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Beneath his feet, Wu Ying felt the press of solidified air. On his face, the cold spray of falling water as stray droplets from the waterfall struck him as he leapt higher. Behind him, following at a more sedate pace, Yang Mu skimmed across the water with her enchanted fans under each foot. Long hair trailed behind her, a rainbow as a backdrop when Wu Ying glanced back.
Fast fading beneath their feet was the river that ran to the lowlands, the sailing skiff that had carried them this far, and the harbor and city that supplied the Verdant Green Waters sect. Fresh air, crisp and clean, filled his lungs, the spray of water dampening his robes and imparting a slight chill to his body. He could have blocked it, but the rush of wind and the feel of water on his skin reminded him of his existence.
A fact that was not always guaranteed, not after their recent adventures.
As he pushed onward, the slight ache in his side blossomed further. Injuries that had yet to heal even after months of travel and recuperation making themselves known.
Pain and regret flickered through him and were forcibly shunted aside. This was not the time to consider such matters, nor the potential issues the injuries might cause. Instead, he would enjoy the moment as he ascended the mountain with Yang Mu by his side.
In her eyes, in her laughter and sense of wonder, he saw the Sect anew.
With another kick, the waterfall fell away, the opening in the mountain from which the water issued forth lit by spirit lamps. Hanging stalactites, carved marbled flooring, wooden doors inset into the very walls. As the pair ascended past it, guards shifted, a pair of crossbows following their forms before they left the entrance behind.
“You didn’t tell me the Sect had a cavern complex!” Yang Mu sent her words directly to Wu Ying’s ears, twisting the strings of chi so that she could speak without shouting. A simple practice, barely worth even calling a technique for one with their ability.
“I didn’t know.” Wu Ying looked downward, pushing his intent out to the winds. Impressions came back soon after, of a wide cavern filled with glowing lamps and cultivation caves hanging over the roaring water, where water and earth chi accumulated.
“I thought this was your sect!” Yang Mu said.
“It is. But I left as an Energy Storage cultivator. And I rarely spent much time here,” Wu Ying explained. After all, his work as a Wild Gatherer had seen him plying the roadways between sects and the deep wilds more than spending time within.
“I wonder what other surprises await us then?” She sounded more amused than put out, excitement still tinging her voice.
A push on the dao and the surroundings, a platform of air firmed beneath his foot. He shoved upward, launching himself higher. He could have floated upward with just as much—perhaps even less—effort, but he was still reestablishing his boundaries with the wind. Having become one with it months ago, having given up his mortal body, Wu Ying now sought to find the boundary once more.
Climbing this way also let him see the Sect and mountain in new ways.
There, outer sect cultivators climbed the trail that led to the Sect high above. Paved stone staircases were worn away by the constant tromp of cultivators carrying the supplies required to feed the organization. Mortal servants carried out the same task as well, but the difference between them and the stronger, trained outer sect cultivators was…
To Wu Ying’s surprise, when he reflected on his own past, he found from his new viewpoint that the differences were marginal. So what if this cultivator moved a touch faster than that mortal, so what if he carried five rice bags instead of three? If he so desired, Wu Ying could have lifted the skiff to the top of the mountain using the winds at his command.
As though called, heavenly wind twisted around his form, whispering its agreement. To the heavens, mortals were one and the same. An ant, a mortal, a cultivator, they were all equally worthy of consideration and mercy. For all who wished could ascend and join the Dao eventually.
So long as they bent.
So long as they bowed.
So long as they followed.
Or so the wind whispered.
“Ah Ying.” Her voice cut through the thoughts that threatened to consume him.
Heavenly wind dispersed as Yang Mu spoke, angry whispers at the chaotic woman by his side, the distraction rising before he cut them off.
“Are you sure we’re allowed to do this?” Concern in her voice, rising at the end.
“Of course…” He trailed off the reflexive answer as he noticed her growing concern. Frowning, he reached out his spiritual sense to the world around and recoiled almost immediately. If he had not been so distracted, he would have sensed it already.
Killing intent, directed toward them.
No, not toward them, but her.
As they reached an unseen barrier, it sharpened again. From above, the wind shrieked a warning. Moments before the attack arrived.
A glowing golden hand the size of a house descended from the heavens, so large and clear that Wu Ying could see the lines across the palm and the joints of each finger as it struck at Yang Mu. Within the palm was a deep dao, one encompassing the concepts of pressure and crushing, all sharpened by a strong killing intent.
In retaliation, Wu Ying drew and swung in a single motion. Ren departed its sheath, the embedded dao of cutting, of sharpness within the sword augmenting his own understanding of the jian and his technique to send a blade strike streaking forward.
