3:3 – The First Lesson
In the middle of the night, where the only illumination came from the faint rays of moonlight from above, Xinxin slowly traversed the bamboo forest. In her right hand, she tightly gripped a bamboo stick.
Silence, save for the occasional breeze and the clattering bamboo trees, filled the air.
Xinxin’s heart raced, but she kept moving. Her eyes flitted about, searching for any signs of profound beasts that might be lurking in the darkness.
She had resolved herself to do her best to meet her Sifu’s expectations, but for her first lesson to survive until morning armed with only a stick… No. She shouldn’t doubt her Sifu. It might seem impossible, but surely there was a way out? That must be the lesson that Sifu was trying to tell her.
Again, silence and the occasional clatter of bamboo filled the air.
Xinxin resisted the urge to shudder, the noise sounding like the laughter of ghosts.
“Remember what Sifu said. Just cut down anything that shows up.” Xinxin muttered those words to calm her racing heart.
Suddenly, something shifted in front of her. A portion of the darkness moved and then revealed two yellow orbs floating in the air.
Xinxin tensed and slowly raised her bamboo stick.
A Shadow Panther slowly approached from between the bamboo trees. It was a low-rank profound beast. Weak, but more than a match for someone that had yet to reach foundation establishment.
Xinxin’s heart pounded in her chest. That was a profound beast! And all she had was a bamboo stick to fight it off. No techniques, no qi, no divine artifact… just an ordinary piece of bamboo her Sifu had broken off and placed in her hands.
The Shadow Panther charged. True to its name, the beast blended in with the darkness as it moved. Without even a sound of it pouncing, the Shadow Panther attacked, its paws outstretched and its maw wide open.
Xinxin froze from the instinctual fear from a beast of prey lunging at her. The bamboo stick in her hand was forgotten.
The Shadow Panther shoved Xinxin to the ground and tore out her throat.
Pain, shock, despair. Xinxin gasped and struggled beneath the beast. But her delicate body grew cold, blood slowly pooling out beneath her and dyeing her pale skin crimson.
Two yellow orbs stared deep into her eyes and then two rows of ivory teeth clamped around her face.
Xinxin gasped and clutched at her face and neck with her left hand. Cold sweat ran down her back, drenching her silk green robes.
She stood in the middle of the dark bamboo forest, the bamboo stick clenched firmly in her right hand.
A breeze blew through the forest, rattling the bamboo. The sound echoed like the laughter of restless spirits, cackling.
Xinxin shakily lowered her left hand. Was that… a nightmare? A hallucination? But the fear, the pain… it was so real.
“What’s wrong, girl? Cat got your tongue?” Her Sifu’s cold voice drifted through the silent forest and he appeared in front of her.
Perhaps because he had accepted her as a disciple, Xinxin’s Sifu had changed his clothes. Instead of the torn rags, he now wore a pure black robe and matching pants. On any other person, they would have appeared regal. Yet, with the man’s messy hair and pale skin, he looked more like a corpse risen from the dead.
Guilao smirked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“S-Sifu. Did… I just die?”
“Of course not. If you did, you wouldn’t be talking with me right now.”
Xinxin remembered the feeling of those teeth on her face and shivered. “B-but…”
“Hmph. Where did that fearless girl just a few moments ago disappear to? Or was that just an act to try and fool me?” Guilao narrowed his eyes. “Because if it was… your story ends here.”
Xinxin shook her head. “No, Sifu. It… it was nothing.”
Right. Nothing. The feeling of those claws tearing into her throat. The sensation of her face being torn apart.
It was just a hallucination. A vivid delusion from being in the dark.
…Xinxin just had to keep believing that.
“Good.” Guilao nodded. “Then this is your first lesson: explore the forest and survive until morning. If anything shows up, just cut it down. Understand?”
Xinxin thought it was strange. Didn’t Sifu just tell her that a few minutes ago? Or had she imagined the talk in the first place?
Her Sifu was staring at her. He frowned and tapped a finger on his leg impatiently.
Xinxin nodded. “Yes, Sifu. I understand.”
Guilao vanished, and then Xinxin was alone.
Xinxin felt an odd sense of incongruity, but she shook her head. “It must be the night. I’m just not used to being out alone by myself.”
She took a deep breath to calm herself and then cautiously traversed through the bamboo forest. The trail she followed was familiar, and her steps were like tracing an old memory.
