Nie Ruyi scrounged in the bottom of her purse, the sidewalk painful beneath the chunky high-heels she'd worn to work today. Her steps jarred the bag, causing the bus pass she was searching for to slip away. A curse slipped from her lips, as she pushed away the little zipper-bag in which she kept her minor first aid kit. Grumbling, she continued the search as her legs carried her on the well-trod path to the bus stop.
After work, she'd headed out instantly, her spirits high thanks to the news that one of her favorite novels was deploying the first episode of it's animated adaption today. She'd intended on setting up a little watch party for herself at home, a nice bag of popcorn and some soda to accompany her squee-ing bliss. She was looking forward to seeing Teng Xueling's introduction to the Imperial Harem and all the drama contained within.
The world seemed to drop out from under her. She looked up from her bag, alert with panic, thinking she'd missed a step, or perhaps she'd twisted her ankle and was falling. The truth was far stranger. Beneath her feet was a well of light so bright it blinded her to look at. She barely made out the lines and symbols that made it up, and she wouldn't be able to say she read it and actually retained any of it. Then, the falling sensation changed into an odd sort-of floating instead.
Her hair, short and curled around her cheeks and ears, lifted in the weightlessness, and she felt as if her bag weighed nothing on her shoulder. She didn't have time to scream, or even the air to do so, a breathlessness stealing over her. Ruyi's entire world collapsed into bright light, and then, as suddenly as it was there, it was gone.
The floor was hard and wooden when she collapsed on it, her bag dropping from her shoulder, her legs askew. A hiss of pain escaped her lips, her hands immediately going to rub her aching backside, which had caught her heavy fall. Her eyes watered with the light even as it faded, and as it did and they became accustomed to the new surroundings, Nie Ruyi wondered if perhaps she'd died.
After all, how else could one explain closing one's eyes on the sidewalk next to a busy street, only to open them in a candle-lit room with rice-woven mats for flooring and red-painted walls? How else could one explain having been (mostly) alone on a sidewalk, only to open one's eyes to the staring, concerned faces of people wearing ancient clothing all around you?
"Um..." Nie Ruyi managed as her intelligent first foray into this situation, "Where am I?"
This broke the staring faces from their surprise and some of them turned to converse with each other. Two stayed focused on Nie Ruyi, however, never leaving her face. One was a woman who looked in her early thirties, a soft curve to her cheeks speaking of an excess of food for most of her life. It made her no less beautiful, for her lips were well-shaped and her eyes kind and sparkling. Her hair was worn in a style Nie Ruyi had only seen in xianxia anime and historical dramas, a bun high in the back and the rest a free-falling black curtain. This woman wore robes that seemed to shimmer and shine, some of the cloth so fine it floated on the breezes like spiderwebs in the early morning.
She was the one who spoke first. "Welcome. I am Lao Minghui, Leader of the Severing Firefly Sect. We are currently in the Skies Hunting Caverns. This will, of course, mean nothing to you, as you are not from this world, and do not know it's places."
"Oh." Nie Ruyi managed. "I see. Then... Uh. Why am I here? Can... Can you send me back home?"
Here a sadness grew over Lao Minghui's face, and it created a squeezing ache in Nie Ruyi's chest. "No, we cannot send you home. I am sorry. We brought you here out of selfish necessity, and for that, this one is sorry. However, our need is dire, and we would not have used the array, had it not been a life-or-death situation."
"That-" Nie Ruyi didn't know if that made it better or worse. "You... You can't send me home. At all."
"We can discuss the details later. For now, may I ask your name?" As Lao Minghui spoke, the whispers and curious mumbles quieted around them, a silence waiting for Ruyi's answer.
"Nie Ruyi. I'm Nie Ruyi, and... I guess I'm stuck here."
Lao Minghui led Nie Ruyi from the room she'd been summoned in, helping her up and out of the blood-red circle. She'd seemed worried about Nie Ruyi's state of dress, as she led the young woman down a hall and through several doors. Nie Ruyi had yet to see any windows, or any sign of the outdoors, but Lao Minghui had not let up with the conversation enough to let her search.
"You must forgive our followers, you see." She'd started, after Nie Ruyi had cast a worried glance over her shoulder at the hangers-on that trodded after them. "Several of them are my assistants. One is my brother, Lao Xiaojun, who is acting as my bodyguard in this situation. And the others are curious students, wanting to know what we've done and how it will help the situation."
"What situation? You haven't exactly told me why you've brought me here." Nie Ruyi complained, chilled to the bone. It had been summer moments ago for her, and now, it felt as if someone had left the thermostat off in the middle of winter. She could only assume the others were dressed warmly because it was cold too. Lao Minghui even had a fur collar at her throat, and lining her wrists and shoulders. Nie Ruyi felt entirely underdressed in her silky short-sleeve blouse, above-the-knee ruffly skirt-and-tights-combo. She hadn't even brought a cardigan, because of how cold it was.
"I would prefer to discuss it in a more... controlled setting. The information is a bit sensitive, you see." Lao Minghui concluded with a wave of her hand. "Are you alright? Ah, A-Jun, could you allow Maiden Nie to borrow your cloak?"
The man, square jaw tense and eyes narrowed in what could only be annoyance, removed the fur-lined thing and fair-tossed it over Nie Ruyi's shoulders. While she had to admit, it was much warmer than what she was wearing, it was also awkward. The cloak was incredibly long, and she worried about tripping over it. But, it was warm with reflected heat from his body and she wasn't going to give up that warmth now that her tremors were slowing.
"Thank you, A-Jun." Lao Minghui patted the young man on his entirely-too-thick shoulder, and he didn't seem mollified in the slightest. He was still staring daggers at Nie Ruyi's profile. The modern girl huffed out a breath that clouded in the cold air, and followed Lao Minghui once again through the cavernous corridors of this building.
Finally, (thankfully for Nie Ruyi's poor bruised feet) they reached whatever room Lao Minghui had been leading them towards. One of the assistants slid forward between the bodies to push the door open. Lao Minghui entered first, ushering Nie Ruyi to follow her. This put Lao Xiaojun at her back, and Nie Ruyi wasn't sure she felt comfortable with the hulking man behind her. When she saw Lao Minghui settled behind what appeared to be a low desk, Nie Ruyi moved forward with quick strides and sank to the ground in front of it, wrapping the cloak around her as tightly as one might a blanket.
With a flicker of her fingers, Lao Minghui gave some kind of order that resolved itself into one of the assistants ushering all the other watchers out of the door, and closing it behind them. During this shuffle taking place, Nie Ruyi found herself looking around the room she'd found herself in. Delicately carved yet strong shelves held knick snacks and scrolls (honest to god scrolls!). Little jade-colored tea-cups and teapots, vases filled with flowers that looked fresh, and a few odd things Nie Ruyi didn't recognise. On the walls were unrolled scrolls, paintings made with ink and brush. One or two even had calligraphy on them. The script (thank heavens) was readable, and seemed to be quotes from poetry. She'd never read those poems before, but Nie Ruyi had rarely read poetry anyway.
The pillow she'd sunk down on was fluffy and comfortable, even though it was on a floor, and the window to the side of the room let in a soft light filtered through tannish paper. Was glass not invented yet? Was it too expensive to make windows out of? She wondered what sort of world she'd landed herself in.
A cleared throat called her attention back, and the assistant set a cup of steaming tea in front of her. Nie Ruyi gratefully went to pick it up, only for her fingers to sting at the heat of the porcelain. She still kept her fingers cupped around it, not quite touching, leeching the heat into her cold extremities. She turned her eyes up to where Lao Minghui was looking at her thoughtfully.
"During your stay here, you will be provided anything you need. I already have some of my assistants working on getting your lodging and clothing situated. I am sorry that we caught you in such a state of... vulnerability." It was like she was trying to talk delicately around something.
