seemed more amused than offended or upset over the irrational hatred.

"Where does Uncle live?" I ask them.

"FengMian lives in Lotus Pier, that's where his Sect is," ChangZe answers me, "Next time we pass through Yunmeng, we'll see if you can meet him."

"And what about Shizun?" I ask CangSe.

She hums for a bit before saying," My Shizun is known as Baoshan Sanren, and she's very renowned in the Cultivation world, A-Ying. She lives in a mountain and never leaves it, and no one but her disciples ever see her."

"Oh?" I tilt my head," Why doesn't she leave her mountain?"

She smiles," Shizun is very strict about worldly matters, her rule is that if a disciple chooses to leave the mountain they must never come back." She answers.

"What if you really miss her?" I ask, "Can you send letters to her?"

CangSe laughs," No letter arrives by itself, A-Ying, someone would need to climb that mountain all the way to the top to deliver it. And no one is allowed to know where Baoshan Sanren lives."

I pout," That's silly," I complain," If no one ever sees her then how do they know you're her disciples? Can anyone say they're Shizun's disciples?" I ask her.

"No," She shakes her head and goes inside her robes to pull out a metal pendant," When we leave the mountain, Shizun gives her disciples this token, no one else can craft a token like this except Shizun. It's made of a special metal, you see?" She shows it to me.

Under the sunlight the metal shimmers in a pale lilac color, the sun glints off the metal feathers of the dream catcher pendant, catching on the beads made of clear quartz and bouncing off in an array of colors.

In the center of the circular metal array there's a carved mountain scene.

It was beautiful.

"Ever since YanLing Daoren came down from the mountain, my shixiong, it's been known that only Baoshan Sanren's disciples carry this token," She explains to me," So anyone without it cannot claim to be her disciples."

That... made sense.

And then I have a perfect idea.

"So you grew up on a mountain?" I perk up," What was it like?"

She laughs and relaxes where she's sitting, obviously convinced I was no longer worried about 'being alone'," Well, it was fun. And hard, I had to hike up and down that mountain everyday following after Shizun as she taught me. And don't be fooled when people say she's old, she is, very, very old, but she's reached the peak of cultivation and she'll let you know just how spry she is if you mouth off to her." She ruefully told me.

"As you learned throughout the years?" ChangZe chuckled.

CangSe nodded with a sigh," She was a hard task master, but she was an excellent teacher. She taught me so much..."

"Like what?" I ask.

She looks down at me and holds my hands in hers.

They are calloused and worn, obviously the hands of someone who had spend many-a-day swinging a sword.

"Something I hope you take to heart, A-Ying," She said," Always remember people's kindness towards you, and never your kindness towards other."

...This was the infamous quote that Wei WuXian had as a life motto of sorts!

And blamed his terrible memory on.

I turn my nose, kind of, at the words.

"Why can't I remember being kind to others?" I frown.

"It's not that you can't 'remember' it, it's just that you cannot expect your kindness to be repaid, but always repay others' kindness towards you," She explains.

I think it though, to a normal three year old those words would just fly out of the metaphorical window and truly just 'forget' any kindness I showed anyone, which was probably what had happened to canon!Wei WuXian, now that I think about it.

"I'll try," I end up settling on, not fully agreeing but not totally averse to that worldview.

They both smile down at me and hug me.

"That's okay, you're a good child, A-Ying," Wei ChangZe tells me.

When the day comes, I wonder if I can let them leave without me to never, ever return.

I didn't want to really think about it.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"There is nothing quite as painful as a truly awkward silence." - Obert Skye


Chapter 8: Why so serious?

Qinghe was... loud.

Not loud like, everyone was running around screaming and making fools of themselves, but loud in the sense that it was bustling with people. This was a major trade center, especially for animal related products.

There was a whole new culinary level cooking in Qinghe, which was understandable given the sheer number of pastures, butchers, shepherds, and hunters. People got bored of eating the same dish over and over again, they needed to create new ways of eating the same type of food.

And it was good food.

"Is it yummy, A-Ying?" ChangZe grinned at the way I was enthusiastically stuffing rice, eggs and ham into my mouth. And they also had this soup with chicken in it that was sooooo good.

I nodded my head, mouth too full to answer vocally.

We'd just arrived in Qinghe and had been traveling for hours so CangSe had decided to stop and eat, so that's what we were doing right now.

Eating damn good food.

It was almost fall too, this far north the weather was noticeably colder and the trees had already started to change color.

It made for a beautiful travel scene but it also meant that it got darker sooner, which meant that I only had a few more hours before I get reacquainted with the interior of an inn and left to brood and be bored out of my mind.

There was always skills to level up true, but that took time and it got repetitive soon enough.

A chirp interrupts my thoughts.

"New (Side) Quest Available!"

"Do you wish to view this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

Oh?

I discreetly watch the letters floating in front of me and mentally give myself a little cheer, because oh, yeah, this is good!

'Yes,' I couldn't agree any faster.

"Quest: Find A-Sang's Toy!"

«A-Sang has lost his favorite toy somewhere in the town center.
A-Sang is very sad without his toy.
Find A-Sang's toy.»

"View Quest Objectives?"

[YES] [NO]

...What?

No, wait, actually... What?

How is this a quest?!

I choke on my food and ChangZe quickly hits me in the back.

"A-Ying! Be careful!" CangSe fusses over me," Chew your food properly!" She scolds.

I nod, pausing to put my chopsticks down, and chew the rest of the food in my mouth, "'M sorry," I cough.

CangSe gives me a look before turning to her husband, giving him an even more pointed look," No more stuffing your mouth with food, eat slowly," She finally tells me.

I nod again, finishing the rest of my rice and soup.

Pretending to be looking at my soup bowl I focus on the letters again.

There was no way this was a legit Quest.

Well... You are a three year old, not much you can do either way.

But searching for some kid's toy?

It's doing this or be bored, choose.

...Not fair...

'Yes,' I mulishly agree.

"Find A-Sang's Toy Quest Objectives:"

|o Find the Toy (Incomplete)|
|o Deliver it to A-Sang's brother (Incomplete)|

"Bonus Objective:"

|o Defeat the Bully (Incomplete)|

"Accept this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

...I stare at the Bonus Objective and have to force myself not to burst out laughing.

This Quest was ridiculous.

But it's still a Quest.

I accept it, and my eyes lock on the sudden ticking clock.

...This is a time-locked Quest.

Seriously?

"I'm done, can I go play?" I ask the adults, putting away my chopsticks correctly (see, I do learn!)

"Play where?" CangSe asks.

"That small garden, with the trees, there were other children there," I mentally applaud my quick thinking.

The two share another look before Wei ChangZe pulls out a strip of paper out of his sleeve.

Okay?

"Just let me put this under your robe and you can go, alright?" He tells me," You must promise me not to take it off, okay? Or you'll be spending the next few days practicing your writing and reading."

That was a very, very parental warning if I ever heard one.

"I won't take it off," I tell him," I'm a good child," I parrot back the words he said to me.

His lips do a funny little twitch and he chuckles, sticking that paper to my back," Yes, you are."

"Off you go, and be careful! Don't follow anyone who tells you to, do you head me, Wei Ying!" CangSe stresses.

"I won't!" I tell her and quickly make my way to the garden where I had saw those kids.

The Quest mentioned a Bonus Objective, so it either had to be related to the Quest or at least the toy had better be near the kids.

Well, going about this logically A-Sang was probably playing somewhere and forgot about the toy, so going to places where kids usually play was probably the faster way to find the thing.

Actually, the Quest didn't even tell me what kind of toy it was.

What was I looking for? A doll? A ball? A rattle? What?

'Help, A-Sang's toy?' I try.

No answer.

Well, it was worth a try...

The garden wasn't too far from where we had been eating, in fact I could hear the noise the kids were making, so I picked up my pace, weaving in and out of the crowd of people going about their lives.

There were about five or six kids of various ages and genders gathered here, playing games and generally being kids.

It was so damn easy to see who the 'Bully' was.

Like the stereotypical schoolyard bully, the first time I see him is when he has a smaller kid by the front of his robes and is legit shaking the kid in the air.

...What were kids being taught these days?

The Bully had another kid with him, if we went by stereotypes then it must be his little brother who was, somehow, offended by the scrawny kid being shaken, and he was delighted at seeing the bully deal with the other kid.

There were so many things wrong with this scene.

Like, none of the other kids were even looking at the bully. They could hear the other kid crying but no one spared him a glance or tried to help.

Seriously?

What was wrong with people these days?

"You shouldn't shake people," I told him as I walked up to where they were.

The Bully stops and looks down at me.

"You say something, shrimp?" He spits at me.

I smile at him, "I said, you shouldn't shake people. Do you have trouble hearing or are you just too stupid to understand words?"

Everybody stops.

Silence.

Then the other kids finally turn to us and the look of pure shock on their faces...

The Bully quite literally just drops the other kid, who is smart enough to start running as soon as his feet hit the ground, and turns to face me fully.

'Right punch,' Something inside of me whispered.

I dodged.

The idiot blinked and before he had time to try and hit me again I punch him square in the nose.

I was short, sure, but he had bent down as he punched, his face was literally just there. Who could blame me?

"New Skill Acquired!"

"Brawling Skill leveled up!"

"Stat leveled up!"

How nice.

"Mah noooze!" The kid cried, his hands coming up to cup his nose, which had started dripping blood.

Uh... Guess I had used more force than I anticipated.

Oops?

"You punched my brother!" The shorter kid yelled and threw himself at me.

Can I just say... Called it.

As the kid threw himself there, for a split second, seemed to have been a moment where he looked frozen in mid-air, but I brushed it off. I once again dodged and the kid flopped to the ground.

Schoolyard spat rules, think quickly... What had my nephews done in situations like this?

"What are you going to do? Weren't you hiding behind your big brother just a moment ago? Like a sissy!" I taunted, part of me face-palmed at my own words, and went to hide in shame somewhere in a corner of my mind.

The other kids all laughed at my taunt.

"New Skill Acquired!"

"Player leveled up!"

No comment.

The kid looked up from the ground and right into my eyes, I cocked my head slightly to the side and stared him down from my nose, feigning superiority," Oh, what? Are you gonna say anything to me, sissy?"

He looks from me to try and search his older brother.

Gone. Kid ran as soon as his nose wouldn't stop bleeding.

This kid wasn't too bad himself, he saw that he was all alone, saw that there would be no support from the crowd (everyone was still laughing at him), and then looked back at me.

He got props from me for knowing when to cut his losses.

Kid got up and took off running out of the park.

"Hey, you!" A girl in pig-tailed braids comes up to me," You can have this, I found it by the fountain, it's really pretty!"

She hands me a wooden carved bird, painted rather intricately in blacks and yellows, and goes back to her game.

As soon as I grab hold of the toy, letter float above it.

"A-Sang's Toy (Quest Item)"

...

Spares me the time of going to look for it, I guess.

Then girls words are fully processed in my head.

"Where's the fountain?" I ask a random kid.

He blinks, and points in a direction, "It's right in the middle of the market," He says with the tone of voice that made it seemed like the answer was obvious.

I thanked him and started to head towards the fountain, I peeked at the floating clock and saw that I still had plenty of time.

I guess it was in case the Player hadn't went to look for the kids?

The fountain was, indeed, pretty obvious once you entered the market.

I got there but saw no one that seemed to be looking for a toy, nor did I see any crying kid bawling after it, so I kind of sat at the fountain and thought of where to go from here.

I still had the toy in my hands.

It was a very beautifully carved toy bird, I wanted one of these for myself. I turned the bird in my hands, hoping to find some clue as to where this A-Sang might be.

As it turns down, there's a very big clue on the underside of the bird.

A stamp mark.

In the shape of a beast head.

"New Skill Acquired!"

A-Sang... A-Sang...

It couldn't be...

'Deliver it to A-Sang's brother'...

It couldn't be... No way...

A commotion drew my attention, there, just on the other side of the fountain, came these people hurrying into the market and desperately searching for something. After them trailed a child.

A rather tall and intimidating child.

It was a young Nie MingJue.

Oh, duck.

...For a moment I considered just tossing the toy in his direction and run like hell out of the market, since the System was obviously sending me to my death, but I quickly nixed the idea. To flee would only bring scrutiny and 'blame' onto my shoulders.

The adults, most likely servants, were hard at work searching for the toy, and wasn't it just adorable how big brother MingJue had obvious enlisted these people to help him find his little brother's toy, but they hadn't looked in my direction yet.

Key word, yet.

I had to make a decision quickly.

I looked at Nie MingJue again, already heads and shoulders above other kids his age and having a scowl worthy of Drill-Sergeant Nasty, and reasoned he wouldn't kill me.

Probably...

Just suck it up, you're the one who accepted the Quest.

I regret everything.

I get up and walk up to him, no one spares me a single glance (which okay, I did not look like a threat when I had no doubt the kid could bench press me), and when I get within a feet or two from him I raise the toy up for him to see.

"Is it yours? A girl had it at the garden and said she found it," I tell him, because if I was going to suffer so would that girl, equality!

Nie MingJue looks down at me and I can tell the exact moment he recognizes the toy in my hand.

His brown eyes blaze up and he opens his mouth, to shout at me probably, and I panic.

"Did you know birds have hollow bones? That's why they're so light! And why they can fly... If humans had hollow bones we wouldn't be able to move though, because our bodies are really, really heavy..." I babble.

"And, and, ants! Ants are really strong! They can lift up to twenty times their weight... And they're fast too, if people ran as fast as ants do then they'd be as fast as a horse!" I go to continue babbling when he bonks me on the head.

Lightly.

"Shut up," He tells me.

I don't need to be told twice.

He extends his hand and I hand him the toy bird.

"Quest completed!"

There's this awkward moment of silence.

"A-Wu, get the kid a treat," He then tells a servant beside him," We're going home."

"As you wish, Young Master Nie," The servant bows, and the rest follow after their master.

After they're gone the servant turns to me and smiles," What would you like to eat?"

"Bun?" I weakly ask, too confused and definitely shaken from this experience.

The servant nods and leads me to a nearby stall, telling me goodbye after buying me a bag of buns.

I sit back down at the fountain, lost on what to do.

...

They were good buns.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Hark! Hark to the wind! 'Tis the night, they say, when all souls come back from the far away- the dead, forgotten this many a day!" - Virna Sheard


Chapter 9: Spooky stuff

You know when time flies by?

Because it does. Really, really flipping fast.

Today was halloween.

Or well, to me it was halloween, to everyone else it was just the last day of October. The equivalent to 'halloween' here happened either in mid-August or early September, because that was apparently the time where hell closed its gates and every single ghost decided to come party it up in the living world.

Culture here was odd, but it had incredible stories and anecdotes.

So, I was turning four years old today. Hooray?

I mean, I was happy I was getting older and could try and weasel my way to more freedom because I was a 'big boy' now, but it was also very hard to pretend not to notice the metaphorical hourglass running out of sand.

I didn't know exactly when Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren died. I knew Wei WuXian was four when it happened, but apart from that I was going in blind, and it was scary.

Not scary in the sense that I would have no idea of what to do if they were gone, because I had basically left my ancestral house the minute I legally turned eighteen with only the clothes on my back, I knew I could survive on my own, especially since there was always the option of going to Yunmeng and let myself be found early by Jiang FengMian.

No, the scary part was the not knowing when exactly they'd die. The only thing I knew for certain was that they died during a night-hunt, but it was a small consolidation when they went on night-hunts every other night.

Usually when we were passing through towns, as it was easier to leave me in an inn than to try and find some quiet but still protected place for me to stay and wait from them. And as the hunts happened at night it was bad form to leave your toddler in the middle of a street out in the cold.

I digress, I was still trying to convince them to take me with them.

Not because I was worried about them not coming back but to learn, first hand, what I was getting myself into by wanting to become a cultivator.

Because I was going to be one. Ain't living in a world filled with magic and superpowers, cool flying swords and crazy monsters to grow up and open another cafe.

Although I'd miss cooking and brewing drinks. I liked the atmosphere of it, and I could still cook as a hobby (although brewing would have to wait until I could know for sure if I could find coffee beans). I wondered if I could handle spices as well as canon!Wei WuXian.

I liked spices, but I was more of a sweet tooth, give me candy and I would be your friend for life kind of person, and I had a limit to how spicy my food could be. Another thing I hadn't been able to test yet as neither adult wanted to give any spicy food to a toddler.

Understandable.

But I was curious, damn it.

Anyway, moving on.

As it was my birthday I was feeling confident in my chances of wheedling into one of their Night-Hunts, which was what I was doing at the moment.

"Please? Pretty please?" I did my best puppy eyes at Wei ChangZe," I will be quiet and I will keep very close, I won't walk ahead and I won't play any games, please?"

Wei ChangZe was the easiest target, CangSe was an automatic no, but I could try to use the 'but dad said yes' card.

I'm sorry, ChangZe, but I really want to go.

He was visibly struggling to give me an answer. Part of him wanted to cave in at the sight of my big teary silver orbs, but the responsible!parent part of him was against the very thought of doing it.

Plus, we both knew CangSe would have "words" about this if he accepted.

"Ask your mother," He finally answered.

Damn.

I pouted at him, should have known he'd say that.

Then I grinned, two could play that game.

I skipped happily towards CangSe," Mom, dad said to ask you something!"

The words tumbled out of my mouth with only some hesitation, I couldn't really address them differently but something inside of me twitched at the words.

They didn't feel right, it was hard, very hard, to not show any reaction whenever they called me their son, or child, and were generally loving parents.

It was different that what I was used to.

Oh, sure, all of my nieces and nephews had loving parents in my sisters and brothers-in-law. But that was different.

Because they had never been my parents.

Even my mother and father-in-law knew there were boundaries they couldn't cross with me and threaded very carefully around.

There had been more than once-too-many bad breakdown during my marriage with their son regarding those boundaries.

I wondered if I would ever fully get rid of them.

"What is it?" She asked, smiling.

"He wanted you to say whether or not I could go with you when you leave tonight," I hugged her legs and smiled up at her.

Her smile froze.

"Why couldn't he answer that?" She asked mildly.

"I don't know," I shrugged, unrepentant," I asked him and he said to ask you."

She hums, and I just know that ChangZe won't be too happy with me," Why did you ask if you could come with us? You know the rules, don't you?"

"But it's my birthday! I'm four today!" I pout at her," I'll be real quiet I won't get in the way, pleaseeeeee?"

I hug her leg tighter and make puppy eyes.

"You'll do exactly as we say?" She asks me.

I nod really quick," To the letter!"

"Then if I said you had to stay here while we go out?" She says.

I pout," I'll stay here..." I answer, put out.

"Promise?" She smiles.

"Promise," I nod, and sigh because I really thought I had it this time.

"Then A-Ying can come with us," She decided.

...What?

I beam up at her," Really?" I grin.

"Really," She nods," So long as you do exactly as we say, do you hear me?"

"Yes! Yes yes yes yes!" I celebrate, jumping around the room.

"You sure, CangSe?" ChangZe pokes his head around the paper divider where he's having a bath.

"Oh? Weren't you the one who told him to ask me?" She gives him a look.

He smiles at her," You know I love you, right?"

I leave them to it and go watch the fallout from a safe distance away.


Ghosts were weird.

They looked human enough, if slightly see-through, but intellectually they were kind of broken.

As in, they repeated some words, complaint about something, or generally just sat there and stared at nothing.

It was weird.

Weirder still to see the two adults pull out paper talismans slap them upside the heads with it, and suppress it in its coffin or death place.

It was a reality check that no, this wasn't the world I was born in and how the hell am I supposed to find this normal.

"Why are they like that?" I ask them, looking at a nearby ghost lady that was wailing for her husband.

"Scary?" Wei ChangZe smiles at me.

"No," I shake my head," They just seem... sad. Why are they sad?" I ask him.

"Ghosts are formed when people have lots of resentment when they die, A-Ying," CangSe answers me," Resentment over not doing certain things or of how they died, for example."

"So they're sad because they died? But that lady is very old," I do my best not to point, 'cuz that was rude," And there's another grave beside her for her husband, so isn't he gone too?"

"She died before him, she doesn't know he's gone," ChangZe replies.

"Why can't we tell her and let her go meet him? Why do we have to put her to sleep?" I ask him.

He hums and doesn't answer, not sure how to answer at all.

CangSe smiles at me instead," Do you want to try and talk to her?"

I think about it," Can I?" I make sure it's okay.

She nods and I walk towards the wailing woman.

She doesn't really notice me, even when I'm standing in front of her, she just keeps crying and calling for her husband, curled up where she's sitting beside her grave.

"Ma'am?" I try calling her, and reach out for her," Can you hear me?"

She's not quite solid, but I certainly felt something when my hand went through her shoulder.

The airs on the back of my arm stand on end.

It works, and the woman stops wailing and looks at me, eyes clouded and face stained with tears.

"Who are you? Where is my husband? I need to find my husband." She speaks in a weak and scratchy voice.

"My name is Wei Ying," I answer," Who is your husband?" I ask her.

"He's Wu Gui, he is a carpenter," She answers," Have you seen him?"

"Oh? Does he make tables and chairs?" I ask her, not answering her question on purpose.

She blinks and smiles," The best tables and chairs in town, our son always complains he can't build them half as good."

I smile back at her," He'll be happy to hear you say that," I tell her," Why are you looking for him?"

She looks at me but doesn't answer.

"Do you know where you are right now?" I try then.

"I...I...I don't know..." She answers and a few tears start falling from her eyes, her face twists.

"No, no, don't cry, ma'am!" That's not what I wanted to happen," I heard something from your husband!"

She stops crying," You did?" She asks.

I lie and nod," He told me that he'll be here if you close your eyes."

She blinks," Close my eyes? Why only if I close my eyes?"

"It's a surprise!" I whisper to her," He thought you looked so sad today that he wanted to do something to cheer you up!"

She smiles widely," A surprise? Oh, I'm sure it's another bouquet of flowers, the silly man," She tells me.

"You've got to close your eyes and find out," I tell her," What kind of flowers do you think he has?"

She closes them," Roses and peonies, or maybe tulips," She tells me," He once filled the house with flowers, when we had our son, he was so happy."

"Keep you eyes closed!" I told her," Here he is, he's right beside you, can't you smell the flowers?"

I begged a higher power for the trick to work.

There was a lull in the night, a moment of complete silence, then...

"I can," She smiles," What took you so long? I was worried..."

I open my mouth to try and figure out something to say, but it wasn't needed.

"Oh, you couldn't decide what to pick? Silly, silly man, you know I'd love anything you'd brought me," She talks to herself," Let's go home, A-Zheng is waiting with his little wife."

She starts to fade away.

"Player leveled up!"

"New Skill Acquired!"

Part of me was confused as to how this actually worked.

"Good job, A-Ying," CangSe kneels beside me," You appeased her," She tells me.

"She just missed her husband," I murmur," Was that why she was so sad?"

"Maybe," CangSe tells me," Or maybe you just made her feel better long enough for her spirit to pass on."

That made sense, in a convoluted way, and I slumped against her.

"Are you sad, A-Ying?" She sounds surprised.

I brush away the tears from my eyes," No."

I don't sound very convincing.

The thought of what my dear Walter was doing right now crossed my mind when I thought of that woman, and then the rest of my family, and it made me feel small. I wondered if I'd leave a ghost behind in this world, filled with regrets over letting things happen when I could try to avoid them or curb their consequences.


I'd thought the night would end on a calmer note, maybe even an early night given that they were, in fact, accompanied by a newly turned four year-old.

I was mistaken.

"Stay right here, Wei Ying, do not move from this spot!" CangSe warned me before taking off to join ChangZe in fighting a couple of fierce corpses.

...Yes, you read that right, a couple of fierce corpses.

Someone wasn't doing their job properly if there were more than one in the area and people hadn't been warned about it.

I crouched closer to the ground and near some bushes so the corpses wouldn't see me and think I looked like a nice snack.

But, oh man, they looked awesome.

Creepy and very scary, especially under a weak moonlight and the state some of them were in, but very, very awesome.

...

I want one.

We're not asking CangSe or ChangZe for a pet fierce corpse.

Just a little one?

No.

I was getting my own fierce corpse.

Wen Ning?

...

I'll get a different fierce corpse and try keep that munchkin alive.

Protect the cinnamon roll!

All hail Wen Ning the cinnamon roll.

I take the opportunity to open my Player Menu and assign those Stat points I'd forgotten about.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 6
Class: None Fatigue: 20

Stats: 16 Points Available;
Intelligence: 7 Stealth: 6
Strength: 7 Charisma: 6
Agility: 7 Senses: 8
Stamina: 8 Luck: 6

Skills:
-Martial
Acrobatic: 2 Throwing: 2
Climbing: 2 Brawling: 1
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

...I don't remember getting that many points.

Well, anyway.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 6
Class: None Fatigue: 20

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 9 Stealth: 9
Strength: 9 Charisma: 9
Agility: 9 Senses: 9
Stamina: 9 Luck: 8

Skills:
-Martial
Acrobatic: 2 Throwing: 2
Climbing: 2 Brawling: 1
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Straw sandals ]

That worked.

'Threat,' A chill went down my spine.

...What?

I closed my screen and turned around.

Not three feet away from me there was a fierce corpse.

Staring at me.

Oh, no.

Oh, no no no no.

It snarled at me.

I froze. Flight was, realistically, my only option, but running towards the adults (who were busy fighting more fierce corpses, need I remind you) without knowing the situation was a bad idea.

The fierce corpse tensed in order to come at me.

Scratch that, it was a better idea than to stand here and be eaten.

I took off running towards them.

"Mom!" I yelled.

"A-Ying, I told you to not-!" She stops mid sentence when she sees what's coming after me.

I didn't even see her move.

One second I'm running, the next she has me by the back of my clothes and is slicing the head clean off the reanimated body.

She puts me down and starts checking to see if I'm alright, which I am, just had the spike of adrenaline of a lifetime.

"He's never coming with us again until he knows how to handle a sword!" She's yelling at ChangZe.

Neither of us disagree with her.

But, bloody hell, I want one.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Everything is funny, as long as it's happening to somebody else." - Will Rogers


Chapter 10: Who's afraid of the Big Bad Goat?

I was grounded.

Or, well, as grounded as you could be when you're traveling and the only method of travel you can take is either sat on the back of a donkey or on the shoulders of one of them.

That being said, I was left behind in the inn to practice my calligraphy or play quietly, and god have mercy on my ears if I asked, again, if I could go with them.

Which was reasonable, given the scare of the last time, but still... I had fun.

I had less fun when trying to write the characters ChangZe had assigned me to work on and fail miserably because I was used to one method of writing and no using a brush and 'lightly' pressing it down on paper to 'draw' elegant strokes.

Yeah, no...

Where were pencils and fountain pens when you needed them?

I guess they haven't been invented yet.

Note to self, then, invent fountain pens.

We were halfway to Gusu, and the weather was less cold and more humid. I had no doubt that once winter set in it would be freezing but there were still warm days and the trees had only just started changing. There was still time.

There will never be enough time.

I sighed, and put the brush down on the table, resting my head on one hand, my elbow on top of the desk.

I open the Story Arcs page, and I stare at the timeline, one of the knots was gone, in its place the black thread that made up 'time' turned red for a segment, before turning back again all the way to the next knot.

Around the red thread flowers bloomed and wrapped around it.

I focused on it and a heavily fogged memory of a Wei WuXian playing on top of his father's chest while his mother laughed behind them. The boy pulls something out of his sleeve and Wei ChangZe makes this scandalized sound while CangSe starts howling in laughter, tearing up.

Then the scene changes to how I lived through that scene.

I'd changed things... but in the end they stayed the same.

In both scenes, it was a nice day out with the family, happiness and joy, warmth, under the midday sun.

I open a side page to this one, called Memories, and there they are, like photographs glued on a wall. Little snippets of canon!Wei WuXian's childhood, one that he'd forget almost in its entirety.

Four years with his family, and yet barely twenty memories remained on this page. CangSe Sanren's quote, a memorable donkey ride, a shopping trip in a colorful town, lighting lanterns by a lake, the phantom taste of mooncakes on his tongue.

Waiting for his parents by a city gate, but they never come back.

The tickling clock hounded my footsteps, nipping at my heels, and I knew I had to think of something.

What to do?

Important things first, walking backwards from Wei WuXian's death, was the siege of the Burial Mounds, then Jiang YanLi's death, Jin ZiXuan's death, the isolation from the rest of the world, the Sunshot Campaign, Wen Chao and Wen ZhuLiu, the Burning of Lotus Pier, the animosity between the Jiangs because of Wei WuXian's presence.

I had no idea how to work out the last one, mostly because I didn't know if the rumors were true or not. The favoritism wouldn't stop just because I was different, and other than giving more support to Jiang Cheng and try to push him onto every situation Jiang FengMian was present, I was short out of ideas.

The Burning of Lotus Pier... And the war... I needed strength. Power.

Alternatives.

Once Wei WuXian lost his Golden Core he was all out of options of how to still be useful to his best friend and keep doing what he wanted to do, save people and protect innocents.

So I needed to become powerful and I needed to have options.

Easier said than done.

The next great obstacle would be the Jins, because if they played the same games they did in the novel then all my hard work would be for nothing.

The Wens... I wanted to save them.

I had hated reading that chapter in the novel, knowing that all they were guilty of was of having the last name "Wen" and be killed for it. The Holocaust ended a decade or so before I was born, but it was recent. It was real, it happened and it was... beyond dehumanizing.

How many Wens killed were children?

The thought strangled my heart.

I thought of all my nieces and nephews, of how small they had been nestled against my chest and how perfect their little hands and toes looked.

Wen Yuan had been born in the middle of the Campaign. Had nearly starved in a prisoners camp he was never meant to be in.

Anger coursed through my veins.

I couldn't let that happen again.

I could not stand by and watch as children were starved, tortured and murdered for their family name.

I had to save them.

But how?

"A-Ying? We're back," CangSe opened the room door," It's late, why haven't you gone to bed yet?"

I let her pick me up and tuck me in.

My thoughts swirled like blackened vines, creating a black hole in the middle of my mind.

How do I save them?


"I still can't believe you cut off his beard," ChangZe was laughing so hard the trees shook.

I was wheezing on top of his shoulders.

"It made him look so much more handsome!" CangSe justified," And he got so angry at me for it too!"

The infamous CangSe Sanren and her time at GusuLan Sect.

One word: Mind-blowing.

I was so growing up to become just like her.

"And you don't get to talk, I distinctively remember you and FengMian being caught red-handed trying to sneak a goat into his dorm room," She shot back.

I perk up," What? You did?"

ChangZe groaned," CangSe, why'd you have to remind me of that. In my defense, it was all FengMian's idea!"

"Was it?" I peek at him upside down.

"No," He smirks.

I grin back at him, exemplary role-models for children, right here.

"What about that time with the sword and melon?" CangSe asked.

ChangZe tripped," That was not me!"

"What happened?" I asked, turning to look back at her.

"Not age appropriate! You're too young to hear that story!" ChangZe vehemently refuses.

I'm old enough to be your mother, mister, now give me all the delicious details!

"How about I tell you of how your mother made her teacher give up on ever trying to get her to behave like a lady?" ChangZe offers instead.

CangSe Sanren behaving like a lady? The universe would implode.

I cross my arms on top of his head and settle down to listen to this.

ChangZe and FengMian had studied for almost two years in Gusu, mostly so that FengMian's parents could focus on political alliances (which would end up in him getting engaged to Yu ZiYuan), while CangSe Sanren joined them on their last year.

She was slightly younger than both of them but far outpaced most of the men of their generation.

Both FengMian and ChangZe had become enamored with her, and many thought that CangSe was sure to become the next Lady of Lotus Pier. So it came as a shock when she asked his manservant to marry her instead.

"FengMian was my friend, but your father and I just clicked," She laughed," FengMian accepted my decision and released ChangZe from his ties with the YunmengJiang in order for us to get married and become rogue cultivators."

"Besides, he was already engaged with Yu ZiYuan by then," ChangZe added," Yu ZiYuan never quite got over her dislike for her mother, though, so I wouldn't be too surprised if she hissed at us the next time we run into them."

"She's not so bad, ChangZe!" CangSe kept laughing," You'll get A-Ying confused!"

She really is that bad... And it makes the rumors surrounding your love triangle more incriminating.

There was a possibility FengMian wasn't as 'okay' with their decision as he might've made it sound. But clearly thought of both of them dearly if he was willing to let them leave, possibly forever, and not simply have CangSe move in with ChangZe at Lotus Pier.

Probably because it would make it harder to ignore the fact it wasn't him marrying her.

Or because Yu ZiYuan would've made everyone else miserable until they left.

Bit of both?

"Checkpoint Finished!"

Another already?

This Story Arc isn't going to last for much longer...

Tick-Tock.

Time's running out.


Whoever was creating these Quest names needed some serious help.

"Quest: Find the Old Goat!"

«You've found a pouch on the streets.
It's a very important pouch.
Bring the pouch back to its owner.»

"View Quest Objectives?"

[YES] [NO]

I could very well guess what were the Quest Objectives...

"Find the Old Goat Quest Objectives:"

|o Find the Old Goat (Incomplete)|
|o Deliver the pouch (Incomplete)|

"Accept this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

I accepted and looked down at the pouch I had picked off the streets because it had given off some sort of glow.

Apparently there was indeed an HUD mechanic to the System, it's just that my Stats are so low that they rarely if ever showed anything.

I happened to walk too close to the pouch and it started glowing, the moment I pick it up, the Quest notification goes up. And now...

Now the words "Old Goat's Pouch (Quest Item)" float above it.

I was so done with situations like these... Why would a goat have a pouch?

Well, I could infer that it might be a person, more than likely was, but who the hell was called 'Old Goat'?

It wasn't even a rather eye-catching pouch, plain white with blue trim, but made of quality cloth.

I also couldn't open it, which upset me because, I was curious! Let me see!

The adults had gone ahead to look for an inn and then to go talk to the person responsible for organizing night-hunts in this town. We were a day or so from Gusu and it showed.

The dialect in this area was unlike any I had heard before, all soft-voice and sing-song tones. It was creepy.

Especially when I had heard Qinghe merchants selling their wares with big drums and showing very bloody pieces of mutton and pork on sale.

In comparison these people sounded like they'd make chewing you out seem like a poetry reading session.

I much preferred the buff merchants.

Anyway, there wasn't time to stand her and contemplate dialects. Until the previous Quest this didn't have a timer but I wanted to end this as fast as possible.

So, going under the assumption that this is indeed a person and not a farmer with a sense of humor, where does one go to find people.

Market place?

Market place.

I searched high and low around the market, even asked a few people who might've seen anyone looking for a pouch, but there was nothing.

No one had lost a pouch.

Not even showing it had jogged any memories, though there were a few people who saw the quality of the pouch, said it was theirs but upon not being able to open it gave it back, cussing me out.

Idiots... Blame the four year-old, why don't you...

The sun was going down, not quite dusk yet but wouldn't be too long now.

I left to go find the adults at the meeting spot we'd agreed with.

Here's the thing, I'm not a very observant person by nature. In fact, I went against basic survival instincts by not caring too much about what was happening around me.

Which was now a conditioning I had to break so as to not end in situations like this.

See, what I didn't notice upon running towards the meeting spot was that everyone was giving it a wide berth, as in, people were going through roundabout ways just so they didn't have to pass through that spot.

I didn't notice it yet it was that obvious.

Secondly, upon seeing Wei WuXian's parents talking animatedly with a group of people, I didn't stop for one second to recognize what they were wearing.

No, I just ran up to them and literally skidded to a halt upon seeing the face of the person they were talking with.

It was a tall and thin person, straight backed, he had a somewhat long face with a very distinct frown. His dark eyes had this odd glint of amber in them.

The long goatee and thin mustache just triggered my memory in a brilliant moment of word association.

I know who this is!

"It's the Old Goat!" I blurt out.

It's Lan QiRen!

...

Did you seriously just say that out loud?

I take in the looks on everyone's faces.

...Just kill me...Please, just bury me in a hole somewhere...

Maybe increasing your Luck stats next time might be a good investment.

Shut. Up.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"But surely for everything you have to love you have to pay some price." - Agatha Christie


Chapter 11: Love's complicated

"Wei Ying, what do you say?" CangSe was laying the 'upset mother' vibe quite thickly.

Not helped by the fact that Lan QiRen was still staring at me like I'd offended his ancestors by jumping on their grave or something.

You did call him Old Goat. To his face.

Ughhhhhhhhh...Don't remind me.

I'll never stop.

Ugh.

"I'm sorry," I apologized, doing an awkward bow as ChangZe had very firmly instructed me to do.

"And will you call that to anyone ever again?" CangSe asked.

"No," I answered.

Not, out loud at least.

We'll see about that!

Shut up.

"I'm sorry about him, QiRen, I don't even know where he got that name from," She told the not-amused man.

"Yes, well, might I suggest a talk about rudeness and common courtesy," He huffed," I can see that the apple didn't fall too far from the tree with this one."

Asshole.

CangSe's eyes kind of narrowed, and she must've bitten the inside of her cheek and counted down from a hundred to calm down, but she kept from replying back to his comment.

ChangZe gave off a fake chuckle," Boys will be boys, he's young yet so we're not too worried about it. Are you here for the night-hunt?"

Lan QiRen nodded primly," The disciples will be going along with a few seniors, I'll stay behind unless they need assistance. They need to experience night-hunts by themselves."

"I remember doing that in Gusu," ChangZe smiled more honestly," How is the Sect Leader Lan? I hope his health is better?"

Lan QiRen nodded in thanks," My brother has recovered from his bout of illness, he's spending the week with his sons."

He didn't look very happy with the fact.

"And how are your nephews? I believe one is around A-Ying's age, isn't he?" CangSe asked," And the older one, A-Huan? He should be about seven?"

"Yes, A-Huan is seven, A-Zhan is turning five in the winter," Lan QiRen eases slightly when talking about his nephews," They are doing well in their studies, prime examples of our Clan's teachings.

They're seven and five... What are you teaching them? How not to trip over their sleeves?

CangSe's lips twitched, she probably found that as funny as I did.

"Well, maybe one day they can meet A-Ying and teach him those good Lan manners," She says.

I looked up at CangSe with a horrified expression.

I thought you loved me!

Lan QiRen twitched, he wanted this devil-in-the-making nowhere near his precious nephews.

"Perhaps," He answered out of sheer politeness," He's just turned four?"

"Yes, a few weeks ago, we just came here from Qinghe," ChangZe replied smiling," It's very beautiful up north this time of year, but I'm sure the Cloud Recesses look even more amazing."

Stroke his ego, why don't you?

"Cloud Recesses?" I echo, and then turn to look at the clouds embroidered in the GusuLan's disciples robes," Why clouds?"

Lan QiRen looks down at me," This is the GusuLan's Sect symbol, and the Cloud Recesses is where our Sect resides," A firm believer of educating children as soon as possible.

I could work with that.

But we still find him a fuddy-duddy?

We still find him a fuddy-duddy.

"You live in the clouds?" I ask him, wide-eyed," There's a house in the clouds?"

CangSe laughs and kneels down," They don't live in the clouds, A-Ying, they live on the top of a mountain. The place there is called Cloud Recesses because it's so up high that it goes through the clouds in the sky. But they don't live on the clouds."

"Ooh," I make a sound of wonder, then I smile widely at Lan QiRen," I'm going to climb the tallest mountain there is!"

He cocks an eyebrow at me," And why is that?"

"I'm going to climb the tallest mountain and reach the clouds and be like mom's Shizun!" I answer proudly.

"Your mother's 'Shizun'..." Lan QiRen repeats, before blinking," The Great Baoshan Sanren?"

I nod happily," I'll have my own mountain and I'll teach others like mom's Shizun taught her, and the mountain will be super tall and beautiful too!"

CangSe laughs and picks me up to rest on her hip," You're going to have to work hard to have your own mountain, A-Ying," She says.

"I'll work the hardest!" I cheer.

Lan QiRen doesn't know how to appreciate my greatness," To achieve the Great Baoshan's success one needs more than just hard work, discipline and self-control are tantamount."

I pout at him," I can do it."

To be fair, I wouldn't believe my own words either.

I wonder why that is?

Because I've clearly been spending too much time with you, obviously.

"We'll see," He turns his nose," Maybe you'll even get to come study at Cloud Recesses like your parents, see if you can show me that discipline and self-control then," He says.

That's a challenge if I ever heard one.

Well then... Challenge accepted.

"I will!" I puff out my chest," I'll be the best there is!"

ChangZe smirks," Just remember that bragging is not allowed on the Cloud Recesses, A-Ying," He tells me.

I pout at him then.

...I think we forgot about the 3000+ rules.

'Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.'

More like 'Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.'

True.

Wei WuXian has to be the one who breaks Lan QiRen's perfect record of straightening out 'bad kids'.


I'm still awake when they come back from their night-hunt, but as I'm effectively wrapped on a blanket and laying quite still on the bed they do not notice and start talking in hushed voices with one another.

I pretend to be asleep, keeping my body limp and breathing relaxed.

There's nothing that tells you're awake and listening in than keeping perfectly still and your breathing quieter.

"How many years has it been?" CangSe was saying as she took off her let loose her hair," Nine, ten?"

"CangSe..." ChangZe sighs.

"He's still keeping her locked in that house, ChangZe!" She hisses at him," He has children now, didn't you hear that they took them from her as soon as they were born?"

Oh.

They're talking about Lan WangJi's mother.

And XiChen's.

"It's not our place to question what they do, CangSe," ChangZe tells her," And, at the time, it was the only way of keeping her alive and safe from the rest of the Clan."

"But it's been years, ChangZe, she's given birth to the Clan's heirs!" CangSe doesn't let the topic go.

I understand where she's coming from. The thought of being locked away in a cottage, all by myself, feeling a child growing inside of me only to have it taken away and only be allowed to see it once a month would've driven me to insanity.

Or suicide.

"The Lan's are quite set on their rules and teachings, CangSe," ChangZe says, tiredly," Let us hope for the next generation."

"Those poor boys, ChangZe..." She sniffles," I hope they find better luck in their love than their parents.

Ouch.

Between Lan WangJi waiting for over thirteen years for Wei WuXian to return, after seeing him go through the transformation of a lifetime and several near-death incidents; and Lan XiChen's sworn brothers effectively turning the Cultivation world upside down...

I wonder if they really had any luck in love at all, or if they were just repeating past mistakes.

Things will be better this time.

Let us try.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Our intention creates our reality." - Wayne Dyer


Chapter 12: With the best of intentions

You never realized how cold you could actually be until you're sent into a world where turtle necks, thick snow suits, and central heating don't exist.

Sure, there were winter robes, boots and the general mittens and scarves but that did not mean that it wasn't freezing.

We'd spent the last three months traveling from Gusu to a city near Qishan who, despite being known as the central-city of assholes, had a despairing amount of low level night hunts that the Wens were too good to take care of.

And they also used these low level night hunts to scout for potential talent but no one talks about that in polite company.

We had spent a few days in Gusu, then we'd went south and passed through Yunmeng but the Jiangs (let me clarify, Jiang FengMian) were attending a Discussion Conference and we couldn't stay long enough for them to return.

After Yunmeng we'd passed through Yiling, and I was way too excited to pass through this city, and then went to Meishan, because why not?

Finally after Meishan they had decided to head towards Qishan, which was where we basically were right now.

I had been warned about straying in this city, because it wasn't safe and some child-friendly talk that totally didn't infer that the Wens could very well take me hostage or something because they had been ticked when CangSe refused their 'polite' requests to join them.

Really, I was actually amazed it took them burning down Gusu to realize the Wens were more than arrogant jerks and should've been dealt with years ago.

Not that 'dealing' with the Wens worked out the first time.

Don't remind me, I get enough nightmares as is.

Thankfully, I haven't been too bored. Through each city, town or village we passed by there was always some sort of Quest that I could complete. And they varied in types of Quests, something I'd have to find and retrieve something, other times I'd have to deliver things, or like my last one where I just had to gather a certain amount of things and give them to the person indicated.

Gathering firewood for a couple of people wasn't my first idea on how to spend an afternoon but meh, I got something out of it.

And because I was just that cute, the people usually gave me rewards (like treats or spare change) for it plus the Quest rewards.

It was good business.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 3
Title: None Level: 8
Class: None Fatigue: 0

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 10 Stealth: 9
Strength: 11 Charisma: 10
Agility: 10 Senses: 10
Stamina: 10 Luck: 11

Skills:
-Martial
Acrobatic: 2 Throwing: 4
Climbing: 2 Brawling: 3
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Common winter clothes (child)
Winter boots
Warm gloves
Wool scarf]

I'd been busy.

I'd scoped out some skills too, and pestered Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren constantly about night-hunts and the monsters they fought against, and when they would teach me how to battle it out too.

I wasn't being as successful in the last one as I had been hoping for.

ChangZe sometimes taught me how to throw a punch or kick, but after the last fight with a kid CangSe had told him that, on no uncertain terms, if he taught me anything else like that, bedroom privileges would be revoked.

I understood him, in this world there weren't even comfortable couches to sleep in and it was cold enough that I couldn't begrudge him the 'adult snuggles'.

I did, vocally, complain about them kicking me off the bed and into a small mound of blankets on the floor (and all the way across the room behind a paper divider) so they could have 'alone time'.

In public.

I could just picture a scandalized Lan WangJi's expression screaming 'Shameless!' at me.

It was true, I was entirely shameless. Especially if it got me that embarrassed look from the adults and my warm snuggles with CangSe (who had way too much fun with my nonchalant honesty) while ChangZe just gave up trying to get me to respect his 'manly' needs, spoken outside of CangSe's hearing range of course.

Anyways, I was still 'grounded' in someways, but had a lot more liberty to spend my time instead of just copying character after character, which I had to begrudgingly admit I was getting better at, and I was getting fond of paper origami, that silly rattle and making those straw dolls into the next Neil Armstrong and chuckling them whichever way.

Downside was that, with time, stats and skills became harder to level up by just repeating these motions. I needed to find more things to throw or to lift, climb or break to level them up.

Something particularly hard to do when you're either traveling or in a place where throwing, messing with or breaking stuff is frowned upon.

Why couldn't this world be like Legend of Zelda or some other cool video game where no one bats an eye at you breaking pots and crates to get coins?

I digress, I would flip my stuffing if some kid suddenly showed up and messed around my cafe for the heck of it, too.

Moving on, once the initial excitement and novelty of my current situation faded away, giving me way too much time to quietly panic and create countless plans on how to deal with people I haven't even met yet, traveling was... well, not boring, but certainly not too thrilling.

I wanted to go with them night-hunting, even if it was just squatting in the bushes and watching from a distance.

And not figuring out how to stuff a fierce corpse in my magic hammer space (it said living things, and these were dead, so it didn't count!)

I'm pretty sure the System won't let you have fierce corpses pop out of thin air.

Shut up, the System loves me!

Loves you so much it not only conspired for you to meet Nie MingJue but also Lan QiRen in less than desirable situations.

Extenuating circumstances.

And didn't it give you that Quest one time where you had to capture those loose cats?

...Cats are assholes, why did you have to remind me of that?

Because that's just who I am.

...

"Hey, did you hear about Wen Feng's night-hunt?" A voice from below me brings me out of my head.

I stop what I was doing at the desk and walk towards the open window of the room I'm locked in.

There's a bar, or whatever its correct designation is, right across from the inn, which is where my window is facing.

I look out and there's a small group of white robed men sitting down and drinking at one of the tables.

Their robes are edged with a red flaming pattern.

Wens.

Well, you're in QishanWen territory, it'd be weirder if you didn't see any Wens walking about.

Point.

"No, what did he do?" A rather worn-out man asks, he's toying with his liquor bottle.

"He says they ran into a Bo," The first man gossips," Had three tiger pawns with it and had already gutted a group of travelers before they found it."

"Oh?" The worn out man pays attention at that," They kill or capture it? Why haven't the villages heard of this? If the Bo is killed and the pawns are left alone, they'll go mad and start attacking every human in sight."

"Quiet down," The first man hissed," Do you think Wen Feng is capable of bringing down a Bo? No, they chased it out of the zone they were in, let some other guy deal with it."

The worn out man quite literally slapped the liquor bottle down on the table and was nearly foaming at the mouth in rage," Is he stupid? A complete imbecil? You don't 'chase' a Bo out of its territory, it comes back as soon as the invader is gone and will be incredibly violent to the next cultivator that walks into it!"

"Wen GuanYu, what's wrong with you?! Keep it down!" The first man grabbed the front of the other man's robes and pulled him down back into his seat," Listen, Wen Feng is closer to Wen Ruohan's lineage than you are, if you start anything with that man you are going to lose. Think of your family!"

"I am thinking of my family," This Wen GuanYu tersely tells the other," And I'm thinking of someone else's family, where did this Bo appear?"

The first man frowns and doesn't look like he's about to answer, Wen GuanYu gives him a glare," I swear to the Great GuanYin, I will never brew you another bottle of liquor unless you tell me where the Bo appeared right now."

That did the trick.

"The forest just outside the city, up the mountain," The first man answered.

That sounded familiar...

Not from the novel... And not from any random tidbits of fact the adults liked to spout to little children.

Where had I heard it from?

"You don't mean...!" Wen GuanYu paled," Where tonight night-hunts is headed!"

Oh, right, ChangZe and CangSe were going up the mountain tonight!

...

My eyes widened, this couldn't be it, right?

They couldn't die here tonight, right?

My eyes stuttered in my chest, blood freezing in my veins, and my sight kind of swum.

"I'm sure they'll be fine," The first man shrugged it off, but his eyes betrayed him as he looked away," 'S not like you and I could've done anything to stop them."

"They could've been warned!" Wen GuanYu hissed.

"Warned about what?" A second man, who had been sitting quietly up until now, spoke up," Wens don't run away from problems, they deal with them. You warn them about a danger, in Wen territory, that the Wens haven't dealt with yet and it will bring scrutiny down on whatever else there might be lurking in the shadows."

"Forget about this, GuanYu, and go home," A third man told him.

Wen GuanYu frowned and his hands turned into fists but he did not say another word, not even a goodbye and he stood up and walked away.

Not all Wens are like Wen Ruohan or Wen Chao.

No... But they were all tarnished with the same brush.

I offered a small prayer up for him, hoping that he at least made it past the war.

If he did, I'd do my best to save him also.

"How long do you think it'll take to reach the mountain top?" A man from down below asked.

"I don't know? The snow's thickens as you go up, it slows you down, so maybe three four hours?" Another replies.

"How fast does the Bo find its prey?" The other asked.

"Faster than that, I'd assume," The other answers.

"Poor bastards," The other says.

I praised myself for not starting to shout at them the minute those words connected in my mind. Nor did I throw something at their heads (preferably something heavy) or insult them in any way.

But I won't praise myself for panicking.

Because I Panicked. With a very noticeable Capital P.

Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren had left an hour or two ago, odds are they'd find the Bo before any warning could be sent out to them, damn the lack of instant communication, and the probability of this being when they died was high.

They are going to die.

Instincts warred inside of me. On one hand I wanted to let canon be until I could fight it back, but on the other...

They are going to die.

I swore extensively in my mind and tried to somehow open the door.

It was locked, of course, but maybe I could force it open somehow?

Too much time, the clock is ticking.

How the hell do I get out of this room?!

My lungs couldn't get enough air in them, I was truly on the verge of a panic attack.

The window! Use the window!

I run to it, there's a roof just outside of it, slanted at an angle as is normal, but still too high from me to jump down from.

Tree!

I turn to look a rather thin tree with willow-y branches at the edge of the roof.

That could work.

I pulled myself up to the window sill and carefully made my way to the end of the roof, on the side of the inn, thankfully only slipping on iced tiles once and not falling off of it.

Then I'm standing at the very edge of the roof and there's about a feet or two of distance between me and the tree, upon a closer look it looks quite brittle.

Can't turn back now, jump!

'Skinny tree, skinny tree, don't break and fall on me,' I chant to myself and jump.

It doesn't break, but the bark is slick and I can't get a good grip so in my desperation I grab onto the willow-y branches before I go splat on the ground.

The thin branches cut into my hands as they halt my descent, I hiss and blink out a few tears out of my eyes.

I look down and see that the ground is quite close, so I let go of the branches and drop into a pile of snow.

In hindsight, I should've brought my gloves when I made this erratic decision.

Too late, go go go!

I take off towards the city exit, I remembered the path they took to get here and I remembered seeing the entrance to the forest.

If I was lucky the forest had a trail I could follow.

And if you're unlucky?

Scream really loud and hope not to fall in a ditch.

Sounds like a plan.

As luck would have it, there was indeed a trail.

That's as far as my luck went.

The moon offered little light to guide myself by, and as a city girl myself the closest I'd been to a situation where I was alone in a forest at night was during a camping trip and I had to use the bathroom.

And even then I didn't go very far because f! that, I wasn't going to lose track of the camp.

Now here you are, all of four years of age and venturing into a forest that you know is the home of some horned asshole of a horse that has tigers has his lap dogs.

Shut up and just warn me if you see anything.

Like a person running really fast towards you?

What?

I look up and see that, indeed, a man is running like hell is nipping at his feet towards me. Or well... Not towards me, towards the exit that was a little ways behind me.

But the guy had a lantern.

Trip him.

I did.

Guilt swirled in my stomach as he fell and I quickly grabbed the lantern and ran but since the guy just got up and kept running towards the exit I stored it into some corner of my mind and moved on.

The lantern helped tremendously, even if I made me a very easy target to spot because of it.

You could always drop it and run.

If a tiger spots me there's no way in hell I can run fast enough to outrun it.

Fine, be that way.

There's silence.

Or well, as silent as a nighttime forest can be. There's always birds or other nocturnal creatures roaming about.

And screams.

Screams?

Oh, no.

Oh, no no no no!

I started running towards the screaming (not always a good idea) but sound echoes in an empty mountain, even if the snow kind of muffled it, and it took me a while to find the source of it.

And by a while I mean I got turned around and when I get to the scene of the crime there's nothing I can do.

There's bodies on the ground and the snow is stained red.

My dinner ended up on the snow too.

The worst part was the smell. The heavy copper stench stuck with you, it was so heavy you could taste it on your tongue.

I tried not too look too close at the bodies, only the bare minimum to see that none of these people were either ChangZe or CangSe.

They were still alive.

You need to get back on the trail.

I cursed and turned around to leave before I paused.

I turned back towards the bodies.

A very bad idea formed in my mind.

Unfortunately I wasn't the most morally sound person.

I went through their pockets.

Everything and anything I took and sent to my Inventory, if it had no limit then it could hold all of these stuff long enough for me to figure out what that 'stuff' is.

There was a cultivators sword.

Heck yes.

It was almost twice the size of me.

Still took it with me.

Found a smaller dagger (about the size of my arm, holy hell these weapons were huge!) and I gave it a few experimental swings to see if it was workable.

"New Skill Acquired!"

I'd take that as a yes.

You need to get back on that trail now.

On it.

I'd already cleaned out the bodies, and tried to get the blood off of my hands, so there was nothing more for me to stay.

Finding the trail was hard, especially when you only have a little lantern to light your way, but I kept moving upwards so I'd inevitably find my adults.

In the end, as is my luck, I did.

Just as they were about to be attacked by a pair of tigers.

I open my mouth to shout but in a split second three things pop into the forefront of my mind:

1. The tigers are being controlled by the Bo;

2. The Bo being the white horned horse with wicked looking teeth and the black brush tail that was quite close to me;

3. The Bo couldn't see me from where I was standing.

I'm in his blind-spot.

I didn't think twice, I chucked that lantern right into it's back.

"You ugly mug of a donkey!" I yelled," Leave them alone!"

The lantern shattered on its back and it's head swiveled to face me.

It didn't look too happy.

"A-Ying?" CangSe's eyes widened.

"What?!" ChangZe nearly looked away from the tiger pouncing on him.

This wasn't good, I couldn't distract them.

They can't die because of me.

"Why you looking at me for, huh? You think there's any other ugly mule here other than you?" I point at it.

Its eyes blaze in anger.

Great, it understands speech.

"Oh, you offended? Sorry, I don't deal with overgrown ponies having a temper tantrum!" I yelled at it.

"Taunting Skill leveled up!"

You're gonna die, kid.

The Bo opened its mouth and let out this ear piercing shriek.

Then it started trotting towards me.

I booked it out of there, using my small size to dive under logs and bushes, whilst my weight made it less likely for the snow to give way beneath me.

The Bo had to keep raising it's legs high in order to trudge through the snow.

I had no such problem.

No, you have a different problem. One in the shape of a murderous horse.

Either help me out or stay silent!

You're going to have to get its head.

The words were kind of heard but not understood.

Huh?

You have a puny little dagger, noddle arms and you weight about 34 pounds soaking wet, you're only getting one shot at trying to take down that thing.

And you want me to target the head?

You've got to bring it down in one stab, and you don't know where it keeps its heart.

I sorta got the point.

But the head? You forgot about the giant horn it has?!

I wasn't the one who decided to taunt it!

What else was I supposed to do?

Not trigger its murderous instinct or offend it!

'Dodge,' Something screamed at me.

I dived to the floor and slid down a small slope.

A powerful hoof stabbed the place I had been standing.

Holy mother of god.

Run.

I ran.

I ran until my lungs were burning from the cold and I had lost any sense of direction, my brain was fogging over.

Distress and exhaustion. I couldn't keep running for much longer.

I had to face it head on.

My sight froze and for a moment everything turned grey and darkened, fragmented.

"The Player is about to enter a danger zone, the System advices the Player to exit the danger zone."

Nope.

I'm killing that damn thing and then I'm going to look for those two, I'm going to make sure those two make it back to that damn inn and I'm going to have them yell at me for being reckless and stupid and, and-

I am not letting them die here.

Get out of my way, System.

My sight returns to normal.

Actually, everything seems slightly clearer than before.

Adrenaline.

Oh, nice.

The Bo walks out of the bushes in front of me. It's eyes lock into mine and I can feel the sheer hatred oozing out of its being.

It snorted and kicked at the ground with its hooves.

Aim for the head.

I took a deep breath and tightened my grip on the dagger.

I'm not dying here today.

The Bo started running.

I met it half way.

All it took was one second. One fraction of a second. A single swing of an arm.

As it ran the Bo lowered its head to stab me with its horn.

I waited until the last possible second to dodge and swung my arm with all the strength I had.

It connected. The Bo went down.

And so did I.

Blood poured down my face, the left side of it felt like it was on fire, and I shoved snow into it in an attempt to stop the pain.

It hurt.

I couldn't help but cry, this body was exhausted, terrified and in pain, of course it would start crying.

I was also completely alone in the darkness and cold.

Lost.

I told you not to lose track of the trail.

I couldn't even summon the energy to snap back at it, I just sat there in the snow and cried, clutching at my bleeding face.

"Player leveled up!"

"Player leveled up!"

"Knife Handling Skill leveled up!"

"Mob drop sent to inventory!"

"Checkpoint finished!"

I glared at the glowing words, barely readable through my tears.

If that meant what I thought it did, someone was going to pay dearly for this.

"A-Ying!" A voice suddenly echoes from the mountain.

CangSe.

"Mom!" I screamed.

Mom... The word still didn't quite belong there, but I ignored it.

"A-Ying! Call out, honey!" She yelled again.

"Mom!" I screamed," I'm here!"

"Where?" She called out," Call out!"

"Mom!" I yelled, and then coughed.

My throat hurt.

My vision fogged again.

Your adrenaline is crashing.

"A-Ying!" She sounded so close...

"ChangZe, he's here!" She yelled," Oh, gods... A-YING!"

Everything went dark.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"I would have given anything to keep her little. They outgrow us so much faster than we outgrow them." - Jodi Picoult


Chapter 13: Learn to let go

I lived!

Ahah... Yeah, not funny, I know, CangSe and ChangZe didn't find it very funny either.

"Stop poking at it, A-Ying," CangSe grabbed my hand before I could touch the bandage on my face.

It had missed the eye!

But it was going to scar.

Girls dig a good scar.

Not on four year-olds, they don't.

It had been two weeks since the 'Incident', and the adults hadn't gone on another night-hunt since, having mostly being taking care of me and deciding to teach me more about beasts and cultivation.

And they were only doing it because if I was reckless enough to chase after them through a mountain, at night while it was snowing, and nearly be impaled by a demon horse, then by the Heavenly Goddess of Mercy I was going to have more at my disposal than a simple dagger (which I still had and hadn't been questioned about its origins) and random trivia they sometimes told me.

That said, they weren't teaching me how to swing a sword or anything.

No, they were training me in something much, much worse.

"Your calligraphy needs a lot of work, which I expected since you're so young," CangSe sighed," But let's at least identify Talismans properly, okay?"

Talisman making.

Don't get me wrong, I found the seals incredibly cool. And versatile and ingenious and about a bunch of other adjectives too.

But?

But I hated writing with brushes.

Painting with brushes? Sure, I was all for it, but writing? No, I needed my damn fountain pen.

Do you even know how to make build a fountain pen?

I'll figure it out.

Says the person who can't write more than twenty characters and has the reading comprehension of a toddler.

"How's work going, buddy?" ChangZe sits down beside me, ruffling my hair.

They'd been very touch-y and overbearing ever since the accident.

Not that you mind it.

No, and I don't blame them either, I recall being the exact same when Colin had the bright idea to lean out of a third floor window.

Walter caught him, thankfully, but my heart nearly jumped out of my chest.

"Good," I answered ChangZe, copying the small design meant to alert me if there were evil beings around.

ChangZe nods and leans back a bit, keeping an eye on me working.

"Where are we going next?" I ask out of the blue.

The adults blink and look at one another," We were thinking Lanling, there are lots of villages and cities nearby that welcome rogue cultivators."

I hadn't been to Lanling yet, despite having passed through its territory when we when from Qinghe to Gusu.

"Are we leaving soon?" I ask them, two weeks had been by far the longest we'd stayed in one place. Which I understood given that we'd all been injured from the 'Incident'.

"If you're feeling better," CangSe reasons.

I pout at her," I'm fine..."

She gives me a gimlet stare and I look back down at the paper," I'm sorry..."

She sighs," I know, A-Ying, but I'm still very upset that you followed after us."

"You didn't know about the Bo," I had to point it out," I thought I could find you before it did."

Which obviously didn't work.

"And if it had found you instead?" She said," What would you have done then?"

Hey, we took it down...

Do not remind her.

I bit my cheek and didn't say a word, the bandage on my face was enough to prove her point.

She sighed and placed a hand against her face, she sounded really tired," You have to understand, A-Ying, that night-hunts aren't a place for children. There are many, many beasts out there who would not think twice before attacking you."

I knew that. On some level I knew that, I did understood why they kept me from it and why they tried sheltering me but I wasn't a child. Not really.

I was used to being left to my own devices with a tower of books and pens and paper, told to entertain myself and not 'act out'. I was used to being punished, harshly, for 'acting out' and then left by myself all over again.

When I left to start my own life, I was all alone in a world of billions of people, none of them who cared who I was and what I was going through. It wasn't until Walter and his family entered my life that I started to experience what it was like to have someone backing you up, watching out for you and protecting you.

But by then I was already set in my ways of independence, I couldn't trust them to the extent a normal person would. I always had to have keys to every door on the house, I had to have my own space no one else could enter but me. I had to have the freedom to roam and be myself.

I'd mellowed out over the years, true, but there were times where I'd screamed and trashed against their bonds because something inside of me was terrified of going back to that 'childhood'.

When the children were born and I got to watch them grow, I'd mellowed out even further, calmed down enough that their parents felt it was safe enough to leave them in my care for weekends or small vacations abroad.

I was safe enough that no one batted an eye at a teenager moving into my spare bedroom to learn art and serve as a helper in the cafe of sorts.

But I still hated having things kept from me, things that directly affected me. Furthermore I hated being told I was not allowed to do something for my own good, without giving me the chance to prove that I could handle it.

You got hurt.

So did they. Any other four year old would have died, I lived.

I wasn't powerless. I wasn't weak. I could do this.

I needed to do this.

And their love for me was smothering the last bits of my patience. In the months we'd spent traveling I'd develop some kind of wanderlust, the need to keep moving and not settle down, the thirst to learn more.

I wasn't going to let one setback stop that.

And neither were they.

"I..."I clench my hands,"I don't want to be left behind... You won't come back, and I'll be alone..." I told them.

"A-Ying, we already told you...-" ChangZe sighed and leaned closer.

"You could have died!" I yelled,"You could have died and what then? Where would I go? Stay here waiting forever?"

The room is quiet, CangSe looks at me and her grey eyes are tearing up.

"So you want to come with us?" She shakes her head," You can't, A-Ying, you're still too little."

"I want to learn!" I shout," I want to know what to do if you don't make it back!"

ChangZe leans back and looks at CangSe, who's staring up at the ceiling as if begging for answers.

"We could start meditation..." He suggests to her," And basic forms of combat, I could probably teach him how to make arrows and a bow."

"But he isn't strong enough to pull back the string! He barely reaches the counter of a stall, what is he against a beast? Not even a snack!" CangSe hits the top of the desk.

"I can pull back the string!" I tell her," I'm not weak!"

I would put all my stat points on strength to prove that if need be.

CangSe gives me another stern faced stare but I do not back down.

"I can learn! I can learn anything! I can help!" I tell her," Why can't I learn like you and dad did?"

She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, ChangZe stays quiet not sure who to back up.

One some level he got that I wasn't kidding. I was serious about this, and like any man he didn't mind his son wanting to be like him.

Even if he still thought I was too young, he still believed I should, at the very least, know enough to get by.

"You're still so young..." CangSe chokes out," When did you grow up so fast?"

I felt that.

I really, really did. Watching your child grow up is the most heartwarming and heartbreaking thing, because no matter how much you want to protect them and keep them with you...

"You'll listen to everything we tell you, do you understand?" She tells me," And if you complain just once, I swear to GuanYin, I will make you work twice as much!" She warns me.

You've got to learn to let them go.

"I will!" I promise.

I will learn all that I can from you.

I won't stop moving forward.

I won't let you down.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Old rumors never die; nor do they fade away. They simply lay dormant for a while until the next appropriate time appears." - Terry Ann Knopf


Chapter 14: Rumors and Bad Press

A lot changed in just a couple of months.

We were spending less time in cities and more time out in open fields. From dawn to dusk, and some nights even beyond that, ChangZe and CangSe would push me to my limits.

I was taught how to use a bow, a small one ChangZe had made specifically for me, and I could pull the string back but my aim needed work.

I was taught meditation, something I struggled with because my brain was never empty.

I was taught how to get out of holds, how to fall, how not to fall, how to push or pull something. How to hide and not be heard, how to track down beasts and animals, how to listen.

CangSe drilled talisman and spiritual theory into my skull, it didn't matter if I couldn't use that knowledge straight away because my writing and talisman making skills were sub-par at best, she taught it and I had to learn it.

I also got better at handling the dagger, which was more of a glorified holy butcher knife in the hands of the adults, and how to target weak points.

I studied Yao, and Ghosts and Spirits, how to identify them and which to run from pretty fast.

After the first month of this, and witnessing that I was very serious about my resolve to follow them, they took me on a night-hunt. It was a very simple night-hunt and very low-level and they basically spent that night guiding me through the what and what-not's to do in night-hunts.

I guess it was a first for many to see a small child being taught this, and in such hands-on approach, because the story of how two rogue cultivators took their young son with them on night-hunts spread like wildfire.

Seriously, some people had nothing better to do than gossip.

If anyone had connected the dots that those two rogue cultivators were Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren no one was telling.

Whenever I found a break I just slept, my body ached and I seriously thought I would die from the punishment it was being put through but I still got up whenever they told me to get up.

I was six months away from turning five when I woke up one day and felt that something had changed.

It was easier to breathe.

Not just breathe either, no, my body felt like water, flexible and just easier to move.

I took a look at my stats, for the first time in months, and knew why.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 4
Title: None Level: 12
Class: None Fatigue: 15

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 14 Stealth: 11
Strength: 16 Charisma: 11
Agility: 13 Senses: 14
Stamina: 16 Luck: 12

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Common boots

Weapon:
Blessed Dagger
Talisman (3)
Small Bow (15)]

A lot had changed in just a few months, and it was starting to show.

We reached Lanling at the end of May, to join in on one of the spring night-hunts.


"I don't know how anyone can just walk around and ignore the fact that more than half of the children or teenagers walking around are his bastards," ChangZe muttered to CangSe as they walked through the streets.

I'd gotten a bun from a stall and was, politely, eavesdropping on their conversation.

They knew I was listening but at this point in time, after I'd listen to them argue and get into fights about what was and was not appropriate for a child to hear, coupled with the fact that they were teaching a four year-old how to track down animals during the day and beasts at night, they'd just given up and treated me like a small adult.

It was fine by me.

"People see what they want to see and ignore reason even if it's right under their noses," CangSe told him.

Yes, they do.

Beyond the hatred that the Wens got, and the fear Wei WuXian brought on them, there was also the fact that they immediately started pointing fingers at the first suitable target and ignored all attempts of setting them straight.

Once Wei WuXian was cleared of any wrongdoing they just moved their sights to hating Jin GuangYao.

I wondered where he was right now. I wasn't sure about his age, if he was the same age as me, older or younger. My bet was on younger since his mother brought him to Lanling when he was a baby, coincidentally during the birthday of Jin ZiXuan (which they both shared), but it never said if it was Jin ZiXuan's first birthday or just any other birthday.

For all I knew Jin GuangYao could possibly be a newborn right now.

I couldn't worry about him too much, I was much more worried about one Xue Yang and his future sociopathic tendencies and hero-worship of Wei WuXian.

I wasn't one for judging anyone straight-out of the bat, but I hated Xue Yang.

And I couldn't bring myself to try and see him as someone needing help, I'd much rather help Mo XuanYu and, heavens help me, Jin GuanYao (who would orchestrate my death, twice) than help Xue Yang.

"Knowing his wife I wonder how she hasn't killed him yet," ChangZe said," And there was this story a couple years back about him throwing out a woman down the steps of Carp Tower," He adds.

Forget that, Jin GuangYao is at least two years old. But I forget exactly where he is now.

Is it important? It's not like you can take him by the hand and ask him, pretty please, to leave you out of his hypothetical future scheming.

You're right, but it made me feel better if I don't run into someone I know will try and kill me.

Technically you already have, didn't Nie MingJue help out during the siege?

Everyone and their mothers apparently helped out during the siege, and if they didn't they at least had a party at my expense.

"A-Ying, we're going to check in a room at the inn and rest until it's time to head out," CangSe tells me.

I nod and finish eating my bun, hurrying to help her carry the bags into the room, a chore I had been assigned in order to help my arms getting stronger.

I just thought they needed an excuse to keep me busy and not trying to sneak out to practice using the dagger or bow.


The timeline had one final knot.

I had to begrudgingly admire the beauty that was the timeline, as the segments that changed color as I changed things illustrated what I had done different.

Case in point, the last checkpoint I'd passed through now had that stupid looking horse standing smugly above the line with two tigers pouncing on one another.

I closed the window and went to check my Inventory, there were two Qiankun Bags, a cultivator's sword, two bags with money and a piece of Bo's flesh.

I kid you not, there was a piece of raw frikin flesh in my inventory under the tag 'mob drop'.

Don't forget to mention you're supposed to eat it.

I am not eating this.

Not even a tiny little bite?

I am not getting this anywhere near my mouth.

Where's your sense of adventure?

My sense of adventure draws the line at eating mysterious pieces of meat which I do not even know how got sent into my inventory as the corpse of that thing was perfectly intact.

You're no fun.

Shut up and go to sleep.


"Here, A-Ying," CangSe puts something around my neck, I pick it up and see that it's her pendant.

"It's Shizun's pendant!" I tell her," It's yours!"

"Just for tonight," She smiles," For good luck. Your dad and I will be watching, but we're not interfering, tonight's all on you."

Oh.

Well, no pressure, right?

Wrong, you can bet they'll spend the next few days commenting on all the things you did wrong.

So, won't it be in your best interest to help me?

...

Nah, I'm just sit quietly and see you flounder without my genius.

You're a big fat liar.

Hey! At least I'm not as wrinkled as a raisin!

Excuse me? My skin as smooth as a baby's!

So you're a baby-faced old woman?

...

Just shut up...


For the first time in Duan YiJun's life he could say he was left speechless.

There was a kid, a tiny little kid smaller than his two little sisters back home, going on this night-hunt.

He had this knife tied on to his belt, which looked more life a small sword in the kid's hands, and a tiny bow on his back with a small quiver of equally tiny arrows.

Everyone had pointed at him and told him to go back home, only for his parents (and holy hell that was the famous CangSe Sanren!) to step forward and explain that no, he wasn't leaving, he was joining us.

Apparently today was his first trial run at a night-hunt by himself.

Who in their right minds took their small child night-hunting?

And hadn't there been rumors about a couple of rogue cultivators doing that exact same thing for some months now?

Was it them?

The answer had to be yes because the kid knew exactly what to do once the sun went down and all kind of beasts started coming out.

At first everyone still kind of tried to keep the kid from going after any beasts but after losing track of him for a few minutes and finding him plucking arrows out of a Yao surrounded by three other fallen Yao, they'd left him to it.

That kid was going to grow up to become a monster, he just knew it.

Who could say they'd started night-hunting before their baby teeth had fallen out?


Throughout June and July stories spread of a child going on night-hunts with its parents, carrying a knife and a bow and arrow, with a pendant around its neck.

A very well-known pendant.

In a flash everyone suddenly had opinions about CangSe Sanren and Wei ChangZe's parenting, the glaring scar on the side of my face doesn't help matters either.

Seriously, people had nothing better to do than talk behind other people's backs.

And they couldn't even keep facts straight.

While I joined in on night-hunts I was always accompanied and they'd pull me out of any situation they thought was too dangerous for me to face, like fierce corpses that could do more than just hop around, and any beast that had consumed more than three humans.

In terms of strength I believed I could take them on, but I wasn't going to push my luck and get sent back to the inn to reflect on my actions.

So I didn't dare challenge the status quo.

I did dare, however, to kick the ass of anyone who badmouthed my parents in front of me.

Oh, this shrimp looking kid is saying my parents are idiots who shouldn't be having kids? Well, you know who's going to get a kick in the nuts?

And you, yes you stupid bald headed mouse, what did you say about my adults' skills? You're going to serve as bait for me!

I was a vengeful little thing, sue me!

Nobody badmouthed Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren and got scotch-free.


Jiang FengMian couldn't believe the news he heard about his friends.

"Taking their four year-old night-hunting?" Yu ZiYuan turned her nose at the messenger," Have they no care for the safety of the child?"

"They say he's learning, Madam Yu," The messenger spoke a little hesitantly," They keep the child close to them but otherwise let it hunt down prey by itself."

Yu ZiYuan scoffs," Fools, the lot of them," She sneers," They are asking their own death, and the death of that child!"

"Where are they headed? Did they mention it?" Jiang FengMian asks the messenger.

"I believe they said something about staying close to the more rural areas of Lanling and Gusu, sir," The messenger replied.

"Did they seem healthy?" He then asked.

"Yes, although there was a concerning scar that has raised some questions about its origins," The messenger answered.

"A scar?" Jiang FengMian frowned, cultivators didn't scar very easily, as they healed faster than that.

"On the child," The messenger shifted from foot to foot," A rather big scar running down the side of his face, barely missing his left eye."

Yu ZiYuan snorted," How they haven't been stopped yet it's a wonder, how can they allow their child to be injured and still drag it on night-hunts?"

"My lady, please," Jiang FengMian tries.

"Do not dare, FengMian," Yu ZiYuan stands up," Mark my words, those people are recklessly asking for their own death and dragging that child down with them."

She leaves a conflicted Jiang FengMian and an awkward messenger behind in the room.

Truthfully, Jiang FengMian can't imagine what his friends are thinking, bringing the small Wei Ying with them on night-hunts.

He knows he certainly wouldn't bring A-Cheng along on one until he was at least ten years old.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Bear the inevitable with dignity." - Anonymous


Chapter 15: Inevitable

September crept up on us while we were busy dealing with night-hunts and training.

We were passing through a city when we saw the streamers and festive decor and realized that it was time for the mid-autumn festival. I was astonished to find that it had been a whole year since I woke up in this world.

Since tonight was the festival they decided to spend the day as a family and let me have the night for myself, playing street games and run around with the other kids until it was time to light the lanterns.

I easily agreed to this, it was nice having a break every now and then, and just relax. And since this was a bigger city than the ones we'd been lodging at, with how frequently we were taking on night-hunts and stayed in inns less frequently, we could stock up on some commodities.

Like a new robe for me since mine had grown rather short on me.

I was growing!

