The air of the camp had changed the next day. Instead of a bustling war camp, it was bustling now with a hopeful sort of buzz. Disciples were smiling and talking loudly, instead of sitting hushed at their posts, knuckles white on their sword-hilts. It was strange to see the two different types of camps, honestly. Especially since Nie Ruyi had never expected to see a war camp in the first place.
The food line that morning had been loud and joyous, rather than the night before's subdued worry, and Nie Ruyi had eaten the food to the low-lying din of a living body of people. Now, as she walked into Lin Baiwei's meeting tent, she realized that it was because new people had arrived.
Indeed, one of those new people, in particular, was standing at the table, profile turned towards her. Nie Ruyi didn't believe in love at first sight, not really. But she was certain her heart almost stopped when those warm russet eyes turned to her. An impish grin spread on oddly plush lips and Nie Ruyi could feel the blood rushing to her face. She had to tell herself to calm down, all the man had done was smile at her. Why was her heart beating out of it's chest?!
"Oh! So this is our new Nie-shimei! No one told me she was a lovely fairy!" His voice held a tinge of laughter to it, making Nie Ruyi feel almost as if she were being made fun of. The heat in her cheeks was set to boiling, as he continued, "Nie-Shimei, I'm Cai Bingtian, but you can call me-"
"Cai-shixiong." She interrupted, snapping out the honorific before he could say something else embarrassing. "Nice to meet you." Turning every ounce of her will to iron, she turned away from this asian adonis, and towards Lin Baiwei instead. "Lin-Shijie, Song Fengling asked Lao-Shixiong for some training, so he told me to come here until they're done. Do you mind if I sit in here for a while?"
"Not at all, Nie-Shimei." Lin Baiwei turned to her guest and continued their conversation, "That being said, we will need you to accompany us to negotiations today with the Dragon. That being said, you are not to speak beyond your technical capacity. You are not to attempt diplomacy, nor are you to make any jokes."
"Oh come on, Lin-Shijie! I can be helpful in the negotiations! I'm practically best friends with the dragons I know." Cai Bingtian complained, leaning against the table to get closer as if that would prove his point. The careless curls of his half-updo spilled over his shoulder in a dazzling spill of light that distracted Nie Ruyi for a whole 5 minutes.
She shook her head and dropped her eyes back to the book she'd brought. It was full of tips and tricks on how to live an off-the-grid life. Farming, animal husbandry and preservation techniques. Super useful, considering her situation, and she'd made it through a good quarter of the book since the day before.
"No. You've caused enough political mishaps that the Sect Leader has made it clear to me that you are not to speak. I will put a silencing charm on you, if I have to." Lin Baiwei pointed a finger at him, her sharp manicured nail right under his nose.
"Finnnneeee," he whined, before moving back a little so she wasn't poking him. "So who all is going on this mission?"
"You, myself, and a couple of Juniors. If I can convince him to come along, Lao Xiaojun." At the name of her bodyguard, Nie Ruyi looked up.
Speak of the devil, and Lao Xiaojun walked in just as they were discussing him. Song Fengling followed quietly, limping just a little, bruised but smiling so bright the boy could be used as a lantern. He trudged over to stand next to Nie Ruyi, who offered him a soft smile. The two of them turned back to the three surrounding the table just in time to catch Lao Xiaojun's sniff of derision as his eyes dragged over the messy Cai Bingtian.
"Cai-qianbei," Lao Xiaojun drew himself down in the frostiest bow Nie Ruyi had seen outside of a harem drama. Nie Ruyi's eyebrows rose as she watched Cai Bingtian's bright grin falter for a moment, before it cemented itself wider.
"Ah, Lao-Shidi, you know I've been part of your sect for years now. You really could call me Shixiong, if you wanted to?" Cai Bingtian tried, his voice almost pleading.
Lao Xiaojun tilted his head so that he was looking down his nose at the shorter man. "I don't." Nie Ruyi blinked, and then tilted her own head. Were... Were his cheeks pink? No. It must be the light, right? Lao Xiaojun turned to Lin Baiwei again, and decidedly ignored Cai Bingtian's pouting cheeks. "Who are you sending into the forest?"
"I was hoping you might be willing to come along, Lao-shidi. If things go south, we'll need your expertise." Lin Baiwei explained, rolling up a map and setting it aside. "Your charge can stay in camp. We'll assign a few shidi to guard her, but I don't anticipate the need for her protection."
Lao Xiaojun's brow creased and his lip curled. Before he could say whatever acerbic thing he was about to say, Nie Ruyi called out, throwing out both hands as if to physically stop him. "Really! It's fine! I'll just stay in here with Song-shidi, and we can spend the afternoon talking!"
Song Fengling looked startled by her declaration, but Lao Xiaojun seemed to be considering it. Eventually, the broad man nodded, and then turned back to Lin Baiwei.
"That will be acceptable." At his response, Lin Baiwei nodded, and gestured for the two men to precede her out of the tent. When they did so, Nie Ruyi turned to her little guardian and smiled. Marking her place in the book, she put it inside her sleeve so she could get to it later. Carrying her purse with these sleeves was a pain, so she had just started doing what she'd seen people on dramas do.