"... I was only walking home from work?" Nie Ruyi posited, confusion settling in like an old friend. "Thank you, I guess. I'm not... like. A prisoner, or anything am I?"
"Heavens no!" Lao Minghui gasped, as if she were horrified by the idea. "Not at all. You are our guest, and hopefully, our savior. No, you will be treated with the utmost respect we can afford."
"Oh." Nie Ruyi felt as if the floor kept rolling out from under her feet. She didn't understand any of this. "What am I saving you from exactly?"
"A dragon." The gruff voice came from the corner behind Nie Ruyi, where Lao Xiaojun had taken up post. He stood, back straight and arms behind him, a sentry against attack. Nie Ruyi wasn't sure if he expected her to be doing the attacking or not.
"A... what." Nie Ruyi couldn't help the flatness of her response. A dragon? What sort of fantasy, DnD bullshit was this?!
"A dragon. Or... so we surmise. Honestly, it is a creature we have never encountered before. And anyone we have sent up against it has died. I myself narrowly escaped death only by the skin of my teeth. That was six months ago, and it still wreaks havoc across our lands. The beast is unknown to us, for it is unlike anything we have seen. It is too intelligent to be a basilisk, but has too many limbs to be a dragon of any type we know. It is too big, too magical to be a drake, and it has bested our best cultivators."
"...Then what the hell do you expect me to do about it?!" Nie Ruyi exclaimed, her voice turned squeaky with fear. "I'm just a call center jockey! I-I can't even throw a punch, let alone kill a dragon?!"
Lao Minghui's mouth shut with a click, and it looked as if her whole world had come crashing down. There was a terrible fear in her eyes that sent a thrill of cold up Nie Ruyi's back. They were so desperate for help that they called on someone from a whole other world. What exactly were they facing?
"The ritual was meant to call someone capable of solving our problem." The glacier in the corner finally decided to speak, moving forward to stand next to Lao Minghui. Lao Xiaojun stared down at Nie Ruyi with a look she could only classify as disgust. "You are the answer to the problem, whether you know it or not."
Lao Minghui's eyes widened, and she shot a look over her shoulder at her brother, only to turn back to Nie Ruyi and smile that gentle smile once more. "I agree. Perhaps once you are rested and know more of the situation, you will see what we see."
Nie Ruyi sincerely doubted it. "Look... Dragons... They didn't even exist in my world. The closest thing to fighting one I've ever done was read the Monster Manual for DnD. My DM didn't even bring dragons into our sessions, because he said it was too cliche." To which she had called him a hack, but still. "My job in my world was to sit at a desk and talk to people. I fixed their problems, and then they went on their way. I've never gotten in a fight in my life."
A moment of uncertainty passed over her. Could she really say that with certainty? Shaking off that thought like a bad nightmare, she pushed foward. "I'll offer what help I can, but... I really, really think you should look into other options too."
Lao Minghui was already shaking her head before Nie Ruyi even finished her sentance. "We've tried. The four closest sects are all too small to handle such a beast, and the largest sect we could send to for help we've alienated. They would not respond. The dragon grows stronger still, and it refuses to communicate. We don't even know if the land it has claimed can be reclaimed."
"...What do you mean?" Nie Ruyi asked, confused.
"The air around its territory is poisonous." Lao Xiaojun answered, sharp and cutting. "Too long in it, and it cripples a mortal. Cultivators can stand to be in it longer, but not without effects."
Nie Ruyi put away the term Cultivators for later perusal (without acting on the silent squeeing the word brought about in her brain), and focused on the other part of it. "Poisonous... Wait, describe the dragon to me?"
"...Those that have seen it describe it as having six limbs. Two of which are huge wings like a bat's. It has dark scales, and a few have described them as green-ish. It has a fin from the center of it's forehead all the way down it's back, and it is the size of a manorhouse, roughly. We have been able to track it's lair to a forest to the south, however, once in the forest, no one can seem to locate the creature itself."
Something niggled at the back of her mind, and she frowned at the desk, trying to think of it."...Poison... a forest... Ah!" Nie Ruyi gasped when she realized like a bolt of lightning what they were dealing with. "A green dragon! Probably ancient, if it's that big. Wait... that's not a Chinese dragon, though, and based on your clothes this is ancient china. ...Have any travelers come through there?"
The sudden shift in topic seemed to throw the other two in the room, but Nie Ruyi was already up and running, figuratively.
"Really, there are only two possible reasons for it to be here. Either it grew up in that forest and you're only just noticing it now because it's expanding its territory, or someone brought it here. I suppose it could have migrated, but for a dragon that size, that old, it'd be hard to make it leave its territory, and then we'd have to consider what sent it this way in the first place.
"So the question is, has it just shown up, or are you just now noticing it?" She turned curious eyes to the other two, only for their stares to slough off her confidence. "What? ...Am I talking too fast?"
"No. Not at all, it's... We simply did not expect you to know what it was. Or to seem so certain before you have even seen it." Lao Minghui explained.
"Oh. Well.. uh, it's... pretty easy? You said dragon, and then mentioned six limbs. So it's not an eastern dragon, the kind with pearls and beards. It's got to be a western dragon at that point. And it couldn't have been a wyvern or a wyrm, because wyverns have two legs and two wings, while wyrms have four legs, but no wings. So... Dragon. You told me what color it was, and the habitat, so I just... guessed."
"Hmph." Lao Xiaojun stared down at her, and for a moment, Nie Ruyi wondered if her guess was incorrect. "We checked records in the area before calling you. There was a sudden uptick in missing people, but the forest's poison blight hasn't simply spread. It only began existing a few months ago."
"Then yeah. It was either summoned here, or it moved from a previous lair somewhere else." Nie Ruyi leaned back, feeling more comfortable with that answer. She shifted her numb legs out from under her, the tingles of circulation beginning, as she rubbed a hand up and down them beneath the borrowed cloak.
"Astounding." Lao Minghui gave another of those kind smiles, although this one seemed different to Nie Ruyi. "Thank you, Maiden Nie. You have already proven quite helpful. Now, as I mentioned previously, you will be cared for while you are here. Your lodging will be taken care of, and you will be allotted clothing and hygiene items as we would one of our orphan disciples.
"While you are here, we hope for your assistance with ending the dragon. Should you succeed in this matter, we will be happy to grant a boon to you, equal to the destruction the beast has caused. Severing Firefly sect will take you in as an inner disciple, and you will have a home here the entirety of your life."
"Wait... so you're offering me a position as a disciple of the sect?" Nie Ruyi asked, blinking.
"Yes. It's the least we can do after pulling you from your home so carelessly." Lao Minghui moved a few things aside on her desk, and then pulled out what looked like a small pouch. "In here is the base living expenses we afford orphaned disciples. I've included three months worth here, as part of our recompense. Do you have any experience with the coinage here?"
When Nie Ruyi shook her head, she was quickly treated to a small economics lesson. What she took away from it was that there were several types of coins to be used in certain situations. After running through a few mock transactions with Lao Minghui, she was passed the coins.
"As someone who has not grown up in our world, we understand you will need some assistance, and so we have assigned an assistant to you. He's an inner disciple, very trustworthy. If he gives you any trouble, you need simply speak to A-Jun or myself." The Sect leader waved a hand to designate the two of them.
"Oh. thank you."
"Think nothing of it. Tiang Fengling is a dedicated cultivator, and he's also done rounds in the medical ward as well. He should be able to help you however you might need. If you wished to hire one of the outer disciples as a maid as well, you have the funds to do so there. Ask Tiang Fengling and he will be able to help you with interviews.
"That being said, as you have mentioned being near-helpless in combat, I will ask one of the Upper Disciples to take you in hand for some self-defense training. Until she deems you properly trained, you must have a guard, and for that, I'll be entrusting my brother, A-Jun with your safety."
