I study the manuals given to me furiously, finding them all to have been created by Teng Zhu himself, without the contribution of his disciples. Their techniques don’t come to me as easily as illusions and I find myself struggling with even the first technique of each book.
Rumors of open war in the empire subside as the threat of other realms become clear and the Emperor holds onto life through force of will and powerful medicine.
The Flowing River Sect decides to hold our forces close to the sect in anticipation of other sects taking advantage of our weakened Elders and Matriarch.
My time is spent on cultivation or training, and what free time I have is spent working with my Master in the expansion of the Demon Hunter Pavilion.
After two months of cultivation, I break through into the Seventh Level of Qi Awakening.
Four months after that, we receive word of cultists attempting to summon a demon. Tai Qiu sends me out with a Master who joined the pavilion. We find a newly summoned demon and kill it before it can consume too many of the mortals that summoned it.
Over the next six months, attempted demon summonings and demon sightings become more common.
The largest issue with demons is that they are nearly identical to humans in every way, and the only sure way to identify them is through their spirit.
Cultivation of spirit is a rare thing, which means that I am sent on nearly every mission to verify whether there are truly demons or not. Sometimes they end up being spirit beasts, sometimes we find simple murderers. Sometimes we encounter demons.
Shia consumes killed demons and I find myself letting her, without telling the others.
I know she means me no harm, I can feel it from her spirit and her actions.
Still, I worry about what her objective is. She answers me in half-truths and I am forced to leave it at that.
Shortly after my fifteenth birthday, I reach the Eighth Level of Qi Awakening.
After that, my cultivation slows and Tai Qiu tells me that it is normal to have blocks at points in cultivation, and that part of the journey is overcoming those obstacles.
I take the opportunity to focus on spiritual cultivation, something that has clearly been important in our hunting of demons. My main use for spirit has been detection, but I turn my focus to bringing my spirit into me and making it part of me. This has strange effects that I find hard to define. Tai Qiu says that once I’ve fully made my spirit part of me, I can make temporary changes to it and myself, similar to what she did when she made her oath.
Over the next year, I focus on my spirit and learning the techniques from The Twelve Melodies of Wind that I have access to. It is the manual of Teng Zhu’s that I find easiest for me to learn, likely because of how easy it is to play with my flute.
Right before my sixteenth birthday, I break through into the Ninth Level of Qi Awakening in a fit of anger that nearly kills an inner disciple. She was harassing one of the servants I knew as an inner disciple, naturally I took offense. I didn’t mean to harm her like I did, but my qi breaking through to the next realm may have messed with my ability to forgive harlots. And their friends.
I may have made more than one disciple injured.
The sect isn’t happy with me, and has me confined to my Master’s home for my sixteenth birthday.
It is in my Master’s home, sitting on a table and staring out a window, that I see one of the outer disciples of the Demon Hunter pavilion running through the rain towards the house. I hum softly as I watch him, knowing that he probably brings news of another cult, or maybe a village has been slaughtered.
I get off of the table, grabbing my sword and placing it around my waist. I make sure my flute is secure in its pocket.
Then I wait.
I don’t have to wait long before a floating piece of paper enters my room, landing on the table in front of me.
Come Is all it says.
“Shia.” I call, and the snake, decidedly covered in more golden scales than it was two years ago, slithers out from under the bed.
She crawls up my leg and into my robes, knowing what this means as well as I do.
I look back at the note. She can send more than one-word notes. I’ve seen her do it before.
I turn away from the note and head to the main room of the house, where the outer disciple and Elder Tai Qiu stand over a table. Tai Qiu is reading a document, while the outer disciple looks at me in surprise before turning away with a slight blush.
I bow to Tai Qiu, “You called for me, Elder?” I ask in my sweetest voice.
She looks up from the document with a slight frown and I force myself not to smile.
Tai Qiu sighs, “I had not planned on letting you out from your punishment so soon, but it seems an urgent matter has come up.”
“What is it?” I ask, trying to get a better look at the parchment in her hands.
“A request from the Emperor.” All lightheartedness disappears from me as I focus. “He suspects that one of the princes is attempting to summon a demon and has asked for our help in investigating the matter.”
I frown as I try to remember my knowledge of the imperial court from five years ago. There are plenty of royal family members that come to mind who might attempt to do such a thing.
