Since Shi Yue had done nothing but prepare for their coming travels while waiting for Mingtian to come with Nie, there wasn’t much left to do in the end.
Qiang Ren had come to have a meal with all of them - or rather, was carried there by Xie Yi - and was stuck in the entrance, staring down at… a thing. A living thing, probably.
Su Liang stared up as well. His blue eyes were fixated on Qiang Ren, whose blank expression hadn’t changed in the past couple minutes.
“What are you thinking?”, Xie Yi asked in passing, carrying some clothes he was planning to show to Shi Yue before deciding whether they were alright to wear in the other sect.
Qiang Ren’s lips pursed. “Is that alive?”
“It’s a he. And yes, he is. Didn’t I say I brought you here to be his playmate?”
“But… he looks like he will get hurt easily. And dirty.” Qiang Ren stared at the pure white feathers. He took the role of the playmate seriously, especially after Xie Yi had roughly told him what was expected of him, but he didn’t know what to do now that he saw the other. He didn't want to do anything wrong.
Xie Yi looked down at Su Liang, whose feathers were like lotus leaves keeping any dirt away, and whose body was sturdy enough to not have a scratch even if he fell somewhere. “I think it will be fine. Why don’t you introduce yourself?”
Qiang Ren looked blankly at Xie Yi, then back down. He thought of it as ridiculous, but… Xie Yi said he was the cub’s playmate, so he would be. “I… am Qiang Ren. Hello.”
He held his hand out and Su Liang stretched to place his own into it with a yip.
Xie Yi laughed at the awkward bonding session and continued packing up.
“Do you think those will be okay?”, he asked Shi Yue, holding up his crumpled clothes.
Shi Yue’s face distorted. Uncomfortable, he slowly took the robes out of Xie Yi’s hands, gave them a look and started folding them neatly. “They’re fine, but why are they in such a state? Didn’t the attendants fold them?”
“Oh, they did, but I took them out to take a look and then just carried them like that.”
Shi Yue internally shed a tear for the precious fabrics. “Say, don’t you feel bad for treating your clothes like that?”
“I mean, they’re clothes. In case they break or get too dirty, I could buy new ones. The ones from the more expensive materials are somewhat indestructible anyway.”
“I think when all of this is over, we should take a day and I’ll show you how much work goes into making these.” As someone who had seen the full process before, Shi Yue felt his heart ache at their bad treatment.
“Okay?” Confused, Xie Yi tilted his head. Anyway, as long as Shi Yue agreed that the clothes he chose were fine, he had done his task.
The Grandmaster handed the stack of clothes back to Xie Yi, who placed them into his storage ring. “When are we leaving?”
“The day after tomorrow, very early morning. Make sure to dress warmly, we will by flying up quite high to avoid people’s eyes. The Honourable Sect knows of our visit.”
Xie Yi nodded repeatedly.
As they had planned, everyone met up early - almost still during night - out in the courtyard.
Xu Yan was holding Qiang Ren’s hand. The boy tugged at Xie Yi’s sleeve and got a short hug before he relaxed and settled with the adult who had been very nice so far.
Master Chen exchanged a few words with Shi Yue, only once throwing a confused glance at the house that somehow felt different from usual.
“Do you want me to make sure no one enters the house?”, she asked the Grandmaster naturally. Although it was unlikely to happen, Shi Yue usually accepted her offer.
This time, though, he felt as safe as never before. Anyone entering his house in secret would surely check out the highly suspicious door to the underground, and he had a feeling that although Nie was not likely to care for someone walking around in the house invited, he wouldn’t tolerate being bothered.
“It’s fine”, he said with a smile. “Rather, please watch over the sect leader and Xiang Zhe.”
“He will be glued to me all day, I promise. I won’t let him out of sight.”
Everything settled, Xie Yi and Shi Yue joined Mingtian and Su Liang sitting on Xue Hua’s back.