The pair of attacks clashed a dozen feet above him. Immediately, the palm exploded as the containment around the chi and dao were pierced, even as Wu Ying’s attack continued upward. At the same time, the released energy buffeted Wu Ying and Yang Mu, as well as a trio of unlucky cultivators on the road. Two were thrown into the side of the mountain. The third, a truly unlucky cultivator, was blasted off the side of the mountain, robes flapping. His scream resounded as he fell, hands thrashing as he sought escape from his fate.
“Ah Ying!” Yang Mu screamed, gesturing at the dropping mortal. “I’ll guard from above. Go!”
Trusting that she could take care of herself, Wu Ying sheathed his weapon and threw himself off the wind platform he had been standing upon. He called the winds to him as he fell, shooting downward as he stretched his aura perception to the surroundings to locate the boy.
Above, Wu Ying sensed Yang Mu landing on the trail, holding one of her enchanted fans—the green one with white trim—defensively even as she called up a question to their attackers above in the mountain. She exerted no chi in her announcement, trusting that their attacker could hear her.
His expanded spiritual sense—restricted till now to a short distance around him out of consideration for others and the rules of the Sect—caught the plummeting boy. Wu Ying called the wind to him, slowing the boy’s fall, and grunted in annoyance when he sensed interference.
The child had a metal body and a burgeoning dao of density or heaviness. It made slowing him down via Wu Ying’s wind dao difficult, though not impossible. He could have stopped him entirely, but the boy had picked up enough speed that doing so might injure him.
Better safe than sorry.
Seconds before Wu Ying reached the boy, he tucked his body and turned, flipping over to land beside the struggling child as he flapped his hands and legs in a comical fashion in an attempt to stop his fall. Startingly black eyes were wide and panicked, the knowledge that he was no longer falling yet to impinge upon his consciousness.
“Boy, stop it.” Wu Ying stood on a platform of solidified air; an eyebrow cocked. “You are fine.”
“I… this…” A breath caught, the boy forcing mastery over his emotions on himself. He exhaled, then pulled his arms closer, even as the wind playfully tossed him from side to side. Gaze locked on the immobile elder by his side, he put together his hands to offer a martial bow even as his robes flapped around his limbs. “This lowly one greets his Honored Benefactor.”
“Don’t bother. I was just setting right what mistakes were made.” Looking upward, Wu Ying gestured, and a trio of rice bags floated up to them. “Now, brace yourself.”
He did not wait for the boy to acknowledge his words as he beckoned the air into motion once more. The bags shot upward; the effort much simpler than holding the wind still. It was funny how his interactions and battle with Sao Choi had expanded his own understanding of the element.
Wind was moving air, of course. But air was still wind. If one understood that simple concept, he could wield air in the same method as wind.
With a little more difficulty, of course. The primal difference between wind and air still existed—one wanted to move, the other did not care. As such, while a platform of wind to stand upon was viable if one solidified air, it was just as possible to make one of moving air—within a very small range of motion.
Testing. So much testing of one’s concepts and elemental understandings, of the bounds of reality and one’s integration with it.
Not that any of that was recognized by the boy staring all around him, eyes locking on the silent figure ascending beside him, on the rice bags and the cultivators on the mountain pathway climbing upward the normal way.
“Who are you?” The question was voiced quietly, the boy uncertain if he should ask. Or even if he could, with the beating winds.
Wu Ying tilted his head, slowing their quick ascent as he sensed the scene above. Delicate words were being traded above, and his prompt return might disrupt the equilibrium. Weaving his words into a cone of wind so that the boy could hear him, Wu Ying answered. “Long Wu Ying. Fellow cultivator of the Sect. I have long been gone.”
“The Verdant Gatherer!” The words were a shout of surprise. The boy jerked into a deep bow, almost tilting forward and pitching out of the tunnel of wind bearing him forth. He wobbled dangerously before the wind adjusted to his movements. “I am honored, Elder! This one apologizes for not recognizing the Elder and offering proper greetings.”
Wu Ying took the boy in properly now. Outer sect robes, dress in disarray and even straightened did not fit well. He’d forgotten a fold in the side, didn’t tighten the straps on the inside fully there. After so many years wearing more elaborate clothing, such minor discrepancies stood out to Wu Ying. Like a weed in a carefully cultivated row of plants. Skin, darker and weathered from years in the outdoors. His palm, turned upward, showed deep callouses from long hours working with his hands. Not a swordsman’s callouses either, but gripping a longer, broader haft.
“Your name?” Wu Ying said, noting they were nearly there.
“Den Kang Min, Honored Benefactor.”