"What?!" Twin echoes rang out, and Nie Ruyi flinched back when Lao Xiaojun turned his glare towards her instead of his sister.
"I cannot entrust our savior to just anyone, A-Jun, and honestly, Maiden Nie needs a face she recognises during this time. Surely you can feel for her, someone adrift and alone in a world she knows nothing of?" Lao Minghui turned her face to look at her brother, the full brunt of that sad, sweet frown on him.
He glowered at her in silence, and Nie Ruyi was about to speak up, to say something, when he gave out a gusty sigh and shook his head, "Fine. I will protect Maiden Nie."
"Ah ah! It's Nie-Shimei now. She's your martial sister now, of a younger generation. You must welcome her!" Lao Minghui said, smiling gently. She looked as if she was having fun.
"Fine. Nie-Shimei." Lao Xiaojun huffed, rolling his eyes. Lao Minghui nodded affectionately, and then turned back to Nie Ruyi.
"Is there anything else you need?"
"You... said clothes were being arranged... but I might not know how to wear them? I've never worn anything like what you all are wearing." Her cosplay days were long behind her, and she hadn't put on anything more complicated than a dressy outfit since she was a teenager.
"Ah, that could be an issue... I will have maids sent over the next few days to teach you how to dress properly. And after your bath tonight, one of the maids will teach you how to wear underthings properly. We'll deal with all that as it comes, however."
"Shizun," Obviously trying to be unobtrusive, the voice was accompanied by a quiet knock. When Lao Minghui called out for them to come in, the door slid open, and several people filed in. Two young women, both with huge stacks of paperwork in their arms, another young woman who had a sword strapped to her belt, and a young boy with a serious expression, followed a young man into the room. This young man was dressed in the same colors as Lao Minghui and seemed to be some sort of assistant.
"I've brought Tang-Shigu and Song-Shidi as you asked. Also, some business cannot be delayed any longer, I'm afraid." The young man stepped forward, gesturing the two women behind him to place the paperwork on the low desk. Lao Minghui gave a sigh like the world was ending and nodded.
"Thank you, Xiang Yun. As always, your help is invaluable." Lao Minghui turned to the two who were still standing in the doorway. "Song Fengling, step forward, please."
The young boy stepped forward, the grey-and-white of his close-fitted robes impeccable. His forelocks near his ears, the only part of his hair not pulled back in a severe topknot, swayed forward as he dropped into a respectful bow, arms raised before his face. "Lao-Zongzhu, this disciple greets you."
"Rise. I have an assignment for you, Song Fengling. This is Nie Ruyi. She's to be an inner disciple of the sect, so you may refer to her as Nie-Shijie. Due to her circumstances, she will be requiring a lot of help getting used to how we do things here. I want you to be her assistant, her support."
The boy's grey eyes looked up at Nie Ruyi and she found herself looking back. He seemed... curious, almost, but reserved. "As you wish, Lao-Zongzhu."
"Thank you. Tang-Shimei, if you could spare some time, Nie-Shimei needs a crash course in self-defense. She's been quite sheltered where she came from and knows next to nothing of how to protect herself. A-Jun will be acting as her bodyguard until you deem her fit to protect herself. But until then, I leave her training in your care."
"This one will do her best, Lao-Shijie." The one called Tang turned then, giving Nie Ruyi a bright, gentle smile. "This one is Tang Hongmei. Nie-Shimei is in good hands with me."
"Perfect." Lao Minghui let out another sigh.
"If Tang-Shigu would allow, this disciple will show you all to Nie-Shijie's quarters." One of the young ladies (who Nie Ruyi now realized were probably maids, or maybe disciples too) gestured with a genteel bow. Tang Hongmei nodded and turned to follow the maiden out into the hallway. When both Song Fengling and Lao Xiaojun seemed to be staring at her, she realized she was holding them up.
She pushed herself up and this seemed to be the sign of everyone heading for the door. However, the cold and being curled up so long cramped her legs, and just as Lao Xiaojun was passing, her legs threatened to give out. She yelped, throwing out her cloak-covered hands to grab on the first thing she could steady herself with.
This turned out to be Lao Xiaojun. The surprise was written all over his face, but he didn't throw her off. Instead, he gripped her forearms (and a lot of cloth, the cloak was still covering her entirely), and held her steady. "Are you ill?" He asked.
Nie Ruyi felt heat flare in her cheeks and she shook her head, "No! Just... Sat too long. My legs..." She pushed herself to stand upright and the pain faded. "Sorry."
He seemed puzzled by this, but Nie Ruyi didn't stay to consider it, too embarrassed. She slipped into the hallway, where Song Fengling and Tang Hongmei were now waiting. As they began the walk, Tang Hongmei drifted to her side and spoke.
"The Sect Leader didn't have time to inform me too much of your situation. I'd appreciate a bit of information so that I could plan properly on how to train you?"
A polite way of asking who the hell she was, Nie Ruyi supposed. "Ah... I'm...Well, she called me a savior? They summoned me... I guess from another world. In my world, carrying that would get you arrested and thrown in jail." She pushed her hand out of the cloak to point a finger at Tang Hongmei's sword. "Those who start fights or hurt others are punished, so I never had to learn how to defend myself, really. ...I was very lucky."
"Another world you say?" Tang Hongmei whistled in awe a little. "How strange. Although with the danger currently, I can see why the Sect Leader might risk it. So, who were you there?"
"I was... well... I guess you could say I was a people person?" She frowned, knowing that wasn't the best way of describing it. "I worked for a company that hired people out to other companies. The company that I was hired out to had me talk to upset people, fix their problems, and then send them along so that the company could focus on doing whatever it did."
"Strange." Tang Hongmei chuckled, "But then again, a different world would need different jobs, I suppose. Did you have any family?"
The past tense of the question hit Nie Ruyi like a train. She swallowed. "Ah... yeah. My mother and father. I was an only child." She could feel the loss welling up in her throat. "I was going to visit them this weekend."
Tang Hongmei gave her a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "What else did you do? Besides fixing people's problems?"
"hm?" The topic change was something to be grateful for she supposed, so she answered, "I read books. I played games, with my friends. That's how I knew what kind of creature you're up against. It's detailed in a book called the Monster Manual back home. I've never fought one, but... I know it's stats."
"'Stats'?" Tang Hongmei quoted, clearly confused by the English word.
"Ah. It's... strengths and weaknesses, I suppose."
"That's impressive!" The swordswoman's enthusiasm didn't seem forced and brought heat to Nie Ruyi's cheeks again. "You might like looking over some of the Bestiaries in the library. Ah, we'll stop by there tomorrow, when you're more rested. For now, can you tell me a little about what you think you might need help with?"
"Besides defending myself?" Nie Ruyi grumped, "Well... My world has different clothes than yours. I don't know how I would even begin putting on the type of clothes you're wearing right now. ...That, and all I have with me are my clothes, and what I've got in my purse. I only just learned how your money works, which... is pretty different from my own, and I'm honestly not sure what any of the rules of propriety are here. If they're anything like the novels I read back home that were set in worlds similar to this, I imagine I'm going to make a lot of faux pas."
Another strange look, this time because of the french word. "Ah. It means mistakes, basically. The kind that ends up in someone mad at me. Or with me offending someone powerful."
"Ah, I see. So, etiquette is something you'll need training on as well. Hm... Let me see your wrist?" Tang Hongmei held out her hand for Nie Ruyi's wrist, which Nie Ruyi supplied, even as they all turned a corner down a different hallway. She would be so lost in the morning.
The woman took her wrist in calloused fingertips and pressed two fingers to the center of it. Nie Ruyi felt something odd, a little like the feeling of standing up too fast. A rush through her body, and a blackness crawling at the edge of her eyesight. Then, as soon as it was there, it was gone.