And also because someone had a nasty run in with a pair of clawed ghosts.

Whatever.

So we got some new robes for me, longer than usual so I could grow into this pair, and just... spent the day as a family.

ChangZe carved a flute for me, but my fingers were still too small to reach all the holes, so I couldn't really play many notes, and only really simple melodies.

Deciding that it'd be fun to mess with him, CangSe went and got me a Xun, which was another type of chinese flute similar to an occarina.

That one I could actually play, since it was roughly the size of an egg, and since it counted only as 'playing a flute' the skill was the same as the dizi.

Win win situation.

Not for ChangZe who saw the Xun as a personal offense and constantly talked about the beauty of the dizi.

True, I would have my own Chenqing in the future, but right now I didn't mind the Xun.

Who knows, it's always good to have a backup flute in case of an emergency.

After some shopping and goofing around, because if I got to have a day off so did they, we went and got a room at an inn and after settling our stuff when out to eat.

I had fun watching the performs act several traditional tales of this time of year, with lots of color and dancing, whilst eating good food.

After eating we went around stalls and played a few games, I left them alone for a few hours to go play ball with a group of children whilst they had some quiet time for themselves, and only came back when it was starting to get dark.

It was weird, sometimes, acting like a kid. Especially since I'd gotten into the habit of being myself as I did whenever I went on night-hunts or had training with ChangZe and CangSe, so the kids heard me talk and saw how I acted then stared at my scar and proceeded to ask a ton of questions.

Telling them I was a tiny cultivator going on night-hunts got me being called a liar multiple times, but it was funny to see their faces when I actually had proof of going on night-hunts, like showing up at their house to sell talismans or settle down some ghost.

Those were good times.

My scar got me a lot of attention, which I found unexpected, given the lack of care for orphans and street urchins, but I figured they just wanted gossip on the adults I was with and how exactly I got it.

No one knew about the Bo.

Well, the Wens might suspect, but the primary suspects for taking it down had to be the adults and not the child. They'd at most think I got injured and they killed it because of that.

I thought it was best for no one to know I had, somehow, taken down a Bo at the grand old age of four.

If only to spare me the jealousy of Jiang Cheng, who I just knew would create a storm in a teacup for me having already night-hunting experience before coming to Yunmeng.

I could always just shrug and say I don't remember getting it.

Anyways, once it got dark we went to buy lanterns to light.

That was fun too, since there were just so many!

I ended up picking a small lantern painted with fish and lotuses. CangSe, of course, picked a mountain one, and ChangZe picked one that had bamboo shoots.

I found it quite simple and empty but I guess that's what he preferred out of the thousand other lanterns there were for sale.

Once it was time, we lit the lanterns and prayed to the moon.

CangSe told me to make a wish.

I wished to change my future, to change it for the better, change it and protect all those people Wei WuXian hadn't been able to protect.

After all the lanterns were but pinpricks of light in the distance, ChangZe picked me up and we bought several mooncakes to eat back at the inn.

They were cut into small slices and shared between everyone.

I liked the sweet ones, even if I found the flaky pastry a bit of a hassle because it fell whichever way when you cut it, and it was amusing to see CangSe playfully rib ChangZe for having no talent for cutting the pastry neatly.

Then we just talked.

And talked.

And talked.

They told me stories, some I hadn't heard yet, some I had. They reminisced about the good old days of their youth and how I'd come about. Then they told me about all the places they'd take me when I was older, more dangerous night-hunting sights and mountains.

I asked, again, where Baoshan Sanren lived, hoping to at least pass by the foot of the mountain one day, but CangSe told me it was a secret.

I didn't pester her again, but I pouted for a bit, put out because I really, really wanted to know.

She'd laughed and pulled teasingly at the pendant around my neck.

What was supposed to be a 'one-time thing, for good luck' ended up being permanent, the name 'Baoshan's token' floated in front of my eyes in glowing blue letters every time I picked it up.

When I'd asked why she'd given it to me, she'd said something along the lines of 'passing on a legacy' and then quickly changed the subject.

Having me wear the pendant around my neck during night-hunts, given that it was such a well-known symbol, was like making a statement.

'This child is the best, an apprentice of the Great Baoshan Sanren, he follows in her teachings.'

I hoped I proved that statement true.

Whenever I went on a night-hunt the other cultivators all got in my way, because of my age, because I wasn't supposed to be there, because I obviously still had time to make a name for myself whilst they had to hurry and get noticed by greater sects.

Plus, I didn't even have a golden core so why was I there anyway?

I was working on one, but those things took time to actually form. My suck-y talent for meditation didn't help matters either. I could stay still, but I just couldn't empty my mind, it was constantly running, constantly thinking and improving and aggravating me.

I'd figured I'd just work around the usual method of meditation by using some other techniques I'd read about back in my old life.

There were quite a lot of meditation techniques and I was sure one of them involved minds with messy thought patterns.

And most importantly, I wanted to know more of how energy flowed in this world. There were many types of energy, and I was unsure if there were more than one method of harnessing it.

It was possible, given that Wei WuXian had learnt, created, a method of harnessing resentful energy. Maybe there was a different method of harnessing energy, in general, that was still unknown because people only harnessed one half of it.

Yin Yang and all that jazz.

I didn't know enough to try it, though.

CangSe and ChangZe were adamant that I create a stable base with my meditation before starting to mess around with actually harnessing energy.

They were probably right and I'd screw my meridians or whatever they were called.

We told jokes and laughed a lot, as the night went on I just got tired.

CangSe cooed and and cuddled with me in bed, messing with my hair I'd always complain about getting too long, and then went to join ChangZe at the table, whispering to my near-asleep self that she'd be back soon.

I woke up to a loud notification bell.

I rubbed at my eyes, confused on what was going on, to see the words:

"Checkpoint finished!"

"Story Arc completed!"

I frowned at the words, brain still addled from sleep, and sat up on the bed. It was still dark outside, but the moon was starting to lean down the mountains, dawn wouldn't be here for a few hours still.

Where are the adults?

I looked at the bed and saw that it was empty, no one other than me had slept in it. I got up and searched around the room, the bags were still here, as were the shopping we'd done earlier today, but the swords were gone.

They went out.

I went to say something along the lines of 'How could they leave me behind and go night-hunting!' when I saw the notification again.

I stared at the words for a moment, processing them through, before I felt like a bucket of ice cold water was dumped on me.

I fell to my knees in the middle of the room. Gasping for breath.

The words floated in front of my eyes but they grew distorted as tears just started running down my face.

I knew what they meant now.

I understood what they were telling me.

Wei WuXian's parents died when he was around four years old, during a night-hunt, and the child waited by the city's gates for days waiting for them to come back.

'I'll be back soon, A-Ying,' CangSe's whisper echoed in my ears,' Rest, my love.'

A keening sound left my throat.

They were gone.

They were truly, irrevocably gone.

Gone, gone, forever.

I never got to say goodbye.


"Painful though parting be, I bow to you as I see you off to distant clouds." - Emperor Saga

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her. But once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game. - Voltaire


Chapter 16: Alone

I was all alone.

That's the thought my mind kept coming back to, once the tears stopped flowing.

I was all alone.

It was a numb thought. A fact my mind supplied me, except there was no emotion behind it.

I was all alone.

"Talent Tree Unlocked!"

"Player Store Unlocked!"

"Advancements Unlocked!"

I look up from the wooden floor and stare at the floating words above me, glowing in blue light, dancing to the bell-like sound of notifications.

For some reason, they fill me with anger.

It burns deep inside my stomach, a ball of fierce resentment towards the words, towards the System.

What good came of some stupid new features to my stupid Player Menu if they came too late to protect two people who did not deserve to die?

I was turning five years old next month.

Wei WuXian's parents died when he was around four years old, during a night-hunt.

I'd changed something. I had made a difference already.

Yet the outcome was inevitable.

Wei WuXian's parents were dead.

I couldn't save them, I could only delay it, and now...

Now I could only mourn them.

Mourn the two people who I had spent a year living with, traveling with, being cared for, loved by, for a whole year.

You never notice how little time you had with the people you cared about until they are gone.

Gone, gone forever.

I was all alone.

I hit my fist on the floor once more and silently scream. I couldn't wake up the other guests staying at the inn, who would believe a distressed child crying that its parents were dead, when proof of their deaths would only come with the rising sun?

They left everything behind in the room. All of their belongings were exactly where they had been when CangSe had laid me down on the bed... Had Wei WuXian's parents done the same, when they originally died?

If so, had Wei WuXian kept them?

Lost them?

Or...

Taken as collateral.

Anger.

Without thinking twice, I grabbed a hold of the bags and sent them to my Inventory, watched as they disintegrated from view into glowing blue specks of light that faded as swiftly as they appeared.

In this life, they wouldn't take their belongings.

At the same time, I did not think I could bear to see the trinkets we'd bought earlier that day, nor the items I knew they'd always carry with them. Wei ChangZe's flute, CangSe's calligraphy set and the bundle of paper she'd write on, letters and pages upon pages of script I could not yet decipher.

It hurt.

Where to go from here?

I sat down, barely refrained from rocking back and forth as my chest constricted once more with emotion, clutching at my head. My fingers griped at my hair, keeping me focused on the present.

Once the numbness passed, and it would pass, I would break.

Even now my carefully built walls around my heart were crumbling down, piece by piece.

I couldn't break here. I had to leave.

Where would I go?

All of my plans, ideas and ramblings I had created months ago seemed unreachable in my mind. No matter how much I tried to grasp one of them, they all just slipped through my fingers like sand.

I couldn't think of anything.

I let go of my head and stared down at my hands.

They were shaking.

For the first time in a long while, I truly felt like a child, a small, weak, and scared child that called out to its parents in a trembling voice.

'Come back! Please, come back!'

I flinched at the memory.

That's not you.

No, not anymore.

We're better than this. Get up.

I was all alone.

Get up. Stop panicking. Think.

Think... Think what? What was I doing?

I am all alone.

Stop this! Get up! Think! Think, damn it!

My body moved on its own, slapping my hands together, producing a loud clap, hard enough that my palms stung.

The sound brought me back out of my head, the pain kept me focused.

I couldn't break here. I couldn't stay broken. I needed to think of a way out.

A solution. I needed to stay one step ahead of the problem.

Think!

I opened the Player Menu and immediately afterwards opened the Story Arc timeline.

As expected, beneath the now knot-free line stood a different line, this one filled with tiny little knots here and there. Despite my better judgement, I looked up at the uppermost timeline and saw that, where once stood one last knot, were now three little red figures raising lanterns to the sky.

My vision swan as my eyes watered.

Stop, think!

I shook my head, clearing it, and focused once more on the problem at hand. I opened Wei WuXian's new memories, a board filled with still-images of running through streets, of bullying children of different social classes, of others stealing his food, of dogs biting and snarling, of shadow-y figures attempting to grab him as he ran.

Of waiting by a golden city's gates for people who'd never come back.

I growled.

A low, resentful sound that came from deep within me.

That wasn't me.

I would never take insults and abuse piled on top of me lying down.

Never again.

I was better than this. I was stronger than this.

I had prepared myself for this.

I knew what I had to do, I knew I had the skills to survive this.

To thrive and be free.

I was all alone.

I would meet them again, someday, surely.

I would meet them again and share with them all that I had seen, how far I had gone, and show them all that I had mastered.

I would keep their dreams and hopes alive, I would built a world with a better tomorrow.

I would show them all that I had changed, one day.

One day...

The pendant around my neck slipped off the front of my robes and dangled, the light coming from the window catching on its metal feathers.

I was all alone, but I would keep their memory alive.

I would keep them in my thoughts, always.

I got up off the floor and looked out the window, dawn wouldn't be coming for a couple more hours.

I had time, but I mustn't waste it.

I went around the room and made sure that I wasn't forgetting anything and leaving it behind.

After leaving the correct amount of money to pay for the room, I went out the window. It was easier to walk across the roof and scale down a tree when it wasn't iced over.

I ruefully thought back at the first time I did this, and stared at the moon once my feet touched the ground.

Things would be different from now on.

This was the start of my new life.

And I'd be damned if I was going to waste it.


I took the donkey with me.

It was a rash decision made in the heat of the moment when I passed by the stable to say goodbye, and couldn't bear to leave the animal ChangZe and CangSe had had with them on their travels, who'd be there when this body was born.

It was a dumb and rash decision, I neither knew how to ride it nor was it a good idea to make it obvious I was a child traveling alone.

When I made it to the city gates, the sun was just barely starting to light up the darkened night sky.

I though about finding their bodies. Of seeing how they'd died. Of finding what killed them.

In the end, I couldn't go through with it.

The images of seeing them lying there, bloodied, broken and lifeless, would haunt my dreams for years. I didn't dare to imagine how much worse it'd have been of I knew exactly what had happened to them.

Sometimes, it was best to stay ignorant.

I'd persuaded the donkey to follow me quietly, despite it knowing who I was, and of me knowing its mellow temperament, I had never actually led it. And it was in a donkey's nature to detest novelty, t'was why they were known as 'stubborn' creatures.

Thankfully, despite it giving me a sour look, this donkey wasn't as spoiled as the famous Lil'Apple.

I opened my map, thankful that my previous travels meant it was relatively clear, and saw that there was a cave temple not too far from where I was now. Walking at a slow pace, because my small stature and short legs didn't allow for any other pace, we'd make it there just before sundown.

There was food in the bags, of that I was sure, and the donkey could eat grass for the night.

Once I was at the temple, I would think of long term plans.

Once I was at the temple, I'd let myself break.

Until then, I had to keep walking. Keep busy.

Think. Think. Think.

Nothing would be the same after this.

There was no going back from this.

I was all alone.


I had been in cave temples before, ChangZe didn't care much about them but CangSe had brought me to several during our travels. She'd talk in hushed whispers in my ear about the Gods and Goddesses living high in the Heavens, their stories and names.

For some reason, there was always something in the air that made me shiver.

Whether it was because some higher power knew I didn't belong in this world. Hadn't been born in this world and had many other Gods and Goddesses in my memories, their stories so different yet so similar.

I still found myself staring at 'normal' things of day-to-day life wondering what the hell they were.

I could only say I was grateful for being male and not needing to squat over a pot to use the bathroom.

Even if being a male had given me pause for about two minutes before I distinctively remember thinking 'nope' and just ignored it.

Mind over matter, if you don't mind it, then it doesn't matter.

Or so I had heard.

There wasn't anyone inside the temple when I walked in, the caretaker having obviously left for the night, and I tied the donkey at the entrance near a well, having drawn a bucket of water for it to drink from and made sure that there was enough fresh and healthy grass near it to eat.

The nights hadn't yet turned unbelievably cold so I didn't have to worry about that either.

Soon, it would be a different matter.

I'd walked back inside the temple and found myself a small niche behind the offering altar to settle down for the night. The sweet smell of decaying fruit and incense wasn't the most pleasant odor, but I'd withstood worse smells and lived through them without complain.

I tossed and turned for a while, mind a complete mess but still numb from today's events.

I wondered if their bodies had been found already.

I wondered if they had remembered the small child at the inn, and thought of ways to explain to it that its parents were gone.

Reviewing Wei WuXian's memories once more, I knew the answer to be different from my daydreams.

After much debating, I brought their bags back out of my inventory, numbly watching them materialize out of thin air.

I knew why the System warned me about using its features around eye-witnesses.

They were easy to abuse and exploit.

And only made myself a bigger target.

What would Jin GuangShan do, if he knew there was someone who could hide anything and carry anything, as long as it wasn't living, without a trace?

He's certainly torture them to find out its secret, and kill them once he found out it couldn't be replicated.

I shook those thoughts away and reached forward for the bags.

ChangZe's was less bulky than CangSe's but heavier. Inside there were all the trinkets of the day before, brand new robes he never got to try on, and all of his tools. I remembered how he'd sit me on his lap and guide my hands on how to carve, or repair, a bow, how big and warm his hands were on mine.

CangSe's was disorganized but still minimally neat, her calligraphy table was by far the heaviest thing in it, but there were also books on various subjects and lots, lots and lots of loose papers.

I gave up on trying to organize them and just sighed, it was so like her to have a bag this messy and complain when I packed my things similarly.

My hand brushed against a wooden box and I pulled it out of the bag. Its lid was decorated with lily pads and lotus.

I opened it and saw dozens of hair ribbons, of multiple colors, inside.

CangSe never wore any hair ribbons, letting her hair loose or tied in a bun with a hair clip.

ChangZe always tied his bun with a ribbon, and lost them all the time.

I broke then.

When faced with such undeniable proof of just how much they loved each other, when the world had been busy gossiping about how 'bad parents' they were for letting me learn how to survive by myself, how to protect myself and learn through living and not by simply listening on lectures and reading about it from books.

The very real pain of knowing how much they cared for one another, complemented each other and had loved me just as fiercely dug sharp shards of glass into my innards.

It made me grieve for the family I had left behind when I took a chance on this world. Of the man I loved, the children I had cherished as if they were my own and was so proud of.

It made me aware of just how young Wei ChangZe and CangSe Sanren had been when they died.

Barely into their mid-twenties.

So damn young.

They never got the chance to watch their child grow, find its place in the world, and watch their family grow.

There was no doubt in my mind that, had they lived for a few years longer, there would've been more little Weis following after Wei WuXian.

I don't know which thought hurt most.

That Wei WuXian had been left alone.

Or that he might've had to look after children younger than himself when he was barely a child himself.

I cried. And cried. And cried.

Until all my tears were gone and I was left feeling numb all over again.

Where to go from here?

I open my Player Menu, and go to the new features I had unlocked, staring at the lists of techniques I could learn, at all the things I could buy out of literal nothing, and couldn't help but feel bitter resentment build behind my throat.

It felt like being handed a meaningless trinket after being forced to run through a marathon.

How was this supposed to make up for making me lose my family?

What was this supposed to mean?

Hey, don't feel bad, here, now you can figure out how to learn how to throw fireballs out of your hands!

I muffled my angry screaming into my hands, raging and growing fiercer with fury.

Think.

I took a deep breath, thought about ChangZe's lessons on meditation and calmed myself once more, with much difficulty.

I moved on to the Quest Page and saw that there were hundreds of new available Quests. Once you opened that page the map flooded with little bubbles letting you know where the Quest could be accepted.

They were all clustered around villages, towns and cities. Very rarely did one stray off the path and would be found virtually in the middle of nowhere.

A plan started to take shape inside my mind.

A black hole with dark tendrils grasping at ideas and thoughts, shaping itself into goals and patterns.

I couldn't save them because I wasn't ready.

I wasn't ready to lose them. Wasn't ready to be alone. Wasn't ready to accept that I had a role to play in this world.

I let myself be deceived by the easy days in the sun, and forgot about the darkness creeping towards me.

There would be dark years ahead of me.

And I had to be ready for them.

There wasn't a choice anymore.

I had to get stronger. Faster. Cleverer.

If this System wanted someone to play a game with, I'd show it.

I was going to bend the rules of this game to my will and not the other way around.

I was going to play to win this.

And I knew just where to start.

I drew a course of travel, to pass through every single village, town and city, through every single Quest bubble that appeared on this map.

My end goal?

Yiling.

I would have my mountain.

And I would build it so strongly, so powerfully, so beautifully, that everyone would stare at it in awe.

I promised them that.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it." - Lou Holtz


Chapter 17: Get Burnt

The donkey was a liability.

It didn't take me long on the road to figure that out. Already I had had to quickly divert my path in order to lose bandits or common thugs, unfavorable people had given me long stares on the road, first passing their eyes to me, then moving to the donkey, and finding them back on my face.

Particularly my scar.

True, they might think I'd stolen it (technically I hadn't, since it was mine now, but trying to explain that to people wouldn't fly) but that only made it worse.

A kid traveling alone was already a risk.

A kid traveling alone with a donkey? It was an 'easy' target.

And I could feel the heat of their stares on my back.

I bit the inside of my cheek.

I couldn't keep it.

I was sitting on the side of the road, a day and a half away from Lanling, and staring at the sky, hoping it would provide some answers.

It didn't.

How does one get rid of a donkey?

I wasn't going to kill it, nor was I living it on the side of the road, donkey or not it belonged to ChangZe and CangSe, had been theirs for ages, and it deserved better than that.

So, realistically, my only option was to sell it.

A farmer or a traveling merchant would benefit from having such a mount, wouldn't they?

How exactly does one sell a donkey, when they are physically four years old?

I grimaced but ignored it.

So, I'd sell it. Sell it for what though?

It wasn't like I didn't need the money, but Quests were a good source of coins and the Store had virtually anything I could possibly need (though I wasn't sure how I felt about eating food that appear out of nowhere) and there was still some time before winter settled in and it became hard to find worthy game to hunt.

Speaking of hunting, night-hunts was also a fairly easy option to make some money.

Even if the people organizing the night-hunt couldn't pay in cash, they could offer accommodation, food or other services.

So food and shelter were easy to come by, I also knew inns and taverns would let entertainers stay for free if they kept their guests busy or attracted more clients with their acts. Even if it was only a pile of hay in a stable, it was better than sleeping out in the open (which I wasn't opposed to as long as it was summer and it didn't look like it'd rain).

Whilst I wasn't the best at playing the flute, yet, I knew my fair share of stories, legends and myths to knock the socks off any age range.

And it was even better when I could spun tales of 'fantastical' creations that were as mundane as sliced bread to me.

Actually... I could be the first person to introduce pizza to this world.

The System would surely hate me for that.

Or maybe give you an achievement.

Congratulations, you've set the world into its fast-food trend?

Maybe.

So, shelter, food and money wouldn't be a problem for now. Although, wasn't it best to prepare for the future?

So sell it for money?

I thought about it, really thought about it, and shook my head.

I'd sell it for supplies.

Rice, beans, wool cloth, things like that.

Provisions.

I had to plan ahead, weeks if not months in advance. How to get from point A to point B, what I'd need, what I had, and what I'd have to get.

That little trail of thought brought another memory to the surface.

I still hadn't checked what was inside those Qiankun Pouches I'd pocketed before I went and fought that Bo.

I could've hit myself for not remembering them sooner.

Though I would argue it would be hard to do so when under the watchful gaze of the adults following the 'Incident' and me being utterly spent from training, it was still something I'd completely forgotten about.

Maybe Wei WuXian's bad memory is contagious.

Shut up and knock on wood, asshole.

I brought them out and opened one.

I blinked.

There were medical supplies, or so their tags said, talismans, and other cultivator tools.

The other bag had similar contents.

I pulled everything out and sorted them into piles, checked which talismans I knew about, and how to use them, and stuffed those with the rest of my talismans. Then I sent all the medical supplies to my inventory, to quickly get them out if need be, and placed all the other random cultivator tools inside one of the pouches.

I then sent that one to the inventory and attached the other, empty, pouch to my belt. Either I'd find an use for it, or it'd serve as bait for pickpockets.

I mentally sorted out which talismans I had with me and which ones I knew how to, reliably, make by myself. There weren't a lot, I screwed up my calligraphy too often and my hands were too shaky.

I needed to stop that.

Steady hands and quick fingers.

I considered my position on the map and picked up the donkey's lead again, there was a farming village not too far from here, I could put my bargaining skills to good use.


"A donkey that old isn't worth more than a single bag of rice!" The red faced farmer was blustering at me.

I gave him an 'are you an idiot look', guy had been trying to rip me off for half an hour now. Every time I said, well okay, bye then, he proceeded to try and get me to accept his deal.

This idiot wanted the donkey but wasn't willing to 'pay' the correct value for it, more so when he was trying to take advantage of my 'age' and trying to trick me into believing the donkey was old.

Sir, with no respect for your less than stellar intelligence, donkeys can live up to thirty years, in the wild not domesticated, and this little guy isn't even on his first decade.

"And I've already told you, that's your opinion," I repeated my words, again,"And I'll try some other place, have a nice day, sir."

I went to lead the donkey away and the man grabbed the lead.

"Kid, you're not getting more than a bag of rice for the thing! Just accept what I'm giving you!" He told me.

Oh no he didn't.

I turned to face him very slowly, my eyes glaring straight into his, their grey color frosting into cold silver.

"Let. Go," I told him, my scar was startlingly visible on my face," I am not selling it to you for a bag of rice, good day."

The man lets go of the lead and watches me walk off.

He's going to be trouble.

I'm counting on it.

People like this guy came in the hundreds, and I was sure that in a world like this, they would be a lot more obvious than from where I came from. When I'd first started living on the streets, broke and filled with wide-eyed naivety, they had hounded me, trying to take every little thing I owned, and there wasn't much mind you, before I'd learned of their willy ways.

They wouldn't trick me now.

You're going to trick them.

Play with fire and you're going to get burnt.


Anyways, turns out the guy is actually some big shot in the village, so word of him wanting to rip me off on the donkey and my refusal to sell it to him quickly spreads. Which in turn means that no one will buy the donkey for fear of the repercussions the guy would mete out, so I ended up taking the donkey back with me.

Really, if the next town over also tried to rip me off or just refused to buy the donkey, I might just suck it up and keep it.

Learn to ride the damn thing on my own.

...Why don't you?

I didn't really have an answer for it.

Maybe it was some form of coping mechanism to handle the onslaught of emotion that came every time I thought about the adults, keep everything they owned out of sight and move on from them.

You think it will be that easy?

No. But I was willing to try.

The donkey made an snorting sound, as if it could read my mind, and gave me a look.

I smiled tiredly at it and patted its neck, my fingers curling slightly in its pale fur. Let it be known that animal therapy does wonders for one's soul.

I pondered slightly on what to do next, then looked to the sky above me and decided that now was the time to get a move on and find out a place to stay the night.

Tonight would have to be under the open sky, that idiot was trying to be inconspicuous and following me around.

Seriously, being treated like a stupid child would get old very fast...

We walked for a while until we came upon a large open field of tall grass. The donkey wasted no time in starting to munch at it, so I just shrugged and started clearing an area to settle camp for the day. On any other occasion I'd add some 'sensory' talismans, the kind that would be very loud if breached, but I forgone those. It wouldn't do if the idiot got scared off before I could have a 'talk' with him.

An honest talk.

You actually think he'll do it?

Idiots like him are easy to spot.

And I was correct. Shortly after the moon went up and 'children' should all but be fast asleep, I heard a rustle in the trees and the tell-tale noise of branches snapping under feet.

Seriously, how stupid can you be?

I remained perfectly still on the ground, feigning sleep, whilst my hand slowly traveled under my pack and curled its fingers around my dagger.

I wouldn't kill him, goodness no, but I wasn't opposed to giving him the scare of a lifetime.

Besides, no one would believe him if he complained that he got beat up by a little kid.

If they did, then all that showed was just how much this idiot deserved it.

I let him get close to the Donkey, heard it bray and the guy shushing it harshly, which only made it bray harder. If I wasn't already awake, then there was no way for me to remain asleep after that, I internally sighed and remained pliant on the ground.

I heard the guy mess around with the lead, but he couldn't get the knot I had made out of it, and so he decided to follow the rope to see where it was tied to.

Just as I had predicted.

It's just so nice when things go according to plan, isn't it?

The best feeling.

So, there the idiot went, following the rope to see where the knot was.

Around my foot.

An obviously 'bad' place to tie a leash as the donkey could just take off and drag me, or so many would think. A) The donkey was well aware I was awake, it had known my adults, for Heavens sake; and B) This donkey was perfectly content staying still and just eating its grass in peace.

And so, like any person with brain cells and who didn't know the donkey personally, it could be described as a 'dumb' thing to do.

Unless it was a trap.

Idiot~

Guy crouched down to get the rope around my foot and I sat up, lightning fast, and hit him on the side of the head with the dagger.

He was out like a light.

That was easier than I had expected.

Fun too!

Should I feel bad for doing this?

Do you want to feel bad for doing this?

No, not really. Mess with me and find out what happens.

Then don't feel bad for it. Screw him, he was asking for it.

I shrugged. To each their own.

Also, waste not, want not.

I went through his pockets.

A coin pouch, a set of keys (I let him keep those, wasn't about to rob his house, I had standards), and a bag of rice.

Asshole.

Did he really think he could come here, take my freaking donkey, leave behind a measly sack of rice, and that I'd just go on my merry way?

Oh, screw it. I was keeping the damn thing.

And the rice.

Of course, this gentleman was nice enough to bring it to us and everything!

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"There's no fear when you're having fun." - Will Thomas


Chapter 18: Street Rat

I reached the town of Zhengzou, just near the borders of Lanling, and I could immediately tell I wasn't going to have a good time here.

Maybe it was because CangSe and ChangZe had sucessfully 'sheltered' me from seeing these sights or because I'd had a filter removed from my eyes now that they were gone, making it incredibly easy to see the street urchins and orphans running around between alleys and houses.

Worse still was seeing obviously hungry children being grabbed by their arms and thrown away from stalls by men twice their size and thrice their girth, yelling at them to stop scaring away clients and to get their dirty hands off of their merchandise.

There was an obvious disconnect between my culture and theirs.

This wasn't how you treated children!

I wanted to go up to him and shout at him, give him a piece of my mind, but my tongue was tied.

Tell him off and I'd be in the wrong here. Because they were street rats, filthy and sneaky and a bunch of liars, they deserved everything coming to them.

Something buzzed at the edge of my senses and my hand moved before I could process it, grabbing the wrist of a kid slightly older than me, attempting to grab the Qiankun bag at my waist.

I stared at him and felt empty.

I let go of his wrist and watched him scamper off.

Would I be like this?

No, of course not. Even if I was an Oscar worthy actor, my patience has limits, and I have better use of my time than to spend it trying to steal buns off a cart.

Like finding a place to keep the donkey at while you go complete some Quests.

I groaned all the way in the back of my head.

It'd be so much easier if I just sold the thing.

But you're too fond of it now to do it.

So I'm a bloody sap, sue me.

Where's that Quest?

I opened the map and let it it guide me on where I needed to go. In the five minutes it took me to get there, I'd already grabbed two other would-be-pickpockets and gave a mighty kick to the shins of a guy who tried to grab the donkey's lead out of my hand.

He shouted expletives at me and was 'shocked' when I shouted better ones back at him.

Please, like I wasn't thrice his age and an educated lady at that. These people didn't know the art of cussing someone out.

The Quest itself wasn't a particularly fascinating one, just fetch this and that before the time runs out. And they had a place I could keep the donkey in whilst I ran the errant.

I did have the feeling that the System intervened more in this world than what I'd first assumed, because there was this disconnect when people gave me Quests, like there was something not quite right with them.

Like they weren't really talking, just reciting lines in a script.

And maybe because they don't think twice of asking this and that of a random child, when you still get awkward looks on the streets because your face doesn't match how cute you are.

Screw you.

Don't think too hard on this, lest you have an existential crisis in the middle of the market place.

Mind over matter?

Mind over matter.


I ended up bawling my eyes out about three hours after I'd run a few simple Quests, seeing a couple picking up their child off of the ground and raising him high in the air.

The gaping hole in my chest hurt.

So I started bawling.

In an alley.

At least it's not like you have much face to lose by having snot all over you.

I ignored it.

The donkey was tied back at an inn, who agreed to let me sleep on the hay stack out back, so I didn't have to worry about anyone trying to get it from me right now.

I kind of just sat and cried for a bit.

Or well, that was my plan before this bastard appeared.

"Hey, little boy, are you alright?" Someone asks.

I look up, rubbing at my teary eyes, and see a man standing above me, nicely dressed in clean robes and smiling in a friendly way down at me.

Warning bells started ringing in my head.

This guy was bad news.

My skin prickled and the Stranger Danger vibes the guy was giving off had my instincts yelling at me to get away from him.

Or stick the dagger in a soft spot.

"I'm fine," I answered and went to get up.

He laughs and puts his hand on my shoulder.

Oh, no he didn't.

"Where are your parents? It's getting late to be out by yourself," He tells me, and his eyes are definitely shifting around to see if there are any adults nearby.

Stab him.

"They're waiting for me," I lie," I don't need help finding them," I tell him and push his hand off of me.

"Now, now," He tries to put some more pressure on my shoulder," That isn't polite."

I kick him in the nuts.

Guy goes down with a whine.

"Player leveled up!"

"New (Main) Quest Available!"

"Do you wish to view this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

I ignore the notifications for now.

"It isn't polite to approach little boys with bad intentions," I mock him," Didn't your mother taught you that?"

The guy only groans and glares at me, clutching his family jewels.

"Try and touch me again and lose your hand, asshole," I spit at him.

He just lays there, rocking on the ground, and I quickly make my way back to the inn. Despite my faking it, and I was angry, I felt uneasy.

My skin crawled in revulsion.

I was getting out of this shit town, right now.

I'd be better off sleeping in some cave or even in a fucking tree.

Should've shanked him.

I snort.

I'll keep that in mind.

I get to the inn and give him some excuse about how I wasn't staying there for the night, really sorry to bother him, and grabbed the donkey from the stables.

The sun was already down and it was evening, not the safest time to travel, but I could care less about that at this point.

The first beast that thought I made for an easy target was getting disemboweled.

I wasn't messing around.


About two hours after I left the town and found a small empty cave to stay in for the night, making my camp and getting cozy with a small campfire. I finally sat down to see what the notification was all about.

First thing first.

I open the Player Menu.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 4
Title: None Level: 15
Class: None* Fatigue: 30

Stats: 18 Points Available;
Intelligence: 16 Stealth: 14
Strength: 20 Charisma: 14
Agility: 16 Senses: 20
Stamina: 20 Luck: 13

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Common boots

Weapon:
Blessed Dagger
Talisman (16)
Small Bow (12)]

With how things seemed to be going for me, I decided that my Stats would be monstrous by the time this Story Arc was done and over with.

I quickly distributed my Stat points and pop on over to the Quest Page.

There were still some Quests to be done on that town but I decided to stay away from it for now. And opened the new Quest notification.

"Quest: Player Class Selection"

«Player has reached Class Selection level.
Player should arrive at the nearest Class Selection sight and complete this Quest.
Classes have specific Skills that can be unlocked automatically.
Classes can be changed any time but Skills unlocked will be lost.
Player can multi-class at specific levels or conditions.»

"Accept this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

I stare at the words for about a minute before pinching my cheek.

I hadn't fallen asleep, at least.

This can't be real.

This never happened in the...-

Novel? Yeah, I thought we'd already established that our situation isn't even remotely close to the plot apart from the canon timeline of events.

Goodness gracious, I really was stuck in a video game.

Well, what are you waiting for? Accept it!

I sighed, and clicked yes.

The map now had a rather big bubble colored red right above Lanling.

Into the den of beasts...

They don't know who you are yet, odds are they won't try to kill you!

At least, I upped my Luck Stat.

That only means the world will try and heap more 'unlucky' stuff towards you.

You're just a ray of sunshine, you.

Says the person who knocked two men out in less than a day.

Touché.


Whilst I had agreed to take on that Quest, I decided to wait a while before going on to tackling it. Lanling wasn't very far off from where I was, and it'd take me a day at most to reach it, so I decided to go to the 'poorer' villages and see if they needed any help with Spirits or had any night-hunt available.

It was mid-autumn right now, but winter set early in this land. And once it set there were places that because virtually unreachable unless you flew. So many smaller villages were left to fend for themselves during these months, relying only on local cultivation clans and rural sects.

Any help offered would be well received, I was sure.

And I was.

Except for the tiny problem about my age.

"You're a cultivator?" The grizzled man laughs," You're smaller than meh grand-kids!"

I smile wider at him, my scar pulling at my cheek, and let him laugh.

"I heard you're leading a night-hunt tonight, I was asking if you're allowing rogue cultivators to also participate?" I repeat my question.

He gave me a patronizing look," Listen kid, night-hunting isn't a game, it's dangerous and you could get hurt."

I gave him a gentler smile, and pulled my pendant out of my robes.

The man stared at it for a few moments, and I was all but ready to explain what it was, before his eyes widen and he quickly looks up at me again.

Gotcha.

"I am the son of CangSe Sanren, I follow in the footsteps of the Great Baoshan Sanren's teachings," I tell him, bullshitting my way through the conversation," I am asking you, elder, if you are allowing rogue cultivators to participate on this night-hunt."

The man stares at me some more, alternating between me and the pendant, before there's a spark of recognition in his eyes. He bows his head slightly, the bare minimum really," Rogue cultivators are allowed on this night-hunt, but my clan cannot afford to support outsiders with equipment or tools."

I smile at him and nod," Do not worry, I have my own tools and equipment. May I ask if there's any stable I can pay to house my mount?" I ask him, gesturing at the donkey patiently waiting a little ways behind me.

"The inn has a stable, they'll let you keep it there for the night for a small price," He answers.

I thank him and walk towards the inn, leading the donkey.

That went better than expected.

You'd be surprised on how many places you can enter if you behave as if you belong there.


"Who's that kid?!" I heard a startled cultivator yelp.

"I heard the chief say that he's a rogue cultivator, CangSe Sanren's son, you know... The Baoshan Sanren's disciple!" Another answered him in an awed tone.

"He's already taken down three frost spirits, and I think I saw him strike a hungry ghost without even turning around," The first one said.

"Kid's on a whole different league... These prominent Sects and their great disciples aren't normal... Kid can't be more than five years old..." Another cultivator told them.

"Dear Heavens..." The first one let out a sigh," Any chances of him joining our clan?"

"Are you stupid? What the hell would we have to offer him?" The second one scoffed.

"He'd bring so much glory to our clan," The first groaned.

"Keep dreaming," The third one snorted," And pay attention to what you're doing! I'm not telling auntie you got injured because you weren't paying attention!"

I left them to it, weaving in and out of trees and readying my bow to let my arrows fly. Even under the night sky with little to no light I could see, and the cold air stung my skin.

It was hard to breathe, but it was good practice.

I'd already been at this for two hours, and the night was barely beginning.

"Stat leveled up!"

I grinned.

The next spirit that was unfortunate to cross my path would've gulped in fright if they could.

I loved this.


"So there we were, right? Surrounded by this wolf pack," A man was telling to an eager crowd around the table of the tavern," Qi She is already down, blood pouring out of his leg, Ming Yu has lost his blade and is trying to watch out for my back, when all of a sudden, this kid comes flying out of nowhere, and just starts shooting out arrows." He told them.

More than three pairs of eyes turn to stare at me, sitting at one end of the table and eating my free meal, thanks for saving the men, and give me appraising looks.

They're drunk and flushed pink.

Every once in a while, the guy telling the story would stop and repeat what he'd just said, none of the other guys bothered to correct him.

I found them amusing.

"And, and... Man, you had to have been there," The first man shakes his head in disbelief," The wolves just run, they notice their numbers going down so they just run..."

The men nod at me with respect.

"How about you tell a happier story?" The barmaid asks them," Or some song, I don't know. I don't want to go to sleep only to dream of wolves attacking me!"

The men laugh and jeer but decide to go along with her and start telling jokes and rhymes before quickly getting bored.

"Hey, kid," One of them turns to me," Ya' know any songs?"

Drinking songs? I know a few.

I ponder on what to tell him, most of the ones I know won't translate very well into chinese.

I know just the one.

A tune filters in my ear, and I have this unholy vision of the whole tavern drunkenly belling out the lyrics.

I grin widely at the men.

"Oh, I know one," I answer.

"Well, what are ya' waiting for?" The man laughs," Sing it out loud!"

"Oh, I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts~ There they are a standing in a row~ Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head~ Give them a twist, a flick of the wrist, that's what the showman said~!"

"Singing Skill leveled up!"

Turns out I do, indeed, have a talent for rousing drunks into singing silly songs.

I got a free room for the night for the free entertainment of seeing twelve odd drunks trying to string their words coherently in order to follow along with the song.

God, I love Monty Python.

I might just stay a while doing this.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." - Mahatma Gandhi


Chapter 19: Be Better

News of CangSe Sanren and Wei ChangZe's death spread around early winter. It wasn't that it took long to identify the bodies, their swords were recognizable as their looks nowadays thanks to the frequent rumors of their parenting, but that their child hadn't been found with them.

Apparently it was thought that their son had been with them and perhaps had went after the beasts who killed them. The news hadn't spread until someone finally revealed that their son had gone missing from their inn room, with all of their belongings gone as well.

It was obvious that a child couldn't possibly carry three packs out of a room, which was locked when the innkeeper went to check the room, and disappear into the night by itself.

Or well, they could.

If they had a Game System that allowed them to store things in a hammer space.

By then, I'd already been traveling for a while. Rural villages and poor towns, never straying too far from Lanling.

Today, I decided, I would go check on the Quests there, the sooner I got them done the better. And I really wanted to find out more about Classes.

Donkey, as I had taken to calling it, yes I was that unimaginative, and I had been working on letting me ride it.

The first attempts had been amusing but proved fruitless. Donkey wasn't used to being ridden like one would a horse, content to being led by a lead and carrying packs. You could sit on it while he was being led, but you were out of luck if you thought he'd walk at all with you on his back and no lead.

Many apple bribery had been used to get its mind to change.

I could ride it for short distances, and perhaps longer still, but I got too sore for sitting on its back and ended up walking a lot of the time.

As I traveled in and out of villages, and the news of my adults deaths spread, there came word of Jiang FengMian leading searches in an attempt of finding me. With how much attention their deaths had brought, their bodies had been burnt and their ashes sent to YunmengJiang, as per their Sect Leader's orders.

LanlingJin, the Sect responsible for overseeing that city had easily agreed, and even opened their borders for Jiang FengMian to search their territory for the missing boy.

There were even whispers of disciples being sent to nearby towns and villages to search for him.

I pondered on letting Jiang FengMian finding me sooner, even entertained the thought of just showing up where he was at and asking him why he was making all sorts of noise about me being missing, but I quickly decided against it.

I had my goal to reach and, just like my adults deaths, it would be inevitable that I'd be found and brought to Yunmeng.

But not yet.

Not now.

I still had much to do right now. Had only just begun my march to a better future.

In the end, I sat in front of a mirror and thought of ways to make me less recognizable.

My scar was a blessing and a hindrance. It was very visible and easily recognizable but, at the same time, the exact scar wasn't known by the world at large. All they knew was that CangSe Sanren and Wei ChangZe's son had a scar on his face.

I didn't have to worry too much about it, what I did have to worry about, though, was how closely I resembled CangSe.

The same grey colored eyes, the same slightly fuller lips that always settled on my face as a small mischievous smirk, and the same head shape. I had ChangZe's nose and hair though, along with his smaller ears and long fingers.

I'd grow to be as tall as him, as well.

As such, I needed to take some measures to make sure I wasn't easily spotted.

I brought out the box of hair ribbons and took out a gentle blue one, although I did considered taking the bright red one. One day, I decided, but today wasn't that day.

I loosened my hair and re-tied it properly in a high pony-tail, using my dagger to cut the ends that passed below my neck. Hair that grew too long was a snag when it came to night-hunts. All it took was a beast grabbing a hold of it and I'd go down.

I was strong, yes, but I had to work with my strengths. And my height wasn't one of them.

I looked back on the mirror and poked at the scar. I'd never let my eyes stare too long at my own reflection. In some ways, I still found it foreign.

Gone was the blond-ish hair and green eyes, the slight overbite and the peach colored skin.

All those years, wrinkles and weights were gone.

In its place stood a child with too wise eyes and a fire lit behind them.

This was Wei Ying, courtesy WuXian.

And I'd stand atop my mountain and look down at the world one day, and see the sun rise above it in peace.

One day.

I poked my scar again.

There wasn't much, if anything, I could do about it. Time had made its color fade from the angry red it had been to a white paler than my own skin. I was sure that once summer got here and I'd spent my days and nights out in the open, hunting and crusading as my plans were, that it would grow more obvious. Placing a bandage on it would only bring more scrutiny at it, it was best just to let it out, in open view.

I'd keep the pendant hidden, unless I had to use it to make people stop acting all high-and-mighty on night-hunts.

These past few nights had been interesting, it got my mind off of things, to just lose myself running through darkened forests and track down malicious spirits. Yao that decided to take the shape of animals in order to 'escape' notice, were by far the most entertaining to hunt.

Often they'd hide in between actual animals and trick you into attacking the wrong thing.

They forgot, though, that the eyes are the windows to the soul. And theirs betrayed their intelligence.

I didn't tell that to the odd number of cultivators gaping at me and trying to figure out how I always knew which one was the correct yao.

If they were at least three times my age and couldn't be bothered to be observant enough to guess, then all I'd say were a few words of advice and let them either sink or swim.

Harsh of me, I think.

Not really.

So you say.

There weren't any Quests left on this village, nor in the villages surrounding it, so it was time to leave.

Donkey was already tacked with a fine set of old tack from a thankful farmer, whose cattle was being afflicted by a particularly vicious Hungry Ghost, and all I had left to do was thank the innkeeper for letting me stay, say goodbye to the cultivation clan of the area and set back on my travel.

But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Morbid.

Shut up.


Lanling hasn't changed since the last time I was here.

Around winter time too.

The map told me that the Class Selection Quest would be happening somewhere just past the city's north gates, in the direction of Qinghe, which was where I would be heading next, after finishing up all the Quests I had in this territory.

I would quickly go through the ones available here and move on, four Quests and I wouldn't return here, not again.

I paid for an opening in a stable, Donkey would stay there while I went around and did my thing. It'd be faster to weave through the crowds if I didn't have an animal trekking after me.

Finding the first Quest, one for a baker woman who needed to deliver a basket of bread to a household on the other side of the city, was easy and I made use of my stamina to finish it quickly.

If anyone was surprised with how a tiny little kid could carry a basket almost as long as his arm, full of bread, and still run fast enough to rival hunting dogs they didn't say anything aloud.

The second Quest was more like a scavenger hunt. The man gave me a map, or more specifically a piece of paper with crudely depicted buildings and symbols, and told me to go find the materials he needed.

I gave him a deadpan look but I went anyways.

Took me almost three hours to get them all and my good humor was fading fast.

The sun was high in the sky and it burned. Winter sun burnt more than in the summer, because you didn't feel just how hot it was due to the cold.

I was running towards the last Quest in this city, before tackling the Class Selection one, when a kid, near the same age as me, dressed in bright golden robes crosses my path. I'm running too fast to stop in time and I bump into him.

We both fall over in a heap of limbs.

Urgh.

I get up first and pull him up by the back of his robes.

"What's the big idea, just showing up all of a sudden?" I rub the back of my head," Sorry, for bumping into you, I was going too fast to stop in time."

The kid makes a disgusted noise and turns to face me.

It's not a face I recognize, I've never seen him before, but the vermilion dot on his forehead makes my opinion of him drop several degrees.

He wasn't a good looking child, too puffed cheeks and a big nose, not to mention the bit of a belly rounding the front of his robes.

Please let this not be Jin ZiXuan. If he says he's Jin ZiXuan then there's no way I'm not bursting into laughter when I see him in Gusu.

"How dare you!" He squeaks hands clenched in fists at his sides.

I raise an eyebrow at him.

"How dare I what? Bump into you? I already apologized, young mistress, there's no need to throw a fit," I told him.

His face turns red as a tomato.

"Taunting Skill leveled up!"

Seriously...

You have a talent for this, I see, no wonder everyone hates you in the future.

"I'm-..." I go to apologize when the kid just screeches.

"A-Feng!" He yells," Punish this urchin!"

Urchin? Kid, I'd question your eyesight.

And punish? Who the hell is this A-Feng?

"Right away, Young Master Jin," A man quickly comes over and pulls a whip out of his belt.

...

Oh, he better not dare to.

"You're a stupid urchin!" The kid mocks," How dare you touch me with your lowly hands!"

...If this was Jin ZiXuan I'd find a way to convince Jiang YanLi to find love elsewhere.

He got better, and this might not be him.

Might.

I stood my ground and glared at the kid," I apologized," I told him," And I could care less about who you are, you try to have your servant hit me, and he's going to carry you back home unconscious."

I swear I'd punch the kid into the next week if he tried to pull this on me.

My eyes betrayed no lie, and I see his countenance falter.

A sharp sting on my back makes me buckle. The sharp whistle of a whip follows.

"How dare you speak to the Young Master like this!" Another servant appeared from behind me, carrying another whip," Street rats like you should grovel at the feet of your betters!"

Another slash of the whip. I brought my body down low.

Rage bubbled inside of me, and I hid my face from view so they could not see my eyes smoldering cold silver embers.

Calm down. Think this through.

I took a deep breath, the damn servant slashed at me again, and the air strangled in my chest.

I was done thinking.

I jumped up, grabbed a hold of the man's wrist and twisted, twisted until I heard the sharp snap of bone, and the man howled. Then, lightning fast, I turned around and landed a punch squarely on the cheek of the kid, controlling my strength so that I wouldn't accidentally hurt him more than his body could handle.

I then looked straight into the remaining servant's eyes.

He paled.

"You never saw me," I tell him.

"New Skill Acquired!"

He quickly nods.

I leave, disappearing into the crowded streets, and pretend I don't hear the howling of the fallen servant and the crying of the bratty young master.

Whoever that Jin was, he fucking deserved it.

This won't help you in the future.

I bit my tongue.

I already knew that. Anger got the best of me.

How dare he!

In the future, many will turn against you. Will you do the same as Wei WuXian did?

History repeats itself... Round and round it goes... A vicious cycle.

I took a deep breath and pressed my head against the cool stone of a building.

No... No, I wouldn't... I wouldn't let my emotions get the best of me...

I would do better. Be better.

Then bow your head. Learn to bow your head and take the hits.

Use the pain as gunpowder, and your will as the wick.

When the time comes...

Blow them all out of the water.

Be better.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within." - Ralph Waldo Emerson


Chapter 20: Class Selection Quest

I'd gotten the last Quest in the city done and retreated back to the stable where Donkey was in to nurse my wounds.

Once my anger had left my body and I'd stopped moving the cuts on my back started to sting. Making sure that there was no one else in the stable I positioned myself where no one else would see me and took off my robes, leaving my back exposed.

I used the water tank the stable had to see my back.

Three bleeding slashes cut across my back.

I growled, deep in my throat before I took a deep breath and held it in.

I couldn't let my anger get the best of me.

Could not.

Calm. I needed to be calm.

Breathing in, I let my conscious float for a minute before bringing the world back into focus. I opened my inventory and brought out the medicinal remedies and bandages I knew had stuffed in it.

I cleaned the blood using a clean bandage and applied a salve that said it was meant for cuts.

I burned.

My eyes involuntarily teared up and I glared at the ceiling.

I. Would. Not. Cry.

Crying isn't a weakness.

No, but I sure as hell wasn't showing up at a night-hunt with red teary eyes and expect to be treated with respect.

Actually... Since Jiang FengMian is looking for you, won't they stop you or try to keep you there?

...

I finish applying the bandages and getting my robes back on before opening my Player Menu.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 4
Title: None Level: 17
Class: None* Fatigue: 50

Stats: 20 Points Available;
Intelligence: 27 Stealth: 27
Strength: 28 Charisma: 27
Agility: 27 Senses: 28
Stamina: 29 Luck: 27

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Common boots

Weapon:
Blessed Dagger
Talisman (10)
Small Bow (25)]

I thought on just how many Stat Points I was making with Quests and night-hunting, and spared the time to consider just how my stats would look like after all this was over. On average, splitting the territory by the Great Sect governing it, there were around seven rural villages, more or less five decently sized towns, and three larger cities.

There were always four Quests available in each of those stops, and they all rewarded Stat points at their completion. Rural villages offered one SP per Quest, towns usually gave three SP, and city Quests gave five each.

That made... A lot of Stat Points.

I blinked.

Did my Stats even have power caps? Like, would I be unable to increase them past a certain point?

Or maybe, you'll become a mortal God.

I would not. Impossible.

You never know.

Knock on wood, I already have too many things to worry about. Godhood will not be one of them.

You do know the point of Cultivation is to become Immortal, right?

...Well, to each their own. I want to make it past twenty-five and live in peace!

You say that now~ You never know what the future brings!

Shut. Up.

I quickly distributed the new Stat Points, making sure to level them all out before investing in Luck.

Gods knew I'd need it.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 4
Title: None Level: 17
Class: None* Fatigue: 50

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 30 Stealth: 30
Strength: 30 Charisma: 30
Agility: 30 Senses: 30
Stamina: 30 Luck: 30

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Common clothes (child)
Common boots

Weapon:
Blessed Dagger
Talisman (10)
Small Bow (25)]

I liked to see the Stats all rounded up in even numbers. Even if after this one Quest they'd probably go back to odd numbers.

Speaking off odd numbers, I needed to make more talismans and get more arrows. I'd been making them at my leisure but I needed to make more now before going out to fight I don't know what.

Bigger concentrations of people usually meant meaner spirits, stronger and more vicious. One couldn't rule out crime and human nature when considering what they'd find on night-hunts.

And I needed warmer robes. My previous winter robes had started to be too tight and frayed at the edges. These ones I was wearing too, would have to be replaced, my various forays into night-hunting in woods meant that the cloth was wearing out faster than it had previously.

You diving under bushes, tree trunks, climbing and jumping all over the place like a demented monkey doesn't help either.

I roll my eyes.

I opened the Store and eyed the equipment being sold. There were a lot, but most were either level-locked or way too expensive. The ones with various protections sewn in, holy robes or just made out of some spiritual creature's hide were ridiculously pricey and I doubted I'd ever buy them.

But it's nice to have options.

True.

I spied a decently priced pair of winter robes and got them, getting the notice that they'd been automatically sent to my inventory.

Boots?

I looked down at my feet, they were worn, yes, but still feasible. I shook my head, opening instead the weapons section of the Store.

I made moon eyes at all the shiny blades.

You do have a sword.

Which I can't use because of my tiny noodle arms.

You won't be able to use these either then.

I huffed.

Let a woman dream.

I scrolled down to see the ranged weapons section. The bows here, all of various materials and qualities, were also ridiculous expensive and I was glad ChangZe had taught me how to make my own.

Arrows, on the other hand, were a dime a dozen.

Once again, they all got sent to my inventory and I closed the Store.

Pulling the new robes out of my inventory I saw that they were a dark color, not black but maybe a very dark green? They had a small fur lining on the collar and sleeves, which were tight against my wrists and not flow-y like most. The robes also brought a set of sturdy pants.

I heard a confused bray and looked up to see Donkey staring at the clothes in my lap.

Oh, yeah, he can't see anything I do with the Menu and its back was turned when I brought out the salves.

I gave it an impish smile and brought a finger to my lips, opening the Store again and quickly getting an apple out of it.

It appeared in my hand as I brought it out of the inventory.

Donkey's eyes gleamed.

Clearly, we'd reached an understanding.

Your social skills never cease to amaze me.

You're just jealous of my awesomeness.


I got to say, the System deserved more recognition for its work.

The clothes were very comfortable. And warm. And, oh goodness, I loved the fur lining.

And the easy to get bribes for Donkey.

Shhh...

Night was starting to fall and I'd walked to the spot where the Quest was supposed to start. Already I saw a few cultivators waiting for the last few stragglers to show up.

I'd gotten some looks but I pretended not to see them.

I made a quick last check to see that I had everything I needed, and recounted my arrows and checked the string of my bow before placing it back. I counted my talismans and looked up to see the position of the moon. It was just starting to peek out of the distant mountains, but that just meant the spirits would soon come out to play.

"The night-hunt has to start soon, or else we'll be running against time to catch all the prey before the sun rises," I commented aloud, a slow drawl to my words," Who else is missing?"

The cultivators give a look, up and down, seemingly confirming that a) I was a kid, and b) I was talking to them.

"Just another group of disciples from LanlingJin," One replied," They always show up when they want to."

"So why is everyone left to wait for them," I raise a brow," This is a night-hunt, one open to the public if the notice I read was correct, its a courtesy to wait for the disciples of the hosting sect, not a necessity."

"They're LanlingJin..." One murmured, shifting from foot to foot.

I roll my eyes, and start walking into the forest," Stay here and lose your prey, it's your choice. They complain? Well, they should've been here on time, then, like everyone else!" I tell them over my shoulder.

"Kid, they'll make your life a living hell," One tried to warn me.

I laughed.

"Let them try!" I told them, stopping and turning to look back at them with a wide grin on my face," I'm not someone they want to mess with."

I then resumed walking.

None bothered to stop me again.

"Who's that kid?" I heard one whisper.

"No idea," Another replied.

"Could he be that kid from the rumors?" Another wondered out loud.

There was a beat of silence.

"Holy hell, you mean he's CangSe Sanren's kid? Wasn't he missing?" One gasped.

I laughed under my breath.

My adults would be so proud.


"The Class Selection Quest will begin momentarily"

The notification floated above me, along with a small countdown clock, already turning red as it ticked down.

I was in the middle of a clearing, breathing hard as I'd spent the last hour running around chasing yao and beasts, when the notification had appeared.

I calmed down my breathing as I had been taught and did some basic cooling down forms so I wouldn't cramp up.

*ring* *ring*

I looked up to see a screen appear above me.

|Class Selection Quest Begins!|
|Completion requirements: |
|o Defeat Highlighted Yao 0/20 |
|o Defeat Boss level Beast 0/1 |
|Bonus Points if the Player defeats the Hidden MoGui|

I blinked at the words but shrugged. If they were helping my by highlighting the Yao I had to track down, then they only helped me. As for the boss level beast... Well, I'll deal with whatever came my way.

And the Hidden MoGui.

What the hell is a MoGui?

I shrugged. I'd never heard of it.

Suddenly, through the corner of my eye, I see something glowing. Immediately I nock an arrow and twist on my heel, shooting whatever it was in a single graceful motion.

A Yao covered in glittery blue glow goes down and dissipates.

One down!

I look back at the count.

|Class Selection Quest Begins!|
|Completion requirements: |
|o Defeat Highlighted Yao 1/20 |
|o Defeat Boss level Beast 0/1 |
|Bonus Points if the Player defeats the Hidden MoGui|

I had work to do.


The moon was right above me, illuminating the forest with cold white light, and I was searching for the final three yao I needed before turning my sights on the Boss Beast and the MoGui.

I knelt by a tree and poked at the ground, the dirt had been moved, recently too, but with the other cultivators running around it was hard to tell if it had been the yao or someone else trying to hunt them down.

I sighed.

How the hell did cultivators track down creatures before Wei WuXian created the Compass of Evil?

With difficulty, it's why everyone wanted a Compass when they came out.

Shush you.

Well, I don't know what else you want me to say! That cultivators have like a sixth sense? That they feel the world around them?

...Feel the world around them?

I mused along that thought.

The common string of knowledge I had of those yoga or meditation manuals, and trust me there were a lot, was that the world was made of energy and all you had to do in order to find balance with your energy and that energy was to... Become tuned in?

The details escape me, Cynthia would certainly know more than me.

I huffed and rested my back to the tree, closing my eyes.

Anything was worth a shot once. If it worked great, if it didn't then there was something wrong and something needed to change.

I took a deep breath, and let it out after a few seconds, slowly regulating my breathing and heart beat.

I let all the sounds around me be the only things I could hear, ignoring all other noises, and tried to do something.

Reach out with my own energy? How did I find my own energy?

Inwards... Look inwards?

How does one look inside themselves?

I frown, having lost focus with my rambling.

Another approach then.

*Ding*

I ignored the notification sound, I didn't feel in danger and I doubted it wanted to give me any tips.

I controlled my breathing again and this time focused on my chest.

That's where the energy focused in, right?

No... That's not where it forms into energy.

The navel.

I focus inwards, deeper into myself, and have the slight impression that there's a tiny little orb of light in the dark. I try to reach it but it escapes right through my fingers.

It wouldn't work like that.

Hmm...

Lure it?

I cupped my hands in the darkness of my mind, figuratively speaking, and thought about the energy resting in my palms.

Imagine... Imagination is power or whatever the saying went.

Energy... It'd be warm and liquid, flowing through me fingers, always slipping past them. Always moving.

Always, always, always moving.

Never stand still.

Lively. Bright. Clear.

Drip...

I open my eyes, there in my cupped palms is a bright golden orb of light, small and slightly wispy, revolving in them like water in a water bowl. Little drops of light drip from my cupped hands and into the darkness below me.

Like ripples in a still lake, the bright energy creates afterimages of the world outside of my mind.

Golden trees are visible for a mere second.

Rocks.

Grass.

Birds hiding in the trees.

A chill suddenly runs down my spine and I can feel the being running towards me.

Dark vermilion energy swirls around it like smoke, and I taste blood on my tongue, cooper stench thick in my nose.

I don't think twice before moving.

Dropping out of my mind with nigh a thought, I crouch low to the ground, let go of my bow and pull the dagger off of its sheath at my waist. Before it reaches me, because I can see it, dark and malevolent, I spin on my feet and coiled like a spring jump in its direction.

I drive the dagger straight through the ball of resentful energy I can see, right in the center of its being, and watch as the smoke around it stills.

Fades.

And then its true appearance reveals itself.

Dark leather-y skin and empty orbs for eyes, a long red tongue lolls out of its mouth, unable to fully close due to its jagged teeth.

It drops to the floor. Dead.

"Player leveled up!"

"Meditation Skill leveled up!"

"Advancement Unlocked!"

"Bonus requirement Completed!"

I let out a breath I didn't remember holding in, staring at the floating words, and gazing, wide-eyed at how everything is so bright and clear.

I look at the Quest screen.

|Class Selection Quest Begins!|
|Completion requirements: |
|o Defeat Highlighted Yao 17/20 |
|o Defeat Boss level Beast 0/1 |
|Bonus Points if the Player defeats the Hidden MoGui (Completed)|

So that was a MoGui...

I don't think I liked how it felt too much.

Felt?

Had I felt it?

Was this how being attuned with the world felt like?

I take another look around me, see how everything around me has its own glow, weak or star bright, and am in awe with it.

If this was what it was then I was sure in my heart that I didn't want it to stop.

Did every cultivator felt like this?

Saw like this?

Try as I might I couldn't answer that.

Not unless I asked.

If they did no harm done.

If they didn't... I was petty enough to want to keep this sight all to myself.

Something shone in the familiar powdery blue glow I'd been chasing before and I tumbled on the floor like a ball to reach my bow and took off after it.

I could see so clearly.

It felt great.

It felt freeing.

Light.

I smiled.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Ecstasy is the energy of spirit. When life flows, ecstasy is natural." - Deepak Chopra


Chapter 21: The High of Victory

Everything went by so fast.

One moment I remember being near a river, just grabbing the last Yao needed for the Quest, and then the next I'm running so fast through the forest I feel as if I'm flying. I pass by stunned cultivators who's eyes trail after me, feel the golden fire lit inside their chests and I try not to blink. Too afraid that the light will be gone the next time I open them.

Still, I need to blink, the cold air stings my eyes if I keep them open for too long.

I'm looking for the Boss Beast.

I don't know what it'll look like, but by being a Beast I can eliminate all the crawling yao and other spirit creatures going around.

I already had my prey.

I just needed to find it.

Would its energy be as wretched as the MoGui's? I hoped not.

Would it be as powdery glowing blue as the yao? If it did it'd be easier to find, at least.

Anticipation flooded my veins.

I couldn't stop grinning.

I couldn't help it.

The world was so much... more, than it was before.

It was beautiful.

Something crossed my path and I twisted out of its reach, somersaulted over it like an expert athlete.

I blinked.

I could never do that.

"Acrobatic Skill leveled up!"

Huh?

I did that?

'Dodge,' A whisper told me and my body threw itself to the side, a powerful swipe of sharpened claws barely missing my ear.

I look to see what attacked me and gulp.

It was a bear.

A bear with glowing red eyes and dark vermilion smoke swirling in its chest.

This was the Boss Beast.

How fun.

I totally didn't find that quip funny.

But my lips stretched into a grin nonetheless.

How fun indeed.

It roared, the stillness of night broken and birds startled into flight.

I back-flipped onto my feet and crouched, making sure I had my bow at the ready and still out of the way in case I needed to run.

I roared back at it.

This was my prey now.


Cao XuYin was a guest disciple of the Jin Sect, his family was holding out hopes that he could bring glory to their name and elevate their house to a noble one. His brothers were still too young to study cultivation, but he was hoping that the Jin Sect would welcome them too.

That said, despite his more humble roots, he knew good cultivation techniques and forms. The Jin Sect spared no expense at making sure their disciples didn't disgrace their good name, nor did they make a fool of themselves in public.

They were taught to be in control of their emotions, if only as to not let their opinion of others known.

Cao XuYin couldn't keep that control anymore at the sight before his eyes.

His friends and him had decided to track down the child that had apparently joined in on the night-hunt. It had entered the forest before they had, and as such needed to be made an example of.

When he had heard of the child he'd scoffed, sure that they'd find the child crying somewhere after seeing what a real yao or ghost looked like.

This... This... This wasn't what they expected to find.

"A monster..." His friends beside him gulped," That's a monster..."

Another friend shushed him, sweating and clutching his sword in a white knuckled grip.

Cao XuYin couldn't stop staring.

He wasn't sure how to feel right now.

In awe?

Scared?

Sick?

He could barely think at all!

How was this possible?

There, in the clearing below them, was a creature that one would hear about in legends.

A six foot bear with claws the size of meat hooks, teeth and muzzle stained with blood.

They had heard its roar from the other side of the forest, and many smaller cultivation clans had looked at each other and decided they'd had enough night-hunting for one day.

His friends had laughed and jeered, called them cowards, but Cao XuYin was sure that, had he seen the bear walk in his direction, he'd have left too.

Not that the bear was a problem anymore.

Because it was dead.

Killed by the kid they'd been tracking down.

Cao XuYin soul could've escaped his body with how low his jaw had dropped.

The kid, if it could be called that, didn't look human.

Blood was dripping from his chest, having clearly been struck my the bear, and from his nose. His hair was completely loose and a mess of leaves, twigs and dirt, as if he'd been rolling around in the bushes.

It was highly possible he had been.

But the most inhuman part of him were his eyes.

They were glowing.

Unnatural glowing orbs like two pools of liquid silver.

It's mouth was open in a gasp, panting hard, and in its hands were a broken bow and a bloodied knife.

The wooden bow had clearly struck the fatal blow, sticking out of the bear's neck like a mockery of an arrow.

Suddenly, as if shaken out of a stupor, the monster jerked and stared straight into Cao XuYin's eyes.

He screamed.

His friends screamed.

They ran out of the forest before it thought of chasing after them.

Cao XuYin would never forget this night. Never.

And if anyone ever asked him why flinched whenever grey eyes looked over him, he'd just mumble something about a stupid nightmare.

Because the being he saw that night could be nothing less than a living nightmare.


My vision was fogging at the edges.

It was hard to keep breathing and walking.

But I needed to keep walking.

I needed to get back to the stable. The Quest was done.

The world was back to it's gloomy darkness.

Nothing was glowing anymore.

I wasn't sure if I was sad that the lights were gone, or worried about how hard it was to breathe.

This is what happens when you go past your limits...

Hey! I was awesome! Did you see what I did back there? I went like wah! And then Zah! And it was so cool...!

You sound drunk. How are you drunk?

I'm not drunk!

I'm offended you think so lowly of me!

No, you're not drunk. You're high.

High? Oh, yeah, high as a kite on the glory of victory! "VICTORY!"

Stop shouting.

"I'm not shouting!"

Yes, you are.

"I am?"

Stop talking. Just get back to the stable and go to sleep.

Oh?

Yeah, make sure you don't bleed out during the night or something. Bye.

Hey! How rude!

I tripped over my feet and barely managed to keep myself upright.

I swear that tree just laughed at me.

Just keep walking.

Why do you sound like that?

Because of the torture that is hearing your thought patterns in this state.

...I don't get it.

Of course you don't.

Don't you dare sigh at me!

I dare, I did, and I will again.

Meany.

How eloquent.

I'll show you eloquent you xxxxxx!

And here come the slurs, dear, do me a favor and just get to the stable.

Don't boss me around!

Wouldn't dream of it.

Don't mumble! Speak clearly!

...

I already told you not to sigh!

This is going to be a long night... And dawn is starting... How is this my life?

Because you love me!

Obviously.

Awww...

Not.

Why you!


I curled up in a ball and groaned. Donkey brayed and nosed my head but that only made me groan harder.

I felt like crap.

Ah!

Do. Not. Speak.

Says the person who told me last night to speak clearly!

Shut. Up.

Laughter echoed in my ears, I peeked open one eye and shut it closed immediately again. It was too bright.

The light! It burns!

Shut up!

I groaned and rolled over to my stomach. Donkey started messing with my hair. I waved out a hand to make it stop.

It didn't.

Urgh.

I rolled back onto my back and slowly opened my eyes.

"Donkey," I sighed," Why must you hate me so?"

It snorted in my face.

I rolled my eyes and got up, having to quickly grab onto the donkey to keep standing when my vision swims. The light outside tells me it's about midday, so I'd been asleep for at least six hours.

Nice nap.

I take a deep breath to prevent myself from replying.

A ring to my right makes me turn and stare at the open notification.

"Class Selection Quest Completed!"

"Do you wish you view your result?"

[YES] [NO]

I pressed [YES] and blinked as the screen enlarged to show a caricature of an archer.

"The Player's Class has been decided as [Archer]!"

«Archers are skilled bowmen.
Generally independent and used to working alone, archers are stealthy, graceful and accustomed to fighting at a distance, unless they have a secondary weapon for close combat.
They can be analytical and calculating in nature, having great upper body strength and a more slender built.
Historically, archers have been recorded to have been very effective in melee, due to their extensive conditioning and strength.»

"Does the Player accept this Class?"

[YES] [NO]

So... I can refuse?

Will you?

No, I don't have the brain power to question the System right now, archer sounds perfect.

I accept and have the loud notification bells going off in my ears.

Ah!

Why does the world hate me? What did I do to deserve this?!

You exist, clearly.

I roll my eyes and ignore the 'careful, don't strain yourself' filtering through my ears to look over the new notifications.

"Advantage Unlocked!"

"Player leveled up!"

"Player can unlock one Talent connected with their Class!"

Advantage... Talent?

Oh, yeah, you unlocked another advantage back there, didn't you?

I blinked slowly, trying to remember. Honestly after the lights showed up my mind is essentially a blur.

"I think so...?" I hum.

Well, no use wasting time about it.

I open my Player menu.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 4
Title: None Level: 19
Class: Archer Fatigue: 10

Stats: 6 Points Available;
Intelligence: 30 Stealth: 30
Strength: 30 Charisma: 30
Agility: 31 Senses: 32
Stamina: 32 Luck: 30

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Winter robes (child)
Common boots

Weapon:
Blessed Dagger
Talisman (4)
Small Bow (12)]

I just evened out the Stats yesterday! What the hell!

You're getting stronger, isn't that a good thing?

It's a good think but what the hell!

Women...

I quickly add the newer Stat Points and open the Advantage Page.

Whereas before there was a blank page, there was now a list of unlockable 'perks', and the two top most perks were glowing.

*Keen Sight* and *Sixth Sense*

I blinked.

"Does the Player wish to activate this advancement?"

[YES] [NO]

I clicked yes.

I didn't feel like anything had changed.

Maybe you have to sleep on it, like with the Stats.

Possibly.

I closed the window and moved on to the Talents.

If I found the Advancements Page full, then this one easily dwarfed the other. Thankfully this one was at least divided with sub-sections.

A Talent to do with my Class, huh...

That's easy.

I opened the [Ranged Combat] section.

There were only three Talents available.

From what I understood, the number beside the name of the Talent were how many points it took to unlock it.

Then if you can get one for free, there's only one worthy to choose.

I click on the last Talent, "Pin the Fan (5)".

"Does the Player wish to unlock this Talent using the Class Selection reward?"

[YES] [NO]

I accept and see the Talent name turn bright blue, the sign that it was unlocked.

How many points do you even have?

I look to the bottom left corner.

19 Talent Points Available.

...A lot.

Spend them.

Why?

Because there's got to be something worth unlocking! Like that one right there!

"Hawk's Precision (1)".

"Does the Player wish to spend 1 TP to unlock this Talent?"

[YES] [NO]

I sigh.

It was going to be a long day.

Hey...

What?

What are alignments again?

What are what?

Alignments. That section is divided by them.

I look to see what it was referring to.

Giving it a quick once over, I pinch the bridge of my nose.

Why was it, that whenever I thought thinks would be easier from now on, they grow needlessly complicated.

Because you have shitty luck.

Shut up.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"You are energy, and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Energy just changes form." - Rhonda Byrne


Chapter 22: Alignments

There were five Alignments, Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and Void.

There was virtually no information about them to get from the Talent descriptions and it had nothing to do with different types of energy, as I had first thought when the name 'Void' came up.

Apparently they were just attributes the perks and Talents had?

You'll never know if you don't ask.

'Help, Alignments,' I sigh.

«The Five Alignments of Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and Void, balance the world's energy as a whole. Each of the Alignments represent a character's natural inclination toward a certain approach to solving problems, rather than exclusively representing mental or physical parameters, these express their propensity toward certain ways of seeing the world and facing challenges.

Fire: Represents ferocious, direct, and inventive personalities. This approach is explosive and intense, with characters aligned with this element being passionate, curious, physically quick, occasionally brusque, and fast learners. They work to get results no matter the cost to themselves or others.

Air: Represents graceful, cunning, and precise personalities. This approach is subtle or layered with nuance, as the character moves too nimbly or speaks too obliquely to be pinned down. A character aligned with this element is often eloquent, physically and socially deft, and shrewd.

Water: Represents adaptable, powerful, and perceptive personalities. This approach is balanced and reversible, with characters aligned with this elements being naturally affable, physically flexible, observant, and easygoing. They work to achieve results without overextending themselves or underperforming.

Earth: Represents an aptitude for taking a steady, thorough, and grounded approach to problems. This approach is cautious and considerate, with characters aligned with this elements being physically tough, mentally resilient, and reliable. They work to get results without suffering losses or taking unneeded risks.

Void: Represents a centered, unflinching personality; can also represent the "flow state". This is an enlightened approach, accepting the nature of all elements yet allowing none to dominate the others. A character aligned with this element is spiritually sensitive, wise and introspective.

A well-balanced Player seeks to maintain all five Alignments in their actions and know which approach to use in any given situation.»

I blink at the length-y text above me, and tilt my head to the side.

So... This is energy?

Not a single strand of energy, but a whole. How one approaches a given situation, huh?

And the Void is nothing.

And everything.

So what is Demonic Energy?

Good question.

Canon!Wei WuXian said that if Spiritual Energy is energy, then Resentful Energy also had to be energy. If these alignments spoke about Spiritual Energy then Resentful Energy had to have the same alignments.

But if they were one and the same, only viewed from different sides, one good one evil, what made them different?

Maybe they're missing something?

Or... I look at the words again.

They have too much.

What?

Unbalanced. Void is the balance of all, but people aren't balanced. When they die they have to leave something behind in their energy, in their resentment, and when it all comes together... it's unbalanced.

"Demonic Cultivation is not Available to the Player"

I glare at the warning.

"You put me in this world to become the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation! Why can't I learn Demonic Cultivation?" I grouch at it.

"System warns the Player about the dangers of Cultivating without instructions."

"It's not like I'm going to have a teacher anytime soon!" I hiss at it.

"System is locking access to all Resentful Energy fonts."

"Oh, c'mon!" I throw my hands up," You can't be serious!"

I think it is.

Whatever, see if that stops me!

If it locks you out of studying Resentful Energy, what are you gonna do about it?

Theorize. It can't stop me from figuring out what Resentful Energy is even if I can't study it properly. And it's not stopping me from cultivating normally either.

You're gonna get screwed over for this. Try not to die.

The System loves me too much to actually let me die.

Huhuh, keep telling yourself that.

You're growing rather sure of yourself, aren't you?

...

What? No response?

...

Fine then.

I close the window and start going through the Talents again.

The more Talent Points it took to unlocking the Talent, the more advanced it was, and therefore the more skill was needed to use said Talent successfully. As it was, even if I got that "Pin the Fan" Talent, I wouldn't be able to use it all all for now, as my Archery Skill wasn't up to par.

What would I need most now?

Combat Talents? Social Talents?

I figured a child didn't need to know how to trip someone using words alone. I'd have time to learn that when I actually started to interact with people who needed to be tripped up.

So, focus on combat.

I didn't have any specific weapon, so the best thing to do was going with the basics.

There were a series of General Combat Talents that sounded useful, and after I got all those I could potentially use now or in the near future, I got a few Spiritual Talents and one or two Social ones.

Once it all got up together they looked like a lot, but then I looked back on all that remained and how much they costed and realized that when the War happened I might still half more than half of these left to unlock.

And somewhat bothered by the fact that some Talents had warnings telling me not to use them in front of other people.

Do you want to be made into a bigger target?

No...

Then why are you moping about not being able to make yourself a bigger target.

But that one sounded so cool...

How many other people do you know can walk on water?

...

I thought so.

You're so mean to me today.