"So, Song-shidi. You and I haven't gotten a chance to be introduced. I'm Nie Ruyi, I'm 34, unmarried and I used to live in America. It's nice to finally meet you."
He seemed aghast at her introduction, and his eyes darted left and right, as if someone would save him. The sparring must have knocked him around some because there were little strands of hair falling from his tight, neat bun. "W-Well... This shidi is Song Fengling, grandson of the minister of Finance for Silk Citadel. I am 12 years old, betrothed and I used to live in Silk Citadel. It's... nice to meet you too?"
Nie Ruyi grinned encouragingly, "That's wonderful. So... is Silk Citadel in the same country as the Sect compound?" She figured a good place to start getting to know this world would be to learn about it's countries.
"Mn. Although Sects are set apart from the countries they inhabit. They're very similar to city-states, in that they pay taxes but have autonomy." Song Fengling explained, "I've... never heard of America, though. Is it over the great river?"
"Great... no, Song-shidi. It's in another world entirely. It's a country in that world. The city I lived in was called Springfield." She watched him try to parse the strange language that was English. Then, she translated it for him. "It means 'Field of Spring' and it was a fairly large city. About fifty thousand people, all living, working, and breathing together." She felt that inexplicable sadness roll into her heart like a heavy fog, and she sighed out the pain.
"...That's a lot of people." Song Fengling looked absolutely floored at this news. "Was it a capital city?"
"Oh no, not at all." Nie Ruyi waved away that possibility, "Just a city. Our world was much different from yours. We had carriages that didn't require horses, only a noxious liquid to go, and devices that let us speak to anyone around the world in an instant, with almost no delay between replies."
"You're lying." Song Fengling declared, scowling. Nie Ruyi couldn't help but laugh.
"I'm really not! Honest. It's just that, instead of magic, and qi and demons and monsters, our world only had people and animals. And we conquered the animals long ago. So, we made machines instead. You know plows? We made machines that could plow by themselves, at a hundred times the speed one person might. All because we couldn't stand it taking so long." Nie Ruyi waved at the forest, "We have huge machines that could eat that forest in two weeks and spit out enough logs to build houses that could house over a hundred families."
"No way!" Song Fengling declared, looking unwilling to believe it, but he was leaning closer as if to a good story. "If you made huge machines like that, they'd be monsters themselves!"
"Well, not really, since they're controlled by humans. But I see why you might think that, given your world's rules. ...so, Cai Bingtian. Lao Xiaojun doesn't seem to like him. Is there a reason?" Nie Ruyi asked, hoping the boy wasn't too shy to talk about such things.
"Probably because Cai-Shixiong keeps teasing him. They bicker like that all the time. I've never seen them get along unless Sect Leader is in the room with them." Song Fengling seemed much more comfortable, now that he was on a topic he knew was real. "I heard they met when Lao-Shixiong was 15, and Cai-Shixiong had just skipped out on his old sect. He liked us better, I guess."
Nie Ruyi nodded, feeling like she'd just unlocked a cut scene about some character's tragic backstory. "I see. So, what are their specialties?"
"Well, Lao-Shixiong is a Pill Master and a very strong pugilist. Strong enough that swords can't even cut his skin! And Cai-Shixiong is a Seal Master. He uses a sword too, but his tricks are what you have to watch out for. One time, he strung me up from a tree during a spar and I didn't even realize until I was upside down." He had the same sparkly look in his eyes that little kids did about their older brothers. He hero-worshipped those men, she could see it, and it made her smile fondly.
"You must train ha-" Her words were interrupted with the sound of screaming.
The scream startled both of them so bad that Song Fengling actually unsheathed his sword enough for the silver of the blade to shine in the lamplight. Nie Ruyi's head had snapped in the direction it had come from. It was bloodcurdling, chilling and close.
"Did you hear that?" Nie Ruyi whispered, despite knowing Song Fengling did. He nodded anyway as if to reassure himself too. He'd gone pale, and Nie Ruyi was pretty sure she had too, her hands shaking. Several voices raised in chaos, some battle cries, other orders yelled over the din, and suddenly Nie Ruyi knew they were under attack.
Had the dragon decided their deal wasn't worth it? No, not enough roaring, not enough wind. Nie Ruyi turned to Song Fengling, who was staring at the tent-opening in a dazed sort of terror. She put herself between him and the door, forcing him to look at her.
"Song-shidi, we need to find a place to hide. We need information about what's happening and how it's being dealt with. I can't fight, so you have to protect me, Song-shidi. Do you think you can do that?" She felt terrible, telling a 12-year-old boy he had to fight to defend her. She wished it weren't necessary. But whatever was out there was hurting people, and she was near helpless in this world.
The objective reached him, and she watched him marshal himself with a firm nod. "Yes, Nie-Shijie." He grabbed her hand, and she could feel his fingers shaking as he led her to the back of the tent. Carefully undoing some ties she hadn't even noticed, he opened a little hole big enough for them to crawl through. Then, he peeked through it, before coming back in. "It's chaos out there. Stay close."