"Why, you're mortal!" Tang Hongmei breathed, looking confused and a little disconcerted. "Oh, dear. We're going to have to start you with the very basics of Cultivation. Your spirit veins aren't even open yet. Song-Shizhi?"
At her call, the young boy (who, now that Nie Ruyi was looking, couldn't have been older than thirteen) turned back, waiting for them and joining their conversation. "Yes, Tang-Shigu?"
"Do you feel comfortable guiding Nie-Shimei through the basics of meditation and spiritual energy movement? We'll need to be gentle opening her spiritual veins, considering how old she is."
Nie Ruyi gasped, a little surprised at the comment about her age. She wasn't old! Thirty was not old. She would fight anyone who said so.
"Ah, no, I don't mean that you're old but rather that starting Cultivation as late as you are will have an effect on your core and abilities." Tang Hongmei explained. Nie Ruyi realized she probably could have supposed that, based on all of the novels she's read.
"...So I won't be as amazing as Son Goku. So long as I can get to the point where I'm forever beautiful, I'm happy." Nie Ruyi explained.
"So they had the Journey to the West play where you are from too?" Tang Hongmei laughed, and Nie Ruyi grinned back. "Well, if beauty is what you're interested in, I can show you some tips, alright?"
"Thanks!" Nie Ruyi replied gratefully, just as the maid stopped in front of a door, sliding it open.
"This is Maiden Nie's roomset. The Hallmaster for this area is Hu Mengying. A bath and heating talismans have been supplied, as well as fresh clothing. We've also pulled out hygiene items appropriate for Maiden Nie's age and gender, which we have left in the bathing area. Song-Shizhi's things have been moved to the adjoining room. If you need anything, Hu-Shijie will be happy to help you." With that, the maid bowed respectfully, her hands raised by her face, before she walked away.
Nie Ruyi looked through the open door and found herself a little overwhelmed. Luckily, Tang Hongmei pulled her forward and through the door, taking a look around. "Ah, it's one of the Senior Disciple roomsets. Lovely! So, this is your sitting room, for entertaining guests," She gestured to a room with a desk, a table, and a few old fashioned looking chairs.
After being introduced to the near apartment-sized rooms she was apparently to live in, Nie Ruyi was left alone. Of course, the young boy, Song Fengling, was living just on the other side of one of the doors in her room, so she wasn't completely alone. But the silence, more encompassing than anything she'd experienced in her life to date, filled the room where people had once been.
The bath was small, a wooden, iron-bound tub filled with cold water. She'd been told to press one of the long, thin red papers against the side to heat it up, and test it every so often. While doing so, she realized that the paper must work by heating the water on the inside of the tub more the longer it was pressed against it. Magic, indeed.
Getting the water to the temperature she wanted took a few minutes, and setting her purse down next to the tub, she slid inside once it was bearable enough. Leaving the talisman on the side, she leaned over the side, picking up the jars that had been left. They'd been labeled, thank goodness. Hair oil, soap for hair, bath bean, which she assumed was for the body. How simple. She made sure to shake each one up, because who knew how long they'd been sitting there.
They smelled strange. Floral, and green. She applied the hair soap first, running her fingers through her curled hair, the shampoo clearing out all the hairspray and other products she'd used. Dipping her head under required an acrobatic twist of her back that nearly dumped her overboard, but she managed. After she came back up and cleared the water from her face, she realized they'd left her a small bowl, which she repurposed now to rinse the rest of the shampoo out of her hair.
Applying the hair oil, she worked it through her deep-brown hair. Wet like this, one could almost pretend she had the sleek black hair of the perfect Chinese maiden. She knew that her face fit that description, although her eyes were an odd mossy green. Her mother and father both had been from China, leaving her a pureblooded Chinese girl, born in America, which led to a lot of jackie chan questions as a kid. A finger brushed along the edge of her eyelids, as she remembered her mother's soft voice, bathing her as a child. "Phoenix eyes, beauty beyond compare. Only the most beautiful women have these eyes."
She huffed out a scoff even now, as she searched for a cloth. She found one, a rough, but serviceable washcloth, that she poured some of the body-wash-substitute onto, and began cleaning herself up. Then, clean and fresh, she took the wooden comb left on the tray near the bath, and combed through her slick, wet hair. When it was combed, she twisted it into a braid, and picked up the ribbon left on the tray as well, tying it around the end as tight as she could. She hoped it would hold, even as her mind swept toward how amazingly thoughtful the people preparing her room had been.
Getting out of the bath, she dried off with another long bit of cloth that looked like it was supposed to be a towel. Oddly, there were two of them, but she only used the one. She might need the other for tomorrow, after all. She took off the heating talisman, towel around her neck, and set it next to the pile of unused talismans. Then, walking from behind the screen, she picked up her purse from by the door, where she'd left it.
Nie Ruyi walked to the bed, tossing her purse onto it, which caused some of the contents to spill over the side and onto the quilt. She eyed the robes, and pulled them on, belting them tightly around her waist with the silken belt left behind. She was pretty sure she hadn't tied it right because it kept slipping down her shoulders, but it was good enough. Sitting down, she poured her purse onto the quilt, sorting through what was left of her world.
Her hands immediately began the rote movements of cleaning her purse, removing trash, gum rappers, receipts, and the like from the inside. She looked around for a place to put them. Seeing no signs of a waste basket or anything similar, she found a large, empty vase, and stuffed them in there. Returning to her bed, she brought the vase with her, just in case. Setting it next to her ankles, she returned to cleaning up her purse.
Setting aside her wallet and the tiny flip-knife her dad insisted she carry, she pulled the books from it's confines. Her planner and a small paperback about homesteading. She'd always thought it fascinating, providing one's own living. Now, she would be living that fascination, she supposed, setting the two aside. She set aside her little pillminder, too; separated out in sections with small amounts of her tylenol, midol, generic allergy medicine, and motion sickness medicine.
Another bag came out, and she examined it's contents. A nail file, glass, that she'd been given for Christmas, and her basic makeup kit. Liquid eyeliner, a small pot of deep purple eyeshadow, lipgloss, a stick of chapstick, a small spritzer of her favorite perfume, she'd even managed to stuff a small mirror-brush combo in there. The kind that pops open. A travel sized bottle of lotion came out next, and she set it to the side. She'd need to use it.
Another little bag, this one full of feminine products and another little bottle of midol, and she set this one aside too. A third bag, this one a mix of things. A small first aid kit she'd curated under her mother's careful eye, and a sewing kit that her mother had given her as a birthday gift. They'd spent three hours, teaching her to sew a small patch, and a button onto fabric. Her hand convulsed, tightening around the needles and string wrapped in plastic. She took a sharp breath, and abandoned that bag too.
Hairbands, a screen-cleaner wipe, a stray lighter that she'd never given back to the guy she'd borrowed it from, a handful of loose change she'd never get to use again, and last but not least, her cell phone. Its charger was a coiled viper waiting to strike in her bag, and she pulled the phone from its nest and clicked the home button.
The screen flared to life like a firework, and with a shaking thumb, she put in her passcode. The screen lit up to a meaningless picture, some fanart for some novel she'd enjoyed months ago that she hadn't had a chance to change. Without thinking, she pulled up the dialer. Her fingers paused over her mother's contact, as she saw the signal. No little bars leading up in a little hill. Flat nothingness. She moved her thumb, swiping away from the contacts. She pulled up the pictures, sliding left on one that was just a selfie of herself from that morning. The next was a picture of a computer error she'd been having at work, with stickers of question marks all over it. She'd uploaded that to social media, and gotten a few likes.