I quickly patch myself up, again, and make sure that I look presentable enough (my poor robes, how cruel can life be?) before stepping out of the stable. Hopping to buy some breakfast and pay the stable owner for the night before setting off in the direction of the last settlements in Lanling territory before going north to Qinghe.

Interestingly enough the market place is practically buzzing with activity.

I wonder why that is?

I weave in and out of the crowds and get myself a small bag of buns before finding somewhere I can people-watch in peace.

And eavesdrop.

It's in public, in plain sight, and they're talking out loud, if they didn't want others to hear them then they should just stay silent.

They could be having private conversations.

Gossiping more like.

"Hey, have you heard?" A woman catches the attention of another, near a cloth stall," Have you heard what happened in last night's night-hunt? The whole city is talking about it!"

"What?" The other woman leans in closer.

"They say a group of rogue cultivators ran out the forest, saying there was a monstrous beast living in it, the Sect sent in another group of experienced cultivators to go check it out," The first one spoke.

I think I know where this is going.

Shush.

"What did they find?" The second one pressured the other," Was there really a beast?"

"Yes! An enormous bear! They took it back to their Sect, no one knows how such a Beast got so close to the city without being detected," The first woman nodded.

"Alive?!" The second one yelped.

"No, silly," The first snorted," Dead, the beast was dead when the cultivators arrived."

"Well, who killed it?" The second one asked.

"A kid," The first answered with a wicked grin.

Knew it.

Oh.

You're actually surprised?

To be fair, the night's a blur for me, and I only remember feeling as if I was walking on Cloud Nine.

Yeah, well, your 'walk on Cloud Nine' included taking down a six foot bear Beast with a puny wooded bow and your glorified dagger.

...Seriously?

Seriously. You better start running out of the city.

Why?

"A kid? You're joking! That's not very funny," The other woman pouted.

"Not joking, remember those rumors a year or so back? Yeah, the same kid is at it again, except this time there's no parents with it," The first one frowned at the end of the sentence," I think Sect Leader Jin sent a messenger to YunmengJiang late last night, and has his disciples searching the city for the child now."

Oh.

Yeah, run.

Oh, no.

Run.

Oh, no...

RUN DAMMIT!

I jumped down from my spot and casually walked back to the stables at a hurried pace, I met the owner on the way back, paid him and quickly got Donkey out. It must've sensed that something was wrong because it didn't protest much.

"We're going to have to hurry," I tell it," Once we're out of the city , we have to get as far away from here as possible, I'll give you apples later!" I promised.

That cheered it up.

I'll laugh at you if you're found out at the gates by Jiang FengMian.

Knock on wood, asshole!


We didn't get caught.

Thankfully.

And quickly made our way to the next city, we wouldn't be stopping here for long. I'd just do the Quests and move on to the next one before nightfall.

I only stopped briefly once out of the city to give Donkey the promised apples, keeping an eye on my funds. It was all well and good but I really didn't like spending those coins for things like apples.

You're not hurting for money.

No, but it's better to have more and not want for it, than to want for it and have none.

Once I make it to the city I leave Donkey tied to a common post with hay and water for the mounts of travelers. I didn't really have any packs on him because I didn't need to, although I might need to have some dummy luggage.

"I'll be back in a bit," I pet its neck, enjoying its soft fur on my palm.

It snorts and noses my hair, before turning to munch on the hay.

I open my map and start walking in the direction of the nearest Quest. These shouldn't be too hard and I'd be out of here in no time.

As usual, I forgot to take into account human intervention.

"Watch'a got in yer pockets!" A kid, maybe ten or twelve, with a crooked nose and a busted lip stands in front of me with his arms crossed.

There's another big kid behind me and three smaller kids making a circle around us.

I give the kid a look.

"Nothing that belong to you," I tell him," Are you going to let me pass, or do I have to push you?"

Kid starts laughing," What are you going to do, huh? Whatever it is that you have is ours now!"

I sigh at him," Step aside and I'll forget about you, don't and I'll give you a black eye to complement that busted lip."

Kid snarls and goes to grab me, I quickly crouch dodging his weak attempt of a punch, and punch his gut.

Kid goes down, spluttering and coughing.

The one behind me tries to come at me and I sidestep him and have him trip over my foot, flopping over the first kid. I turn to the other three kids and eye them.

They run, I'll let them walk.

And if they come at you?

Kids make fists and start throwing them, trying to hit me.

I grab one of their wrists and use it to throw him into the second kid, before grabbing the final kid by the back of his collar and hoisting him up, shaking him like a misbehaving puppy.

"I don't know who you are, what you are going through, or what you have or haven't got, but let me make myself clear," I warn him," Do not mess with me. Do not mess with anyone who warns you previously that they'll hurt you if you try. Be smart, not stupid!"

I let him go and see him take off running out of the alleyway I'd been using to get to the next Quest.

"Checkpoint Finished!"

How lovely.

I shake my head and just resume my walk to the Quest point, not sparing another glance to the kids on the ground.

It made upset that I couldn't do anything for them. What could I possibly do, looking like a five year old? Create an army of street urchins? Stay in one place to look after them?

I couldn't.

And it hurt.

They're children, what was wrong with people? Why couldn't they see that they needed help? Support?

It's a different world we're living in.

It's a crap world then.

You'll change it.

I took a deep breath.

I would.

One day.

I would make a difference one day.

I would make the world a better place.

How?

Where to start?

What do I need?

Thoughts, and thoughts, and thoughts swirled in my head, always branching out and flowering with ideas and plans.

An image taking shape behind my eyes.

Red colored lanterns.

Houses.

People.

A mountain.

I promise.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Don't settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon." - Jon Krakauer


Chapter 23: Normal Day

I had hoped, when the news first broke out, that seeing as I was alive and well (or as well enough as you could be to go night-hunting) that the searches for me would stop.

Or maybe not stop but not be a crisis big enough that every Sect, minus one obvious exception, had said they'd keep an eye out for Wei ChangZe's and CangSe Sanren's child.

It was wishful thinking apparently.

The news that I had taken down a six foot bear, while I was under the influence of a ton of adrenaline and remember none of it, spread like wildfire and immediately started what I'd call a witch hunt after me.

I'd been found by a group of farmers hunting game one afternoon, and after telling them that I didn't want to go wherever they told me to go just because I was a kid, and that I, truthfully, didn't know any of those people, they agreed to let me hide out in their village for a while.

My talismans and night-hunting for them for free, didn't hurt matters either.

I was debating on whether to keep going north to Qinghe or to wait for Spring, maybe do the nearest Qinghe territory villages, then spend Spring in Gusu before going north back up again. Then I'd hit Qishan and it's neighboring areas.

It would only leave Yunmeng left, and I planned on being in Yiling when the Story Arc reached its end.

Speaking of Story Arcs, I opened the page to see the timeline.

I'd already unraveled two knots, both of which had been encounters with other street urchins, and odds were the remaining knots would be similar events.

This Arc wasn't proving to be very exciting in terms of possible situations.

But it's probably the only one where you have this much freedom.

True.

I jumped over another large jutting root and looked back on the three hunters following after me. They'd asked that I accompany them to the mountains as there were stories of people going missing up there.

I easily accepted, and was flattered that they'd asked me, so I left Donkey back at the village, living the good life in a stable with sweet straw and cool water, and was currently trekking up a mountain with mud everywhere and rain splattering off the cape of woven fibers that were naturally waterproof (I was amazed, not gonna lie) that an aged woman had made for me.

As thanks for a previous night-hunt where I returned soaked to the bone and did not complain when a woman asked me to go back out and find her missing son.

Kid had thought it funny to go fishing in the rocks dead center in a river and got stuck when the rain caused the river to swell.

I'd had to have an adult actually pull him out as the System gave me a very stern warning that 'mentally' knowing how to swim wasn't the same as 'actually' knowing how to swim in this body.

I felt cheated.

But then again, the water was ice cold this time of year and I was in no rush to actually 'learn' how to swim. It could wait for the summer.

So, I got a nice little cape for my troubles.

One of the men cursed behind me after slipping on the mud.

I sighed, closing my eyes to focus on the small dripping ball of energy inside of me. It was hard to do so with my eyes open and on the move but I reasoned that my meditation skills still need work.

It's hard to keep it running for long, let myself drown in the feeling of the world around me and I'd pay for it the day afterwards. And it was pointed out to me that it made my eyes glow, which was creepy. To them, not to me, so I had experimented on how long it took for my eyes to start glowing and would stop just before they did, take a break, and then try again.

Sounds exhausting.

One day, I will find a way to make you physical if only to give myself the opportunity to strangle you.

One day... In the far, far, far off future.

You never know~

"Goddammit!" The man cursed again as his boot became trapped in the mud.

The other two helped him and I surveyed our surroundings, so far nothing had moved but animals and critters. *Sixth Sense* hadn't picked up on anything, but then again, *Sixth Sense* only warned me about beings that were already within three feet of me, so I couldn't rely on it much.

Get better, or stop complaining.

I rolled my eyes, and focused on my surroundings again.

The forest in the mountain here was beautiful, as was much of the country side in this world, and fall had made many trees lose their leaves, the ones that didn't, the evergreens, stood proudly and strong when compared to the naked ones.

Winter would soon set upon the land and this whole place would be covered in white.

I was going to turn five soon.

I blinked at the thought.

It was nearly October, the weeks would fly by once I'd started traveling again.

Donkey won't like plowing through the snow, though.

We can't hole up somewhere during the winter. Once everything is covered in snow, spirits become more active as night falls sooner, and the cold makes it dangerous for any travelers to resist being caught unaware by the weather, surely they'd try to find shelter, and become easy prey for beasts and other creatures.

You've given some thought to this.

I'm always thinking.

"We're almost there," The oldest of the three informs me," The pass we want to reach is just after that peak there," He points at a rock about a mile away from where we are now. I can see the rock clearly thanks to *Keen Sight* but the man could probably only guess as to its exact location.

I nod," Everything's quiet around us, I can't feel anything following after us either."

He sigh, relieved," That's good, we were worried because of the stories, but thanks to you we might bring a feast back to the village and not get lost in our way down."

He's stroking your ego.

Hush you, he's being a gentleman.

"Just remember to stick close to me and warn me if you walk away, I can't keep my eyes on you at all times," I warned.

He laughed," Wouldn't dream of straying too far from the person who scared away all the frost spirits from the winter crops."

I hadn't actually scared them away... I'd planted talismans near the crops so that whenever they got too close to them they'd feel the temperature rise. Humans could probably shrug it off and not even feel the subtle shift, but frost spirits, as their name indicated, were extremely sensitive to warmth.

It was a better solution than to be constantly on the look around the crops for the little buggers, when they were at the height of their mating period.

So you fudged the details and just kept the villagers believing you were scaring them off.

I told them the talismans kept them away!

Just not what the talismans did exactly.

...

Hence, you fudged the details.

I don't have to answer you.

"Why did it have to rain this hard?" The youngest, who kept tripping over roots, slipping on the mud, or generally making an inconvenience out of himself, whinged.

"Would you prefer rain or snow? Or worse yet, hail?" I asked him with a grin.

He groans while the other two laugh.

"You're used to mountains?" One asked.

I shrug," Not really, it's just that this weather isn't bad."

Anywhere where you can go an entire month without rain and have decent summers is a place where the weather 'isn't bad'.

"That's true," One of them said," Years back we had a winter where the snow piled up as high as the houses, we kept shoveling piles of it but there was so much snow..." He rolled his shoulders, probably remembering having to shovel for hours.

"Think this winter will be that cold?" The youngest asked.

"No," I shake my head," You had a mild summer, July wasn't unusually warm and neither was August particularly cold," I tell them," This winter doesn't seem like it's going to be a long one."

There's quiet.

I turn to look at the man behind me and notice them staring.

"What?" I blink.

"How do you know?" The youngest points out.

"'If a cold August follows a hot July, it foretells a winter hard and dry'," I recite," Or so the saying goes..."

The men blink," Never heard of it."

I smother a smirk, no I didn't think they would've.

"Oh? How about, 'For every day of fog in August, there will be a snowfall'," I tell them.

They're eyes widen," Really? But this August we barely had any fog!" They exclaim.

"Well, then you might be in luck, this coming winter!" I laughed.

"What else, what else?" The youngest tries to run up to me only to slip on the mud, again, and fall face down on it.

I snort and quickly turn around so he doesn't see me try, and fail, to stifle my amusement.


To take a break from me previous run-ins with various beasts and man-eating monsters, turns out the problem this mountain had was far simpler than anything spiritual.

"They fell off?" The man beside me stared at the chasm.

"See the sun?" I pointed at the horizon," While it's up you can easily see that the pass is quite thin, and it makes it easier to recognize when you're coming near this part of the trail. At night, when the men come back to go down the mountain, if they don't hurry and pass through here while the sun is still up, they don't notice how thin it actually is."

There was a story similar to this one back where I'm from, actually.

"They just fell?" The second one sends a prayer to the men's souls while the youngest just looks pale.

"Might consider placing lanterns or signs to warn others from walking here at night," I suggest to them," Maybe some ropes to let them know where the path ends. Lanterns won't do you much good especially with how strong the winds are up here."

"I can't believe it was something so simple as them falling off the trail..." The oldest man looked saddened.

"It's actually quite common," I tell him," There was once a road known for having its people go missing during a specific time, I don't remember if it was during the night or during the day."

They turned to me, so I kept the story going as we walked back down.

It wasn't a particular good story, even if it had dumbfounded investigators for years. In the end, the bad lighting or optical illusion that made it seem like the road was going straight meant that people simply drove off the cliff.

I don't even know why I remember that.

Your brain is a weird place.

Can't argue with you on that one, it has you in it.


"Why don't you want to be found?" A older kid asked me as I sat down to eat the stew his mother, or aunt I heard he had an aunt living with them, gave me.

"Do you want to be a cultivator?" I asked him.

"If I could, of course, cultivators get to go on these adventures, fight beasts and all the girls love them," He tells me, dead serious.

I laugh.

"True, but they can only do that when they're all tall and stuff," I tell him," If the man who's looking for me finds me he's going to tell me I can't do what I'm doing. He'll probably lock me somewhere to 'study' to become a cultivator."

I had no doubts Jiang FengMian would chain me to Yunmeng if I so much as casually mentioned going on a world trip with no one else for company other than a trusty donkey.

"So you don't want to be found because you don't want to study?" He grins.

I nod, sure, let's go with that.

"Will you ever see what he wants from you?" He asks me.

"One day," I say," But not now, I want to go to Gusu and Qinghe and then I've got to go all the way around the north mountains!" I cheer.

"What are you going to do in all those places?!" He asked, stunned.

I grinned at him mysteriously.

"Secret~" I answer.

He pouts," Not fair, you've got to tell me..."

Kid's got some good puppy eyes, I'll give him that.

"I'm looking for something," Is my vague reply.

He frowns," You've lost something?"

I shake my head," It was never mine to begin with, but it will be one day," I tell him.

"What?" He presses for an answer.

"Can't say," I laugh," It's a secret, remember!"

"But I wanna know~" He whines.

I only laugh harder.

"Maybe one day I'll come back and tell you," I say to him.

"You're leaving?" He blinks," But it's almost winter!"

I nod," Donkey and I are going to be traveling all winter," I sigh," Can't stay in one place for too long, sorry."

"But you'll come back?" He asks.

"One day," I shrug, then I give him a teasing grin," Why? Are you going to miss me that much?"

He reddens.

"Who's going to miss you, idiot?!"

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Light gains make heavy purses." - George Chapman


Chapter 24: Profit

"Player leveled up!"

"System upgrade pending!"

I panted, trying to calm my breathing, as I read the notifications floating above my head.

The words didn't make sense to me? Upgrade pending? What?

You don't have time to be thinking about that now.

I shake the fog out of my head and take off running once more.

It's been two weeks since I'd left that mountain. And it is officially October.

News and sightings of me still hadn't died down although most commoners really didn't care as long as I didn't get in their way, they'd point and tut at me but would otherwise go on their merry way.

The weather was unsurprisingly warmer as I slowly approached Gusu territory.

I'd really wanted to head to Qinghe straight away, as this meant I'd have to pass through Lanling again when I went north, but I was advised not to try to travel alone in the winter with only a donkey. If I had a horse, the farmers had said, I could very well go on my way, but a donkey? It'd be safer to go south and go north in the Spring.

So that's what I was doing.

Heading to Gusu.

Maybe you'll run into the Old Goat again.

You'll never let that go, will you? It's been almost a year and a half!

I'll never let you forget.

Unbelievable.

And you can't be thinking he has either. A name like that? Spoken with such confidence? He'll never let you get away with that disrespect.

Urgh.

It was night time, and I was, as usual, night-hunting. This time in a bamboo forest.

It made for an interesting experience.

A shiver went down my spine and I immediately twist around and fire an arrow at the beast that had been creeping towards me.

That is useful.

It is... Even if it gives me the creeps every time I realize just how close those things get to me.

Improve. Get stronger. No whining.

Says the professional whiner residing in the back of my head.

You wouldn't make it past a week without my advice.

I roll my eyes at it and just retrieve my arrow before continuing on my hunt. Today's goal was to level up my archery and knife skills, because those were the ones I needed most right now.

But I also had upped my talisman making skills when I had the time, and meditation.

When you have the time and not just fall asleep when you return from your usual frolicking under the moonlight.

I yawned.

I needed to figure out a schedule.

No kidding.

I sighed, and pulled at the bangs peeking out of my half-undone ponytail. I considered redoing it but looked at the moon instead, it was starting to set so dawn would be here in four or five more hours.

I brought my stats out and, after checking them over, decided to call it an early night.

I needed sleep more than I needed the experience points.

Check that notification in the morning?

Yup.


Sleeping in stable stalls was becoming a normal occurrence for me and I was sure the only inconvenience I got was waking up to Donkey messing with my hair.

I shooed it away and stretched, laying limply on the hay, and peeking through my hands at how bright it was outside.

It wasn't even midday yet.

I groaned and wanted to roll over and go back to sleep.

Except the annoying notification bell went off again.

Right beside my ear.

"I thought we'd agreed for you to stop doing that!" I covered my ears with another groan.

Rise and shine.

Not you too, bloody morning people...

Stop being a night-owl and you won't feel like crap when the sun comes up.

I'll stop being a night-owl when all the interesting stuff stops happening at night.

Are you going to check that?

Check what?

That.

I look to the side to see the same notification that popped up yesterday.

"System upgrade pending!"

What does it mean 'upgrade pending'?

"Does the Player wish to upgrade the System?"

[YES] [NO]

Why is it asking? The last time it upgraded it didn't even tell me anything.

Maybe it's trying to be polite?

I click [YES] and watch as the blue screen changes.

"The System requests that the Player choose which upgrade to install"

"[Double EXP] or [Mob Drop]"

I stare at the words.

"What?" I ask.

No idea.

'Help, upgrades?'

«The System seeks to provide the Player an enjoyable experience and enriched environment.
In light of recent events, the System offers the Player a choice:
[Double EXP] will double all experience when fighting mobs;
[Mob Drop] will guarantee that every mob will drop an item for the Player to collect.»

Double experience... You'll level up twice as fast!

But mob drop...

I frown.

'Help, mob drop,' I ask.

«Mob Drops are items that can only be obtained through mobs.
These items can be used for crafting, consumable or sold in the Player Store for Coins.
Mob drops have different rarity and qualities.
The most common items are cheap and easily obtainable, whilst rare mob drops can have special perks the Player can make use of.»

Oh?

Crafting? Consumable?!

Or sold at the Store.

Sold...

An idea.

What are you thinking?

I open the Store quickly and check out the section [Materials], it had bugged me why the Store would see different types of wood, brick, metal and other natural resources.

Why waste precious coins on something you can just get from a real-world store or craftsman?

Now I knew.

It wasn't that it be easier to get from the Store, but it'd be faster.

In my mind's eye I saw a camp of tents lit by red lanterns.

The sight shifted to a small village made of huts and paved streets.

A better world.

I made my decision. I clicked [Mob Drop].

"The System will installed the chosen upgrade"

"The Upgrade should be fully installed in 24 hours!"

So you're going to go after the spirits and beasts for drops?

I am.

And then what are you going to do with them?

What I can make use of, I'll keep, what I can't...

Profit.

I had a better world to build.


I ended up not going night-hunting that night, still waiting on the System to tell me that the 'upgrade' was installed, and instead walked around having a lazy day around the town I was currently in.

It was fun, taking a breather.

When I wasn't making myself an obvious outlier among the population, aka being the only child ever to be a cultivator before double digits, it was hard to tell me apart from all the other children running back and forth chasing after a ball.

I didn't know the name of the game, it was just a ball game, like soccer. Except there weren't any goals. Or field. Or rules.

You just kicked the ball when it came your way and ran after it.

Children were simple creatures.

When everyone else got tired of running around they went to sit down by a garden, just talking and telling tales, or bragging about what they had done or planned on doing.

I was an outsider here, I didn't know any of them, nor did I have any plans on getting to know them personally. But they still brought me into the conversations.

I told them of things I had seen, a fairy tale or two, before I regaled them with legends such as the Loch Ness monster, 'which was never found~' I told them with a deep voice.

I had fun.

Then the sun went down and everyone else went home, their parents, mostly their mothers, coming to pick them up. Exasperated that the children hadn't noticed how late it was getting.

It made my throat clog up. Hard to swallow and hard to take a deep breath.

The deep gaping hole in my chest wasn't raw anymore but it still bled.

It hurt.

Grief isn't a process that happens overnight.

I know.

I wonder how everyone else is doing, back home. How long as it been? Just the same amount of time as in here? More? Less?

Do you really want an answer to those questions?

I thought about it, and decided that no. I didn't really want to know those answers.

I walked back to the stable I'd left Donkey in. The innkeeper said something about needing musicians.

Might as well level up my Flute Skill.

You sing better than you play that thing.

I'll need it for when I have Chenqing.

You and your desire for pet corpses...

I will have my Fierce Corpse.

Most people wouldn't have the ambition of getting a deceased corpse following them around as one would love a puppy.

I am not most people, I thought we'd already figured that out.

Oh, I'm getting rather forgetful in my old age, dear.

Sarcasm doesn't suit you.


"Beast Core [common] sent to the Inventory!"

The words appeared after I'd poked the glowing light coming from out of the beast I'd felled.

How many does that make?

Ugh...

You lost count?

I never stopped to count them...

Why am I not surprised?

Because you know me, duh.

I rolled my eyes and moved on, cautiously climbing over a fallen tree. The weather was getting cold enough at night that some frost was starting to ice over rocks and tree trunks.

It made for slippery ground and too many opportunities to fall over and split my head open.

Honestly surprised you haven't managed to do that yet.

You're confident in me fills me with joy.

Don't get used to it.

"Wouldn't dream of it..." I mutter.

I adjusted my grip on the new bow I had crafted. The Crafting Skill was something I had found ingenious, and wondered about just how many things I could possibly craft.

Then I remembered the [Recipes] section of the Store.

There were just so many things there... Best of all?

The damn fountain pen.

I grinned widely at the tone voice.

I told you I'd get one.

Out of all the things you saw in there, talismans, dishes, even damn tools! The thing that caught your attention was a damn pen?!

A pen that will finally allow me to write something I can read later on.

But you'll be the only one to have one.

All the more success to my genius. Think I can bribe Lan QiRen with one?

He'll shout at you for breaking tradition and inventing something that allows his 'dear, disciplined, and morally adjusted' disciples to write clearly without practicing important skills as calligraphy using the brush pen.

I'll still have to use it for talismans, I just thought of writing a journal or something to keep track of how different things are and where I've been.

Isn't that dangerous?

It'll be kept in the Inventory and if it makes you feel better, I'll even write it in english.

Can you even still write in english?

I don't see why I shouldn't... I still remember all the languages the tutors forced me to learn and the various impromptu study lessons my dear nieces and nephews had with me.

Something to try out later.

Ditto.

How many more creatures are you taking down today?

I hum, and look up at the moon, calculating how long I've been here.

One more hour, then we'll leave.

I want to reach the last border village before officially entering Gusu territory.

Didn't this village refer to itself as Gusu land?

They did?

...I think so?

Huh. Well, no matter. I really want to reach that village and be done with the Jins.

You're not getting rid of them that easily.

Unfortunately.

They can't all be that bad.

I'll believe it when I see it.

Think positive!

Pot. Kettle.

Funny. Oh, look, rabbit.

I shoot the arrow.

Poor thing. Your Lan Zhan will cry.

Knock on wood. I don't even want to think about that mess for the next decade.

I grab the rabbit and attach it to my belt. Dinner was decided.

ChangZe also placed his rabbits like this.

I flinched.

I thought we were over this.

...

I took a deep breath.

One more hour. Then we were leaving.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"No one who achieves success does so without the help of others. The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude." - Alfred North Whitehead


Chapter 25: Back in the Limelight

How did this happen?

"And now to thank once more to our guest!" A tall bearded man raised his glass, and twenty other men and women followed.

"To Wei WuXian!" They cheered.

I sat in my seat, keeping my posture as straight as I could, and desperately trying not to show my bewilderment at the scene in front of me.

Why is it always you caught in situations like these?

At least they're not trying to kill me?

No, they're just throwing a feast in your honor and making everyone else in town know that you helped them through this arduous task.

I didn't know they'd do this when I offered to help them!

I don't think anyone would think they'd do this...

What the hell do I do now?

Smile and wave. Just smile and wave.

"A few words from our guest!" The bearded man pointed at me.

I internally screamed.


*Twelve hours previously*

I warned you that this would happen.

Shut up.

I told you 'watch out for those clouds, it looks like it might rain'.

Stop rubbing it in.

And what happened? It started raining!

Alright! Alright! You were right, I should've listened! Happy now?

Very. Donkey? Not so much.

I turned to face Donkey, who was, indeed, staring at me with a disgruntled expression. Water dripped off his mane and tail. The cold weather didn't help his miserable posture.

"I'm sorry," I wince.

Donkey brays. Loudly.

"The rain should stop soon, we'll find some place to warm up, okay?" I pat his wet fur.

The rain shouldn't have reached his skin, but he couldn't possibly be comfortable out in this weather.

Unfortunately it still wasn't cold enough to snow, so we had to contend with rain.

Cold, wet rain.

I'm pretty sure that if it was solid, it'd be called hail and I'd have found shelter immediately once it started falling instead of trying to reach the town.

You say that now, but you're still the person who thought they could make it to the town before the downpour.

I wasn't expecting a downpour, it's not the season of downpours. A light rain shower? Maybe. Not this!

I stared out at the expanse of land in front of me, rice-fields and some smaller fields for vegetables and what not. The rain fell out of the sky in long thick droplets that splashed mud everywhere.

The trees around us were evergreen, just our luck as we found shelter underneath a thick canopy of branches and leaves.

I pulled my cloak closer to my body.

It was cold.

The sky looked a darkened grey, a contrast to the bright blue it had been before.

With nothing better to do than to wait out the rain I pulled out my flute from the Inventory and started going through scales and notes, trying to find a nice melody to play.

It was easier now to catch a tune and replicate it, but I struggled with playing known songs as the sounds were very different. They didn't fit as it were.

The bamboo flute would play them nicely, the Xun? Not so much.

Obviously, it's a traditional chinese instrument and there you are trying to play Mary Poppins or what not.

Screw you, I'll get the tune eventually.

The world will cry when you do.

Ah! They'll bow at my feet!

In despair.

Would you stop that?!

Never.

"Flute Skill leveled up!"

"Who's there?" A voice warily calls out.

I stop playing.

"Who's asking?" I ask them instead.

There's pause.

"It's gotta be a spirit... There's no way a kid is all the way out here," A different voice says.

"Then why isn't the talisman lighting up?" Another voice questions.

"Because it's not a spirit," I answer.

"Where are you?" The first voice asks.

"Under a tree," I answer, grabbing Donkey's lead just in case.

"I see a donkey over there!" The third voice said.

I leaned by the tree and saw three people, two men and woman, wearing similar clothes and Qiankun bags at their waists.

"And I see humans," I unenthusiastically wave at them," See? Not a spirit."

They walk over to me, carrying paper umbrellas and their own capes.

"What are you doing here?" The tallest man then looks around," Where are your parents?"

"I'm by myself," I answer," Got caught by the downpour before I managed to reach the nearest town.

The man looks down at me and frowns," Why are you alone? Don't you know how dangerous that is?"

"No less dangerous than staying someplace to starve on the streets," I scoff," Don't worry about me, I know how to take care of myself."

He presses his lips into a thin line, not pleased with my answer," There are beasts in this area. The Bai Clan is responsible for overseeing this area, we cannot allow harm to come to the people of this town."

I lift two fingers," Firstly, I'm not from your town, so don't count me there; secondly, I'm a rogue cultivator of sorts, I don't fear any beast or spirit coming my way." I tell them, turning back to see the darkened sky.

"A rogue cultivator? You're what five years old?" The shorter man snorts.

"Almost five," I nod.

He makes a disbelieving noise before the woman gasps.

"You're CangSe Sanren's son!" She says.

I internally groan, but comply by pulling her pendant out of my robes. The strange metal glints even under the weak sunlight, from behind all those clouds, a marvel to look at.

The men stare before their eyes widen.

"The YunmengJiang Sect is searching for you," The taller man tells me.

"I know," I frown," Something about knowing my parents..." I answer.

"Did they?" The woman asks.

"I think so?" I shrug," Never met any YunmengJiang Sect disciple or leader so I wouldn't know." A small white lie, I did know ChangZe considered Jiang FengMian a brother, and CangSe appreciated his friendship, but I never met him face-to-face.

"Rumor has it that the Sect Leader wishes to foster you at their Sect," The man tells me.

I turn to look back at them," Although flattered, I don't want to belong to a Sect," I tell them.

"Why? The YunmengJiang is one of the Great Five Sects!" The shorter man is shocked.

"Because if I go there I might as well be locked inside of it until I'm of," I did finger quotes," 'Appropriate age for night-hunting'."

They didn't deny it.

"The GusuLan Sect also promised to keep an eye out for you, in case you appeared within their borders," The woman adds.

You're going to have to start running soon.

"Why is it so important that they find me? Maybe I should write a letter and tell them to stop looking for me," I grouch, crossing my arms over my chest.

"You're a child," The woman smiles.

"My parents taught me what I needed to know," My eyes grow colder," They knew I was a child yet they still taught me, those people are not them, they have no right to say what I can't and can't do." I hiss.

Her smile dims," They're just worried about you being all alone. It's going to be winter soon, what will you do then?"

"I already know what I'm going to do," I tell her," Getting out of bed in the morning is dangerous, yet people still do it. I know what I'm doing. I won't stop," I say.

"And how do you plan on doing that?" The tall man asks," Night-hunts aren't games."

I give him a steely look, the scar on my face visible," I know that. I am not playing around."

His face turns grim," There's a beast going around these lands, no one has been able to catch it. You can't be out after dark," He warns me.

"What kind of beast?" I ask him," Why haven't the Lan come help you?"

"We haven't asked for their help," The shorter man grumbled," The Bai Clan can handle this!"

I give him an unimpressed look," You might, but will the people?" I point at the fields.

"Huh?" He frowns.

"Rice farmers, regular farmers, maybe a hunter or two," I gesture," There's only the Bai Clan here to protect all those people. You might be able to fight it off, but can you say the same for these people?"

I see the taller man give me a speculative look.

"Defeat it and protect the people, it's our job!" He tells me.

"Your job is to ensure the people are safe," I correct him," Cultivators serve the people, never forget that. It's not glory or fame you should seek, but power to protect the people. Be better, in order to protect those people. Bow your head, if it helps protect the people," I lecture him.

He reddens.

"While you've been trying to find this beast, how many have already died?" I ask the woman.

Her lips thin," Fifteen," She answers.

I sigh," So you've already lost fifteen people you were supposed to protect," I offhandedly mention," How many more until you actually catch and defeat it?"

"What are you trying to say?!" The shorter man outbursts," What does a kid like you know?"

I gave him a sharp smirk," A kid like me knows you should've already called for help, and you know it, but were too proud to. Maybe you thought they wouldn't listen? A kid like me knows you don't know what you're up against, and you fear that whatever it is, after consuming fifteen people, is already too strong to fight against."

The shorter man pales.

"Aah~ Yes," I laugh," A 'kid like me' truly knows nothing!"

"Will you help us then?" The tall man asks.

I stop laughing and look at him.

"As a rogue cultivator will you help the Bai Clan in fighting against this beast?" He asks again.

I give it some thought.

Why not? Show them I can take care of myself. That I can honestly stand my own ground.

Win win situation.

"As the son of CangSe Sanren, and as a follower of the Great Baoshan Sanren's teachings, I will help the Bai Clan in defeating this threat," I give him a polite bow.

They blink, surprised, before nodding," Come with us, we'll bring you to our Clan Residence, and we'll talk to our Clan Leader."

I follow them.


Their leader turned out to be a tall bearded man, with his long hair tied with an elaborate wooden hairpiece, that was surprisingly friendly.

He smiles easily.

He does.

I watch him as he greets everyone he passes by with a few polite words as he walks towards us.

"ShouShan," The leader greets the tall man with a smile.

"Father," The tall man greets him.

...Wait.

What?!

I quickly stare at the tall man, and notice the woman smiling slightly in response.

They knew...

Of course they knew.

"Who's this?" The leader turns to me, and I have to raise my head high to look him in the eye.

"I am Wei Ying," I tell him, I wasn't sure if kids were supposed to know their own courtesy names before they were 'to be come adults' so I didn't bother adding that," I offered to help dealing with the beast endangering your land."

I then bowed to him.

"Etiquette Skill leveled up!"

I was pretty sure I wasn't doing something right, because ChangZe and CangSe, more so CangSe, didn't really care for propriety outside of actually talking to a noble person face-to-face.

And apologizing for insulting them to their face.

That too.

"Welcome," To give him credit, the man only blinked before going with my response," I am Bai XianLiang, the Head of the Bai Clan, let us discuss this inside."

He led us inside, a younger clan member coming to lead Donkey to the stables.

Once inside, we sat at the common hall, a large room with carefully decorated paper dividers, and the leader and his son talked in hushed tones.

I knew they were talking about me, wished I knew how to read lips, and let them continue doing it.

Maybe you can learn?

I focused on their lips and waited for the notification that a new Skill had been acquired.

None came.

It was worth a try.

True.

"So, Wei Ying," The leader finally turns his attention back on me," My son tells me you agreed to help us with this beast, despite knowing it has already taken fifteen lives."

I nod," I was traveling to the nearest town anyway," I told him," If they had asked for my help I would've inevitably come here to inform you."

He laughed.

"Youth these days," He sighs," You're all trying to grow up too fast. I won't keep you from helping, but I do request that you do not take needless risks when accompanying my son and my clan members."

"Of course," I give him another bow.

"We know very little of the beast," XianLiang told me," It's fast, it only attacks at night, it leaves no witnesses."

"How long has the Beast been active in the land," I ask him," Have there been any other victims beside humans?"

His eyes widen slightly, if I wasn't looking straight in his eyes I wouldn't have noticed," Months ago, there were several incidents of cattle and other animals going missing."

"So, can we believe that the beast has in fact been residing in this land for a while now, and has only recently grown strong enough to consume humans?" I offer.

I see the gears in their heads start to turn, a slow dawning realization, and the leader then nods.

"Indeed, it's a possibility," He tells me," How did you come by that with only that little information?" He asks me.

"One last question," I ask," The people who were killed, did they all have the same height?"

The woman frowns, same as the shorter man, but ShouShan and XianLiang's eyes spark.

"Investigation Skill leveled up!"

"Player leveled up!"

"How...?" XianLiang blinked.

I smiled at him, and told him:

"Clan Leader Bai," I said," It seems to me you have a snake problem."

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Respect begins with this attitude: I acknowledge that you are a creature of extreme worth." - Gary Chapman


Chapter 26: Wei WuXian

"A snake problem?" The shorter man echoed.

"That's the beast?" The Clan Leader presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose.

"A Measuring Snake," I specify for his benefit," A normal snake cultivates and forms a core, eventually they turn into a beast that attacks and consumes anything smaller than itself, and grows the more things it eats."

"How did you realize that's what the beast was?" ShouShan asks me.

"Easy, on the way here there were no small forest critters," I answer," I've been hunting game for a while now, and I noticed that the closer I got to your land that only birds seem to roam around. There ain't any rabbits or foxes or even wolves, despite the fact that your mountain and forest should provide excellent habitat for at least one of those."

"So something had to have been targeting them," The woman nods," And when you added the humans who've now started to be killed..."

"The only explanation was a beast that had finally grown strong enough to attack them," I add," If you hadn't had any problems with animals I'd have been wrong."

"Amazing..." The Bai Clan Leader says," How quickly you saw through our information and realized what the problem was.

I'm sure having an Investigation Skill and high Intelligence Stat doesn't hurt the matter.

Shush.

"Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes can help you find clues that were being overlooked," I reply back.

He laughs," You are correct, the Bai Clan thanks you for your assistance," He tells me," Now that we know what we are up against, we can prepare to track it down tonight."

"Father, allow me to lead the hunt," ShouShan asks.

"Granted," XianLiang smiles," And let us have some refreshments brought to our guest to rest until the time to leave comes."

"Right away, Father," Shoushan bows.

The sheer level of politeness between family members is making me itch.

Don't think about it.

It reminds me...

Don't. We are not back there. They are not here. It is not the same.

No... It's not.

Things are different here.


"Thank you," ShouShan tells me, as we sat down to eat a small meal.

"There's no need to thank me," I tell him," I'm glad I could help you."

"No, I need to thank you," He looks me in the eye," I brought you here to perhaps change your mind on remaining traveling by yourself. I asked my Father to see you for himself and test you, in the end, you easily saw through what has been plaguing us."

"It was a lucky guess," I wave him off, embarrassed," Sometimes, we overthink things too much. When bad things happen we automatically expect the worst, most unusual of things, and overlook the easier solutions."

"I cannot deny that," He smiles faintly," But it still is a mark of shame for us to have such a young cultivator easily solve what had stumped us for weeks."

I can't argue with that.

"I accept your gratitude, and thank you for allowing me into your Clan Residence," I thank him in turn.

His smile grows wider.

"You're not used to being thanked, are you?" He asks.

I hum," With such politeness? No, not really, though I haven't really interacted with a cultivator clan before," I blink, realizing that.

He seems surprised," You haven't?"

"No," I shook my head," I've been almost constantly traveling from town to town, I stay one maybe two days in each and then move on. If I stay for too long someone might recognize me and send word to the nearest Sect about where I am," I frown.

He laughs," We won't tell GusuLan you are here, but you should probably try inform the Great Sects that you are not in any immediate threat, they believe you to have been kidnapped by nefarious forces," He tells me.

I wrinkle my nose," Who would want to kidnap me?" I ask," No one even knew about me until I started following my parents on Night-Hunts, and even then I was only 'that kid'."

"I do not know an answer to that," He replies," Only that your parents died and you were nowhere to be found."

I look away from him.

"They didn't come back, that night," I tell him," They didn't come back and I knew they never would. I feared the innkeeper would take their belongings, maybe steal them or sell them," I had suspected he had done so to the original Wei WuXian," So I left while everyone was still asleep. I don't know why. I just had to leave."

He doesn't say anything in reply, but tips his head in respect.

That's enough.


I adjusted the quiver on my back once more, and counted my arrows, I'd made a show of pretending that Donkey's pack had my equipment in it (and not that I carried everything with me inside a hammer space no one else could access) and bought more arrows.

I then made a few more talismans to carry with me, with the woman from before Bai Hong coming in and assisting me with some of my weaker characters. It made her feel more at ease with me when I looked and acted like a simple child and not the kid who'd straight-faced unraveled the mystery beast killing civilians.

I didn't let her know that I knew that I unnerved her, and remained quiet and polite when she treated me like a young child.

The shorter man, Bai Zheng, on the other hand, had begun to treat me as an upstart who thought they knew more than their elders.

Which was true, I did know better and you could call me an upstart, but I was just as old as their elders.

Now if you'd only look the part.

You know what? The wrinkles, sore hips and wobbly walk aren't things I miss.

I'd forgotten the duck walk.

Nooooo... Why did I have to mention that!

Ahahahaha! The Duck Walk!

Urghhhhh...

I looked around at the cultivators going out with us to track down the Measuring Snake, the Bai Clan wasn't very big, altogether I counted maybe forty or so people, but there were, of course, women, children and elders that weren't cultivators, so that left a scant twenty-three cultivators, a third of which would stay behind to guard the Clan Residence.

I closed my eyes and meditated for a bit, diving into my inner self to seek that little orb of light, it hadn't really changed through the days even after unlocking Talents, so I wondered if it would stay this teeny tiny forever.

Not that I cared if it was small, it fit perfectly in my palms in all its swirly mass of energy and dripped through my fingers like warm honey and onto the void below me.

I thought about if everyone's center was a void, and that the actual goal of cultivation was to maintain that void intact, not letting their energy become unbalanced or driven to a single alignment.

Although... You couldn't really expect people to be 'balanced' all the time.

That's why the System specified 'any given situation'.

You're right.

I want to know more.

Learn more.

I want to truly understand what energy is.

I open my eyes when I feel a disturbance in the air, ShouShan was calling for people to gather. We'd be leaving soon.

My hands caress the dagger at my side.

One day, there would be a sword here.

Suibian.

I never knew you could long for something you've never even held before.


The thing with Measuring Snakes, was that, by themselves, they weren't really that big of a deal. In fact the Jin Sect had many of them in their hunting grounds, they were that common over there, but if you didn't know how they fought or what to watch out for with them...

Well... Stuff like this happened.

"What...?" Bai Zheng stared at his sword as it failed to pierce the armored scales.

Didn't he hear ShouShan speak about what they had to do when they found it?!

I don't think he did.

"Zheng!" Some other young man shouted and went to help him, breaking formation.

Not good.

What are they doing?!

The Measuring Snake turned its yellow glowing eyes on him and stood up, it was three inches taller than the man, and so the Measuring Snake opened its maw to eat him but was stopped by two other men, older and stronger, who quickly hit the top of its head to distract it.

"Get back in formation!" One of the men yelled, and then had to dodge as the snake attempted to retaliate.

This was bad.

Everyone was doing whatever it was they weren't supposed to. And I couldn't get a clean shot the snake to shoot it.

Not that my arrows would do much, they'd just bounce off it's armored scales.

A weakness... C'mon brain, focus, find a weakness.

It's body was covered in those scales... Unless you got close to it and used a cultivator sword strong enough and sharp enough to cut through them, then nothing was going to slow it down.

Slow it down...

You've got to slow it down.

"The eyes!" I yell," Target its eyes! Blind it!" I shouted.

I notched an arrow and aimed, focusing on the glowing orbs, I followed after the snake's movements, striving for an opening where I could release the arrow and not hit any of the men.

*Hawk's Precision* [Talent Activated]

'Now,' something told me.

I let the arrow go.

The snake let out a distorted hiss, and scrambled back, head shaking side to side as the small wooden arrow stuck out of its eye.

One down.

Second one won't be easy, it's angry now.

It was.

In a sharp motion, the Measuring Snake dove at a man and coiled around him, squeezing him, another man went to help put couldn't as the snake coiled tighter around the struggling guy or tried to bite at whoever approached.

ShouShan called for the men to retreat," Can you fire another arrow?" He asked me.

I notched another arrow and aimed, but the snake had good instincts and hid it's face behind its coils.

"I can't," I told him.

"XiuLi is going to die!" Zheng yelled at me.

I bite my tongue.

'Who was the one who broke formation?'

'Who was the one that had to have Xiu Liu rescue them?'

'Who was it that couldn't follow simple orders?!'

Don't. Let it go. Think.

Think. Think. Think.

What did I have? What could I use? What opening can I make?

My hand brushes against my dagger.

I look up at the Measuring Snake again.

The man was dead or dying, already hanging limply, no matter if the snake ate him or not, no doctor could help wounds that severe.

Not in this day and age.

Goodbye modern medicine.

"I have a plan," I tell ShouShan.

"Oh, you have a plan?" Zheng sneered.

"Silence," ShouShan commanded him.

Zheng's mouth closed with a click. His eyes betrayed his anger.

"Its scales cannot be breached," I told the clan leader's son," But it has a soft spot."

"A soft spot?" He questions.

"Its mouth," I tell him.

He blinks.

"I can quickly patch something up to injure it from the inside," I gesture with my hands," But that snake has to open its mouth."

"Someone will have to get near enough for it to try and eat them?" A different cultivator frowns.

I nod, grim.

"That thing has already killed sixteen of our people," ShouShan spoke," I will go down there."

"What?!" Zheng was stunned, as was everyone else," You can't!"

"I am the one in charge of this night hunt," ShouShan tells them," And so, I will go."

I stay silent, quickly opening my Player Menu and diving right into the Talent Page, I'd leveled up and had another TP to spend, and I knew exactly what to get.

*Breaking Blow (1)* "When performed successfully an object lands on a selected target within range and explodes."

"Does the Player wish to spend 1 TP to unlock this Talent?"

[YES] [NO]

I accept and quickly, pull the dagger out of my belt.

"What are you doing?" ShouShan asks me.

"Something I pray will work," I answer him honestly.

I close my eyes and focus, deep, deep down inside of me, I cup my hands around that small ball of energy and squeeze it, letting its liquid flow faster.

I open my eyes and some of the people closest to me speak back, startled, I know my eyes are glowing.

I can feel the world around me.

The trees, the leaves, the rocks, the wind... I can feel it all.

Focus.

I grab a hold of the dagger and take a step forward to the snake.

"ShouShan," I say," When I yell 'down', you throw yourself to the ground."

Zheng opens his mouth to argue but someone wisely covers it.

ShouShan looks me in the eye fearlessly.

He stares into them for a moment before nodding.

He runs at the snake.

*Breaking Blow* [Activated]

I hold onto the dagger and I reach out for its latent energy, asleep and cold, just waiting for a single tap of my finger to ignite.

*Soaring Slice* [Activated]

I prepare to throw the dagger.

Time seems to slow down.

The many lights.

The many sounds.

The colors...

Focus.

Breathe.

Focus.

ShouShan runs at the snake, it sees him, and springs up.

It's taller. It coils to strike.

One.

ShouShan gets ready.

Two.

It opens its mouth, white fangs gleaming under the moonlight.

Three.

"DOWN!" I shout.

And throw the dagger with all my strength.

Please... Please... Please hit...

ShouShan immediately goes boneless on the ground and the dagger flies true, striking the back of the snake's throat.

There's a single second of silence, confusion, the eye of the snake blinks, as if the pain of the dagger hitting it was only felt then.

And suddenly.

Boom.

A large spike of energy is felt on all of us, our hair standing on end, and the snake rears back, hurt.

Its body falls to the ground.

It's head separated from its body.

The neck where the dagger struck a blackened mess.

"Player leveled up!"

"Throwing Skill leveled up!"

"Knife-handling Skill leveled up!"

"Spiritual Skill leveled up!"

"Meditation Skill leveled up!"

"Player leveled up!"

The sudden notifications nearly cause me to flinch out of my skin.

ShouShan gets up off the ground and stares at the snake, before looking up at me, his facial expression awed.

I look back at him, numb and grateful he was alright in equal measure, and then my eyes roll back in my head and everything goes dark.

When I come to, ShouShan is carrying me on his back. All the Bai Clan members are sneaking astonished glances at me every so often, and dragging the headless snake with them.

XianLiang greets us at the door, but I fall back asleep before I can hear what they say between themselves.

The next day, the Clan Leader insists on treating me like an honored guest and sends clan members to get me properly outfitted for a feast, which he also insists on hosting for me, in gratitude for me defeating the Measuring Snake.

I don't remember how the conversation started, but looking back and trying to piece what little I remember of that day with the massive headache I had, I believe he asked if he could give me my courtesy name, and I told him I already had one.

When asked what it was, I answered as easily as breathing," My name is Wei Ying, courtesy WuXian."

I didn't think twice before saying them.

In my heart, that was who I was.

Wei Ying, courtesy WuXian.

I am Wei WuXian.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Fear is only as deep as the mind allows." - Japanese Proverb


Chapter 27: So different

After the feast, Bai XianLiang and his son, ShouShan, insisted that I remain the rest of the winter with them. But I refused, in the end I wanted to finish up doing the Quests in Gusu as fast as I could so that in the Spring I could travel north to Qinghe.

Even so, I did end up staying a few weeks with the Bai Clan, sleeping off my exhaustion of having blasted through the Measuring Snake, and having my dagger replaced.

ShouShan insisted I allow them to do this, as my old one had, well... exploded.

I let them do it, ShouShan had this gleam in his eyes that told me I wasn't getting out of this.

Zheng had been... subdued, for lack of a better word, whenever I walked by him and greeted him. Oh, he greeted me back but he always made a quick retreat afterwards.

Which was still better than having twenty odd people bow to me in respect and greet me with a polite 'Wei-gongzi'.

It was weird. Having everyone look at me like I was some sort of blessed creature.

Well, you did explode a snake's head off.

Between using Talents that I could just shrug off and claim to be teachings of CangSe, or pulling the sword out of the Inventory and hope that it had enough strength to pierce that things scales, I'd still choose the former.

True, pulling the sword out of nowhere would've made them build an altar in your honor, but you've got to admit that exploding the thing wasn't the most inconspicuous thing you could've done.

I was out of options.

So get more. Don't think situations like these won't happen again.

I sighed, but conceded to the point.

"Wei-gongzi," ShouShan turned around the corner and saw me, he gave me a small head tilt.

"Bai-gongzi," I responded in kind.

He smiled down at me," What? No more, Shoushan? And here I was thinking you and I were great friends."

I twitched.

I forgot I'd called him by his first name, which was 'nomal' for me but indicated familiarity, or disrespect, in this culture.

"It was impolite, my apologies," I bit out.

He laughed," No, no, please I don't mind," He says," It's refreshing."

"Then please called me, WuXian," I sigh," Or Wei Ying, I at this point I just want the bowing and the honorifics to stop."

He laughs harder," How about A-Ying?" He jokes.

I give him a deadpan look," Sure, go for it, no one would look twice on you calling me that in the streets, but call me 'Young Master Wei' and everyone will want to know who the hell I am."

"A-Ying it is then," He smirks," I have something for you."

"Oh?" I'm interested.

"Here," He hands me something wrapped in cloth," The blacksmith finished it this morning."

The new dagger?

I carefully unwrap the object from the cloth, pointedly not paying attention to the amused look on ShouShan's face or the odd clan member peeking out of windows, or hallway corners to see my reaction.

Really, did this people have nothing better to do?

Apparently not.

I pull back the final layer of cloth and get my first glimpse of the blade.

Its sheath is made of smooth pale wood, and had an intricate snake painted onto it, wrapped around the sheath with its maw open wide.

The snake only had one eye.

The grip was made of dark leather and had a smooth pommel of pale metal with a red tassel attached to it. A bead made of green jade at the end.

I grab the dagger and pull the blade out of its sheath.

It glints under the sunlight.

The blade is beautiful.

I notice characters carved onto the blade.

"Xiaodan," I read aloud," Little Dawn."

"Father thought that Xiaotong might fit best," ShouShan told me," But I figured you'd like this name better."

Xiaotong translated to 'Red Sky Child'.

"It's beautiful," I told him and I experimented swinging the dagger.

It cut through the air with a minuscule whistle.

Perfect.

ShouShan smiled," Father also had someone make replacements for your tack gear."

"What?!" I yelped, almost dropping the dagger.

"And that was after I talked out out of getting you a horse," He grinned," Although I don't think I can stop him from trying to convince you to stay once again."

I grumble at him," I need to leave, to travel, I already made plans" I tell him," Once I've been to every place in Gusu I'm headed north."

"Won't you at least stay for the winter?" He tries.

"No, that will only delay me come spring," I shook my head," I'm thankful for all that you've done for me but I don't like owing people."

"You're not owing anything to us," ShouShan tells me.

I give him a look," Then why are you helping me? You already threw me a feast and a new dagger, and now apparently some new tack gear," I sigh," That is owing something."

"You helped us," ShouShan answered," Even when I brought you here under false pretenses you still helped us, that night... what you did..." His eyes grow heavy.

"Please forget it," I sheathe the dagger," It's best if no-..."

"The Bai Clan won't forget," ShouShan interrupts me," And if you ever need us, the Bai Clan is willing to help you."

"Advancement Unlocked!"

Urk.

I feel myself turn red in embarrassment.

This is a good thing!

"Thank you," I bow my head to him," You're too kind."

His eyes gleam with amusement," Can I ask one little thing of you?" He asks.

"What is it?" I blink.

"Write us a few letters, even if it's only to tell us you're alive and kicking," He answers," Bai Xi, my betrothed, has taken a shine to you and is pestering me about how safe you'll be back on the road."

I sigh," I'll write," I promise," If I ever stop by this area again I'll even come say hello in person."

"It's a promise!" He ruffles my hair.

"Argh!" I splutter," Hey!"

I stayed one more week with them before finally leaving. I was itching to get back on the road, but saying goodbye to those people was hard.

They were good people. I wouldn't mind writing to them, like CangSe and ChangZe used to write to FengMian, and even perhaps coming back here in the future.

I offered prayers for them to make it through the war.


Donkey was annoyed with my decision to leave. He'd been perfectly content showing off his superiority in the faces of the Bai Clan's horses and was disgruntled at being back in the cold.

Even if he was decked out in grand new gear and warmer equipment. November was close by and as such there'd be no more rains this year, only snowfalls.

I was going turn five at the end of October.

The thought astounded me, how time flew by, it'd be officially two years since I'd entered this world.

I looked up at the sky, clear blue with puffy white clouds, and wondered about what awaited me in the future.

Eventually I would join YunmengJiang, I would come to Gusu and study at the same place they once studied, and when I returned to Lotus Pier war would soon be on the horizon.

War... I never thought I'd live through a war.

I had seen it, on the news, in magazines and books, but never in real life.

I was scared.

But I would see it through.

I was going to survive.

I was going to build a better tomorrow where there wouldn't be a meaningless massacre.

Tomorrow... Tomorrow...

Donkey brayed at me and I looked away from the sky and at the road ahead of us. There's a village up ahead.

"Well, looks like you'll be warm and cozy soon, eh, Donkey?" I smile," Want to walk a bit faster?" I ask it.

Donkey remains at a steady pace, and I sigh.

A horse would be better.

But Donkey's is all we're going to get.

Why not both?

Because I'm not traveling with a horse and a donkey, unnecessary and an inconvenience.

Maybe get a cart, then have the horse and donkey pull it!

Even worse! Don't make foolish suggestions. What the hell would I do with an empty cart?

Fill it.

I rolled my eyes.

I'mma just ignore you.


It was close to nightfall when I finally finished the last Quest of this town. It wasn't a particularly hard Quest to do, even if I had a sneaky suspicion that their difficulty was slowly increasing, but the sheer amount of material he had to gather and bring back was scary.

I stretched my back and heard my bones crack, I winced. I shouldn't do that.

I rolled my shoulders and neck instead, keeping the blood flowing and keeping myself warm as I walked to the inn I'd gotten a room in. It was already getting too cold to sleep in a stable, so I just rented a room for the night.

I'd play my flute or sing for coins this night, or maybe a free meal.

The wind blew past me and I shivered. It was cold!

I bring my hands up to cup my ears, warming them up.

The cold reminded me to get some winter clothes ready to go in my pack before I left.

As I removed my hands from my ears I hear this muffled grunt.

I pause.

Turning back the street is quickly emptying, stores are closing and only the inns and taverns would remain open as it was the time they busiest. Nothing really seemed wrong with the scene but I couldn't help the gut feeling that something was off.

I slowly walked back, keeping an ear out for the sound I heard.

And then I heard it again, at the mouth of a dark alley.

Are you going in?

I didn't answer it. I shifted from foot to foot, whether or not I should check it out, it was entirely possible that it was a trap set by malicious people or street gangs.

Or someone needs help.

I remembered my previous encounter in a dark alley.

I stepped into the dark, keeping my footsteps light and soft, and slowly approached the end of the alley.

"S-s-stop..." A gasp.

I froze.

There was another grunt followed by a pained sound.

I ran, not carrying if they heard me, and turned the corner of the alley.

There was a woman pinned against the wall, tears streaming down her face, while a man pressed himself close to her. He held a fistful of her hair in his hand and was muffling her mouth with the other.

"Let her go," I ordered him, fury licking at my mind.

The man turns to look down at me. An ugly look in his eyes.

He isn't particularly bad looking, nor is he good looking, just average, with thick eyebrows and a thin nose. He isn't very old, but he isn't what you'd call a young man. He has his hair tied in a simple bun. He's wearing common clothes.

He isn't the kind of man you'd think did this.

He isn't someone you'd suspect of doing this.

He was just... normal.

Average.

"Go 'way, kid," He tells me, he has a deep voice," 'fore I smack 'ya."

I stand straighter, unafraid, I faced down a six foot bear, I trash-talked a demonic unicorn, I wasn't going to bow down to this normal, average man.

"Try it," I smirk," Bet you can't, 'ya only like to hit ladies, ain't that right?"

His eyes narrow and his nostrils flare.

He lets go of the woman's hair, and grabs something at his waist.

Knife.

I keep my posture of confident and cocky kid, but my feet move into position in case I need to spring away.

"R-run..." The woman tries to tell me, but the man presses his hand down harder on her face.

"Shut it, whore," He growls," Oh, what? Is this yo' brat?" He snorts.

He turns back to me and fully unsheathes his knife.

"I'mma teach you some manners, boy," He laughs.

I give him a bemused grin," Manners? Clearly, sir, you're the one lacking manners here."

"Taunting Skill leveled up!"

One day, that tactic is going to fail, and I will laugh.

One day, that tactic is going to fail, and you will help me get out of it.

The man's face reddens and he lets go of the woman, arm reaching out to grab me.

I jump back out of reach, if the man follows me than the woman can run away, and prepare to grab my own dagger when a loud noise rings right beside my ear.

I startle, not expecting the noise, and in the split second of hesitation the man grabs my wrist and pulls me back.

Shit.

He prepares to hit me with the knife but I strike at his wrist and cause him to drop it, before kicking his balls in an attempt at making him let go.

He doesn't, but he goes down, I try to pull his hand off but it only tightens.

Ow.

The woman is still there.

I look over the man's shoulder and see the woman, clutching at her robes which have been ripped, and yell at her:

"Run! Get away from here!"

"No!" The man almost breaks my wrist and goes to grab the knife off the floor.

The woman instead runs at him, trying to get to the knife first.

Bloody idiot!

She bends down but the man clutches the knife first.

He goes to strike her.

But I struck him in the neck first.

Xiaodan's blade smoothly sinks into his neck like butter.

I stare, my hand had moved to the dagger and struck before I even thought of doing it.

The man turns his eyes towards me, I can see my reflection in them, and pushes me away from him.

The blade slides out of his neck and he slumps to the floor soon after, his grip on his knife goes slack.

Blood pours out of him, drips down from my dagger and coats my fingers.

I stare and the man, unblinkingly.

He's dead.

I killed him.

The world kind of distorts itself around me, like grainy footage, and I find myself floundering.

What do I do now?

I killed a man.

Oh, no.

Stop.

My train of thought screeches to a halt.

Take a deep breath. Hold it.

I do so, and muscle memory takes over. Deep breath. Hold it for five. Let it out. And again.

And again. And again.

Don't panic. Stay calm. Think.

I killed him.

He was going to attack you. Attack that woman.

I killed him.

You did.

I flinch.

And now, you're going to clean your knife, sheathe it, talk that woman out of her panic attack, and then you're gonna go back to the inn and sleep.

That easy?

That easy. Breakdown later. Stay focused now.

I take one final deep breath before I bring my shaking hands up to clean the knife.

Shaking hands make for weak grips.

Are you weak?

I think about all that I've gone through already.

I think about the future.

No.

I'm not weak.

Then stop shaking. Focus.

I wrapped a piece of cloth around the blade and wiped the blood off of it.

Just like one does after hunting an animal. It's the same.

It isn't.

Then close your eyes and pretend. Until you can let your guard down and have a good cry about it, pretend.

Deep breaths. Everything's alright. Hold it together.

Nothing is the same as before.

This isn't like my world.

This is different.

So, so different.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"One with the courage to laugh is master of the world." - Italian (on courage and fear)


Chapter 28: So Alike

I turned five while I was traveling to the main city of Gusu.

Having passed several towns and villages on the way there, I tried to keep my visits as brief as I could. Once the sun went down I was either playing my flute to entertain guests or up in a room, having already gotten a guaranteed stay. I tried not to linger out too much, it was hard not to think about what had happened.

The first few night I woke up from nightmares ready to scream, only for my self-control to kick in and shut my mouth tight.

When I closed my eyes at night, I thought about that man, left dead in an alley.

I felt guilty.

I hadn't meant to kill him.

I only wanted to save that woman.

Was it fair? That I had saved her, but at the cost of his life?

Was it just?

Is this justice?

My thoughts swirled in chaos and I tossed and turned many nights.

In the end, I decided to use that experience as lines in the sand.

If I ever found myself in that position again, what would I do?

Get help. Shout. Throw something at him in order to make him let the woman go.

What I wouldn't do?

Antagonize him. It was a mistake. I shouldn't have done that.

Get close to him. No, that was a mistake also.

His death wasn't alright. It wasn't necessary. It was a mistake.

My mistake.

I wouldn't make the same mistake again.

Donkey knew something had happened in the last few days that made my mood somber, and he tried to cheer me up in his own way.

I really didn't deserve him, he was too nice.

When he wants to be.

A small curls at the corners of my mouth.

You've been quiet.

I've been thinking.

I know.

I wonder... Did Wei WuXian ever thought back on the people he killed? Did Jiang Cheng? Lan Zhan?

I do not know.

Me neither.

Is it important?

I hummed, and tossed the question around in my mind, I guess not.

Where are we headed?

CaiYi Town.

...Isn't that?

I grinned. It's still somewhat far from the GusuLan Sect.

With your luck, you'll still run into someone.

I hope it's not Lan QiRen.

I hope it's Lan Zhan!

You hate me.

I love you, dear, but your reaction promises to be priceless.

Urgh.

I'd rather meet his brother.

Oh? Are you pondering on perhaps having both Lan brothers? How greedy of you!

I choke on my own spit and start coughing.

Donkey, stops and looks back at me, worried.

I have him away, trying (and failing) to give him a weak smile.

How dare you!

Oh, my! Why are you so red, my dear?

I open and close my mouth, before shutting it close with a click. I mutinously glare at me reflection in the water.

I will get you back for that one.


The novel hadn't done CaiYi Town justice.

It was so different than what I imagined, the canals and the people casually selling items off of boats, the sound of their voices. Their dialect really sounded soft and all flowery, it was incredibly funny to me.

I led Donkey through the streets, following a nice passerby's advice on an inn with a stable nearby, and couldn't help but look this way and that way as we walked.

November was cold, and already snow had started to fall, not enough to be an inconvenience but just enough to let you know winter would be fast arriving.

There was a Quest here I was eager to try out, it was by a woodworker and the Quest specifically said something about crafting, so I was interested to see if this Quest could help me level up my Crafting Skill.

I wanted to craft a better bow for myself, similar to how ChangZe's had built my first one, because with how frequently I was using it to hunt and fight back spirits I'd certainly need a replacement bow soon.

At least it hasn't fallen apart yet.

No, but some cracks are starting to appear on the wood, around where I grip it.

Well, that's to be expected... How high are your stats right now?

I blink and open my Player Menu.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 5
Title: None Level: 23
Class: Archer Fatigue: 10

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 34 Stealth: 34
Strength: 35 Charisma: 34
Agility: 35 Senses: 36
Stamina: 36 Luck: 35

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Winter robes (child)
Common boots

Weapon:
Dagger [Xiaodan]
Talisman (16)
Small Bow (25) ]

Ah. I see your point.

Might want to figure out a way to control the strength of your grip, one of this days you won't be careful enough and you'll squeeze rocks down to dust in front of the wrong person.

Oh, ye of little faith!

I know you, I have enough faith in your peculiar brand of bad luck.

I am keeping the Luck Stat up!

That just means your bad luck will come back double.

Urgh, you're impossible.

Donkey noses down on my ear and I jump startled.

"Donkeyyyyy," I whine," Why, my friend, why must you be so cruel to me!" I slump down dramatically.

Donkey snorts and flicks its tail, the universal sign of 'why do I put up with your drama'.

I clutch at my heart," You wound me! I'm wounded by your words!"

A vendor lady in her boat laughs as she hears me.

I turn to her with a grin," Good day, Sister!"

"Oh, little beau," She laughs," Good morning to you!"

I keep walking, eyeing the sights of the water-based town covered in a thin layer of snow.

After some walking I find the inn and quickly get Donkey situated, getting his tack gear off and giving him an apple to munch on as I brush snowflakes out of his mane.

Once that's done I quickly get back on the streets, entertaining the thought of being back here as a teenager and fighting against the Waterborne Abyss.

And teasing a certain someone.

Stop. Please. Stop.

Never.

I roll my eyes and quicken my pace as I follow the open map to the Quest location.


"Crafting Skill leveled up!"

I sigh, taking a small break from shaving down the wood in the workshop.

Once I got the information of what I'd be doing I made the wise decision of finishing up the other Quests first before coming back to this one.

The owner, a graying man with a bad leg was tasked with building this new boat for a merchant, but his workers decided to bail on him. He decided to try and finish the boat by himself and, sure enough, disaster struck and his leg decided that now was the perfect time to stop working as it should.

He'd been having temporary workers help him with shaving down the wood, sanding it, and putting the pieces together but there was never much attendance as everyone had their own jobs to do.

Or saw no point in helping the old man out.

That too.

I rolled my shoulder before getting back on task. The boat was almost complete, it just needed a few more boards, a final sanding and be painted with the special coat that would make it resistant to water.

Thankfully the Quest would end as soon as I finished shaving and sanding this piece, which was halfway done, so I could go back to the inn have a bath and go to sleep.

"Stopping already?" The man turns to me, from where he's fitting boat pieces together," Are you tired?"

I perk up," No sir!" I say and start shaving the wood down again.

I was getting this job done and I was going to do it perfectly!

"Youth," The man muttered as he went back to work.


"Aah..." I groaned as I stretched out my arms," I'm so tired!"

Hey, at least you leveled up your skill and stats.

True.

I pulled the string holding my hair up and let it fall down my back, the urge to cut it was strong but after being lectured, at length, by one of the Bai Clan's elderly ladies about how that was simply not done and how disrespectful it was to my parents, I'd have to put up with it.

I was all sweaty from working and the cold did me no favors, but my head was so itchy.

I wanted to get back to the inn and have a long soak.

The moon was up already, and there weren't many people walking the streets, having already gone home. The only sounds came from taverns and other still open shops, men laughed and talked among themselves or ate at the tables.

Snow fell steadily from above, and I took in a deep breath of the cold air.

The night sky was decked in stars, so bright, and I walked back to the inn content, sure that all that was in store for me was my bath and a bed.

I was wrong.

When are you ever not?

Goddammit.

About three feet from me was a crouched figure dressed all in white, long dark hair falling down his back, playing with a rattle drum in silence.

Even from behind I instantly recognized the robes and who was probably the person crouched down.

Lan WangJi.

You're actually meeting him...

Do. Not. Laugh.

...Too late.

Loud echoing laughter filled my mind and I fought back the urge to cover my ears, turn around and take the long way round back to the inn.

But this damn bleeding heart of mine couldn't walk away without making sure the kid was okay.

"Hey... Why are you crouched over there?" I asked him, frowning when he didn't even look up at me.

I sigh, thinking about what to do, and crouch down in front of him.

I pull his head up, and wide golden eyes meet mine.

He's shocked I dared to touch him so casually.

"When someone talks to you, you should look at them," I tell him," Now, what's wrong? Why are you here by yourself?"

He keeps his mouth closed and pushes my hands away from him.

Fine then. Two can play that game.

I grab a lock of his hair and give it a gentle tug.

He looks up at me again, scandalized, before looking down again and away from me.

I grin. And pull another handful of hair.

He slaps my hand away from him, golden eyes narrowed and expression annoyed when he sees my grin.

When he goes to turn away I quickly tap his forehead ribbon.

He jumps back, away from me, getting to his feet.

His facial expression morphs into one of utter disbelief.

I get up from my crouch and stand before him, way too amused by his expressions, and grin widely at him.

"Now, will you tell me what you're doing here, or do I have to keep pulling your hair?" I ask him.

He frowns, his lips pressed into a thin line, and he keeps one hand protecting his forehead ribbon from another potential tap.

He's adorable.

Stop! No more! Not another word!

But... How can you not see how adorable he is!

Arghhhh! Stop! He's not supposed to be cute!

Well... You know what they say, kids don't stay cute forever.

I'm not discussing this now. Nor ever!

The laughter rings out again in my head.

I sigh and nonchalantly go to pull another strand of hair, he takes a step back and finally speaks:

"I lost my brother," He tells me.

In fluent Gusu dialect.

I withheld a guffaw at hearing the soft flowery words coming out of the mouth of the future Hanguang-Jun, wielder of Bichen, and the nightmare of Lan disciples who break rules, was something that I was just not expecting.

Obviously he had stopped speaking in a dialect as he grew older.

I'm not forgetting this moment. Ever.

Save a copy for me, I also wouldn't mind revisiting this memory on a rainy day.

Done.

"Where was the last place you saw your brother," Give me some credit, I didn't indicate I thought his voice amusing at all.

"In front of the inn," He answers.

"What inn," I specify.

He remains silent and looks back down.

Oh, he doesn't know. Kid's completely lost.

"When you were with him, was it light out? Or dark already?" I ask.

"Light." He nods.

"Where was the sun, can you point it out to me?" I ask him.

He looks up at the dark sky and frowns, thinking, before pointing to the one side.

Sunset. Kid's been lost for an hour at least.

"Your brother must be worried sick for you," I hum," Well, did you walk in a straight line, or did you take any turns?"

"Straight," He answers and curls slightly on himself.

Scared?

Ashamed he's made his brother worried.

I let out a long sigh and grab his hand, pulling him with me.

"What?" He sort of jumps and tries to pull his hand away but I have a nice grip on it.

"I'mma teach you a trick!" I smile at him," If you ever notice you're lost or you've lost sight of the person you were with, stop walking. Don't move from that spot, and look around, the further you walk away from where you got lost, the harder it is to find you." I explain to him.

He blinks, haven't expected that, but nods.

"Now, see the moon?" I point at the sky," The moon always follows after the sun, so we're gonna keep the moon opposite to the side where the sun was and find your way back, isn't that interesting?" I laugh.

He nods and slowly lowers the hand he has on his forehead.

Two or so minutes after we started walking he begins to look around, shifty.

"Are you scared?" I asked him, kids couldn't be scared of the dark streets at this age, could they?

He purses his lips into a thin line but nods, before looking back at the ground.

Oh, sh*t.

Lan Zhan is scared of the dark!

Shut it!

Thinking back on all my nieces and nephews, I figured that at this age, a song or something cheerful to get their minds off of things would be best.

A cheerful song. Nothing too long or complicated.

Nursery rhyme?

"Hey, want to hear a song I know?" I ask him but I don't really wait for him to give me an answer,"I'm a little teapot, short and stout,~" I begin singing.

He quickly raises his head to stare at me, his mouth opens slightly in incredulity.

Oh, you poor, poor child. What have they done to you that you haven't ever heard a nursery rhyme.

Different culture. Different upbringing. And I'm pretty sure the Lan elder wouldn't have their precious Jade tainted by childish songs.

"This is my handle, this is my spout~" I keep singing, gesturing with my remaining arm,"When I get the steam up, hear me shout, tip me over and pour me out~!"

"What song is that?" He questions, quietly and incredulous.

"It's the Teapot song!" I cheer," Do you like it? You can sing it too, if you want."

"I've never heard of it..." He says.

"Well..." I give him an embarrassed look," I kind of just thought of it on the spot, hehe..." He smile at him.

His eyes widen and he looks away.

"Sorry?" I apologize, and look away, after a few seconds of silence I can't help myself from singing it again.

Violet, Hannah's daughter, loved this song when she was a little girl, complete with the cute little dance in her cute ruffled pumpkin pants.

As I sang I swung the kid's arm back and forth, trying to get him to sing with me but he remain staunchly quiet.

"A-Zhan!" Someone suddenly calls out.

The kid looks up, lightning fast, and starts running toward the sound.

"Hey, wait, you're gonna fall!" I warn him, and true to my predictions he trips over one of the stones in the road and goes down.

"A-Zhan!" Whoever it was calling must've seen him because I hear them running this way.

Thank your lucky stars that doesn't sound like Lan QiRen.

"You okay?" I help him get up off the floor and brush away the dirt off his clothes.

Unfortunately they're pure white so there isn't much that I can do for them.

Oh, the horror of white clothing.

And that's why we're wearing black in the future.

Not because it looks cool?

Also because of that, but mostly because stains won't be noticeable.

"A-Zhan! Are you okay, I couldn't find you anywhere!" Whoever it was calling finally reaches us and I look up to see who it is.

You're got to be kidding me.

Called it!

Shut it.

Oh my god, this is your chance! Snatch him!

Shut. Up!

Standing above me, in all his nine year old glory, was the one and only, Lan XiChen.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Use your smile to change the world; don't let the world change your smile." - Chinese Proverb


Chapter 29: Keep Smiling

Standing above me, in all his nine year old glory, was the one and only, Lan XiChen.

Oh, he's cute.

By some miracle I manage to not turn red up to the roots of my hair. And refrained from showing any outwardly signs that I was shrieking like a banshee at the top of my lungs inside my own head.

The voice went quiet, retreating speedily to some darkened corner of my mind to escape my wrath.

I smile at the older Lan brother," Oh, so you're the missing brother! Nice to meet you!"

The older boy blinks, a spark of recognition in his eyes, before smiling back at me," Yes, it's very nice to meet you, as well. Were you helping A-Zhan?"

I swear I could see flowers blooming behind his head as he smiled.

What the utter hell.

"A-Zhan?" I blink, before turning to the smaller boy with a grin," Eh? So that's your name? Well, guess I'll call you that then!"

He quickly pushes me away from him, and frowns," Don't call me that."

I fake widen my eyes," Eh?! Why not? And here I thought we were going to be great friends, A-Zhan!"

He kind of smothers a twitch but fails, I see Lan XiChen hide a smile behind his sleeve.

"We are not friends," He tells me.

I grin at him," We're totally friends! I even shared my song with you!" I tell him.

He turns away from me and I don't miss the chance to pull at his hair again.

He bats my hand away with a scowl, my lips twitch in amusement, grin widening.

"Well, isn't this great, A-Zhan? You've made a friend," Lan XiChen smiles down at the two of us," You may call me Lan Huan, and you are... Wei Ying?" He pretends to guess.

I look up at him brightly and nod," Wei Ying, courtesy WuXian, but you can call me A-Ying!" I answer, but blink afterwards," How do you know my name?"

He sort of crouches down so we're more eye-level with each other," My Uncle talked about you, many people are worried about where you've been," He tells me.

"Aah!" I make a gesture of realization," The GusuLan are keeping an eye out for me too, I forgot that," I sigh," I have to leave soon then..."

Lan XiChen blinks confused," Why? You can come with us, we'll take you to Uncle and he can get you back home." He tells me.

I shook my head," My parents are dead, you know, I don't have a home to go back to," I answer simply, ignoring the look Lan Zhan gives at that information," They say there's a Sect Leader that wants to foster me, but I don't know him, besides I have something I want to do."

Lan XiChen still frowns," It's not safe being by yourself," He tells me.

I smile kindly at him and spread my arms wide," I know, but, really, I have this many people looking out for me, I won't be in trouble! I can look after myself too, I'm not alone!"

"It's not safe," Lan Zhan finally speaks up," Come to Gusu," He adds.

I turn to him with a grin," Eh? So you do like me, A-Zhan!" I laugh," Don't look so angry, now, sorry! But I really am fine! Don't worry!"

Lan Xichen sighs," But you're so young, A-Ying. You're A-Zhan's age, aren't you?" He asks.

I lift up a hand similar to how you'd wave hello," I turned five in October!" I tell them brightly.

Lan Zhan frowns," Too young. You'll get hurt," He then pointedly looks at my scar.

I laugh," No worries, no worries!" I tell him.

He frowns, and Lan XiChen hides another smile behind his sleeve.

"Well... I don't feel comfortable letting you leave by yourself..." He tells me.

Uh Oh.

An idea sparks in my head.

Bad idea.

"Hey! How about I send you some letters?" I suggest," A friend of mine also asked I send him some letters, so he could know I was okay! I could write some to you as well!"

