A pair of gentle hands caught him, setting him down to the ground in one fluid, painless motion. Gasps were drawn from the crowd and Xie Yi could watch the guard flinch. All cultivators were quickly bowing. Everyone had turned suspiciously quiet, but the person still keeping their hands on Xie Yi, steadying him, slowly receded.
“Grandmaster”, they echoed together, their eyes showing their reverence of the cultivator who had caught Xie Yi. Some showed fear or fascination, which wasn't too surprising considering his level.
Stunned, the boy took his chance to cling to the man’s clothes. No common cultivator could just randomly refuse a Grandmaster, so the one who had caught him was his best bet. Grandmasters were peculiar people and not always easy to understand, but if the Grandmaster was the one doing the examination, he had no doubt that the result would be different.
“I-”, he stammered, still in shock from flying through the air. “I want an actual test!”
His voice was a bit unsteady, making him sound much more childish than usual. The robes in his hand were made of soft silk, looking incredibly expensive, and already staining slightly just from him touching them. He wasn't dirty, but not exceptionally clean either and the material was sensitive. Realizing that this might have just given the Grandmaster a reason for anger, Xie Yi twitched.
He turned his head up, then froze.
Violet eyes, a colour he would never forget, so serene you could hardly believe they belonged to a human. Chiselled features, incredibly handsome but still finely drawn, framed by soft silvery-white hair, partially put up by a crown.
Xie Yi gaped, his red eyes shining.
Found you, I have found you.
Shi Yue’s eyes widened a bit as he looked down at the child clutching his robes, then he blinked, and finally, it hit Xie Yi.
Why people had looked at him weirdly at first. Why Feng Yan had twitched back then. Why the cultivator had pushed him away so easily and why the guard had said that someone like him wouldn’t be taken.
Crimson eyes, like blood. Like a demon beast’s. Even if he knew it was simply a genetic mutation just like violet eyes were, people were superstitious. He had heard them talk about it in his last life; that his eyes were the colour of blood because he was a violent monster. He hadn't cared, so the fact had slipped his mind, but even in this life, people would probably be the same - even towards a little child.
In a panic, Xie Yi lowered his head and dragged his black fringe over his eyes.
“I have an average core”, he quickly said, “but I will work harder than anyone else! I won’t shame you! I-... Don’t reject me just because of my eyes! I will dig them out if that’s better!”
Yes, just like his heart. It couldn’t be more painful than that, he thought, hurriedly reaching out for his face. Even if he couldn’t see Shi Yue, that was just a small punishment for what he had done. If his eyes were the only thing standing in his way to changing his life, then they were a tiny price that he was very willing to pay.
A much larger pair of white hands wrapped around his, stopping him. Xie Yi watched in fascination. Long, slender fingers with slightly rough skin, showing the familiar calluses of someone using a sword. There were more than he himself had had his last life, probably because some of them were from other works.
Shi Yue’s voice, like a melody on the wind, calming and authoritative, sounded in his ears. It felt ticklish and warm, to hear him sound so gentle for once, directed at Xie Yi.
“Eyes the colour of the sunset, why would you dig them out? Don’t be stupid”, he said as he looked over the red eyes speckled with orange tints. “May I check your core?”
Xie Yi couldn’t nod faster. As expected of Shi Yue, even towards a little child he wouldn't just skip the formality of asking for permission. At his careful inquiry, the crowd began to murmur.
The threads that went through his body were much slower and colder than the ones before, slowly working themselves through every inch of his body. It was icy to the point of being painful, as if they were going to numb everything in their path and then tear their way onwards. Shi Yue watched Xie Yi closely, his eyes fixed unto the little one's body. Xie Yi shuddered in delight at the connection, wanting nothing but to keep the feeling.
His core reacted out of habit, gripping pieces of the spiritual energy and keeping them in place. While this was a good reaction to an invader - as it would protect the core - it was certainly very rude when the other party was peaceful. Flustered, Xie Yi released the threads.
They halted for a bit, then pulled backwards and out of his body. Wherever they had passed through, his body woke up with tingles, just like a fallen asleep limb.
Shi Yue clicked his tongue in thought and straightened himself, letting go of Xie Yi's hands. His long sleeves covered his hands again, much to Xie Yi's chagrin - he would have continued staring at their every move.
“Now then, which of you said that he can’t become a cultivator?”, Shi Yue suddenly asked the group of nervous youths, letting his gaze wander over them. One of them jolted, then lowered his head uncomfortably and stepped forward.
“That, it was, me, Master Li…”
“For what reasons?”
The young man took in an unsteady breath, straightened his back and explained. With every word, he appeared more confident, his brows continuously furrowing deeper. It was obvious to see that he didn’t think his decision was wrong. “The boy is too small for his age and his body is weak, which will make it harder for him to keep up with the others. His core is average but slightly damaged at the corners. It’s unlikely that he could go any farther than the first two levels. I don't think it makes sense to take him along when we could use the resources for the other children.”
The cultivator wasn't that old, barely more than a teenager himself from his appearance, but it seemed he viewed himself as above others his age due to his status as a cultivator. It wasn't a nice thing, but quite common.