With that warning, he crawled out of the tent and she followed. Madness erupted around them. The sky seemed oppresively grey now, and the wind was still where moments ago it had been slightly pushy. Like the eye of a storm, it was still, with only screaming and shrieking to mark the moments.
Nie Ruyi shivered as the wind picked up a sliver of a cackle, some mad thing laughing in this din. Song Fengling pulled her along, past cultivators running this way and that. She had no idea what was going on, or who was supposed to be in charge. Song Fengling led her to the outskirts of the camp, and then hesitated.
Behind them, thick smoke was rising from the camp. Someone had set the tents afire. Nie Ruyi glanced nervously back at the camp, the sounds of steel clashing and that wicked laughter following them like a foul smell. There. Between the tents, she caught sight of someone, dark hair wild and pulled high, a sword as thick as Nie Ruyi's waist swinging wild with abandon. The slab of metal cleaved a young cultivator in half, moving through the sword as easily as it's weilder.
Nie Ruyi's heart juddered in her chest as the person's face turned towards her. She wasn't close enough to see any of their features, but she was sure, absolutely dreadfully sure, that they were smiling. "We.... We have to go." She choked, tugging on Song Fengling's hand. "We gotta go, NOW."
"Where?!" Song Fengling's voice was high pitched with terror, and Nie Ruyi knew with certainty that he'd seen the saber-wielder too.
"Forest. The forest!" Nie Ruyi said, turning in that same instant and pulling the young boy after her into the underbrush. That person would murder them, certainly. But the Dragon could be reasoned with. And if the Dragon realized they were trespassing, as it surely would, it might alert those negotiating with it that something was wrong.
She didn't let them slow down, not for a moment, pulling Song Fengling through stinging thickets and sucking mud. "W-Wait, Nie-shijie!"
"We've got no time to wait." She replied, "Save your breath, we need to run as much as we can." She was already wheezing, and she was more out of shape than he was, but somehow, she was certain that she couldn't stop. That saber-wielder had more stamina than either of them, she was sure. She could only pray that the cultivator was having as much trouble with the terrain as them.
A thought occurred to her to call out to the dragon. After all, it's little spies must surely have spotted them by now, but she wasn't about to risk compromising their location in case the Cultivator chasing them didn't know where they were. When Song Fengling opened his mouth to argue, she hissed at him until he quieted.
They stumbled as fast as they could through the woods for what felt like hours but must have been only twentyish minutes before she started to recognise signs. That rock, she'd seen it before, and those two trees twined around one another. She turned, adjusting their path, heading for the copse of trees where the Dragon had crawled down like a gecko.
Breaking through the thick brambles, she near-screamed when she saw what awaited them. Red, drenched everywhere, dripping from the canopy like rain. It drew her eyes up, into the boughs of the trees, where the broken corpse of the dragon hung like a kite from the thick branches. Deep, awful gashes littered it's body, white showing through the deep red of muscle.
"No!" Nie Ruyi's desperate sob crawled up her throat, too loud and aching to keep quiet. The Dragon had been their last hope for safety. Had Lao Xiaojun and the others killed it? Had they murdered the creature when it met them for peaceful parlay? Or had that murderous monster with the saber behind them done it?
"Nie-Shijie, we have to go!" Song Fengling mimicked her from earlier, and she choked on a laugh that was a sob at the same time. Where? Where could they go? They couldn't outrun someone who could fly on a sword.
Her hand squeezed the boy's sweaty palm in hers, and she turned, desperate to find some escape for at least the child. Maybe if she carved the dragon's stomach out and stuffed him inside, the cultivator would think he ran off in a different direction and be satisfied with murdering her alone.
"Hahhh...." A soft rattle of pained breath escaped the corpse above them, scaring Nie Ruyi out of her fucking mind. Her head snapped to look at the great creature, meeting one of it's massive eyes. Even to someone as unused to reptiles as she, it looked dazed and out of sorts. She imagined she would look the same, were she dying. "What strange things humans do. To send an assassin, and then come to me as I lay dying, stinking of fear and maternal concern."
Nie Ruyi didn't understand what it meant, but she was certainly afraid. "We're being chased, I think. Some cultivator with a massive saber. They were massacring the camp when we escaped into your woods, seeking sanctuary. Please. I ask only for a place to hide him, at least. He's just a child!"
The dragon let out a weak snort of breath that stirred Nie Ruyi's braided hair. "And why should I care for a human child, when my own shall be orphaned in minutes."
"...What if it didn't have to be!" Nie Ruyi cried, "Please. I could care for it! I know a lot about your species from the books in my world, I could raise it well, and when it's old enough, set it up in a territory with its own horde. Please. I would treat it as if it were my own child." She was desperate. She would try anything if it meant saving Song Fengling, who didn't deserve to be in this situation. The Dragon's eye slid shut.
"Nie-Shijie... They're getting closer." Song Fengling squared his shoulders, trying to be brave as he stared in the direction of the monster in human flesh coming after them.