The third picture made her pause. Her eyes stung, as she brushed a fingertip over the familiar face, her best friend Jeremy smiling up at her with his charming crooked teeth. She'd seen him just this morning, and now... she'd never see him again. In the picture, the two of them were holding up peace signs at the camera, grinning brightly in front of a movie theatre.
Her heart ached, as she remembered that night. They'd had so much fun at the midnight showing of their newest obsession. She couldn't even remember the movie. She just remembered Jeremy gleefully tearing it apart with her at 2 am in a breakfast themed restaurant.
She swiped away from his face, hoping not to cry, only to land on a picture her mother had sent her a few weeks ago. A picture of her mom and dad smiling together next to each other on the couch. The sob she'd been holding back escaped, and she closed her eyes right to fight against the burn of tears.
"Mama... Baba...." She sobbed, opening her eyes against the flooding tears, trying to catch sight of their faces again. Only for their smiles to be replaced with a battery, crossed out and empty. "No-" She cried, pressing the power button again and again, and then, when the screen went black, she cried, "No, no no!"
She searched her bag desperately, but she must have left her battery-pack on the counter at home, charging, because it wasn't in her purse. She groaned, dropping her face into the quilt, and choking out another sob. Frustration built up and she slammed a fist down on the too-hard bed, causing the wood to creak.
Nie Ruyi was never going to see them again. She was lost in a world not her own... and she was alone. Her heart broke as her mind cycled through all the things she was never going to see or do again. Her family, her friend, her life, it was gone, gone gone.
She curled up, the cold air driving her to wiggle the blanket out from under her mess and pull it up over her head. There, under the blanket, she broke down, crying her heart out over the loss of everything she held dear. Part of her wondered what she looked like, surrounded by a mess and crying like a child for home. The other part of her was too busy mourning.
She must have fallen asleep that way, because she woke up over-heated and suffocated in the dark, pulling the blanket off her head. It must still have been dark, because there was no light shining in through the windows any longer and no light from the candles that had been lit. She'd forgotten to put them out. Had someone come and done so? Had it been that boy, Song Fengling? She sighed, her eyes stinging and tired from crying, so she curled up again.
The second time she woke, it was to someone shaking her shoulder. She gasped, jerking away, and the shaking stopped. Her eyes bolted open to stare down the person waking her, and it was Song Fengling's serious little face looking at her.
"You're being summoned by Sect Leader. I'm to teach you how to get dressed, and then Lao-Shixiong is going to guide you there." He intoned, before stepping away from the bed and turning his back.
Nie Ruyi sat up, pushing the quilt off of herself. In the night, her robe had twisted all around her, her body unused to sleeping with that much flowy cloth on it. She pulled it into some semblance of order, and then stood up. She only just realized that she apparently had left a huge mess around her bed, when Song Fengling turned back around.
"Come on, it's time to get you dressed." Song Fengling declared, before guiding Nie Ruyi through the addition of three layers to her clothing. An underrobe of beautiful jade-green, a gauzy, pale and see-through robe just over that, and then another beautiful hanfu robe tied tight over that with a wide, decorative belt. Her sleeves fluttered as she moved them, a bit in awe of his skill.
Then, he forced her sleepy self over in front of a large bronzed mirror leaning against the wall on what was probably meant to be a vanity. She knelt in front of it, and he took the ribbon from her hair, combing the long, still-wet tresses. His hands did complicated things she didn't even recognise, and soon her hair was put up in a style she'd never seen on herself before. Two buns on either side of her head, with the middle portion flowing down her back in a brown river. He put in fresh flowers that made Nie Ruyi wonder where he'd gotten them, and then leaned back. Nodding, he stood up.
"Alright. You're presentable. Let's go."
"Thank you?" Nie Ruyi managed. "But... You didn't show me how to put them on."
The young boy scoffed, crossing his arms, "You mean you weren't paying attention?"
"...I was, but I just woke up. I'm a bit... slow in the mornings, you know?" She tried, but the boy scoffed again, and turned away from her. The two of them exited the room, a chaos of belongings exploded all over her bed-area.
The hallway this time was teeming with others, all dressed in the same hanfu, although some had different cuts and colors involved. Before Nie Ruyi could parse what colors meant what, she was forced to stop unless she wanted to bowl Song Fengling over. He knocked gently on a sliding door in front of him, and she peered over his shoulder.
The two of them did so, Song Fengling hanging back to allow Nie Ruyi inside first. When Song Fengling fell into a bow, once again bringing his hands up in front of his face, Nie Ruyi tried to copy it, assuming it was good manners.
"This one greets Lao-Zongzhu." Song Fengling declared, and then side-eyed Nie Ruyi, until she did the same.
"Thank you, Song-Shidi. Nie-Shimei, this sect leader is pleased to see you again. Did you rest well?" Lao Minghui's lovely gentle smile graced her, and Nie Ruyi felt almost as if some of her stress was cleared from her shoulders.
"Ah, yes. Thank you, Lao-Zongzhu." Nie Ruyi answered, smiling back herself. She felt half-naked, without her makeup on, but... what could she do, she'd been rushed.
"We're simply waiting for my brother and the one in charge of this mission. They should be along shortly, since I sent A-Jun after him."
"Mission?" Nie Ruyi asked, finding her throat quite tight. Song Fengling took that moment to set tea first in front of the Sect Leader, and then in front of herself. She hadn't even noticed him making it.
"Yes. You'll be accompanying A-Jun out to the encampment and meet with the Senior Disciple in charge of the dragon-hunt. From there, you are to give him as much information as you can about the beast. Then, A-Jun will bring you back in time for dinner. Safe and sound, hm?"
A thrill of worry went through her, but Nie Ruyi nodded along with the sentiment, as if that would make the fear go away. "That sounds like a plan."
"Certainly-" A knock interrupted the Sect Leader, and she called out to those outside to come in. Lao Xiaojun stepped inside, along with another young man, this one with red paint around the corners of his eyes, and his hair drawn up in an elaborate, beautiful style. He seemed intimidated by Lao Xiaojun's presence.
"This Guo Ding greets Lao-Zongzhu." He made the same deep bow, even though Lao Xiaojun did not. In fact, the hulking man moved to stand behind and to Nie Ruyi's right. She couldn't help casting a glance over his shoulder, and watch his eyes pass over her and then to his sister, as if looking at a mudpuddle.
"Thank you for coming, Guo-shidi. If you could do me the favor of escorting Nie-Shimei, A-Jun and Song-shidi to the outpost outside the Dragon's forest, this Sect Leader would be most grateful." Lao Minghui ordered, smiling as sweetly as a mother asking her children to wash their hands.
"This Guo Ding will do as you request." Another bow, which made Nie Ruyi wonder if maybe that was how formal contracts were sealed here too.
With that, and an imperious wave from Lao Minghui, who apparently had paperwork to get back to, Guo Ding guided their little group out of the office and through the halls. An oppressive sort of silence overran the corridor, and Nie Ruyi was about to break it, when her stomach did it for her.
"...Ah, Nie-shimei is hungry?" Guo Ding asked, reaching into his sleeve. He pulled out what looked like a crumpled ball of paper, but when he unwrapped it, it was a bun. Warm, and fresh, it smelled absolutely delicious. The young man in his strange grey-and-teal robes held it out to her. The kind gesture almost made her tear up.
"Thank you so much, Guo-gege." The address felt weird on her tongue. She'd only ever really called her older cousins that. But the weirdness was soon soothed by her first bite of the bun. It tasted amazing. She ate up half of it in three big bites, and groaned at how tasty it was.
"Eat with decorum." Lao Xiaojun snapped, looking at her with a pinched expression. "You're not a child."
The sudden rebuke made Nie Ruyi's cheeks heat, but she felt that perhaps it was unwarranted. She snapped back, "There's nothing wrong with enjoying a meal when one hasn't eaten since the previous morning!"