Contrary to Xie Yi and Shi Yue - who were warmly clothed - the two beasts looked relaxed and Mingtian wasn’t wearing a single piece more than usual.
Xue Hua lifted himself off the ground and flew up without a sound. The temperature dropped considerably the higher they flew.
Over the clouds, Xie Yi coughed once. It wasn’t impossible to breathe, but it was a bit uncomfortable. He popped his ears and glanced at Su Liang at the same time as the other two adults.
The cub looked genuinely unconcerned by anything, and was napping on his father’s lap.
“Good thing we are all kind of ice-resistant”, Mingtian laughed before his eyes clouded over. He remembered Nie’s words and the fur of his mother.
It had a scent of freshly fallen snow. A Winter Wolf, he had said. His mother’s race.
He wondered how she had died, but he didn’t dare ask. Winter Wolves could not live if they did not follow the winter and left for the icy north when needed. They would wither like plants during a dry summer if they didn’t.
...But he also knew that they were breathtakingly beautiful, and humans loved their fur that would keep its sheen as long as the beast was killed.
He had a feeling that she had not left him behind willingly.
Xie Yi reacted to the change in his brother’s expression by crawling over the feathers to him and leaning on his shoulder. The beast, touched, wrapped an arm around him and shot a challenging glare at Shi Yue, who glared back.
Xue Hua had returned to his full strength by now and was displaying all of it. Even through the night he flew, allowing them to quickly reach the Honourable Sect.
They descended within the outer sect grounds, greeted by the sect leader and a few high-levelled teachers.
Shi Yue came down first, followed by Xie Yi. Mingtian hopped down and waited for Xua Hua to shift into his human form before standing behind Xie Yi like a dangerous and wary bodyguard.
“Grandmaster Li”, the other sect leader greeted with a bow that Shi Yue returned. “Welcome.”
“We apologize for our sudden visit, but the news we have are of more urgent nature”, Shi Yue grimly said. The Honourable Sect had been rather relieved to have the time they had spent waiting for Mingtian’s return, as suddenly having a grandmaster visit was quite the trouble.
“All of our Masters have returned. We are ready to listen any time. Do you wish to take a break first?”
“Do you need one?” Shi Yue turned to Xie Yi and looked once over his disciple. Since Xie Yi had a mess of a core right now, he could never quite tell how much stamina the other would have.
Xie Yi, whose control over his inner core layer was rising steadily and who was constantly filtering it out, gave a relaxed shake of his head. “I’m fine.”
“In that case, we would like to talk first.”
“Very well.” The sect leader nodded, then glanced at the three beasts behind the cultivators.
Mingtian placed his head on Xie Yi’s and spoke in a loving tone. “We will be out here, okay? I think Xiao Liang will like it better to be able to wander around a bit.”
“Sure thing.” Xie Yi felt Mingtian rub his chin over the youth’s head once before retreating.
Since Xie Yi was Shi Yue’s official succeeding disciple, everyone accepted him as a shadow following his master, even into the conference room.
Some looked slightly stunned at Xie Yi’s highly relaxed reaction towards the amassed power inside the room. After all, the youth was not supposed to have that high of a level yet that it shouldn't bother him.
One man especially glared at Xie Yi. The youth noticed the look and glanced over, returning it with indifference and memorizing the face that, for some reason, seemed highly hostile towards him.
The two cultivators sat down on their assigned seats. Xie Yi wasn’t allowed to truly join the table, so he sat with his chair placed slightly behind Shi Yue.
The door was closed. Everyone focused on the Grandmaster once the sect leader asked for him to start with a wave of his sleeve.
“There are two important matters that need to be discussed”, Shi Yue started slowly. He hadn’t given any details in his previous message, so everyone was tense about what he had to say. “One concerns the Zhu family, the other concerns a new weapon of the Demonic Sect. I have good news too, however.”
“Let’s start with the bad ones”, the sect leader said, his hands tensing into fists on the table. The room was quiet enough to hear the fall of a needle.