Xue Hua rarely took on a human form. There were only three cases for it happening.
Number one; Shi Yue asking for it.
Number two; a danger that would be easier to overwhelm in human form.
Number three, when he was in a bad mood.
The third option was the most likely. Especially considering that Xue Hua had put up his hair with the bellflower pin that he rarely took out and treasured as much as his life.
Bells had a weird connection to a number of things on their continent. So many stories seemed to include them; some just myths, some the truth.
The bellflower especially was complicated. In the end, it wasn’t suitable as a hairpin and was immensely precious, even so much that Shi Yue was certain it was just a replica.
Still, Xue Hua wore the pin - despite the feathery structure of his hair being terribly unsuited for hairstyles.
Seeing his partner’s eyes fixed on the dangling bells, Xue Hua quickly leaned back and awkwardly turned away. “I am not thinking of anything in particular.”
“Nothing that is troubling you? I guess you just randomly felt like wearing that pin”, Shi Yue teased. Xue Hua kept his mouth sown shut about the origin of the pin. If you tried asking, he would evade the topic or even go so far as to run away.
“Yes”, the spiritual beast answered, a haughty expression on his face.
Shi Yue merely smiled and began to hum. After the first few notes, Xue Hua’s face turned rather blue, which was his version of blushing. He pulled the pin out of his hair and stuck it into his robes with an angry huff. Shi Yue laughed lightly.
The melody was part of song that told the story of a man offering a bellflower to someone else in a very roundabout way.
The bellflower fruit was a terrible thing, actually. Its story was dark. Who knew who had started it first, but the flower itself had, at some point of time, gained another meaning in the human realm:
Exchange one soul for another. A vow… no, an oath before the heavens to give your life for another and own their life in return. It was a possessive promise of everlasting love.
...Alas, there was no one around Xue Hua so something must have happened. It was only because he knew that much that Shi Yue never pressed the issue of finding out who his spiritual beats had been with before they knew each other.
He couldn’t help but tease the bird, however. He was so easy to tease.
Xue Hua fidgeted in the seat and opted to continue eating with a lowered gaze.
“I will go and hit them with you”, Shi Yue offered smilingly. Xue Hua raised his gaze and blinked slowly before looking away.
“I don’t know who you are talking about.”
Spiritual beasts that had reached a level of self-awareness could obviously choose their partner by themselves, but Xue Hua was Shi Yue’s family. He didn’t want his Lao Hua1"Big Blossom" to suffer from a bad spouse.
...At least they were serious enough to give such a pin. Anyone who wasn’t an idiot wouldn’t go against higher powers, even if the pin was fake.
“What is the story of that pin?”, another voice asked.
Neither man was surprised to see another addition to their table. The proud little girl climbed unto the chair and crossed her legs, leaning back gracefully and mustering Xue Hua with an aura of pride that even surpassed his.
“Hmm, so you aren’t aware?”, Xue Hua humpfed, turning his nose away from her. “Well, that kind of story isn’t for children.”
“Xiao Hua2"Little Blossom", are you curious?”, Shi Yue asked, ignoring his spiritual beast and watching the girl who had blown her cheeks into a pout like an angry hamster.
She turned away from him as well, acting as if she didn’t want to know, but then glancing over after all. “...So?”
Shi Yue chuckled and took a sip from his cup because summarizing.
“The bell is called a bellflower. Bellflower Trees grow during a certain summoning ritual. They-”
“What, are they flowers or trees?”, Ying Hua demanded to know, her small nose wrinkling in confusion.
“They look like flowers when you plant them, but they grow into trees that bear blossoms that look like bells, which later turn into fruits. It’s rather unnatural, thus the weird name.”
Ying Hua muttered something, tugging at her clothes before impatiently looking up again. Shi Yue continued with a resigned smile.
“Anyway, it’s a ritual. You need the stem of a special flower and plant it into a quiet place, then tie small bells around it so that it looks a bit like snowdrops. Afterwards, you have to perform a prayer and draw the summoning circle. Lastly, you offer a bloody handprint of all those that give their souls as collateral.”
He paused. “The ritual is very dangerous. It summons slumbering deities that will perform a task for every collateral they are offered. If the deity is called correctly, the ‘flower’ grows into a ‘tree’ overnight.”
“That sounds too convenient”, Ying Hua chimed in, suspicious.
Shi Yue nodded calmly. “Of course it is. The deity demands two rewards for each task. One soul and one bellflower fruit, or two souls. The soul can be the collateral or the soul of any person tasked to kill, but the fruit is different. It’s a reward from the Judges of Hell.”
Ying Hua and Xue Hua shuddered at the same time. Shi Yue finished his explanation anyway.
