The Grandmaster felt bad seeing the overly exhausted disciple. He waved an attendant to come over and gave a quick order to help Sheng Mu return to his room. The teachers had to be notified that he wouldn’t be coming to the lessons for the next day.
Once that was taken care of, he returned to the sect leader’s room. The old man had just finished writing his list. “This should be for the best.”
“I don’t agree with you leaving, too, Master”, Shi Yue declared with furrowed brows.
“That’s your opinion and you can have it, but I still expect you to act as if there is no problem with me leaving in front of anyone else.” The sect leader spoke in an even voice. “If I’m correct, it is one of their elders that has appeared. Do you truly believe that I will miss this chance?”
“It reeks of a trap”, Shi Yue pushed out.
Sheng Mu’s message about there being a large-scale attack on villages and settlements of common people came as a regular version of a surprise.
It happened often enough for them to know how to deal with it but rarely enough that it still caused a lot of tension and unrest in their hearts. Sheng Mu, for whom the message was the most terrifying thing he had ever heard, had nearly collapsed while hurrying back.
Both his and the other group had heard the information from runaway farmers and the quickest of each had hurried back first to relay the message to their respective sect leaders.
“And because it might be a trap, you and I will be going. As will all of these people. This is a much more aggressive troop than we would usually take.”
“What about the sect?”
“The sect lived just as well whenever we were in seclusion at the same time. Everyone here is a cultivator, Shi Yue.” The sect leader reassuringly placed a hand on his disciple’s shoulder. “We will try to catch that old geezer. If we can’t, we still haven’t lost anything.”
“I understand. Are we dealing with this as usual?”
“Yes. Only the ones involved will be informed. No word about that man for now. Right now it’s only a precaution.”
Shi Yue bowed to show his compliance.
“Go and inform your partner and your disciple. I’ll call the teachers. If there are any problems, you know how to find me”, the sect leader said while standing up. He usually didn’t participate in fights anymore, but if the enemy was strong enough, he would come out to show that his strength hadn’t lowered in all those years.
The other Grandmaster followed him out with a lowered head.
He understood his sect leader’s reasoning and objectively, he agreed, but his stomach was queasy. He kept on feeling that leaving too might be a bad idea.
He looked out of the window. It was dark outside - another day had passed. He sighed and walked towards his home with quick steps.
Shi Yue stopped to visit his figurative grandchild before planning his absence. Since Xue Hua was sleeping, Ying Hua was playing babysitter and had taken the little one to a side room that was kept at rather low temperatures using arrays. The nest wasn’t finished yet.
Shi Yue entered quietly and peeked through the gap in the door before daring to push it open completely.
Ying Hua was sitting on the windowsill, her long clothes flowing down to the ground. Her eyes were half closed as she rubbed over Su Liang’s feathers.
The child was breathing deeply, ears twitching once in a while.
Shi Yue hesitated greatly.
“Go”, Ying Hua muttered softly. “It will do you no good to stay here out of worry.”
The man didn’t ask how she knew of the raid and that he was supposed to leave with the sect leader.
“Have you seen what will happen?” Shi Yue spoke in whispers, touching the white feathers on Su Liang’s back only with his fingertips. “I… I don’t want to make a mistake.”
“I know you’re worried. If you leave now, what if something bad happens? But what if something bad happens if you don’t leave?” She opened her eyes and looked at him. “It is impossible to guess which decision would be better or worse, even on hindsight. We don’t ever know the full scope of the effects our decisions will have.”
“It is my job”, Shi Yue painfully said. “This is my task. I have to make sure that the villages are safe, but… Xue Hua is so weak right now, and there’s Su Liang now, and Xie Yi-”
Ying Hua sighed softly. “Xue Hua is as much in danger here as he is on the battlefield. Su Liang, if simply hidden somewhere, will not be found by any intruder. As for Xie Yi, really? Is he someone you have to protect? Is someone, simply because they have made mistakes before and needed help, someone who needs to always be protected and sheltered?”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“Have you never made mistakes that almost took your life? Xie Yi is growing. Do you think that with his previous experiences and his strength, he always needs you around to be safe?”