Lao Xiaojun made a soft snorting noise, as if disbelieving her. She finished off her bun and then sucked the crumbs from her fingers, even as Song Fengling took out a few crunchy stick-looking things and began eating them as well. Pretzels? She guessed they were pretzels anyway.
"It's a bit of a flight to the encampment. Song-shidi, do you have your own spiritual sword?" Guo Ding asked, in lieu of changing the subject.
"Aye." Song Fengling rattled the sword at his side, to indicate it. "I can ride for an hour at a time, before I need a break."
"I believe our Nie-Shimei will need a break around then as well." Guo Ding nodded, as if this had been expected. "Alright. We'll leave from the Willow courtyard. Come on."
Guo Ding's sure, careful steps took them out into a cobblestoned courtyard, with gently manicured bushes and trees, sparsey-leafed in the autumn weather. A shiver took Nie Ruyi as the three gentlemen she was following unsheathed their swords. But instead of fighting, or worse, skewering her with them, they dropped them.
No clattering ring of metal on stone sounded, and the blades floated lazily just at ankle height, horizontal to the ground, and glittering in the weak autumn sunlight. Guo Ding pushed back the skirt-layers of his hanfu so that he could step onto the sword, and Lao Xiaojun stepped on without any fuss. Song Fengling took a few seconds, wobbling a bit as he stepped onto a wavering sword. Nie Ruyi stood, staring at the three of them floating a foot off the ground.
"Well, come here." Lao Xiaojun reached out a hand, as if to pull Nie Ruyi onto the sword. She immediately shook her head and took a few fearful steps back.
"No! I'll fall off! That's... How are you even doing that?!" She asked, her voice a tiny bit shrill. Magic? Was there magic in this world other than the kind that summoned her?
"..." Both Guo Ding and Song Fengling looked disturbed at her reaction, as if this must be common knowledge in this world and she was the one being strange. Nie Ruyi didn't like it.
Lao Xiaojun didn't either, apparently, because he stepped down from the sword (which stayed floating) and took the two long strides he needed to stand in front of her. "The Spiritual Swords are fed with our Qi. They will not fall from the air, unless our Qi is depleted. That is the point of the rest stops along the way. I'll hold onto you, so that you will not fall. Trust this elder martial brother."
Nie Ruyi continued to look at the weapons distrustfully. She'd heard that the sword-flying thing was a common trope in these types of settings, but to see it real life... Worse, to be expected to get onto one of them.
The three men watched her shake her head again, and Guo Ding sighed. "We could take a carriage, or horses, but it will take a day and a half to reach them, instead of a few hours by sword."
"Yes! Let's do that!" Nie Ruyi cried, reaching out without really thinking and grabbing Lao Xiaojun's arm through his sleeve and squeezing it. She beamed up at him, "Please. I... I've only ever flown in an airplane. I'm scared."
Puzzlement warred with frustration on Lao Xiaojun's handsome face. Eventually it set in stone, and instead of backing away, he snapped a hand around the wrist of the hand on his arm. Using it, he drew her resisting form into his arms, and picked her up.
"H-Hey! Put me down!" She cried, loud and shrill. She struggled, pushing against his hold the same way someone might push against a mountainside. A frisson of fear and embarrassment had her clawing at his neck and face before he adjusted his hold and pinned her arms to her sides. Then, he stood on the sword, as if it were a floor wide and solid. The lack of anything solid under her own feet wasn't something she could really comment on or worry about, since technically, she was close to a foot shorter than he was and her feet dangled from the way he was holding her.
Nie Ruyi had a front row seat to the world drifting out from under them, and she screamed, clinging to the only solid thing there. If Lao Xiaojun was bothered by it, he didn't show it. As time passed, the cold bracing wind drew her from her terror. The steel-core arms around her reassured her (just a little) that she wasn't going to just randomly fall. And she was pretty sure if Lao Xiaojun tried to drop her, she could just koala onto his chest and stick around until he landed.
With the fear at bay, she found her eyes drawn to the sky around them, filled with pastel blues and purples so gorgeous she wished she could paint just to be able to express them to someone else. The whisps of cloud around them lent just enough pale white and gold to the tableau, that the world beneath seemed an oddly shaped green and brown blur that ran through with streaks of grey and blue. A precious stone jewel, laid out beneath their feet.
Ahead of them, Guo Ding and Song Fengling flew, their long hair flying behind them in elegant archs of black, despite the different hairstyles. Fear near completely gone, she let her knees slowly fall, allowing the tips of her toes to touch the metal of the sword. It still felt flimsy, but just having something semi-solid beneath them felt better, somehow. She turned, trying to turn around in the circle of Lao Xiaojun's arms, and he let her, relieving the pressure just a little bit.
With her back pressed to his solid chest, and his arms linked around her waist, she almost felt like that ridiculous scene from The Titanic. She had to fight the silly urge to lift her arms and laugh. A smile managed to break through though. Then, she did laugh, just for the hell of it, all fear gone. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun, and felt strangely light, as if the whole of her worries were left beneath them, unable to reach her.
They were landing for their first break all too soon, and by the end of it, she stepped onto Lao Xiaojun's sword by herself, balancing on it's steady slim surface until he stepped up behind her and once again locked his arms around her. She had the sense of mind then to be a little bit embarrassed, but despite the color rising in her cheeks, she didn't feel like she needed to comment. Apperantly neither did Lao Xiaojun.
The camp was a little collection of dismal tents and wandering figures as they descended over it a few hours later. The people milling around watched their descent and even a few crowded around like puppies waiting for a treat to be put on their nose. Once they were close enough, Nie Ruyi jumped down from the blade of Lao Xiaojun's sword and grinned up at him.
"Thanks again, Lao-gege!" She declared, in much better spirits now than when she'd left. Despite the fatigue of standing still for so long, she was energized by what she'd seen and felt while flying. How amazing, that these humans got to fly free as birds.
"It's Shixiong." Lao Xiaojun growled, dour in his own exhaustion. She'd noticed that all three of the men's temperaments were slowly growing pricklier the longer they were flying. She theorized that it took more to fly than she thought.
"Right! Lao-shixiong." She corrected herself. She turned, just in time for a woman to stride through the standing circle of disciples around them. Her face was scarred heavily on the right side, her heavy bladed sword strapped to her side. She came until she stood a respectable distance away from the group, then bowed that stiff bow this world's people used.
"Lao-Shidi, this Lin Baiwei greets you. Guo-shidi, thank you for guiding them." Her voice was soft and low, the kind of voice that made Nie Ruyi shiver.
"This disciple did nothing." Guo Ding performed the bow as well, and then seemed to dismiss himself, as he disappeared into the crowd surrounding them. At this, Lin Baiwei raised a hand and gestured for the three of them to follow. Nie Ruyi went first, with Lao Xiaojun next to her and Song Fengling bringing up the rear.
They entered a squat, small tent, only to enter a huge war room, it looked like. Nie Ruyi did a double-take, but was, unfortunately, kept from exiting the tent by a hand on her arm. Song Fengling narrowed his eyes at her censoriously. She restrained herself and took a seat next to the low table, which had cushions around it, and maps spread across it. Files bound by string were littered across the top of the table and the floor around it.
The others joined her in taking a seat, except Song Fengling, who as youngest, made and served the tea, and then settled in a corner to await any further orders. Nie Ruyi picked up the teacup, unaware it was ceramic and therefore too hot. She nearly spilled it, trying to put it back down, and then blowing on her poor burnt fingers.
This time it was Lao Xiaojun looking at her with narrowed eyes. She gave him a sheepish smile, interrupted only by Lin Baiwei clearing her throat delicately. "As of now, the situation has not changed. We have not found the beast's lair, nor have we run into it. It has, however, eaten at least three disciples that we know of. We've been having Disciples running in teams of four since then. The junior disciples are forbidden from going anywhere alone."