“Basically, the deity will hang up the soul of whatever it has caught next to one of the tree's bell-like blossoms. Every full moon, those souls are judged, and if the judges agree that the acquisition follows the karma of that person, then they turn the flower into a fruit that people call the bellflower fruit. The deities love those, according to the stories. So, in case the dead person isn't judged as suitable for hell, the deity will take the collateral soul as punishment, and if the task doesn't involve killing at all, then the souls will be taken, too. It's a ritual that works best if you plan to kill a bad person. ”
“It’s just a dangerous, old ritual. It shouldn’t be touched”, Shi Yue warned with a dark gaze. Ying Hua stuck out her tonguee.
“Not interested. And it isn’t romantic, either. Boring.”
Xue Hua twitched again, glaring over. “As if a little brat like you understands. You only heard the short version, anyway. And that ritual isn't even why people give those pins.”
“I am not a brat!”, Ying Hua angrily declared.
The romantic story was actually about a man falling for a deity after seeing his cousin summon her. In his blind love, he called her over and over again, giving her the task of killing people he knew were criminals so that she could eat the fruit she loved so much. When he didn't know who to offer anymore, he went out to destroy a temple and then hid in the flowers. He summoned the deity again, and explained:
He was a criminal. He wouldn't task her to kill anyone, so after the task was over, she could take his soul and let it become the fruit, as destroying a temple would certainly let him be judged as a bad person. The deity was stunned and then asked what task would be so important that he would willingly give up his life.
The man answered that he wished for the deity to stay by his side for as long as his body could hold out. If he could have his soul taken by her hands, then he would be happy.
Surprisingly, the deity agreed and the two lived as a couple for the rest of the human's life. He had exchanged his own soul for her to be with him, and she had given up years of her power to live as a human only for his soul. It was a twisted kind of romance, but humans liked those stories.
Shi Yue continued drinking his water, watching the children bicker away.
Ah, Lao Hua was probably as old as he was.
He still behaved like a child.
Time might have passed slowly for the other children who were fighting with the strain of learning, but it went by fast for Xie Yi who knew a lot of the lessons already. The times that dragged the most were the physical training.
Shi Yue had talked to Master Chen, who had agreed to give him supplements. They tasted disgusting, but he could feel his body regaining the growth it had missed in the first years of his life.
Two weeks couldn’t do too much, but it was enough to help make the training a bit easier. He did have the determination to persevere, after all - a few straining and complaining muscles were nothing against the pain he was used to.
Sadly, he couldn’t understand how his behaviour was attracting envy. Not even an official disciple yet and he was already being given supplements, he was being praised all of the time, and he had private lessons with a Grandmaster.
He should have expected that some people wouldn’t take it well, but he simply hadn’t cared to notice.
When the teachers for physical training stepped out, they came to continue the lesson. Primary disciples of higher rank could take over single lessons, but it always spelt trouble for the younger ones.
There he was again, that goddamned cultivator that had tried to keep him away from Shi Yue.
The dislike was mutual. When their eyes met, both began to glower at each other, although the older cultivator appeared to think of it below his status to continue the staring and instead coldly humpfed. With a wicked grin, he looked over the children.
“Alright. Everyone, I’m Yao Ming, and for today, I’ll be leading this lesson. Let’s see you run a few laps around the sect for a warm-up”, he said while clapping his hands. Behind him, his followers chuckled and crossed their arms, curious to see what would happen.
Running laps around the sect was a valid form of training, certainly. But that was for actual cultivators. Normal humans like them, who just scratched the surface, would maybe manage two - not several. And as actual training, not a warm-up. Even less if it was just children.
The richer, arrogant kids already blanched at his words. “Senior Yao Ming, isn’t that a bit much-”, they started, only to suddenly feel that they couldn’t talk anymore.
Xie Yi’s eyes lowered farther when he saw the cultivator use his power to shut them up. It looked like that guy wasn’t planning on letting them off easily. Annoying.
Yao Ming continued showing that darned smirk. He would have been quite handsome, even though his looks weren’t overly exquisite, but that glint in his eyes really destroyed his looks. The dark gaze moved over to Xie Yi and fixated him.
“Even if you lot have trouble completing the task, you shouldn’t, right? After all, you have enough talent to attract Master Li’s eyes”, he said, his voice falling to an annoyed hiss towards the end.
“Oh shit”, Xu Yan whispered. “Don’t tell me he’s pissed because of that?”
“He didn’t want to let me become a disciple. Shi Yue was the one who disagreed with him”, Xie Yi whispered back, straightening as he looked at Yao Ming. Louder, he said: “No problem.”
Yao Ming scoffed and turned away. “Run, then. And don’t even think about stopping before you’ve finished five laps.”
Under the watchful eyes of the higher disciples, the children hesitantly began to move. In their heads, they just had to get through it until the teachers came back.
Xie Yi didn’t believe in it. If those guys dared to play tricks, then the teachers wouldn’t be coming today. Well, he had other ways of doing it.