"Please! We don't have time!" Nie Ruyi cried, her voice aching with tears and fear. "Please. I beg you, please! Just somewhere safe!"
"Enough... So noisy." The Dragon groaned. It pushed itself up from the branches, slipping a bit, as the trees groaned under its weight. A wheezing gasp escaped it as one of the trees impaled in its side dug deeper into the wound. "Follow the blue flowers. You will know them. If you miss one, look for a sparrow. It will lead you to the next. Hurry, for if I die, neither will lead you anywhere good. I will hold her off."
Relief fell over Nie Ruyi like a snowfall. "Thank you! Thank you, I will never forget this!" She tugged, pulling Song Fengling towards where the bluest flower she'd ever seen had just bloomed.
The flowers were surprisingly easy to spot, and in her terror she was alert enough to find them quickly. They lead them through the trees and under dense thickets. Several minutes into their mad pursuit of blue flowers, they heard the dragon roar loud enough to shatter the silence for miles. Nie Ruyi tugged Song Fengling harder, the boy clinging close as he followed.
Eventually, the two of them were led to a cliff face, a river flowing sluggishly beneath it. "Her lair is here." Nie Ruyi stated. "they always build their lairs in cliffside or hills. It's got to be here. Can you fly down and guide me as I climb?" She turned to Song Fengling, who was looking over the side with terrified eyes.
"I... yeah, Yes, Nie-Shijie, I can." He tossed his sword over the side, and instead of it falling into the burbling water below, it floated in the air and returned to him. She would never get used to that.
He guided her down the twisting vines carefully and went back above her to move the ones shifted by her weight back into place, to hide their trail. It would look a little like they had jumped in to escape their predator. Nie Ruyi was so thankful for this little measure of foresight that she had to bite back the sting in her eyes again, even as her hands ached from holding onto thorny vines.
"I'm so sorry, Nie-shijie, I wish I was strong enough to carry you..." Song Fengling sounded so wrecked by the fact that he wasn't, that Nie Ruyi had to laugh a little.
Breathless, she comforted him, "Don't worry so much. You're still very young. When you're older and stronger, I'll have you carry me from place to place. You'll see. I'll never have to set a foot on the ground again since my little Song-shidi will take good care of me, won't he?" Half-teasing, half offering him a future to glance to instead of the terror of their last few hours, she made sure her voice was light.
It was only when she could no longer find rocks under her feet that she looked down. Beneath her was a long fall, but closer, there was a huge cave entrance. She shuddered, realizing she didn't know how she was going to get in. "O-Okay, Song-shidi, I know you aren't strong enough to carry me. But do you think you might be strong enough to help me fall?"
"Huh?" The boy cried, confusion turning his eyes wide. She sighed, her arms shaking so bad she could feel her fingers slipping.
"Okay, so, come closer, close enough that you can grab me. In fact, grab the cloth of my dress at the shoulders, okay?" She waited anxiously, until she felt his little paws grab on. "Okay, now, when I let go, we're going to fall very quickly. I need you to push with that sword of yours, so that we fall INTO the cave, and not away from it. Do you understand?"
"I-I think so?" Song Fengling sniffled, and she could hear his fearful panting.
"Hey. Listen, no matter what, we're going to get through this. Just need some quick thinking to do so, okay? Just remember, push about the count of three after I let go, okay? Too soon, and we hit the ceiling. Too late, and we fall. Count One-mississipi, okay? I'm going to let go on the count of five."
"One." She felt the little hands holding her shoulders turn into claws, and winced at how tight they gripped her.
"Two." She slipped, her fingers sliding along the vines a little, and Song Fengling heaved against her sudden weight dispersal. "I'm okay! It's okay! I just slipped. Three."
"Hurry." Song Fengling whispered, and she wasn't sure what he'd heard, but she didn't want to find out.
"Four, five!" She rushed, before letting go of the vines entirely and kicking (just a little) away from the wall, so she wouldn't scrape down it. The wind rushed by her as she fell, and she wondered if Song Fengling had remembered to count, had remembered to say Mississippi after each word, because if he didn't-
A powerful shove against her shoulders changed her direction, sending her into a tailspin so bad she didn't know which way was up or down. But it didn't matter, because by the time she realized she didn't know, she hit something hard and fast. The pain was a brief flash and then everything was black.
Her mind came back to her in fits and starts. Snatches of sound like a skipped record, Song Fengling's voice fading in and out bobbed against her conciousness. It was the pain that brought her out of it, sharp and believable. She opened her eyes, and light lanced through her like ice. "Oh... what happened?" She managed to groan, although to her ears it sounded a bit off, like she was slurring the words.
"Nie-Shijie!" Song Fengling cried, and there were tear tracks on the sorrowful face that shoved itself into her view. "Are you okay? You hit your head, it's bleeding pretty bad-"
"Okay, slow down, please. My head can't take it." She gasped, shifting. Nothing felt like it was grinding in her neck, so she lifted her head. Big mistake, the world swam, shifting like noodles in a bowl, separately and all together at once. "W-We need to stop the bleeding. Do you know any first aid?"