"A sound decision." Lao Xiaojun agreed. "We've brought new intel on the beast, which should hopefully reduce lost lives."
Nie Ruyi suddenly felt silly, as if she were a small child, playing at an adult's conversation. People had actually died to this beast. What if she remembered wrong? What if she was wrong about what it was?
"Then out with it." Lin Baiwei demanded, her brow furrowing.
Lao Xiaojun gestured to Nie Ruyi, who choked a little as she realized she was the one being commanded. She swallowed back the worry and spoke as carefully as she could.
"You're... You're probably fighting an Ancient green dragon. anywhere from 300 to 800 years old. Its breath can become a poison, which can seed into the fog around the forest, which is why people have been getting sick. More than that," She tried to remember what else she'd read. "The reason you're not finding it is that it can see you. All the animals and birds in the forest are its eyes and ears."
"What?" Lin Baiwei interrupted in hissed tones. "What do you mean? Surely it can't-"
"Sorry, but... if this is what it is, there's a hell of a lot more it can do." Nie Ruyi cut the other woman off, narrowing her eyes. She didn't like being interrupted. "It can control the roots and vines in the forest too. It's terribly smart, smart as a human, or more. And it knows you're hunting it. It's big and strong, but it isn't fast. Probably no faster than your average peasant. If you can get close to it, you can outmaneuver it. Also, it's not resistant against magic, or fire, or lightning, or anything else. Just poison. If you can use elemental attacks against it, you should do more damage than regular steel can.
"It's smart, though. It can speak and do spells, and they're incredibly persuasive. Especially in its own domain. No offense to your disciples, but they were probably talked into walking right into the dragon's maw." She was exaggerating, perhaps, but she wasn't going to risk that they'd go into this thinking it was going to be an easy win. "Also, it's probably bigger than a house."
"...We had gathered it was large from the depth and breadth of its footsteps." Lin Baiwei commented, frowning at the maps in front of her in what Nie Ruyi thought was probably frustration.
"How have they been killed in your world?" Lao Xiaojun demanded.
"I told you, they don't exist in my world." Nie Ruyi frowned, glowering at the hulking man. "We played a game where we fought them as pretend people. It was like... Like... a thought exercise. War games!" She stumbled across that as an explanation, and continued quickly, "But when we go up against them, we usually either tried to reason with them, or we fought as hard as we could, taking advantage of the fact that we were small and creative, while it was large and proud."
"So your only advice is to either speak to something that you have admitted can beguile a cultivator into its maw, or fight it like a pack of wolves might an elephant." Lin Baiwei said, her voice as hard as stone. Ruyi flinched, thinking that was pretty much an apt description of their situation, honestly.
"In the games, I played, one could, with luck, remain unbeguiled. There were items and skills that allowed one to be resistant or immune to mind-control and beguilement. Is there anything like that here?" Ruyi asked, hoping that there was, that something would translate that they could use.
"...There are teas and talismans that promote clarity of mind." Lin Baiwei answered, thoughtfully.
"I have a sachet!" A voice burst from the corner before Song Fengling slapped a hand over his own offending mouth. Ruyi couldn't help but smile at the boy's fidgety excitement. Now that he had the attention of the adults in the room, he was gestured to continue and did so at a much more natural level. "W-We made them in class a few days ago. They're perfumed sachets, meant to help with clarity of mind and retention of information!"
Good for students, then, Ruyi thought, which can now be useful for us. "There you go! If we can get ahold of sachets like that, double up on tea and talismans, we might actually have enough of a buff to talk the creature over to our side. Although... they have been known to be incredibly evil. So we may need more than just our words to convince them. Do you have any gold, or land that can act as a bribe? Someplace else you want it to settle?"
"If it is as evil as you say, we need to slay it." Lao Xiaojun threw his words out like a storm, disrupting the excitement of the room. "It's irresponsible to leave alive a creature that might harm those around it."
"It's intelligent though. And they tend to work within the law. So, if you can form a treaty with it, and give it something it wants, I'm pretty sure you could leave it in peace! We just need to find out what it wants." Ruyi argued. "And... honestly, I don't know enough about this world to offer a strategy on killing it. In the war games, the only thing that could hurt a dragon of that size were magic weapons. The more magically spelled the better."
"We'll operate with two plans. The first is to attempt diplomacy. Lao-Zongzhu has permitted me to act as a liaison from our sect if at all possible. I can write up the necessary treaty if it comes to that. During the negotiations, we will also seek weaknesses and information so that if we have to strike, we can strike well." Lin Baiwei cut between their argument with sharp precision. Nie Ruyi relaxed back, unaware that she had leaned forward tensely.
"As Lin-Shijie wishes." Lao Xiaojun acquiesced. "Who will join the diplomatic team?"
"Myself, Nie-Shimei and yourself, Lao-Shidi. We can't risk any of the senior disciples, it might disrupt the chain of command. I'll be leaving my deputy in charge while we're gone-"
"Wait! I can't go!" Nie Ruyi cried, horrified. "I'm mortal! Civilian! I-I can't fight, or do magic or anything! I'll die!"
"I'll protect you." Lao Xiaojun dismissed, turning his attention to Lin Baiwei. Nie Ruyi gaped, disgust warring with fear. How was she supposed to believe that?! He'd done nothing but glare and scoff at her the entire time she'd been here!
"This disciple will go as well!" Song Fengling declared from the corner, his hand on the hilt of his sword. The bravado looked adorable, like a puppy growling. "It is my duty to instruct and care for Nie-Shijie. I'll be useful!"
"You're a junior disciple, you'll slow us down." Lao Xiaojun stared at the boy, eyes narrowed and brow drawn down. "I'll have my hands full protecting her."
"He'll be better in a fight than I would." Nie Ruyi sniped, nose crinkling. She wished she could storm out, but if she did, where would she go? "You're dragging me out to my death, why shouldn't I have more than one protector?"
Now Lao Xiaojun turned that stare on her, and his lip twitched in a sneer. "You think I'm incapable of protecting one civilian?"
"If you're capable, then why should it matter if he comes with us?" Nie Ruyi retaliated. "He can defend himself, right? That's what you've trained him to be, a child soldier. So, let him fight."
"...Fine." Lao Xiaojun's face smoothed into disdain, and she felt almost like she had as a teenager, when a teacher handed her a red-marked test. "Song-shidi will come with us. The second this turns to combat," and here he turned to Song Fengling, who listened with wrapt awe. "You are to get her away from the combat zone as quickly as you possibly can. Do not play the hero."
"Yes, Lao-Shixiong!" Song Fengling declared.
Lao Xiaojun gave a sharp nod, and turned back to Lin Baiwei, who had apparently ignored this little spat for her maps. "When do we set out?"
"In a few moments. I need to call my deputy to speak with him and we need to arrange for the appropriate precautions." Lin Baiwei stood, then, heading for the tent opening.
The few minutes Lin Baiwei requested passed, and soon Nie Ruyi found herself on the blade of a sword again. This time with Lin Baiwei to their left and Song Fengling to their right. Weaving between the trees didn't give her the same feeling of freefalling that open flight did, and now the fear wasn't pushed away. Even Lao Xiaojun's steel-cable arms couldn't ease her worry.
They'd given her a veil to cover her mouth and nose, which she had tucked into the collar of her robes despite the stares it garnered her. It wasn't quite airtight, but it would make it harder for the poison in the air to get into her lungs. She was also loaded down with enough talismans lining the inside of her clothes that it felt like another layer entirely. Along with the three mental-safekeeping sachets that had been found for her, tucked into her sleeves, she was heavily doused in some strange incense that was supposed to keep the mind focused as well. It smelled awful, but she wasn't going to complain if it kept her safe.