I wasn't going to tell them that friend was ShouShan just in case this got him in trouble, but... Well, he might just set a precedent.

Lan XiChen ponders on this, and Lan Zhan tries not to look at least minimally intrigued, before he nods slowly.

"Once a month, always, or we'll tell Uncle where you were wrote to us!" He warns me.

I give him a hug, enjoying the fact that Lan Zhan actually squeaks when I do so, and quickly let go to smile back at Lan XiChen brightly.

"Thank you, Gege!" I say," You're the best!"

He chuckles and ruffles my head," Well, I'd say to hug A-Zhan too, but I don't think he'll let you."

I turn to Lan Zhan and see him ready to spring away from me.

I could probably still tackle him, though.

I smile at him instead," No worries, one day we'll see each other again and there's no escaping from me then!" I grin.

In ten or eleven years he'll have forgotten this meeting anyway.

He scowls fiercely at me before shoving his rattle drum in my direction.

I stare at it.

"Uh?" I blink.

"Thanks," He tells me.

"Thanks?" I continue staring, confused.

"For helping," He mulishly adds.

Ah.

I smile gently at him, and take the offered rattle, it has gentle clouds carefully painted on the drum sides, with intricate designs carved into the wood.

"Thank you, A-Zhan," I say to him," It's a beautiful gift."

He looks away from me," Brother, isn't Uncle waiting for us?"

And you need to learn how to change the subject better than that...

Lan XiChen clearly notices it also and smiles," Yes, we should be going now," He gives me one last conflicted look, as if making sure I didn't want to come with them.

"I have to go back, too, I'm all spent for today! I'll send a letter to you soon!" I promise and go to walk away.

"We'll be waiting," Lan XiChen gives me a tired smile.

Poor kid really was worried about me, how sweet of him.

Such a good child.

You're totally snagging both of them I see.

I barely manage to keep from tripping over my own feet.

Stop saying that!

It's the truth, wait a few years and you'll change your opinion of 'never happening' to 'my dream come true'.

Never. It. Is. Not. Happening. End of discussion.

Nah, I'll just add a comma and we can continue this at a later date.

You're so annoying. Obnoxious. Full of yourself!

And you're infuriating. Clueless. And unbelievably good at denying your feelings.

There are no feelings to be felt!

For now.

It's not happening!

Moving on, this is getting nowhere, are we skipping town tonight?

...Ah, because of Lan QiRen? Yup.

I'd trust Lan XiChen but their righteousness will inevitably mean they'll tell their uncle they saw me, before dawn tomorrow the whole town will be packed full of people searching for me.

So, where are we going?

I open my map and start going through possible locations, as a last resort I could just suck it up and go hide at the Bai Clan as they wanted me to, but I decide to go stop at a nearby cave temple.

It'd been a while since I was last in one, and inside of it the weather shouldn't be too bad.

I had blankets, actual blankets, if required and as long as I left early in the morning, no one had to know I'd been there.

There goes your warm bath though.

I moaned pitifully.

I was looking forward to it too!


A week later found me staring out at a valley covered in snow, sitting on top of Donkey.

The sun was rising behind the mountains and the light made the ice and snow sparkle. I smiled at the beautiful scenery it made, my breaths coming out in small clouds of air, puffy and white, and I itched to sketch the scene before me.

Why don't you?

That made me pause.

Why didn't I?

When I was learning how to write talismans, despite the weird grip I had to have on the brush pen, it reminded me of painting more than it did writing.

Why didn't I ever try and paint before?

The thought just never came up. The itch to pain what I saw had come up once or twice but I never gave in to the urge.

Why?

You're wasting time. Soon the sun will be all over the mountain and you won't capture it anymore.

I can clearly recall what the sight looked like!

And I did, my memory was just as good as it had been before, maybe stronger now that I had a better eye for details.

"Advancement Unlocked!"

Another?

The System is the gift that keeps on giving!

I laughed and opened my Inventory, searching for drawing materials when a random thought appeared in my head.

Does the Store have actual paints?

I quickly check it out, but can't find them under any of the [Materials] or [Gifts] sections. Nor under [Recipes] and I start to lose hope.

Try [Misc].

I do, and after digging through chopsticks, bowls, blankets, and other random objects of daily life I finally managed to find what I was looking for.

There were complete sets of paint, brushes, and even different types of paints and other drawing materials.

They were unreasonably cheap.

Well, it's not like they're important to the Story.

I scoff, the artist in my revolting at the thought of art utensils being deemed 'unimportant'. After purchasing a fair amount of them, I get off Donkey and find a safe spot to sit down.

I bring out a sketch book and some oil pastels. And start painting, at some point Donkey approaches to look over my shoulder at what I was doing. It snorts quietly, and keeps watching me work in silence.

Despite being out of practice my body just goes into overdrive, losing itself in the act of painting, so much so that I do not notice the notifications popping over my head about 'discovering' the Painting Skill, and leveling it up. Several times.

After about two hours, my fingers are numbing from the cold but I hold up the finished painting and smile.

I still got it.

The head rush one gets when they've finished a painting. Or a music score. Or a sculpture. When you stand back and let out a sigh, that all that hard work paid off. That it's finished, and it's here and it's perfect.

I still got it.

Maybe you could keep painting your travels.

Yes... That's a great idea. I could paint all that I've seen as I wondered about the world, the people I met...

ShouShan would like to see them.

And others too.

I thought of Lan XiChen opening a bulky letter to find random drawings of mountains, deer and other critters.

You should send Lan Zhan some bunnies.

I failed to smother a snicker.

Yes.

I sent the painting back to the Inventory along with the art supplies, sharing an amused look with the disgruntled Donkey who still couldn't figure out how I was doing that, or getting perfectly ripe apples out of season, before putting my gloves back on and getting up on the donkey again.

I'd send a letter to them all soon.


Lan Huan had thought about the small boy he and his brother had met the previous month quite frequently as time went by. The day after they met, Uncle had told him they hadn't been able to find him anywhere in town, having obviously left before dawn.

He felt bad for letting the boy go and not drag him with him to where they were staying but his uncle had told him it wasn't his fault. Obviously the boy thought himself invincible and didn't understand that what he was doing was wrong.

Still, he felt guilty. A-Zhan had taken to looking around when they traveled, having some hope of running into him again, possibly. It did cheer him up thinking how the other boy had befriended his brother.

Most kids thought A-Zhan to be cold and distant, but this boy hadn't had any trouble gently teasing his brother and pulling him along as they walked, as his brother had confided in him, even teaching him a song. Or so he had said, because A-Zhan was adamant that he knew no such thing.

Uncle had given him a look and offhandedly mentioned that lying was against the rules and that he should copy a verse of Righteousness for it, but did not press him about it. Neither did Lan Huan, if his brother wanted to keep this apparently mystery song a secret between him and that boy, well... He wouldn't intrude on their friendship.

It was a nice thing to see.

"Young Master Lan!" A disciple came to him carrying a small package," A letter came for you, from one... Wei Ying?" He questioned.

Oh.

Lan Huan blinked, surprised.

The boy had actually written to him.

How thoughtful.

Lan Huan smiled at the flustered disciple and accepted the package with a gentle word of gratitude, retreating to the his brother's room, because his brother would want to know what his friend had been up to, surely.

He found A-Zhan practicing his guqin in the Jinshi, completely focused on his task. Lan Huan waited for his brother to still his strings before entering the room.

"A-Zhan," He said," We've received a letter."

His brother looked up at him, brows knit together," A letter?"

"From A-Ying," He smiled," Do you want to read it together?"

His brother's eyes widened slightly and he carefully put away his guqin, obviously done with practice for now.

Lan Huan pulled a seat beside his brothers and waited until A-Zhan sat back down beside him before opening the package. It seemed rather large to be a simple letter, but perhaps the boy had written several and sent them all together.

Once he opened it, he found his answer.

There was a single letter, carefully written with slightly wobbly characters that had A-Zhan muttering about calligraphy practice, and dozens of drawings. Of what Lan Huan recognized as Gusu mountains, nearby villages and even merchants. Women in boats selling their products, and fishermen boats far off in the distance.

Then there were animals, deer, birds, even a white fox or two. La Huan caught sight of two or three benevolent Yao and Spirits and knew that, with the detail they had on him, Wei Ying had to have spent a good hour working on each of them.

Furthermore, these weren't made with any material Lan Huan was familiar with.

And the sheer level of detail!

"Oh," Lan Zhan picked up a drawing of a bunny rabbit poking its head out of its burrow, there were characters written carefully on the side 'To A-Zhan, it's pretty cute, isn't it?'

Lan Huan smiled," Isn't it lovely, A-Zhan, your friend made something for you."

A-Zhan nodded, clutching the drawing closer to him.

Lan Huan was glad his brother had such a good friend.

...Now if only he'd actually stop wondering around by himself and be safe somewhere with adults to look after him.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also." - Harriet Ann Jacobs


Chapter 30: Spring

The snow and frost were only beginning to melt when I arrived at Qinghe, for the first time since I was alone I entered the city with Donkey and took a deep breath of the delicious foods that could be found here.

God, I missed this.

Just make sure not to accept any more random toys from girls that eventually lead you to run into Chifeng-Zun.

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Nope, we're not doing it again.

Once was enough.

Even if you got good buns for it.

Damn, those were some good buns.

I entered the city, having already completed the Quests of the nearby border settlements, and found a place to rest for the day. A life of traveling, playing the flute, singing and telling songs, even selling some art to an interesting buyer when I could part with it, made my life much richer.

And that's without taking into account just how much money you have to spend in the Store.

I politely do not grin wickedly, lest I scare any passersby, and only make a show of patting my shoulder.

Night-hunting had turned into a very profitable business, to say the least.

And you even tried the meat!

My good humor sours.

I had eaten the Bo meat.

After much food preparation, condiments added and cooked extremely well, I had ended up eating it.

It tasted like a good steak.

When I'd admitted to that, you could feel the sheer amount of glee coming from the voice, as it crackled and repeatedly said 'I told you so!'

I wasn't impressed.

Anyway, after making sure Donkey was settled in, I went up to the room I rented up and had a nice nap.

While nothing in this world came close to the fluffy mattress I'd had back in my old life (which my dear student surely had taken possession of, the little brat had always loved that mattress) I'd grown used to the thin straw mattresses placed atop rigid wooden frames.

Having about three blankets on top of it and forming what I'll politely refer to as a 'nest', doesn't hurt matters either.

A man after my own heart.

I put my pack, which I honestly carried baggage in, unimportant baggage that I wouldn't mind having stolen if it happened, and threw myself on the bed, kicking my boots off and taking the dagger off of my belt and placing it underneath me.

Someone coming in wouldn't see it, but I could draw it out in a single motion and attack them before they knew what hit them.

I fell into a light slumber soon afterwards.


When I opened my eyes it was evening and the lights outside were just starting to light up.

I rolled over onto my back and stretched, content and feeling slightly lazy, a change from my initial days of constant vigilance and distrust.

I let myself lay there for a few moments before sighing and getting up.

I had stuff to do.

Not overly important stuff like Quests, though I should get back to those, but writing letters and sorting out my inventory.

Writing to Lan XiChen, Bai ShouShan, and Yan MingXia on a near regular basis was relaxing. They couldn't write back to me, due to my constant and irregular meanderings, but I liked to think of what their responses would be like.

Yan MingXia, in particular, would probably want to strangle me with how reckless some of my stunts were. She was a widow living in the northeastern part of Lanling, almost bordering Qinghe, and she'd put up with me freeloading at her house in return for talismans and getting rid of a few pesky yao roaming around her house. The sect responsible for taking care of such things was 'busy' with their own affairs and night-hunts against strong prey that they spared little time to ease the grievances of the common people.

When I suggested I make some talismans and have her sell them, she'd asked me if I was an idiot.

I wasn't sure if I should've taken offense or not at her words so I just shrugged and explained that, if I tried selling my talismans by myself, no one would buy them, because I was a kid, and kids don't know how to make proper talismans 'obviously'. But if Yan MingXia sold them, people would by them, because she was fast approaching the age of 'elder'.

I'd gotten a cup thrown at my head and a cold stay outside in the snow for my 'cheek' to cut down firewood, before being allowed back inside.

And having to sit through a lecture on how you should never call a woman old.

Women could call other women old, even joke about it between themselves, men? Not so much.

The unfairness of it all!

So, after that was done, we'd discussed how such a business could happen. Every other month I'd send a fixed number of talismans for her to sell, and she was to say they were done my a travelling rogue cultivator she knew, never breathing a word of just who that rogue cultivator was, and on the months I didn't send her any talismans I'd send drawings or trinkets I got instead.

She'd make some money to improve her living conditions, and I got another pen-pal and practice my skills.

Bai ShouShan got letters detailing my travels and all the prey I got, how I got them, and tips on how they could catch them. Sometimes I scribbled ideas of traps or other cultivation tools that would be interesting to have.

I never breathed a word of demonic cultivation, but I did write to him talking about what energy was made of and how we could potentially isolate sections of it.

I liked writing those letters, and imagined he'd be reading them going 'what is going on in that kid's mind?'.

Writing to Lan XiChen, or Lan Huan, or Gege, as I'd refer to him several times in the letters.

Shameless, your Lan Zhan probably says.

I ignored it.

Those were fun letters too, although very edited out, and only briefly touching upon the matters of night-hunting and catching various creatures. I mostly sent them pictures, with one always dedicated to the tiny Lan Zhan. They were funny anecdotes, bunny rabbits, a particularly beautiful tree, sometimes a spirit or beast I observed at a distance, if they were hostile, or up close if they were benevolent.

I liked to think he enjoyed those the most.

More than once I'd sent him pictures of the night sky, depicting constellations or other astronomical events I remembered from my previous life, like an Aurora Borealis.

He'd probably be confused about what it was, but that was the fun part of it.

Sometimes I'd write him little stories or rhymes, or small melodies.

Those were the letters I wrote all the time. But they hadn't been the only letters I had sent.

Months ago I had written to YunmengJiang, and told them I was fine and if they could, pretty please, stop looking for me I'd be grateful. That I didn't really know why they wanted to foster me, when I was pretty sure I'd never even met them, but I wasn't interested in stopping my traveling.

They hadn't stopped looking.

I'd also written to the other Great Sects telling them the same, that I was fine and very much healthy. While the searches hadn't stopped I felt like they weren't as intense as they were before.

It was the morose action of 'well, if I catch him, I catch him, but I'm not going out of my way to do so'.

Except YunmengJiang. YunmengJiang was becoming an inconvenience. While the Sect Leader couldn't go gallivanting across the countryside looking for me, he's enlisted a fair share of disciples who were more than willing to help him on this crusade.

I was honestly surprised at how eager they were in finding me.

Like I was a prize to be won.

I don't doubt Jiang FengMian wouldn't reward the fool who manages to drag you back.

I sighed, and get CangSe's desk out of the Inventory and set everything up so that I can start writing my letters.

Once they were all written and bundled up in their own respective packets I'd send off when I was about to leave the city, I brought the items I had in my Inventory out, and there were a lot of things mind you, and started sorting them out.

I tried to do this usually once a month, because I had the aggravating tendency to find stuff, grab it and send it to the Inventory and suddenly forget about it, despite having an active Advancement that should help me out with that, so it was best to check what was inside every once in a while.

Mob drops that I could sell would immediately be sold on the spot, everything that belonged to my parents was put aside and sent back, while trinkets and gifts I'd gotten from people over my travels were placed separately in their own bag, like Lan Zhan's rattle drum.

Then I'd sort out my art supplies, see which ones I had to replace, get rid of or restock, and then organize them before sending them back, followed by the provisions and travel gear I had with me.

Clothes and other miscellaneous objects, such as interesting rocks, shells and things I had bought in stores, were the last ones to be checked.

I always had to check if the clothes still fit me, or else they'd be sold for a portion of their value, and where once I only had a single pair of robes, I now had three, plus pair of winter robes, a waterproof cape and various winter articles such as gloves and scarfs.

I even got a small cloak from a nice store vendor after helping her carry her luggage into her new husband's house. I liked that cloak.

The most interesting thing I'd gotten into the habit of checking out were hair ornaments. I'd had many, many lectures about keeping hair clean and correctly brushed, and lessons on different hair styles from sympathetic ladies that I'd somehow found myself getting ribbons and small hairpins.

I also found out countless different types of buns and ponytail styles which I hadn't thought possible.

After all that was done, I went ahead and asked if I could have a bath drawn, I honestly found it awkward to have to ask someone to fill you a bathtub, which was really just a large wooden tub carried upstairs to the room you were in, with hot water.

Personally I wouldn't mind the technological advancement of having sewage systems and plumbing.

Once the bath was drawn and I was left to my quiet contemplation whilst soaking in the warm water I opened my Player Menu.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 5
Title: None Level: 30
Class: Archer Fatigue: 0

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 45 Stealth: 45
Strength: 45 Charisma: 44
Agility: 44 Senses: 46
Stamina: 46 Luck: 45

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Sturdy Robes
Hunter Boots

Weapon:
Dagger [Xiaodan]
Talisman (25)
Small Bow (30) ]

I'd come a long way from where I'd started, and I was still half-way to where I was supposed to be.

As I washed my hair I wondered if I should get more weapons. Xiaodan and my bow were enough for now, but I shouldn't just rely on them, or the talismans. I needed more options in case something went south. And now that winter was over and the warmer seasons would bring monsoons and all the beings the rain brought with it...

Yeah, I should consider getting more weapons.

But what?

I dumped water over my head and spluttered, pushing my heavy wet hair back.

My arms could reliably lift and swing a sword but it was unwieldy, the size of the sword didn't fit in with my body proportions. I either had to get a small sword, which was an idea, I came to realize, or I had to think outside the box.

Think. What kind of weapons were there?

I open the store and start going through the weapons available.

I swear that sword just winked at me.

That doesn't make any sense.

It's so shiny.

Don't even think about it.

But...!

Move on.

Urgh... You're no fun.

I kept scrolling through, the different types of blades there were, and there were a lot, before coming by knives.

...I could get another blade like Xiaodan, keep it tied to my arm in case of an emergency.

Hmm, that's an idea... But focus on the short sword.

I scrolled down again until we came across short swords.

Or well, what an adult would describe as a short sword, because they were the perfect size for a child to pretend they were long swords.

Which one to get?

I went through their details, keeping an eye on my money out of habit, and finally picked one that stated it was very effective against spiritual beings.

"Does the Player wish to name their weapon?"

[YES] [NO]

I blinked, not expecting that message, and decided to go ahead and name it.

The holographic image of the sword enlarged and floated above me, slowly revolving.

"Choose a name"

I stared, and looked up at the blade.

It was a very pale blade, with a dark handle made of dyed leather, and a pommel with a carved flower.

I recognized that flower as a jasmine.

"Liling," I name it.

"Player wishes to name the weapon 'Liling'?"

[YES] [NO]

I press the [YES] button and the notification comes that the weapon was sent to my Inventory. I pull it out and feel it materialize in my hand, despite having grown an inch since I started traveling, the blade could very easily be slightly longer than my leg when standing upright.

I sent it back to the Inventory, eager now to test it out, and focused back on the store.

I went back to the knives and got the one that had caught my eye previously, it was a fine blade with the detail that it focused the Fire Alignment easily.

It coincidentally had a red handle and a pommel with a red stone that glowed faintly.

I named it "Xiaotong" like XianLiang had almost named Xiaodan.

I start to sense a naming theme to your knives.

I ignored it, and checked the blade out. It was curved, not like Xiaodan which was straight, and had a faintly jagged edge.

As I saw my reflection in the blade, clear grey eyes reflecting the glint of metal in their pupils, like tiny stars, I couldn't help but grin.

I was happy.

And excited.

And thankful.

So, so thankful.

Aah~, I thought, How wonderful it is to be alive.

This is great.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Thief is not the one who steals, but the one that is caught." - George Bernard Shaw


Chapter 31: Search the Pockets (and look for loose change)

"New (Side) Quest Available!"

"View Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

I pause, my chopsticks half way into my mouth, and stare at the words.

Well... It's been a while since one these popped up. Usually I have to get to a specific point for the Side Quest to appear, not just randomly pop-up and tell me there's stuff to be done.

What are you waiting for, open it!

Can I finish eating first?

...Fine. But be quick about it.

Hey! Good food must be fully appreciated!

I felt its eye roll.

Hurry up!

I grunt and proceed to continue eating, Qinghe had the best food, hands down, Qinghe had the best food in the world. Everything was nicely seasoned, and cooked, there were so many types of meat!

Aah~ Everything tasted so nice.

Stop sounding like you want to get married to that bowl of rice.

It's a free country!

Pfft.

I hide a smirk into the edge of the bowl and drink the last of the soup I had in it.

Delicious.

Now can you open the Quest and see what it is about?

How much you want to bet it has a stupid name?

I'm not betting on that sucker's bet.

I open the Quest.

"Quest: Loot the Looters!"

«You've discovered the location of a group of looters currently taking advantage of the common citizens.
You decide to take a stand against their actions and make them taste a bit of their own medicine.
You may do what you please with the loot.»

"View Quest Objectives?"

[YES] [NO]

I stare at the words, and fight back the urge to burst out laughing. Of course the System would encourage a five year old to rob a robbers hideout!

Accept it!

Of course I'm accepting this, who do you take me for, this is bound to be fun!

"Loot the Looters Quest Objectives:"

|o Break into the Looters Hideout (incomplete) |
|o Loot the contents (incomplete) |

"Bonus Objective:"

|o Find the Sable (incomplete) |

"Accept this Quest?"

[YES] [NO]

I accept it and get all the dishes and utensils properly put away for the lady to take them away.

It was night now, and I considered tackling this Quest in the morning but decided that now was the best time to complete it. I got up from the table and put on a darker pair of robes, to better blend in with the night, and putting my hair up in a tight bun. I'd gotten new boots after my old ones got holes in them, and I had to say, the Store was awesome.

These were super comfy and made it easier for me to walk without leaving traces behind.

Perfect for hunting.

And breaking and entering.

Shush.

After I got my boots on, I attached Xiaodan to my belt, beside my Qiankun bag, and got Xiaotong attached to the arm-guard I bought for my left wrist. Xiaotong was really in the case of an emergency and I needed a second knife fast, so I didn't expect to need it any time soon, if I did I'd change the arm-guard to my right wrist.

And finally, I got Liling situated across my back. I couldn't pull it out in a single motion at my waist, it was still somewhat unwieldy, but if I pulled it off my back and drew it then, it was easier.

I looked myself in the mirror and grinned.

I looked pretty dang awesome.

I placed the empty dishes by the door outside, a servant would come pick these up later, and left. The innkeeper did a double take at the sight of the sword on my back but wisely said nothing.

I think he was too shocked to say anything.

Whatever.

I followed the map's instructions and soon enough found myself in front of a seemingly normal general store. Or so the front sign read, it was closed by now, and there wasn't anyone inside it, the lights were all out.

I casually meandered into the alleyway between the store and the building beside it. There wasn't anyone watching me, I expanded my sense outwards and couldn't sense anyone inside the building.

I gave it a full walk around before deciding that the window at the back would probably be the safest entry point. It was in the first floor, so I'd have to climb up, but I could see it that the wooden shutters weren't latched closed so I could open them.

I rolled my shoulders and started pulling myself up on the wall, how nice it'd be too be able to walk on walls.

Or fly.

One day.

After some minimal difficulty, I managed to reach the window, constantly keeping an eye and ear out for trouble, and slowly pushed it open to peek inside.

It was an office of sorts. Bookshelves and paperwork on the desk, the usual things you'd see in an office. I climb inside, and take care to make sure the wood doesn't creak underneath me. I peek at the books on the shelves, but none of them really catch my interest, they were just books about commerce, the prices of grain, and boring stuff.

I carefully went through the paperwork but found nothing out of the ordinary. Everything seemed normal so far, no indication that this place housed looters.

Or maybe the owner doesn't know about the looters.

Possible, I guess.

I slowly opened the office's door and peeked out, the place was dead quiet, and I couldn't hear anything like breathing or snoring. There wasn't anyone in the house.

Odd.

Not to look a gift-horse in the mouth I opened the office door and went to the nearest door, opening it slowly, it was a bedroom. Empty, and it didn't look like it'd been used in a while, dust gathering on top of everything. I closed the door after that, and moved on to the next. There were four rooms total upstairs, counting the office and that empty bedroom, so there had to be something up here.

The next door I opened was another empty bedroom, and I started to frown, before opening the last door. This one at least looked like it'd been used recently. I entered the room and looked around. Nothing out of place, everything seemed ordinary, even the painted screen divider in the corner was common in every household's master bedroom.

I give it one last glance over before going downstairs. The store beneath the house was full of items for sale, and there was a little bit of everything to buy. I checked behind the counter for anything suspicious but again, couldn't find anything.

I started to get frustrated.

The store room behind the storefront also didn't indicate anything untoward was happening.

What the hell?

I placed a fist underneath my chin and started thinking of anything I might've missed.

There's nothing here! Is this even the right place?

I open the map and sure enough, I'm supposedly right where the hideout should be.

This place is a total dump.

I couldn't exactly deny it. The place was pretty dusty and unorganized, things just pilled back here without much care.

It seems what this store owner needs is a woman's touch!

I chuckle, finding that statement funny, and true. A woman would defini-...

What?

A woman.

...What?

A woman!

You're not exactly making sense here.

I leave the store room to go back upstairs.

You just said that this place needed a woman's touch! Obviously this is a store owned by a man, right?

Right.

Then why is there a girly screen divider in the bedroom?

Maybe he's married?

Then why would this place need a feminine touch?

Well... Oh.

Yes, oh!

I entered the master bedroom again and pull the screen divider away from the corner, there's a square floorboard that doesn't quite match the rest of the flooring, I crouch down and pull the floorboard up, revealing a rope ladder going down.

How did you know?

I grin smugly.

I'm just that smart.

I carefully start going down the rope, once I reach the bottom there's a door that I simply push over.

"Quest Objective Complete!"

I look up at the words and give myself a little pat on the back.

I was getting better at this.

Inside the room there's tons of stuff, from silk cloth to iron chunks, there's also crates full of liquor, and leather and bags upon bags of rice.

What the hell.

Loot it.

I start grabbing things and sending it to my Inventory, feeling giddy as I slowly empty the room down to nothing.

Should I take the furniture? For the heck of it?

Take it. Take it all!

You sound like an evil mastermind.

I'm just your voice of reason.

I laugh and quickly cover my mouth.

Sh*t.

No one heard you.

Don't make me laugh idiot! What if someone had heard me?

You'd kick their butts?

Of course, I would, I just don't want to if I don't have to.

I start getting to the furniture, a desk here, a chair there, bookshelves full of other, most likely stolen, merchandise, and rugs.

Where did he even get this? How do you smuggle this much stuff into a city and then bring it inside of this little hidden basement?

There might be another door, the Quest said 'looters', plural.

True.

I continue emptying out the room, losing track of what I just sent to the Inventory and just grabbing as much stuff as I can as fast as I can. I want to go back to my room and sleep.

You had a nap.

And now I want some deep REM sleep.

You jump awake at the slightest of sounds.

Survival instincts, I still deserve my beauty sleep.

After about half of an hour of clearing everything up, I look around the decrepit looking room.

...I kind of feel bad for the guy. Imagine coming down here to store the latest of your conquest, only to find everything else gone.

Karma.

My lips twitch.

Dude, stop making me laugh.

Is this everything?

I don't think so, the Quest hasn't done the little, Quest completed cheer.

I look around the room for anything I might've missed. I can't find anything.

What are we missing?

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I close my eyes and dive right into my center, the small golden ball of energy seems to spark brightly as I come closer, and eagerly comes to rest at my hands. It feels fuzzier, and heavier, but still small enough to fit in my hands.

I smile down at it, at the golden liquid energy that flows from it.

Outside the world grows into focus, and I find a section of stone wall shining brightly. I walk closer to it and inspect it, the brightest stone, when pressed, sinks into the wall. There's a weird hollow sound and the wall kind of shifts inwards, opening slightly.

...This is Indiana Jones stuff right here.

The System sure does love messing with us.

I walk inside and find another room full of stuff, except this time, they're objects that are obviously heirlooms or some nobles treasure.

Gold. So much gold.

Jackpot!

Oh, my god.

We're rich!

How do you even?!

Start pocketing it!

I'm having a slow mental breakdown over here!

Breakdown later, get rich now!

I groan and start sending things to the Inventory. If that thing had a limit, it'd sure have reached it by now.

There's no much gold.

How?

Don't question your good luck!

There's good luck and then there's you're about to die so be happy while it lasts!

...Damn, you do you have to ruin my hype.

Sorry to burst your bubble!

Work faster, let's get out of here the moment you grab the last thing, I think I see the secret exit.

I spy the closed door but decide that I'd much rather squeeze out of that tiny window that to try the door.

Why?

Gut feeling.

I grab a few more things before I suddenly freeze.

I heard something.

What?

I look up to the corner of the room, there's definitely something in that corner.

I jump over crates and slowly approach the corner, there's a cage, roughly the size of an ice cooler, made of wire. I crouch closer to it and see... fur?

It's a really dark fur.

And dripping.

Oh.

There's blood pooling at the bottom of the cage.

Poor thing.

I swear I heard something, though.

I pull the cage slightly, and there I hear it. A tiny squeaky growl.

Two beady black eyes glare at my from the mound of black fur.

I blink, and open the cage, reaching for the thing.

Sharp teeth bite me but I ignore it, grabbing it and pulling it out.

It's a ferret.

That's not a ferret.

I stare at the tiny weasel-like black scrap of fur, glaring at me with its beady eyes and sinking its tiny little teeth into my thumb, and I have to once again insist.

This is totally a ferret.

"Quest Bonus Objective Completed!"

I stare at the words and pull the Quest Objectives back.

"Loot the Looters Quest Objectives:"

|o Break into the Looters Hideout (complete) |
|o Loot the contents (incomplete) |

"Bonus Objective:"

|o Find the Sable (complete) |

See? It's not a ferret.

It's a Sable.

...What the hell is a Sable?

A ferret.

"What do I do with you?" I ask it, petting it's small head with a single finger from my other hand, it starts biting that finger.

Well, you can't put it in the Inventory.

I sigh, looking back at the cage. Due to how small this is, I'd say that's the mother.

Poor sable.

Ferret.

It's not a ferret.

It's totally a ferret.

I get up and have the great idea of grabbing a nearby piece of cloth and wrapping it like a baby.

It's not amused with me, letting out another squeaky growl.

...Damn it, it's adorable.

Oh, no... No, no, no, no... We already have Donkey!

...And now we have Ferret.

You're not naming it Ferret!

Alright, I won't name it Ferret. But I'm keeping it.

...What?! No!

"Totally keeping you!" I coo at it, letting it bite my finger again.

Its teeth aren't doing any damage at all so I let it keep doing it.

I find a pouch full of coins and dump the coins out, placing the bundled ferret inside and attach the pouch to my belt. I'd figure out a better way of carrying it back at the inn.

I finish grabbing everything and look around the empty room.

"Quest Completed!"

I nod and start squeezing out the window, well, squeezing is a too harsh word, I could easily climb in and out of the window. Which wasn't much of a window as it was a vent of sorts, leading to the store room upstairs. There was another window here, latched closed, but since I was inside it was pretty easy to get out.

As I reach up to unlatch it I hear people get inside the store, laughing. I crouch back in the darkness and my hand goes to grab Xiaodan.

Don't make a sound.

The men, because there were several of them, and they were definitely male, went upstairs, laughing and jeering one another.

I heard them pound their feet up the stairs and once I was sure they'd all made it up I quickly unlatched the window and climbed out, leaving it open. Who cares if they found the window open?

No fingerprinting in this day and age.

No one will believe a kid stole everything from their secret hideout.

Even the furniture.

Especially since they'd have to explain what exactly is missing.

And they can't do that with stolen goods.

Oh, this is the life for me.

I went around the building and used the alleyways to make my way back to the inn, greeting the innkeeper cheerfully and going back upstairs.

Poor man looked so confused.

I think we have that effect on people.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn." - Delmore Schwartz


Chapter 32: Connections

I burst out of the bushes like a hell hound was nipping at my heels, determined to catch the little sh*t before it reached the camp I'd made earlier that morning.

"Yunru!" I yelled," You stop right there!"

Yunru, the year old sable ignored me and kept running with the bird I'd shot down in her mouth.

"Yunru!" I yelled again," Goddammit! YUNRU!"

It jumps over a short log and enters the camp and goes down her little burrow she had dug for herself.

I slid to a stop just before my tent and slap my knee.

"Goddammit, you always do this, Yunru!" I grouch at her little burrow.

How fast kids grow to get up to mischief.

I swear that's all your influence.

May I remind you, you're the one who wanted to keep her, I told you not to.

Urgh.

I pull the string of birds I'd caught and sit down by the fire-pit, unlit at the moment, to pluck the feathers off and get the meat ready to cook.

Donkey is munching away at a bail of hay, and ignoring the injustice heaved upon me.

A whole year had gone by, almost like in the blink of an eye, it was Spring again and Yunru, the little sable kit I'd saved from that looter's hideout, was eager to explore the land now that the snow and ice were gone.

A lot had changed in a year, and a lot had stayed the same.

I opened my Player Menu.

[ Name: Wei Ying, WuXian Age: 6
Title: None Level: 53
Class: Archer Fatigue: 6

Stats: 0 Points Available;
Intelligence: 66 Stealth: 66
Strength: 70 Charisma: 68
Agility: 71 Senses: 72
Stamina: 73 Luck: 70

Skills:
+Martial
+Social
+Scholar
+Arts
+Mundane

Equipment:
Hunter Robes
Hunter Boots
Leather arm-guard(left)
Leather arm-guard(right)

Weapon:
Dagger [Xiaodan]
Dagger [Xiaotong]
Short Sword [Liling]
Talisman (25)
Maple Bow (30) ]

Once I'd left Qinghe I stayed a long time traveling the north, and then I went back down to Lanling and finished what I had to do there before losing myself in night-hunting during the warmer months before secluding myself during the colder months.

I spend a lot of time in individual villages, getting to know the better better, helping around in workshops and learning first-hand how the common people lived.

Why, I'd do such a thing?

I came to a realization half way through last year that this time I had for myself was the perfect time to create connections to the people whose opinions condemned Wei WuXian.

If the people didn't fear the Yiling Patriarch, if they saw him as a comrade, a person who understood their struggles and had walked with them down the dusty rural streets, helped them with the most menial tasks then... Then, they'd remember Wei WuXian that odd child that used to travel and not Wei WuXian, a Devil wearing human skin.

So, I'd taken a break from Quests and night-hunting at large and focused only on the people.

Of course, I'd kept my correspondence with Bai ShouShan, Lan XiChen and Yan MingXia, I had even managed to visit Bai ShouShan the last time I passed through Gusu. And was cheeky enough to send Lan XiChen a sketch of the gates of the GusuLan Sect. It wouldn't endear me with them, because I was sure at least one person was tearing their hair out looking for me.

Even after I sent another letter saying that 'hey, still alive, I'm okay, you can stop now, seriously' to Yunmeng. Just as the first, it didn't work.

I was half convinced that the first YunmengJiang disciple that saw me would tackle me to the ground and start screaming about having found the Holy Grail.

So, that's what I'd been doing for the last twelve months. Making friends.

I could say I was being successful, although it carried the setback of being constantly harassed by smaller sects and clans to join them and being given gifts in order to grease my palms about accepting their offers.

It was annoying, so every so often I'd grab Donkey and Yunru and just travel straight through the wild. Camping and hunting for survival, with the Store filling in the gaps we couldn't procure in the wild.

As it was, I'd soon reach Qishan. I'd already started doing Quests around its territory, and crossed their borders more than once, but I really wanted to complete the Quests there and leave just as quickly.

Despite every other sect knowing that YunmengJiang had been looking to foster me for a year now, QishanWen had one day released a statement saying that they were also willing to take me in. That had ruffled a few feathers, rumors flying everywhere about how the last Discussion Conference was spend with wintry politeness between QishanWen and YunmengJiang.

I felt bad, initially, about worsening the relationship between the two Sects, and feared that the war would spark sooner, but after the panic and worrying passed I just felt rather pissed.

I wasn't an object to be owned. And if I put my foot down that no, I was not joining either of those Sects, frik them, I'd join Bai ShouShan and endure a lifetime of his smug countenance every time it was brought up.

I sighed, and lit the fire pit, the birds were all plucked and Yunru had already poked her head out of the burrow liking her lips and staring at the other two birds I had with me.

I gave her the stink eye," Don't even think about it, young lady, behave!" I scolded.

She squeaked and went back into her burrow.

Donkey snorted at me before going back to his food.

"Honestly, I feel so underappreciated right now," I grumble," I'm the one getting your food, where's my respect?"

Yunru will soon start hunting by herself and it's technically the System that gets Donkey his sweet straw.

No one asked you!


"Damn brat!" The man groaned on the ground, clutching his stomach.

"Why you're cursing at me for?" I ask him with a sigh," I warned you not to try and take my stuff, did you listen? No, you did not. What were you expecting?"

Seriously, it's like all common sense escaped people when they saw my weapons and thought I'd make an easy target.

If your 'easy target' has a freaking sword on his back and isn't afraid to warn you about attacking it, then it's clearly not an easy target!

On the bright side, you managed not to gut him.

Ardy-har...

There was a previous incident where a bandit tried to rob me and I chased him off, only for him to come back with more people. I ended up fighting them all off but stabbed one of them in the stomach before they'd gotten the message to 'get the hell away from me'.

The guy probably didn't make it, not with how much he was bleeding and the lack of access to medicine.

I sighed, and shook my head, no use thinking too hard on it. It wouldn't make a difference and only served to make me feel miserable.

I sheathed Liling and picked Donkey's lead back up. We were almost at the next Qishan territory village and the sun was going down. I heard there was a night-hunt open for rogue cultivators there so I wanted to get there before it started.

"C'mon, Donkey, get us there early and I'll bring out a pack of apples," I told him.

Donkey started trotting, and Yunru poked her head out of the saddle bag she'd taken to travel in.

"Yes, you can come with me night-hunting," I sighed.

She made a happy little noise and went back into the bag.

You're a total sucker for her.

Shush you.

Hypocrite, you tease Lan Zhan about liking bunny rabbits yet you let that fuzzy cloud get away with murder!

Technically she hasn't killed any prey yet, her hunting skills need work.

It's an expression.

Really? I had no idea.

Sarcasm? Oh, honey, really?

Learned from the best.

And don't you forget it.

Urgh.


Yunru hid in a small satchel I'd bought from a local store back in Qinghe, after I realized that I was totally keeping the little scrap of black fluffy fur, so she didn't have to deal with people's stares as we waited for the night-hunt to officially begin.

Being a night-hunt open for rogue cultivators, the prey wouldn't be something to brag about, but each participant got a small stipend of money for how much prey they took down.

Not that I was hurting for money after that looting treasure and the number of Quests/Night-Hunts I'd gone on. But I kind of needed an excuse to not need the extra money when no one else knew what I got up to whilst I wasn't night-hunting or helping at various workshops.

Even so... The stares weren't worth it.

I sighed, and leaned back on the tree I was standing in front of, pointedly ignoring the not so subtle whispering going around about who I was, who was looking for me and, my personal favorite, not gonna lie, how absurdly young I was.

True, I had shot up slightly in the last year, I could possibly pass for a seven year old and not a six year old, but I was nowhere near the 'expected' age for night-hunting unsupervised.

"Hey..." A young looking man came over to me," You're... Wei WuXian, right?"

I stifle the reply of,' Well, yeah, are there any other small children night-hunting trying to steal my style?', and simply smile up at the guy.

"Yup! And you are?" I ask him, just to be polite.

"Oh! My name is Kang Shu!" He hurriedly gives me a polite little bow.

Don't tell me you have fanboys.

...I like him.

Of course you would.

"So, Kang Shu," I give him a bow back," What can I do for you?" I ask him.

He perks up and starts... babbling. For a lack of a better word.

...He's like a chinese version of Peter Parker.

Does that make you Tony Stark?

Definitely a pioneer of a new Era!

Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

I grin up at the young man, who's excitedly recounting some of my known encounters with spiritual beasts that the world at large know about, and start chuckling when he gets to the part of be fighting that six foot bear in Lanling all that time ago.

"Do people still remember that?" I can't help but ask," It was so long ago."

Kang Shu gives me a wide-eyed stare," How could anyone forget?! The city still talks about it! There's a sign near the forest and everything!"

I blink, hadn't really passed through the Lanling City properly, too close to the Jin Hive to sleep comfortably, so I hadn't known about that.

"...You're joking," I yelp," Please tell me you're joking."

Kang Shu eagerly shakes his head," No, no, no! There really is a sign there, talking about the beast and the one who took it down! With a wooden stake through the neck!"

"It was a bow," I correct him," I vaguely remember my bow broke so I just stabbed him in the neck with it."

He blinks before his eyes start sparkling," Wow! That makes it even more awesome!"

God, kill me now.

He's totally a fanboy.

I sigh," So, you know all about me," I stop his babbling right there," Did you come over just to tell me that?"

Kang Shu quickly shakes his head," I wanted to ask you something!"

"Oh?" I tilt my head to the side," What is it?"

"I wanted to ask how you can sneak up on beasts, especially when they're super easy to startle and easily spot you!" He tells me.

"Scent, mostly," I answer him," Get rid of your scent, don't stand against the wind currents, and move with the forest and not through it."

Kang Shu blinks owlishly at me," Huh?"

I sigh and give him a gentler smile," Beasts, all of them, have great survival instincts. They were animals before they became beasts so it's only natural for them to be aware of their surroundings. What many cultivators do when tramping about their territory is letting them know where exactly they are, so the beasts run away or hide, making it harder for the cultivators to find them." I start explaining to him.

"Now, instead of letting them know where you are, you 'hide' in the forest and let them stumble upon you by accident, they'll be caught off guard. They weren't expecting to see you there, so they panic. That's the best moment you have to catch them." I tell him.

He genuinely looks like he's about to start taking notes.

"How do you 'hide' in a forest while you're hunting?" He asks.

"First off, mask your scent. You smell human, you either smell delicious to them, or you smell threatening," I tick off a finger," Secondly, feel the wind. The wind will carry your scent, letting anything downwind know what is there, even if you mask it, the wind will probably give you away. Thirdly, you've got to be smart when walking through the forest."

"Be smart?" He frowns.

"Don't step on twigs or dry leaves, walk stealthily and keep low to the ground. Don't leave footprints behind," I make suggestions," The bigger and heavier you are, the harder it is not to do that, whereas I don't really have that problem," The perks of being tiny.

"That makes sense," Kang Shu nods," You're really a genius, Wei-gongzi!"

Urk.

Oh, god, he said it. HA!

Why must people address me like that?!

Your Peter Parker is calling you Young Master Wei!

Stop laughing!

NEVER!

It is not funny!

It is! Especially since there's no escaping it once you get to YunmengJiang!

Don't remind me. There's not much time left before I have to travel South to complete the Quests in Yunmeng Territory.

You'll get spotted immediately.

I'll do my very best not to be.

You're very best is crap.

It is not!

You have shitty luck.

It's improving!

So you like to believe.

It is!

Hope springs eternal.

You're impossible.

I quickly turn my attention back on Kang Shu before it starts rambling again.

"Do you want to join me on this night-hunt? I can show you a few tricks?" I offer him.

I swear he went starry eyed at my words.

How is this my life?

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit." - R. E. Shay


Chapter 33: Luck

Qishan brought back memories.

I probably didn't help matters by being sentimental and getting a room in the same inn where we'd stayed that eventful night. Not the same room, I couldn't exactly specify which room I wanted, but what mattered was the location.

It shouldn't matter at all.

Hush.

Yunru was exploring every nook and cranny in the room, as she was prone to do in every inn we stayed at, so I kicked off my boots and laid down on the bed, staring at the ceiling.

It always felt weird visiting places I'd been to before with my parents before.

It feels weird because you make it weird. They're just places.

They carry memories. I ride down a road with Donkey and I remember that same road from a memory of sitting a top ChangZe's shoulders. Or having my head resting against CangSe and her voice lulling me to sleep.

Those memories mattered. I wanted them to matter. I wanted to remember what they looked like. What they sounded like.

I didn't want to forget the only parents I could reminisce fondly about.

You won't.

I always fear I will. One day, I'll wake up and they'll be gone. Their faces, voices, and lessons will just... fade away.

They won't. I won't let them. Even if you forget, I'll remind you of them.

I smile sadly at the ceiling.

I wonder what they would think of us now? Would they be proud?

CangSe would be, grumbling about how you're her son alright, getting into this much trouble.

She would. And then say her Shizun would be laughing herself silly if she ever saw us.

ChangZe would admire your skills, and be smugly gloating of how you took to hunting like a duck to water.

True. And he'd inevitably annoy CangSe and then moan about it, calling me to help him man-to-man solidarity or something.

And you'd just smile sweetly at him and go cuddle with CangSe.

Totally.

I laugh, and put my arm over my eyes as they tear up.

It hurts.

I miss them.

I really, really missed them.

It's okay to miss them. To grieve for them. What you must not do-...

Stay still. I know.

I take a deep breath and rub the tears away from my eyes.

I have to keep moving.

I have to get to that mountain.

I promise. I promise. I promise.


This was getting ridiculous.

I've told you countless times already, you have shitty luck.

I keep upping the damn Luck Stat?! Where is all that good luck going towards?!

Maybe this is your good luck...

Then what would my bad luck be?

The possibilities of running into Jin GuangShan, Su She, Wen Chao or Jiang FengMian at an inopportune time come to mind.

...Yeah, things could be worse.

A lot, lot worse.

"Who are you?" The nine year old girl with her hair tied in two buns, both having red flaming hair-clips with dangling tassels.

Her voice sounded slightly snobbish, the cadence and tone of voice she used made it seem like she thought herself better than me, but I was sure it was just a side-effect of her upbringing.

Because this girl was wearing the white, red flame-patterned robes of the Wen Sect.

And I knew her.

Or, better yet, would know her.

"I'm Wei Ying," I smile up at her," Sorry, for bumping into you."

I should've been watching where I was going. Goddammit, that Jin kid should've taught me my lesson about running full speed ahead and not paying attention to any passersby suddenly turning the corner.

I really, really should've expected to run into someone like this.

"You should be more careful," She scolds me.

Her big sister instincts are on point, aren't they.

No wonders.

I smile brightly at her," I will, Sister! I'm really sorry!" I apologize again.

This was Wen Qing.

She huffs at my response, obviously some other clumsy kid would frequently tell her the same, and she did not believe me one bit.

Gee, I wonder who tells her that.

I smother a rueful grin.

I really wanted to meet Wen Ning.

You'd scare the poor kid out of his wits.

I would not.

You totally would.

I would be very careful with my cinnamon roll!

"Young Mistress Wen," A servant woman came over, frowning severely at the dirt that had gotten into Wen Qing's dressed when I barreled into her and knocked her down.

I really had to stop doing that.

"It's fine, A-Ru," Wen Qing tells her," This boy was just leaving."

"That boy...-!" The servant hisses," A-Cao will see to him, Young Mistress."

Wen Qing turns to the servant to say something, eyes flashing with something I missed because... Well...

Because another servant quickly grabbed me from behind and lifted me up by the back of my robes.

The hell?

"Hey! What'd I do?" I asked flailing in the air.

"A street urchin like you shouldn't speak so casually to its better!" The female servant, A-Ru, hissed," Look at what you've done to the Young Mistress's clothing!"

"I apologized!" I pointed," What else do ya' want? For me to buy her another robe?"

"Silence!" The servant hisses again," Such insolence! A-Cao, dear, two lashes for the robes, three for the back-talking," She tells the male servant.

What?!

Of freaking course you end up like this again.

The hell?!

Don't make things worse! Remember last time!

I bite my tongue.

Wen Qing looks up at me with a frozen expression.

Her eyes can't quite contain the shock and fear in them.

She didn't want this to happen.

Argh...

I sigh.

Goddammit.

I hoped this wouldn't scar her or make her feel too bad. Poor girl...

Wens are different beasts than the Jins. Don't fan the flames just yet.

I know.

Be calm.

I am calm. Five lashes, what's that? I've handled worse.

You have, but in all those you fought back. You can't fight back now.

I grit my teeth as the servant tosses me to the ground and puts his feet on my lower back, keeping me down.

Bow.

I know!

Don't fight back.

I know already!

The first lash cuts across my back and I grunt, silently thankful I left Yunru and Donkey back at the inn.

The second lash comes just as quickly, and I twitch, eager to get to my feet before the third lash comes down.

Bow!

I stay on the ground, limbs forcibly frozen in place, and head down.

I couldn't let them see my eyes, shining flame bright with intent.

The third and fourth lash come and go, and I take a quick deep breath, before the fifth, and final, lash cuts across my back.

The servant takes his foot off of my back and there's a whisper in my ear about pulling my daggers out and stabbing him with them.

I silence it.

I stay on the floor and hear them walking away. Once I know they won't see me I get up and brush away the dirt off of my clothing. I can feel blood spilling down from my back, though I am certain the whip did not cut through the fabric, but I ignore it.

When some other kid comes by from across the alley, ugly smirk on his face, to gloat at me, I look him in the eyes and grin back at him.

He goes pale white and turns back around in a single motion.

"Intimidation Skill leveled up!"

Don't poke with the sleeping dragon.

Don't stir up the hornets nest.

Don't mess with me.

You won't win.

I look up at the sky, azure blue and clear, and I take a deep breath.

Temper the anger, the fury, the rage. Temper it down to a fine blade. Hold it tight in your hand, even if it bleeds. But never let it control you.

Be the beast, don't let the beast consume you.

Be better.

Stronger.

Cleverer.

Kinder.

Be Wei Ying, courtesy WuXian.

The King on the Mountain.


I wonder if Wen Ruohan even knew what I looked like when he made the announcement that the Wen Sect was also willing to foster 'Wei Ying' or he'd just made the announcement to screw with the other Sects.

Because those servants obviously didn't know who they were whipping, and now that I thought about it, Wen Qing hadn't reacted to my name either. But the minute I joined a night-hunt and Wen disciples spotted me I was instantly bombarded with Wen Sect propaganda and how I just had to join them.

I politely refused and did my best to stay away from them whenever they tried to join me on my hunts, but it was growing very annoying.

I'd already dodged out of three parties of Wen disciples just 'casually' roaming the streets where I'd walked through earlier.

Obviously, someone was snitching on me and I needed to take measures against it.

So... Back to sleeping on stables?

To hell with stables, I was camping outside!

I huffed, slipping underneath a fallen log and quieting my breathing. Two Wen disciples jumped over the log and kept walking, muttering about the 'sneaky little bastard' and how 'they would be the ones to bring him in'.

Uh, hello? My parents were married when they had me, and secondly, boy, you better watch who you talkin' 'bout, I'll put you through the ringer.

On the bright side, your skills are coming in nicely.

I gave them a once over, the Archery Skill and my Throwing Skill were nearly maxed out. Foraging was also coming along nicely, with Knife-Handling close behind. I'd hit a bump on the Spiritual, Meditation, Investigation and Talisman-Making Skills, which let me know I wouldn't be mastering those without a master.

But I'd maxed out Story-Telling, Painting and Swimming Skills, which was a good achievement in my book.

I rolled out from underneath the log, and ignored the notification that my Stealth stat had rose, and ran in the opposite direction the Wen disciples had gone in.

I couldn't wait to get out of Qishan and be done with the obnoxious brown nosers that thought they could fool me with flowery words.

Except after Qishan there's only Yunmeng left.

Urgh.

Out of the pan and into the pot.

Seriously, how is this my life?


I've said it once, I've said it one thousand times, and I'll say it one thousand more.

Please... Stop...

You have the shittiest luck.

I groan into my hands, quietly, from where I'm hiding up a tree.

I'd been spotted by the most inconvenient of opponents.

"I think I saw him heading this way!" A young boy pointed north from where he was standing below me.

I dared not make a sound.

"He's fast!" Another boy panted," I don't think the Young Master is that fast..."

"Well," A third one scratched his neck," We already knew this wasn't going to be easy."

All three groaned.

"And we almost had him too!" The second one moaned," Sect Leader would definitely be happy!"

No shit.

Stop...

The boys moved along and I took a second to pity the unlucky star I had been born under for all the crap heaped on me in a single lifetime.

On the bright side...

On the bright side it wasn't FengMian.

But, holy heck, why did it have to be his disciples!?

I had successfully dodged them for a year and a half, but suddenly they're everywhere and I can't escape their notice.

You are approaching Yunmeng territory, and they are getting smarter in cornering you.

Goddammit, I need to get out of here before they call their Big Boss.

No way can I outrun a Sect Leader.

Not without revealing a bunch of Stats and Talent, you're not!

Stop sounding so smug!

But this just proves I was right all along!

Shut it!

I climb down from the tree and hit the ground running.

I was grabbing Donkey and leaving right now.

Yunru poked her head out of the satchel I had with me, took one look at my face and legitimately sighed before going back inside, she wasn't coming out to play tonight.


"But you saw him?" Jiang FengMian tried not to sound too eager, and at the same time disappointed, in the face of the crestfallen disciples. They'd already gotten an earful from his Lady Wife about being outrunned and outsmarted by a six year old.

"Yes, sir," The disciples nodded," In Qishan southern borders, nearing Yunmeng."

"He's traveling south," Jiang FengMian smiled," Thank you, for bringing this information to me."

"He seems fine, sir," One of them speaks up, despite the other two trying to silence him," Healthy."

Jiang FengMian smiled kindly at him," He did?"

The disciple quickly nodded," The other cultivators there say he comes and goes without warning, but is polite and quite easy to get along with. They say he's very smart and knows a lot about beasts and spirits!"

Just like CangSe, I see.

Jiang FengMian chuckles softly," Well, thank you for telling me, you may go now."

The three disciples quickly file out of the meeting hall.

Madam Yu gets up from her seat and goes to leave.

"Are you worried?" He asks her.

Madam Yu pauses before turned back to him with a sneer.

"Why should I worry about a child that clearly doesn't care about its own safety?" She tells him.

Jiang FengMian smiles kindly at her and gets up," My Lady, your hands..." He gently points out.

Madam Yu looks down at her hands to find them clenched tightly around her arms.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Fear is a tyrant and a despot, more terrible than the rack, more potent than the snake." - Edgar Wallace


Chapter 34: Phobia

Thanks to being spotted by Yunmeng disciples, the amount of near-misses with Jiang FengMian had increased from 'a distant possibility' to 'I'm getting grey hairs from this crap'.

After the last near-miss, I'd called it quits and decided to focus only on Quests and stop night-hunting. I had enough money to survive well enough without it and it was the end of summer right now, so I didn't have to worry about getting drowned out in a monsoon wherever I decided to set camp.

Each and every time, I barely managed to skip town before Jiang FengMian arrived the very real threat that this Story Arc could finish early before I completed every last Quest on the map bubbled to the surface of my thoughts.

Hell no.

I was in this to win.

I was going to complete the Quests, and then I'd let myself be caught. Not a moment before.

In any case, I only had to stop by populated towns to complete the four Quests there and post the letters to my pen-pals. Otherwise, being out in the open country wasn't something I was unused to.

Yunru loved it at least.

She loves getting muddy, it's different.

You're just upset you're not as cute as she is.

Excuse me?! Why would I want to look like a rat?!

Yunru isn't a rat.

She's a Sable.

She's a ferret.

She's not a freaking ferret!

I look down at the grass where Yunru is rolling around in the mud.

She's totally a ferret.

Why do I bother arguing with you?

Because it amuses you.

Obviously, why else would I stick around for so long?

My good personality?

Darling, if someone ever tells you they love your personality, you can be sure they just want to jump you.

I laughed.

Walter liked my personality.

Case in point.

I laughed harder.


You'd think that after three months of me going under, someone would get the hint that obviously looking out for me wasn't the way to go when it came down to 'catching me'.

He's probably thinking you were kidnapped again and that's why they can't find you.

Who the hell would want to kidnap me?

The Wens?

They've been silent since I left Qishan territory, seriously, with how little news come out of that land you'd think they're all bookworms or lazy bones and not actively building an army to one day 'rule' all the other territories.

Maybe they're not building it yet?

...Nah, Wen Ruohan has to have thought of it already.

One doesn't simply wake up one day and go 'Let's conquer the world!'.

...I'm pretty sure someone has done that at least once in the world's history.

Why? Just imagine all the paperwork you'd have to take care of, looking after so many people.

Says the person who'll essentially raise a refugee camp.

The Wen Remnants were like... Twenty people. It's not like I'm going to be looking after one hundred people!

True. But people like Wen Ruohan usually have someone take care of the paperwork for them.

Yeah, Meng Yao, see how well that worked out for him.

Couldn't have happened to a better person.

I snickered as I rolled out my tent for the night.

I'd bought it from the Store, obviously, expecting it to be a 'last-case scenario' thing but I found it surprisingly comfortable to sleep in. And it was easily camouflageable so people wouldn't see it sticking out of the ground and go 'what the hell is that'.

It wasn't made of modern materials, the recipe to make these was actually purchasable in the Store, but the ingenuity of a tent like this wasn't yet discovered. Most looked like those indian tepees you'd see on movies, whilst this one was a small square tent with enough space to lie, spread-eagle, and still have room to maneuver in.

Maybe that's because it's suppose to house more than one short seven year old.

I roll my eyes, and keep setting the tent up.

Donkey was by the small river drinking water and Yunru...

Yunru was off somewhere.

I'd be more worried about her wandering off if she wasn't a wild animal and a speedy little sh*t when it came to getting out of trouble.

Takes after someone I know...

Gee, I wonder who?

After the tent was put up for the night, I string up my detection talismans as a perimeter around it and grab my bow from my pack.

If someone or something crossed over the threshold I would be warned and I'd be able to quickly run back to the tent.

I nearly called out for Yunru that we were going hunting before I remembered she'd already went ahead of me.

I sighed.

Feeling left out that your little girl didn't wait for you?

I rolled my eyes and hoisted my bow up on my shoulders, it wasn't worth the reply.

I had dinner to catch.


You know... If I were a real seven year old, this would be terrifying.

A pack of growling dogs snarled at me, drool dripping down from the corner of their mouths and eyes intent on the meat bun I had in my hands.

But if you're not a real seven year old?

This is ridiculous.

I through them the meat bun and pull another out of my inventory.

The dogs dive for the thrown meat bun eagerly before growing confused at the new one I'm holding.

I shrug at them and bite into the bun. Turning around to keep walking.

The dogs start snarling at me again.

I pause my steps.

The dogs are filthy, but they aren't skinny, they don't have a lot of fur, but they surely ain't begging for food.

More than one had a collar, or what passed off for a collar, and I just knew that these dogs were used to getting snacks from street urchins who couldn't protect their meals from them.

Their owners conditioning, I'm sure.

I slowly look over my shoulder and give the dogs a chilling glare.

The temperature around the alleyway drops.

The dogs stop snarling and slowly curl into themselves.

"Intimidation Skill leveled up!"

I thought so.

I look away from them and go on my merry way.

"Checkpoint Finished!"

I barely glance at the words, bringing up the Timeline.

Already, we were at the very last stretch of black string before the Story Arc was over, one last knot waiting to be unraveled.

The knot I'd just undone had dogs turning tail and fleeing from a miniature caricature of the Yiling Patriarch and I smiled as I bit into the bun.

That was funny.

The other knots had all been attacks from other children, bandits or the odd occurrence of having to flee 'friendly' civilians. I'd much prefer the checkpoints to have been the sighs of my travels but I had to understand the fact that canon!WWX hadn't gone gallivanting through the countryside like I had.

And the events followed canon.

I sighed through my nose and chewed.

There really wasn't much left to do, I'd pretty much done everything I could and couldn't do.

A sudden strike of light made me look up.

What?

The sound of thunder rings out soon afterwards.

Wow, that's loud.

And then it starts pouring rain.

...Shitty luck, I know, don't even start.

Glad you acknowledge it.

I send the bun back into the inventory and go search for shelter from the rain. Donkey was already at the stable but I had Yunru with me in the satchel, and I had conveniently left the rainproof cloak in my pack, believing it wouldn't be needed since rainstorms weren't common this time of year.

Serves me right for assuming it wouldn't come bite me in the arse.

I quickly made my way across various Stores that had canopies over their goods, dodging crowds of people seeking similar shelter and made my way back to the inn.

It wasn't very far from where I was but I really didn't want to end up soaking wet from running there.

Maybe wait it out?

The thunder grew louder and I paused briefly to count the seconds it took for the sound to catch up to the light.

Damn, this storm was close.

I didn't want to risk it, running out in the open.

Between the thunder and the lightning I hear a weird sound, and turn to see a man sprawled out near the back of a building.

The hell?

I carefully step out of the canopy I was under and go check out if the man needs help.

Just my luck if the guy is injured and I need to go look for a medic in stormy weather.

He doesn't seem injured.

"Hey, mister! You gotta get out of the storm, it ain't safe!" I tell him.

Still the man doesn't reply, only stays sprawled in the ground making weird noise-like grunts.

The utter hell?

I shiver at the cold rain soaking my robes and step closer to him, determined to get the guy to either get up and go take shelter somewhere or see if he really isn't injured.

"Mister! You need to get out of the storm," I tell him, loudly," Are you listening to me? Sir? You need-" I touch his shoulder and the guy suddenly rolls over, a wild, wild look in his eyes and throws himself at me.

What the fu-...!

I jump back and my feet trip over something and I fall backwards. Into. A. Cellar.

I hit my head hard on the ground and see stars. It hurts.

I try to get up but everything goes white with spots and my head sways. I stay down. Through my darkening vision I see the man, still wild eyed and stupid, grab the cellar door and close it.

It snaps shut with a heavy thump.

I blackout.


When I come to, I can still hear the storm outside, as fierce and loud as ever, so I couldn't have been unconscious for long.

It's pitch black in the cellar.

I sit up and take a deep breath, already my heart-rate spiked over that last thought.

I hear Yunru messing with something to my far left, but I can't see her.

I close my eyes and dive into my subconscious with some difficulty, my heart-rate just didn't seem to want to calm itself down, but I managed to do it and channel the ball of energy into sensing my surroundings.

Although blind in the darkness I could at least 'see' minimally where I was and what I had with me.

I get up and go check out what Yunru is doing.

"What have you got there?" I crouch down beside her and tug at what she's chewing on. It's a piece of cloth, I pull it down and see that it covered something made of wood.

There's a very small opening at the top of the cellar wall, a hole honestly speaking, above a chest of drawers.

At least it provides some light in here.

Rain pours from the outside into the cellar, Yunru's fur is already wet, I pick her up and walk over to the cellar door.

"We have to get out of her, Yunru, this isn't the time for games," I tell her.

She looks at me confused and nuzzles my chest.

Of course she can hear my spiking heart-rate.

I give her a weak smile and walk up the stairs of the cellar and push the door open.

Except it doesn't open.

Water droplets fall on my face through the cracks on the wood, but the door itself is shut close.

It won't open.

I push it and shove it and even try to kick it.

But it won't open.

It's locked.

L O C K E D

I take a shuddering breath and can feel the static fill my head.

Stay calm.

I can't.

I slam my hands hard on the wood but it won't move.

I T ' S L O C K E D

"Open!" I hit it, Yunru jumps down from the satchel and starts running in circles around my feet, squeaking.

I hit the door again and again.

I T W O N ' T O P E N

"Let me out!" I scream.

'Let me out, Mummy! Please, let me out!'

Stop this. Stop panicking. Breathe!

'I promise, Mummy! I promise I won't do it again! Let me out!'

Stop! Don't go back there! Stop!

I... I... I can't...

Yes you can! Stop this!

'Mummy!'

I T ' S L O C K E D

The storm only grows louder outside. No matter how much I scream, my voice is muffled by the rain and thunder.

Breathe! You can do this! Don't go back! Breathe!

I can't... Help... Help me... Ike!

Reality splinters.


I remember my mother having people build a room just for me.

A special place she had told me, where you can go when you need to think.

I liked the sound of that. My very own room.

I asked, if the nursery didn't count. I was the only one still sleeping in the nursery, after all.

Mother told me it wasn't the same. One day, I'd move out of the nursery and into my private room, once I was a big girl, and the nursery would be for any baby brother or sister I'd have by then.

This room, she said, would only ever be mine, even when I was still little.

I'd laughed, I really liked the sound of that. Having this room for myself sounded fun.

It wasn't fun.

I didn't like this room.

I wanted to get out.

"Mummy!" I cried, hitting the white covered door with my hands," Mummy let me out!"

She never did. Not when I cried and called for her.

She always told me she didn't hear me call for her. She always said I was only in there for an hour, to think on what I'd done. She always said it was my fault I got sent into the room.

I never believed her.

I never understood her.

I hated her.

But then she'd open the door, after I'd spend so long crying and wailing and scratching at the walls, and hug me tight. I'd feel safe.

'It's over now', I'd think,' It's over now and Mummy won't lock me in here again.'

But she would. Over and over and over again. She'd always lock me in the white room.

It didn't matter if I cried.

It didn't matter if I screamed.

It didn't matter if I got sick on the floor.

It didn't matter if I got hurt.

It didn't matter if I got so scared that I couldn't stop shivering.

It didn't matter.

I always got locked in the white room.

And no one ever came to save me. Not really.

Not meaning to save me.

It was just a brief reprieve from the torture that the white room presented.

I always got locked in the white room.

"Please..." I cried, curled into a ball in a corner of the room," Please, I don't want to be here... I don't want to be alone."

Don't cry.

The Voice speaks. I look up to see a crouching figure in front of me, colorful and bright, as if someone had tried to fit all the colors of the rainbow into a single person.

I'm here.

"You are?" I croaked out, throat raw and hurting," You won't leave me?"

The figure smiled.

Never. We're friends for life, you and I.

'Finally', I though,' Someone has come to save me.'

And I felt safe.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Some choices we live not only once but a thousand times over, remembering them for the rest of our lives." - Richard Bach


Chapter 35: Not Over Yet

Yunru got me out.

When I fell to the floor screaming, lost to the terror that hid inside my mind, she climbed over the chest of drawers and out of the hole on the wall.

I don't know what she did, can't find it in myself to think back on that day and try to piece together the events that followed after I got sucked back into those memories, but she got me out.

That was months ago.

I kind of shakily got Donkey and quickly got the hell away from the town. Went to hide away in an open field, standing under the rain not caring if I got sick or hit by lightning.

At least, I though, if I am drenched in cold water, I might have an excuse as to why I won't stop shaking.

The first few weeks after that were hard.

No, let me reiterate, they were absolute crap.

I didn't feel like eating. I didn't feel like moving. I didn't feel like living.

I just wanted to curl up somewhere and sleep.

Yunru quickly nip those thoughts in the bud.

Ike was silent.

He usually was, whenever something like this happened. In his own words, he was 'patching up' the leak that led to those memories coming out of the deep and dark hole we'd buried them under.

He'd be back soon, and I'd feel better then.

Friends for life, he and I.

After those days I slowly got back into the rhythm of things. Quests to complete and miles to travel. The sights of Yunmeng were pretty, the land was mostly lakes and watery lands but they were indeed beautiful.

Sometimes I let Donkey be the one to pick out route, as long as we left the main city of Yunmeng as the last stop before moving on to Yiling, I didn't care which town we stopped by.

I just lazily sat on the back of Donkey and watched the scenery as we rode by.

I slowly got back into feeling like myself.

The person I had been before. The scared little girl locked in a white room. The old woman dying in a hospital bed.

They were gone.

They weren't me.

I was Wei Ying, courtesy name WuXian, the son of CangSe Sanren and Wei ChangZe, the future Yiling Patriarch.

That was who I was.

The man who would conquer a mountain.

I breathed in deeply.

I was alive.


There were three placed to hit before Arc II could officially end. I was at the first one of those places.

Yunping City.

Reasonably close to Yunmeng, this city housed so secrets or conspiracies.

Or at least... Not yet.

There was no GuanYin temple build here yet, where such temple would be, I observed from a distance, was a brothel.

This was were Meng Yao, who would one day be called Jin GuangYao, LianFang-Zun, was being raised by his mother after failing to be taken in by his father the world-renowned Jin GuangShan.

I wasn't sure what I was doing here, having already finished the Quests that had to be done, I should be moving on to Yunmeng city proper. Yet I found myself drawn here.

This was the place where the man who'd orchestrate my future demise was living in.

The man who'd orchestrated the deaths of everyone who stood in his way, who dared to try and bring his crimes to justice, and was, in the end, killed by the one person he'd genuinely cared about.

And for what?

A lifetime of ambition intersected by the continuous humiliation and mutters about being a 'prostitute's son', being robbed of everything worthwhile in life by a sorry-excuse of a human being that shouldn't have the right to breathe.

I pitied him.

But I knew Meng Yao would never want for pity.

He was smart. And cunning. And dangerous.

Pity him, and you'd be blinded by the careful mask he'd place over his features, pity him, and you'd never see the knife he'd use to stab you in the back.

Maybe I was being too harsh on him. I don't know. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to feel about him.

Anger? Hate? Resentment? Sympathy?

I don't know. Honestly I didn't like thinking about him too much. When my anger and hate needed a target to be unleashed upon, Wen Ruohan, Wen Chao, and Jin GuangShan were much easier targets to point fingers at.

Maybe that was what made Meng Yao such an interesting character. He was the antagonist of the story, or one of the antagonists of the story, but he was someone that you never suspected. He really was the perfect person to become a spy, the perfect person to plot and scheme and not be caught, the perfect person you'd love to have as a friend and hate to have as an enemy.

Yet Meng Yao was someone no one could ever hope to use for their own means without reprisals.

The Nie Commander tried that. He died.

Wen Ruohan used him as a pawn. He died.

Jin GuangShan thought him less than you'd do a dog. He died.

Meng Yao could not be used by others. He lived to please an ideal that would never care for him in the same way.

It was a saddening thought.

The door of the brothel opened and a boy slightly younger than me came out, wearing patched robes. He was small, as small as I'd been when I was four, and he looked like a strong wind could blow him over.

It tugged at my heartstrings.

Well... What's one more thing to add to my list of stupid decisions?

I scampered out of the alley and when I knew no one would see me I opened the Store. In the [Gifts] Section I got a pair of brand new robes, made of yellow cloth, and wrapped them in simple cloth from my inventory.

I followed after the boy, not surprised that he started walking faster when he noticed me following him.

But I quickly caught up with him.

His dark eyes were wary and bore no recognition of my face. Good.

I smiled at him and crouched so I wouldn't loom over the smaller boy, I showed him the cloth package.

"For you, they were mine, but I grew too big for them," I tell him," You can have them, if you want."

He slowly took the package and unwrapped it, eyes growing wide when he sees the contents.

"I can't take this!" He tells me," It must've cost a fortune!"

It really hadn't.

"They're too small for me," I ruefully smile," I don't have any little brothers or sisters to give it away to, so when I saw you walking down the street I thought you'd need them more than my pack." I laughed," It's okay to have them."

He clutched the package tightly to him, and gave me a shy smile back.

"Thank you," He said.

I smiled at him and got up, as I did his eyes caught on Xiaodan at my waist.

"You have a knife?" He blinks.

I look at him and slowly drew it, not wanting to scare him, and show him the blade," A friend of mine gave it to him, I use it on night-hunts," I told him.

He quickly looks up, amazed," You're a cultivator?!" He squeaks, and then covers his mouth, embarrassed at his outburst.

Or afraid.

I give him a gentle smile and nod," I am," I tell him," Do you want to be a cultivator too?" I ask him.

He nods, shyly, and I hum," Do you want me to give you a few tips?" I ask him.

He looks up again, eyes shining, like his dream as come true.

Maybe it has.

"Here," I take a hold of his hand, gently, and press two fingers to his pulse point,"Can you feel that?" I ask him as I channel my energy into him.

He frowns, having some difficulty, but then slowly nods, a look of wonderment taking over his expression.

"That's my Spiritual Energy," I tell him," What I'm going to do is focus that energy on one spot in your navel, alright?" I explain it to him slowly.

I wait for him to nod.

"When you meditate, you should keep your breathing relaxed and then focus on that exact spot. When you do, you have to think of a cup, a cup as big or as small as you'd like," I say," And then imagine yourself filling that cup with the world around you."

He frowns," The world around me?" He questions.

"Energy comes from the world," I explain," And once we are gone, we too become energy also, to grow strong you take in the energy the world has to give, and you make it your own."

His eyes shine bright," That makes sense. Why doesn't the book Mother bought me explain it that way?" He asks.

I slowly withdraw my hand and frown," I don't think there are any books that really explain how to cultivate," I tell him," Cultivating takes a long, long time to bear fruit, but if you work hard, I'm sure you can become a great cultivator," I smile at him.

He stiffens up his upper lip, looking as if he's about to cry.

My heart, oh my bloody bleeding heart!

I pat him on the head and smile," Don't cry, what I'm telling you it's true, I do think you have what it takes to become a great cultivator!"

"Really?" He asks, voice so quiet I almost didn't hear him," You mean it?"

My smile turns fond," I mean it, I wouldn't tell a lie about this."

He nods, and looks down again, clutching at the cloth package.

I go to leave when his next words make me freeze.

"Mother is sick," He sobs," She's really, really sick." He sounds so scared.

Oh. Oh, that's right... His mother dies when he's still young, doesn't she?

What would it change? Would it change anything at all? Would it make a difference?

Inevitable.

But it's always worth a try.

"Sick?" I ask," Does she have medicine?" I ask him.

He shakes his head 'no' and cries.

"Alright, then," I tell him," Do you know what her symptoms are? How sick she is?" I ask him.

He looks up at me and nods," Then we'll go to the pharmacy, and I'll by her medicine for you," I smile.

His eyes go wide as saucers," Why?" His voice breaks.

My smile turns sad," Because my mom and dad died when I was as little as you," I confide in him," And I wouldn't want another boy to go through that pain. So, let me help you, please?"

His mouth drops open but then he closes it firmly. He nods, tears in his eyes, and thanks me.

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

Somehow, those words sounded like prayers to me.

I knew that the day would come when this small boy walking next to me, clutching my hand like a lifeline, would turn against me in order to reach his ambitions.

I knew that one day he'd make choices I would not be able to forgive, nor forget, and that I'd have to stand against him.

But, I decided, until that day came, if I could do one thing to help him reach his dreams with just one drop of blood or sweat less, it would be worth it.

Everyone deserves a second chance. Sometimes, some even deserve a third chance. I couldn't judge the sinner before he committed the sin.

Maybe... Maybe I could change more than just my future for the better.

Maybe this boy, carrying a too heavy load on his shoulders, could have his own happy ending.

Hope springs eternal.


Yunmeng, the city I'd live in for years until the war, was lively and loud and full of interesting scents. Spices lay heavily in the air, which was to be expected when it hosted one of the largest markets I'd ever seen in this world. When we'd passed her, years ago, I'd been more interested in potentially meeting Jiang FengMian than to observe the sights around me.

Now, when I knew that this would become my home, I was slowly taking it in.

But I mustn't linger. All it took was one person blowing the horn about me being in Yunmeng and I'd be surrounded and taken to the Sect Leader before I could say 'Nope'.

I think I hadn't sneakily done Quests since I'd entered Qishan or Lanling, it was a weird feeling sneaking around in broad daylight, carefully toeing around approaching groups of YunmengJiang disciples or generally anyone wearing purple.

"Young Mistress Jiang!" A vendor suddenly calls.

I freeze, mind screeching to a halt.

Oh, it couldn't be.

I slowly peak over my shoulder.

It could be.

Dark hair tied in braided buns, soft lilac colored robes and a gentle smile on her face.

That was Jiang YanLi.

Damn my luck is absolute crap!

I inwardly curse my unlucky stars before finding my eyes drawn back to her.

Like Jiang YanLi should be about nine years old, at this point in time, and she already looked like she's grow into a fine young lady.

This would become Wei WuXian's big sister, his adored Shijie, the mother of the little Jin Ling.

The woman who died trying to protect the man who accidentally killed her husband.

...

I seriously needed to stop doing that.

I sighed and watched her for a few more moments, see her shopping from a distance and keeping an ear out for her small talk. Buying groceries for cooking lessons, what new mess her brother got into now, and what she wanted to order for the next week.

I stayed there watching her until I couldn't reasonably explain doing so without sounding stupid.

I turned around and walked to where I'd left Donkey, resting under the shade of a tree. Yunru, who had gone exploring soon after I left to go do my Quests, was waiting for me curled up on top of my saddle.

I petted her, feeling her smooth fur under my fingers, so fluffy and soft as her namesake, and then turned to pet Donkey.