"What? I... What did you s-say?" The boy asked, and Nie Ruyi wasn't sure if his fear was because he couldn't translate the words because she was speaking English, or if he didn't understand them because she was slurring so badly that it wasn't recognizable as Mandarin, either. Either one, they had a problem.
"Healing. Do you know any field-medicine?" She asked instead, and when he looked relieved she realized it was because she was speaking English, not because she was unintelligible. He nodded, and she smiled and then winced as it pulled whatever injury she had. "Great, okay, first things first. Check my neck, see if you can feel any bones out of place. Don't push on them, be gentle."
His hands slid around her throat, and began pushing gently at her skin. A few minutes of awkwardness, and he reported that he felt nothing.
"Good. Okay, now, I can feel my toes and move them so we don't have to worry too much about spinal damage. Is there anything embedded in me in the front. My side hurts a lot. Am I impaled on something?"
"N-No, There's no blood there either." He answered, voice steadying with something to keep his mind on.
"Great! That's good, okay. H-Help me sit up." She lifted an arm, overjoyed when that particular movement didn't hurt. Of course, when Song Fengling pulled a little too hard on it, she hissed. Eventually, she was sitting up, leaning against Song Fengling's side. "Okay... Okay, we're good. I'm dizzy, and nauseaus, which means concussion. But I'm conscious, I can feel my toes, and I remember roughly what date it is. My name is Nie Ruyi, and I'm 34 years old. We-"
"What are you doing, Nie-shijie?" Song Fengling interrupted her monologue, looking at her with worry. She smiled, and patted his cheek.
"I'm testing my memory. Long term and short term. Name and age are stored in long term memory. I was about to describe our situation and how we got here, to test short term memory. It's... to make sure my mind is unhurt."
"Oh." He seemed so confused. His eyes left her face, and darted around the cave, which Nie Ruyi now recognised as her vision cleared. So they'd made it into the cave, and she had probably hit her head on impact. That made the most sense.
"Cmon. Help me up. We need to get deeper into the cave. If that person comes looking, we're easily spotted here. And we have to find the Dragon's egg. I promised..." She grunted in pain as Song Fengling lifted her from her seated position. A twelve year old boy was this strong? Nie Ruyi had underestimated how different Cultivators were from normal people.
"Yes, Nie-shijie." He said, letting her lean on him as he walked them deeper into the caves.
"Sorry. I'm probably heavy." The drip-drip-drip of water from the stalactites punctuated their heavy, shuffling footsteps. Then she blinked, "Wait... How can I see? It's-Oh. That's nifty."
Floating over Song Fengling's shoulder was a little white light, like a firefly. "A talisman. Even Mortals can use this one. I'll teach you, if we get time." It sounded like a promise, on Song Fengling's tongue. She couldn't help but smile. The cave's path branched off, and they lingered for a moment, before she remembered something she'd heard a long time ago.
"Most people in a maze, take the left hand path. So we should take the right." She pointed, and Song Fengling stopped idling and took them in that direction. "If we get lost... at least we'll know which way we came."
After the cave opened up into a large room, they continued right, until they realised it was a dead end. Turning around, they went left, and it took them down a long raw-rock corridor. Each time they went right, it ended in a dead-end quickly, little rooms filled with littered coins and detritus. But the coins grew and grew, becoming a thick carpeting, the further left they went.
When they started having to climb little hills made of coins, she knew they were in the right place. "Alright. Look for an egg, about the size of a human chest, most likely looks like a green gem." She ordered, before disengaging from Song Fengling and beginning the search herself.
The jangle of coins was the only music accompanying their search until, behind a pillar of beautiful white-grey stone, she found it. Just as she'd described, a beautiful green egg, the size of her chest. She lifted it into her arms, and it was as heavy as a toddler. She settled it against her belly, stroking the shell softly.
"Don't worry, little one. Your mother asked me to take care of you, and so I will." She crooned, hoping the little dragon could hear her inside. "Song-shidi! I found it!"
The boy scrambled over the dunes of coins and found her pretty quickly. His eyes went wide as dinner plates when he saw the egg, and he crept closer, holding out a hand as if to touch. Nie Ruyi couldn't help but smile. "Go ahead. You can touch it."
His fingers brushed over the stone-like shell, and he gasped at how warm it was. She chuckled, nodding, "There's a very warm little dragon in here. It's our job to keep it safe now. Now, is there a way to get message to your sect, to let them know we're safe, without letting whoever that was know we're here?"
Song Fengling looked down, concentrating for a moment. Nie Ruyi took a deep breath, pressing her aching head against the heat of the egg. "No... I don't think there is. We'll have to get back to the camp... Find a survivor who can fly a message to the Sect."
"...or you can." Nie Ruyi looked at him, her eyes lowered. She was getting sleepy.
Song Fengling shook his head, "No. Someone's got to keep you awake. You need healing, you can't be by yourself."
Nie Ruyi gave a rueful smile. "Ah... Smart boy. But neither of us will live long in here, without food or water. And we need help. I can't climb out of here again, I'm too dizzy. But you can fly. Fast. Follow the cliff, keep low and get out of the forest all together. Hopefully, our follower was distracted or killed by the dragon enough that you can get free." But Song Fengling seemed mutinous, glaring at her.