The forest was so thick that the light that managed to make it down was green-tinted. It reminded her a little of a scene in one of her favorite movies, where a young prince met a forest-god. Dark, and mysterious, with light appearing where it wasn't expected. The only difference was, in this forest, a thick, muggy fog swept between the trees like a living thing. Birds chirped sluggishly in the higher boughs, but there weren't any little characteristic twig-snaps or rustling that signaled movement in the thicket undergrowth.
"This is eerie..." Song Fengling declared, voice hushed as if to match the forest.
"What do you see?" Lao Xiaojun asked, in an oddly patient tone that struck Nie Ruyi as the sort of tone her teachers took sometimes.
Song Fengling took a moment to gaze around them, even as they passed slowly between trees. "... There are no tracks. No signs of animals at all. The bark of the trees isn't scored, so no deer have passed through here all summer. The undergrowth is so thick an animal bigger than a raccoon would take ages to pass through it. ... Are there no deer here? No pigs? Nothing... It's like..."
"Like the dragon has eaten them all." Lin Baiwei finished, her voice an unsettling endnote to the conversation. In her hand, she held a small round ball made of something that looked like glass to Nie Ruyi. She'd say it was a crystal ball, but it probably had some complicated name fit for the setting. She just didn't know it. "This way."
She banked a turn left, and Lao Xiaojun and Song Fengling followed. They'd been riding for minutes, following Lin Baiwei's direction, as she followed the magical artifact in her hand. She'd said it would lead them to the creature's current whereabouts. Honestly, Nie Ruyi was of the opinion that the dragon would probably find them first.
As if summoned by her thought, a vine wipped out of the underbrush like a catapult, followed by several more, turning their cautious flight into a dodging dance. Song Fengling cried out as one of the vines snagged at his sleeve, before letting go.
Nie Ruyi blinked. It... let him go? "Wait! It's... The dragon is playing with us!" She gasped.
LaoXiaojun had shifted her to one of his arms, her immediate response to cling to him as he drew his sword and slashed away the incoming vines. He turned his gaze on her now, for a second, before flicking it away to continue batting away the danger. "What do you mean?"
"It had Song-didi!" In her haste to explain, she couldn't remember what honorific she was supposed to be using, "The vine had his sleeve, and then it let him go! It's herding us!"
In fact, the three swords had been driven further along a strange unknowable path. The vines continued snapping out, sending Lin Baiwei and Lao Xiaojun back further. Nie Ruyi could easily see that they were being led somewhere, and Lin Baiwei looked absolutely furious about it.
Eventually, the sound of claws clicking against the hard treebark earned their attention far more than the snap of the vines, and almost as if it was supposed to, the vines died down as the beast came into view. It descended from the canopy like a gecko, long neck lifting it's head to look at them, an even and alien gaze.
Suddenly, Nie Ruyi felt like cold water had been poured over her, terror making her heart pulse and her vision narrow on those gold-and-green orbs, their slitted pupils shifting between each of them. The creature's fin was flared, transluscent green skin flared between each spine as it's head swayed back and forth. Nie Ruyi remembered looking at a size-chart, years ago. One that displayed the different size-categories in the game, and how they related to human-sized creatures. She hadn't realized then, what it meant for a human to be roughly the same size as an Ancient Dragon's jaw. She came to the uncomfortable decision that she was, in fact, bite-sized to this creature.
"Why, pray tell, are more of you little things flying into my forest? Gifts, perhaps?" The creature's voice was sinuous and soft, and the way it's maw moved didn't seem like it should result in human speech despite the fact that it did. "What lovely and kind owners this land used to have."
The fear still shook Nie Ruyi's bones, but luckily, it seemed that Lin Baiwei was able to speak despite being faced with a creature that could use her sword to pick it's teeth after it ate her.
"We have come to seek terms of peace. We have been informed you are an intelligent and proud creature, and so we would wish to broker peace between yourself and our peoples." She managed, with the steady voice of someone trained in diplomacy.
"Oh? Is that what you wish. You know, every one of you dressed as you are, has raised a sword against me. Why should I not simply eat you, as I did them?" The dragon questioned, eyes narrowing.
Lin Baiwei's face took on a deep red, as if she were struggling to hold something back, and Nie Ruyi couldn't let this fail. She didn't want to die. Words exploded from her mouth before she could stop them, could worry about if she'd make it worse.
"Because it's a pain!" She cried, and the dragon's eyes turned and sharpened on her. "B-Because it's annoying, having so many cultivators traipsing through your woods, taking up so much of your time every day! I mean, if I were a great and powerful wyrm such as yourself, I know I'd want to be doing other things with my time, than picking off small fry."
The creature tilted it's head to the left, a sinuous and forked tongue sliding out and licking along the seam of it's lips. "Hmmm... You aren't wrong, little... cultivator? Is that what you called yourselves?"
"Yes." Lao Xiaojun stated, and the dragon's eyes focused on him for a moment. His shoulders squared and he stood tall in the face of it, but those eyes turned back to Ruyi a moment later.
"I'm Nie Ruyi. I-I just got here, myself. I lived in a world very different from this one, where creatures like you were respected and dreamed of. We had nothing like you on our world." She explained, and the creature's head darted forward, so that the breath blew back her and Lao Xiaojun's robes like a heavy gale.
"You came from another world?" The creature demanded. "You were brought here?"
"Y-Yes! I... I was. And I think you were too!" Nie Ruyi answered, and when the creature nodded, just a sinuous dip of it's head, she continued, "The people who brought me here don't know how to send me back. So, I can't promise that. But, I know what it's like to be dragged away from where you belong. From your home, everything you love and care about."
Those gold-and-green eyes narrowed, and Ruyi felt like it knew she was trying to make it connect them empathically. She hurried on, "I don't know how to get you home, but we can help make your life here easier! We can try to help you settle in, and maybe-"
"What are you offering, little cultivator?" The dragon's voice was a quiet hiss, almost polite in it's interruption. Ruyi bit back the instinctual frustration at being interrupted, figuring that lashing out at this point would mean death. "What could you possibly give me that I cannot take?"
"Peace of mind." Lin Baiwei stepped in figuratively, which was good since she was the one with the actual negotiating power here. "We can make it so that the mortals don't enter your domain, or if they do, they know they take their lives into their own hands. In return, all we would ask is that you do not kill humans while outside your forest. We offer cooperation so that we may learn your circumstances and investigate who brought you here. Perhaps if we learn their method, we might find a way to get you back home."
A thrill ran through Nie Ruyi as she realized that it might help her get home too.
"And if I don't?" The dragon asked, it's head sliding back, as if to look down it's nose at them. "I am powerful in my own right. Do you threaten me, thinking that you can kill me, should I disagree?"
"Yes." Lao Xiaojun spoke once more. "We have faced worse than you and won." Nie Ruyi looked him in the face, and if he was bluffing, he was good at it. She wondered what exactly they'd fought, and what they'd had to do to win.
"Is that so." The dragon reared back, the way a cobra might before it strikes. For several tense minutes, it swayed back and forth, looking at them, before it's eyes settled once again on Ruyi. She took a sharp breath at the weight of them. "I will need more than just to be left alone. I want tribute. Gold, gems, silver, magical items, whatever you have, six times a year."
Lin Baiwei's shoulders dropped from their squared position, and she nodded. "I will convene with my Sect Leader and we will work up a contract. We'll bring a preliminary contract in the next two days. If you have any changes to be made, we can negotiate then."
The dragon nodded, and Nie Ruyi thanked the heavens that the creature had patience. "Then, so long as no more trespassers step foot in my forest, I will restrain my appetite until the negotiations are done. Two days is not so long in the life of a dragon such as I."
The three cultivators gave their bows, Lao Xiaojun's one-armed bow startling Nie Ruyi into giving one of her own. Then, as they'd come, they turned around and flew back to the camp.