“Normally, I would go, but the sect can’t afford to have another Elder outside of the sect grounds until Elder Teng Zhu gets back. All the others who can sense demons are working their own missions” Tai Qiu looks me in the eyes. “You grew up with nobles, and I trust your ability to handle the intrigue. Master An Meng and Inner Disciple Jing Xia will accompany you to the capital.” I can’t help the smile that crosses my face at the news.
Self cultivation for half a year was my punishment, no friends, no hot springs, just meditating and cultivation. Tai Qiu would likely have lessened it, but it still wouldn’t have been cut this short.
Tai Qiu’s frown deepens at my smile. “Once you arrive, you will contact the Master and inner disciples already there, but your group will work separately from them. Listen to Master An Meng and… stay safe.” A hint of worry enters her tone and my smile disappears.
I bow deeply to Tai Qiu. “Always.”
“Follow Disciple Han to the others, they should be waiting for you already with the supplies.” She motions to the outer disciple, who blushes at my gaze.
They are already waiting? Then what was she reading when I walked in? I try to catch a glance of the document, but she keeps it out of my sight deftly.
“Right this way, Core Disciple Lin.”
I turn my attention to the disciple, who nervously leads me out of the house and into the rain.
I pause for a moment as I step outside, turning my face up to the sky. The rain on my face is cleansing. I close my eyes, enjoying the moment, before reopening them to follow the patiently waiting outer disciple.
He offers me his wax umbrella, and I gratefully accept.
Jing Xia and Master An Meng wait patiently under the sect gate as we approach. I haven’t seen much of Master An Meng since I first came to the sect. He is a wry elderly man, an instructor in weaponry, and has two hook swords at his waist. His weapons are unusual looking to say the least, with the way they curve back in at their ends.
I bow to the Master Swordsman, he bows back politely. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Disciple Lin. I have heard many stories.”
“The pleasure is mine. Your presence on this trip brings me peace of mind.” I reply, joining them under the gate.
“I am happy to help.” He responds.
I am about to respond when Jing Xia leaps onto me, squeezing me tightly. I’m still smaller than her, which means she squishes me into her quite easily. “We’re not at the capital yet! You can make time to say hi to your Sister Xia!”
“Hi Jing” I mumble into her shirt. I squeeze her back before breaking away. “Are we ready to go then?”
“We are.” Master An Meng responds.
They lead me to a small ship that floats in the air next to one of the waterfalls and I gaze upon it with excitement. We board and a team of cultivators work to get the vessel flying through the air.
A year ago, one of our sect’s artificers started producing flying ships for cultivators too low in cultivation to use their own flying devices. I’ve only gotten to ride in one once before with Tai Qiu, so I take advantage of the opportunity to explore the amazing artifact. The amount of wards and formations inscribed into the ship for protection is amazing in and of itself. Without the guaranteed presence of a cultivator in the Nascent Soul Realm, the ship needs to be able to defend its crew and passengers against an attacking cultivator or Spirit Beast.
We fly through the sky at a fast pace and after a day of examining the masterpiece of an artifact, I relax by talking with Jing Xia about what she’s been up to for the past year.
After what happened with the first demon and Doma’s men, Jing Xia was one of the inner disciples who volunteered to search for and map the portals in the empire. Our current count is 38, but we suspect that some of the other sects are hiding portals for their own reasons.
Jing Xia had pulled ahead in cultivation until my recent breakthrough, now matching me in the Ninth Level of Qi Awakening.
She tells me stories about rogue cultivators, sect conflicts and some of the strange methods of cultivation she came across. One man even cultivated by drinking alcohol, the stronger the drink, the more it helped his cultivation.
I tell her about some of the scarier demons I had seen, like the rotting corpse that sucked the life and cultivation out of people, leaving nothing but husks, or the demon that used its victims body parts to replace its own.
I tell her of these, but I know that the scariest of demons are actually the ones you can’t tell apart from humans.
On the evening of the second day, we finally catch sight of the capital city of the Chengshi Empire.
I hadn’t seen the city since I was a child, but it still held the same kind of magical atmosphere.
Lamps light up the entire city as it sits next to the ocean, showing life, revelry and the occasional fights of rogue cultivators. The architecture of the city is masterfully crafted thanks to the second Emperor who spent half the royal budget into building it into the city it is. It’s size dwarfs any of the other large cities I’ve been to.
Five years. I left the city five years ago, and now I’m returning to it.
I let a small smile appear on my face at the sight.
I wonder how Princess Da Shi is doing?