Silence, along with the occasional clattering of bamboo filled the air.
Xinxin paused and then carefully observed the area in front of her.
Something was standing there, crouched in the darkness. Slowly, it turned towards her and revealed two glowing yellow eyes.
That piece of darkness moved, leisurely ambling towards her. A Shadow Panther.
Xinxin remembered what happened, the feeling of her neck being torn out, her face being ripped apart.
The Shadow Panther lunged.
Xinxin’s body moved on its own and she lashed out with the bamboo stick.
The beast yelped and moved to the side. It quickly got up, however, and then growled. The silent beast of prey had tossed aside its usual approach and glared at the one that attacked it.
Xinxin’s heart pounded and she glanced at her right hand, still holding out the bamboo stick. That hadn’t been a conscious action. Instead, when she thought of how she would experience that pain and agony again, her body had moved on its own.
Could that be what Sifu was trying to-
The Shadow Panther roared, causing violet light to surge around it, and then lunged towards Xinxin.
She felt an impact on her chest and searing pain.
This time, instead of two rows of teeth, a paw with razor sharp claws filled her vision.
Xinxin gasped and swung her bamboo stick.
Something grabbed it.
Panic gripped her heart and Xinxin pulled with all her might, trying to get it free.
“Careful girl. You’ll take an eye out doing that.”
Xinxin blinked and slowly regained awareness of her surroundings.
The dark bamboo forest. Her Sifu standing nearby, his eyes narrowed in irritation.
Xinxin slowly turned her head and looked around.
A dark bamboo forest. Not far from them, the remains of their campground, the embers of the fire still smoldering.
“What, girl? Cat got your tongue?”
Guilao stood directly before her. His left hand was wrapped around the other end of Xinxin’s bamboo stick, keeping her from moving it.
“I… I think that I might need some sleep, Sifu.”
Xinxin let go of her bamboo stick and took a step back. “I’m… not feeling too well.”
She felt dizzy. Nauseous. The sensation of her skin being ripped apart, her face being shredded-
Xinxin paled and quickly ran to the side before bending over to vomit. She didn’t care for her Sifu’s thoughts or for how she looked. The pain, the agony… the horrific memory of falling prey to the Shadow Panther kept resurfacing and caused her to vomit out the fish she had eaten earlier.
A sigh sounded in the silent forest. Xinxin’s Sifu shook his head and said, “This was a failure.”
Xinxin wiped her mouth and muttered, “I’m sorry, Sifu.”
“Come over here, girl.”
Xinxin nodded and walked towards Sifu Guilao, coming to a stop a few steps away from him.
Her cold Sifu showed a flicker of an unreadable emotion and he said, “Hold out your hands.”
She did. Her mind was too tired to do anything other than obey his commands.
Sifu placed the bamboo stick back into her hands and closed them. After that, he looked Xinxin in the eyes and said, “Get over it.”
Before Xinxin could question it, Sifu was gone and she was alone.
Something shifted in the darkness. Two yellow eyes hung ominously in mid-air.
Xinxin’s breath caught in her chest. Her heart pounded and she took a step back.
The Shadow Panther lunged.
A surge of panic. Her body moved on its own and she lashed out with the bamboo stick.
The beast yelped and moved to the side. It quickly got back up and growled. Violet light began gathering around it.
Nausea welled up inside Xinxin and her vision spun.
The Shadow Panther charged.
Xinxin’s body swayed.
The Shadow Panther missed. But it was still moving. It wouldn’t take long before it would come back around for another attack.
Xinxin could already feel the pain of its attack. Feel the blood leaving her body. Feel the sickening sensation of her skull being torn open.
Her stomach twisted and her body moved. Before the beast made another attack, before her body was torn apart, Xinxin dashed forward. Wrapping the bamboo stick tight in both her hands, she lashed out at the panther’s skull.
It flinched from the sudden blow and shook its head, stunned.
Xinxin swung the stick again.
The sound of bamboo striking flesh echoed over and over in the dark forest. Despite the force put behind each strike, the bamboo stick never broke, the fresh sprout bending but never shattering.
Xinxin’s vision blurred and she was standing in front of Sifu back at their campsite, the fire still roaring.
He stared at her, smirking. “So. How does it feel to get over the memory of death?”
Xinxin stared back, her crimson lips slowly opening for an answer… and then she vomited on Guilao’s pants.