"One more stop, guys," I told them," And then we're not traveling for a while," I said.

I couldn't exactly keep my voice from breaking.

Donkey turned to give me a look, and I smiled wobble back at him.

"It's alright, old buddy, it's just something we'll have to grow used to," I answer him.

Yunru squeaks and jumps onto my shoulders, nuzzling my cheek as she had gotten used to doing.

A comforting gesture.

"I'm fine, guys, really," I smile at them," It's just... It's been a while since I had a home. And Donkey, you'll have your own stable and endless opportunities to gloat about your travels," I chuckle," One more stop."

One more stop and this journey would be over.

One more stop.

And then the real fun begins.

My eyes teared up as warmth burst in my chest.

I could breathe again, as if a weight had been lifted off my chest, and I smiled.

Welcome back.

I never left.

No, you never did.

Friends for life, you and I.

Friends for life.

So, where are we off to?

Yiling.

I looked towards the river. Beyond it would lie a quiet little town, nothing very exciting ever happened around those parts, but that quaint little town hold a secret.

A very dark, troubling secret.

The Burial Mounds.

My mountain.

I smiled at the distant horizon.

Our final stop.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"I must let go of the life I've planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for me." - Kumar Anupam


Chapter 36: I'll be back

The sun was setting when we reached Yiling. The citizens were starting to light their lanterns and taverns started to get rowdy, I found an inn for the night and went up to the room to look out the window.

I felt a connection to this town, even when I had first passed it by with my parents. I knew, in my heart, that this would be the place where I would live, one day, and change my future. With the darkening sky and the buildings I could only vaguely make out the mountain shrouded in resentful clouds off in the distance.

The Burial Mounds.

My mountain.

I reached my hand out of the window, seeing the vague outline of the mountain between my fingers, and smiled.

One day, it would be mine.

Yunru squeaked and curled around my shoulders, nuzzling my cheek.

"Over there, Yunru," I told her," That's where we'll go, one day."

She looked out the window to where I was pointed, and her fur kind of stood on end.

I chuckled.

"It's scary now, but don't worry..." I told her, scratching her head," We'll make it a better place."

A safe place.

A safe haven.

A harbor.

A home.

One day.

One day.

I promise you, I will build my mountain better and kinder than any other mountain in this world.

I will make you proud.

Watch over me, guide me, stay with me.

I promise, I will do it.

I will. I will. I will.


Time was ticking, I knew that, but I couldn't bring myself to hurry to finish the Quests available. Only four little bubbles remained on the map, and I thought on how empty it made the map seem, compared to the hundreds of bubbles there had been before.

I just prayed to a lucky star to keep me from being found until I completed the Quests.

But I couldn't bring myself to hurry. I wanted to take my time, each step in Yiling made the world seem so much brighter, the air lighter and cooler, life more... complete.

In my heart, I knew I was already a part of this town. And the people in it were already a part of me.

I loved it.

I loved Yiling.

My mountain.

Yes, my mountain.

A thought buzzed in the back of my mind.

Could I?

You probably can't.

No harm in trying.

I walk up to the path that leads to the Burial Mounds, it's a somewhat steep climb, easily explaining canon!Wei WuXian using Wen Ning to pull the cart full of groceries up the hill, but I've climbed mountains covered in snow and ice. This was nothing.

And it's not like you need to pull a cart full of stuff up the hill, just send the cart to the inventory and pull it out once you're up there.

I grin.

Loophole abuse.

As long as it's not living, everything goes.

What a terrible example you are, Ike, I love it.

After some walking I come across a boundary line.

I touch the invisible barrier preventing me to cross over the threshold.

"Player has not yet Unlocked this Area"

I sighed, put out.

It was to be expected, the System did warn you it wouldn't let you anywhere near Demonic Cultivation.

I know, but...

I pouted at the barrier and poked it.

I really wanted to check it out.

Let's go back, we got stuff to do.

I sighed again and nodded.

Right, back to work.

Yunru is probably wondering where you are just about now.

I did invite her to come.

Yeah, I doubt the little fur ball will ever willingly climb up this mountain.

I could feel the pressure the mountain gave off, even quarantined by the Wen Sect's seals, so I understood her reluctance.

But...

This was going to be my mountain.

I knew it would.

And I longed for it.

It's here. It's really, really here. It's right here.

Not yet.

Yes... Not yet.

One day.


I laughed as I helped a woman peel potatoes in the kitchen, she was telling me of how her son had tried to be 'creative' in the kitchen and had almost burnt his own eyebrows off.

It was a pretty funny story.

"And you, little boy?" The matron grinned at me," What stories do you have?"

My eyes sparkled.

"When I was in Qinghe I met a man, a really tall and fat man, with a stomach the size of a war drum! Anyway, he was trying to pick up this crate off a wagon, right, and this little lady comes over and starts telling him how that crate is full of fragile things, and he has to be careful with it, right?" I tell her," So the guy finally gets tired of listening to her and grabs the crate roughly out of the cart and yells:'I know what I am doing, woman!'. Guess what happened next?" I smirk.

The matron chuckles," I don't know, little boy, why don't you tell me?"

"The crate's bottom spills open, and all the pottery and fragile ornaments fall out of the box and crash to the ground!" I laugh," The little lady started shrieking while the big man just stared at the now empty crate like it had offended him!"

The matron laughs loudly, the two girls washing dishes in a tank join in on the laughter, and I could hear the woman tending the counter of the restaurant giggle as she eavesdropped on what we were saying.

I liked Quests like these, where I could talk to the people and get a sense of their personality.

These would be my people, one day.

My mountain, Yiling.

"Hey, Sister," I smiled at the lady," Do you want to hear another story?" I ask her, eyes bright.

She nods and listens to me intently.

I tell her story after story, from all corners of the world I had traveled, all the stars I had been under, and the highest peak I had traveled to.

Whether they believed them to be a child's imagination or reality didn't matter to me.

The smiled, and laughed, and listened.

And that was enough.

I felt welcomed.

One day.


"Mister," I huffed," This isn't a 'small' job, ya' know?" I looked at the barely begun project of a new fishing boat.

The young man gave me a rueful look.

"Sorry?" He chuckles.

I sigh, and pull the sleeves of my robes back," It's fine, but do you at least know how to craft the boat or were you just saying that to get more helpers?" I ask him.

He reddens," I do know how to build it! I just..."

"Haven't had the time?" I suggest with an airy tone.

He takes the excuse," Yes! Right! Haven't had the time!"

"I'll help you," I tell him, preparing to cut down wood for sanding and fittings," I already said I would, but, mister, you owe me a boat ride once this boat is finished!"

The young man laughs," Okay! One boat ride, free of charge!"

He starts working on putting the larger boards of wood in place to start piecing the boat together.

I had to remember to send that old man a thank you note and a gift basket for teaching me how to do this.

I'll remind you later.

Thanks, buddy.


You know... I kind of figured there would be something like this happening soon enough.

Because it's been a while since the last one?

Yup.

Fetch Quests weren't my ideal of fun, but they did wonders for my Stamina and Agility Stats.

Keeps you from getting fat.

I let out a scandalized gasp.

Ike! How could you! I'm always in perfect shape!

Hmm, I don't know, I vaguely recall a time where you were getting kind of chubby.

I thought back on the last few years.

You better not be using my fifties against me.

Oh, right! That time!

Urgh.

I roll my eyes, with an 'I'm so done with you' expression on my face.

Why do I even bother?


The last Quest in Yiling comes faster than I expected it to, having completed the previous one barely two minutes ago. A man selling vegetables wanted help organizing his products, lots of carrying heavy crates involved, and I quickly accepted.

Carrying heavy objects was nothing when I could probably kick boulders apart if I strengthened my body and used Talents.

"Where did you say you were from?" The man squinted at me, once I'd started organizing the crates as he's told me to, impressed.

I smiled cheekily at him," I didn't tell you, I don't really belong anywhere, I've been in every single town there is!" I answer him.

"Uh," He clicks his tongue," Might want to think about sticking around then, always looking for helpers," He says.

I smile kindly at him and nod," Yiling is very beautiful," I tell him.

He barks out a laugh," Yiling isn't much compared to the other great cities you've probably seen!"

"No," I tell him, quieting his laughter, I look up at him with shining eyes," I think Yiling is the most beautiful."

He coughs and looks away," Well, then... Stick around brat, lots of things to see, I guess."

I chuckle and turn back to what I was doing.

"I will, one day," I tell him," I'll stay in Yiling one day."

The man nods and goes out to the store front.

One day. One day. One day.


Donkey was with me, as well as Yunru, and I was leading him through the streets of Yiling, and happened to pass by a store selling sliced melon.

My mouth watered, these would probably be the last melons of the season, and I just got the urge to eat one.

I left Donkey at the door and walked inside, Yunru peeking from over my shoulder.

"Sister!" I greeted the woman at the counter," One-...!"

Donkey brays loudly outside, and I kind of cough, embarrassed, when the woman laughs.

"Two," I emphasize the word," Sliced melons please!" I order and pull out a money pouch from inside my sleeve, directly out of the Inventory.

"Coming right up!" She smiles as she takes my money.

I titter a bit as I wait and prop my head on my fist, staring outside with a content expression on my face, before the woman comes back with the sliced melons. I take them with a smile and cheerful 'thank you, Sister', before walking outside.

"Etiquette Skill leveled up!"

Yeah, yeah, yeah...

Ooh, little Wei Ying isn't a little savage after all!

Bite your tongue!

I chuckle under my breath and hand Donkey his share of the melon, letting Yunru steal a piece from mine, and slowly eat my share.

"Wei... Ying?" A stunned voice asks.

I turn around.

And promptly choke on my melon slice.

Jiang FengMian stands not four feet away from me, clad in his purple YunmengJiang Sect robes, with a group of gaping disciples around him, staring at me like they can't believe their eyes.

"Checkpoint Finished!"

"Story Arc Completed!"

"Story Arc Advancements Unlocked!"

...I think I remember this happening in the novel.

Yeah, me too.

Except not like this!

I cough, dislodging the piece of melon and give the man a wary look.

"Yes?" I ask him," Who are you?"

He takes a step towards me and I back away, in the keeping up with my role, I did not know this man, and his eyes transfixed on me would probably look really, really creepy to any other child who didn't know this guy and his backstory.

He stops, and a series of emotions flit across his eyes, before he slowly crouches in front of me and smiles.

...He has a nice smile.

Shut up.

...I can see sparkles.

You do not.

"Wei Ying," He says my like like a prayer," You don't remember me?"

I frown at him," No? Have I met you before?"

His smile turns sad," I guess you were too young to remember," He says," I knew your parents."

I struggle not to roll my eyes, but the emotion is still very much evident in my deadpan tone of voice," Everyone apparently knew my parents, it's why everyone goes 'Oh, I knew them, we were good friends! Why don't you stay with us?' And most of those were lies."

Jiang FengMian expression twists again.

"I'm sorry you had to go through that," He tells me," But I really did know your parents, your father Wei ChangZe was raised in my Sect, he was my right-hand man."

I can't help but remember ChangZe's stories of growing up with Jiang FengMian, all the pranks they player together and how close they were.

"I knew your mother too," His expression turns rueful," We met in Gusu, studying there."

I nod slowly," They told me that they met in Gusu too," I tell him.

He smiles," They did," He nods," They wrote to me, years ago."

I tilt my head," They did?"

"Yes," He chuckles," Telling me I had a nephew that was calling me 'Shibo', and that I just had to meet him now that he was older."

Oh.

The memory hits me with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and I drop my melon slice.

Tears just start spilling out of my eyes.

That day at the end of summer, nearing fall, surrounded by flowers and warmth.

It felt like it had happened so long ago.

No one else knew about that day. I had never spoken of my time with my parents to others. Hoarding the bits and pieces I had left of them with the intensity of a dragon and his gold treasure.

I startle at feeling calloused hands touch my cheeks and look up to see Jiang FengMian smiling sadly at me.

"I re-rem-remember that," I choke out," I forgot."

I didn't, not really, it's just that sometimes it was hard to look back on those times and remember that that warmth was gone. The scent of flowers and of family couldn't be replicated.

They were gone.

And I was left behind.

You're not alone.

Donkey knocks his head against mine and Yunru starts nuzzling my other cheek.

I laugh, and push Donkey away," I'm fine! I'm fine! Stop!"

Jiang FengMian sighs, indulgently," These are your friends you talked about?" He asks me.

I give him a cheeky grin, still teary eyed," I don't know, I might have more."

He huffs, and mutters something along the lines of 'Just like CangSe', before standing up and reaching a hand out to me," Come with me, Wei Ying, YunmengJiang will be your home now. Like it was your father's."

I hesitate, I would have to go with him, but I already felt attached to Yiling.

One day.

Yes, I sighed, One day.

I took his offered hand.

One day, I'd be back to claim my mountain.


"Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart." - Marcus Aurelius

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"If bitterness wants to get into the act, I offer it a cookie or a gumdrop." - James Broughton


Chapter 37: Welcome

Despite having been here the day before I had not dared to get close to the gates of the YunmengJiang Sect, fearing the sentinels at the entrance would spot me, or worse, give chase.

So this was my actual first time seeing the tall white walls with the purple Sect Symbol drawn on them, the purple lotus flower of the Jiang Clan, similarly tall watchtowers and flowing banners coming down to rest atop the sentinels' posts.

This was where I'd be living in for the next decade or so.

Jiang FengMian walked slowly beside me, keeping a constant eye on me, and I could see about three other disciples doing the same. Seriously, it was like they expected me to just take off running the minute their backs were turned.

Yeah, like you totally wouldn't do that.

Totally.

I smothered a grin and pulled Donkey, who wasn't happy with the surprise boat ride we got, because Jiang FengMian arrived by boat and there was no way he was trusting me on top of that donkey to ride back to Yunmeng, towards the entrance.

"A-She," Jiang FengMian spoke up," Would you warn Madam Yu that I will be taking Wei Ying to the infirmary wing, and have someone clear a space in the stables for his mount," He instructed one of the disciples following after him.

"Yes, sir!" The disciple bowed and hurried away into the Sect.

"Infirmary?" I frowned," I'm not injured," I told him," Nor sick."

Jiang FengMian only smiled and hummed," Just a precaution then."

I think I might need to remind you of something.

What?

Scars.

What?

Your scars.

Oh... Those scars.

I suddenly remembered the scars I got from the lashes and various other encounters with sharp clawed beasts.

...Think they won't be noticeable?

I can feel his incredulous look.

Unless his physician is blind, you're out of luck. Actually, who am I kidding, you have no luck!

Goddammit.

I internally debated trying to find an excuse to get out of the examination but gave it up as a lost cause. I admitted defeat and just kept walking towards my doom. Once inside the Sect Compound, Jiang FengMian relaxed minimally, keeping that same polite smile that did not hide the worry or skepticism my words and actions had caused him.

Today was going to be a long day.

Afternoon, actually, it's past lunchtime.

I didn't reply to him.

Jiang FengMian quickly ushered me into one of the halls, having handed over Donkey's lead to a waiting disciple, and towards the medical wing of the Sect.

I really felt the need to dig my heels in the ground when we neared the door, neither waiting to be examined by a stranger and not having the full extent of past injuries shown. I was certain that the whip marks alone would make Jiang FengMian interrogate me on who had done them and why, whilst the various night-hunting injuries, which were normal and expected to have if you are fighting against very dangerous man-eating beings, would ground me for life.

Not that he really had the authority to ground me, I wasn't his child and I was twice his age.

In spirit, not in body. And he totally has the authority to ground you, he's your pseudo-adopted uncle.

I knew that could come back to bite me.

Everything always does, you're an accident-prone person.

...That was another dig at my bad luck, wasn't it?

Yup.

Why are you always so cruel to me? What have I ever done to you?

Give me headaches for worrying after you and heartbreak.

I think that comes with the territory of loving me, actually, Walter said the same.

...Why are we taking what Walter said as fact?

Maybe because he was the first person to actually put up with our craziness?

Oh, yeah... That.

Yes, that.

"You're surprisingly quiet," Jiang FengMian's voice brings me out of my thoughts," CangSe's letters always talked about you being uncontrollable and too energetic for their peace of mind."

...I think that's just normal toddler behavior, but obviously sugar rushes and modern entertainment aren't as common or readily available here.

I just had the mental image of Lan QiRen reacting to a room of toddlers hyper on sugar and candy during halloween, and trying to contain them inside that small room.

I want to snort so badly, I swear I made dying whale noises in my mind due to the sheer force of will it took not to.

If he ever survived that, he'd advance straight into godhood, no doubt in my mind.

He'd reach enlightenment through patience and knowing his end was nigh.

Death by sugar rushed toddlers...

What a fine ending for that fuddy-duddy.

...

...

Ike, please stop making me want to laugh, I feel like I'm going to die here.

I don't know what you're talking about, I'm not doing anything.

There's a guy coming in that's going to take one look at me and ask what's wrong, what am I supposed to say to him?

'Sorry, sir, I was just imagining an old Goat being bowled over by small children.'

I inwardly wheezed.

IKE! STOP IT!

Crackling laughter rang out deep within my mind, and I restrained the urge to follow suit.

I swear one of these days something would happen, deadly serious, and Ike's humorous comments would make me laugh at the most inopportune times.

...Gusu won't be fun.

The laughter restarted at that thought bubble.

"Wei Ying?" Jiang FengMian frowned," Are you alright?"

I smile at him, a smile always covers what you don't want people to see," I'm fine, I just really don't think I need a doctor."

A last ditch attempt.

It's meaningless.

Jiang FengMian takes the bait, his smile clearly tells me this isn't up for debate, he opens the door meaningfully.

I sigh through my nose and enter.

The room is bright and airy. There's a row of cots along the wall furthest from the door, and several large cabinets that contained hundreds of medicinal herbs and other medical equipment. Three nurses stand to one side, getting a table ready for examination, most likely.

A doctor comes walking towards us, greeting the Sect Leader with a smile and polite bow.

He looks down at me, eyes moving up and down, giving me the impression that I'm in for a long, long discussion about what is and is not acceptable for a seven year old to do.

...

This isn't going to be fun, is it?

With your luck? Nah, you're getting a leash and a permanent GPS tracker.

If I could roll my eyes, I was sure they'd orbit around the planet.

Too bad there's no GPS in this world.

Don't jinx the System, it loves to screw you over.

The System loves me!

Yes, to screw you over.

"Well," The doctor suddenly speaks," We'll start with some basic questions, alright little man?"

His tone was so condescending that it physically hurt to listen to it.

Smile, remember to smile, Wei Ying. Be a cute little boy and smile.

I will make you tangible and strangle you, mark my words.

That's not smiling, Wei Ying, that's having murderous intent. Smile!

I smile at the doctor and nodded.

I will strangle you slowly, Ike, and I will enjoy doing so.


Knowing this was coming, and having already guessed at a lot of the arguments being thrown around, did not prepare me to face the faces and expressions of the adults overseeing the examination.

First, it started with the daggers. Xiaodan was easily visible at my waist, kind of hard not to, but Xiaotong was always tied to my arm guards and invisible unless I pulled my sleeves back or drew it.

So, when I put down one dagger and pull another one out of my sleeve, well... That sends a message.

Then the questions started.

How old was I, how long I'd been traveling alone for, was I alone in my journeys, what did I eat, did I get sick during my journeys, did I see a doctor, did I take care of any injuries, did I have injuries, and tons of other questions.

Answering them wasn't hard but it was totally awkward. How do you explain that you readily get medicine and bandages from a virtual store no one else can access, that no, you never went to a doctor because well... Nothing looked dire enough to trust people with no modern knowledge of medicine?

That and I wasn't an actual small child that'd cry after scrapping their knee.

And then came the kicker.

Removing my robes in front of all those people made me feel very self-conscious. It was weird. Downright weird. And I wasn't happy to be doing it.

That will change when you get a six pack.

Not interested in showing off my future muscled body.

We'll see.

So, the robes come off and the damn nurses behind me gasp, the doctor stops writing on his damn clipboard and Jiang FengMian gets this total 'kicked dog' look in his eyes.

Goddammit.

Eight crisscrossing long thin scars pepper my middle and lower back, a small bump on my left shoulder from a stab wound I got by a bandit, and a smattering of even smaller scars of critters over the years on my forearms and legs.

My chest and stomach had the bear's claw mark scars and a thin scar on one side of my abdomen from a would-be thief.

All in all, after almost 3 full years on the run, gallivanting across the nation and getting into so many questionable practices, I thought I'd done a pretty good job at keeping my self alive.

Apparently your best isn't agreeable with them.

I sigh and cross my arms over my chest, frowning at the adults and their pitiful eyes.

Goddammit, why are they making me feel bad?!

Body's natural response when everyone is looking at them like that.

Screw this body's natural response! I was totally right in doing this and I made it out alive! I won!

I know, I was there with you, they weren't.

The 'they won't understand you' went unspoken but very much heard.

"W-w-well..." The doctor coughs," Interesting injuries... How old are they, do you remember?" He asks me.

...Do I answer him honestly?

At least one of these people can spot liars.

I look down at the scars, trying to remember exactly when I got them," These were from a bear," I poke at my chest," Almost three years ago." I blink, wow, these ones were old.

"And the whip marks?" Jiang FengMian asks, definitely interested in them," Do you remember getting them?"

Hard to forget.

"I got three before the bear incident," I nod," And then five... A year ago?" I shrug," They're not recent."

He frowns severely at me," Do you remember who gave them to you? Why?"

I scratch at my cheek, right over the scar on my face, drawing his eyes and attention to it, once more, and quickly remove my hand when it makes him sadder.

Goddammit.

"I don't know," I answer.

A nurse gives me a look.

Told you.

"I really don't know," I repeat.

Oh, the 'head-shaker' method. I don't think you can pull that one off, it's kind of that person's personal style, ya' know?

He's not the Head-Shaker yet, so it's no one's style to steal.

"Wei Ying..." Jiang FengMian sighs and crouches slightly so he's eye level with me," We want to help you, but you've got to tell us the truth."

I frown at him," I do not need help."

Bad answer, kid.

Jiang FengMian rocks back, saddened, and opens his mouth to say something when the door behind him opens with a bang.

"Father, you're back!" A cute little, puffy cheeked, Jiang Cheng enters the room running.

...

...

He's so cute!

I can't find it in myself to refute that.

I want to hug him!

He'll bite you.

Yunru did that at first too, and she loves me now!

Yunru would eat the last piece of meat on this planet if it meant you couldn't have it.

She would not!

She totally would.

"A-Cheng..." Jiang FengMian smiles, amused," What have I told you about knocking?"

The little kid halts to a stop and thinks, you can see the gears in his mind turning, and flushes," To knock first before entering," He looks down at his feet.

"And what else?" Jiang FengMian asks him.

"Not to slam the door open or shut," Jiang Cheng mumbles.

"And...?" Jiang FengMian's smile widens.

I see this is a normal occurrence.

He's so adorable!

Just don't tell him that.

Jiang Cheng sighs, his little shoulders slumping down," And that you have to be quiet in the medical wing."

"So what do you say?" Jiang FengMian questions him.

Jiang Cheng looks up, red faced and successfully scolded, to the doctor and apologizes," I'm sorry, Doctor Wu, it won't happen again."

Lies. Lies. Lies.

I totally spot a lie.

He's a kid, give him a break.

Give him a break? Oh, you're totally handing him a cookie after every time he does something like this.

Well, I'll have to befriend him somehow, look how cute he is!

How have we come so far in our travels, lived so many years together, yet I still cannot comprehend your desire to stuff children full of sugared goods.

It's an easy motivator for them to make grabby hands at me.

I'm sure their parents thanked you.

Cynthia's look of 'are you kidding me' when I hand her little boy a cookie not fifteen seconds after he already conned one out of his grandparents pops up in my mind.

Oh, yes, the parents loved me.

Clearly we remember events differently.

"Father," A soft voice filters in through the doorway," Welcome back," Jiang YanLi stands there and smiles in greeting.

Flowers and rainbows bloom behind her.

Holy Mother of God.

Truer words have not been spoken.

"A-Li," Jiang FengMian smiles back," You can enter, I have someone here I want you two to meet."

...Can I at least be fully clothed for this?

Shh, don't ruin the moment.

"Who's he?" Jiang Cheng stares at me with narrowed eyes.

I grin back at him.

You and I will be great friends, kiddo.

I should probably start planning your funeral.

Why are you so pessimistic? Kids love me!

Kids also have one defining quality at this age.

What?

"This is Wei Ying," Jiang FengMian places his hand on my head," He's going to be staying with us from now on."

Something lights up behind Jiang Cheng's eyes, his dark orbs going to and fro Jiang FengMian's hand to my head and back, and then his eyes turn to look fully into mine.

"Oh? The boy you'd been looking for all this time?" Jiang YanLi asks, coming to stand beside Jiang Cheng," You found him?"

I'm right here, you know?

"Yes," Jiang FengMian smiles," He'll be part of our family now."

Excuse me, you literally bumped into me on the streets not even two hours ago!

Jiang YanLi smiles kindly at me," Hello, I'm Jiang YanLi. It's nice to meet you."

I grin back at her widely," Nice to meet you too!"

I like her.

I don't think there's anyone out there that does not like her.

Jin ZiXuan.

And then he became a stupidly in love fool that didn't even know how to confess properly.

"A-Cheng," YanLi softly nudges her brother," Isn't it nice, you'll have a friend your age here with you!"

A-Cheng isn't happy.

A-Cheng is feeling slightly angry and slightly furious.

His mind is flip-flopping between those two reactions.

And his eyes. Oh, his eyes are firmly telling me one thing.

'I don't want you here.'

Oh, right. I was forgetting Jiang Cheng's initial problem with me being in Lotus Pier.

That isn't a look we've seen on someone's face in a while.

I smile at him and try not to react at the disdain in his expression.

His eyes burn with jealousy.

Well... This promises to be fun.

And the best part is, you haven't even met the mother yet.

Kill me now.

No, I think I'll enjoy the show, the popcorn is almost ready too!

How come you get popcorn and I get to be stared at?

Life isn't fair, my darling, but don't worry. Your Lan Zhan will do enough staring to last a lifetime.

Bad thoughts! Bad thoughts!

Ike! I told you, it is not happening!

Oh? Is it 'your Lan Huan' then?

Not. Happening!

Both? My, my, dearest, you sure do know how to have a good time!

How I managed to not turn red as a tomato in front of everyone is beyond me, and I'll thank my fleeting good fortune for it, but I sure would remember my mental shrieking fit hours later when the migraine still hadn't died down.

So, of course, it is then that I meet Madam Yu for the first time.


She's tall, almost as tall as Jiang FengMian, but I don't really know how much her hairstyle contributes to it. The golden hair clips and headpiece glint under the burning lamps and her violet eyes burrow deep into mine.

Clearly, she's not impressed with what she sees.

"So..." Her voice rings out in the awkwardly silent room," This is the much discussed Wei Ying."

I immediately feel like my integrity is being attacked. Lady, what did I ever do to you?

Her husband was kind of smitten with your mother.

'Was'?

I consider Jiang FengMian's stubborn expression on his face and him slowly ruminating on whether to intervene now or watch this play out.

What I'd give for the height and long limps to shake some sense into him.

"I guess?" I reply to her not-question," I don't really know why everyone finds me so interesting."

Her eyebrow ticks up deliberately, and I see that Jiang Cheng is astonished, seeing me reply to his mother like that, Jiang YanLi simply gives me a look of anxiety. Clearly anyone that spoke to their mother like this didn't make it very far.

...There's always a first time for everything.

"Why have you come here?" She asks me.

I see Jiang FengMian take a step forward and quickly start talking, no way was I letting him making this situation worse than it already is.

"I didn't? Not really? J-... Sect Leader Jiang found me on the streets and brought me here, I can just go back out and leave," I shrug," I was doing fine on my own."

"You are a child," She stresses out the word," What are you going to do out in the world?"

I blink at her, and start ticking down my fingers," Well, I was hunting, night-hunting, traveling, painting, I also played instruments and sang, people love that, oh, and stories too! They even get you free meals and a room if they're really good!" I smile at her genially.

Her face kind of shifts from 'ignorant child' to 'reckless, idiotic, and ignorant child' and I just stand there waiting for the fireworks to start.

"You are a child! The streets are no place for a child!" She hisses.

I blink again at her, slowly," But you clearly don't want me here, so why do I have to stay?"

My question leaves her in silence.

"What did you say?" She asks in an odd tone of voice.

"You clearly don't want me here, so why do I have to stay?" I dutifully repeat back my words," When you're out there, you quickly learn to spot dislike, you don't like me, for whatever reason, and so, why do I have to stay here, where I am not liked, and not just go back out onto the streets?"

"Wei Ying," Jiang FengMian quickly intervenes," You father-..."

"My father is dead," I tell him, shifting from foot to foot and looking away," My mother is too. This was my father's home, he said so and I remember that, but it isn't mine."

"It can be," Jiang FengMian tells me," If you let us-..."

"I do not need help," I sigh," I was perfectly fine on my own, I even wrote here and said so! I already know how to night-hunt, what do I have to learn in here anyway?"

That's the final straw for Madam Yu's stunned silence.

"So you believe yourself to be all-knowing? Too good to study in YunmengJiang?" She stands straighter and her eyes narrow into slits," You think you know everything just because you wandered about doing Heaven's knows what?"

You ingenious bastard...

I nod," I'm pretty sure I do."

Pride, I remember, was something of a flaw Madam Yu and Jiang Cheng shared. They took pride in YunmengJiang being one of the Five (soon to be Four) Great Sects, and any slight against that pride better have some strong backing.

To insinuate that I did not find them to be worth my time, meant that they either would kick me out for disrespecting them, which, while tossing canon right out the window, wasn't something I would mind; or, they'd have to show me otherwise.

And to do that...

She has to let you stay, no, not let you stay...

I almost threaten to break out into a maniacal grin.

She has to force me to stay.

And Jiang FengMian gets his wish without being the one putting his foot down.

"You insolent child! You think becoming a cultivator is easy?" She hisses," We'll see how you'll handle the lessons taught here in this sect!" She then turns around and leaves, taking the identical maids with her.

Jiang FengMian doesn't say a word, stunned, but when he realizes what happened he starts smiling in good humor.

His good cheer won't last long after Madam Yu realizes she's been played.

I think that will only make her like me more.

I don't think Madam Yu will like an upstart twerp messing around her beloved Lotus Pier, dragging her precious children into whatever madness you cook up, and generally existing within two yards of her.

Some people really don't know how to appreciate my greatness. Don't worry, they'll learn.

"A-Cheng, Wei Ying will be staying in your room, for now, until he's better acquainted with our home," Jiang FengMian tells the slightly younger boy.

Jiang Cheng turns to glare at me.

There's one such person right there.

I smother another grin.

Oh, my dear, dear, Jiang Cheng... You and I will get along so well in the future.

I pity the kid.

Hush, I won't bite him.

No, you'll only let your Lan Zhan do that to you.

IKE! We've had this conversation too many times already! It. Is. Not. Happening!

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." - Victor Frankl


Chapter 38: First Night, First Day

So... This is fun.

Sure, whatever you say, dear.

I stared at the closed door of Jiang Cheng's room, my arms carrying my new sect robes I'd have to wear from now on, my pack slung over one shoulder, and tapped my foot while listening to Jiang Cheng's rant of how I wasn't allowed inside.

Honestly, I understood where he was coming from, I totally wouldn't want anyone intruding on my personal space, especially having just met them. But going on and on about how they were his parents, his room, his toys, his everything; for almost twenty minutes was getting on my nerves.

It's not like I actually wanted to share a room with him, I'd much rather have my own room and be able to move around without an escort, but Jiang FengMian apparently wasn't taking any risks.

Sounds fair, considering he has been running all over the place for the last three years looking for you.

It was his choice to keep searching for me despite my letter telling him, politely, to stop.

We both knew that he wouldn't just give up like that.

I sighed through my nose.

"A-A-And! You can't stay here! You can't! So go away!" Jiang Cheng yelled through the closed door.

Yeah, I had enough of this.

"Okay," I agree with him," I'm leaving my stuff here at the door, I'll be back for it in the morning, bye!" I drop the sect clothes they had handed to me and turn right around on my heel and head for the stables.

Honestly, Donkey was a better company at this point.

Yunru poked her head out of her satchel and seeing that there was no one here jumped out.

"Don't go far, if you get spotted don't come running to me," I tell her, watching her scamper off.

I wonder if Jiang Cheng has his dogs yet.

If he doesn't he will soon, especially once it comes out that I have Yunru. He'll want a pet too.

Despite the fact that I acquired Yunru by chance and it wasn't his father who got her for me.

The stables were deserted and Donkey was pretty easy to spot, I quickly entered the stable and dropped my pack by the hay, making a nest for myself.

"So, how's the good life Donkey, made any enemies yet?" I ask him.

Donkey turns to stare at the chestnut mare across the aisle from him and brays.

The mare give him one look before looking away with a snort.

Donkey stomps his feet.

I chuckle," Yeah, Donkey, show her who's the best!"

You're a terrible role model.

I'm a great role model, society just doesn't agree with me.

Sure.

I totally am!

Uh uh.

I laugh and drop down onto the hay.

How long do you think it'll take before someone's out looking for me?

Give it thirty minutes.

The kid will panic when he sees that I actually up and left.

I'm sure that will endear you to him.

Hey, he sent me away!

He's a six year old, he probably still believes in the moon rabbit.

I snort, thinking of a little Jiang Cheng staring at the moon wide-eyed.

A thought bubbles in my head.

Do you think Lan Zhan believes in the moon rabbit?

...

He totally does, right?

He's probably never heard of the moon rabbit.

Clearly something that needs to be rectified immediately.

So eager to write to you-...

We are not discussing this. He's seven years old!

He won't stay seven forever!

No, by then I'll be reaching my eighties.

You poor old grandma.

You're just as old as me, you know!

I am ageless.

I roll my eyes and open my Player Menu, right after Jiang FengMian found me there were a lot of notifications and I barely got a good look at them.

There were a few advancements that I had unlocked due to completing every single Quest available, and one that I kind of blinked at. "Blessed Lineage", apparently by having the backing of a powerful clan or sect, and possessing a traceable reputable lineage, some enemies wouldn't kill me as their first option even if I posed a threat to their ambitions or plans.

Which was good.

It depends on how fast they go from plan A to plan B when encountering you.

I grimaced, well I could at least expect a warning before they attempt to murder me?

Always Miss Positivity with you.

Well, we already have Mister Pessimism standing right beside me.

What a pair the two of us.

What a pair.

I smile softly before going back to the Menu, checking every tab to make sure I wasn't missing anything. There wasn't really anything that stood out to me, so I just closed it and went to sleep.

I woke up to someone opening the stall's door.

The immediate response to 'Unknown close to my prone body' was to pull out Xiaodan from it's sheath and jump awake, hand going over my shoulder to toss it.

Thankfully I manage to keep my grip on the blade and not let it fly towards the target.

A startled Jiang YanLi carrying a teary eyed Jiang Cheng on her back stare at me from the stall door.

Donkey snorts and hits me with its tail.

I slowly sheathed my dagger again and yawn," What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be asleep?"

You should tone down the 'motherly' vibes, you're sounding condescending.

Oops.

Jiang Cheng sniffs, loudly," You were gone, I couldn't find you anywhere!" He sobs.

Big, ugly sobs.

Honestly, kids confuse me sometimes.

Kids are inherently confusing, they don't know what they want except that they want it, but then they can't give you an explanation of what they want and why it's so important.

And you wanted a whole brood of them.

I had a whole brood of them, they just weren't my brood.

"You wanted me gone," I point out to him," I thought you'd be happy if I went away, why are you crying now?" I sigh and rub at my eyes.

I hated being woken up, I liked my sleep uninterrupted.

He sniffs loudly again," But... But... You weren't supposed to go..."

I give him a look," You wanted me to sleep on the floor outside your room? Or keep asking to be let in?" I ask him," Because I can think of better things to do than that, like sleeping, which is what you should be doing." I pointed at them two.

Jiang YanLi gave me a smile," Jiang Cheng got scared that he couldn't find you, he thought you might've fallen off a pier."

Wouldn't that be hilarious.

"It's too cold for a swim," I deadpan," And why would I go near the piers? The stables aren't very far from the residential wing of your house."

"Our," Jiang Cheng mumbles.

"Uh?" I blink, lost.

"Our house," He says, mumbling half the words into his sister's shoulder," Father said you lived with us now."

Kids... I tell you, they're so confusing.

I sigh," And finding me couldn't wait until morning?" I yawn again.

Jiang YanLi open the door wider," You're both tired, c'mon, let's get you both to bed, and we can talk more tomorrow," She smiles.

She clearly got Jiang FengMian's 'this isn't up for discussion' smile.

I sigh once more and get up, grabbing my pack and petting Donkey goodbye.

I dutifully follow after the older girl as she leads us back to our room, picking out straw from my hair and yawning at various times.

I really wanted to sleep.

There were two beds, thankfully, because I'd totally kick Jiang Cheng off of the mattress and hog the blanket if I had to share, and after seeing which bed was Jiang Cheng's I kind of just flop down and pull the blanket over me.

"Your boots, A-Ying," YanLi chuckles and pulls my boots off," Goodnight you two."

"'Night," I tell her and roll over against the wall.

"Goodnight, JieJie," Jiang Cheng says.

"Checkpoint Finished!"

Go away and let me sleep.

YanLi leaves and I hear the door close, after about a minute or two of silence, just when I'm about to nod off, I hear Jiang Cheng speak:

"They're my parents though, you can't have them," He tells me.

I huff," Mine are dead, I don't need replacements," I tell him," Your father and your mother are all yours."

"Aren't you sad?" He asks quietly, almost shyly.

I ponder for a moment," Sure, I didn't want them to die," I tell him," But they're dead. What use if to cry about it? I still remember them, that's enough."

It's not. It won't ever be enough. But a child wouldn't understand.

Most people wouldn't understand either.

I close my eyes and pull the blanket up, curling my legs up to my chest like a little ball, I'd stretch out in my sleep eventually. ShouShan had once said I slept like a starfish, what he was doing in my guest room as I slept I'd rather not find out.

He was totally fawning over how cute you looked so he could describe you to sculptures for when they carve up a statue in your honor.

If they ever carve up a statue in my honor it better not be when I look like a doll size version of the future Yiling Patriarch.

Ah, but tall statues cost more, a shorter statue from when you were a little tiny baby would be cheaper.

I am not going to sleep with that thought in my head, change the subject if you want to chatter.

Like how Lan Zhan would totally get a statue of little you?

You know what, forget it, shut up. I'm going to sleep now, so shush.

So prickly.

Shush. I. Am. Sleeping.

Good dreams then, dearest.

Night, Ike.


I was beginning to realize that sharing a room with a young child would not only require more patience on my part, I'd also have to get rid of some ingrained instincts.

Like pulling Xiaodan or Xiaotong on the first person that came within a foot of me whilst I was asleep.

"He pulled a knife on me!" Jiang Cheng was crying into YanLi, who was giving me a look, while Jiang FengMian and Madam Yu stared down at the three blades I had set down in front of them when asked for the weapons I carried with me.

You still have that sword in your Inventory, too.

I am not handing over all of my weapons. And I'm getting another dagger after this, keep it in the Inventory.

"Where did you get these?" Madam Yu asked as she picked up the blades and inspected them.

"Xiaodan was a gift," I point at the dagger with the drawn snake sheath," Xiaotong and Liling I bought in Qinghe," I point to the other two.

Well, I only technically bought them in Qinghe, they didn't come from Qinghe.

Semantics, they don't need to know that.

"Why does he get to have a sword?" Jiang Cheng's attention is immediately drawn to Liling.

"Because I have been night-hunting for almost three years," I tell him," And bandits are annoying," I grumble out the last part under my breath.

Madam Yu's eyes focus on me and I stand straighter.

"You know how to use these?" She asks.

"I know how to use the daggers pretty well," It was true, I was almost maxed out with that skill," But I haven't got much practice with Liling."

She scrutinizes me.

"Have you ever spared before?" She asks.

I hesitate," I have brawled?" I tilt my head slightly," Never trained against anyone, usually just use them when I have to fight against something," I answer.

"What else?" She crosses her arms primly.

"Bow and arrow," I answer," And talismans."

"You know how to make talismans already?" Jiang FengMian finally looks away from the blades to stare at me, surprised.

Honestly, it was annoying. I had been on my own for almost three years, I had been night-hunting, traveling and constantly getting into dangerous situations, how did that think I kept myself safe? That everyone around me just protected me? Carried me on their back?

What the hell?!

"Yes," I stress out the word," I've been learning since I was four."

Madam Yu looked from me to Jiang Cheng and something ugly flashed in her eyes.

Oh, she better not do what I think she's going to do.

"Jiang Cheng," She calls out, and the boy peeks out from his sister's robes," Did he hit you with the knife?"

"No," The boy mulishly tells her.

Hey, have a little trust here...

You did almost throw a knife at them yesterday too.

I growled in the back of my mind.

"Then stop crying," She tells him," You're the heir of Lotus Pier, you cannot be weak!"

Oh, hell no.

"My Lady,-..." Jiang FengMian goes to speak but I interrupt him.

"He's not weak, he's six years old!" I hiss at her," How can you compare him like that? He's your son!"

Madam Yu's violet eyes flash with lightning, the same lightning that sparks out of the purple ring she's fiddling with,"What did you say?"

"I said," I hiss," That he's your son! That he's not weak! That you can't compare him to other people because he's not other people! He. Is. Your. Son!" I yell at her.

Tone down the disrespect.

Screw you! I was not letting her bring this kid down for being startled by someone pulling a knife on him.

A lightning arch slams on the ground right beside me, coming from the ring on her finger, and Jiang FengMian goes to take a step forward but stops and stares at me.

I didn't flinch.

I had stared down things that could chew me up and spit me back out.

I had been on my own and I had made it.

I was not scared of a woman with jealousy problems.

I looked Madam Yu straight in the eye and felt my fire spark behind my eyes.

"Such disrespect!" She scolds me.

"You've done nothing to deserve my respect," I tell her.

You're going to get into so much trouble for doing this.

Worth it. Nip this trouble in the bud.

Her eyes narrow before she sniffs with disdain," Obviously, you had no mother to teach you manners."

All the sound around me screeches to a halt.

For a second I can see everything clearly, Jiang FengMian's shocked expression, Jiang YanLi's surprised look and Jiang Cheng's worried glance at me, both the maids behind Madam Yu remain expressionless but their eyes tremble, they hadn't expected her to say that.

That.

Those words.

That second goes by in the blink of an eye and suddenly the world is all blurred together.

Past and present converge into a chaotic mess of what once was and what is now.

I see a stern faced woman sneering down at me, grabbing me by the arm and dragging me to the hated white room, raking me across my fingers for mistakes during my lessons, ordering me to repeat the same greetings and polite chitchat hundreds of times until all I knew to say were those exact words.

I had had someone teach me manners, all right. But I did not have a mother.

And then I see another woman, one with happy silver eyes and dark hair, smiling down at me and picking me up to sit in her lap, who'd cuddle with me and always make me feel safe and warm.

I had had a mother. But what she taught me more than just manners.

Anger pooled in my chest, striking a match that lit my insides on fire, fury licking at my senses.

How dare she!

How dare she?!

I snarl, an animalistic growl coming from deep within my throat, and my eyes lock into hers.

"You. Know. Nothing," I hiss.

She sniffs again," I know enough," A woman like that-..."

I don't even thing, between one blink and the next I'm charging forward, dodging under her hand and rolling into a somersault, my feet touch the floor and I launch myself up like a spring, and I throw back a fist to hit her.

She grabs it and hits me with a single hand, making everything go dark.

The last thing I hear is Jiang FengMian calling my name.


What did you honestly expect to happen?

Shut up.

No, no, let's talk, my dear, what did you think she was going to do? Let you just walk away after you attacked her?

Seriously, just stop talking.

I will not stop talking until you tell me exactly what went on in that brain of your that thought it was alright to attack her!

I sighed through my nose and shifted slightly on the ground, trying to take some pressure off my hurting knees.

I was kneeling in the front courtyard, under the hot sun to make it harder for me to endure it, and every so often a disciple would come check up on me to see how I was doing and if I had moved from my spot.

I didn't think.

Clearly! We went over this already! You cannot let your anger rule you!

She badmouthed-...!

I don't care if she calls you an ugly old whore, you cannot act on impulse! You must stay calm and in control!

Argh! You're siding with her?!

I am siding with our continued existence! One day, you will badmouth the wrong person and you'll pay for it!

I will not!

Will not?! You're in this situation exactly because you did so!

I grit my teeth and clenched my hands into fists, my nails creating crescent shapes on my palms, growling in the back of my mind.

It will not happen again.

You and I both know you are not keeping that promise so don't bother trying it.

My eyes looked off into the distance.

I am sorry.

Silence greeted me, the conversation had evidently been put on hold, and I felt worse than ever.

I hadn't meant to lose control like that... It's just...

I couldn't let that remark slide. I had to do something. I was only thankful I hadn't thought of using any Talents, those would've made things so much worse than they already were.

A squeak to my right made me look to see Yunru peeking from under a bush.

I smile softly at her and gesture her to come out, she rushes to my side and climbs over to rest on my shoulders, nuzzling my cheek.

"And where have you been? Having fun?" I ask her, scratching her chin," At least one of us, or two I guess if you count Donkey, is happy here."

I looked back to the distance and breathed through my nose.

I'd messed up.

Again.

I needed to stop doing that.

I knew that.

But whenever someone talked about them I just got so angry.

They didn't know them. Didn't know me. What right did they have to talk behind their backs? About how they chose to raise me?

Yunru fussed with me for a bit before her fur stood on end and she dived into the collar of my robes.

I barely refrained from yelping, or collapsing in a fit of giggles are her tiny little paws tickled me, and stoically remained kneeling under the sun.

I heard hesitant footsteps behind me before whoever it was decided to come over.

I looked over my shoulder and was pleasantly surprised to see Jiang Cheng carrying something in his hands.

He was looking side to side, as if to make sure there was no one else here.

...

I get the feeling he wasn't supposed to be here.

Probably not.

Being prohibited from approaching the 'wild child' the Sect Leader brought the day before was perhaps the mildest and most certain warning Madam Yu's children got about me.

Which, fair enough, I had tried to punch her.

Jiang Cheng finally rushed the final meters to stand by me and looked down at me with a frown.

I had a bump on the back of my head, from hitting the floor, and a bit of a bruise on my temple but other than that, I just looked rumpled.

And sweaty because holy hell the sun was hot.

"Let's make a deal," Jiang Cheng said.

I gave him a look," What deal?"

"You teach me what you know, and I'll watch out for you from now on," He proposes.

"Watch out for me?" I ask him, confused.

"I'll keep you out of trouble," He tells me," Father said that you don't know anything about sects or how you're supposed to act here, so I'll teach you," He nods at his own words.

Of course, Jiang FengMian would say that, and of course it would be to his six year-old son who wanted nothing more than to make him proud.

On the bright side, it felt somewhat gratifying that it wasn't just my birth family that had problems.

It didn't make this situation any less daunting.

"So..." I muse," I teach you all that I know about being a cultivator, and you'll teach me how to play nice with other people?"

Jiang Cheng frowns, thinking through my words,"I... I guess?"

Dear Lord in Heaven, this kid was too adorable for his own good.

"Alright," I shrug," You've got yourself a deal, but don't expect me to go easy on you just because you're younger than me."

Immediately Jiang Cheng gets an annoyed look on his face," You're barely any older than me!"

"A year older is still a year older," I simper," So I guess that makes me your... shixiong?" I guess at the word, feeling it foreign on my tongue.

Jiang Cheng grows mulish but nods," And I'm your shidi, but just you wait, Im'ma be so strong I'll beat you in no time!"

Yeah, kid, that's never gonna happen.

"We'll see," I grin at him in a predatory way," Personally, I don't think you're that great with how high you screamed when you saw my Xiaodan."

Jiang Cheng flushed red and hisses at me," I didn't scream!"

"Sure, whatever you say," I shrug with an airy tone," Whatever you say, MeiMei."

His high pitched shriek of indignation was well worth the punch he threw at me.

Which I dodged, of course, except dodging meant he over-balanced and fell on top of me, causing me to tip backwards and hit the bump on my head on the floor again.

Immediately I switched positions and sat on top of him, laughing as he tried to get me off.

Which was when Jiang YanLi found us.

Oh, the look of exasperation on her face.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Staying busy keeps me away from being bored, which used to be a lot of my problem." - Kirk Windstein


Chapter 39: Classroom

I was called back to the main room, where my... disagreement with Madam Yu happened, after three or so hours of kneeling. I felt my legs were like jelly but after massaging them for a while and drinking some water, I saw my fatigue drop considerably. I wouldn't be pulling any stunts after the last one but I could decently dodge in case anyone started anything.

Madam Yu looked down at me from her nose when I entered and quickly got to the point," Your actions this morning were disgraceful and disreputable, do you deny this?"

I bit my tongue and gave her a proper bow," I do not, my actions have no excuse."

"Ma'am," She adds," Or Madam Yu, you must always finish your addresses to someone of higher importance with their title," She lectures.

"Apologies, Ma'am," I answer in response.

God, this was going to get old so quickly.

Suck it up, it's only a decade.

Oh, pshh, sure, it's only a decade!

At least your Hanguang-Jun doesn't mind you call him Lan Zhan, or would it be ZeWu-Jun, and Lan Huan?

That is getting old too, Ike.

"Your weapons will be kept in storage until you are deemed responsible enough to have them back," She continues," That is not up to discussion," She accentuates when she sees me open my mouth to argue.

I bite the inside of my cheek until it draws blood.

It irked me not to have my weapons, more than weapons they were mine, no one elses, and Xiaodan, especially, was a gift!

Calm. Breathe in. Breathe out. Stay focused.

I growled in my mind and pushed down my annoyance and anger.

My eyes still smoldered with resentment over my current situation, obviously noticeable for anyone who cared to look, but that was beyond my current capacity to smother.

They were my things, goddammit!

You're in this situation because you couldn't keep your cool, let this serve as a lesson.

I grumbled at him, trying to stay focused on what Madam Yu was saying.

"Due to your... circumstances," Here she gives Jiang FengMian a bitterly cold look," You will join Jiang Cheng in his lessons and serve as his shixiong, along with your other fellow disciples."

Great, lessons. Woohoo, I'm so thrilled.

"Yes, Ma'am," I reply back, showing I heard her.

"Do not shame this Sect when it has been so graceful as to foster you with its main Clan," She warns me.

Again, your husband was the one constantly hounding after me, I can just go and leave you to your unhappy marriage.

Hush.

"Yes, Ma'am," I grit my teeth and bow once more.

Satisfied, or merely done with her distaste for me at the moment, she leaves. I roll my shoulders and frown after her, Jiang Cheng elbows me with a look and I roll my eyes at him.

"I didn't say anything," I grouch.

"She's my mother," He warns.

I sigh," Fine, I'm sorry," I apologize," Satisfied? Or are you also gonna lecture me about manners?"

He clearly wants to lecture me but stops when he sees his father approach us.

"A-Cheng, A-Ying," He smiles," A-Li told me she has something for you in the kitchens, best go eat before the lessons start," He tells us.

Jiang Cheng perks up and grabs me by the arm and starts pulling me out of the room.

"Hey! What is so important about your sisters' cooking, anyway?" I grumble at him.

Jiang Cheng gives me a piercing glare from over his shoulder," A-Jie's cooking is the best! And you will tell her so! Be thankful she even deemed you worthy enough to cook for you!"

Aah, the canon idolization.

She is supposedly a good cook.

Enough to make Jin ZiXuan fall in love with her.

I'd be more impressed if I hadn't been twice to Qinghe and ate my weight in delicious food.

She might cook better than Qinghe.

Doubt.


Ready to admit it?

Shut up.

I told you.

Shut up, Ike.

"It's delicious, A-Jie!" Jiang Cheng cheerfully munched away at the buns that Jiang YanLi had prepared for us.

"It's good," I agree and cough when Jiang Cheng elbows me.

"Good?!" His eyes blaze with indignation," A-Jie's cooking is the best!"

"It's good," I hiss at him," I've had Qinghe's regional food, now that's delicious!"

Jiang Cheng makes an audible gasp and hits me again," A-Jie's cooking is definitely better than whatever you ate in Qinghe!"

Jiang YanLi watches us 'bicker' back and forth with a smile, pushing another bun in my direction," Isn't this great, A-Cheng, you have a friend your age now."

Jiang Cheng goes red.

"Are all the other disciples older?" I frown, trying to remember if the novel mentioned anything of the sort.

"Not really, they're just too scared to befriend A-Cheng, because he's the Sect Leader's son," She answers me with a slightly sad smile.

"I don't get that," I shrug," When you're night-hunting you don't really care who's who, just that they know what they're doing and not going to accidentally shoot you with an arrow."

Jiang Cheng turns back to me, a glimmer in his eyes," What is it like? Night-hunting?"

I pause to chew on my bun, and tilt my head in thought," Quiet," I tell him," Unless you have a large group of people or are hunting in a group, everyone usually goes their own direction. So there you are, at night, in the middle of a forest or mountain or cemetery, with the light of the moon or torch to light your way," I continue.

"And everything is quiet, there's the sound of your own heartbeat, the nocturnal critters of the forest, and then you heard them," I close my eyes in remembrance," Beasts, Yao or Spirits. They all make sounds, they all can be found if you just listen, and then you're running after them, the wind rustles all around you, you feel like you're flying."

Jiang Cheng is utterly entranced by my words.

"And then you find them, you choose your weapon, like a bow and nook your arrow, and take aim," I make the pulling the string back motion and fire an invisible arrow," Then the prey goes down and you just wait for everything to go quiet again, and start all over again."

"I want to go night-hunting," He tells me in a dreamy tone.

I start laughing.

He grows annoyed and hits me over the head.

"You went on night-hunts, why can't I?!" He half-yells, half-pouts.

"Because, A) My parents were the first ones to take me, so if you want to go, talk to your parents, and B) you're so not ready to go night-hunting," I tell him.

"Why am I not ready?" He frowns.

I give him a sideways look," Because you flinched at the sight of my dagger, what are you going to do when a Beast jumps out of the undergrowth, maw open wide to devour you, and claws bigger than my dagger? Run away crying?" I ask him.

He flushes red," I'd fight it!" He states.

"With what?" I ask him, indulgently," Do you know how to make working talismans? Do you have a blessed dagger? A cultivators sword? Any other tools?" I ask him," Do you know how to use them?"

Jiang Cheng remains silent, glaring at the table.

I sigh through my nose, and see Jiang YanLi meaningfully looking from me to her disheartened brother.

Of course I'm the one that has to fix this.

You're the one who made him sad.

Better sad than to encourage his dreams whilst he can't protect himself and give him false confidence to do stupid things.

Like joining in on rogue night-hunts with no support?

Exactly.

Like you did, as far as the population knows?

I ignore him.

"I'll teach you as promised," I poke him," Just don't expect to suddenly become the next Enlightened Buddha or something anytime soon."

He looks at me," But you'll teach me?" He asks.

I nod," I thought we'd already got that out of the way, you were the one that thought of the deal, so you're not getting rid of me that easily now," I tell him.

"You can't be any worse than Teacher Fang," He mutters, and Jiang YanLi giggles.

"Who's Teacher Fang?" I ask him.

Jiang Cheng's disparaging look doesn't reassure me.


Teacher Fang was the YunmengJiang's oldest instructor, he was responsible over teaching meditation and the history of the Cultivation World.

In other words, he was one of the most dreadfully boring people in this world.

I sat beside Jiang Cheng and tried to stay awake for his lecture about how the world formed energy.

What he was teaching and what I had been doing for the last years couldn't be any more different if they tried. Here, man produced energy and the Earth absorbed it once we died, so the Earth fed on the energy of past lives. I'd already proven that the Earth had its own energy and that everything produced energy, not just humans.

Although he was correct that the Earth absorbed energy upon our passing, it also cleanses it in order to keep the Earth 'healthy'. When it couldn't do that, the energy turned into Resentful Energy and acted as an infection of sorts, seeking nutrition from other sources of energy, such as humans and Spiritual Energy.

You still have to learn how to cultivate their way or you'll never hear the end of it.

I know... It's just so boring.

I hid a yawn by pretending I was fiddling with my new robe sleeves.

Unlike what I was used to, with long loose sleeves that allowed me to hide Xiaotong in my forearm, these were tight around the arms and it kept pulling at them when I grew distracted.

Jiang Cheng was paying avid attention to the lecture out of sheer force of will, but even his eyes were starting to glaze once the lecture went on for more than thirty minutes.

Seriously, the man hadn't stopped going on and on about how energy was 'pure' and 'innately strong'.

The other children around me weren't helping matters either, constantly shuffling in their seats, setting off my senses and instincts, talking in hushed whispers that sounded loud to my ears, and generally being children.

"How much longer does this last?" I inconspicuously asked Jiang Cheng.

"Another hour," He breathed out the answer.

I stared at him, and then stared at the old bastard rambling on about cultivation and how you absorbed Spiritual Energy, before letting out a mournful sigh.

Jiang Cheng shared a commiserating look with me before turning back to the lecture.

I'll die.

You won't die.

I'll totally die of boredom.

You're not dying of boredom.

Ike, I'm telling you, I'm dying. I'm not surviving a decade of this.

Be positive, the man might not be alive in a decade.

I looked at the bastard and then thought about my luck in these situations.

Guy will totally be alive in ten years.

Ike seems to have realized the odds of me being lucky and replies in kind:

Yeah, I just realized that, you have the shittiest luck.

I'm going to dieeeeeeeeeeee...

If you're that bored, find something to do, read a book or something.

...

What?

Ike, have I told you how much I loved you?

Not recently, no.

I love you. I really, really do, even when I want to strangle you to an inch of your existence.

Gee, thanks. I am so happy.

I ignore his sarcasm and open the Store, starting to riffle through the daggers and knives being sold.

You're getting another one?

I need to have a weapon with me, even if it's in my Inventory just in case of an emergency.

Try not to pull this one out on the kid.

I grumble under my breath and keep looking so one that wasn't overly expensive and practical.

I settled on one knife with a hooked tip, it stabbed easily enough but wasn't advisable for the target to pull it out. Gruesome I know, but, again, if I ever had to materialize a knife out of nowhere I was already in dire straights.

I'd worry about excuses as to where I got this from later, or never, if I ever get caught with it.

"Does the Player wish to name their weapon?"

[YES] [NO]

I pressed [YES] and wrote out "Xiaohui", getting the notification that the purchased weapon was sent to my Inventory.

Next I decided to go check out the [Books] section, and started going through lists of book titles and what their supposed contents. Obviously I could only use it after going back to my (shared) room and excuse its sudden appearance as having it in my pack.

And it's mysterious origins? Books about important things such as martial arts and swordplay styles aren't sold to the public, more than likely being passed down through generations.

Urk.

I grimace, remembering that.

Damn backwards time periods where printers weren't invented yet.

Maybe your [Recipes] can teach you how to build one.

...

That's actually a possibility, isn't it?

Possibly.

I quickly divert my attention and start going through the [Recipes] section.

Sure enough, I find several ancient versions of modern day appliances, such as the much desired printer, heater, and freezers. I kind of blinked at the last two and clicked on them to see what they required to learn.

Color me surprised when it says that, once mastered, Talisman-making Skill allowed me to fiddle and mess around with individual characters of a seal or array, making my own variations or, as the recipe intended, created something new entirely.

Obviously, we had a new goal set for this Story Arc.

Mastering that Skill, if put all your effort and time into it, won't last long. You're already on advanced levels in pretty much all your skills.

So, we just have to decide on more goals!

Like what?

Crafting for one, I need that for the fountain pen.

Oh, yes, how could I forget about your beloved fountain pen.

And I'll need sewing to modify my robes to add protections.

What else, again this won't take long since you're barred from night-hunting, and I know what you're like when going through hyper-focus.

...You said books were likely passed down from generation to generation, correct?

Yes, probably.

So this place should, in theory, have it's own library, correct?

I know the Cloud Recesses had one.

It does, why?

There's another goal.

The Library?

Read every single thing in it!

... Now that might take a while.

Clearly, as you've told me several times already, I have time. In fact, I have ten years of time!

"And that concludes today's lesson," The old foggy's voice snaps me out of the ensuing argument with Ike.

I close the store and turn to Jiang Cheng with wide eyes," I totally blanked out, what did he say?"

Jiang Cheng gives me a look and sighs," I'll tell you later, c'mon, off to the next lesson."

He gets up and waits for me to follow after him.

"What is the next lesson?" I ask him.

"Calligraphy," He says without looking back.

...

...

I'm going to die.

Oh, stop that.

I thought I was done with writing characters!

I think this is different than that.

...What?

I think this is a different Skill.

...Why?

Because no matter how much you write or increase your writing Skill, your characters are only barely legible. So...

So calligraphy might actually be a Skill...

Hooray, you've found another Skill to max out?

Go die in a ditch, Ike.

Hey, and here I thought you loved me!

I love you, very much, so please go die in a ditch.

Women, always so temperamental.

I will start singing "It's a small world after all", don't you think I won't!

Everything inside my mind goes dead quiet.


When the day was finally over I really just wanted a bath and slump over in bed. Forget dinner, forget listening to Jiang explain what I missed of the old foggy's lecture, I just wanted to go to sleep.

Of course, here that's not an option.

"How were lessons?" Jiang YanLi asked us as we walked into the main hall where the main family ate.

To be fair, I had tried to follow the other disciples and go eat with them but Jiang Cheng quickly grabbed me by the arm and dragged me with him, saying that 'I was family' or 'Father wants you there', despite the fact he clearly disliked the idea he had to 'share' his parents time with me.

I give Jiang YanLi a deadpan look," I'd rather be chasing after Liu Yao," I told her.

She blinked and Jiang Cheng turned to me with a frown," What are those?"

It took a few seconds to think where I had seen them and realized that my geography needed some serious work.

"So, they're these yao that hide inside twigs, totally unable to differentiate between actual twigs, except the yao float instead of just falling back onto the ground once you let them go," I explain it to them," So, strategy wise, you basically go around the area tossing every single twig up in the air and striking down those that float."

Jiang Cheng nods," I'd rather be doing that than Teacher Fang's lectures."

"How often do those happen?" I ask him, dreading the answer.

"Every three days," He answers," But once you are ready to cultivate a golden core you're moved to another teacher Teacher Xu," He tells me.

"Teacher Fang is very wise," Jiang YanLi somehow manages to say that with a straight face," You do well to learn from him."

Jiang Cheng and I share a look of utter disbelief.

"He blanked out for an hour," The little brat points at me," Literally didn't hear a single word he said, and you're asking him to actually learn anything?"

"Hey," I grumble," That whole deal of energy is basic knowledge and learning how to meditate."

"That's the most important part of cultivation," He says, exasperated.

"Yeah, well, it's also the most easy to teach," I roll my eyes," And my parents did spend a year constantly teaching me things."

Jiang Cheng looks at me," You already know this?"

I nod and take their left hands, focusing energy into their systems, and watch as their eyes go wide.

"How do you know that?" Jiang YanLi takes her hand back surprised.

"Teach me!" Jiang Cheng enthusiastically stares at his hand, still feeling the last remains of my energy thrumming through it.

"Oh?" I grin wickedly at him," Wouldn't you rather learn from the wise Teacher Fang?" I ask him.

Jiang Cheng's eyes glare at me and he opens his mouth to respond back in kind when both his parents enter the room.

Immediately the two of them bow and I bow about a second later, which Madam Yu quickly points out and takes the next minute to grill Jiang Cheng about how I did in today's lessons.

Jiang FengMian clearly struggled not to smile at both my ineptitude to stay focused during Teacher Fang's lecture and my total lack of grace during calligraphy practice.

And fine, yes, I was a bit miffed about my failings being used as a conversation starter.

"So, a Sect does have things to teach you after all," She sneered.

I refrained from rolling my eyes, although I didn't managed to bite my tongue fast enough to avoid drawling out," Yes, well, clearly I'll just recite the lecture to put the Yao and Spirits to sleep and frighten Beasts away with beautiful calligraphy."

Jiang YanLi covered her mouth quickly to hide her smile but Jiang Cheng was unfortunate enough to snort in response and slapped his mouth a second too late.

Goddammit.

You're hopeless.

You're not helping.

Madam Yu glared fiercely at my smart mouth and sat straighter in her seat.

Oh, you're getting it now.

Goddammit.

"And what, pray tell, should the children be taught then?" She asks in a rhetorical way.

I open my mouth to answer and stop, tilting my head in thought.

What CangSe and ChangZe had done with me wouldn't work on most of these kids exactly because they were just that, kids. They wouldn't understand half of the things I did, because I already had a whole lifetime of knowledge, modern knowledge at that, to base their teachings on.

"He can already use Spiritual Energy!" Jiang Cheng tells her," He agreed to teach me!"

My eyes widen," I probably should've specified what it's in my ability to teach you..." I muttered and sighed.

He turns to me with a frown," Why can't I learn?"

"It's not that you can't learn, it's just that... I don't remember when it started?" I gesture with a grimace," My parents taught me basic meditation and then... Well, they were gone so I had to think of something... I don't know what I did right or what I did wrong, I just kind of woke up one day and knew how to do that."

Jiang FengMian and Madam Yu look surprised. Jiang FengMian hurriedly comes over to my and starts checking my system.

"What you did was reckless!" He scolds," What if you had gone into Qi Deviation because of improper cultivation?!"

Jiang Cheng pales and stares at me with horrified eyes.

"I didn't?" I shrug," I don't even remember what I did."

Which was a lie but talking about how I knew Energy worked in this world and how they perceived Energy to work would be too wordy and leave it obvious that I was as 'normal' as an elephant in a tutu.

Yes, best avoid that, also, thank you dear, that is a lovely mental picture.

Jiang FengMian scours all of my system and meridians with my curious energy poking at his every so often, before withdrawing," You're fine, strong meridians and pathways..." He seems to muse something.

"A golden core?" Madam Yu has another peculiar look in her eyes.

"No," Jiang FengMian shakes his head," Advanced Energy absorption but in terms of cultivation he only has a base."

"I what?" I frown.

"It means you can start cultivating to form a golden core," Jiang Cheng answer me, unhappily.

I see the jealousy in his eyes and groan," You are such a platypus!"

Everyone just blinks.

"What's a platypus?" He asks.

I stare at him in confusion before my brain starts processing my words and just where platypus exist.

...

You screwed up.

I didn't?

You totally did.

I just need to find a platypus?

Where are you right now?

YunmengJiang.

In the world, doofus.

China.

Yeah, and guess where Platypus are?

...China?

Australia, you bloody idiot.

...

...

Oh.

Yes, oh! What have you done now?!

...Apparently about to create a mythical creature.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"The language of friendship is not words but meanings." - Henry David Thoreau


Chapter 40: Nickname

...Apparently about to create a mythical creature.

No, no you are not.

Yes, yes I totally am.

"It's a..." I tilt my head to the side to pretend-ponder on my words," A strange creature, it was originally a duck but then it got cursed and became a platypus," I tell them.

"Cursed?" Jiang YanLi frowns," Why was it cursed?"

I have this brilliant idea.

It's a terrible idea, just like all of your recent decisions.

"Because the duck kept going on and on about how little it had and how much it wanted to be like others!" I tell her," First he wanted to be an otter, to swim really fast, then he wanted to be a beaver, because of how they build their dams."

Jiang Cheng looks confused," Beaver? Otter?" What are those?"

I sigh," Animals, I can draw a picture of them for you later," I offer," Anyway, the duck tried to be like an otter first, but the other otters were too swift and wily for the duck to be able to imitate them."

"So he tried to be like the beavers," I say," But beavers had strong tails that they used to build their homes, while the duck only had a feathered butt," I grin, causing Jiang Cheng to snort.

Jiang FengMian smiled amused, while Madam Yu looked ready to tear into my lack of courteous speech, thankfully they both remain silent and I proceed with my story.

"So, the duck got angry and went on and on about how it wasn't fair that he was a duck, he wanted to be like the others, wanted to be just as good as them, and ignored all the other ducks telling him he was just perfect in his own way," I smirk," He complained so much that the Gods inevitably cursed him and turned him into a mix of a duck, an otter, and a beaver," I shrug.

Jiang Cheng looked horrified," And that's a platypus?"

I nod cheerfully," I'll draw one for you so you can see what they're supposed to look like!"

Jiang Cheng doesn't look much enthusiastic about that," Why did you call me that?"

I blink and tilt my head at him," Your eyes," I poke his forehead," You always look at me like I have something you don't, and you forget all about what you do have."

He frowns and pushes my hand away," I don't."

"You do," I sigh with a sad smile," You think it's not fair that I've already gone night-hunting, that I know enough meditation to start building a golden core, that I already have, or had, weapons," I tick off my fingers," But you're ignoring the reason as to why I had all those things."

Jiang FengMian looks saddened for a moment.

Through the corner of my eye I see Madam Yu crossing her arms, looking outwardly sour about the conversation topic, which was fair enough.

"So, in conclusion," I gesture grandly at Jiang Cheng," You are now, Platypus!"

Jiang Cheng lets out a sound of outrage," I am not!"

I laugh," You're totally are! My shidi, the Platypus!" I laugh harder when he tries to hit my but I keep dodging.

Jiang YanLi eventually grabs both of us and tells us to stop messing about, and that it's time to eat.

The rest of the meal passes over quickly, no more barbs or jabs to be said about anyone, except Jiang Cheng muttering at me and my continuous ribbing of him and his new nickname.

After a particular unflattering mutter from Jiang Cheng I hide a smirk in my soup bowl and look away, trying not to show my mirth of his attempts at sounding menacing.

If only all days could be like this.

It's not as cold as I thought it'd be.

Warmth...

How familiar.


Because of how small we were, and how big the bathtubs were, Jiang Cheng and I ended up taking a bath together.

I tried not to let it show how awkward I found the scene to be.

It was made especially hard since the kid kept glancing at my scars and trying to get me to tell him how I got them.

Honestly... I barely remembered half of them. I mean, I knew what had given me the scars but as far as 'how' went, well... Night-hunting. Or an angry servant. Or bandits.

Really, they looked 'impressive' and 'wicked' to a kid but I didn't really care about them.

And then there was the scar on my face.

No one knew how I got it.

I mean it, absolutely no one knew how I got such a scar on my face.

Since I only started appearing on night-hunts after the scar was already on my face, people had bets going on about how I got it and where I got it from.

The running bidding was that it was a training accident.

It was annoying.

No, beyond annoying, it was exasperating. Seriously, people had nothing better to do than to gossip.

So, in the end, I told Jiang Cheng I didn't remember getting it, since I was four years old and stupid back then.

I ignored his 'You're still stupid' muttered response and finished washing my hair and getting out of the tub.

Honestly, bed sounded like a heaven-sent gift.

So, naturally, something had to happen that kept me from going to sleep.

"What's that?!" Jiang Cheng pointed at the fur ball curled up on my bed.

"That's Yunru," I sigh," She must've decided to sleep indoors tonight or just grew bored of exploring."

What great timing, you have, girl...

Takes after you.

Don't start, please...

"You have a rat?" Jiang Cheng makes a disgusted face.

I give him a deadpan look, walk over to the bed and pick Yunru up, showing him just how big and long she was.

"This is not a rat, kid," I tell him," This is a sable, a ferret."

She's not a ferret.

She is a ferret if I say she's a ferret.

Yunru yawned and climbed up my arm and jumped back onto the bed.

"And she has the right idea, let's sleep, I'm tired," I put my boots at the end of the bed and lie down, pulling the blanket over me.

"Why do you have her?" Jiang Cheng does the same, climbing in his bed," Where did you get her?"

"I found her," I sigh," In Qinghe, about two years ago. She was just a pup then, so I cared for her until she could take care of herself."

"You have a pet," He pouts.

"Yunru is a wild animal," I stress out the word," She comes and goes as she pleases, if she wants to go hunting and never come back she can, she's almost an adult too, eventually she'll leave to find a mate or something."

She might stay.

She'll go, everyone needs a family.

She just might choose you as her family.

I let out a deep sigh.

"I want a pet..." Jiang Cheng mutters.

"If you want one then ask your parents," I tell him," And stop muttering, Platypus, it's unbecoming."

Jiang Cheng makes an affronted noise and throws his pillow at me.

I sit up and throw it back at him," Sleep, kid, and let me sleep!"

"I'm not a kid!" He yells.

"You're totally a kid!" I retort," You're throwing pillows and everything!"

"If I'm a kid so are you!" He yells.

"Fine, then we're both kids and should go to sleep," I concede," So, pretty please, go to sleep!"

I lie back down and roll over.

"You're so annoying!" He grumbles," And weird!"

"And you're not getting rid of me no matter how much you kick and scream," I laugh," So better get used to it!"

He extinguishes his lamp and grumbles, turning away from me and facing the wall.

Kids, always a delight.

Only you...

I chuckle lowly and curl up, Yunru coming to cuddle next to my head, pulling the blanket up.

Tomorrow's another day.


Because I did learn from my mistakes, no matter what Ike said, I brought a bunch of simple drawing materials with me when we left the room in the morning.

According to Jiang Cheng today there would be no Teacher Fang, instead we'd have simple calculus and history lessons in the morning, followed by cultural lessons, which were a mix of various subjects.

Including etiquette.

I had let out a mournful sigh when he told me that and Yunru popped out of her satchel to nuzzle my cheek in a 'there there' gesture.

Madam Yu wasn't impressed with the sable on my shoulder. Even less impressed with the spoiled donkey resting its laurels in the stables, which I found out had been my mother's alone before she married my father, but merely griped about it for half an hour and started arguing with Jiang FengMian about the allowances I was getting unlike other normal disciples.

Jiang FengMian simply smiled and asked Jiang Cheng if he wanted a sable of his own.

Jiang Cheng quickly answered he wanted a spiritual dog.

Madam Yu quickly replied he should get three as I had two pets.

I didn't even bother getting into that mess of an argument, I looked at the starry eyed Jiang Cheng and ribbed him about picking after puppies until they were house-broken.

He wasn't impressed with me.

Jiang YanLi shushed us before we could get into another 'fight' at breakfast, and we quickly at the rest of our meal in silence.

Madam Yu left first, as she always did, and called YanLi to go with her as they had lessons together. Jiang Cheng whispered to me they were 'womanly arts' but couldn't explain further, not exactly sure what that meant either.

Jiang FengMian had smiled at us but hadn't answered our query.

Given that I was more interested in math and history than in boring old men going on long-winded spiels about incomplete knowledge of energy, I paid close attention to what was being taught, and took squiggly notes on paper during the lessons.

Unfortunately those notes ended up being a point of contest against me as I was apparently awful at taking notes and my usual writing was illegible to other people. My argument that they were my notes and not anyone else's so why should they be reading my notes was both ignored and scolded for.

Honestly, I just threw in the towel about it and spared myself the headache of arguing back.

Whatever, I'd have my fountain pen soon enough.

Lunch came and went, with YanLi providing some of the dishes (and Jiang Cheng continued pestering of me to admit they were delicious) as she enjoyed cooking as a past-time, and I found myself a relatively quiet place to sketch and draw for a few hours until it was time to get back into lessons.

Yunru had been with me at lunch, if only to steal food off my plate or be cute for YanLi's eyes and beg for food from her, but had went away once all the food was gone.

Probably begging for food somewhere else.

Priorities.

Can't say I blame her.

Donkey was fine, living a carefree life and annoying all the other mounts there, so I wasn't worried about him.

I was using charcoal sticks to draw the view around me, the rippling water of the river in front of me was full of lily pads but I wouldn't see any lotus blossoms this year, the weather already starting to grow cold.

Once that sketch was drawn I moved on to draw an otter, from memory the exact dimensions were slightly skewed, I was sure, but it still close enough to the original that I wasn't too bothered by it.

The beaver was harder. I started sketching one but quickly scraped it. It wasn't as I wanted it to look like.

I closed my eyes and thought back on what beavers were supposed to be like.

I had never seen one in real life, illustrations from books or the occasional movie, but I wanted to get it as realistic as I could.

I focused on memories I had, and when I opened my eyes I started to slowly sketch a very close approximation of one.

Not the best, and I could probably disguise a lot of silly mistakes in proportions with paint and a scenery, but if I ever did that then I'd probably send the picture to Lan Zhan and send the kid on a wild goose chase trying to figure out what it was.

...

Please don't.

Why not?

Because then everyone will want to know how you know that.

And I tell them it's a myth.

Told by whom?

...A stranger.

Why do I even bother...