"Don't be stupid! A cultivator capable of slaughtering that many Senior Disciples, they're not going to be killed by a half-dead dragon. We'll hold out here. We can both survive a day or two without food, and we can gather water from the wall-drippings."
Nie Ruyi held up her hands, her arms still clasped around her egg. "Alright, alright. You win. We'll hunker down here for a while."
They didn't even have time to grow properly, stomach-rumblingly hungry before commotion started above. The ringing crash of swords against swords echoed into the cave, like disembodied spectres announcing their presence. When the first bits of them happened, the two had migrated closer, and Song Fengling had suffered Nie Ruyi putting an arm around his young shoulders and pulling him so that she was in front of him.
Nie Ruyi wasn't sure if the clashing was getting closer, but it was certainly accompanied by more yelling, as time went on. Eventually, their caution was thrown to the winds, as they crept closer to the opening of the cave. Nie Ruyi had taken off one of the ridiculous robes she'd been wearing and now used it as a sling, tied by the sleeves around her chest, so that the egg sat against her back snugly. She kept one hand behind her back, holding it in place just to be safe.
The two of them found the cliff's edge of the cave, and the swirling river below. Sure enough, the sounds amplified, coming from above, and the combat sounded bad. Nie Ruyi hemmed and hawed, unsure if they should risk revealing themselves, only for a moment later to take that decision away from her.
Over the edge of the cliff tumbled a cultivator in white and red, not the blue and tangerine they'd seen on their would-be-assailant. An ally? Or an enemy? The man stopped mid-air, his sword sliding into place beneath his feet like a sentient thing, halting his falling and turning it into stylish flying. Then, as if by accident, he noticed them. A huge grin broke on his face, and she recognised him. Cai Bingtian, the man who'd been in Lin Baiwei's tent this morning.
"Nie-Shimei! Song-shidi! You're safe! This Cai Bingtian was worried." His voice called over the still-clashing metal and the dull roar of the river. "I'll come to you! Song-shidi should head up and join combat. Amazing experience, fighting a Nascent Soul level cultivator! You probably won't get it again!"
He swept closer, even as Song Fengling lit up like a torch. Hopping onto his own blade, he turned to Nie Ruyi and grinning, said, "Don't worry, Nie-shijie. He'll take very good care of you. I'm going to help the others."
Before Nie Ruyi could protest, he was gone, up and over the cliff. She turned her ire onto the only one available and it's true owner, instead. "Are you stupid?! You're telling a child to go fight someone who killed his elders?! You think that's a good experience for a child?!"
He set down next to her, where Song Fengling had been standing moments ago, and raised an eyebrow at her. "Of course I do. He'll learn more in combat than most would, being a physical cultivator. And if he gets injured, his very nature will make him stronger. It's good for him to go against opponents he has no chance of winning against. So long as he doesn't die, Lao Xiaojun is up there, too. so he has backup."
"He's a CHILD!" Nie Ruyi shrieked, echoing around the cave and taking Cai Bingtian by surprise. "Children are supposed to be PROTECTED, not-Not-" Words failed her, her anger lapsing into tears she could ill-afford at the moment.
"Hey, Nie-shimei, deep breaths." His voice was oddly soft, as he reached out, settling his large hands on her shoulders. "It's going to be okay. You're safe now. He's safe. Trust Lao Xiaojun. Lao-shidi has never lost a battle, and he's going to win this one too."
Somehow, the warmth of his hands soothed the tears away, but not her irritation or fear. She shook her head. "Take me up there too!" She demanded, one step away from stamping her foot.
"Of course. Let's get going, then." Cai Bingtian's sword swung around and he stepped up again. Holding out his hand, he waited patiently as she took it. His sword swayed under her, and she yelped. He laughed, when it pushed her into his chest, and wrapped his arms around her. "There," his voice echoed in her ear, the warmth of his breath making her shiver. "Settled?"
"Just... hurry up." She muttered into the cloth of his robes.
He must have, because the sound of swords clashing got louder and soon, she could hear the footsteps and harsh breaths of the combatants. As Cai Bingtian set her down outside the combat radius (which she could see clearly delineated, because all the brush and trees inside it were felled and chopped to pieces), to join the fray himself, their combatant looked up. A woman with wild eyes, a wilder grin, and her shaggy black hair thrown up in a half-ponytail. Around her neck glinted a beautiful necklace.
"Ah, and you're back! I thought I'd driven you off for good!" The woman crowed, laughter in every syllable even as she knocked one of- Was that Lao Xiaojun? Nie Ruyi had to take a moment to stare in awe-struck horror at the calm man she'd met yesterday.
His jaw opened in a soundless roar, teeth sharp and pointed, his eyes glowing a pure indigo. Energy crackled around him like lightning, as he rained down blows so fast that Nie Ruyi couldn't see his fists. He didn't seem to be using his sword, sheathed at his waist. Instead, somehow, he'd bulked up like the hulk, steroid-level muscles showing beneath his torn up robes and was now hitting so hard that Nie Ruyi could feel the vibrations of the air every time a blow landed against the guarded woman.