Shi Yue nodded, freezing Xie Yi. The boy felt he couldn’t breathe. Anyone, anyone could say whatever they wanted about him, just not-
“Unlikely is indeed correct. But I’d say that a boy about ten years of age, able to accept my spiritual energy without the slightest bit of rejection and even welcoming it, certainly has enough will to force himself past any boundaries.”
He looked down at Xie Yi and brushed his fringe away, revealing the red eyes and examining them. “So, we will take him along and find a suitable teacher for him."
“No!”, Xie Yi shouted before he could stop himself. He heard Feng Yan groan in the suddenly very quiet crowd.
“No?”, Shi Yue inquired with a slightly raised eyebrow.
Xie Yi held back from gripping the white robe in fear of dirtying it any more. White and blue and golden, that had always been Shi Yue’s favourite colours. Every stain was visible on them.
“I want to be your disciple”, Xie Yi whined, unable to keep his voice from taking on a tone of begging and regretted it instantly. Too much?
To his surprise, Shi Yue was incredibly patient. “Alright then. If you can fulfill my expectations, you can learn under me. If you can’t, then you mustn’t disobey if I find you another teacher.”
Xie Yi was in the clouds. He could be Shi Yue’s disciple!! Shi Yue’s!! He could be around him all the time!! (He conveniently ignored that there was a condition attached to that happening.)
Shi Yue looked into the crowd, scanning them until Feng Yan appeared and then quietly exchanging some words with the burly man who looked quite awkward and nervous. Only after Feng Yan had bowed did Shi Yue turn around and walk towards where some older cultivators were gathering, leaving Xie Yi behind.
Still stunned, Xie Yi allowed Feng Yan to take him off the stage and be taken to another area where one of the sect's attendants would take care of everything to prepare him for being taken into the sect.
Shi Yue stared after the boy from where he stood, then, with a wave of his sleeve, turned away. The cultivator who had rejected Xie Yi stood on the stage, gnashing his teeth at the sight of it.
The Grandmaster reached for his weapon on his hip, drawing it and letting it hover slightly above the ground before stepping unto it. With a quiet hum, it ascended straight upwards under the crowd's fascinated gaze.
The Grandmaster left for the clouds, where the sect’s old leader was watching the examinations from far above while stroking his beard.
“Sect leader”, Shi Yue greeted with a small bow.
“No need for courtesies”, the sect leader muttered almost subconsciously. Shi Yue was going to be his successor; he didn’t feel that he owed him any bow, any he was never one to truly follow the strict relationships between master and disciple.
With dark golden eyes, which were the usual colour a Master or higher would take on, the old cultivator glanced over the young Shi Yue.
A talented man - far more talented than anyone he knew. He was old for a human but young for a cultivator and yet already a Grandmaster, while still keeping a serene and honest heart. Not overbearing, just noble, his back always held straight as he stared into the future.
The sect leader really, really liked his disciple. He didn’t want him to make any mistakes.
“Why did you agree to what that boy demanded?”, he asked slowly. Shi Yue knew that he didn’t want to hear any official explanation, but he started with it, anyway.
“He is determined enough to rip his eyes out if that would allow him into the sect”, he started, “which is far more determination than most people have and certainly enough to help him go forward in his studies. He didn’t flinch at my power. His core might be average, but that doesn’t say anything about his talent.”
He hesitated for a while after finishing. The sect leader waited calmly until Shi Yue gave the real reasons.
“When I examined his core, he reached out for me. That’s not something an untrained child should be able to do. If it’s instinctual, then his instinct is frightening, and if he was taught, then his talent isn’t any less to talk about.”
“Interesting”, the sect leader whispered as he cocked an eyebrow at Shi Yue. The cultivator stayed stubbornly silent, refusing to give the last reason and the sect leader didn’t push him.
Besides, Shi Yue didn’t know what to make out of the intention behind that moment. Their spiritual energy always carried the intention and feelings of their owner along, which was why attacks spurred out of anger were more painful than heartless ones. Experienced cultivators could even filter out the exact intent and determine what it was, not just whether it was positive, negative or neutral. When the little one reached out to him, it was so full of desire to stay beside him, he didn’t have the heart to say no.
Also, he was curious as to what would have such a young child keep such devotion towards him in his heart. Added to what he had said before, he felt that it would be a shame to let the boy go. In any case, if he wasn't up to par, he could always send the boy to another teacher or even have him work as an attendant rather than a cultivator.
“I’ll be looking forward to his growth”, the sect leader said and Shi Yue quietly agreed.
In the pavilion beside the stage, Feng Yan was pulling at Xie Yi’s cheeks.
“Stupid, mindless, ignorant, suicidal brat!”, he cursed through gritted teeth. It would have been more threatening if the words weren't full of worry. “Going against the guard! Speaking rudely to a Grandmaster! Trying to dig your eyes out! Demanding things from the cultivators! Were you trying to get yourself killed!”
Xie Yi freed himself from the iron grip, his cheeks aching. Innocently, he blinked up at Feng Yan, not sure why the man was mad. “But it turned out alright.”
“You could have died!”
“But I needed to become his disciple.”
Not want, need. Can’t live without him. Missing the chance, that would have been too painful.