I chuckle and finish the sketch, blowing the loose charcoal dust and placing the finished picture together with my other drawings inside a packet.

What will you draw next?

I mused on what to draw before spying two older disciples sparring a bit further away from my observation roost where I was perched, and decide to give it a try. I could see them clearly and it was interesting to sketch moving targets.

I was just about done when a sudden shout comes from beneath me. I look down and see Jiang YanLi covering her mouth in a gasp," What are you doing up there?! You're going to fall down!"

I don't think I'm that high up, but the poor girl looks so startled that I quickly pack my things and nimbly climb down from the cozy spot I had found.

"Is lunch hour over?" I ask her," I'd think Jiang Cheng would've already run around looking for me if it was."

Jiang YanLi quickly checks me over to see that I was unhurt, but tuts at my charcoal covered fingers," No, it isn't over yet, almost though, what were you doing up there? It's dangerous!"

It's really not.

"Drawing," I answer," I wanted to paint the water and since I was already drawing I decided to sketch the otter and beaver for Jiang Cheng to see. Haven't done the platypus yet, but I wanted to use color for that one."

She takes me by the hand," C'mon, let's try to get your hands clean before the lessons start, Mother will be upset if she sees you like this."

Upset sounds like an understatement.

When is it ever not?

"It's just charcoal..." I hum," If I was using oils or other paints then it'd be harder to get it off, but charcoal washes off easily."

"Oils?" Jiang YanLi blinks," How do you paint with oil?"

"Oil pastels?" I ask her," Well... They're colored chalk except they're not really chalk, more like crayons."

Jiang YanLi frowns and I can see that she doesn't understand.

"After I draw the platypus for Jiang Cheng do you want me to paint you using oils?" I offer her," I could make it a portrait!"

Jiang YanLi smiles at my enthusiasm and nods," If A-Ying isn't busy with lessons."

"It's a promise!" I cheer," I'll draw the prettiest portrait of you!"

She chuckles and leads me to the kitchen to wipe my hands clean.

"If A-Ying says so then it must be true," She replies.

You better believe it is!

This world won't know what hit it!


I got bored very quickly in the next lesson. It wasn't that it was a bad lesson or that the teacher was just ranting about meaningless topics, it was just that I felt full of energy and all I could do was sit here and listen to the lecture.

Once more, Jiang Cheng was paying avid attention to the professor, and I blanked out, pulling paper and charcoal out of my pack and sketching just about everything I could think of. In a single page I had a little Yunru with stuffed cheeks, a few viola flowers, Xiaodan and a focused Jiang Cheng with narrowed eyes.

I was just getting started on one final sketch of the YunmengJiang Sect gate when my sense alert me to dodge, I quickly sink to the floor and the paper ball thrown at my head flies right above me and hits the boy in front of me.

The boy turns around with angry eyes at the disciple behind me, who stares, wide-eyed, at the other boy and gulps.

Yeah, you done goofed.

"Students," The teacher calls for our attention," What is so important that it has you distracted?"

The boy behind me has the brilliant idea to try and pin this on me.

"He threw a paper ball!" He quickly points at me.

I give him a deadpan look.

"I didn't," I tell the teacher," I just dodged the ball tossed at my head."

The teacher looks at the boy behind me and then at the boy in front," Who threw the ball?" He asks the boy.

The kid points at the one behind me.

"Gou, in the hallway, as punishment you will stand there until I call you back inside," The teacher orders.

The boy opens his mouth to argue but his friend quickly makes sure he doesn't.

He leaves the classroom but not before glaring at me.

Seriously, kids were weird. Why get angry that I didn't take the blame for him? I don't even know him.

"And you," The teacher turns to me," What is that?" He points at my desk.

Jiang Cheng hisses and I look down at my desk.

There's nothing out of the ordinary, I haven't spilled anything and I have it decently organized. I look at the teacher, confused," What is what?"

The teacher stops for a moment before stepping closer and plucking the paper full of sketches.

He stares at them for a moment before looking down at me," You drew these?"

I nod," Why?"

The teacher doesn't answer straight away, inspecting the drawings," Who taught you?"

Tough question.

I had an art tutor starting from when I was six, who stayed until I just started practicing on my own at around fourteen, I studied arts since I was a child and learnt many things from books or recreating famous paintings.

But that was when I was still Sarah.

No one had taught Wei Ying how to draw, I just remembered how to paint.

"No one," I answered him after a pause," I just... started drawing what I saw while I traveled."

"No one taught you," The teacher looks me in the eye.

I shake my head," No, sir."

"Have you drawn much?" He asks.

I nod," I have a few pictures with me, if Teacher wants to see them?" I offer.

He nods and holds out his hand.

I quickly grab a few unimportant pictures and hand them over.

The teacher stares at them, flipping though the pages, and then looks down at me again.

"It seems a conversation with the Sect Leader about this new development is in order," He says.

Jiang Cheng and I frown, not exactly sure why Jiang FengMian had to be told, while the rest of the class throw me looks.

"If that's what Teacher decides," I nod.

The teacher goes back to his desk, not even handing my drawings back, and resumes the lesson.

Jiang Cheng mouths 'What was that about?' to me and I shrug.

'No clue,' I mouth back.

What was so special about a couple drawings?


Apparently a lot.

"A genius," The teacher rambled while Jiang FengMian views the pictures he had been handed," Never have I seen such a technique, and the material! These were not done with ink!"

I stood, bewildered, as the man continued his spiel about how my art was fascinating.

I mean, I was flattered, but they were just charcoal sketches.

"Thank you, Master Cao," Jiang FengMian said, halting any more ramblings," For bringing this matter to my attention, I assure you I will work something out with Wei Ying."

It was a dismissal as clear as day, and the teacher saw it for what it was and, bowing, said last pleasantries to him and left.

"Can I have those back?" I ask him," Teacher Cao kept them through class and I thought he'd confiscate them."

Jiang FengMian hands them back easily enough," You never mentioned you painted."

I frown up at him," Why would I talk about that?"

"It's a nice passion to have," Jiang FengMian continues," You have talent."

No, I have decades of practice.

I shrug," I don't think these are anything much, they're just sketches. Oh! But I have drawn the otter and beaver for you to see, Jiang Cheng!" I turn to the boy, and pull the two pictures out of my pack," Here," I hand them to him.

Jiang Cheng looks at the pictures and gapes.

"What are these?" He asks, astonished," I've never seen them!"

"That's an otter," I point at one picture," That's a beaver," I point at the other," Haven't painted the platypus yet, but I'll do that one in color."

Jiang FengMian observes the pictures from over Jiang Cheng's head," These are really well made, the level of detail..."

They didn't look that impressive to me, especially since I knew I had screwed up dimensions and details one could only get from a reliable memory and knowing what the animal looked like in real life.

"Can you teach me?" Jiang Cheng looks at me, eager and bright eyed.

"I can teach you if you really want to learn for the sake of learning and not because you want to copy me," I tell him," Or else, you'll really turn into a platypus."

He reddens and frowns," I really want to learn!"

I nod," Then I'll teach you, shouldn't be harder than trying to stay awake for Teacher Fang's lectures," I smirk and Jiang Cheng responds in kind.

Jiang FengMian places his hands on both our heads," I am glad you two are getting along."

Jiang Cheng's eyes go wide like saucers and he brightens up immediately," Yes!"

It was sad to see the kid so desperate for acknowledgement and attention.

Had I been like this before?

I thought back at the lonely child trapped in a pristine manor with only books, paints and a rainbow colored being to keep her company.

Surely, I had, at some point, desperately tried to have my parents attention on me, to disastrous consequences.

Wei Ying had never had that problem, attention and affection were easily given and it was rare for him to feel lonely.

Jiang Cheng would grow up to be an embittered adult, not even a shard of this bright-eyed child remained in his countenance in the future, and I did my best to keep my sadness out of my eyes and expression.

I wanted something better for him.

A better future.

Let him keep smiling like this.

Please. Please. Please.

Let him keep smiling.

I pray.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Say it before you run out of time. Say it before it's too late. Say what you're feeling. Waiting is a mistake." - Anonymous


Chapter 41: In Patience

The next day Teacher Fang was back and I managed to get pulled from the class to start forming a golden core with the older disciples, getting stared at by twelve or so pre-teens isn't my idea of fun but it was hard not to show my relief of not having to endure Teacher Fang's lecture.

Poor, poor Jiang Cheng.

Yes, poor, poor Jiang Cheng.

You're not going to brag about being rid of the old man, are you?

No, but it's going to be impossible not to look amused when he comes trudging back to the main hall for supper and gripe about the lecture while all I did all morning was sit in a bamboo seat and 'circulate' energy into a sphere in my chest.

Which, let me tell you, is odd.

Whenever I dived inside of myself I could see an orb of light, energy, warm and bright and liquid. I could just reach out and let the energy flow from the orb and into the rippling void beneath me, allowing me to connect with the world around me, to see so much more than what is there.

They wanted me to instead grab all that liquid energy and make it into a solid shape in the center of my chest.

At first, the task didn't seem to be so hard. All I had to was transfer this energy up to my chest and make a marble out of it. Easy, right?

Wrong.

When are you ever not?

Ugh.

You could cup your hands full of liquid energy and carry it up to your chest easily enough, but the furthest you were away from that little orb of light the thinnest the liquid got and the faster it slip between your cupped hands.

So, by the time you got to the new 'energy deposit' in your chest, all you had to place in there were one or two drops of energy.

I initially thought that it was because it was my first time, your first attempts at doing something are always inevitably worse than your more practiced shots, but... It kept happening.

Over and over and over again.

After the sixth or seventh time it happened I kind of stopped and thought about the process. Either I was doing something wrong, or the process was just inherently slow.

Going through novel information, my bet was that the process was just slow.

The thought irked me.

Not only were people cultivating an incomplete theory, their actual methods of cultivation were so slow... I knew tortoises that could move faster than the rate at which these inexperienced kids would be able to gather enough energy to form their golden cores.

What are you going to do about it?

I need to change it!

You sure about that?

Yes, I am sure! These people need to know-...

And who else?

...Uh?

You tell anyone about a different, more powerful method of cultivation and word will spread. It could very help earnest, good, and friendly people, but it will also allow the exact opposite people to do the same.

What would Wen Ruohan do if he knew of this? You might go 'he's already too old to use this method' and that might be true, but his sons aren't.

The thought of Wen Chao or Wen Xu having the same power scale as I did, when they already caused enough chaos in canon as is, was chilling.

I couldn't let that happen.

But that meant...

It means that your generation will not learn this. Maybe Wen Yuan's generation or their children's generation, but not yours.

I grit my teeth and stared at the ever-flowing ball of light inside of me.

The knowledge to change peoples lives, and it needs to be kept secret because some would use it to their own goals and ambitions.

I thought back on all the recipes the System provided me, all the materials, equipment, and sheer amount of resources I could learn and grow from, survive out of, and just... just realized how powerless I was at times.

What use was power if it could not be used? Or taught?

I was to build a better future, but doing so, aspiring to do so, could very well condemn a generation to a needless war, needless pain and suffering.

You cannot stop the war from happening.

I know that.

You cannot control the actions of others.

I know that.

It's just that... It's just that I really thought that I could make a difference here.

You can.

I can't.

Madam Yu still compares Jiang Cheng to me, still hates me, and to make Jiang Cheng feel better I'd have to compromise on my own growth, and I cannot do that. I cannot stop growing just because this one child is being pitted against an adult inside a child's body.

I have to get stronger.

It's still not enough.

How do you know that?

Because if I cannot stop this war then I am powerless to stop hundreds, if not thousands or millions, from dying.

If I cannot stop this war, I can only do damage control.

How much can I prevent?

How many can I possibly save?

How... How...

How weak.

I slammed my fists into the solid void beneath my feet, punching it over and over again, and howling in anger.

It's still not enough.

I need more.

I need to be stronger.

I need more power.

More strength. More will. More time.

There still isn't enough time.

As if materialized by my thoughts above the glowing orb of light a countdown formed by glowing blue letters forms.

I stare at the ticking down seconds, and at the remaining time.

Not enough time.

But it is the time you have. A wise man knows that time is always running out, what does he do?

He learns from the past, lives in the present and plans for the future.

I take a deep breath, calm my emotions down and lock my eyes on the swirling energy in front of me, and then up at the countdown.

Not enough time.

So what does that mean?

I have no time to waste.

I get up and gather more liquid energy in my hands.

I would get stronger. I would get better. I would do better.

The war would come, of that I was certain, but the people it took, the people that remained...

Fixed events can only be delayed, never avoided.

Outcomes... Well... No one had said anything about fixed outcomes.

Play to win. Hold the cards close. Read the ones that remain on the deck.

Life is but a game.

And I am a terrible loser.


I joined Jiang Cheng for the afternoon lessons and started to show him various trapping knots I used in night-hunting and in regular hunting. Teaching him was... peaceful. He was a good student, despite his frequent jabs that I wasn't that much older than him and therefore shouldn't act like I was his elder, and he learnt fast.

The theory at least, put theory into practice would have to wait.

I thought of teaching him how to use the bow but upon reflecting on it I decided it'd be best to ask permission first. Agreeing to teach him was all well and good until he actually tried something I taught him and ended up hurt because of it.

Plus, I didn't even know whether he was strong enough to pull the string back.

The only reason I had been able to do so was because I cheated.

Or, well, it wasn't exactly cheating... I just had a crutch others didn't.

Although, to be fair, if I had just woke up in a new world with a culture vastly different than my own, in a completely different era, and had nothing to guide me or to at least provide a direction to go towards, I wouldn't have lived for long.

I'd have totally panicked and gotten myself killed over something stupid.

You just might, with your track record of dubious decisions and actions I wouldn't put it past you to get yourself killed over something minor.

Like?

Like someone badmouthing your parents and you punching them in the face.

Okay, first off I tried punching her in the stomach, secondly, I have every right to defend CangSe and ChangZe's memories from every douchebag who thinks they can just talk about them however they please just because they're dead.

You don't need to automatically resort to violence.

It's usually the fastest solution.

It's also the quickest way to offend someone you can't afford to antagonize.

Jeez, I get it already, I'm sorry. I'll try to not let it happen again.

You better.

"Are you even listening?" Jiang Cheng hisses at me.

"Not really, why?" I ask him in a soft voice.

"Why?! You're supposed to be learning!" He hisses again and pinches me.

I bat away his hand," He's talking about the different types of spirits."

"And you already know it?" He gives me an unconvinced look.

"I've encountered most of them," I shrug," But no, I just find it boring. No worries, I won't 'bring shame' or whatever down on your family."

"Our family..." He grumbles.

I sigh," Your family," I tell him," I'm just... a foster disciple, of sorts."

I'm not even sure what I was, to be honest.

Technically I fell under the category of a Rogue Cultivator, since I performed on night-hunts and held no association with any sects or clans, but my age would automatically send me to the 'apprentice' or 'disciple' category, since you were only considered a full-fledged cultivator once you reached, at the very least, fourteen years of age.

Or your sect/clan decided you were ready and inducted you earlier.

Whichever happened first.

As the Bai Clan and I kept our close relationship secret, they could not induct me, therefore I wasn't yet a cultivator. But, I wasn't a mere disciple either.

Somewhere in between?

Sure, let's go with that.

Jiang Cheng gave me a look that promised we'd be having this conversation at another, more opportune, time.

I just hoped he would not tell Jiang FengMian and get the man more involved with my current development in the sect.

Already, I was in advanced classes to form my golden core, with disciples three or four years older than me, and would have a private tutor regarding my painting skills. Madam Yu hadn't been happy about the latter, and I'd been quick to try and get Jiang FengMian to drop the matter, I had no need or want of someone coming in and telling me how to paint, but, again, I had been overruled.

The Madam had been suspiciously quiet about the former, and I had felt something akin to a foreboding feeling about her silence on the matter.

An augury of future conflicts?

God, I hope not.

Anyways, my week promised to be packed with things to do. Jiang Cheng stated we had a day and a half to ourselves, without any lessons, but I doubted anyone would let me find peace and quiet to scour through the YunmengJiang Sect in search of interesting books.

Well, any books really, since my goal was to read everything.

You could just ask.

...Ruin my fun, why don't you.

It's not supposed to be fun, it's supposed to be time-efficient.

I grumble under my breath but concede to the point.

I'll ask once the lesson is over, might help to keep me focused on lessons, reading about the subject.

Or prove that you're actually learning something.

That too.


"Why don't you think of us as family?" Jiang Cheng got right to business once we settled down for a meal.

Dinner time meal.

He did this on purpose, I realize as everyone stops eating to look at me, devious brat.

"You're not my family," I put down my chopsticks," They're your family and this is your home," I state," I'm just... staying here, temporarily."

Jiang Cheng frowns," Temporarily?"

"For a short time," I clarify," I made a promise, eventually I'll have to leave to fulfill it."

Better to rip the bandage now and not get caught up in the whole 'you promised to stay by my side' debacle.

"What promise?" Jiang Cheng asks.

I look down at my hands, the promise happened some time ago, but I still remember it clearly," I promised my mother I'd become a great person, like her Shizun, and that I'd have my own mountain."

"A mountain?" Jiang Cheng didn't understand how those two things could be related.

"So you're taking advantage of the Sect and then leave without any gratitude," Madam Yu sneers.

I stare at her with a steely look in my eyes," I did not ask to stay, I am perfectly fine with leaving, I did not ask for your help, Ma'am."

Temper. Reign in your temper.

I took a deep breath and slowly breathed out, repeating it two more times before I felt in control enough to stop.

"Ungrateful child," Madam Yu speaks," To belong to a sect is an unspeakable honor."

"An honor I did not request," I assert," I have stated, several times, that I was fine with my travels, I did not walk through the gates by my choice alone," I point out.

"Wei Ying," Jiang FengMian intervenes," A child should not be alone on the streets."

"Words spoken whilst there are other hundreds of orphans of fellow rogue cultivators living off trash and the generosity of strangers," His 'care' irks me," How am I different than them? Because you knew my parents?"

Jiang FengMian's lips press into a thin line, and Madam Yu laughs," How different indeed! In terms of manners and courtesy, you are clearly no better than a common street rat."

I smile genially," As you've said, Ma'am, I had no mother to teach me any manners."

Jiang Cheng and Jiang YanLi shift in their seats, uncomfortable, and I pull back on my animosity.

Be better.

I close my eyes and turn away, controlling my breathing again, and trying to bring down the sizzling anger just starting to spark inside of me.

"I apologize," I turn back to Madam Yu," That was discourteous of me."

She does not reproach me, but she does snub me for the rest of the meal, which is spent in a tense atmosphere.

Goddammit.

Honestly, every time I promised myself I wouldn't do this, I inevitably made things worse.

I kept myself not to antagonize the woman, there was absolutely no reason, no merit, in antagonizing her. So why did I keep doing it?

I thought about it a lot as I ate, mulling over what it could possibly be about Madam Yu that just raised my hackles.

I couldn't think of a reason, anything that was out of place with what I had expected her to be like, nothing that screamed at me 'dislike, dislike, dislike' whenever I saw her or addressed her.

Truthfully, I just... didn't like her, but I didn't hate her either.

It was confusing.

I shook my head when my thoughts kept spiraling endlessly without a conclusion.

Best to take a break and ruminate about this with a fresh perspective, and awake mind.

I'd figure out the reason sooner or later.


Of course, that did not mean Jiang Cheng didn't restart his questions about my eventual departure and why I had to leave in order to fulfill, in his mind, a weird promise to make.

"You can be a great person here!" He kept repeating.

"And the mountain?" I offer him a tired grin," I'm not leaving anytime soon, Jiang Cheng, not until I'm not 'a child' in your father's eyes."

"But you'll still leave," He says, upset," What about teaching me?"

"I will teach you," I chuckle," But I won't be teaching you forever, you will eventually learn things all on your own."

He frowns, I can vaguely see his troubled expression thanks to the moonlight coming in from the bedroom window," But why do you have to leave?"

"Because I made a promise," I answer him for the nth time.

"Why? Why is that promise important?" He grumbles.

"If I promised you to stay by your side forever, and suddenly went back on my word and left, would you be angry?" I asked him, already knowing he would be angry no matter what he told me now.

He frowns harder and thinks about it," Yeah... If you promised you'd stay and then left that'd make you a liar."

"And I'm not a liar," Not all the time, anyway," I already made that promise, to my parents, so I'll have to keep it," I tell him.

"But you'll go away..." Jiang Cheng pulls his blanket closer to himself.

I turn to face him and prop my head up on my arm," When I leave it doesn't mean we won't ever talk again, you just won't see me all the time," I reasoned," Besides, your sister you eventually leave too, won't she? It's the same, we can still be friends, we can still talk and meet, I could still teach you things. Just not all the time."

He glares at the wall behind me and then looks away," I don't want you to go."

I chuckled," You're the one that two days ago couldn't stand me knocking at your bedroom's door asking to be let in."

He pouts and I believe he's flushing in embarrassment," It's different..." He mumbles.

"How so?" I ask him, amused.

"You're family now," He tells me.

I sigh, tiredly," Not family, platypus, I already had one, I don't want another."

Lies.

Jiang Cheng turns back to face me and his dark eyes show signs of tears," You're lying!"

I blink," How do you know?" I ask him instead of trying to deny it.

"Because you always get sad when I can you family! You miss them!" He answers me.

I chuckle again," Well, of course I miss them, I love them," I tell him," Took me a while to realize it too," I add in a quieter tone.

I regret not treating them better than I had.

I regret not cherishing every moment we had together more.

I regret being falling asleep that night and letting them slip through my fingers without saying goodbye.

"What do you mean?" Jiang Cheng asks softly, having obviously heard my change in voice tone.

I ponder on how to answer his inquiry, rolling back on my back and staring at the white ceiling.

"I... resented them," I finally tell him," They were gone almost every night and I got left behind. I hated it," I continue," No matter how much I begged to go with them, I was always told no, so I had to stay behind on an inn or park until they came back."

"I was... not lonely, but I didn't like the feeling of having to wait for them," I shrug despite knowing he wouldn't really see it," So I used to be angry at them, I hated being left behind, and since they kept doing it, I hated them."

"But you went on night-hunts with them!" Jiang Cheng tells me.

"Later, yes, not at first," I laughed," And even then I couldn't go very far from them and had to obey to them at all times," I told him," But it was... fun. And I got to spend so much time with them, I loved it. I wasn't left behind anymore, I felt... really happy."

"And then?" Jiang Cheng wonders.

"And then they died," My expression twists," They were gone and they were never coming back. I was... so sad. I wanted them back. I wanted them to be right there with me again. But they weren't... They never would be."

I sigh tiredly and look back at Jiang Cheng with a sad smile," I've had my family, I don't want to replace it. So your family is your own, platypus, and I am fine with that."

Jiang Cheng wants to say something more but stays silent.

I nod," Let's go to sleep, okay?"

He reluctantly nods and closes his eyes to sleep.

I roll over and curl up in my blankets.

You can start fresh, you know?

I do not want to.

Liar. Your flaw is that you carry everything inside your soul like a bloody cross. You don't have to do this alone.

I know.

You don't. You are ignoring a thousand helping hands in favor of walking across the hot coals and burning all the bridges lent your way prematurely.

I am keeping the bridges intact, you know I am.

Not every bridge. Why not accept the Jiangs as family? Why keep your self at arms length? Because Lotus Pier may burn?

Because it is not fair.

Not fair?

I did not call them my family for so long... I was pretending to be their son, yet at the same time, I did not see them as my parents.

How can I welcome these people into my heart as family when I did not do the same with CangSe and ChangZe?

Oh, darling...

I miss them.

I know.

It's like a hole inside my soul, it hurts.

I know, honey.

I can't replace them. I can't! I can't even think about feeling up that hole with more people, when I treated them so bad.

You didn't.

I did.

You didn't.

I did! Ike, I did! I was just like her!

You were not. You weren't, and never will be, like that woman.

I tried to not let any tears fall from my eyes, concerned I'd wake Jiang Cheng up, but I had to cover my head with the blanket just in case.

That woman was a bitter, and unloving, cruel human being. You have never, not once, displayed any of her mannerisms or traits. You spent years of your life working to make others feel better, even if it was just brewing a cup of tea and listening to them, you were there when they needed you.

That woman never was. She took, and took, and took and what she didn't take from you she'd destroy.

You are not her, my darling, you've never been her.

I curled up into a tight ball and tried to focus on his words without getting lost on any trigger memories.

But it was in doing so, in listening to his words, that a picture started taking place in my mind.

I saw a more youthful 'Mother' posing with my Father for a portrait by the fountain, just after they were married.

And then the picture shifted, and when it settled there was a younger Madam Yu with a stern expression standing dispassionately beside a smiling Jiang FengMian.

The thought clicked.

Why I detested Madam Yu even when trying and swearing to myself that I wouldn't rise to the bait of antagonizing her.

She reminded me of Baroness Windsor.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"What good has impatience ever brought? It has only served as the mother of mistakes and the father of irritation." - Steve Maraboli


Chapter 42: Impatience

When the thought appeared it made everything so much clearer.

Of course I wouldn't be able to stand the woman when on a subconscious level I was associating her image with that of that despicable woman.

But they weren't the same.

Madam Yu loved her children dearly, she was angry that Jiang FengMian did not spend much time with them, that he did not gaze at his son as he'd gaze at the son of another woman. The son of the woman he had loved and lost years before. When Lotus Pier burnt the last thing she had done was make sure her son would get out safely, and to make the child she had treated so horribly promise to protect her son.

Order them to reunite with their sister, and to be safe.

Baroness Windsor would never have done that.

Baroness Windsor was a bitter old woman who viewed her only daughter as the biggest shame to have befallen their house, and a personal failing of hers to have birthed such a reject, and who'd done everything in her power, short of ordering my untimely demise, to make sure no one else knew such a mistake existed.

I wouldn't be surprised if more distant relatives had been told the baby girl the Baroness had been expecting had been a stillborn, if only to prevent any questions about how I was doing.

Or to appear on any family portraits or christmas postcards.

When I had left that house I had, for the first time ever, actually walked the streets and interacted with the world without any lines to recite or governesses looking over my shoulder.

It felt freeing.

And terrifying.

Madam Yu was not Baroness Windsor.

She wasn't. And I needed to come to terms with that.

The way they'd look down on me and act so superciliously towards me, held great resemblance with how Baroness Windsor used to look at me.

But there were differences.

There was a reason as to why Madam Yu hated me, the Baroness had no such excuse.

I had done nothing to deserve her hatred, negligence, and abuse.

In parallel, I had done nothing for Madam Yu to dislike me prior to coming to YunmengJiang, although I wouldn't say the same since I arrived.

...I could work with that?

I thought about it, letting words and thoughts mesh together and forming roots and branches in the garden growing out the black void that was my mind, and decided that yes, I could work with her.

Look past her issues and see the person.

It will take time.

Yes... Changes always do.

You might not change anything.

I know, more than anything I know that I am not omniscient.

It is not your problem to solve.

I know, I pull the blanket off my face and rub my eyes, but I'll be solving many other people's problems in the future.

So you'll use this a practice run?

You have to walk before you can run.

How very not Tony Stark of you.

I snorted and covered my mouth, looking worriedly at Jiang Cheng but he remained asleep.

Don't make me laugh like that!

I just remembered something.

What?

Did you remember to write to your pen-pals?

...

My eyes widen.

Oh, no.

Nice dreams!

Goddammit, Ike!

Love you, dearest!

Go drown in a puddle, why did you have to remind me of that!

He was already hiding somewhere in my mind so there was no reply. I threw an arm over my face and groaned, quietly, sulking at my horrible luck.

I just knew ShouShan would send back a reply if only to laugh at my misery.


The next day everyone pretended that last night's dinnertime discussion hadn't happened and I went along with it, I didn't want to rock the boat any more than I already had, today was another Teacher Fang day for Jiang Cheng and another session of carrying drops of liquid energy up to my chest, something I wasn't exactly looking forward to due to how boring the repetition got, and how slow the process was, but the afternoon lessons were more interesting.

History and heraldry in this place was interesting.

Despite having magic and otherworldly beings crawling about at night, their technological developments were... sub-par at best, well, on some things. Flying swords did sound pretty damn cool.

But, again, such things were only available to cultivators, and only the ones with the money to afford such items, which made for a very imbalanced society.

I needed to write to Yan MingXia and get her thoughts on this, now that I could get replies back, and ShouShan's too. I'd need to remind Lan XiChen and Lan WangJi not to use their actual names in their replies, I wasn't sure if I wanted our relationship to be public.

With the scrutiny the letters would get when they started coming, it'd be best to play it as if they were just simple GusuLan Sect disciples and not its heirs.

That won't work forever, especially not when you go to Gusu yourself.

If I can keep our relationship from being exposed for seven years I'll be grateful enough not to complain when my inevitable bad luck comes right around the corner and kicks me in the balls.

It's almost like you're hiding a secret affair, my dear.

Goddammit, Ike, it's too early for this.

Madam Yu finished eating and got up, leaving with a few clipped words to Jiang YanLi to remind her of lessons, and a fleeing glance in Jiang Cheng's direction.

Damn uptight types of women.

Temper.

I am perfectly calm.

Uh Uh, pull the other one its got bells on it.

I sigh through my nose and focus on eating the last bun on my plate and the rest of my soup.

Today was going to be a long day and I wanted it done and over with. I had letters to write, excuses to come up with, check in on Donkey and try to find Yunru to make sure she hadn't gotten herself caught by a miffed disciple.

Also, I wanted to paint that platypus picture for Jiang Cheng, and maybe a few more to send with the letters.

And I also promised to paint YanLi's portrait when I had the time.

Which reminded me...

"Books," The word comes out of my mouth.

"Uh?" Jiang Cheng gives me a confused look.

"We have those history books to study in class," I think of an excuse fast," I wonder if there are more books like that."

"Of course there are!" Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes," The YunmengJiang has a Sect Library full of books! So wh-..."

He stops when he notices the stars in my eyes.

"Lots of books?" I ask him, playing up my act," A whole room full of books?"

Jiang Cheng reddens slightly but straightens up his spine and turns his nose up in the air, so reminiscent of his mother it was adorable," Yes, a room full of books! The YunmengJiang has one of the best and most extensive libraries in the Great Sects, short only of GusuLan who is an older Sect."

"Ooh," I gasp in wonderment," Can I see the library?"

Jiang Cheng gives me another odd look before quickly looking away," Disciples of the Sect are allowed inside to study, but you cannot remove any books without permission," He explains," I can take you there after lunch," He offers.

I smile brightly at him," Yes, thanks, platypus!"

Jiang Cheng chokes on his own spit and turns, face flaming red, towards me," Stop calling me that!"

My smile turns into a wicked grin and I quickly reach out to pinch his cheek," Nope! You're my adorable shidi, the platypus!"

Jiang FengMian chuckles and YanLi covers her mouth primly with her sleeve.

Jiang Cheng reddens even more and bats my hand away," Stop! Or I'll call you something too!"

"Oh?" My eyes gleam," What brilliant nickname can you come up for me?"

Jiang Cheng closes his lips into a thin line, thinking, before looking away," I will think of something!"

I prop my head up on my hand and smile at him,"Mn, I'll be waiting then."

He grumbles something under his breath and goes back to eating breakfast.

I wanted to keep this as is. This attitude, this energy, this peaceful atmosphere.

I wanted a better tomorrow where this scene didn't have to change.

Please. Please. Please.

I close my eyes and offer a silent prayer to whatever deity is out there.

Let him be happy. Let him grow up loved. Let him be himself.

Please. Please. Please.


I kind of trudged back to the main hall for lunch and just sat down with a sigh, massaging at my chest with a grimace.

"Are you hurt?" Jiang Cheng asks, eyeing me with concern.

"No, just sore, and tired," I groan," It doesn't hurt but you have to continuously keep your energy circulating for hours, I'm not used to doing that. When I night-hunt I don't waste needless energy, just spark up once or twice, the rest of the time is good old fashioned track-and-capture," I explain to him.

He blinks," But cultivators always use Chi when night-hunting!" He tells me.

I shrug," Well, no one told me that, so why would I suddenly start doing it?" I grumble.

I had Talents for that, and Stats, and Advantages.

You've been spoilt by the System.

I have not!

You totally have.

You're just jealous of my greatness.

I live inside your brain, I share in your greatness.

So what are you complaining about, freeloader?

Oh, is that how it's going to be, dearest?

Love you, Ike!

"A-Cheng, A-Ying," YanLi enters the hall," How were lessons?"

Jiang Cheng grumbles and I groan, causing her to laugh and come sit on the table beside us," You must work hard, this JieJie is happy to see you growing strong."

Jiang Cheng preens up and I open my mouth to needle him when Madam Yu enters the hall, my mouth shuts close with a click.

Better to remain quiet and not accidentally say the wrong thing.

Good tactic.

"Hello, Mother," YanLi smiles," Is Father joining us?"

"Your Father is busy," Madam Yu answers," Jiang Cheng, how was Master Fang's lesson?" She asks upon sitting down at her table.

Jiang Cheng straightens and goes on to explain what was discussed that morning.

Sounds dreadfully boring.

I'd have fallen asleep sitting up before the ten minute mark.

I don't doubt it.

"Wei Ying," Madam Yu turns to me and I repress a flinch,"How was... your lesson?" She asks.

I blink, bewildered and confused, before answering her," Teacher Xu discussed the methods of keeping your Chi circulating for long periods of time, and had us cultivate continuously until the lesson was over. If the disciples stopped for a moment they would be hit with Teacher Xu's ruler, Ma'am."

And hadn't that brought back memories.

Madam Yu nods and turns to YanLi," How were lessons with Mistress Zhu?"

YanLi smiles genially at her, and once again I imagine the flowers and rainbows blossom around her head," They went well, Mother. Mistress Zhu said that I would be able to start the next forms soon."

Next forms? What?

I tried not to look too curious and failed. Not that Jiang Cheng was any better.

YanLi smiled at us but did not disclose any more information.

"I'm taking Wei Ying to the Library after lunch, A-Jie, do you want to come with?" Jiang Cheng asks her.

I twitch.

Kid, you're going to get me killed.

"The Library?" Madam Yu turns back to Jiang Cheng," Why are you taking him there?"

The unsaid 'when he's like that' rings loud and clear in my head, and I withheld a sigh.

"He wondered if there were more books on history," Jiang Cheng answered," It's one of the only classes he actually pays attention."

"It is not," I mutter.

I'm ignored.

"History?" Madam Yu gets another one of those odd looks in her eyes," What is so fascinating about history?" She asks me.

I ponder on how to answer that for a moment.

"I guess... How things were before, what happened and how they happened," I muse aloud," It's interesting, at least to me, especially since I've passed many areas where great battles happened but there's nothing that indicates that they did. It's like the land just... forgot, I guess."

YanLi and Jiang Cheng give me surprised looks, astonished I could say such deep words, and I flush red," What?!" I yelp.

"You sound much older than what you are," YanLi tells me.

I look away, embarrassed.

Madam Yu doesn't say anything else and the meal continues in silence, Jiang Cheng hurries me to finish eating so that we can get a move on, but I grumble that I want to appreciate eating, getting another odd look from Madam Yu, but eventually comply.

The faster I knew where to find the Library, the quicker I started reading everything that there was to read in there.


Those were a lot of books.

And scrolls.

And so much paper.

I blinked at the shelves shock full of historic events, weather phenomena, and lineages upon lineages of people and couldn't help the giddy skip to my steps as I wondered around marveling at the sight.

"They're just books," Jiang Cheng was muttering to the bemused YanLi," What's so special about books?"

"Hush, A-Cheng," YanLi smiled," Look how happy he is."

I was happy. Oh, god, was I happy.

Where do we start?

By topic? By shelf? Start on one end and work towards the other? By rows?

So many options!

You're starting to sound a bit crazy.

Squee!

My inner bookworm had just died and ascended to the Heavens. I was in paradise.

I find myself a little niche in one corner and grab a history book, getting right to it.

"That's what you're doing all for the remaining lunch hour?" Jiang Cheng groans.

"Yup!" I cheerfully reply losing myself in the words I was reading," You're welcome to join me."

"Heavens no! I'm going to spar with the other disciples!" He tells me with a huff and leaves, Jiang YanLi stays for a few minutes longer before leaving also.

And then there's just me and the books.

And Ike.

I'm kind of offended I was merely an afterthought.

Priorities.

Darling, you wound this poor heart of mine.

Sorry not sorry.

As lovely as always.

You betcha'!

He grumbles under his breath and settles down to read the book with me, occasionally offering some input to the words written and comments about how stupid some people's plans and tactics were.

It was fun.

I missed this.

My mountain would definitely have a place like this.

A place full of knowledge and history, where people could come and go to learn, to remember past events, a place that immortalized names and memories forever.

Ink on paper, how ephemeral yet long lasting.

Don't get poetic now.

I chuckle breaking the silence of the library and turn the page, engrossed in my reading.

Time flies when you're having fun, and just as I was halfway through my third book an annoyed Jiang Cheng comes to yank me out of the library, stating we were almost late for lessons.

I moaned in despair at having to leave the library, and shamelessly clutched at the door frame making a scene that infuriated (and embarrassed) Jiang Cheng, culminating in getting dragged to the classroom.

YanLi couldn't stiffle her giggles at dinner and Jiang FengMian's lips curved upwards as Jiang Cheng raged at my mortifying behavior and I moped over my dinner.

Madam Yu hadn't said a word but her eyebrow kind of twitched before she put on a stony facade.

I weighed the odds of her planning my demise before going back to moping.

It had been such an interesting chapter too!


I couldn't wait for tomorrow.

You're getting into so much trouble.

Trouble is my middle name!

It will also be your cause of death in your tombstone.

Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud, Ike!

It's your funeral.

I rolled my eyes and effortlessly climbed out of the window of the bedroom, and walking across the rooftop towards the library, Yunru had joined me on my nightly excursion, having spent her day goofing around the training yard and jumping at distracted people's heads, and poked her head out of her satchel.

The weather was cold and dry right now so expertly traversing from the residential wing of the Sect to the place where the library was at, wasn't that hard.

And more, there were a lot of windows I could use to get inside the building that had no locked doors.

I was a genius.

You are a budding rogue who has, to this point in time, not only looted a whole basement of contraband, and walked away unscathed, but need I remind you about that week in Qishan with the Magistrate's house?

...

...So?

No... No, Ike, you don't need to remind me. Ow, you really hit where it hurts.

Just making sure you didn't think you got these 'skills' by doing nothing.

But you've got to admit, that week in Qishan was pretty spectacular.

...It was... interesting.

Pssh, sure, just interesting. It's not like I completely ruined that bastard's life.

You went fully Robin Wood on that one, I'll admit to that.

Aah~ Good times...

I climbed up a classroom window and slowly eased the door open, keeping an ear out, but everything was dead quiet. I entered the hallway and closed the door softly behind me, moving silently towards the library on nimble footsteps.

When I reached the library door I couldn't help but give myself a pat on the back.

I was awesome.

I made my way back to where the book I had been reading was and positioned myself under a window so I could use the moonlight to read. Wasn't the best method but I couldn't risk using a lamp and have the light be seen by anyone.

Thankfully *Keen Sight* made matters easier.

I lost myself in my reading, sure that I could sneak back into the bedroom before dawn and no one would know I had snuck out during the night.

As my track record for situations like this should indicate, I was wrong.

"What," The sudden voice startles me so bad I drop the book I had just started reading, I look up with a shocked expression to see Madam Yu staring down at me with an unimpressed expression on her face," Are you doing?"

"Reading, Ma'am?" I thoughtlessly answer.

You have a death wish.

I do not.

A total death wish!

I do not!

Madam Yu's eyes blaze with ire and she opens her mouth to, no doubt, rant at me, but before she can do that Jiang Cheng bursts in the Library.

The window was visible from the door, which made me wonder just how Madam Yu got in here without me noticing, and he stared at me and then looked up at his infuriated mother.

You have the shittiest luck, and I am loving this!

Goddammit, Ike.

Madam Yu looks from Jiang Cheng, who gulps and visibly cowers under his mother's unimpressed stare, and then turns her eyes back on me.

You're getting blamed for this.

I didn't ask him to come here! I don't even know what he's doing here! How is here? He's supposed to be asleep!

Like I've told you many times, my darling, you have the world's shittiest luck.

I let out a mournful sigh, resigning myself to my fate.

"You two," Madam Yu speaks slowly, as if physically restraining herself to not start shouting at the nth hour of the night," Back to your bedroom. We will talk in the morning," She said before glaring at me," Do not attempt to leave the bedroom until the morning, or else."

That was a death threat if I ever heard one.

Ike... Please... Stop...

Jiang Cheng nods quickly and grabs me, dragging me back to his room.

"You are so dead," He hisses at me," What was so important it couldn't wait?!"

I don't answer him, only let out another mournful sigh.

Goddammit.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"There should have been a better farewell. But in the end, there never is. And we take what meager scraps we can find." - Richard K. Morgan


Chapter 43: Morning

When the sun peeked through the window I was already wide awake and going through scenarios of how my death was going to occur. From a modern perspective, getting out of bed at nth hour of the night to go read some books wasn't the worst thing I could've done.

I hadn't even sounded any alarms off!

Which didn't explain how Madam Yu even found me.

Yunru curled up against my head and made this odd purr sound, the 'there there, stop moping' pratically visible in a thought bubble over her head.

I sighed.

Seriously, I had done nothing wrong!

You were out of bed and sneaking around.

I grumbled under my breath and Yunru made the purring sound again.

The world was against me!

Oh, yes, the injustice of preventing you from reading a history book under the moonlight instead of waiting for daytime to do it.

I pouted.

It's not fair... I want to read!

Well, you won't be reading anything any time soon now, get ready to face the music.

I groan and roll out of bed, getting my robes on and brushing my hair, Jiang Cheng was still asleep and I needed something to distract myself with, so I ended up deciding to do several hairstyles and undoing them until he woke up.

Anything to buy myself more time.

Delaying the inevitable.

I did not offer that a response.

Eventually Jiang Cheng woke up just as I was finishing a braided bun on my head, which was somewhat crooked due to lack of practice, and he blinks.

"You never put your hair in a bun," He yawns.

"I'm bored," I tell him, undoing it," You were still asleep and I'm not leaving this room alone."

The events of last night flood back into his conscious mind and he pales, then reddens," Mother is angry because of you! If you hadn't left the room-...!"

"You did not have to come get me!" I throw my hands up," Your mother would've yelled at me or something but you just had to show up, now we're both in trouble!" I press my hands to the sides of my head.

I just knew there was a migraine incoming.

Jiang Cheng frowns and presses his lips into a thin line, getting out of bed and angrily putting his own robes on.

Great, now you've upset the kid.

I sigh," I'm sorry," I apologize," I know you were only trying to help me."

"You were gone..." He mumbles.

"Uh?" I blink confused.

"You were gone! I woke up and your bed was empty!" He yells," I thought you'd left!"

Oh.

Sh*t.

"But then I saw that your things were still on the bed, so I thought that maybe you'd went to the stables to be with your donkey," He continues," But you weren't there either!"

Honestly, the thought that he remembered to search the stables made him look so cute, grouchily stomping towards Donkey's stall, opening the door ready to yell at me, and finding the hay stack empty of a lil'me, and Donkey probably giving him an 'excuse me, how rude' look.

"So I thought of calling A-Jie to help me look for you!" He cried," But then I remember how much you liked the library!" He sobbed.

He, honest to god, just started sobbing.

Oh, sh*t!

I quickly drop the hairbrush and rush to him, semi-frantic because crying kids were my weakness ('cute things are your weakness'), and if anyone passing by the door suddenly heard him start crying they'd have my head on a stick.

"Hey, hey! Don't cry, shh..." I hugged him and he put his face on my shoulder," I'm sorry! Were you scared? I told you I wouldn't leave you!" I rub his back," When I do leave, I promise to tell you, okay? I'll never leave without saying goodbye!"

"Y-y-y-you p-p-promise?" He sobbed.

"I promise!" I hurriedly told him.

"Jiang Cheng will remember that!"

The words popped up before my eyes with a cheery little bell sound.

Ah! Your shitty luck strikes again!

Goddammit.

"A-Cheng? A-Ying? Is everything alright?" YanLi's voice sounded from the other side of the door.

I immediately opened my mouth to tell her everything is fine when Jiang Cheng beats me to the punch.

"Jieeeee!" He cries.

Strike two!

Goddammit!

The door slams open and a worried YanLi rushes inside, eyes immediately locking on me hugging a crying Jiang Cheng.

"Oh! What happened?" She hurries to our side and Jiang Cheng attaches himself to her.

I got to step away from them when both of them grab me and pull me on the hug.

Feel the love, dear, feel the love~

Goddammit...

"Mother is going to kill us!" Jiang Cheng wails.

I sigh," She's not going to kill you... Me? Probably, but what else is new," I mutter into YanLi's robes.

YanLi makes a questioning noise and Jiang Cheng starts telling her what happened last night. Halfway through I peek at her, see her disapproving face, and look back down.

They were younger than me! How did she manage to make me feel like a child caught stealing from the cookie jar?!

Younger body, less control over your emotions and impulses.

I have exc-...

The last few days in YunmengJiang kind of flutter by the forefront of my mind.

You were saying?

Nothing.

No, go on, what were you going to say?

"A-Cheng," YanLi pushes us back slightly so she can crouch to be at our eye-level," You don't have to cry, I'm sure Mother is only angry because you were out of bed, she's not going to punish you harshly," She assures him.

You know...

What?

You should take lessons from her.

Lessons on what?

How to reassure people, how to keep calm, how to be as sweet and gentle as her.

I thought about it. Honestly, there were worse role models out there to base my behavior on, but I don't think I could keep up the genial and sunny personality YanLi has going for her.

I swear the girl was a reincarnation of GuanYin.

"And A-Ying," She turns to me," What you did was dangerous!" She scolds," What if you had gotten hurt?"

"By going to the Library?" I could help but doubt," I wasn't bothering anyone..."

YanLi sighs," Little boys should be in bed at night! There's a curfew and you broke it, Mother will punish you but she's not going to hurt you."

Right, making me kneel under the autumn sun was just a common occurrence.

Given the time period, it probably is.

I sigh and nod.

"Now, let's get you cleaned up," She tells the sniffling Jiang Cheng," And then let's go down to eat breakfast."

We both nod and I go to tie my hair in the usual ponytail I ended up defaulting to, when Jiang Cheng turns to me with a pout.

"What?" I ask him with suspicious eyes.

"I want to wear that bun you had when I woke up," He pouts.

I blink, slowly, and process his words," You want me to do your hair?"

He nods and Jiang YanLi, who was sitting on his bed, covers her smile, watched the scene play out with bemused eyes.

I sigh in a defeated way and pluck my hairbrush off of my bed, gesturing him to come to me.

"Stay still," I tell him and start brushing his hair, careful to work upwards to deal with knots, and start humming almost subconsciously.

"What song is that?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"Hm?" I blink," What song?" I'm confused.

"You were humming," YanLi chuckles.

"I was?" Habits were hard to beat.

"You were," She tells me, and then hums the same melody.

"Aah!" I recognize the tune," Steady as the beating drum, Singing to the cedar flute~/Seasons go and seasons come, Bring the corn and bear the fruit~" I sing.

"I don't recognize that song," YanLi smiles.

"It's mine," I tell her, no copyrights were a wonderful thing.

"Really?" Jiang Cheng sounds shocked and flick his head.

"I did sing in taverns to get a free room," I inform them," Want to hear the rest?"

"I do," YanLi smiles," It sounds like a nice song."

It was, one of my favorite disney movies, and perhaps a story I could later tell them.

I sing the rest of the song while putting Jiang Cheng's hair up in a rather elaborate braided bun, attaching a small simple hair clip thing to keep it in place.

"There," I pat his shoulder," All done, can we go eat now?"

Truthfully, it took me less time doing said hairstyle on someone else than to recreate it on my own hair.

"It looks really pretty, A-Cheng," YanLi smiled and smoothed his robes, before turning to me and doing the same with a smiling face.

I tried not to flush a deep red.

This girl was a saint and no one could ever tell me otherwise, I swear she'd be the picked to become a goddess somewhere.

And all she gets in life is that Jin ZiXuan.

He doesn't deserve her.

Love is love.

Urgh.

Speaking of love!

No! No! Oh, God, no! We are not starting this discussion! Again!

I gently push Jiang Cheng out the door," Gogogogogo..." I tell him.

"Why in such a hurry?" He grumbles.

"Maybe your mother will love your hair so much, she forgets about me!" I grin jokingly.

"So you're using me as bait?" He bats away my hands.

"Exactly!" I cheer," You're so smart, platypus!"

Jiang Cheng makes an annoyed growl and pushes me.

I laugh and push him back, carefully not to throw the kid into anything.

Jiang YanLi sighs and ushers both of us in the direction of the main hall.


Madam Yu hadn't arrived yet and I briefly thanked a lucky star, and sat down on one of the tables with Jiang Cheng next to me. There were already plates on the table and I followed the siblings example and waited for either Jiang FengMian or Madam Yu to arrive.

Thankfully, it was Jiang FengMian who arrived first, greeting us with a soft 'Good morning' and stopped to talk to us before moving to his own desk.

"New hairstyle, A-Cheng?" FengMian smiles," It suits you."

Of course it does, I did it!

Jiang Cheng essentially preens and sits straighter, evidently pleased with himself, and YanLi and I share amused looks.

"Careful, Platypus," I bait him," Or you might turn into a peacock!"

Jiang Cheng goes red and pinches my cheek," Stop calling me that!"

"Neber!" I laugh as he pinches my cheek.

"Boys," YanLi tuts us, but FengMian only chuckles.

"Let them," He tells her," Boys will be boys."

"Yes, quite," Madam Yu's sudden remark startles us and Jiang Cheng immediately lets go of my cheek.

How the hell was that woman bypassing all of my senses?

Obviously she's better than you.

...

What?

That makes so much sense.

Ike laughs at me in the back of my mind.

Did you honestly believe you were the only person capable of sneaking around?

...No?

Idiot.

"'Boys will be boys'," Madam Yu sneers," Which was why I found those two out of bed during the night, all the way on the other side of the Sect Compound," She tells FengMian.

The man blinks before the gears turn in his head and his eyes widen sightly, he frowns and turns to give a stern look to Jiang Cheng and I," What were you two doing?"

"We weren't doing anything," I explain," I snuck out and Jiang Cheng got out of bed to find me, it wasn't his fault!" I tell him,"...Sir," I add lamely.

Jiang Cheng elbows me," I chose to go look for him, and he wasn't causing trouble!" He hurries to tell his father.

Honestly, kid, take the easy way out!

Against better judgement, the kid actually likes you.

Why the hell do you sound so surprised?

Nothing.

"Yes," Madam Yu walks closer to us," Your choice to break curfew, which you are well aware exists, to find this... this boy, when you had no idea where he could be!" She scolds.

Jiang Cheng looks down not meeting her eyes, effectively cowed.

"Jiang Cheng thought I was leaving," I tell her," He was looking for me to keep me from leaving, which I wasn't doing," I quickly add when FengMian looks ready to blow a gasket over that statement.

"No," Madam Yu looks down on me," He was reading."

What the hell?! Was reading a frikin' crime?

"Reading?" Even FengMian looked confused.

"I found him in the Library, in total darkness, starting to read a book under the moonlight," Madam Yu told him," After having walked on the roof of the Sect, jumped through a window and made his way into the Library," She elaborates.

Jiang Cheng slowly turns to look at me with wide eyes.

I blink.

"Oh," I intelligently say.

"Do you know how dangerous that is?" FengMian turns to me with a stern expression," You could have fallen off the roof!"

"I'm used to doing it, though," I tell them.

You're such an idiot.

I blink and process my own worlds before closing my eyes and wishing for a hole to hide in.

"Why were you walking on roofs?" FengMian asks.

I remain tight lipped and silent.

"Wei Ying," FengMian tries again," Answer me!"

I stubbornly stay silent.

"Clearly, you brought home more than you bargained for," Madam Yu laughs at her husband," You two," She points at Jiang Cheng and I," You're dismissed from lessons today, go kneel at the Ancestral Hall, Wei Ying in front of the honor altar," She instructs.

Honor altar?

Jiang Cheng quickly hurries to comply and grabs me firmly by the arm.

"Come on," He hisses," Before Mother gets any angrier."

"She's always angry," I mutter, and get smacked on the arm for my troubles," Right, your mother, sorry."

He leads me to a separate building in the back of the Sect with very ornate doors and banners hanging down from the beams. And we get sympathetic glances by older disciples, apparently kneeling in the Ancestral Hall isn't infrequent.

"Come on!" Jiang Cheng pulls me harder.

"I don't get why I have to kneel before your ancestors," I tell him.

"You're kneeling in front of my ancestors," He rolls his eyes," You're kneeling in front of the honor altar."

"Who is at the honor altar then?" I ask him, indulgently.

"I don't know," He answers," They were friends of my Father, I think, he was very sad when their ashes were brought in."

The smile slips off my face instantly.

Instead a ball of lead drops on my stomach.

The ashes of CangSe Sanren and Wei ChangZe had been brought to YunmengJiang years ago.

Oh no...

Oh no.

OH NO!

Ike!

I took a sharp intake of air and felt my hair stand on end.

It couldn't be.

Calm down. Breathe. Don't scare the kid.

I focus on Jiang Cheng's grip on my arm and let out the frozen air in my lungs.

Stay calm. Everything is alright. Be calm.

Yes.

I took shuddering breaths quietly, calming my racing heart, and fought the uneasiness swirling in my stomach.

Inside, there wasn't much light, the sun still hadn't completely invaded the building, but there was the smell of incense and of offerings.

"The honor altar is there," Jiang Cheng points to a different wing," Go kneel there and don't dare leave before my Mother tells you to."

He lets go of my arm and walks deeper into the Ancestral Hall.

I stand there before the intersection connecting to the wing and find myself rooted to the spot.

You're going to have to enter there one way or another.

I am afraid.

It isn't an easy admission to make.

I am right here with you.

I take a deep breath and step forward.

Step by step I inch closer to where the Honor Altar had to be.

I can't bring myself to look as I walk closer and my eyes focus instead on my feet.

I am afraid, Ike.

I am here.

By my feet I can see the base of the altar, and feel the strong smell on incense.

Look up.

I can't.

You can. Look up.

I close my eyes and lift up my head.

Open your eyes.

I... I...

It is alright. Open your eyes.

I am afraid.

I am right here. You are not alone.

I slowly open my eyes and my lungs freeze at what's atop the altar.

There was an intricate sculpted incense burner in the shape of a lotus flower in the center of the altar, with two empty plates to hold offerings on either side of it, and candles unlit decorating the altar.

There are two plaques with their names carved on them, and painted in the YunmengJiang purple, secured on the wall the altar rests against.

And underneath the name plaques there's a stand.

Holding two things I never thought I'd ever see again.

This isn't canon.

This isn't a story.

This isn't a game.

It hurts...

Being held on that stand were ChangZe's and CangSe's swords.

They were my parents swords.


I reverently let my fingertips brush across the sword sheaths, feeling the cool material, and my eyes immediately watered.

Ike stayed silent, knowing to leave me to my grief, for just a few moments longer.

I traced the characters on both their swords, my mother's JianYu and my father's HuiZhong, and I clutched at them, at the link they gave me to the both of them.

Knowing they were here, how could I bear to leave them behind?

You can't take them with you.

These belong to them!

And as such they are present on their altar, the closest they can be to them.

My hand goes to clasp the pendant hanging from my neck.

They should be with me.

They should be here.

Why did they have to die?

Follow canon, allow canon to pass, let these people disappear, do not see them as people but characters on paper...

Impossible.

I love them.

I did not say those words to them often enough.

Looking back, nothing was ever enough.

It hurt...

I leaned on the altar to rest my hand on their swords, crying silently into my arm, and feeling hopelessly alone.

You are not alone.

I knew I wasn't.

But there were no arms around me. No welcoming hug or a kiss. No warmth.

I miss them, so much.

I miss my family.

Old and new, the people I'd grown old beside of, watching them grow, and those that I'd grown to love, that I'd watched glow with so much love and kindness and life.

And I missed them.

An ache that kept on throbbing no matter what you tried to do to stop it.

A hole that just kept getting wider and wider in the very center of your being.

Grief was... agonizing.

You thought you'd be ready for when the time come, but time sneaks up on you at the worst moments, no matter your preparation you are never ready to meet it.

And then you tell yourself, it's okay, we can move on.

But you can't.

You can't because it hurts, it hurts so bad you can't even think, you can't do anything, you just... hurt.

You can't stay still.

I know.

You have to keep moving.

I know.

Time is running out.

I KNOW!

In my mind I howl at the sky, scream to the very heavens for the injustice they pile on these two small shoulders, the weight of responsibility and duty, and honor, and devotion the just press down on me.

Millions of things could go wrong, I could change things and turn this world into a wasteland devoid of life, so many things that could turn south.

But they won't.

How do you know?

Because I know you.

I know you, and I know what you are like. And I am certain that whoever placed you in this world knew it too.

To play the game of life is to play blindfolded with only a handful of cards and trying to get the rest of the stack. And you, my dearest, are playing it beautifully.

Don't give up. Keep going. Keep moving.

You can do this.

I can't.

You can. Do you know why?

Why?

Because you are not alone. See those two blades beneath your hand? Do you know who they belonged to?

Of course I know who they belonged to! What are you tal-...

They belonged to the first two people who looked at you and said 'I believe you'. The first ones who held you close and taught you to be yourself. Who never doubted you would take this world by storm.

It hurts...

You can't stop now. You can't stop here. You made a promise to them, remember? You promised-...

That I would have my mountain.

A mountain that everyone would stare in awe of.

A better future.

I know my promise.

Then hold that promise tight in your hand, hide it deep inside your heart, and remember this:

You are not alone.

I open my eyes to see their name plaques glow as the morning sky filters in.

The water and tears run down my face, I can't stop them no matter how I rub at my eyes.

It hurts.

I miss them.

I wanted them here.

It's okay to cry, to miss them, to just... cling to the ideal of them. But you must keep moving.

I know.

I know!

I just...

I miss them so much.

"When he had them brought here I despised the idea of having them inside this Ancestral Hall," Madam Yu speaks from behind me, and I hear her footsteps draw closer to me.

I don't move from my position, still clutching at the swords, and hiding my face in my arm, awash with tears, and do react to her presence.

Already Ike had a mantra for me to remain calm no matter what.

I just felt empty.

It hurt...

"When they said their child was missing I first thought that they'd find your body soon enough," She told me," That my husband's search for you would be in vain."

"But it wasn't," She paused," News spread of a child going on night-hunts. Ludicrous. A sham," She scoffs," But it wasn't."

No, it wasn't.

"When he swore he'd bring you here I knew that I wouldn't be able to stand you," She told me," And the more time passed, the longer he kept searching for you, the stronger my hate grew."

I remain silent. I wasn't sure if she even wanted me to say anything.

"And then you arrive, and you are nothing like I expected you to be," She says," You do not act like a child should-..."

"I am not a child," I tell her, voice raw," I'm no longer a child."

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving." - Dale Carnegie


Chapter 44: Understanding

I don't know what led me to say those words, so matter-of-factly, but I just felt the swords underneath my fingertips and the hollow emptiness in my chest and I just couldn't stop talking.

"A child has a home and a family, a child is carefree and happy and safe," My fingers tighten around the blades,"A child doesn't spend three years in the wild, under rain and frost, high winds or scorching heat, they don't carry weapons on their back, or blades at their waist, and look into the eyes of beasts twice their size with teeth the size of chopsticks!" I rage.

"A child does not startle awake at the barest of sounds because instinct tells them that something is coming to kill them!" I tell her,"A child should never have to walk the streets and have people just grab them, as if they were playthings, and wish to have their way with them!" I howl.

"You-..." Madam Yu is shocked.

"I am not a child, and you keep insisting that I am..." I sigh,"I don't remember... What you want me to pretend to be, I don't remember."

"You are a disciple of YunmengJiang," Madam Yu says,"You have a duty to perform and an image to maintain. My husband has brought you into the Clan, so you have an honor to be grateful too."

"You hate me," I groan,"You just admitted to it, why keep me here? Why don't you just send me away?"

I look at her, feeling utterly miserable, and I am confused when she looks away from me.

"Do you know what people are already saying?" She asks me instead.

"No," I answer.

"They are talking about the child the Sect Leader brought home, the child he has spent years looking for, and when people start talking about that child two things always come up: That it is the well-known child cultivator the rumors talk about, and that his mother was the woman FengMian had unsuccessfully courted." She tells me.

"And do you know what the people in the Sect whisper about?" She asks me.

"No," I answer her, closing my eyes.

"Why did the Sect Leader brought the child into the Main House? Why not as a mere guest disciple? Why foster the child so close to his own family?" She tells me,"And most importantly, why give such an honor to a servant's child?"

Anger.

I quickly look up at her, eyes blazing silver," My mother was CangSe Sanren, a disciple of the Great Baoshan Sanren, and I follow in their footsteps and teachings!"

"And your father was Wei ChangZe, the footman of Jiang FengMian since his early childhood," She tells me,"And in this world of our sons are always their father's children. In their eyes you will always be a servant's son, never forget that."

I grit my teeth," Why are you telling me this?"

"Because, like it or not, you will bear the pride of this Sect and you will bear it well," She tells me.

I give her a suspicious look.

"My husband may not see it but I am perfectly aware that we're not even through with half of your problems," She sniffs,"And I am here to prevent any more."

"Why are you doing this?" I ask her,"You hate me."

"This is my Sect," She hisses,"My home, my family, and I will not have her child destroy it!"

"I don't need to, you're already doing it yourself," I scoff,"You can't send me away, so you yell and hiss at me, the seven year old, like that would make things better."

"Do not speak to me with such disrespect," Madam Yu warned.

"Sometimes, if one does not speak frankly, one runs the risk of forgetting the important things in life," I tell her,"You hate me because your husband loved my mother, do you want to know what's funnier?" I cock an eyebrow at her.

"My mother did not love him," I sneer.

Madam Yu's nostrils flare and Zidian's purple lightning sparks up in her hand, her fingers subconsciously start toying with the ring.

"My parents loved each other, so much," My voice cracks,"And they are dead. And all you people care about is a non-existent love affair?" I can't help but to bristle at the words,"I mean, what are you doing? Condemning the child for the sins of the parents? A non-existing sin, at that!"

"You don't know what your talking about," Madam Yu warns me.

"I do know, actually!" I growl at her,"I do know what it is like to have a family broken apart, and you're the one who doesn't understand how despicable it is to watch a family, who is whole and hale, shatter itself because they are acting foolishly!"

Zidian sparks up again, but Madam Yu remains silent.

"I never got to say goodbye," My voice trembles,"They were just gone. And I could never have them back," I look at her,"If you were gone, right now, if you just disappeared... Wouldn't you regret it?"

"Regret what?" She asks.

"All the lost chances, the wasted time," I shake my head,"You sit there in the hall, eating, but no one is talking. Too tense to make a wrong move, too afraid to be 'imperfect'... You fight and the children get caught in the middle. When you are gone, they'll ask themselves needless questions, and there will be no one left to answer them."

"Needless questions?" Madam Yu frowns.

"Did they love me? Was I enough? Did they even care about me?" I tell her,"Were they angry with me? Was it my fault?"

Madam Yu stops playing with her ring.

"And how do you know that children ask themselves those questions?" She asks me.

I look back on their swords,"Because no one is there to answer them."

Madam Yu stares at the swords.

"Why were you reading at night?" She asks.

"Because I had to do something," I answer her,"Everything in here seems so... slow."

"Slow?" Madam Yu frowns.

"I was always moving," I tell her,"Always traveling. I couldn't stop moving. No matter what, I had to keep going," I continue,"But here... I can't move. I have to sit still and listen and it's so hard because every part of me is screaming 'move!'."

"It's like having both my feet trapped in mud," I give her a helpless look,"Something's coming, every hair on my body is standing on end, shrieking at me that something is coming... And I can't move."

"So you decided to read," Madam Yu had an odd tone to her voice,"Because it was better than nothing."

I nod, leaning my head on my arm.

"Why did you agree to teach Jiang Cheng?" She asks me.

I look up again.

"He's... a child," I tell her,"It's... sad but, at the same time, happy, to see him be so, well... childlike," I answer her.

"Because you're not a child?" She sighs.

"I don't remember how to be one, but I thought that, maybe, I could try to be like him?" I shrug,"It's not working."

"Why not?" Madam Yu asks,"It can't be too hard to listen to lectures and then entertain yourself for two hours at lunch."

"Even I can't pretend to be happy all the time," I grumble,"And they keep calling me family."

Madam Yu's eyebrow twitches and she frowns.

"No need to look so revolted," I sigh,"I already told them no, several times."

"Why?" She frowns harder.

"Because my family is dead,"I monotonously answer her,"I don't need a replacement one, especially one where I am not wanted."

"They obviously want you," Madam Yu sneers.

"And you hate me," I give her a soft look and sigh,"You are their mother, I'm just a street rat at this point. I won't get in the way of your family," I look away from here again,"It'd have been if your husband had never set out to look for me."

Madam Yu doesn't have anything to say at that.

"You are different that what I expected you to be," She finally tells me.

I snort, amused,"I don't think anyone ever expects me," I chuckle tiredly.

"You are not like her, but sometimes you are," She muses aloud,"I can barely see any trace of ChangZe in you yet you sometimes manage to convey the unspeakable wisdom he would advise FengMian with."

I smiled slightly at the thought that I still managed to represent them, despite having only known them for around two years.

"You are going to remain with the Main House of the YunmengJiang Sect," She told me.

"Why?" I groan, looking at her dejectedly,"You hate me, you don't want me here, why put us both through the trouble of having to interact with each other on a regular basis? Just send me to the disciples barracks, punish me for sneaking out, I don't know..."

"I will not," She tells me,"You are not welcomed in the barracks because of what my husband has already done for you," She explains,"And we can't send you away without sending the message that YunmengJiang can't handle you."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

I turn back to the swords.

"You will join the older students for spars," She tells me,"And if I find you are slacking in any of the lessons because they're 'too slow' for you, I will make you run the older disciples training course," She warns me.

I blink, and look up at her bewildered," Uh?"

"You will only bring trouble to this Sect," Madam Yu sneers,"And Gods know my husband will never see it that it is your fault, so I am taking measures to prevent it. If I find you causing trouble, I will only have to make sure you don't have enough energy to cause trouble."

...That... That sounds... reasonable.

Madam Yu goes to walk away,"And one more thing," She gives me a chilling look,"If you harm my children, if you ever bring harm to them because of your problems, I will end you myself."

I nod,"You should probably tell them that you care about them and not letting them guess whether or not it's true," I tell her.

Zidian sparks in her hand,"Do not interfere with my family's affairs, do you hear me, child," She sneers.

I tiny little bulb lights up in my brain.

"Yes, Ma'am," I acknowledge her warning.

She leaves and I am left alone with my parents' swords once more.

That was interesting.

That was intense.

No, sh*t, Sherlock.

You're absolutely crazy.

Won't argue with that.

I sigh deeply and slump over the altar, utterly spent, and stroke the CangSe's blade as my eyes finally stop tearing up.

I'm tired.

I know, dear.

I close my eyes and rest my head on my arm, falling asleep in seconds.


YanLi is the one that comes by later to fetch me, hours later, and find me slumped over the altar fast asleep.

Having learnt from previous experiences that walking closer to me whilst asleep is a bad idea she knocks on the stone pillars in the Ancestral Hall loudly, and looks sad when I instantly jump awake.

After the initial jump-start of adrenaline that sparks my body into awareness, I slowly blink and relax when I see that there's no danger.

"Shijie?" I mumble, rubbing at my eyes,"Why are you here?"

"A-Ying," She smiles,"Punishment is over, it's lunchtime now, I'll make you my special soup, come," She reaches out a hand to me.

I blink again and yawn, before pausing to look back at the swords.

"These are my parents' swords," I tell her.

"They are?" She walks closer to the altar,"Father never said, just that they had been good friends of his."

"I thought that their swords would've been stolen," I tell her,"I didn't think they'd be brought to Yunmeng with their ashes."

Jiang YanLi puts her arm slowly across my shoulders and I lean into her.

"Their swords will be safe here," She assures me,"You can come her and light incense to them wherever you wish," She adds.

I nod silently, still tired and emotionally wrung out.

"Come on," YanLi gently starts leading me out of the Ancestral Hall,"A-Cheng always says my soup makes him feel better, let us see if it does the same to you!" She giggles.

My lips twitch into a soft smile,"Platypus loves you, so he's biased," I pout.

YanLi giggles harder,"A-Cheng is a good boy," YanLi nods,"A-Ying is a good boy too," She pats me on the head.

I burst out laughing.

"Shijie! Shijie!" I laugh,"I'm totally not a good boy!" I tell her.

"A-Ying is a good boy," She pats me on the head again,"He's just been a little naughty."

Pfft, a 'little' naughty.

I keep laughing.

Seriously, Jiang YanLi had to be a Goddess reincarnated.

There was no other explanation for it.

I let myself lean into her side, warmth and lively presence, and emptied my mind.

Calm. Peace. Quiet.

The wind blew by and carried the scent of salt water and of spices, the sounds of a bustling city just outside of the gates, of disciples training in the yard and walking around like busy ants, the sun shone high on the sky and everything glinted underneath it.

One day, all this would be gone.

Could I stop it?

I looked up at YanLi, smiling and carefree, and then thought of Jiang Cheng. Both the sole remnants of this place in the future, and broken for it, and decided that no, I'd change things.

I would think of something, anything, and change it.

Be better, stronger, cleverer.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

I thought of Madam Yu and her words, her passion to this Sect, and something akin to understanding blossomed in my mind.


Jiang Cheng was already waiting for us in the kitchen, staring intently at the pot of soup, when we arrived.

Immediately he looked at me and frowned,"What happened to you?" He asks.

"Why, Platypus, are you saying I don't look like my usual cute self?" I make a scandalized expression,"How rude!"

Jiang Cheng gives me a deadpan look,"You're fine I see, forget I even asked," He scoffs.

YanLi giggles and ushers me to the seat next to her brother.

"Boys, don't fight," She tells us,"Shijie made soup!"

Jiang Cheng's attention is turned back to the soup pot and he meaningfully extends his bowl.

I roll my eyes at him but do the same, wondering if this was the heavenly pork ribs and lotus root soup that Wei WuXian had absolutely adored.

YanLi removes the pot cover and immediately my mouth waters.

...

...

Oh, hell yes.

I'm feeling faintly jealous right now.

Why, Ike? Is it because lil'Ike doesn't have a stomach?

Yes, darling dear, it is because I don't have a stomach.

Ooh, I am soooo sorry, poor lil' Ike, he can't eat this delicious soup~

I'll remember this, you know, so expect payback.

Oh, I am sooo scared.

Truthfully, I shouldn't antagonize him, but as YanLi filled in my bowl and I felt his growing envy, I just couldn't help myself.

"A-Jie, it's delicious!" Jiang Cheng immediately told her.

"It's heavenly, Shijie!" I seconded.

Jiang Cheng paused, as if he was processing the words, and then turned to me with a sh*t-eating grin,"What was that? I don't think I heard you correctly."

I busied myself eating the soup and did not reply to him.

Not that it stopped him from being all smug for the rest of the day.


"How do you send letters here?" I ask Jiang Cheng,"I used to use the town's post service, but I doubt your parents will let me leave the Sect Compound so I can post my letters."

Jiang Cheng gives me an odd look,"Letters? Who are you writing to?" He asks.

"Friends," I shrug,"I've not been entirely anti-social these past three years, you know?" I shake my head in disbelief.

Jiang Cheng frowns but answers,"A servant takes the letters to be posted, you just have to put the letters in the 'out' box near the Sentinel's station by the gates," He explains.

I smile,"Thanks! It'll be fun to see if they send me replies back, now that I have a fixed mailing address."

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes,"Who'd want to send letters to you?"

A rural clan heir, the GusuLan heir, an old widow that's profiting off of my amazing talisman-making skills, a couple odd rogue cultivators with permanent housings in the various regions, a boy all the way up in the mountains between Lanling and Gusu, and, finally, a Peter Parker wannabe that I somehow got fond off after one night-hunt.

You have issues.

Tell me something that I don't already know.

I go to my pack and pull back my writing utensils, using the wooden desk Jiang Cheng had in his room, and started writing my letters, taking great care to make them legible. Jiang Cheng obviously noticed because he snorted and muttered something about me not 'making enough effort in class'.

My dear Platypus, when I have my fountain pen, you will never have anything bad to say about my handwriting ever again.

"What will you teach me?" He asks me.

"What do you want to learn," I ask him as I am writing MingXia's letter,"If you tell me what you want to learn I can think of something up,"I tell him,"And don't just say night-hunting," I stop him just as he's about to open his mouth.

He pouts and me and crosses his arms,"Why not?"

"Because you are not ready," I sigh,"You don't know how to use any weapons, you don't know talismans and much less how to use other cultivator tools."

"Then teach me!" He uncrosses his arms,"How to use weapons, talismans and the other tools!"

Yes... That would be a safe spot to start with, wouldn't it?

"Weapons will have to wait, mine were kind of confiscated," I gesture airily,"But I can teach you about talismans and the other tools, I still have those with me."

Jiang Cheng brightens.

"Let me just finish writing these and I'll start teaching you the basics," I tell him,"While you're doing that, I'll get that platypus drawing done."

He frowns,"Won't you have to be paying attention to what I am doing?" He asks me.

I make a 'so-so' gesture with my hand,"I'm giving you a talisman to copy, teaching you where to start and what you have to do," I answer him,"If you copied it correctly and done everything right, the talisman works, if not, then you screwed up somewhere and I'll need to show you how to do that part again."

Pretty basic stuff I didn't really understand why children didn't already know how to do this.

The different components of talismans, at least, should be easy to teach and identify.

They're teaching them calligraphy now, so that there's not as much waste of paper when teaching them how to correctly make the talismans.

You could teach both things congruently.

Yes, but this is how they've probably always taught their disciples, in their eyes they still have plenty of time to learn all that.

But in reality they don't.

The world won't end tomorrow.

But they should be ready for it, just in case.

It'd be better to be ready to face anything, than to be caught unaware of the danger lurking outside.

Think. Think. Think.

Plans formed from tendrils and vines from the void in my mind, reaching out to every possible course of action.

What would I change? What would stay the same? What to do differently? What to preserve as is?

Breathe.

I filled my lungs with air and focused on finishing my letters.

I wasn't alone.

I could do this.

I could.

I would keep my promise, I would build a better tomorrow, I would keep them safe.

I would have my mountain, the pinnacle of the future.

Yiling.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"The secret of business is to know something that nobody else knows." - Aristotle Socrates Onassis


Chapter 45: Expand

Jiang Cheng didn't have a knack for talismans.

And, no, I wasn't being too harsh with the kid, I was being patient and understanding that I was dealing with a child and not a mini-adult. But, he did not have a knack for talismans.

Oh, he could copy talismans semi-decently, no worries about that, but I had absolutely no hope for him to ever create his own talismans.

To create talismans one needed to have imagination and creativity, copying already existing talismans only required you to have decent penmanship and an understanding of the components. Without those two traits one wouldn't be able to figure out ways to link seals and characters in ways that, once infused with energy, would activate and cause a reaction.

Hopefully not explosive.

Unless you wanted to make explosives.

Ike, don't give me any bad ideas.

They're not bad ideas, they're just not child-friendly ideas.

I huff.

In the three weeks that had gone by since I had first arrived here, things had... calmed down, for lack of a better word.

Madam Yu and I were in a very carefully balanced agreement that unless I messed up, badly, I could exist in her immediate surroundings, but one foot out of the line and, well...

It wasn't pleasant.

Having run the entire perimeter of the Sect hefting a sack of sand on my back and then copying the older sect disciples during the martial arts formations straight after was brutal.

Having to repeat the same process three times led me to calling it suicide runs.

Because they absolutely killed me.

The first time I had to run that course I had drug myself back to the room and just collapsed on my bed, pratically going unconscious the moment my head touched my pillow.

Jiang Cheng had sworn off ever tempting his mother into punishing him like that.

I wished him luck.

And, of course, Jiang YanLi was a heaven sent angel to bring me food and not mind when I latched onto her like a particular clingy koala.

Sue me, I liked her.

If only my nieces had been this good and well-mannered!

They had you as an aunt, it was essentially a lost cause from the very beginning.

I didn't deigned him a reply.

Classes were going. Not much to say about them really, some lessons were good and interesting, others made me want to nap. Jiang Cheng had taken as his personal duty to prevent me from blanking out during lessons and to stop doodling whenever I just got too bored, with some success.