Song Fengling seemed to be trying to help, darting in under the woman's guard and scoring hits against her flanks every so often. But it was clear the blows weren't even cutting her clothes, much less her skin. He was breathing heavier too, Nie Ruyi could see it.
It wasn't long before the woman let out a roar of her own and pushed back against the strongman beating at her defences. Once he was free from her a few inches, she jumped back. A complicated series of flips later, she was on her own sword, waving. "Well, it was still a mission success! You all have a good day! I look forward to fighting you again soon, Lao Xiaojun."
The man in question roared a command, "Get back here!" while rushing forward to strike again. However, the female cultivator just laughed, dodging out of the way. Lao Xiaojun rushed to pull his sword from it's sheath as she dove off the cliffside and into the air away from them. The pugilist was about to give chase, only to be stopped by a hand on the shoulder. Cai Bingtian shook his head, and Lao Xiaojun gave a snarl, shrugging off the hand and heading into the woods.
Cai Bingtian shuffled towards Nie Ruyi and Song Fengling, who settled next to Nie Ruyi the way a baby duck does it's mother when tired. "Don't worry about him. He's just got to work off the pill, or he'll be touchy and quick-to-strike the entire ride home. Nie-shimei, Song-shidi, did you two see any other survivors? Anyone hiding down there with you?"
Nie Ruyi was shaking her head along with Song Fengling. Cai Bingtian nodded, "Alright, that makes sense. Cmon, then. We'll head back to camp, patch up whoever we can, and bury those we can't. Song-shidi, can you hop back to the Sect and inform the Sect Leader? It's urgent, so make sure you let everyone know. Try to talk Xiang Yun. He'll be able to get you in to see her quickly. Tell him what happened here and let him know I sent you."
"Yes, Cai-Shixiong!" Without another thought, Song Fengling took off and was soon a speck in the wind. Cai Bingtian turned to Nie Ruyi then, and grinned that horrendous grin that turned her heart into knots.
Cai Bingtian set Nie Ruyi up in a corner of a clean-ish tent, once he realized that she would be nearly useless in the cleanup. She'd told him that she could only do basic first aid, and that she wouldn't be able to lift a fully grown person, or even a large teenager. He assured her she would be safe, but she still hunkered down on the ground, waiting.
She couldn't close her eyes, the images she'd seen playing on the backs of her eyelids the moment she did. Bodies, torn to pieces, sliced in half. Entrails, still pink, slung across the ground, and body parts feet away from any possible body they could have belonged to. Children. Just... teenagers, scattered across the ground like so many leaves. Piled atop each other.
Nie Ruyi took the book from her sleeve with shakey fingers and opened it up. Her eyes skittered around the page fruitlessly, picking up a word here, a word there. Time must have passed, because the tent-flap flew open and Nie Ruyi thankfully tossed the book in her sleeve, uncaring if she'd saved her place. Standing in the doorway was Lao Xiaojun, looking around angrily. She scrambled to her feet, just as his eyes landed on her and he stormed forward. Snatching her upper arm in a bruising grip, he turned her this way and that.
"O-oi! That hurts!" She cried, trying to yank her arm out of his grip. He was lifting her near off her feet, and she was already achy from the fall and from climbing.
"You need to be seen by a healer." Lao Xiaojun growled out, and Nie Ruyi huffed out a disbelieving laugh.
"You think?! Stop yanking at me, you're making it worse! My head already aches like crazy, I'm bruised everywhere, and you're yanking me around like a kid with their toy doll!" As soon as she'd finished her tirade, he dropped her, causing her to stumble. She caught herself on the upturned chair nearby and turned a fierce glare on him to hide the sting of her tears. "I'm done. I want to go home. I'm tired of being here, I'm tired of it. Take me home!"
She shrieked at him, pointing to the tent flap. He stared at her, face completely blank but for a slight furrowing of his brow. She squared her shoulders, and felt her lip tremble with the force it was taking to hold back her tears. She realized with a sense of betrayal that she wasn't, really. Tears slid cold tracks down her cheeks, and she hastened to rub them off, staring at him defiantly through the haze of them.
"...This Shixiong apologizes. I did not mean to harm Nie-Shimei further or to be unkind. My worry overrode my sense of reason." His voice was soft and low, and he held up a hand towards her, which she smacked away with vitriol she'd never given voice before.
"Fuck your apology! This whole day has been one long conga line of horribleness, and I. Want. To. Go. Home." She stabbed his chest with her finger on each word for emphasis.
The words took him by surprise if his eyebrows shooting sky-high were any sign. She felt a bit of vindictive pride at that. He gave a curt nod, and shifted so that he could indicate the tent flap to her. She took this as a sign and exited the tent. The air still reeked of meat spoiling in the sun, the stench of corpses. Disciples ran about, carrying bodies and supplies here and there, striking down tents and packing things that no longer had owners.