“Good. Take care on your ascent.” A slight hesitation, Wu Ying added, “And work on carrying more. Three is pitiful for one of your stature.”
Then with the slightest push of his will, Wu Ying sent the boy toward the mountain and the roadway to join the other climbers. He set the rice bags down beside the boy, stacking them on top of one another neatly before he rose another ten feet vertically.
The sight that greeted him made him want to sigh. On one side of a standoff, Yang Mu stood. Her fans were closed, but both were in her hands, a certain sign of wariness. Across from her was the Elder who had reacted so poorly to their ascent and a dozen inner sect cultivators who had spread out into a martial formation along the road.
A flash of memory raced across Wu Ying’s form as he recognized the man, his prime tormentor when he had first entered the Sect. In his first year—when most other cultivators were busy training and studying, attempting to cleanse additional meridians—Wu Ying had been tasked with acquiring a bottle of peach wine. Now that he understood the norms of the Sect further, he could understand the breadth of the man’s malice.
Anger, resentment, then amusement flickered through Wu Ying before he stilled the emotions, casting them to the winds.
The tense standoff held itself in brittle silence, an anticipatory quiet that could break apart in drawn weapons and shed blood with the slightest hint of action.
Wu Ying landed, the winds kicking up loose stones, leaves, and dust. Soft-soled cloth shoes touched upon the ground, a small smile on his lips as he bowed. “Long Wu Ying, cultivator of the Verdant Green Waters, greets Elder Pang.”
Surprise registered on Elder Pang’s face, smoothed out into stern impassivity a moment later. Wu Ying wondered about the reaction—the trio had sent word ahead of them via spirit messengers of their imminent arrival after all. Before he could ponder the fact further, the man spoke.
“Guardian Pang.” Guardian Pang’s voice was chilly, hands clasped behind his back as he stared imperiously at the pair. “Guardian Pang Jian Hong.”
“My apologies for the inadvertent insult. And congratulations, Guardian Pang, on your elevation to the new position.” Wu Ying bowed again and gestured to the side. “This is, as per our missive, Cultivator Yang Mu, daughter of the Twin Souls of the Joyous Platinum Inn.”
Yang Mu twitched, shooting a look that promised that Wu Ying would pay for that later. He ignored it, of course. As much as she might desire to make a name for herself, in this place, at this time, she needed all the social standing she could acquire. Borrowing the strength of her Nascent Soul parents was necessary, especially before Elder—no, Guardian—Pang.
“If you kept in contact with the Sect properly, you would know of such things,” Guardian Pang said coldly. “In addition, your companion, Elder Liu, should have informed you.”
“It must have slipped his mind,” Wu Ying said. “The exploration of the southern problems in Nanyue was quite strenuous.”
Wu Ying had to stop himself from apologizing again. It was an automatic thing, which he had to bite his inner tongue upon. Too long had he been beneath the other. While he might still be junior to the man, he was a Core Formation cultivator with a Wind Body now. They might not be hierarchical peers, but he was not so beneath the other to be forced to apologize multiple times.
Yang Mu, noticing the minute changes in expression on Wu Ying’s face, spoke up. “Cultivator Yang greets Guardian Pang. Cultivator Long has spoken much of you.” Ignoring the suspicious look the other man shot her, she continued. “He often spoke of the Guardians of your illustrious sect with great fondness. May I ask when you were elevated to this esteemed position?”
“Four years after Cultivator Long left the Sect,” Jian Hong said. “Much has changed. Like our security procedures.”
“Oh?” Wu Ying said.
“Yes. Flying is no longer permitted by those not of the Sect,” Jian Hong said. “As the Guardian of the Gate, it is my responsibility to ensure that no breaches of our security occur. And that ruling, along with additional security formations, is just one of the many things I have added.”
“I see.” Wu Ying inclined his head. Guardian of the Gate. That had been Guardian Lu Xi Qi’s position. “We shall, of course, comply with the new rulings. Will you be escorting us the rest of the way to the Sect then?”
Guardian Pang’s lips pursed. At his gesture, the other inner sect cultivators dispersed, the Energy Formation cultivators going up the mountain rapidly and leaving them behind.
“No. I have many duties to attend to.” Then, recalling some of his manners, he inclined his head to Yang Mu. “Welcome to the Sect, Cultivator Yang. I hope your stay is tolerable.”
Before Wu Ying could ask what the man meant, Guardian Pang triggered part of the formation that surrounded them, allowing it to pull him away by bending space.
“What a waste of energy…” Yang Mu muttered for Wu Ying’s ears only.
He could only agree, having sensed the extrusion of energy as the formation triggered. It seemed much had changed in the time he was away. It seemed his return was not to be a triumphant one.