I had an afternoon with a art tutor, learning about traditional art styles and using my modern techniques and knowledge whilst the tutor documented them.

Already I had had to buy the recipes on how the art supplies were made, and had to show the art tutor how to make them, but thankfully no one had yet questioned about my readily available supply of them.

Even so, I had grown extremely carefully about using modern art supplies around people, which was ninety per cent of the time.

Jiang FengMian wasn't taking any chances of me going 'on a walk' across the nation again, so someone was always with me, and if they weren't then someone had already been alerted and was keeping an eye out for me.

Honestly, these people had so little faith in me!

Anyway, following talismans, I decided to show Jiang Cheng other cultivator tools, nets and traps he could set, elixirs and other miscellaneous things cultivators had invented over the generations.

He fared decently well in that area, he was smart and a cunning little thing, and I was pretty proud of him.

Although gushing about how cute he was when he was all 'see, I did it!' and generally being adorable was a surefire way to get punched. And kicked. And yelled at.

Honestly, wasn't my platypus just the most huggable thing ever?

You and I clearly have two very distinguishable definitions of 'huggable'.

You just don't know how to appreciate life.

I do know how to appreciate life! Like with a certain Hanguang-Jun-...

And just like that you've lost me, moving on.

I had started to join the other disciples on spars as per Madam Yu's orders and got toss around more than I'd like. It wasn't that I was weaker than them, but they had the height advantage I didn't and they shamelessly used it against me every single time.

Being grabbed by my arm and thrown out of the ring was a common occurrence, and it made me very, very eager to grow more flexible and agile to get close to them to strike them and retreat before they could retaliate.

That said, that was fighting hand to hand using strict martial art forms, in a brawl I'd have tossed dirt in the brat's eyes and kicked him in the balls.

But that was 'underhanded' or 'unsportsmanlike' or some other crap.

I couldn't wait to have my daggers back, or Liling.

I'd written to ShouShan telling him I'd had Xiaodan confiscated because of my age and jumpiness, and I just knew he'd laughed himself silly at that information. And maybe gotten a bit annoyed because the Bai Clan had gifted me that dagger as a thank-you gift.

MingXia would simply say that it was my own damn fault and that I shouldn't come crying to her skirts for being a 'precocious brat', her words not mine.

It was kind of your fault that you had them confiscated.

I'm ignoring you!

Like you ignored me when I warned you to stay calm and not be easily provoked?

Lalalalala~!

"What are you doing?" A disciple with a pointy nose asked as he watched me fiddle with piece of leather and rope.

"I'm making a slingshot," I answered him.

He frowns," A what?"

I don't look up from what I'm doing, just finishing up the last knots and adjusting the pouch," A slingshot, Jiang Cheng can't fully pull back the string on a bow, so I'm trying something new to work on his accuracy."

"Crafting Skill leveled up!"

Having finished what I was doing I look up at the older disciple.

He has an ugly look on his face.

"Why are you always with him?" He asks me.

"Why do you want to know?" I shrug," What does it matter to you if I'm always with him?"

"He's the Sect Leaders' son, the heir of the Sect!" The disciple tells me.

I nod," He's also my roommate, and my classmate, and essentially my shidi," I tick off my fingers," Again, why should it matter to you if I hang out with him?"

The ugly look on his face darkens," You shouldn't act so high and mighty, you're no better than us."

I let out a sigh through my nose," I'm not acting high and mighty, I'm merely telling you that what I do, who I choose to hang out with, or who I choose to be friends with, has nothing to do with you and your opinions," I tell him.

"You're just a servant's son! You shouldn't even be allowed to become a cultivator," The disciple spits at my feet.

I smile widely at him and get to my feet, eyes shining silver," The question, shixiong, isn't who's letting me become a cultivator," I walk to stand right in front of him, slowly like a predator approaching a cornered prey," It's who's going to stop me."

And then I knee him in the balls.

"Never let down your guard," I airily inform him, already walking away," Hasn't the Madam taught you that yet?"

"You're paying for this!" The disciple grunts.

I roll my eyes, people were idiots, people with big egos were even greater idiots.

And the world is full of them, if you keep kneeing all of them in the balls there's going to be a massive dive in population growth.

I snort.

I didn't knee him that hard.

Where's your sense of manly compassion, hitting such a vulnerable area?

Right where I left my sense of dignity after having been bathed by CangSe despite attempts of telling her I could do it myself.

Ah! I'd forgotten about that!

I find Jiang Cheng in the main yard talking with YanLi.

"Platypus!" I call out," I have something for you!"

"Don't call me that!" Jiang Cheng yells back, red in the face as the disciples in the yard stare confusedly at him.

I grin genially at him and show him the slingshot I'd made.

"What's that?" He points.

"Come here, I'll show you!" I gesture him closer.

Jiang Cheng warily walks closer to me.

Jeez, only three weeks in and the kid already knows me so well.

I don't think you should take that as a compliment.

Shush you.

"Here," I take his hand and teach him how to hold the slingshot," That's the pouch there, when I put the rock in, you swing it back and forth to get momentum, and then you take your aim," I instruct him.

Jiang Cheng doesn't look too impressed but nods.

I take a rock out of my pocket and put in the pouch.

Jiang Cheng follows the instructions and after getting a bit of momentum strikes.

The rock flies into an arch and hits a wooden pillar, shattering on impact.

Jiang Cheng gaps and turns to me with wide eyes.

My grin widens wickedly," Pretty cool, huh?"

You're a terrible role model.

I am an excellent role model!

Doubt.

"Again!" Jiang Cheng snaps me back to reality," Let's do that again!"

I take another rock out of my pocket.

What a lovely way to spend an afternoon. And on the bright side, there's no glass windows to potentially shatter!


"Letters have arrived, Sect Leader," A servant bowed at the entrance of the main hall as we are preparing to start our morning meal.

"Thank you, A-She," FengMian smiled and indicated the servant to deliver the letters.

A-She handed the majority of the letters to him but then turned around and handed me a packet.

I read the name on the top-most letter and grinned," Oh, ShouShan wrote me back!"

Jiang Cheng frowned," Who's ShouShan?"

"Ah, he's a friend," I tell him," I stayed with his family for a few weeks before moving further into Gusu," I clarify.

You know, FengMian doesn't look too happy to me.

At Ike's comment I look back to the front of the hall and see Jiang FengMian staring at the letters in my hands with a complicated expression on his face.

"A friend?" Madam Yu raise an eyebrow at my words," A peasant?"

Imagine her surprise when you tell her you're on speaking terms with both Gusu Lan heirs.

Hush, she's not learning that!

"No, he's a cultivator," I answer," His family has a clan out in the outskirts of Gusu, bordering Lanling, Ma'am."

"And they did not know that your appearance was to be reported?" Jiang FengMian asks.

Oh, yeah. That.

"I asked them not to," I inform him," Or to give me a head-start before they did, I didn't really want to come here at first."

"But you're here now," Jiang Cheng frowns.

I grin at him," Yeah, and now ShouShan can write back to me, I kept correspondence with them, it's been fun," I shrug," He's my friend."

"I'm your friend too," Jiang Cheng mutters.

I laugh," We share a room, why would I write letters to you when I'm right by your side most of the day? You really are such a platypus!" I tell him.

Jiang Cheng reddens.

"I'm glad A-Ying can keep in touch with his friends," YanLi says," Friends are important," She tells me.

I nod," Yeah!"

Jiang FengMian drops the matter, but I can clearly see that it's not over yet.

Honestly, was he upset just because not everyone had complied with his request, not order, to report to him in case someone ran into me?

Really, after I sent those letters to the Great Sects the searches for me pratically because negligible. What was he so worked up for?

I checked to see who had written to me, and was surprised at the bulky letter I got from MingXia.

What is so important that she had to write so much?

Maybe the talismans aren't working?

They should be, I made sure to check them before posting them, they worked fine. And it wasn't a matter of the people not knowing how to use them, you just stuck them on the walls of the house, everyone knew that.

Then I don't know, read the letter and see for yourself.

I can't read it here, I'll never heard the end of it.

I save the letters inside my robes to read later.

"You have Teacher Fang for the morning, don't you?" I ask Jiang Cheng.

He gives me the stink eye," Yes."

"Meet you in the courtyard for lunch?" I suggest," We can work more on the slingshot."

"Yes!" Jiang Cheng cheers himself up.

"Then it's a plan," I get back to my breakfast."

"A-Jie," Jiang Cheng turns to his sister," Are you joining us? Maybe Wei Ying can make you a slingshot too!"

I look up," That's not a bad idea."

YanLi smiles at us," I am busy this afternoon, Mother and I are going to Lanling soon to have tea with Madam Jin."

Jiang Cheng makes a face and I laugh at him," What's that face for?"

He ignores me," Do I have to go too?" Jiang Cheng asks his mother.

Madam Yu gives him a stern look," Not this time, but I expect you to be on your best behavior whilst I am gone," She tells him, before glaring at me," And that includes you too."

I smile brightly at her," Yes, Ma'am!"

Don't antagonize her.

Jiang Cheng elbows me in the stomach.

Madam Yu gives me one last glare before turning back to her meal.

You have a death wish, that or you are eager to get back to those suicide-runs.

I barely suppress a shiver.

Oh, Gods, no.

Then stop needling her.

I just can't help it!

She makes it so easy!

Like a porcupine!

...

...

Oh, my God, yes!

God, no! No no no no! You are not calling her that!

Madam Porcupine and baby Platypus!

I swear you have a death wish.

Live a little, Ike!

I will live a little if you stop trying to get us killed.

You are such a stick in the mud.


I was excited to read the letters once we got back to the bedroom.

I kicked the boots off and launched myself onto my mattress, Yunru, who had been napping beside the pillow, jumped and squeaked angrily at me, biting my ear.

"Sorry, sorry! I didn't see you, Yunru! Sorry, sorry!" I laughed," Where have you been girl? Living the life of a water rat?"

Yunru lets my ear go to curl up back in her spot, completely ignoring me.

"She goes around causing trouble," Jiang Cheng tells me," I think Teacher Fang said something about a large rat stealing a bun off his meal plate last night."

I laughed harder," Way to go, Yunru! You're so smart!"

"It's not funny!" Jiang Cheng tells me.

"Try saying that without a grin on your face!" I point at him and he quickly covers his twitching lips," It's not funny!"

I chuckle and roll my eyes, pulling the letters out of my robes and opening ShouShan's first.

It read:

'A-Ying, it's been a while! Man, you are such a treat! I have to say, for being missing for two years, being caught only now isn't so bad, although it is pretty hilarious, and when you were eating melon?! Oh, I wanted to be there to see that!'

Of course he'd find this funny.

To be fair, ShouShan does seem like a fellow who'd enjoy a bit of schadenfreude every now and then.

Ugh.

'A-Xi, you remember her right?, we're going to be married soon, I'll send you an invitation when it's settled, maybe you can come visit us then! Father is eager to meet you again, he still hasn't let go the idea of having you join the Bai Clan.

Hell, he'll certainly try to have you marry any daughter I may have!'

Gods, no.

Yeah, you're already taken.

I am not!

You're totally taken.

'But about that idea you had, I was intrigued by it. None of us really know much about the origins of cultivation, and we use our own family's traditional method, so we can't really help you much, but it does sound plausible.

If you're that interested in finding out if it is, or isn't, then the GusuLan has the most extensive Library of all the Great Sects, and I'm sure the YunmengJiang has too, you can try to look things up there.

And about that MoGui you fought, damn you are crazy, those things are deadly. Well, who am I kidding, you pratically live to hunt down the deadliest beasts there are out there. Maybe being in timeout might teach you more patience.'

Oh, ye of so little faith, how you wound me so!

He's totally got you pegged.

'Hope the letter reaches you alright, and before you ask me, again, yes! We got that kid you recommended to us! Yes, he has talent alright! And, yes, he's doing fine!

Honestly, you'd think that him being older than you would make you stop acting like such a hen!'

How nice!

I can't believe they actually took him in.

Hey, kid's got a head-start on life, I personally recommended him.

True, but the Bai Clan isn't a sect, to take in an outsider... That's gotta be a first.

Meh, lame first. I'm just glad the kid can have his chance to become a cultivator.

'Anyway, I hope you're doing alright, I'll be waiting for you letter next month.

Now that I can write back to you, let us have actual conversation and not just reports on what madness you've gotten yourself into now!'

I smiled and put his letter aside.

The next letter was Yan MingXia's packet and I kind of hesitated before opening it.

There were a full five pages of writing, the last three of which were a long, long list of names and numbers.

What is this?

Read the letter.

'Brat!'

And we are off on a great start.

Shush you.

'Brat! I'm sure you found it funny, jumping all over the place and letting all the good people worry about you, and don't even get me started on those monsters that would, most definitely, be able to eat you whole!

Are you an idiot?! Oh, why am I asking? Of course you are! A reckless, bloody idiot!'

Yup, this is Yan MingXia's letter alright.

Oh, how I missed her, she remind me of Mrs. Bert from number 6.

...You know what, I can see what you mean.

Right? It's totally a Mrs. Bert lookalike!

'But fine, it's your life you're endangering anyway. We've got bigger problems.'

Oh? Something happen?

Keep reading.

'...We've got bigger problems.

Apparently someone, who I am certain was that damn Tang Qi and his brood of gossips, told the nearby villages that I was selling talismans at a lower price than the norm and I started getting requests for more.

The amount you sent, with extras in case something happened, are all spent within days of your letters arriving, and there's a waiting list. Business is too damn good!'

Oh... That's a problem?

Apparently?

How is that a problem?

Keep reading.

'...Business is too damn good! I can't keep up with the constant flood of requests and inquiries about when you're sending the next package, despite them knowing very well that you only send one every other month, so I had to hire help.'

Hire help?

Keep reading!

'I'm no spring chicken, Wei WuXian, and so I had my distant cousin send in one of his sons help me manage things. Kid's not too bright but it'll do.'

Ouch, I pity the kid, dealing with MingXia every day? Poor, poor kid.

Oh, my Heavens, keep reading!

'We're expanding business. I don't want to listen to excuses, or arguments, I'm telling you as it is. We're expanding.

I'm sending you a list of what people are requesting and the quantity they want, no need to fill out every order, unless you're that crazy and setting a precedent, be smart brat, but at least get me rid of this headache.

I've also contacted a friend of a friend who's willing to sell your talismans in their store, they're also on the list, and I'm in the process of getting another shop to consider your things.'

What?

Oh, my god, what have we done?

Business?

Contraband!

They're my talismans, how is this contraband?

Sects and local clans sell talismans, you're releasing them out into the streets, for pennies!

They're practice...

They were practice, now they're a legitimate business! You can't keep up with this orders forever!

...

I might not need to.

...What?

I might not need to personally write each talisman forever, just for a while longer.

...I don't like that look in your eyes.

I had a brilliant idea.

It's a terrible idea.

Books were hard to print because they all have different characters and sentences. No two pages are alike.

But talismans... Talismans all looked the same.

You didn't need a printer to copy those.

A wide grin split my face.

You just needed a stamp.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"When its gone, you'll know what a gift love was. You'll suffer like this, so go back and fight to keep it." - Ian McEwan


Chapter 46: Cherished Friend

"Young Master Lan," A fellow disciple stops him on his way to the Gentian House," A letter has arrived for you, your Uncle instructed us to wait to deliver it personally to you," The disciple bows holding out the rather bulky letter.

Lan Huan immediately knows who that letter is from and smiles, accepting the letter, and the disciple quickly bows again and leaves.

Maybe his brother would feel better after reading A-Ying's letter.

Lan Huan resumed his way towards his late mother's former residence. The house nestled deep in the mountain surrounded by the blue colored gentians looked heavenly under the warm sunlight, but to him, it was as if there was a perpetual black cloud hanging over it.

Sitting primly on the step in front of the house was Lan Zhan, waiting patiently for the door to be opened.

Uncle would scold him again for coming here.

"A-Zhan," Lan Huan called him from the path leading to the house," Mother is not here anymore, A-Zhan," He tells him.

His brother looks at him with saddened golden eyes, so alike his own, and asks him," Where is Mother?"

Dead.

Lan Huan swallows, throat suddenly dry, and forces a smile onto his face," Mother isn't here, A-Zhan," He tells him," Come now, Uncle will scold you if you keep coming here."

His brother doesn't move, if anything, his words only make him more resolute in waiting there, on the step of the house.

Lan Huan sighs, and joins him.

"Mother isn't going to open that door," He tells his brother," Mother is gone, A-Zhan, remember? Uncle has told us this."

"Where is she?" His brother asks him," Why can't I find her?"

"She's gone," He answers him," She can't be found."

"Why not?" Lan Zhan looks so sad," Why did she leave? Was she unhappy?"

Yes.

"No," Lan Huan smiles," Of course not, A-Zhan. Mother was sick," He tells him instead.

"Oh," His brother looks down on his hands, correctly poised on his lap," Will she come back?"

"No," He answers him," That's why you don't need to keep coming here, as Uncle has told you many times already."

Lan Zhan's hand clench in his lap.

"I..." He opens his mouth to say something but closes it again.

Lan Huan sighs," Whatever it is that A-Zhan wants to say, I will listen to, and I will not tell Uncle."

His little brother looks up at him with golden eyes shimmering with unshed tears, lips pressed into a thin line to keep from trembling.

"I want to stay..." He says," I want to stay here waiting."

For what?

Lan Huan does not say anything in response, though he feels his heart is being squeezed between unforgiving hands, and smiles gently at his brother, nodding," Then Big Brother will stay here with you."

"Uncle will scold you," His brother tells him," Brother should go."

"No," He smiles," What sort of big brother would I be to leave my little brother to be punished alone?"

His brother's eyes shimmer and his mouth opens slightly in wonder, before he presses his lips together again and nods, looking back down on his lap.

Lan Huan looks out over the gentians blooming all around the house hidden deep within the mountain, lost in thoughts of what has been done and what no one thought to questions about being 'righteous', he restrained his emotions from showing on his face as his thoughts turned to his father.

His father who barely stepped out of seclusion these days and wouldn't even look at his own sons before retreating like a cowed dog.

A mixture of heavy emotions built up in his stomach and Lan Huan knew he'd have to talk to his Uncle about how to let them go.

He griped his hands tighter and suddenly remembered the letter.

"A-Zhan," He calls his brother," I almost forgot, a letter came for us."

His brother's eyes light up in interest," From A-Ying?" He asks.

Lan Huan knew that his brother would never call his friend like that to his face, but it lightened his heart to see him grow so fond of his friend. He hoped they stayed friends even after they grew older and had their own lives to live.

A friend like A-Ying was a blessing.

"Yes," Lan Huan smiled," Let us see what he's been up to recently."

Immediately his brother gets this tiny knot on his brow, worried and displeased that the slightly younger boy kept getting into dangerous situations, and Lan Huan has to try very hard to not let his smile grow wider.

He carefully opens the letter, pretending not to notice his brother's growing restlessness, and pulls out the paper sheets.

There are two letters, one for him and one for his brother, plus the usual assortment of drawings that A-Ying loved to send.

His brother reverently help the drawings that A-Ying had sent for him, a city glowing with lanterns, of fishermen out in their boats, and of a strange creature A-Ying had titled 'Platypus'.

His brother held that drawing the longest, baffled by the creature's appearance, before opening his letter.

Lan Huan followed suit, and blinked at the first few lines.

'Lan Gege! I hope you're well, I'm doing fine too, no need to worry! In fact, I don't anyone has to worry about me from now on, Sect Leader Jiang found me this week and he's brought me back to his sect. I guess I'm a guest disciple here now? Ahah! I don't really now!'

"He's in Yunmeng," His brother said, blinking in surprise," He's staying with the YunmengJiang Sect."

Lan Huan tries very hard not to cheer," Well, Sect Leader Jiang has been looking for A-Ying for a long time, I'm sure he's very happy right now that he's found him."

Lan Zhan nods," He said we could write to him, if we wanted, but he doesn't want them to know who we are."

Lan Huan blinks," Why not?"

His brother frowns," He says that the other disciples think he's only there because the Sect Leader favors him, he doesn't want them to know he has friends in other Sects."

Aah, Lan Huan thinks, that would certainly make things difficult for the boy.

Although no one outside GusuLan knew that the two heirs received letters from the much discussed 'Wei Ying, courtesy WuXian', as he was referred to in every rumor - and the GusuLan had strong rules against gossiping - it wouldn't be 'proper' for a simple guest disciple to be close friends with the Two Jades of Lan.

Not that the boy knew they were the heirs, his letters never indicated anything and they'd never introduced themselves by title, only by their birth names. Certainly, now that he was in a Great Sect, he'd learn about them, but considering how ditzy A-Ying could be at times, Lan Huan wouldn't put it past him to think the heirs were simply two other boys that had the same exact names as his friends.

"Well," Lan Huan cheered up his brother," A-Ying still wants us to write, we'll just not use our names. Then all that A-Ying can tell them is that we're from Gusu," He proposes.

His brother thinks it through and nods, decisively," I will write to him. Needs more practice in calligraphy."

Lan Huan let out a chuckle and quickly covered his mouth, not supposed to have laughed at that.

His brother gives him a surprised look before pouting, despite A-Zhan stating, quite vehemently, that he does not pout," It is not funny."

Lan Huan nods," Yes, it is not funny, A-Zhan. But you should also tell A-Ying about your studies or Gusu, I'm sure he'd like to hear about you."

And not just complaints against his shaky handwriting.

Lan Zhan looks down at his letter again and slowly nods," Yes, I will write of Gusu."

Lan Huan smiled at his brother and went back to his letter.

"I will tell him of Gusu rules," His brother suddenly says and Lan Huan starts laughing.

He couldn't seem to stop, even when his brother looked startled at his unusual behavior, he just couldn't seem to stop laughing.

He couldn't help it.

The image of A-Ying getting a letter full of GusuLan rules and a scolding for his handwriting when all he had sent these past two years had been adventures and beautiful scenery, was just too humorous to contemplate.

He'd have to write a more elaborate letter to A-Ying to compensate.


After setting MingXia's letter aside to review on it further, I am left with a letter from one merchant in Qinghe and two letters from Gusu, signed as 'Lan Gege' and 'A-Zhan".

After snorting at the names I picked up Lan Zhan's and opened it.

Oh, this is priceless.

What?

My lips twitched and threatened to break into a wide grin, stomach hurting from trying to contain the laughter bubbling in my chest, and my hands trembled as I held up the letter to read it.

This is absolutely priceless!

I lost the fight against the hilarity of the situation.

I collapses back on the bed in a fit of giggles, tears leaking out of my eyes with how hard I was laughing, clutching at my stomach.

"What the hell?" Jiang Cheng looks flabbergasted at my laughing fit," What's wrong?"

I review the letter in my head and handed it to him.

Jiang Cheng takes it with hesitation before reading it.

It's not long before he's laughing just as much as me.

"He's... He's... He's sent you... Tips on... on calligraphy!" Jiang Cheng howled in laughter.

"I know!" I laughed harder in response," And... And he knows me!"

Jiang Cheng was curled up in a ball on the floor, laughing and crying," To you! Of... Of... Of all people!"

"I know!" I struggled to get enough air to breathe.

Which was how YanLi, whose bedroom was down the hall, found us, having grown worried with the amount of noise coming from our room," What are you two doing?"

"A-... A-... A-Jie!" Jiang Cheng managed to gasp out between laughter," Letter!" He showed her the letter.

YanLi takes it and reads it, quickly connecting the dots as to who the letter was addressed to, and started giggling," To you, A-Ying?"

"I know!" I managed to take a deep breath," A-Zhan... Oh, A-Zhan..."

We're never letting him live this down.

Never.

I'm keeping that letter forever.

He'll be so embarrassed of it years down the road.

I can't wait.

Finally, Jiang Cheng and I manage to calm down our laughter and just laid there, panting and rubbing at our teary eyes. Jiang YanLi rereading Lan Zhan's letter with a trembling smile, trying hard not to start giggling again.

"A friend in Gusu?" She asks me once things calm down.

I nod," I met A-Zhan years ago, around the time I met ShouShan, actually, we're close friends!" I smile at her.

Lan Zhan will totally deny it.

Let him deny it, I have proof.

"It's good A-Ying has such good friends," YanLi says.

"He sounds so stuffy though!" Jiang Cheng interjects," How did you befriend such a boy?" He wonders.

I ran into him on the streets of Caiyi Town at night, teased him and taught him a nursery rhyme.

"I'm just that lovable," I shrug, with a haughty grin.

Jiang Cheng scoffs," And that's why his letter to you is a bunch of GusuLan Sect rules of conduct and about six lines of reprimands about your handwriting."

A beat of silence.

I start laughing again and Jiang Cheng desperately tries not to join me.

"What about the other letters?" YanLi asks me.

I rub my eyes and pick Lan XiChen's letter, opening it.

'A-Ying, I'm glad you are all right. YunmengJiang is a very good place for you to stay in, A-Zhan and I are happy for you. Thank you for all the letters and drawings, Lan Zhan really likes them. What is that 'platypus' creature you sent? Not even Uncle has seen such a creature.'

That's why I told you not to send that picture to them.

Shush, this is hilarious.

'Everything has been peaceful here, A-Zhan has begun to learn the guqin, maybe he can play for you one day? I'm sure he wouldn't mind.'

I just know that Lan XiChen did not ask Lan Zhan about that before writing this.

'...I'm sure he wouldn't mind. Gusu is very beautiful this time of year, if you ever come here to study I'm certain you'll find many pretty scenes to draw, and the forest surrounding the mountains will surely delight you.'

Damn, Lan XiChen sure is winning the 'potential hubby award' isn't he?

Oh my God, Ike...

He is! Look, he's even inviting you to go take a stroll through the woods, that's a date invitation if I ever saw one.

He's just being nice!

Like Walter was nice when he offered to go get coffee with you?

...

Ooh? Is that a bit of red I see on your cheeks, my darling dear?

No! No, it is not! It's totally different!

My, my, your Lan Zhan will really be jealous. Poor thing doesn't even know his brother is competition yet!

I had to take a deep breath to prevent myself from responding.

I focused back on the letter.

'I wish you good fortune in your studies, there is much to learn at Yunmeng and I am certain you will make the most of it. Best of wishes, Lan GeGe.'

You're totally calling him that to his face later.

You think I'm that shameless?

...Do you want me to answer that?

Forget it.

Ah, Lan-er-gege~!

IKE!

I suppress a full body shudder and carefully fold Lan XiChen's letter.

"At least his brother knows how to actually write a letter," I chuckle," Those two couldn't be more different from one another!"

"So why did you befriend the two and not just the social one?" Jiang Cheng asked, getting a soft wack from YanLi for the impolite question.

I laughed brightly," Where would be the fun in that? I'll get A-Zhan to write an actual letter to me!"

"Keep dreaming..." Jiang Cheng massaged his head," That letter looked like it has been written by an old man!"

Well... He is the pride and joy of Lan QiRen...

I tried not to break down laughing again.

Really, Lan Zhan made it so easy for me to tease him.


I sent the letters into my inventory once Jiang Cheng had fallen asleep and started to make plans on how to deal with Yan MingXia's situation and how to get the ball rolling.

Obviously, if I did it and it worked, things were going to change significantly.

I'd have to find a way to make sure this wasn't tracked back to me, because God knew I had enough problems already without being called out for - unintentionally - creating a whole new market for working talismans, of high quality because I had standards.

The stamp thing was workable, I'd carve the required stamp on wood or bamboo or whatever material conducted energy and ink better, then use seals on the sides to be similar to the Wen branding stick.

But instead of burning it'd press ink.

If I was smart about, I could actually make several talismans at once and then cut them into separate slips of paper.

Uh, this required further experimentation, Ike make a mental note.

Noted.

Okay, so, the stamp idea was great, and potentially workable, but what about the 'non-traceable' thing?

Don't use your address? MingXia knows where to find you in case of an emergency.

Not enough. People will want to know who the hell is creating that many talismans and selling them for discount price.

Technically, you're not selling them. You're providing them for someone else to make a fortune off of.

It's not like I need the money now, and I have better ideas for future inventions to make money out of.

You could've had a head-start.

Not needed.

Seriously, my credit in the Store wasn't even the complete amount because I still had piles of loot to sell.

Back to business, how can I make sure no one thinks to look at me when asking around for this mysterious rogue cultivator?

...Fake identity? Make a decoy?

...Go on.

So, you don't want people to know it is you doing all these things, so make a decoy, a red herring, and they'll go on a merry goose chase tracking down this 'rogue cultivator'.

I blink.

Actually... We could use that for more than just the talismans.

We can?

Safe houses, contingency plans for the mountain, stopgaps.

What? You've lost me.

If I can get someone to play decoy for me, I can get to open so many doors of possibilities! Why settle for one decoy?

Get a network of decoys working with each other to elude detection, have them constantly change locations, and inspire misdirection.

...You're devious.

I am a genius.

This could backfire immensely on you.

Or it could be the longest heist anyone has ever played on the nation.

How are we doing this?

Thankfully, Jiang Cheng was already fast asleep, the evil grin on my face would've given him nightmares.

That said, he wouldn't be much better when the wise scope of what I was about to do was finally unearthed.

All Power to the People.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"He who has a mind to do mischief will always find a pretense." - Publilius Syrus


Chapter 47: Grounded

I had the first packet of talismans ready to go but I couldn't send such a bulky package through the sect, already I'd used practicing along side Jiang Cheng as an excuse as to why I was writing so many talismans and had been given odd looks by more than one servant or disciple.

So, I needed to use the Yunmeng City post house.

Now, to find an excuse to be out on the city without Jiang FengMian thinking I was trying to run away.

"Jiang Cheng," I moaned in despair," I'm so bored! There's nothing to do!"

"There's a lot of things to do!" Jiang Cheng rebuffs me," You could be practicing like me, for one!"

He was going through the basic motions of sparring while I played spotter for him in case he messed something up.

"But, I don't want to..." I pouted," Can't we go out?"

He stops and looks at me confused," Go out?"

"To the city," I point to the sect gates," Can't we go out and have fun?"

"We're not allowed to leave the Sect Compound until we are ten," Jiang Cheng shakes his head," A-Jie goes out but there's always a servant or guard with her nearby, just in case."

"So I can ask Shijie instead?" I perk up," Thanks, platypus!"

Jiang Cheng's eyes widen and he reaches out to grab me," Wait!"

Too late.

I nimbly dodge out of his reach and take off running to where YanLi usually was at this hour. I could hear Jiang Cheng's hurried footsteps after me, grumbling something along the line of 'crazy idiot', and so I ran faster, pushing the kid to his limits.

Training came in all sorts of ways, and playing cat and mouse was rather simple, in comparison to my plans for street parkour when he got some muscle into those arms.

And you can actually leave the sect compound.

That too.

Up ahead I spotted YanLi carefully arranging flowers.

"Shijie!" I called out to her," Jiang Cheng had a brilliant idea!"

"I did not!" Jiang Cheng yelled, offended," This was not my idea!"

YanLi paused what she was doing and looked at us with an exasperated smile," A-Ying, A-Cheng, what have you done now?"

"I haven't done anything!" Jiang Cheng stomps his feet," I was practicing, this idiot is the one that wants to get in trouble!" He points at my grinning self.

YanLi turns to me," A-Ying, what have you done now?"

"I haven't done anything yet, Shijie!" I pout at her," I just came to ask you if you were going out to the city today!"

She blinks," To the city?"

I happily nod," Yes! If you were going, maybe I could come with you for company!" I smile cheerfully at her.

Jiang Cheng gives me a baffled look.

YanLi chuckles," Well, I don't mind taking a walk to the city," She says," But A-Ying can't go far from me!" She instructs me.

I nod quickly," I won't! A-Ying promises to be on his best behavior!"

Jiang Cheng's eyes look at me up and down, clearly revealing just how much he believes that statement.

Jokes on him, I only needed to get in the post house, drop off the package, and be back at her side. Shouldn't take me more than thirty seconds.

"We are not allowed to leave the sect compound," Jiang Cheng reminds us.

"Eh?!" I grumble," But I'll be with Shijie and I won't go anywhere!"

"It's okay," YanLi smiles," I'll hold A-Ying's hand so he doesn't cause mischief. Does A-Cheng also want to come with us?" She asks him.

Jiang Cheng looks unsure but I make puppy dog eyes at him, and he crumbles.

No one withstands my puppy dog eyes.

"Then let's go, before lessons start," YanLi gets up and holds out both her hands.

I happily take hers in mine, walking beside her with a skip in my step, grinning all the while.

Jiang Cheng tried to remain perfectly prim and proper but even he was happy to be spending time with his beloved sister.

Honestly, these kids were just too cute!


We were walking happily through the city and I was subtly luring them closer and closer to the post house, Jiang Cheng had never been in the city before, unaccompanied by his parents, so he was watching the markets with wide-eyed amazement and jaw slack.

Too cute.

Jiang YanLi didn't mind taking us on a scenic route, especially knowing that a guard was following not five feet behind us, and just indulged on letting us pick the direction to walk and running commentary about what we saw.

Two streets from the post house I released my secret weapon.

I tapped twice on the satchel at my waist and Yunru poked her head out, jumping onto the ground and taking off running.

"Ah! Yunru!" I take after her, hearing YanLi and Jiang Cheng call out, surprised.

Yunru expertly weaves through the crowd and into the post house, and I enter it not a second later, having already pulled the packet out of my inventory. I place it on the counter of a stunned teller, place the sufficient coins on top of it and, after grabbing Yunru, cheerfully wished him a good day and walked out.

Not even thirty seconds.

"A-Ying!" YanLi and Jiang Cheng catch up to me, and see me 'struggling' to hold a wiggling Yunru," You had her with you?"

"I didn't even realize she was in the satchel..." I grumble trying to get Yunru to calm down," I thought she was playing around somewhere."

"Didn't you notice the satchel was heavier?" Jiang Cheng huffs.

"No," I pout at him," I'm used to it."

He rolls his eyes," And this is why dogs are better," He tells me.

This time I roll my eyes," Yes, yes, platypus, we all know how excited you are to be picking after puppies for the foreseeable future."

Jiang Cheng reddens and cuffs me over the head," Hey! Careful or I might let her go!" I whine.

YanLi sighs," That's enough excitement for one day, let us go back now," She puts her arm over my shoulders as my hands are occupied with holding Yunru.

You seriously owe Yunru a lot more than just a bowl of berries.

I'll get her a side plate of meat.

Who knew she was such a great actress?

She's mine, what else would you expect?

A lazy procrastinator.

The betrayal!

We start walking back and Jiang Cheng continues his rant about how dogs were infinitely better than any other animal, and that his dogs would be the best behaved dogs ever.

Knowing what I knew, I was tempted to say his dogs would be the most spoiled dogs ever.

And then our afternoon of friendship goals and subterfuge was over.

Jiang FengMian greets us at the gate.

He doesn't look too happy.

No, I observe the way his eyes fly over the cowed Jiang Cheng and the sheepish YanLi to settle on my form and stay there, trying to check me for injuries, No, he doesn't look happy at all.

"A-Li," FengMian starts," Where did you go?"

"I took the boys on a walk, Father," She answers," Just a small walk through the city."

"A-Li, they are not allowed outside of the compound yet," FengMian tells her," What if something had happened?"

YanLi bows," I am sorry, Father, I won't do it again."

"It's not Shijie's fault," I interject, frowning," I asked her to take me outside, so if you're going to scold anyone, Sect Leader Jiang, it should be me."

Seriously, if he liked me so much he wouldn't ruin me for life by letting me act the way I wanted.

FengMian doesn't even turn to me, instead turning to Jiang Cheng," A-Cheng, why didn't you tell someone about leaving the compound? I know you know the rules, so why did you decide to break them?"

Oh, hell no.

"I said," I speak louder," That it was my fault, Sect Leader Jiang."

Jiang Cheng looks at me with wide eyes and YanLi grasps my shoulder in warning.

"A-Ying," FengMian looks kindly down at me," You do not yet understand the rules-..."

"I know the rules! I just wanted to go outside because, need I remind you of all people, I am used to coming and going as I please!" I tell him," And as I was the one breaking the rules and Jiang Cheng and Shijie were the ones making sure I wasn't going to cause trouble, then the one that needs to be punished is me and not them!"

"Well said," Madam Yu claps from around the corner, walking with her two maids behind her," You are the one that instigated the children to break the rules, as you have readily admitted, and has to receive punishment for it."

"My Lady-..." Jiang FengMian goes to interrupt but Madam Yu makes a slash gesture with her hand, quieting him.

"YanLi and Jiang Cheng could've been hurt or troubled because of this child, you may do as you wish with it outside of propriety behind close doors, but I am the one responsible for discipline in the Sect and this is a matter of discipline," She sneers," Wei Ying, you will wait in the training courtyard, I will be there shortly with more instructions."

To think that of the two, I would appreciate the woman I can't stand to the man I thought I'd grow fond of.

Expectations not always meet reality.

Disappointing.

I give an awkward bow to the Madam and Sect Leader and hurry away, letting go of Yunru once I turn the corner.

"I'll get you your reward when I get back in the room, you were a lifesaver, YunYun!" I grin at her.

Yunru squeaks at the nickname and does a quick little donut run before scampering off into the bushes.

She's cute too.

Lord have mercy on us if you can't find something cute in your vicinity.

If I can't find anything cute in my vicinity it only means that I am the cute thing in the vicinity.

Ego.

Well, you have to stretch your legs somehow, don't you Ike?

Touché.

No disciple really bothers me as I make my way to the training courtyard but I do get a few unfriendly glares and 'quiet' gossiping behind my back.

Really, these people would learn, sooner or later, that just because they talked about me it didn't mean that I'd suddenly start paying attention to them.

And the ones spreading rumors were underachieving disciples who, obviously, felt threatened about my rapid achievements and reputation.

Older disciples I sparred with didn't really care about me either way, and, after seeing my seven year old body withstand three consecutive suicide-runs, weren't too keen on believing rumors when proof that I actually worked hard to get to where I was was right in front of their eyes.

Truthfully, I felt like I could perhaps befriend them, but I was already kind of busy with Jiang Cheng and dealing with my plans for the future that I didn't have the time right now.

So much to do, so little time to accomplish it.

But I would still get it done.

I was going to win this.


It didn't take too long for the Madam to arrive, sneering in such a familiar way the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and bark orders for the older disciples to line up.

One of the maids, I don't remember their names at the moment, presents the Madam with a training sword.

She takes it and tosses it at me, I grab it and nearly drop it, not having expected it to be so heavy.

The sword was almost as tall as me, made of bamboo carved in the shape of a sword, but it was far heavier than it looked to be.

I gave the sword a suspicious look before looking up at the Madam.

"Disciples," She ordered," You'll spar one by one with this junior, whenever he loses you'll switch, until he either wins or collapses," And then she walks away.

I stare after her and then down at the sword I had the certainly was tampered with, and I can't help the bubble of resentment at the punishment.

Liling was perhaps half of the length of this blade, and she knew I wasn't proficient in using it, and not only that, this blade was too heavy and unwieldy for me to maneuver with it.

Furthermore, these were disciples who had already spent, at the very least, a year studying swordplay.

I was never going to win this.

Well... She did warn you that she'd tire you out in order to prevent more misbehavior.

This goes a bit beyond 'tiring me out'.

Yeah, well, she doesn't like you very much.

I growled in the back of my throat and walked into the circle of the sparring ring.

I twisted the sword to experiment on fighting stances and had to grimace at how limited my movements were. That said, I couldn't very well drop the sword and fight hand-to-hand because, if nothing else, I'd use the sword to block their attacks.

After some hesitation, understandable given the sudden change of plans and how young I looked like, one of them stepped in the ring with me.

"Don't go easy on him!" Madam Yu yelled out," The one I see holding back will be joining in on his punishment."

Sure, go right ahead and tell them to split my head open while you're at it!

Temper!

I gripped the sword tightly and glared at my opponent.

I wasn't going down easily.

I never expected you to.

If she thought this was enough to break me, she was wrong.

Give them hell.

I was going to take my mountain, and I was going to raise it high above all others, just taunting my opponents to try and rival it.

Keep your mind on the target, don't lose focus, stay calm.

I take a deep breath through my nose and exhale out of my mouth.

My eyes start shimmering silver underneath the afternoon sky and my opponent shivers almost unnoticeably.

Game on, punks.


I don't really remember how long we sparred for, how many times I lost, or how it ended, I really only remember waking up in the infirmary, in the middle of the night, to Jiang Cheng sneaking in to snuggle beside me.

Seriously, I woke up to him jostling me awake trying to get under the blanket with me.

Your heart totally melted on the spot.

Shut up.

I ended up helping him get settled, and teased him obviously, before going back to sleep for a few hours until I get roused a second time.

By YanLi who was looking for Jiang Cheng.

I heaved a sigh and mourned the youth's disregard for valuable sleeping time.

"I was worried," YanLi sat beside the bed," A-Cheng wasn't in his room, he wanted to sleep in my room but Mother forbid it, he still broke the rules so he still has to kneel in the ancestral hall tomorrow as well."

Dear Lord in Heaven, these kids needed a cool aunt.

"How are you, A-Ying? Are you hurting?" She asks me, worried, and gently brushing the hair off my face.

"Not really," I yawn," I'll be bruised and sore tomorrow, but I'm just tired," I answered.

Lie. Your hands are completely raw and they'll be bandaged for a day or two still, your knees got pretty banged up and you are lucky you have no broken bones.

...Could be worse.

With you? I'm surprised you still haven't split your head open.

"A-Ying..." YanLi frowns," Don't lie."

I give her a sheepish grin," I'm fine, Shijie, you'll see. I'll be back in lessons tomorrow morning!"

She doesn't look very convinced and sighs, pressing her hands gently on my cheeks, fingers caressing my scar.

"A-Ying gets hurt too much," She tells me.

My smile trembles," Don't worry! I'll get better!" I say.

What else could I tell her?

That I wouldn't get hurt? That I wouldn't do it again? That I wouldn't break the rules again?

It was pratically impossible, in a world like this one, even if there wasn't a war brewing on the horizon and I dead-set on becoming the world's first necromancer, I'd still get involved in night-hunting, fighting and a society based around how powerful and influential you were.

I'd get hurt either way.

It wasn't fair to her, a girl too soft and loving for such a lifestyle, to witness what life would bring to her doorstep and watch it take away bits and pieces of her brother, threatening to leave him a shell of his younger self.

I couldn't do much, but what I could I promise I would. I'd do my best in making sure her brother and herself got a better future.

Even if it meant that I would get beaten up by six odd teenagers with bamboo swords.

I'd survived worst punishments.

Besides, it helped me get stronger.

Always find the silver lining. The bright side of a situation. The break in the clouds.


The doctor didn't want to clear me come morning, because underneath my robes I looked like a mottled grape that had been stepped on, but I had showed him that I was perfectly comfortable with moving about and was ready to take on the world.

I wasn't, not really, I actually wanted to go lie down on a nice bed and sleep the rest of the afternoon, but this was a matter of determination.

And pride.

That too, I guess. The look on Madam Yu's face when I walked in like nothing had happened would be worth it.

Priorities, right?

Not such, more like I can prove that beating me up won't work on me.

She'll just try again.

And I'll survive it again, I shrug, besides I did level up my swordplay skill, leveled up and, this is kind of important, got close to actually beating one of them.

Sure by the time that nearly happened the disciples were already tired and falling a little behind, but I'll take improvement in any shape or form I can.

So, when morning arrived I left the infirmary, with permission!, and made my way to the main hall for breakfast.

Jiang Cheng looked up and stared at me in surprise, and I just couldn't help it:

"What is it, platypus? Shocked by my good looks?" I joked.

Jiang Cheng jolted, frowned, and then started tearing up.

You done goofed.

Oh crap.

I quickly hurry to him and ruffle his hair messing it up," Don't mind, don't mind, I'm fine! What are you upset about? Want me to join you kneeling in the hall? Ah, but I do that I'll just bore you to death with my whinging."

Jiang Cheng bats my hands away but leans slightly on me, thankfully not hugging me or something because that would make it hard not to grimace.

YanLi hadn't arrived yet, so it was only Jiang Cheng in here, which was surprising.

"Where's Shijie? And your parents?" I asked him.

"A-Jie was getting ready," He answers," Mother won't be eating with us today, and I don't know about Father."

Goddammit, and here I wanted to show off my stamina.

Serves you right, I already told you not to antagonize her.

I can't help it! Whenever she gets this look on her face I just want to shove it under her nose that she can't control me like that.

Yes, and it works out great for you.

I sighed.

"Are you hurt?" Jiang Cheng asks me.

"Nah," I wave him off," I'm fine."

He frowns," You were hurt last night."

"And now I am fine," I grin," No need to look so down, platypus!"

He gives me a look," Who says I'm sad about you?" He mumbles.

Kid's so cute, seriously, how can such a grumpy kid be so damn cute.

You find him cute because he's grumpy.

Totally.

"We'll if you're not sad about me, what are you sad about?" I ask him," You can tell me, I'm your shixiong, I'll look after my shidi!"

Jiang Cheng visibly reddens and gets away from me, sitting at his table for breakfast," Who'd want you as their shixiong? Always getting in trouble, always daydreaming in class, and rude."

I sit down at my own table and clutch my heart," Ah! How could you, platypus! And after I made you your slingshot too!"

Jiang Cheng looks away and fiddles with his sleeves.

He's too cute for his own good.

"Hey, Jiang Cheng," I call him.

"What?" He grunts.

"Thanks for being my friend," I smile at him," You're a good kid."

He goes red as a tomato all the way to the tips of his ears," Who are you calling a kid?! You're barely any older than me!"

I laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

If only you knew.

Feeling old again?

A bit, reminiscing mostly.

What are you thinking about?

Colin. He was my daredevil child, little troublemaker always getting into something the minute you turned your back on him.

Ah, I remember him. He grew up surprisingly well-mannered.

He grew up to be a counselor, certainly not the first thing that came to mind when he was a kid.

Why are you thinking about him?

Jiang Cheng kind of reminds me of his little brother.

Ah?

Yeah, I was wondering if I should use Colin as an example on how to act around him.

Anything worthwhile?

Just that Colin was a good big brother.

You are too.

Coming from the person constantly telling me I'm a bad role model.

You are a bad role model, but you're not a bad caretaker, you just... need a handler, sometimes, frequently, advisably always.

Gee, thanks.

It's true.

I know.

I rested my head on my hand as I watched Jiang Cheng try to get his composure back, still visibly red and glaring at nothing, and couldn't help but feel nostalgic.

Only now, instead of being an outsider looking in on these two brothers fooling around, it was a this serious little boy and myself in a second chance at life.

I still felt like an outsider.

But part of my heart yearned to latch on.

Warmth.

Family.

I missed it.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." - Satchel Paige


Chapter 48: Necessary

I was late.

Color me surprised.

I was late!

I did warn you.

Oh, dear Lord in Heaven, Goddess GuanYin, all the deities out there that might take pity on this poor fool, I was fucking late!

I have no sympathy for you.

Ike! I am dead! Do you understand that?! Dead!

I warned you. I told you, you wouldn't make it back in time.

I am so dead.

You are. Run faster, you might make it before the alarm is sounded, and will only scare Jiang Cheng out of his wits by barreling in through the window.

I push my legs further, dashing through the still deserted streets of Yunmeng to reach the Sect Compound before the sun rose. Unfortunately, the sky was already lighting up and I could faintly hear the first fishermen and merchants start their day.

This is not good.

Your fault.

I bit my tongue so that I wouldn't yell profanities in the middle of the empty street and vaulting through the opening in the lotus insignia on the white walls and dropping into a roll on the ground on the other side.

I literally hit the ground running and take off towards the residential wing of the main building.

When I get there I scale a tree to jump onto the roof and jump through the window, letting myself drop to the wooden floor and start getting my robes and boots off.

"What the hell?!" Jiang Cheng startles awake and stares down at me, utterly befuddled about what just happened.

"Go back to sleep!" I hiss at him,"Lay down and pretend to sleep!"

After getting the clothes and boots off I quickly arrange them neatly at the foot of my bed and toss the blankets I'd used to fake a body into the adjacent room, I'd find a place to hide those later, and threw myself in bed, desperately trying to calm down my breathing.

"What's going on?" Jiang Cheng asks me.

"Jiang Cheng," I look at him, dead serious,"Lay down, go to sleep, you do not want to be awake."

"Why?" He complies and lies down,"What did you do?"

"For the sake of your continued health and mine," I bark a, slightly hysterical, laugh,"You really don't want to know."

Jiang Cheng looks up at the ceiling as if begging for patience," Did anyone see you?" He asks instead.

"I'm still alive," I chuckle," What do you think? Now sleep, we don't have much time."

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes," Much time for what?"

"Shh!" I hiss and him, already 'calm' and seemingly sleeping peacefully.

There's a lull of silence and I can sense that Jiang Cheng is just about to start talking again when the bedroom door slams open.

As if rehearsed, Jiang Cheng and I jump 'awake' and stare at the person standing in our doorway.

Jiang FengMian does not look happy.

You are so dead.

Jiang FengMian, in fact, looks like he just spent the last hour chasing a rumor of someone through a forest and all the way back to his own Sect.

Oh, wait...

"Father?" Jiang Cheng gulps," What's happening?"

Jiang FengMian takes a deep breath to reply before blinking and taking in the scene. Two little boys sitting up in their beds staring wide-eyed and startled at the person who just burst in their room.

Boots perfectly placed by the foot of their beds, robes folded for their early start in the morning, seemingly having been asleep up until he entered the room.

He asks,"Have you... Left the room tonight?"

To which both Jiang Cheng and I shake our heads.

Jiang FengMian slowly nods, observing our room again,"Ah, I see... There were reports of a disciple out of the Sect Compound at night."

It must've taken a great deal of sheer force of will for Jiang Cheng to not look in my direction.

"Go back to sleep," Jiang FengMian decides,"It's still to early for you to be awake."

He smiles.

I seriously think there can't be anything more terrifying than that.

Even the Bo looked less scary than that.

If he finds out the truth, you are dead.

Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.

Jiang FengMian nods and leaves the room, closing the door on his way out.

I quickly put a finger to my lips, indicating for Jiang Cheng to remain quiet, and get out of bed to join him in his.

"What did you do?" He whispers in my ear, terrified.

"The letter I received," I whisper back,"A friend asked me to go on a night-hunt like old times."

"You went night-hunting?!" He hisses.

I shush him,"Quiet! Yes and no, I got there and me and my friend got to talking, then someone must've commented I was there, the next thing I know your father shows up!"

Jiang Cheng's eyes go wide,"Father was leading a night-hunt tonight."

I groaned,"And it just so happened I showed up at the same night-hunt."

He looks at me as if he's never seen me before,"How are you alive?"

I grin at him.

We are never doing this again until we have permission.

I did warn you.

Ike, I want you to put this day marked on my calendar, we are never doing this again.

Won't mean much if you're constantly ignoring my advice.

Never. Doing. This. Again.


*Fifteen hours previously*

"What are you doing?" Jiang Cheng asks me, seeing me work on a slim piece of wood.

"I, my dear shidi," I distractedly answer him," Am about to create something revolutionary."

Jiang Cheng gives me a doubtful look.

Oh, you poor, poor child. You're going to be so grateful to me for what I am about to create.

Yes, it's the invention of the ages, the world couldn't possibly exist without this.

It really couldn't.

I blow the wood chips off and hold up what I have in my hands in front of my eyes, really, in all honesty, the System was amazing and I'd give it a 11/10 review if I could.

Once you bought a recipe of any kind, the System would guide you on how to actually get it done. Things like, how your hands should be positioned, how hard you should press or the amount of any thing you had to add.

It wouldn't just let you know how to get it done, it'd actually show you how.

It was amazing.

Stop idolizing it, it'll probably screw you over soon.

I've told you so many times before, the System loves me.

Doubt.

"What is that?" Jiang Cheng leans in to see it better.

"This?" I grin smugly at him," This is a fountain pen."

I got it.

Stop being so happy about it.

No, I waited almost three years to get my hands on it. I deserve to be enthusiastic about this!

Not to the point where your passionate becomes Jiang Cheng's fanatical.

I roll my eyes.

"What is a fountain pen?" Jiang Cheng pokes at it.

"You use it to write," I explain to him," This is hollow, and it has a cap with a tip, which I still haven't finished, and then there's this little tub thing that goes inside that has ink on it."

"Like a brush?" He frowns," Won't the ink spill out?"

"I'm working on it," I wave him off," This is better than a brush because it allows you to write neatly."

"I already write neatly, you're the one that writes like a toddler," Jiang Cheng scoffs.

"How dare you! My handwriting is perfectly legible!" I lie with a straight-face.

Jiang Cheng gives me a disbelieving look," The characters look like chicken scratches."

They're not that bad, kid's exaggerating.

Well, they certainly won't win you any calligraphy awards.

I huff and get back to my crafting, I'd get the tip done later and amaze everyone with the fact that I could, in fact, write legibly.

"What are you doing this afternoon?" I ask Jiang Cheng.

"I dunno," He pouts," A-Jie went with Mother to see Madam Jin, you're not doing anything, and Father is busy."

"Really?" I blink," I mean, I know Sect Leader Jiang is usually busy but you never point that out."

Jiang Cheng hits me on the shoulder," Father is leading a night-hunt tonight, so he won't be back until morning."

That's interesting.

"Well, I'm almost finished here," I inspect the body of the pen," So if you want to do something, we can."

Jiang Cheng jumps to his feet," I want to spar!"

I groan," Why, of all the things you could ask me to do, is it always something that involves physical exertion?"

Jiang Cheng frowns and bonks me on the head," You won't teach me the bow yet, the swords are too heavy, and we can't go outside."

"There's talismans?" I try.

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes," I'm not crazy about them like you, so no, I want to spar," Then he very noticeably pouts," Besides, what are you complaining about, you never lose."

"I do lose, frequently, just not with you," I chuckle and put the pen in my pocket, or so Jiang Cheng sees, having sent it to the inventory once it was out of sight.

"Of course you'd lose against the older disciples," Jiang Cheng grumbles.

Eh, if I had my daggers and I wanted to seriously maim them, then it wouldn't be 'of course'.

Ah, but they can't know that can they?

Ugh.

I get up and follow after Jiang Cheng to the training courtyard.

Spending an afternoon rolling around in the dirt, correcting grips and kicks for a couple hours wasn't the worst that I could be doing.


"Young Master Wei," A servant found Jiang Cheng and I as we were resting under the shade on one of the covered piers," A letter arrived for you."

I didn't get why half the servants and older disciples liked to call me Wei-gongzi. Really, they just called me that from day one, and I doubted it was because Jiang FengMian asked them to.

"Thank you," I got up and accepted the letter.

The servant quickly bowed and left.

"Another?" Jiang Cheng sighed," And just one? They usually come in packs, don't they?"

"And early," I nod," I don't think this is my usual type of letter," I turn it around to read who it is from.

Mao PeiZhi.

Ooh!

I open the letter quickly, eager to see what news he brought me, and wow, word traveled fast that I was in Yunmeng.

Although, to be fair, I had asked ShouShan to speed up the process for me and try and get into contact with my other cultivator contacts, just so that FengMian didn't grow too suspicious for me to receive five letters in reply and send out more than twenty in response.

Of course, with Yan MingXia's decision to become the Godmother of Talisman Contraband (when it wasn't contraband no matter what Ike said), the option to be out of contact with them for a while wasn't possible.

Thankfully, and hopefully, ShouShan had explained things correctly to them so I wouldn't have to worry about foreign cultivators trying to 'break in' into Lotus Pier to talk to me.

I push the thoughts aside and start reading the letter, if it could be called that, they were only a few paragraphs explaining he'd be appearing on a night-hunt happening in a village nearby and that he had other of my contacts with him, so if I could meet with them we'd be able to discuss things properly.

...

...

Damn, I love these people.

You met them when you were five, at best, how the hell did you manage to make such strong connections?

Like I've said, many times, I am just that lovable.

And you teach them tricks that no one else has figured out yet.

That helps too.

Seeing the names of who'd be there I was surprised at how many small time clans had decided to travel in order to meet as close to Yunmeng as you could possibly get without actually being in Yunmeng.

ShouShan probably helped with that too.

Probably.

But, I do have one question.

What?

How are you getting there?

Uh?

It's a night-hunt, even if they're not actually there to participate on the night-hunt.

It's relatively close to Yunmeng, if I leave before midnight, I can be there by 1am.

But you won't be able to make it back in time.

How do you know?

Gut feeling.

You, my dear old friend, don't have any guts.

Fine, my metaphorical gut feeling.

I can totally make it back in time, besides, I need to take this chance. I need to talk to everyone about what's going to happen in the next few months, a year at the latest.

You think you can get your talisman contraband operation rolling in a few months?

I'm spending my nights bulk drawing talismans, hopefully I can max out the skill before winter, which is when the talismans hit their peak in orders, and then I'll create the stamp machine. Once that machine is done, and it works, I can get it to one of my little helpers to send to MingXia, where another little helper should be helping out.

Hopefully, she wouldn't be too angry at me for suggesting she get a young cultivator from a nearby clan, well... nearby-ish, to help with actually dealing with the talismans.

And that the kid didn't get on her nerves too much.

Much woodcutting awaits that young padawan.

Ugh.

Anyway, once the first machine was with MingXia, and it was working as it should, we'd stop the actual door to door selling of the talismans and move things underground, not in the literal sense, but have merchants pick up the bundle of talismans and inconspicuously leave the money for them, before going back to their hometowns.

Yan MingXia would handle that part, though, as she was the one in charge of getting the talismans sold. And was the one that let this get out of hand.

Furthermore, no one would think that a widow past her prime, with no connection whatsoever to the cultivation world, save for one odd 'rogue cultivator' that spend a few weeks of winter in her home one year, would be capable of operation such a wide-scale talisman production.

Which was my goal entirely.

Except you did not expect have her ask for over a hundred talismans a month.

And that's why the stamp comes straight after the fountain pen!

"What does the letter say?" Jiang Cheng asks me,"Anything interesting?"

I hum,"You could say that, it's just a friend checking in on me. He heard I was staying here and wanted to send a letter."

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, less than impressed,"Well, he sent the letter."

"Platypus, I've told you many times, if you get too jealous you'll really turn into a platypus," I needle him,"And I will laugh if you do."

He smacks my back - and ouch! - before walking away from the pier, towards the training courtyard,"Lessons are starting soon, c'mon!"

I roll my eyes and pocket the letter.

It was a lucky night that FengMian and Madam Yu would both be gone for the night.

I only needed to make sure Jiang Cheng didn't wake up during the night and think I had disappeared.

The pillow trick?

Hmm, yes, that does sound like it could work.

You still won't make it back in time to Lotus Pier.

I will make it back in time! Where's your faith in my skills, Ike?

Lost somewhere between your good luck and your ability to keep your foot out of your mouth.

I was not that bad!

...

I wasn't! Ike!

There's no reply.


FengMian had left shortly after dinner, he was also helping organize the night-hunt he was going on so he had to be there early, and so, after a bath and a few squabbles in the bedroom about stupid childish topics, and a lot of needling about my near constant 'practice' of talisman-making, Jiang Cheng finally went out like a light.

I quickly arranged a mount of robes and blankets I had in my inventory, and would explain their appearance never, into a vaguely human shaped mound and covered it. I took a step back and determined that, if Jiang Cheng woke in the middle of the night, he wouldn't notice I wasn't actually there. Taking my task as completed I when out the window and scaled down a tree to get off the roof.

Getting out of Yunmeng was a lot harder than getting in, which I presumed was the entire point, but once you knew the guard's rotations and were small enough to fit through the little 'vent windows' as I called them, getting out only required you to be creative.

So, before long, I was running towards the village where my contacts awaited me.

You're going to get caught.

I am not getting caught!

You're not making it back in time.

Ike, we've discussed this already, everything will go smoothly.

Uh uh - He didn't sound very impressed - Don't come crying to me when it doesn't.

Nothing is going to go wrong.


See? I told you! Everything's fine!

Yes, yes, I heard you the first three times.

"So, what is going on?" Mao PeiZhi asks me.

"A lot is going on," I chuckled,"What do you know?"

"Bai-gongzi told us one of your projects got out of control," Mao PeiZhi grins.

The other five cultivators around us chuckle in response.

I sigh - ShouShan really liked taking digs at my reputation of troublemaker -"I guess you could say that, but it wasn't my fault."

Mao PeiZhi grin widens," Of course not, Wei-gongzi, we'd never think that."

I give him a deadpan look - seriously, these guys loved making fun of me -"Here's the thing, I need you guys to do this-"

And then I explained them my plans.

At some point of the of the cultivators had to sit down before he passed out and held his head in his hands.

Mao PeiZhi was staring at me with a slack jaw, not saying a word.

"So?" I tilt my head to the side, looking up at him with a smirk,"An investment you are interested in participating?"

"Yes!" A cultivator gasped," The Tan Clan will take part in this proposal!"

"The Duan Clan as well!" Another one was quick to agree.

"Me too! I'll get my Clan to consider this too!" One of the younger cultivators put his hand up like a little schoolboy.

"If this works..." Mao PeiZhi finally murmured.

"It has no reason not to work," I inform him,"It might take a few months for it to become completely independent and longer to show visible results, but I don't see why it shouldn't work."

"If it works," Mao PeiZhi enunciates the word carefully,"Then you will take control of a whole new trade route."

"Not me," I shake my head,"I'm not the one who started this process, I was only trying to help an old woman."

Troublesome old woman too!

"And now you may very well be on your way of taking control of a whole new trade route," Mao PeiZhi repeats.

I roll me eyes,"Fine, yes! Yes, I may be accidentally taking control of a trade route, are you interested?" I ask him again.

"The Mao Clan stands with you in prosperity," Mao PeiZhi grins,"More so if you marry my daughter."

The cultivators laugh.

I groan,"I am not marrying anyone!"

Mao PeiZhi just smirks,"She'll grow up to be a beauty, you know, just like her mother."

"Mao-gongzi," I give him a look,"I am not marrying anyone."

He shrugs,"It was worth the try, I wouldn't approve of anyone else marrying my little girl."

I think you might need to cut this short.

Uh? Why?

Listen.

I make a gesture and every one goes quiet, I tilt my head slightly and listen.

At first there's only the usual forest sounds and critters and I start to lose patience at whatever it was Ike thought he'd noticed, when I hear it.

"They think it was him, Sect Leader," Someone was speaking,"I don't know if it's true, but a cultivator mentioned seeing a 'Wei WuXian' joining the night-hunt."

"Did they?" Another voice asked.

I freeze in place.

Oh, no.

You're dead.

I quickly look at Mao Peizhi,"We'll have to discuss this through ShouShan, I need to run, you never saw me tonight!" I point at them.

And then I quickly take off running.

"What do you think happened?" One of the cultivators asked.

"No idea," Mao PeiZhi shrugged,"But it spooked him."

"I don't think it spooked him," Another shook his head,"I think he just didn't want to be seen."

"Seen by who?" Mao PeiZhi asked.

Immediately after his words are spoken three purple clad disciples stumble out of the bushes.

Everyone knows which Sect wears purple robes.

Mao PeiZhi can't quite contain the bark of laughter that overwhelms him.

Apparently someone was out of bed past their bedtime.

Aah, he thought, what interesting times they lived in, where the person who just proposed the most ambitious and outrageous scheme, was a seven year old kid that had a bedtime curfew.

"Good evening," One of the purple-robed disciples bows politely at them,"Have you seen a young child in the forest tonight?"

Mao PeiZhi grinned,"No, sorry, can't say I have."

"No, what would a child be doing here anyways?"

"No children here, just this big baby!"

"Hey! No, sorry, haven't any kid around."

"Who would bring their kid on a night-hunt?"

The disciple grimaced and bowed again,"Thank you, anyways, and please have a wonderful night-hunt."

"You too!" One of the cultivators waves happily as the disciples walk away," Such a polite youth!"

"Don't embarrass them," Mao PeiZhi shakes his head.

God knows we wouldn't stand a chance finding the kid once he stopped looking too young to be walking around by himself.

"Back to work," Mao PeiZhi ordered,"We'll get our fill of hunting and then it's time to head to Gusu! Hope you've brought your clean knickers because I am not stopping until we get there."

The others groaned.

"That's what I like to hear!" Mao PeiZhi laughed.

Aah, what a time to be alive.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"We are best friends. Always remember that when you fall, I'll pick you up, after I finish laughing." - Unknown


Chapter 49: Familiar

As far as the world knew, I hadn't left the room the entire night. Which was why I was still alive two weeks later with only the suspicious glares Madam Yu sent my way and the exasperated air Jiang Cheng had whenever it was brought up.

Maybe the curious mystery kept getting brought up to trip me up?

I don't know.

It's mid-October now, and I was just a week and a half away from turning eight.

Time flies by while you are having fun.

Letters with the Lan Brothers kept being monthly things, but Yan MingXia and ShouShan's were regular occurrences as we coordinated business efforts. ShouShan's father was unfathomably entertained by the mess of a project I had created, and wisely staying out of the meat of the dealings.

ShouShan mentioned he'd be responsible for investing the money they'd earn for helping Yan MingXia so I worried slightly over that.

XianLiang was no fool, but he could be... exuberant, in his festivities.

And getting a pretty fat paycheck, from what ShouShan had written, certainly boosted one's merriment.

Wei WuXian, the Godfather of this world's Underground operations.

It's all Yan MingXia's! She can have that title, I'm just... the supplier, of sorts. Temporary supplier! Once I get the stamp thing up and working everything is getting sent to her and she can decide what way to go from there.

You're going to need several stamps.

I know, and I'll probably need to figure out a way to get in contact with them faster than letters, just in case something happens.

How are you doing that?

I don't know, I'll think of something. Now help me concentrate, drive away all unnecessary thoughts.

I'm busy.

I carefully paint the details of the beautiful lilac and soft pink robes with embroidered lotus flowers of YanLi's dress robes, Jiang Cheng sitting beside me, completely silent, transfixed at my skill.

This morning, YanLi received a package from Madam Jin, a present they'd apparently discussed when she had gone over for tea, and it looked so pretty that I had begged her to let me paint her portrait (which I had sort of forgotten about, oops) with her wearing it.

I even managed to do her hair and a soft shade of makeup.

Jiang Cheng asked me, with an odd look in his eyes, how I knew how to apply makeup.

In my brief panic to find a worthy excuse, I'd blurt out something about courtesans and them being nice.

Jiang Cheng and Jiang YanLi looked alarmed.

I need to stop doing that.

Yeah, you need to stop doing that.

Thankfully, I managed to divert the conversation back to how pretty YanLi looked and how the portrait was going to look amazing.

Which led us to now, Jiang Cheng awed at my art skills, and the portrait almost completed.

I was using oil paint, because of how vivid the colors were. And also because no one had ever used them before and I wanted this painting to be immortalized.

You just want YanLi to be amazed at it.

Shhh, every lowly human wants the admiration of the Goddess that is YanLi.

You're such a bloody sap.

And you can't get rid of me.

"Teach me," Jiang Cheng murmurs.

I grin not taking my eyes off the painting,"I'll teach you, in time, you're still learning how to sketch properly."

Jiang Cheng nods,"I'll work harder."

I let out a small chuckle,"You're already working hard, Platypus, this things take time, I've been doing this for years, you've just started what? A month ago?"

"Almost two months," He nods.

"Then you are already pretty advanced for when I was when I first started," I tell him,"Must be my incredibly good teachings."

Jiang Cheng lets out a huff of breath, already used to my halfhearted and joking bragging.

I add the final details and put the painting brush down,"There," I smile,"All done, Shijie, it just needs to dry, want to see?"

YanLi gets up from her position and walks over to see the portrait.

"Oh!" She puts her hands over her mouth,"A-Ying, it's beautiful!"

I grin up at her,"I told you, Shijie! I'd paint you the prettiest portrait!"

She smiles and brushes my head, doing the same when Jiang Cheng pouts,"A-Ying did promise, and A-Ying is a good boy that keeps his promises!"

"A-Ying does!" I agree with her,"Do you like it, Shijie?"

Her smile widens,"Hn," She nods,"It's the most beautiful painting I've seen."

"That's because Shijie is the prettiest, most beautiful person in the world!" I laugh.

YanLi goes pink to the tips of her ears,"Oh, you!" She bats at my head.

Your Lan Zhan will be sooooo jealous.

'My' Lan Zhan can go take a hike to cool off in the cold spring.

Oh, he will, no doubt about it, but he might want you to join him.

Bad thoughts!

Ike laughs at him and continues to laugh until the first few note of 'It's a Small World after all' start playing.

Then he just shrieks in terror and goes quiet.

"Mother should see it!" Jiang Cheng's eyes lit up as if he just had a brilliant idea.

I look at him in horror,"No!"

"Why not? She can't get mad at you for it!" Jiang Cheng retorts,"Maybe you can paint her portrait!"

And title it, The Devil wears Purple.

I choke on my spit and hesitate long enough for Jiang Cheng to take off.

That kid is going to get me killed.

You're friends, I think that's their job in life.

You're my friend.

I'm a slightly different variation of friend... I'm literally stuck inside your brain.

Correction, you were born from my brain.

Do you want me to call you Mama?

Die in a ditch.


Madam Yu was faintly impressed, not that she told me such but the fact that she didn't refuse when I politely - begrudgingly - asked if she wanted me to paint her portrait told me all I needed to know.

She accepted of course, if only to brag about it or have it in plain view of visitors and go 'oh, yes, disciples of YunmengJiang are very talented' and increase their prestige at my expense.

But whatever, I enjoyed painting quite a lot so I didn't mind it.

And painting a serious Jiang Cheng next to an equally serious Madam Yu was a one in a lifetime experience.

They'd both gotten dressed up for the portrait, using robes reserved for very special occasions, and looked quite 'royal-like'.

It made me happy that Jiang Cheng would have a painting of him and his mother together years down the line.

Because if I had to, I would - and could - recreate this scene from memory. Just with slightly less details.

It would take a few weeks for the paint to dry completely, so I had warned everyone to place the portraits where no one could stumble upon them and ruin them, and they might need a second layer of paint later but as long as the client - which weren't really clients anymore, I wasn't getting paid - were happy, I was happy.

Or something along those lines, I was eager to go read books or continue working on my plans.

The fountain pen, which was still a prototype until I could devise a better one with the details and fine writing I wanted, was working wonderfully and I had gloated so much over Jiang Cheng about my perfect calligraphy.

He said I was cheating.

I was not cheating!

You kind of are cheating.

I am not! My handwriting as always looked like this.

When using a pen, not a brush.

Who writes with brushes anyway...

Are you asking just to waste oxygen or do you want a detailed list of those who write using brushes?

Shut up.

I carefully painted the light touching Jiang Cheng's bun ornament and the slightly wispy hair escaping it.

He looks so happy standing by his mother's side.

Don't get emotional now!

But he looks so happy!

So be happy for him, not start crying like an overemotional grandma watching her grandson get married.

I was never that bad!

Colin's marriage.

...

Need I continue?

No, I see your point.

I was actually less emotional than I was before. Prone to crying whenever I got too stressed or scared? Sure, but I hadn't had any really big bawling sessions since the basement.

That's a good thing.

Hm, yes I guess. Just weird.

Whilst not a frequent occurrence the times that Walter walked in on me having a meltdown over something insignificant and then be super bubbly and happy the next would be enough to fill up a ledger.

One of the things that had contributed to our mutual decision to split.

I had wanted a better life for Walter, a better wife, while he wanted to give me the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be.

We had both been stupid back then - really stupid - but when we realized that, the love we'd once had just... simmered down. There was love there still, but no passion.

I wonder if that was the same with Madam Yu and Jiang FengMian.

Had there ever been love? Or were the children just the 'wife's duty to produce heirs'?

It was a sad thought.

If they were, they didn't that. They deserved better.

So much better.

Jiang YanLi marries for love, she builds a family for love.

And Jiang Cheng?

...He was blacklisted by all the single ladies.

I suppressed the bubble of laughter as I remembered that.

Guess, Aunt Sarah still has a few sessions of match-making planned for the future.

And you know what makes this easier?

What?

Girls love dogs, and Jiang Cheng's getting three.

Oh, yeah!

Madam Yu had announced that Jiang Cheng would get to pick his dogs out of a litter on his next birthday, November Fifth.

Oh, my Heavens, I'm going to have puppies sleeping in my room.

Technically not your puppies.

Technically I don't care, and they won't either as long as I give them treats.

Jiang Cheng will murder you for getting close to the puppies.

Jiang Cheng will murder me for breathing if I do so too loudly, what's the difference?

And you still call the kid cute.

He is cute, adorably so, and I would just squish him in a bear hug if I didn't know he'd kick me in the kidneys.

Aren't you happy you taught the kid the natural weak spots of the human body?

Well, he's more prepared for the future, so...

Worth it?

Worth it.

Hey, did you tell ShouShan your birthday is coming up?

Yes, I did, why?

Did you ask him not to tell the others?

...

...

Oh, sh*t.


This was getting old.

"So you stay away from him, do you hear us?" The kid in front of me was poking me in the chest with his still soft fingers.

"Yeah, we don't want you here causing trouble!" Another kid agrees.

How am I causing trouble when all I was doing was showing Jiang Cheng how to get out of a hold?

Kid wasn't even getting hurt or distressed - in fact, as usual, he was the one pestering me into teaching him this stuff - he just got called by a servant to go to his mother for something and told me to wait here, in the middle of the training courtyard, until he got back.

"You're just a servant's son, you don't deserve to be here," One of them jeered.

I stayed quiet, I had no desire to go run suicides with the older disciples or have another sparring session that left me feeling like a stepped on grape, and silently chanted to myself Mary Poppins songs to keep myself calm.

I swear if I opened my mouth and responded to them, I would send these children away crying.

And they were just children. They felt it unjust that I was getting different treatment than them while not knowing who I had been prior to coming here.

Which I couldn't say I understood.

The older disciples obviously knew who I was - having chased after me more than once on night-hunts - but the younger disciples were ignorant of what I had been doing for years before starting my formal education on cultivation.

Maybe they didn't want children to try and emulate you and get hurt?

I could see that happening.

"Are you listening?" A hand grabs the front of my robes and jostles me.

Instinct screams at me to thrust out my palm and break their nose.

I stay perfectly still, if tense, and take a deep breath.

Stay calm. Everything is fine. All you got to do is stay calm until Jiang Cheng arrives.

Easy.

"Listen to me, servant!" The kid yells and shakes me,"I'm talking to you!"

No, you are insulting me and yelling. Sorry to correct your misconception, that is not talking.

"What did you expect? Don't you know what they were saying?" The burlier kid sneered,"About his parents?"

...

...

Stay calm.

I am calm, Ike.

I was, actually, and despite the flicker of anger that came at the mention of them in such tones of voice, I didn't feel like punching their teeth out.

Good.

"Nothing good comes from bastards," The kid said.

...What?

A flicker of confusion.

Everyone knew my parents were married, for years before my birth even.

Why would anyone refer to me as a bastard?

Unless they're just using the name as an insult and not as the literal meaning to the word.

"The Sect Leader only brought him home because his bastard was causing trouble outside!" The kid pointed at me.

...The Sect Leader... his bastard?

Oh.

Oh, no.

No no no no.

You did not just imply what I think you did!

Don't do it.

"It's why Madam Yu hates him," The kid laughs,"He's the Sect Leader's bastard!"

I punch him.

"I am Wei WuXian, son of CangSe Sanren and Wei ChanZe, and if you dare say one more word I am going to beat you so badly you won't be able to talk!" I stand over the kid, eyes blazing, and anger shrieking at me to just pound him into the ground.

How dare he.

Not only disgrace the memory of two of the brightest cultivators of their generation, but to besmirch the honor of their own Sect Leader, his wife, and of the Sect as a whole?

How dare they.

Kid is clutching his nose and staring at me like a deer caught in the headlights, and I have the small split second grasp that these children had never seen me fight.

Before actual sparring lessons as a class I'd been sent to fight with the older disciples, and at most they saw me get tossed around like a rag-doll. They didn't know I had been night-hunting since I was four, so they didn't realize I was holding back all the time - especially against Jiang Cheng who I could seriously hurt if not careful.

They had been poking a sleeping bear and they hadn't even known it.

What was I doing? Beating them up?

"Wei Ying?" Jiang Cheng stood a few feet away, confused.

I looked at him and then back down at the sniveling child that thought they were the best thing since sliced bread.

"If I were you, I'd go apologize to the Sect Leader now," I said,"And stop trying to insult me, or I will take offense to your words and no one here will stop me, do you understand?"

"You can't do that!" The kid yelled.