She forced herself to walk through the chaos, and Lao Xiaojun took the initiative to slip in front of her and guide her where they were going. They came into the central clearing, which had housed the food just two days ago. A cry of her name went up, and Nie Ruyi turned to see Song Fengling saving at her as he rushed towards her.
"Nie-Shijie! Are you alright? Come over here, He-Shijie will take care of you!" He chirped away like a little squirrel as he dragged her towards a small cot-filled area that looked like an impromptu field hospital. There, disciples in white were tending to the wounded. Song Fengling sat her down on on of the cots, and a young woman with bright amber eyes stepped forward.
"This one is He Qina, a Senior Disciple in charge of healing and medicine. It is a pleasure to meet you, Nie-shimei. Song-Shidi has told me much about you." The woman then pulled a stool (a literal wooden stool!) out of her sleeve and sat down. Then, she took Nie Ruyi's wrist in hand, and that strange sensation happened again.
"I'm Nie Ruyi. Nice to meet you too. What are you doing? It's making my head go... dizzy. Like when I stand up too quickly." She asked, even as the sensation died down again.
"I'm sending my spiritual energy into your body, to see if there has been damage done. I've trained my spiritual energy to look for imbalances in qi and in blood and energy flow, as well as damaged tissue and other things. I don't usually use it on Mortals, as it can be damaging, which might be why you're feeling that dizzy feeling. Your body is not used to the flow of spiritual energy through it. In fact, yours is nearly stagnant." She looked disturbed by this. "And yet, your meridians are soaking in my qi so naturally. If I didn't know better... I'd say your spiritual veins had been open for years."
"Well, since I don't know what those are, I can't take any credit for that." Nie Ruyi sighed, her head aching with the knowledge and also with the splitting headache that had been plaguing her since she took that fall in the cave.
"Mn... Well, to explain, spiritual veins are the roads through which spiritual energy travel within your body. It can take multiple reincarnations for a spirit to open the spiritual veins within themselves. Yours appear to have opened just this life, so they are still new to you."
Song Fengling seemed surprised by this, "Wow. Mine opened two lives ago!" With that explanation, he turned to Nie Ruyi, "That's how I was able to enter the sect so young. My spiritual Veins were strong from a very young age. I have Crystal spiritual veins." He stuck his nose in the air, clearly proud, and Nie Ruyi couldn't help the soft exhale of amusement.
"Does that mean your veins are made of pretty gems for me to carve up?" She teased him, reaching out with her unoccupied hand to chuck his chin, which he deftly avoided with pursed lips.
"No! It means that I can use both Earth and Metal Qi in my cultivation. It's incredibly useful!" He replied, sticking out his tongue.
"It's also incredibly tiresome, as it means he has issues gathering Qi if there are any sources of wood or fire Qi nearby. He has to be careful to find deep caves, to cultivate, or he cultivates slowly." A new voice joined their conversation, and Nie Ruyi looked up to spot Lao Minghui having joined them. She gives Nie Ruyi a small smile and a tilt of her head, although her brows were set in an apologetic slope. "Nie-shimei, I am sorry. This Sect Leader did not expect there to be such danger to you here."
"...I can't say it's fine, because it's not." Nie Ruyi admitted, "I got hurt. And I nearly died. I've got a concussion that's pretty bad, and whats worse, poor Song-shidi got sent into battle against the person who slaughtered those poor souls in this camp. I'm very, very upset and very angry, and I'd like to go home, please."
"Ah... do you mean-" Song Fengling's eyes widened, "Not home-home! You mean the sect right?! You're not going anywhere but home, right?"
Nie Ruyi was taken aback by how quickly the child snapped on that. "...Well... they can't send me home. Otherwise, yeah, I'd be going home. Song-shidi, I don't belong here. I nearly died today."
"She isn't wrong, Sect Leader. If it weren't for her Spiritual veins, and how pure the qi was in that cave, she would have died." He Qina spoke up, her fingers still on Nie Ruyi's wrists. "She has impressive Willow Spiritual Veins. However... Oddly enough, entwined with the Willow veins are Earth veins. I've never seen the like. It's... impossible, almost."
"Willow-" Nie Ruyi breathed, confusion settling in. Lao Minghui took pity on her, and explained.
"Your Spiritual veins are of the combined Water and Wood essences. However, you appear to also have Earth Essence mixed in as well. Three essences will be difficult to train, for you must keep your spiritual veins in balance, or they will cause a Deviation."
"So far, her veins are in perfect balance. If I didn't know better, Lao-Zongzhu, I'd say she was a practicing cultivator already." He Qina said, "She's in no threat of a qi deviation at this time. Exhaustion, infection, and possible death in her sleep, certainly, but not deviation. She'll need to be woken every three hours for the next night, so that she does not fall into a coma and refuse to wake."
"That's going to be fun." Nie Ruyi complained, shaking her head, "Lao-Zongzhu, you said I was part of the sect now, right? Does that mean I can file complaints? And get trained on how to not die?"
"Well, certainly." Lao Minghui blinked, and then seemed to startle away from Nie Ruyi's feral grin.