Shi Yue fell quiet for a moment. Su Liang growled in his sleep and rolled around in Ying Hua’s arms, wriggling to find a new position.
Shi Yue tried to start talking several times before he managed to say something. “I don’t want him to get hurt.”
“You will make him wither. Pull out his teeth, cut his claws, tie him up - maybe he will be safe if you always watch over him, but he will wither away. If that is the result you want to see, then stay and don’t let him out of your sight. If it isn’t… Then let him fight and bleed. That is how he learns.”
She closed her eyes again, finishing the conversation.
“Decide what you’d rather have. The risk of him dying due to his mistakes… or you killing him slowly from the inside. Either way, goodnight now. I’ll be resting.”
Shi Yue’s fingers clenched into fists and relaxed.
He leaned forward to breathe a kiss onto Su Liang’s little paw, before placing one on Ying Hua’s head. “Rest well. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
He left on lighter steps.
As the door clicked close, Ying Hua felt herself smile a bit.
At his master’s summon, Xie Yi quickly appeared in his office despite the late hour. Shi Yue roughly motioned towards the seat before the table as he continued going through papers and Xie Yi sat down mutely.
A couple of minutes later, Shi Yue set it down and fixated Xie Yi’s eyes. “I know it’s hardly ideal timing, but I’ll be out on a mission in a few hours. It’s rushed, but there’s nothing that can be done.”
Xie Yi quickly asked for more information. “What happened?”
“A raid. The Demonic Sect is running through one village after the other, down south. Nothing new, in a sense, but they’re taking a large number of people prisoner and there’s no time to waste.” Shi Yue’s fingers never stopped moving as he switched over to a map to make sure he knew the path.
“Who is going? Can I help?” Xie Yi tensed.
“Xue Hua and Ying Hua will be staying here. The sect leader will be with me, as will be a good part of the higher-levelled teachers. There will be enough strong cultivators here to ensure the safety of the sect and that the lessons continue. You stay here.”
“Both you and the sect leader are going? Isn’t that too much?” Xie Yi frowned. “Are you leaving the sect without any administration?”
“There are reports about some old… acquaintances that are better to face with stronger people. And I believe you are underestimating the teachers working here? The sect nearly fully manages itself. There won’t be any problem with us gone for a week or two. I don’t like it, but this is a regular occurrence. It happens once or twice every couple of years.”
“I didn’t notice that before”, Xie Yi suspiciously asked and Shi Yue raised an eyebrow at him.
“Exactly. This sect has no problem governing itself. For most disciples, like for you back then, it is nothing but the usual occurrence of some cultivators being too busy to show up for a while.”
Admittedly, that was nothing weird. Many teachers rotated anyway and the Masters and Grandmasters here would often vanish for days to take care of various things. Even Xie Yi hadn’t thought of it as suspicious if Shi Yue wasn’t anywhere for a week or two, as long as he was distracted by other things.
“Is it going to stay at only a week or two? What if it extends?”
“It’s a raid, Xie Yi, not a war. Two weeks is a long estimate. Usually, the fighting won’t last longer than a day maximum. If they’re out for a brawl, it looks different - but they’re trying to run through as many villages as possible before us sects react.” Which was exactly why he’d leave the moment the other cultivators had their things together.
Every sect nearby would be sending some people to counter the raid and try to rescue the villagers.
Xie Yi fell silent. As disgruntled as he was about being refused to help, he believed that Shi Yue had his reasons.
“Help out Xiang Zhe while I’m not here, will you? Just in case he has problems with something out of the regular lessons”, Shi Yue sighed. He shared each and every of Xie Yi’s worries but wasn’t allowed to let it show on his face.
“I will, so don’t worry.”