"Oh? Why's that?" I fake confusion,"Because you said not to? Well, tough luck, cookie. I am Wei WuXian, and if you had thought to ask any senior disciple of this Sect who I am and why I am here, you'd figure out that I'm not someone you can push around."

I step over him and head towards Jiang Cheng,"Let this be a lesson, unless you know what your target is, don't taunt it into attacking you. Most likely it'll just try to kill you first and then move on to its intended victim."

I pull Jiang Cheng away from the scene and punch the wall hard enough to crack it once we're out of sight.

"Wei Ying?" Jiang Cheng jumps.

"If anyone ever tells you I'm your father's bastard you tell them to go to hell," I tell him,"Do not believe them for a second, because that will be an insult to both of us."

Jiang Cheng's face twists in confusion, anger, and repulsion,"What are you talking about?"

"Promise me!" I put my hands on his shoulders,"If nothing else, you have to remember that you are the heir to the Jiang Clan and Sect and I am just Wei WuXian, the weird kid that showed up one day."

"Why are you telling me this?" Jiang Cheng doesn't push me away.

"Because I don't want you to think for one second that someone can replace you," I tell him,"No one can ever replace you! Promise me!"

"I promise," He says,"Are you okay?"

I'm fine.

"No," I chuckle,"Want to give me a hug to make me feel better?" I joke.

Jiang Cheng huffs but surprises me by hugging me tight.

"You're not alone," His mouth is muffled against my shoulder,"We're here too."

I chuckle and hug him tighter.

I know. I want to hold you so tightly to me. I want to call you mine.

We're friends. Best friends, perhaps, but I want more.

Let them in.

It hurts.

"Whatever you say, Platypus," I sigh against him.

"Don't call me that," He groans.

I laugh.

I want this.

Then let them in.

I can't.

I can't.

But I want to.


"You know you can only pick three, right?" I smirk down at Jiang Cheng who's currently buried under a pile of fluffy puppies, sprawled on the floor.

I'm sitting on the floor beside him with a happy puppy with a wagging tail trying to lick my face.

"They're so fluffy!" Jiang Cheng was literally in dog heaven.

Today was November Fifth and, as promised, he was getting to choose three puppies from a well known and respectable breeder of spiritual dogs. I had somehow ended up tagging along although I had no desire for a puppy.

Gods knew what Yunru would do to me if I showed up home with yet another small critter to look after.

Yes, worry about Yunru, not Donkey's reaction or my opinion.

Clearly Yunru's opinion is the only thing that matters in situations like these.

I can see when I am not needed.

He says that and then goes quiet.

What a drama queen.

"Have you decided?" Jiang FengMian comes over and asks.

Dude, he's not leaving this place unless he brings the whole litter.

"...Just a few more minutes?" Jiang Cheng pleads.

I snort,"You sure you don't want another hour? Today's the only birthday you're gonna get until the next year."

Jiang Cheng gives me a 'Well, duh' look,"No, just a few more minutes."

Jiang FengMian chuckles,"Well, alright. But just a few more minutes." He walks away.

"Which ones are you getting?" I ask him quietly.

Jiang Cheng points to a very light copper colored husky puppy that looked like a creamy white ball of fluff, then to a black and white puppy, before finally settling on an pie-bald one with what the breeder called 'a dirt-face'.

I nod - they look pretty cute - "What are you naming them?"

"Princess, Jasmine and Little Love," He answers.

"What?" I laugh.

I look at him only to find him dead serious.

"You can't name them that!" I squawk.

"Why not?" Jiang Cheng frowns,"They're my puppies."

"Yes! Puppies!" I gesture,"So why are you naming them after courtesans?"

Jiang Cheng goes red from his toes to the tip of his ears,"They're not courtesan names!"

"Really?" I grin,"Want to go ask?"

Jiang Cheng growls and pulls the newly dubbed 'Jasmine' closed to him,"They're not courtesan names."

I snort,"Sure they're not, just try to use their names in polite conversation and watch as everyone goes confused."

"Like you can name them better!" He yelps.

"I totally can! I named all my weapons and Yunru!" I remind him.

And Donkey.

Shh, that's a point in his favor.

"You named a black rat after clouds!" He points out.

I laugh," She's fluffy like a cloud! Think outside the box, Platypus!"

"Don't call me that!" He hisses.

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" I smirk.

"I'll call you a name too!" He points at me.

That only makes me laugh harder,"You said that months ago! What are you going to call me?"

Jiang Cheng frowns, biting his lower lip, clearly struggling to think of something up.

I open my mouth to tease him on it when he suddenly shouts: "XIANXIAN!"

The whole room goes quiet, the adults turn to stare at us confused beyond belief, and Jiang Cheng turns redder than a tomato.

"XianXian?" I echo, blinking at the name," From Wei WuXian?"

"A-Xian?" Jiang FengMian, who had been talking to the breeder asks, not having understood the shout for what it was.

"Checkpoint Finished!"

XianXian.

A-Xian.

Oh, god.

I burst out laughing, struggling to breathe, and Jiang Cheng pushes me down to be overwhelmed by the energetic puppies.

That name!

Of all the possible names he could come up with...

It had to be XianXian!

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness." - Frank Tyger


Chapter 50: Time Flies

"You have to grip the reigns tighter," The instructor was explaining,"If the horse doesn't think you're in control, it's going to try and control you."

I nod, proving that I was indeed listening, and grasp the reigns tighter.

In truth, sitting on top of a horse, when all my other experiences riding anything were my father's shoulders, a donkey, and a caravan - and on one memorable occasion Madam Yu's sword - was a nerve-wrecking experience.

Especially since I knew people could die from being tossed from a horse.

You stared down a Bo when you were four, fought a six foot bear and made a Measuring Snake explode when you were five, night-hunted by yourself until you were nearly eight, are the first ever human being to develop a golden core at age ten, and fought off three Water Ghouls with a pole and a gutting knife a month or so later. What are you afraid of?

Falling off a horse, obviously, I don't need you quoting my achievements back at me, Ike.

"Horses are easily spooked," The instructor tells me,"They feel the rider's energy, if the rider's energy is too stressed, the horse will be stressed too."

Great, I'm sure this horse is loving me!

Think happy thoughts!

Like what?

I don't know... Teaching Jiang Cheng archery?

I thought back on it.


I adjusted Jiang Cheng's hands on the bow, the recently turned eight year old was stronger than your usual kid, but he still couldn't pull the string all the way back.

"Breathe in," I teach him,"Focus on the arrow tip, keep your hands steady, and when you're ready to take your shot remember to aim higher."

"I got this," Jiang Cheng tells me.

I step back and let him take the shot by himself.

He had made a lot of progress over the last year and a half, so much so that it baffled me. In the novel everyone talked about how Jiang Cheng came second-best in everything he and Wei WuXian got into, but - in comparison between normal children his age - Jiang Cheng was actually head and shoulders above them.

He didn't compare to me because I wasn't a child.

Instead I was more like a coach teaching him one-on-one every day. Sparring, giving tips and advice about all sorts of topics, a friend whenever he needed one.

I was always there.

And he was always there for me when I needed.

Even without asking, I knew he had my back.

The release of an arrow and a 'twack' sound brought me back to reality.

I blink my dry eyes and see Jiang Cheng's arrow hit the bullseye, I smirk.

Jiang Cheng is looking stunned at the target before he beams at me.

"I did it!" He cheers.

"You did, good work," I congratulate him,"If you can hit the next three in a row, we'll go tell your mother, how does that sound?"

His dark eyes glint and his hands grip the bow tighter.

The next time he nooks the arrow he corrects his position by himself, not even needing me to correct his feet, and takes his aim.

It's another bullseye.

A bubbly feeling wells up in my chest.

Without question, I know that it's pride.

He's growing up so strong.

I'm happy.


"We're going to start at a steady pace, understand?" The instructor looks me in the eye,"I don't want none of those tricks you youngsters think are so funny, unless I say so, you do not pick up speed."

"Understood, sir," I nod.

The instructor doesn't fully believe me but moves on,"Here we go," And kicks his horse into a steady trot.

I mimic him and my brown mare trots after him.

"We're gonna go through the woods, the trail is completely safe, just twists and turns," The instructor looks back on me,"Follow after me."

"Yes sir!" I respond.

The man goes back to look straight ahead and turns to trot up this trail.

I carefully maneuver the horse after him, still not used to the long leather reigns.

You're getting better at this.

Thanks.

You are! Last week you were freaking out just by being on top of it.

My lips twitch, thanks for reminding me, Ike.

You're welcome, dearest.

You know what I was thinking about? That time I took Jiang Cheng camping.

The one where you left a note stating 'I'm teaching him how to forage, be back in the morning'?

I chuckle under my breath.

That's the one.


"What is this?" Jiang Cheng gaped at the old weathered tent.

"It's my old tent," I explain,"It's the one I used when I spend my days in the wild."

"It's so big!" He is in awe.

Should we tell him this is actually one of the smallest ones you can buy?

Nah, let him be shocked when I inevitably bring out a bigger one someday in the future.

Oh, he's going to love that.

"Why couldn't we bring the dogs?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"First, you mean to tell me we could've sneaked out of the Compound with three big puppies under our arms - plus our packs - without being noticed?" I raise an eyebrow at him.

Jiang Cheng pouts. "They're going to miss me."

"Platypus, they're too busy drooling on your pillow to care about where you are right now," I snort.

"They do not drool!" He gasps, affronted.

"You and I know what happened to Shijie's hairbrush," I give him a meaningful look.

Jiang Cheng flushes," That- That wasn't- I mean- I-..." He tries to think of something to say.

"It's okay, Platypus," I pat his head,"At least Shijie wasn't too worried about the missing hairbrush."

"Don't call me that," He brushes my hand away,"XianXian!"

I chuckle,"You know... It's more embarrassing for you to call me that in public than to actually get called that, right?"

He huffs,"You're just shameless. You're face is so thick you don't feel a thing."

This culture's way of referring to wounded pride were just too funny. Already I could feel the corner of my lips threatening to break into a wide smile.

I scratched at my cheek, as I grew older the scar started to become smaller, not by much but enough to be noticeable. Whereas before it went from above my eyebrow down the side of my face to the jaw, now it only reached about the lower half of my cheek.

It made me hopeful that by the time I was an adult I didn't look like someone had taken a slash at my face.

Technically the Bo tried to stab you.

Semantics.

"What are we going to be doing?" Jiang Cheng asks.

"Survival," I smirk,"The basics, I'm teaching you how to make a safe fire, then I'm going to teach you how to set a perimeter using the talismans I taught you, and finally, I'll take you around the woods for some good old fashioned foraging session."

Jiang Cheng is sitting at the edge of his seat,"And hunting?"

I look at the sky to check the time and weather,"If you managed to learn the first two quickly, we'll keep an eye out for game while we forage, but only if they're done correctly!" I playfully wag my finger at him.

"Yes!" He raises a fist in the air, a gesture he'd learnt from me.

Damn, this kid was too cute.

"Well, then, c'mon," I wave him over,"Let's start today's lesson."

"Do my parents know we're here?" He asks me.

"Don't worry, I left a letter," I roll my eyes,"Everything's fine."

Jiang Cheng didn't look like he fully believed me but dropped the matter when I crouched down and started explaining how to build a campfire.

And to be fair everything was fine, up until the letter was found and everyone went wild looking for us.

Bright side? Jiang Cheng's perimeter talismans worked perfectly.

Such a good student I had.


"Jumping over obstacles is the hardest thing to learn when riding," The instructor said,"Once you master this, then there won't be anything left for me to teach you."

I nod, absentmindedly petting the horse's mane,"Understood."

"I'll lead you through some of the jumps, but you'll have to do them by yourself the rest of the way," The instructor tells me.

"Understood sir," I nod again, gripping the reigns tightly, and sitting straighter.

The instructor, seeing I was ready, nods picks up the reigns of his own mount,"Let us go."

He starts at a trot before going into a full gallop and I quickly follow after.

The bumps of the horse galloping and the sound of the powerful hoofs hitting the ground reverberate through my bones.

Stay calm.

I am calm, Ike, I'm not scared.

Are you sure?

Yes.

I felt fine.

Excited even. The wind in my hair, whipping past me and making my long ponytail swish behind me like a smoky tail, the smell of the forest thick in my nose, the earthly stench of dirt and leaves, coupled with the scenery around me seemingly flying by...

I couldn't be more at peace.

When the instructor's horse jumps over the first hurdle a brief twist of apprehension bubbles in my stomach, but it quickly disappears. There's this second where the world stops and my whole body is filled with light. Energy.

And I feel... free.

I grin. Eyes wide open and aware of everything.

The powerful beast underneath me, the forest and all its critters moving at the edges of my senses, and the life flowing in my chest.

Perfection.

The horse makes that jump.

I laugh.

I laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

Again. More. Once more!

Let's keep going! Keep moving forward. Keep running!

Let us see more. Feel more. And be more.

I am here, I want to shout at the world, I am here and I am free.

I am free.


I run through the streets of Yunmeng a group of senior disciples bemusedly following after me.

"I am free!" I cheer,"Free I tell you!"

"Don't shout!" One of the disciples shushes me.

"Oh, let him be," Another elbows them good-naturedly,"Remember our first time outside of the Sect Compound?"

"Hard to forget, you threw me into the river," The other elbows him back.

I admire the sights around me, feeling like it's been forever since I last walked here - which wasn't true because YanLi let me sneak out with her more than once for shopping - and greeted everyone with a polite and cheerful smile.

The disciples behind me joked quietly about how I could look so adorable and not as the titan of a disciple everyone in the Sect knew me as.

Honestly, everyone was spooked of me after I had shown them exactly why I was so well-known in night-hunts.

Remembering that day brought a smile to my face.

Jiang Cheng and I had been wrestling in the grass after a minor disagreement when one of the disciples had walked up to us and invited us to join them on their game of 'Shoot the Kite'.

Jiang Cheng wasn't really invited to many group games - not helped by the fact that all the juniors our age either hated me or were too afraid of me to ask him to join them - and so he was eager to try it.

I dutifully followed after him, teasing him and joking about his archery skills.

In hindsight, seeing that it had been one of our classmates holding the kite line, I should've expected a trick.

Jiang Cheng took a perfect position to shoot down the kite and fired his arrow.

The kite suddenly flew higher and the arrow sailed beneath it.

Jiang Cheng's eyes widened in disappointment, and he looked at me as if he expecting a mean comment about it, unfortunately I wasn't looking at him. I was looking at the smarmy looking disciple holding the line.

He did that on purpose.

"Guess the great Wei Ying's teachings aren't so great after all," He called out.

The senior disciple frowned, seeing that there was more to this 'accident', and Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to say something but I stopped him.

I put my hand on his shoulder and took his bow, removing three arrows from the quiver on his back.

I took my position.

There were three other kites flying high in the sky.

I nook the three arrows at once.

*Hawk's Precision* [Activated]

*Pelting Hail* [Activated]

I fire the arrows.

I see them fly in perfect arches and pierce the three kites simultaneously, dead center.

I lower the bow and take another look at the, now pale, disciple.

I don't need to say anything. Whatever it was that I planned on telling him, looking into his eyes, I knew that he could think of scarier words.

I gave the bow back to Jiang Cheng and grinned,"So, want to go practice so I can teach you how to do that?"

Jiang Cheng has stars in his eyes and his smile rivals the sun.

"Yes!"

I chuckle,"Then let's go, come on, didi, let your shixiong teach you his methods!"

Jiang Cheng catches up to me and we walk side by side.

I'd stay if I could, Jiang Cheng, I want to tell him.

If I could, I'd stay this way with you forever. We'd walk side by side and wow the world with our strength.

But I cannot.

A storm brews on the horizon, and it will tear out the very foundations of the world you grew up in.

I am sorry, I cannot shelter you from it.

There is only one thing that I can do for you, until the day I am called to walk down the path less traveled, I will stay here by your side, guiding and teaching you how to be stronger.

I will teach you until there is nothing left for me to teach you other than how to say goodbye.

I am sorry, Jiang Cheng.

I am sorry I cannot stay by your side, brother.


The horse breaks through the treeline ready to take the final jump, and my heart swells in my chest at seeing the end goal just within grasping distance.

"Go!" I push the horse forward,"We can do this! Go! Push past! Go forward!" I grip the reigns so tightly in my hand the leather threatens to cut through my skin.

Home is just beyond that final jump.

One more jump and we did it.

It'll be over.

One more jump.

I can barely contain the excitement inside of me.

I feel the powerful muscles underneath me shift and tense and then-

The horse vaults over the obstacle.

The world holds still for a moment, the light of the sun in my eyes makes the skyline of Lotus Pier glow, and the air in my lungs freezes.

For that single moment, gravity has no hold on me and I float in mid-air an unspeakable connection to the world shifts and falls in place, and the moment passes.

Time resumes flowing.

The horse's hoofs hit the ground and keep galloping towards Lotus Pier.

I let out a yell of ecstasy.

My instructor, Jiang FengMian, Jiang Cheng and YanLi are waiting in the courtyard for me. Patiently impatient.

Jiang Cheng is all but trembling in place - talking YanLi's ear off - only being held in place by his sister's hand on his shoulder.

FengMian is speaking softly to the instructor a knot on his brows, clearly worried about something.

It didn't take much to guess he was worrying about me.

I withheld a sigh and reminded myself that he truly believed he was doing what he thought was best for me, and we'd already had many, many disagreements over time about how he treated me differently and was cold to Jiang Cheng.

Not that he saw his behavior as cold, just- There was a certain degree of disconnect between what he should be doing and what he saw as his role to do at all.

Getting Jiang Cheng his dogs had endeared the boy to his father, but he had done it because Madam Yu had made it so that Jiang Cheng had to have his own pets - and he had even tried to get me to accept one of the puppies from the litter, which I had vehemently refused because that had been Jiang Cheng's special day.

Truly, fathers should seriously take a more direct approach in raising their sons.

I tried to think of any positive father figures in the Great Sects and I could only shrug and maybe point at Qinghe's Sect Leader, the father of Nie MingJue and HuaiSang sounded like a cool guy who loved his sons dearly, whilst the rest of the Great Sects...

Yeah, fathers should really learn how to be fathers instead of just leaving them up to their mothers, nannies, and tutors.

I pulled the reigns and kicked the galloping speed up a notch, eager to burst past the gates and cheer with Jiang Cheng and YanLi the ending of my riding lessons.

"He's here!" Jiang Cheng spotted me first and waved his arms,"Hey!"

I laughed and halted the horse before I could accidentally trample someone,"Miss me, Platypus?"

"Who'd miss you?!" He shouts.

"A-Xian," YanLi smiles,"Congratulations."

I smiled and jumped off the horse handing the reigns to the stable servant that hurried over - and who gave me a happy smile in congratulations - and threw an arm over Jiang Cheng's shoulders.

He let out a yelp,"You stink!"

I laughed and pulled him tighter to me,"How cruel! Shijie, did you hear this injustice?"

YanLi giggled and covered her mouth,"A-Xian shouldn't tease A-Cheng too much," She tells me.

I pout and mess with his hair,"Ooh, but he makes it so easy!"

"Stop! XianXian! Stop!" He tries - halfheartedly- to get out of my hold,"I'll tell mother!"

"Not if you stink as much as me you're not!" I put all of my weight on him, essentially draping myself over him.

"A-Jie!" Jiang Cheng whines - although he holds up my weight surprisingly well - "He's too heavy!"

I let out a scandalized gasp," Are you calling me fat?!"

Jiang Cheng gives me a serious look but his eyes glint with amusement,"Well, you did eat about three servings more than usual, so..."

I let him go to clutch at my heart,"How could you? You know I was practicing until late last night! I was starving!"

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes,"You're always starving, you and that water rat of yours!"

I burst out laughing, Yunru had developed the habit of hogging food out of everyone over the years and, if she didn't exercise so much and got into so much mischief, I'd worry about her getting too fat to fit through the small openings she'd find here and there.

"You always badmouth Yunru but never your three mistresses wagging their tails for treats!" I point at him.

"They do not!" Jiang Cheng turns cherry red.

YanLi covers her mouth again.

Everyone knew I always gave the dogs treats behind Jiang Cheng's back frequently enough that they always wagged their tails and came over to me when they saw me.

Jiang Cheng thought that it was because we had shared a room for much of their puppyhood, but everyone else knew the real reason why.

I smirked down at him. Despite there only being a year difference between us, I'd hit a growth spurt recently and had a couple of inches on him now. Wouldn't last for long, especially once he entered puberty, but it was funny.

"A-Xian," Jiang FengMian walked over to us,"Congratulations on finishing your riding lessons."

I smile brightly at him, too happy to begrudge him a little 'cute nephew' moment before Jiang Cheng and I went off on another mischief run.

"Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang!"

He had tried, several times over the years, to get me to call him Shibo as my father's letter had stated all those years ago.

Almost five years ago.

Time flies.

"You can have the rest of the day off from lessons," He tells me,"You must be tired."

I shake my head,"I still have time to rest, besides next lessons are with Shijie!" I grin.

Man, who'd think you'd actually look forward to those embarrassingly 'feminine' lessons, didn't they start out as a punishment?

I thought back on it and had to bite the inside of my cheek so as to not break down laughing.

They did.


I was laughing, jumping all over the piers and courtyard with Jiang Cheng futilely trying to catch me. In my hands I had one of his bun accessories, the one he refused to wear because it was entirely wrapped in golden flowers - obviously a present from Madam Jin - and was singing "Mother knows Best" from Tangled at the top of my lungs.

He'd been told to to get ready to head with them for Carp Tower and to wear this headpiece but, in a brilliant moment of independence (and entirely my bad influence shining through, I was so proud) he told his mother no, he was not wearing it and that he didn't want to go.

I wasn't present for the fallout, Madam Yu had taken one look at me - torn between horror and beaming with pride - and sent YanLi and I out of the room. There hadn't been any shouting either, or none that I heard, but a significantly cowed Jiang Cheng had walked out, grabbed me, and headed straight to his room to go get ready.

When he had finished getting ready and all that remained was the headpiece I felt his will buckle under the strain of obeying his mother and, as I was prone to do, I decided to make light of the situation.

So I took it, escaped out the room and led him on a merry chase around Lotus Pier while singing that embarrassing song on repeat.

"Mother knows best, listen to your mother~" I sang and dodged yet another tackle from him,"It's a scary world out there!"

Jiang Cheng laughed,"Stop singing!"

His eyes shone with mirth, even he couldn't keep up his anger when all I had been doing for the past twenty minutes was being a complete goofball and dramatically crying and making a fool out of myself.

But hey! My Acting Skill and Acrobatics Skill were going up!

I kept singing and singing until Jiang Cheng suddenly freezes in place and I look behind me to, obviously, find a very unamused Madam Yu staring down at me.

As punishment, because if I was going to be going around singing in dancing in public I would do it well, I joined Shijie on her mystery lessons.

Turns out she was learning how to take care of a household and be a good wife.

The lessons were surprisingly fun.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"When the storm rips you to pieces, you get to decide how to put yourself back together again." - Bryant H. McGill


Chapter 51: Great Storm

Jiang Cheng and I were in the courtyard practicing with the practice swords - ones that weren't tampered with to be twice their usual weight - when I first notice the clouds. Dark grey ones stretching over the sky calling forth rain.

It was summer and two months away from ShouShan's wedding, I had been putting the finishing touches in his wedding present - one of - and was very excited to have received permission to attend.

Well, I was technically allowed to wander away from the Sect now that I was ten, but traveling all the way to Gusu without telling anyone where I was going would most likely restart the manhunts after me. So I had, after making sure nothing incriminating was written on the invitation, showed it to Jiang FengMian and Madam Yu and asked permission to attend.

Madam Yu's reaction at seeing that this ShouShan I had frequently talked about was from a minor Gusu Clan was, in hindsight, amusing. As was Jiang Cheng's when he realizes that the guy sending me letters and calling me his little brother wasn't just another kid I'd befriended but a grown-up.

Technically a grown-up, ShouShan's personality - so much like his own father - made him look younger than he was.

Jiang FengMian got that complicated look on his face again but conceded to let me attend their ceremony and festivities.

But only if one of the adults went with me and I had an escort.

So, unless a saint fell off the altar, Jiang FengMian would come with me to the Bai Clan Residence - along with Jiang Cheng because it was a good learning experience apparently - come the start of fall.

It wouldn't be unbearably hot anymore and there were less chances of a monsoon happening.

"You're not paying attention," Jiang Cheng stops, irritated.

I point up at the sky,"It looks like it's going to rain," I tell him,"Might want to head inside."

Jiang Cheng looks up and, after evaluating how dark and thick the clouds seemed to be forming, nodded. We head inside after putting the practice swords away.

"How are A-Jie's lessons?" Jiang Cheng asks me,"Having fun?"

I grin good-naturedly at him,"We're learning how to sew, why, Platypus, want to join us?"

Jiang Cheng gets a look of horror on his face,"Why are you still going to the lessons, isn't the punishment over?"

I shrug,"They're fun, Mistress Zhu is actually pretty nice."

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes,"You told me she teaches you dancing and singing."

"She does," I nod, amused,"And poetry too, but I'm not so good at that apparently."

He makes a repulsed noise,"Those are girl jobs."

Yeah, well, I was female about seven years ago before I woke up in this body so...

I shrug again,"I find them entertaining, relaxing if you will, and it's not bothering anyone."

Jiang Cheng scowls but drops the matter, honestly if it impinged on his time with me I'd concede that he had a point in me going to these 'useless' lessons, but now that I had a Golden Core my free time had tripled.

I was excused from the remaining classes from Master Xu - now it was my own responsibility to develop my core further - so I could only keep myself busy until Jiang Cheng's lessons ended to meet up with him or go join the senior disciples in their lessons.

Or, as I had done, shadow after YanLi and spend two afternoons a week listen to this teacher about traditional songs, dances, and lessons about how to take care of a household.

I actually fit in so well that Mistress Zhu stopped a lesson mid-way to rant about men and the practice of concubines only to stop suddenly and look at me alarmed. I was just as confused as she was until I realized that I was male and therefore should feel offended? Or something?

I just played it off and asked what concubines were.

I honestly couldn't decide whether the practice was a good or bad thing.

If everyone got along and all the women were respected and didn't mind that their husband had more than one wife under the law, I didn't see a problem? Polyamorous relationships were a thing. If everyone was fine and happy about it why did it matter?

But then again, I could say the same about same-sex relationships and everyone else would lose their minds because 'it wasn't natural' or something.

I shrugged, I honestly didn't really care much about what was socially accepted in society, never had and probably never will.

Jiang Cheng and I had just finished taking our baths, in turns because while we could still fit both of us in the same bathtub we weren't little kids anymore, I dried and brushed his hair for him.

It wasn't something I regularly did, because we both had busy schedules, but it was relaxing. Joking and telling little anecdotes to one another while taking turns to do each others hair.

To me, from a western perspective, it was a really girly way to pass the time, but I kept mum about that little tidbit.

Jasmine, Princess and Little Love - who wasn't so little anymore - were curled up in a pile by the foot of Jiang Cheng's bed and I could see Yunru's black fur peeking out from under one of their heads.

"Yunru is loving their fluff," I point it out to Jiang Cheng.

He rolls his eyes. "I swear she gets into everything," He mutters.

I chuckle,"She probably does."

"Why don't you put her on a leash or something?" He grumbles.

"Yunru is wild, she's natural to Qinghe and I probably shouldn't have taken her out of that habitat. She can come and go as she pleases, I hope that she eventually leaves to start her own family," I told him.

"You don't want her to stay?" Jiang Cheng frowns.

I look back down at Yunru and notice her beady black eyes peering up at me, I smile at her,"Yunru is welcome to stay with me for as long as she likes, I will never chase her away."

The eyes blink and disappear back underneath the fluffy pile of dogs.

You're both two bloody saps.

I chuckle,"What do you want to do, Platypus?"

He scowls at the nickname,"We can't do anything outside, it's started to rain," He looks out the window,"But I don't want to do any talismans or anything like that."

I pondered on what the two of us could do.

What sort of thing did I do with my nephews when there was a rainy day?

Board game?

Yeah, but Jiang Cheng will appreciate it?

He'll be a future Sect Leader and War General in another five or six years.

I want to ease him in it, think that strategy can be fun.

Naval Battle?

I blinked.

"What?" Jiang Cheng gave me a weary look.

He knows you too well.

"I have an idea!" I smile.

He slowly edges away from me,"What idea?"

"A game!" I get up,"I'll be right back, need to grab something from my room."

Upon forming a Golden Core, Jiang FengMian had given me permission to have my own room, which was right across from Jiang Cheng's, and I had finally got my first taste of privacy since I first joined the Sect.

Sure, I still had to keep everything hidden or inside my inventory, but now I could actually take things out and work on my projects.

Like the stamps and ShouShan's gift.

During the last two years I had mastered Talisman-Making - and a couple other Skills - and had set to work on getting as much work done before the war picked up and I had to put a pause on all my projects until peace returned to the land.

I had finished perfecting my fountain pen, which I used everywhere except in calligraphy lessons, and bought all of the crafting recipes I could feasibly create with my current skill set plus all the books that could help me in the coming years.

Now that I was free to walk through Yunmeng I had set to work on getting to know the people living here - and jumping back and forth between Yunmeng and Yiling where it was easier to meet with a random cultivator on 'pick up' duty for Yan MingXia - I could expand my 'home territory' past the Sect walls.

And Quests had showed up again.

I was pretty damn happy when bubbles started popping up all over Yunmeng and Yiling and I could restart my hoarding of Stat Points.

The only thing I got upset about was FengMian's rule of 'No Night-Hunting until thirteen' - which was coincidentally when disciples got their swords - because, dammit, I was so ready to get back into night-hunting.

I could still try to sneak out.

I was instructed to remind you of how last time went.

...Better to wait.

Yes, it's better to wait. Get your baby brother ready to face the world first.

He's not my baby brother.

You sure about that?

I didn't answer him, I got in my room grabbed a bunch of paper sheets and a wooden ruler, and walked back inside his room.

I set the sheets of paper down and drew rudimental grids on them, as the most basic Naval Battle portable boards had, and held out a box of crayons for him,"Pick a color."

He eyed the crayons - which he knew perfectly well what they were from my painting lessons - and picked purple.

I gave him an eye roll and picked red, if he was going to be like that then so was I, before explaining the game to him.

I had to do quick work on what the various sized ships names were but he got the gist of it.

Each of us sat facing each other and keeping our sheets out of sight, so we couldn't cheat, and after a trial run to explain rules and the mechanics of it, we started playing for real.

YanLi came looking for us later, wondering why we weren't at the main hall for dinner yet and found us surrounded by many colorful sheets and Jiang Cheng and I locked in an argument about who had won the most games.

I had kept track - and I had lost - but it was funny arguing with him, especially when he got all frustrated and red faced.

Seeing that we had gotten sidetracked we agreed on a truce and followed YanLi to the main hall for dinner, teasing one another on the strategies used and how many times we screwed the other over by a single tiny boat in the middle of the grid.

Jiang Cheng regaled his parents with the new game I had come up with, to which I just shrugged - like it was nothing new to me - and continued eating as usual, and gestured happily when it got to his victories over me.

I watched him with a fond grin, sharing looks with his sister, and interjected my own anecdotes here and there but mainly focused on eating.

I was holding my chopsticks and eating some noodles when a flash of lightning followed by a deep rumble of thunder shake the house framework.

*Crack*

I blink and look down at my snapped chopsticks.

Huh... That's new.

That doesn't look good.

"A-Xian?" YanLi looks concerned.

"It's fine!" I laugh,"I just held them too roughly!"

Another flash of lightning and loud thunder and my hands visibly shook.

Not good.

I try to remain smiling but all of a sudden it feels like a ball of lead is swimming around in my stomach and I feel sick. I shift in my seat and hide my hands, trying to keep the facade up for Jiang Cheng who still hasn't noticed.

YanLi looks at me and opens her mouth to say something but her mother interrupts her:

"If you are done eating you are excused," She says with a scowl.

Lifeline.

I take it.

"Yes, Ma'am," I bow and get up off the floor, tensing when the next lightning flash passes and leaving the room as quickly as I could without making it seem as if I was fleeing.

Lightning storms weren't rare by any means, but they usually happened at night, when everyone was already in bed and all I had to do was get under several blankets and cover my ears. This one just had to hit during dinnertime.

Goddammit.

I would definitely get interrogated about this later but I could try to pass it off as a mild aversion and not the panic-inducing phobia I had developed after that asshat bastard loc- shut the cellar door.

Already tremors were traveling through my body and my hairs stood on end, which was as much of a warning as I was gonna get telling me to get into my room asap.

Thankfully the residential wing wasn't too far from the main hall, and there were no people walking about, so I just got into the room shucked off my boots and got under the covers.

The door was kept slightly open and the window had no glass, which made me feel better because I wasn't shut in, but, at the same time, it meant that the thunder sounded loud enough to shake my bones.

I breathed through my nose and curled up tightly into a ball pressing my hands tight over my ears.

I don't know how long I laid like that until something heavy jumps on the bed. I remain unmoving underneath the blankets.

Then another heavy something jumps on the bed.

And another.

There's a slight pull on the edge of my blanket.

I wearily peek lift the blanket off my face and blink at Jiang Cheng holding Yunru and all his dogs piled on my bed.

Jiang Cheng doesn't say a word.

I stretch out my legs and make room for him on the bed. He puts down Yunru to kick off his boots and cuddles up to me.

"I thought you weren't afraid of anything," He whispers to me.

I huff a tired breath,"Everyone is afraid of something, Platypus."

He has his head right beside mine and he holds my hand.

"Mother says that you shouldn't be afraid of anything," He tells me.

I chuckle,"Mothers want their children to be brave," I sigh,"But fear isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's when fear becomes irrational that there's a problem."

"I don't get that," Jiang Cheng frowns.

I hum,"A man fears losing his family, it's a normal fear to have. He loves them very much and he doesn't want to see them getting hurt. Rational fear, right? Nothing wrong with that fear."

Jiang Cheng nods.

"Well, that man fears losing his family so much that he one day decides to never let them leave the house," I continue,"If they never leave the house then they won't ever get hurt! That's an irrational fear."

Jiang Cheng frowns,"It's wrong, he shouldn't lock them in the house. It's-"

"Cruel. Irrational. Awful," I nod,"But that man let his fear grow until it overwhelmed him. The man was ruled by his fear, and that is what one must never let happen."

Jiang Cheng nods. "But you're afraid of the storm."

I let out a deep sigh.

I ponder on how to approach this,"The storms is like a... flag," I settled on,"A signal."

"A signal?" Jiang Cheng's dark eyes grow confused.

I nod,"For bad memories. Each time the light flashes or the thunder rumbles the flag waves and brings out bad memories," I explain.

"So you're not afraid of the storm but of the memories?" He frowns,"They're just memories, why are they scary?"

I give him a sad smile,"Some memories, A-Cheng, you treasure forever. Others? You wish that you could forget them," I tell him.

Jiang Cheng snuggles closer to me, his head resting on the crook of my neck, I feel his breathing on my skin.

The storm outside continues to rage throughout Lotus Pier, the dogs yip and yawn at random intervals with Yunru squeaking whenever one of them lays too heavily on her.

"I'll protect you," Jiang Cheng finally speaks.

"Protect me from what?" I ask him quietly.

Jiang Cheng snuffles against my neck,"From the memories. If they scare you, you come to me. I'll protect you from them," He tells me, dead serious.

I hug him tighter against me and chuckle, hiding my face in his hair, glad he can't see my eyes tearing up.

Well, what do you say to him?

"Okay," I nod slowly,"It's a promise. If my memories ever start frightening me again, I'll come find you. I'm trusting you here, didi."

Jiang Cheng nods against me," It's a promise."

And I will do the same to you.

If you ever need me, even if you never tell me you do, I will be there for you.

Through thick and thin, I will do my best to look out for you until I know you can brave any storm that weathers your way.

I promise.

His heart beats through his inner robes, his breathing gradually slows in his sleep, and his body is soft and relaxed against mine.

It brings back memories of good times.

This warmth. A scene bathed in a glow of love. Family.

I missed this.

Brother.

My heart tells me this. Accepts it. Embraces it.

Brother. Brother. Brother.

My little brother.

I will teach you. I will protect you. I will love you.

I already love you.

My brother.

Thank you.

Words I will never be able to say to you and get you to understand how true they are.

Thank you. So much.

Thank you for being born.

Thank you for being my friend.

Thank you for letting me be your brother.

My perfect Platypus.

I chuckle and breathe in his scent, willing myself to never forget it.

Another little set of hands and feet that plant imprints on my heart.

I welcome them.

This amazingly bright soul curled up next to me, the strong and extraordinary man I know he'll grow up to me, is unspeakably fragile yet so valiant.

I am so proud of you.

How much you've grown already in such a small amount of time.

So proud.

I love you so much.

Thank you.


The next morning dawns bright and early, quiet as if the storm of last night never occurred, and I open my eyes to see Jiang Cheng drooling on my arm.

I stifle a chortle and carefully extract myself from the bed, over him and try not to jostle the dog pile at the foot of my bed. Yunru rolls out from under then and blinks up at me.

I put a finger to my lips.

Pushing the blanket up to cover Jiang Cheng's back I tuck him in carefully and silently get dressed.

It's still too early for breakfast but I have someplace I need to be.

Yunru follows after me so I let her climb up my arm to settle on my shoulders.

I head towards the Ancestral Hall, to my parent's altar, with a light heart.

The storm last night left its marks on the Sect, fallen tree branches and a mess of lotus petals for the servants or disciples on scut work for the day, and I observe them with barely a thought of apprehension.

The wound was still there, the fear still kept at bay by delicate threads, but it felt less crushing. A balm, of sorts.

I felt comfortable, ish, in the presence of the storm's evidence.

I enter the Ancestral Hall unnoticed, the heavy door easily pushed open enough for me to sneak in, and my feel find the way to CangSe and ChangZe's swords on instinct.

I smile at them and materialize a stick of incense to burn for them, and two buns to place on their plates.

I press my hands together in prayer.

Too many words are exchanged in silence. Too many promises and dreams and wishes. Far too many to name.

Footsteps echo behind me but I remain exactly where I am.

If they wish to come over and talk, then it is on them, if they are here merely to observe me then they can do so at a distance.

The steps halt when they come in view of the altar but after a few seconds they continue walking towards me.

My eyes are closed and my posture is relaxed but we both know that I am aware of their presence.

They remain silent and wait.

I breath quietly through my nose and open my eyes.

I feel... at peace.

I'm sure that wherever they are, in the Pure World, Underworld, in Heaven or inside the cycle or reincarnation - hell, they could be living inside of a toddler's body somewhere with a Game System guiding them through a brand new world, for all I knew - they accepted and understood my actions.

I wasn't replacing anyone, just adding to it.

I look to up to the side and see Madam Yu staring dispassionately at the swords.

"When did you meet them?" I asked her,"In Gusu?"

Madam Yu's sharp eyes cut straight into mine,"Your father was always with Jiang FengMian growing up, we met when our betrothal contracts were being written. I met your mother the year after FengMian returned from Gusu," She answered me.

I frowned, confused.

"CangSe Sanren lived here for a short time before marrying your father and leaving," She explains.

I make a noise of understanding and glance at the swords again.

"It's unusual for you to be here so early," She comments.

"I needed to tell them a few things," I don't elaborate further.

Madam Yu gives me a look and I can't help but smile gently up at her.

"Jiang Cheng is my brother," I tell her,"You can hate me all you want, but I cannot hate him. He is my brother, not in blood, but," I press my hand against my heart.

"He is my brother," I say.

Madam Yu remains silent but her fingers twist Zidian around.

"And if I forbid you from ever speaking to him again?" She asks.

My smile widens and gets a twinge fonder.

"There's no punishment you can charge me with that won't be worth breaking that order," I tell her,"And if you punish Jiang Cheng for it you'll lose all the respect your son has for you."

Madam Yu stands straighter and her lips thin.

"Do you remember that day on the lake?" She asks, seemingly out of context.

I nod slowly still smiling.

"I do," I answer her," How could I forget?"

How could I forget indeed.

That day, for all the hate you held towards my mother who I am the spitting image of, you still made a choice.

You chose to dive into those waters and pull me out.

You saved me.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light." - Norman B. Rice


Chapter 52: Drowning

It was the start of summer and already the air was getting to be unbearably hot and humid.

I scratched at the center of my chest, where my heart was, because I still hadn't grown used to the presence of the Golden Core. It wasn't a 'tangible' thing but because I was very much aware and in sync with my own energy it felt itchy.

When I had filled the container to the top, right there in front of my eyes, the container and liquid energy turned solid and began to rotate, faster and faster until I could hear this ringing whistle echo throughout the void inside of my body.

And then there was light.

All-encompassing light that cut through the void like a falling star.

"Does it feel weird?" Jiang Cheng suddenly asked me.

I looked at him askance and shrugged,"Not really? I'm just not used to it, I guess."

Neither Master Xu or Doctor Wu knew if the sensitivity I was having to the Golden Core was because of my previous cultivation efforts - which were still unknown to them - or because of my young age.

I had just turned ten four months previously when I formed my Golden Core.

Officially the youngest human being to form a Golden Core.

Even Madam Yu couldn't deny that there was a bump in YunmengJiang's influence when that fact went public. Elders from the other Great Sects came to request permission to verify that I had, indeed, formed a Golden Core.

It was an interesting afternoon, that day.

First came LanlingJin, with a golden robed elder that had snobbishly informed me of the greatness of their Sect and had repeatedly asked me for my 'secret' on how I formed a core so quickly - when he finally accepted that I had formed one and that there wasn't a mistake with the scan he had ran - before being escorted out.

Then came Gusu - and I had held some semblance of hope that it would be Lan QiRen that would come - with their mourning clothes and poker-faces. The elder had been a serene looking elder with pure white hair tied in a single long ponytail with silver bangles down its length.

He swept through my energy slowly, and flowing with it instead of against it, until they reached my core and they gently poke at it to see if it's real. When it stays the same (whereas an illusion would break) it withdrew just as slowly and naturally as it had entered my system.

They congratulated me and said they'd welcome such a talented youth in Gusu for studying if my Sect Leader allowed it.

I had thanked them and bowed politely, thinking of sending Lan XiChen and Lan Zhan a letter telling them of this encounter and asking them if they knew who the elder was.

Because I liked them.

He seemed like a cool elder.

The next Sect to arrive had been Qinghe, with a tall and stocky elder that looked very young in comparison to the other two elders that came by, and had quickly verified my core, asked me a few questions and departed just as quickly.

Qinghe was cool too, but the Gusu elder was the coolest.

Well, well, well! So impressed with Hubby's elders.

I ended the conversation right there and then, before it degenerated into a pissing match between Ike and I.

We awaited a QishanWen elder but none came.

Instead a different kind of news arrived.

The QishanWen had installed a side branch of the main family in Yiling. More specifically, a branch specializing in medicine and the study of spiritual energy.

Wen Qing and Wen Ning.

The meaning behind this sudden development was obvious. Yiling was as close as you could get to Yunmeng without being in Yunmeng. And it wasn't a secret that the first thing I did with my recently earned freedom was to spend an afternoon saying hi to the people in Yiling.

Sue me, I had missed that town.

Of course, I wasn't really supposed to know any of this.

Jiang FengMian had thought to 'protect me' from this information, but news spread far and wide and I got six or seven small missives, along with three or so long letters explaining everything, asking if I needed help.

I had thanked each and every one of them but begged them not to get involved and to lay low. To not stir up trouble or rumors.

I needed them invisible.

The game was still afoot.

But anyway, after that little tidbit of information I wasn't supposed to know, things continued as they had always been. Except I no longer had lessons with Master Xu - but was invited for tea every now and then because I was his favorite, cough successful cough, student - and dedicated much of my time to improve my skills or to upgrade my creations.

Like the fountain pen.

When the final prototype was finished and I started using it in class there was a whole debacle about whether or not it was acceptable of me to use it, and where I had gotten it from, Jiang Cheng's commentary on how I had been working on that thing for months and had carved more than thirty odd pens before settling on this one helped alleviate the rumors I had stolen it from somewhere.

But the fact remained that no one had ever seen such a creation before.

In the end, after offering to make more for the Sect, they had allowed me to keep it, which was silly because for all that they could've confiscated that one I'd just make more and get better at hiding them.

Bright side is that A-Zhan complimented me on my calligraphy the next letter we exchanged. Jiang Cheng said that I cheated.

He's just mad that his mother warned him not to use it in class, preferring to have him practice his writing the old way.

I just whispered to him that any homework or punishment where he had to write didn't count as being in class.

And then there was my new room, which I suspected had been meant to be my room from the very beginning but Jiang FengMian wanted to keep me under watch 24/7, that Madam Yu insisted on kicking me into now that there were very few lessons Jiang Cheng and I shared and none of them early in the morning.

In my fervor to get better and learn more I'd managed to overtake the class in studies so, in order not to demotivate the other juniors and leave me bored, I would be frequently picked off the class to join the seniors in sparring and swordplay lessons.

Jiang Cheng had been upset for a while at my vast improvements but once I was gone from the picture he was suddenly the best in class and everyone wanted to talk to him or ask him advice.

He'd confided in me one night, when he had dragged me to sleep in his bed 'for old time's sake' - an excuse no one believed - that it made him feel good but at the same time angry. They wanted to be his friends when I wasn't there but didn't approach him when we were together.

I'd just shrugged and told him there would be people like that throughout his life, and that's why he had to be careful when making friends. Some only took and never gave, some only wanted to bask in the glow of that person, and others stewed in silence and shadow waiting for the chance to dim that glow or take it for themselves.

It was a tough topic to discuss with a nine year old.

"You're not even listening to me are you?" Jiang Cheng grumbles.

I blink, brought back to reality,"Not really, you were saying?"

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and throws his hands up,"Unbelievable."

Jiang YanLi giggles behind her hands,"A-Xian, A-Cheng was telling you about the sparring match he won against one of your classmates."

I smile at him,"You won? That's so cool!"

Jiang Cheng perks up at the praise and puffs up in pride.

Really, he was so easy to please.

And you love it.

I do.

Where are we going anyway?

I look out at the rest of the lake and scratch at my cheek. "We've come all this way to pick lotus seeds?" I ask.

Jiang Cheng gives me a droll look,"A-Jie told you we were coming to a lotus seed lake, what were you expecting?"

Not this.

"Forgive me for not asking to specify what a lotus seed lake was, it's not like they grow everywhere," I roll my eyes.

Jiang Cheng mutters under his breath and YanLi chuckles as she gets baskets ready to fill up with lotus seed pods.

I look back on the water, deep blue-ish green, covered with beautiful lotus in bloom like a blankets of flowers floating above the water.

I stuck my hand on the water and feel the current the boat is cutting through the still lake.

Something flickers in my senses and I quickly bring my hand out of the water.

"What?" Jiang Cheng frowns at me.

I don't answer him looking between the water at the other boats floating alongside ours.

There's a buzzing in my senses and I slowly move from my position to the other side of the boat, observing the water and searching for anything out of the ordinary.

But no, there isn't anything that stands out to me. It's just a calm and peaceful lake surface. Nothing that screams 'danger'.

Yet my senses were never wrong and kept me alive in more than one situation, so I trusted them far more than I trusted the lake's surface.

After all, even if the surface was calm and peaceful, it did not mean the underneath of it was the same.

My brain instantly came up with alligators and sharks as the problem, before it connected with the reality of this world and threw that idea out of the proverbial window.

It wasn't sharks or alligators.

I had an inkling to what this was.

"Hey," I waved at the people in the boat next to ours,"Has there been any drownings in this lake recently?"

Jiang Cheng's face twisted in disgust and opens his mouth to question why I'd bring this topic up only to pause and look at me.

Really look at me.

One of the people on the other boat look at me startled for a moment before slowly nodding,"There was a couple of drownings last week, a string of boats flipped because of the strong winds when they were trying to return to the port."

I knew it.

I let out a deep sigh through my nose,"Everyone back to shore, and call the Yunmeng Sect or clan responsible for this area!" I order.

"A-Xian?" YanLi frowns before looking at the water as well,"You don't think...?"

I nod,"There's Water Ghouls on the lake," Another deep sigh,"We need to get out of there."

The boat jostles slightly and I grab Jiang Cheng and put him closer to the center of the boat and away from the edges, gesturing for YanLi to do the same, before grabbing the large pole used to guide the boat and start leading us to shore.

Immediately what had been waiting to feast on us start getting agitated and I curse under my breath our bad luck. The older disciples had decided to stay on the port, seeing as we were only going to go around picking seed pods, and they were the ones that had the emergency signals to contact the Sect.

If the people here had been knowledgeable enough to have warned the surrounding areas about the recent drownings then the sects would've come to check it out to make sure nothing malevolent bred underneath the water surface.

Or to at least fish out the bodies.

But no, they hadn't. And now I had to worry about the two kids in the boat with me and how to get them to shore.

Goddammit.

The other boats quickly move to shore but are harassed by the water ghouls on their way, the boats jostling on the water and sinking slightly at the ghouls try to cling to the underside of them.

I focus on my senses and vaguely 'see' where the ghouls are lying in wait to drag us underwater, annoyed that of all the resentful-energy fueled beings there were these had to be slightly intelligent.

And dangerous if you didn't have the tools to get rid of them.

"A-Xian," YanLi looks at me, worried.

"It's fine, Shijie," I grin at her,"A-Xian can deal with this, just don't get near the edges of the boat."

"I want to help!" Jiang Cheng speaks," I can help."

No you can't.

"Platypus, keep your sister safe," I tell him,"Water Ghouls can get nasty, so the two of you look out for one another and keep an eye on the water for me."

Jiang Cheng wants to argue, I know he does, but he acquiesces to my decision.

I can already see the port and one of the faster boats that has already arrived there and is talking to the disciples there.

I see one of them go into their pocket and pulling out a flare signal.

Well, at least we're not far from Yunmeng to receive aid.

The signal the goes up.

And the Water Ghouls get nasty.

The boat in front of us gets flipped by grey skinned and sunken eyes corpses with long stringy black hair, mouth opening and closing soundlessly like a fish, and hands that looked like they'd developed fins connecting their fingers.

All in all, they looked disgusting.

One looked at our boat and I swung the wood pole throwing them back into the water.

"Wow!" Jiang Cheng yelps and then looks at me with a shocked expression.

Guess he's never seen anyone tossing a problem away like that before.

Now's not the time for jokes, Ike.

The people on the water were quickly grabbed by the other boats occupants but that only meant that they were heavier now, and the disciples on the shore would struggle with carrying the adults back to shore on their swords.

So they'd have to focus on getting the ghouls.

And for that they needed nets.

I spied the disciples borrowing nets from local fishermen but they needed to prep them before using them.

I mentally groaned on how easier it would be if everyone just had nets readily prepared in case situations like this occurred.

Common civilians aren't instructed on how to deal with the supernatural.

Well they should! Because they're usually the first ones to die!

I stabbed the pole in the water to drive us closer to the port, if nothing else the disciples could come and grab the heirs without too much difficulty, and hit a bump under the water.

"Guess that one didn't look twice before crossing the road," I mutter to myself.

"What?" Jiang Cheng gives me a weird look.

I shrug, not going to explain that little joke.

The boats were rocked once again and I yelled out at the people,"Make it to the port as fast as you can! They'll try to turn your boat or sink it!"

The people panic briefly before starting to help paddle the boat faster.

"A-Xian," YanLi starts,"The water is darkening."

I look at it and, sure enough, the blue-ish green color is now darker.

I curse.

"That's bad, right?" Jiang Cheng gulps.

Damn, the kid was getting scared.

I grin at him,"Well, ain't this an adventure, Platypus? Don't worry, Shijie and I will make sure no one gets hurt."

He still worries and I push the pole again.

Only this time something pulls it.

In order to remain on the boat and not get pulled off I have to let go of it, and watch as it sinks into the darkened depths.

I sigh.

Of course, they wouldn't make it easy for me.

I had one cultivator sword I couldn't pull out without showing my inventory, and no one that could fly it.

I had a Golden Core but didn't know how to operate a sword like that, Shijie was still working on hers and Jiang Cheng was in the beginning stages of cultivation.

Goddammit.

I quickly count how long we've been on the water and how far the Sect is. Depending on who they send it could be three or so minutes until rescue appears.

Three or so minutes doesn't sound like a long time but then you have to take into account that children can drown in less than one and that's without adding the murderous ghouls trying to take control of your body.

I remain standing and eyeing the waters distrustfully, expecting the boat to start dipping, jostling or for the ghouls to try and flip it.

I was not expecting one to launch itself out of the water and try to grab Jiang Cheng.

Time slows down and all I can see are those rotten grey arms and gaping mouth reaching for him.

I don't think twice.

I push him down into his sister, making them topple over the length of the boat, and feel the broken nails dig into my robes.

The last thing I see before going under is Jiang Cheng's scared eyes.

Damn it.

I'm pulled over board and into the darkened waters of the lake.

I feel the webbed fingers try to grasp a hold of my throat but I kick them off me and struggle against their hands. From the inventory I pull out my remaining knife, Xiaohui, and stab at it.

The hawkbill-like knife that I had bought as a final resort wouldn't mean much against such them, especially as I was underwater, but it would buy me time.

I kicked at them and tried to get back to the water surface but the ghouls all diverted their attentions to keep me under.

I had no techniques I could use underwater, because this was something I hadn't planned for - and would be quickly remedied once I got out of here - and no spiritual weapons with me.

Plus, the ghouls kept clawing at me and not giving me a respite to open the store or inventory to check if I had anything I could use in it.

You're going to run out of oxygen.

Goddammit.

I channeled energy into my body and swiped at one of the ghouls, it's head disconnecting from the rest of the body, and kicked at another feeling bone cave beneath my feet.

I was going to go all out with these bastards.

My eyes glowed silver.

And I push myself upwards breaking the water surface and taking in a gulp of air before getting dragged back down.

They weren't giving up were they?

The Water Ghouls decided to try another tactic, and dived under whenever I went to strike, as they were faster under water than I was. It irked me.

And then, when I was just figuring out what patterns they moved in one went and threw itself at me, I got ready to dodge and swipe when another latched onto my back.

Sh*t!

I tried to curl up to kick the approaching ghoul away only for the third one to grab onto them.

They planned this.

My eyes widen and the final ghoul grabs onto my neck and pushes me down to the lake bed.

Air escapes my lungs in bubbles and I struggle against them but with my legs restricted and being choked by the monster my options are limited.

The Water Ghoul wrapped around my chest squeezes and I feel my ribs creak.

I reinforce my body with energy to try and withstand the force of the attack but it only minimally works and I feel a rib snap.

Pain.

My mouth opens in a scream I choke, swallowing water, and not being able to cough it out.

My vision darkens.

I sink the knife into the neck of the ghoul and punch it with my off hand.

I was panicking.

Looking back on it, the minute the ghoul grabbed my legs and I couldn't kick it away I started panicking.

I punched it again and again, trying to get it to release my throat, but my vision just kept on darkening.

As they closed and I began to lose consciousness there's this blaze of... something. A glint, maybe?

And then the hands around my throat are gone and something grabs onto the front of my robes and pulls-...

I violently cough out the water in my lungs when my back is hit with a sharp blow.

I cough and splutter and struggle to inhale, tears forming in the corners of my eyes.

It hurts.

Pain.

Ow.

"Reckless child," Madam Yu hisses to no one in particular, and secures me against her body, already flying back to the port.

My mind is a mess, I can't seem to focus, and I swim in and out of consciousness. My ears are ringing and I can't hear a thing.

I vaguely recall Jiang Cheng grabbing my hand and yelling something, eyes red from crying and a devastated YanLi holding him back, but that's as far as I can remember from when I'm pulled out of the water.

Afterwards, when I'm lying in the infirmary and no ones looking like they expect me to drop dead that very second, I finally get the facts straight about what happened.

I had gone under for little over two minutes, Madam Yu being the first one to arrive and grab her children out of the boat and back onto the port, before going back and diving underwater to find me.

Jiang Cheng and YanLi remained tight-lipped regarding why she went back for me and not just send a disciple, considering the fact that Madam Yu never had hidden her dislike of me, before shrugging it off as not presenting a good image to YunmengJiang.

Still, I had thanked her, once I could bow properly without grimacing and stopped sounding like a decades-old smoker, but Madam Yu had simply ignored me.

I figured that she didn't want that day to be mentioned again.

But I couldn't forget it.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time." - Leonard Bernstein


Chapter 53: Planning

"You saved me," I say to Madam Yu.

Her eyes flicker with something I can't decipher before they turn back to their usual frosty countenance and she opens her mouth to speak.

"Why are you now referring to my son as your brother?" She asks,"Did you not say you would not interfere with my family?"

I nodded,"I did, and now I cannot stay true to them. I feel... a longing, in my chest, for something I once had. Lines are blurring," I explain to her,"I can't keep pushing them out. I don't want to."

Her violet eyes are vicious and cutting but she remains silent as she observes me.

"What are your plans?" She asks me.

I blink.

Confusion.

"My plans?" I echo.

"You say you will leave to find 'your mountain'," She makes air quotes,"What will you do to find it?"

I frown,"I don't understand the questions, Madam Yu. What will I do to find it?"

She takes a breath,"Will you leave to find your mountain?"

I nod,"Yes."

"Then why care about family when all you'll bring them is heartache by leaving?" She asks.

A faint smile teases the edges of my mouth,"Madam Yu... There is no love without heartache, there are good and bad moments in life. By leaving I won't be abandoning them, I will still consider them family, it's just that they won't see me every day."

She frowns,"What does a child know of love?"

My smile blossoms gently on my face,"I know enough."

Her hands grip her sleeves tightly and she nearly glares at me.

"Your eyes... That damn smile," She hisses,"So much like hers."

I don't mind her anger, after living her for two years I'd come to understand that what Madam Yu wanted more than anything was an apology. Or maybe it was assurance.

One or the other.

She wanted her love to be reciprocated, had always wanted that to happen, but with the era being what it was and CangSe Sanren leaving that mountain like a bolt from the blue... Expectation does not always meet reality.

She had loved FengMian, and she had gotten him.

But he had not loved her, and even now showed no signs of it.

I felt for her.

As a woman who had been loved, so much, by her husband. Kept being loved by him even after no longer being lovers.

To me, Madam Yu was... Mournful.

"I am not my mother," I tell her.

You shouldn't hate the figures of the past. Though they may still cast long shadows, they are not longer there to be feared, reviled, or hated. They are already gone.

"Are you scared of me? Of my presence here?" I ask her.

Madam Yu scoffs,"What is there to be scared of? As if you could rival me, boy."

I smile,"Scared that I may take Jiang Cheng's place," I clarify.

Madam Yu's lips purse into a thin line and her eyes flicker with anger.

"I do not wish to take anything of his," I assure her,"Jiang Cheng is the heir of YunmengJiang, and I am only a temporary resident. One day I will leave and Jiang Cheng will wow the world as one of the best Sect Leaders the world has seen."

Madam Yu strokes her ring,"You speak as if you already know it to be true."

That's because I do.

My smile turns slightly impish,"Your son is a sponge, Madam Yu, and he absorbs everything you teach him. If you focus on him, give him all the tools he needs to succeed, he might surprise you."

"Do not lecture me how I should raise my son," Madam Yu warns.

"I am not lecturing you," I show her my hands in surrender,"I am merely saying that throwing him to the wolves and watch him find his footing, instead of teaching him how to control the wolves, might not be the best approach. He is not you, Madam Yu, and neither is he Sect Leader Jiang."

Zidian sparks once and then twice but Madam Yu remains silent and still.

I wait for her to either dismiss me or to start berating me for my words, but neither happens.

Madam Yu remains stroking her ring, twisting it between her fingers, and watches me with too knowing eyes.

"Why did you push my children down, that day on the boat?" She asks.

The answer is simple,"To keep them from getting grabbed. The Water Ghoul was reaching for Jiang Cheng, had I threw him aside another ghoul would've grabbed him from the other side of the boat. I couldn't pull him so pushing him backwards was the only option."

"To keep them safe..." She mutters.

I wait for her to continue.

"Why do you care?" She asks then.

I tilt my head slightly to the side, confused once again.

"Why do I care? About them? Well, they're my family, of course," I answer.

Madam Yu frowns,"You are not blood."

I laugh,"Family isn't blood, Ma'am. Family are bonds."

Her eyes flicker again and she looks back at the swords on top of the altar.

"I will not accept you as their brother," She tells me,"Do not expect me to ever do. But do what you children want and do not come crying to me when it all becomes meaningless."

Love is never meaningless, I want to tell her.

But I remain silent.

Instead I bow and head back to my room to get ready for the day.

Yunru nuzzles my cheek as I leave the Hall and I carefully pet her head, feeling the soft fur on my skin, and smile.

"Don't worry," I tell her,"I am fine. Look, Yunru," I point at the clearing blue sky,"Isn't this world beautiful?"

Yunru squeaks from where she's perked on my shoulder.

"This world is a gift, Yunru," I tell her,"A gift that we should always cherish. The people who meet, the family we make for ourselves, the home we create... They are all blessings. And no matter the price, we should strive to keep them safe," I poke her nose gently.

You're getting too philosophical for me in the morning.

I chuckle.

I'm sorry, am I boring you?

Not necessarily boring me, it's just unlike you to be so introspective.

I hummed.

How much time do we still have left?

For the war? Give or take six years.

I took a deep breath.

What needs to be done?

What?

I'm working on communication, Yan MingXia, ShouShan, and Mao PeiZhi have the rest underway. What else needs to be done?

Depends. What do you want to do?

I look around me as I walk back to the residential wing.

Damage control.

I'm listening.

I need you to do me a favor, go back to the novel, all the information we have on the attack.

What are you looking for?

They came from water and air, burnt the town and Sect... I want to know who they got so close unnoticed.

An early warning system?

Yes and no. I have an idea.

You don't look reassured by it.

I don't like playing on such low odds, I hate the fact that I may have to let this place burn.

Change what you know you have the power to change, don't take on too much and tire yourself out.

I won't.

I stroked Yunru's fur and sighed.

Focus.

Think.

It's not yet time for rest.

The real storm is coming.

You mustn't stop yet.

Keep going. Keep moving.

Protect them.

Safe. Safe. Safe.

Keep them safe.

I look up at the sky again and close my eyes and just breathe.

There's still time.

And I will make the most of it.

For them.


I walked into the library and headed for my little niche after picking up my current book and settled down.

Jiang Cheng was having lessons with the rest of the class and I had nothing to do until the afternoon so I told him I'd be here. I brought out a few blank sheets of paper and my fountain pen and started putting thoughts to paper whenever they occurred.

I was using a simple pigpen cipher, which would confuse just about anyone as they didn't even know latin letters to decipher it with.

The thought of teaching the letters to either the Jiang siblings or my own growing numbers of correspondents had crossed my mind but I decided against it.

If my creation worked as it should then I wouldn't need to worry about letters being intersected and read between the different groups working with Yan MingXia.

And there was not yet a need for secret communication between the Jiangs and I. If there ever were then I'd think about something then.

More immediate concerns were what I was preoccupied about.

I drew a very basic outline of the Jiang Sect Compound and the various wings and halls. I knew from the information Ike had dug up that the Wens would use a signal to launch the attack and that Wen Zhuliu would kill the people holding a defensive array up.

I needed to find that array and study it.

I looked up at the books surroundings me.

Arrays hadn't been something I had yet studied. Now that Talisman-Making was mastered I guessed it was the next step to go, and I was curious about how different they were from talismans.

Back on the paper I scribbled little details I knew about the area and where the attacks would most likely come from.

Thoughts, ideas and plans swirled in my head and I put many of them on paper, writing and scratching away at the paper until the pages were nearly bleeding ink.

I rested the pen on the floor and took a deep breath, pressing the bridge of my nose with ink stained fingers.

Guessed the fountain pen needed yet another update.

Later.

Yes, later.

Focus on important matters.

I was brought back to my plans and coded ramblings and picked all of the written paper, bundled it up together and sent it to my inventory, before picking up a blank sheet of paper and started to list what I needed to change. Events, people, incidents and potential victims.

I wrote ideas on how I could potentially avoid them but most were just surrounded with question marks.

I did not have enough information to make a final judgement about them.

...

What have you thought up this time?

Information.

Huh? Not having enough information?

Yan MingXia's circuit was already walking about the nation, they shouldn't care about a few tag-alongs, right?

What are you thinking?

How about we get people to join the caravans, as help, only to go around the towns getting information out of people?

You think people will talk to strangers?

I think people like to gossip, and drink, and there's also pillow talk.

...You know this won't help Mao PeiZhi and ShouShan to stop thinking you're not planning on taking over the world.

I have no interest in taking over the world. I have interested in keeping my family safe and then I'm moving to my mountain and the world can figure out what to do with itself for a few years without my interference.

You know that's probably not gonna happen, right?

That people will let me disappear for a couple of years and not bother me? I'm still holding out hope.

I scribbled more ideas on paper and started branching out to more long-lasting options and solutions.

Oh? That one holds merit.

I reread what I have written down and shrug.

History is there for you to learn from, and I know a lot about history.

Remember than enormous book collection Walter got you when you turned forty? The one with the near identical covers and detailed illustrations.

The memory made me smile.

I do.

Let's try not to replicate those books.

My smile quickly turned into a smirk.

I make no promises.

All's fair in love and war.

I underlined the idea and moved on.

So much to do, so little time.


Jiang YanLi knocked on her mother's door with slight apprehension, no matter how many times she had practiced what she planned on saying to herself in her room, now that she was actually here knocking on the door she felt... scared?

She clenched her hands into fists and took a deep breath, doing her best to remain calm and logical. Her mother would never listen to her if she did otherwise.

After a few seconds of silence the door was opened by JinZhu, who looked surprised to see her.

It was easy to see how, there were no lessons planned with Mother and she was usually practicing her work in her room or in the kitchens around this time.

YanLi felt slightly guilty to not come over and try to spend more time with her mother, now that A-Xian was here, and could be trusted not to run too wild with A-Cheng in tow, there was no need for her to spend most of her time making sure her brother wasn't feeling lonely. She figured she should come by more often to have tea with her mother.

A-Xian...

JinZhu stepped aside to let her in and YanLi bowed slightly and smiled at her mother's maid.

JinZhu and YinZhu had come with her mother from Meishan and had been constant presences in hers and A-Cheng's early childhoods. In fact, YanLi could vaguely remember a time where a little A-Cheng had clung to YinZhu and called her 'Auntie' but that had quickly stopped once A-Cheng was moved from the nursery and into a proper room.

"A-Li," Her mother put down her cup of tea,"We don't have lessons today."

YanLi bowed to her mother,"I know, Mother, but I..." She hesitated.

Yu ZiYuan's eyes narrowed,"But you?"

It was now or never, YanLi told herself, I need to tell her! Just as I practiced in front of the mirror, I just need to say it.

But doubt and anxiety roiled her stomach and left her feeling lost.

Was this the right thing to do?

Did she even have what it takes to do this?

Was she strong enough?

Then the memory of how little A-Xian pushed her and her brother down and away from danger, while endangering himself, without hesitation and was dragged underwater by grey decomposed hands of Water Ghouls, surfaced in her mind.

The image of her mother carrying him drenched and limp and broken in her hold haunted her dreams for nights afterwards, and she felt too guilty to come visit him in the infirmary until he was driving the doctor and nurses up the walls with his repeated escape attempts.

A-Xian... Always so strong and reckless, constantly smiling and joking, needling her brother with teases and games, so smart and creative. But he was also very sad and tired.

YanLi knew that he did his best not to show it, but sometimes YanLi caught him looking at the town beyond the river with a near longing look in his eyes. He always hid his true feelings behind a mask, however the longer he lived here in Yunmeng, the easier it was to see behind that mask.

He lowered it when he felt comfortable, and he was comfortable here despite his near constant reminders that he's not really family and only staying here temporarily.

At times YanLi thought that he was simply scared of getting attached, which she could understand given that he had lost his parents when he was little, but then he tried his best to always be there to teach A-Cheng or just keep him company effectively preventing himself from being able to keep an aloof personality.

He wanted a family but was too scared to try and have one, that's the feeling YanLi got from him.

The image of him laying unconscious in bed floats in her mind again.

But not scared enough to consider the possibility of getting hurt trying to protect others.

"Mother, I have a request," YanLi finally manages to say.

Doubts and worries still plague her, roil her stomach and carve away at her confident posture. Even so she stood tall in front of her mother, in the perfect posture Mistress Zhu had taught her (and an amused A-Xian) and held her head high, she had come her with a decision already set and she wouldn't back down from it.

For her two little brothers, she would do her best.

She would do better.

"A request, A-Li?" Her mother asked.

"Yes, Mother," She nods,"I have something to ask of you."

Interested, Madam Yu crosses her legs and turns to face her daughter fully," What is it?"

YanLi takes a deep breath to calm the last of her nerves.

"I want you to teach me," She says,"I want you to teach me how to be as strong as you, as the Violet Spider."

Her mother's eyes widen, definitely not having expected those words to come out of her daughter's mouth,"Why are you asking this now? You know that when you marry Jin ZiXuan there will be no need to be a strong cultivator. And you're already at the age where your Golden Core will only get stronger with strenuous training."

YanLi nods,"I know it will take hard work, I know that Jin ZiXuan is not looking for a strong cultivation partner but, Mother, I am doing this for myself."

She looks her mother in the eye,"I want to be stronger. Strong enough to protect my little brothers- brother, and my family if needs be. I don't want want to have to need someone to protect me, I want to protect myself."

Her mother uncrosses her legs and sits back in her chair, deep in her thoughts.

Jiang YanLi waits, this was it, whether her mother allowed her to become stronger or she'd have, for the first time, contemplate going against her mother's direct orders and beg her father for tutors.

It would mean a rift between her mother and herself, something she did not want as she loved her mother dearly and knew she meant no harm in treating her as fragile porcelain and A-Cheng as just another disciple flagging in his studies.

Which wasn't true, both her little brothers were constantly training on studying something, constantly improving their abilities and leaving her behind. The only time she sees them relaxing is when A-Cheng is practicing his painting and A-Xian is either playing his dizi or singing odd songs with a ethereal glow to him, like he's reaching beyond time and space for words that do not seem to come from this world.

Perhaps from the same world of myth and legends that he loves to enthrall A-Cheng with when they're supposed to be sleeping.

More than once A-Cheng had crawled into bed with her, frighten out of his wits, followed by a snickering A-Xian after the amused boy had told the other a scary story.

Regardless of the warnings he got for making his stories too scary and for scaring A-Cheng when he has lessons the next morning, A-Xian would only laugh and hug A-Cheng telling him funny stories to make up for the scare.

Really, her two boys were so much trouble.

And they'd only get into more trouble as they got older.

A-Xian was only ten, A-Cheng was nine. Her father would have to start taking A-Xian on night-hunts now that he had his own golden core and teach him more advanced forms of the YunmengJiang Sect fighting style, even though he was still so little.

Nevertheless, rumors had spread of the prodigious son of CangSe Sanren having a Golden Core and now it was time he made a comeback into the Cultivation World. Her father could try all he wanted to keep him benched until he was thirteen, as was the general age when disciples were taken on their first night-hunts, the world was watching for the boy who broke convention.

She'd feel concerned for A-Cheng being jealous if she didn't know that whatever A-Xian learnt he'd teach A-Cheng immediately after.

Really those two...

"A-Li," Her mother speaks,"Why now?"

Why not when you were younger? Why not when I first asked you all those years ago? What changed?

"That day on the lake," YanLi began,"I couldn't do anything."

She had just sat there, holding back A-Cheng from diving in after A-Xian, and then sitting still on the boat watching the perfectly still lake surface and begging every deity out there for A-Xian to break the water's surface.

All she could do was sit there and wait.

She still couldn't forget A-Cheng's screams when her mother landed with an near-unconscious A-Xian in her arms.

'Wei Ying! Wei Ying! Brother! BROTHER!'

She couldn't do a thing then.

And it had felt like her chest was full of broken sharks of porcelain cutting deep into her heart, she had felt like she was going to collapse from the pain, the regret of not being able to do anything for either of them.

They were running headlong into danger.

Her two precious little brothers.

And she couldn't do a thing.

Not again. Never again.

She was going to grow stronger. The next time her brothers were in danger she would stand beside them.

She would not be weak.

She might have her father's gentle nature, everyone knew she did, but she was as much of her mother as she was of her father.

And it was time she proved that.

Chapter Text

+ A Game for the Fool +


"Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Chapter 54: Nice Meetings

We were perhaps fours hours away from the Bai Clan Residence when Jiang FengMian decides to stop and make camp, I very nearly protested - we were pretty close to the Clan Residence after all - but shut my mouth and nodded.

The sun was still high in the sky but it would be evening in about two or so hours, meaning we'd only have reached the Bai after sundown. I understood Jiang FengMian's reasoning for making camp, I did, but I was somewhat upset we'd only get there tomorrow.

I had things to discuss with ShouShan.

And it was his wedding on top of everything...

You're the one rushing to get things done, you know.

I'm not rushing, I am making preparations. It will take years for everything to be in place and up and running.

In time for the war?

I grimaced and kicked the brown mare I was riding with A-Cheng into a canter after Jiang FengMian's stallion.

I don't know.

Jiang Cheng grabbed my shoulders tightly, he had been loving every second of this journey - also, traveling on horse for the first time - and was excited to make camp and explore.

It was adorable.

I honestly didn't know why he hadn't started horse riding lessons alongside me, but figured it had been another of FengMian's weird decisions.

Like only being allowed to accompany elder disciples on night-hunts and 'shadow' after them for experience, but not actually permitted to participate in said night-hunt. Which was because I didn't have a cultivator sword - Liling didn't count for some stupid reason - and FengMian refused to back down from his stance of 'cultivator swords only at age thirteen'.

Ugh.

We settled camp in this open field with a forest on one side. We were using tents styled after my old one, and I had nonchalantly provided sketches for bigger ones, with A-Cheng taking the initiative and getting right down to business.

The older disciples followed his example and I stayed back to observe him.

It would be his job one day to lead these people (hopefully these people) and he needed to earn their respect and obedience. Yeah, he was only nine but he wouldn't stay this little forever, and I'd rather have him prepared and moody over too many lessons than carefree and caught unaware by the Wens.

I felt a headache form behind my eyes.

Turning around I started going through my pack for one of my bows and a quiver full of arrows.

Once the tents were set up I'd take him foraging and hunting. This terrain and area was different than what he was used to, so it'd pose a bit of a challenge to him.

We'd see if he had been paying attention to his improvised lessons.

I subconsciously searched my belt and relaxed marginally at feeling Xiaodan's weight at my waist - given back to me after the lake incident - and suppressed the urge to pull it out and test it.

It felt so good to have my dagger back.

I watched as A-Cheng finished setting up his tent and the other disciples following suit before I raised the quiver and shook it meaningfully.

I saw his dark eyes light up and he quickly ran up to me, placed the quiver on his back correctly and took the bow from my hands.

Jiang FengMian opened his mouth before hesitating and letting us wander off into the forest.

We'd already done this before on the journey and he knew just as well as the disciples did that I could look after him for a few hours.

I improvised an exercise to have him spot, name and explain the uses for every forageable plant he came across, all while tracking down game. This went on for a few hours before we caught enough meat to feed everyone back at camp and started heading back.

Jiang Cheng had a skip in his step and I gently teased him for it.

It was an improvement that, instead of growing prickly or angry, pushing me away as he used to, he'd now tease me right back.

I was so proud.

Stop sounding so bloody emotional, he's not a baby.

He's totally a baby, look at him! Walking like a proud duckling! A strutting platypus!

He's nine, going on ten... He's not a baby.

He'll always be my baby brother though! My littlest brother!

Is Wen Ning older than him?

I think so, wasn't Wen Ning born in April? Or was it May?

I'll check later.

Thank you, Ike! Love you!

You only love me when you need me.

Not true, I love you all the time! You just frequently make me wish to strangle you.

Wow, I am feeling so much love already.

Stop being such a drama queen.

Says the shameless person who sang "Mother Knows Best" in front of twenty people, at a volume Lan Zhan would consider a damn rock concert.

Lan Zhan would consider a particularly loud sneeze to be the invocation of the anti-christ.

...

Loud rambunctious laughter echoed within the confines of my mind and I suppressed a twitch of surprise.

It was a conundrum, my mind, how it could be a cavernous expanse you easily lost your way in and a cluttered mess full of information, plans and random facts that bubbled to the surface of my thoughts with no rhyme or reason.

Yet, Ike still found a way to make it feel empty enough that only his presence was felt.

It was odd.

It hadn't always been like that. There was a time, not too long a