3:9 – Premonition
Within the Zhan Clan manor, Zhan Long sat behind a desk in his office. Before him, a young woman knelt to the ground.
“I’m sorry, Master, but I lost sight of Lady Xinxin.”
Zhan Long sighed and waved his hand. “That’s fine, Xiaomei. I thought something like that might happen.”
Xiaomei raised her head. “Not that I want to doubt you, Master… but what of the Wang Clan? Won’t they be concerned about Lady Xinxin being along with another young male?”
Zhan Long was silent and then said, “It’s possible. But the main cause for the marriage was to protect Xinxin. If that Sifu of hers can do the job, it doesn’t matter.”
“Can we trust him?”
“Trust…” Zhan Long frowned and stood up, turning his back to Xiaomei. He stared out of the window located there and said, “Yes, it is a gamble to trust that mysterious stranger with Xinxin’s life. His cultivation is profound, far beyond my own and perhaps even that of the Wang Patriarch.”
Xiaomei gasped. “That powerful?”
“Yes. If he wanted to harm Xinxin, I doubt anyone could be able to stop him. And yet… he hasn’t. If anything, it seems that Senior is willing to faithfully act as Xinxin’s Sifu.”
“But how can we be sure that he isn’t a part of the group that took Mistress?”
“His power, while unfathomable, isn’t as domineering as those people.”
“How are the preparations going?”
Xiaomei sighed. “…We should be done within the week.”
“One week.” Zhan Long muttered and stared at the Jade Mountain through the window. “Guilao. Even if you truly are a foreign devil or a ghost man, I hope that you have the strength to protect my daughter for what comes next.”
At a valley far to the south of the Zhan Clan Grounds, Guilao finally came to a stop. When he did, he let go of Xinxin. The sudden act caused her to fly through the air, but she managed to land safely on the ground.
Xinxin wobbled for a bit and tried to get her bearings. When she did, she glared at Guilao and said, “Sifu! You could have warned me before dragging me along like that!”
“Hmph. Nothing happened, did it?”
“You…!” Xinxin sighed. “Never mind. I should have known better.” The young beauty took a look around. “Where are we, Sifu?”
They were surrounded by towering mountains on both sides. Despite that, the nearby area was picturesque, like a scene from a painting. Woods in the distance, rivers and streams… all-in-all, it was strangely peaceful.
“I found this valley yesterday night when looking for a good place to train you. There was an obnoxious bird that tried to kill me when I arrived, but I taught that dumb bird a lesson already.”
Xinxin froze. “Valley…? This place…” She took a look around. “You brought me to the Valley of the Vermillion Bird? No, you taught it a lesson?!”
Guilao shrugged and started walking deeper into the valley.
Xinxin ran after Guilao. “Sifu! You can’t act so recklessly towards one of the four great guardians!”
He scoffed. “You worry too much, girl. What are you, my mother?”
“No, but even if you’re an immortal from the higher realms it’s dangerous to offend the guardian deities! Aren’t you afraid of heavenly tribulation?”
“Hah. What heavenly tribulation? If something like that existed, I would have been struck out of this world long ago.”
Xinxin came to a stop.
After walking for a bit, Guilao realized that Xinxin wasn’t following and turned around. “What is it, girl?”
Xinxin frowned. “You haven’t sufferend heavenly tribulation, Sifu?”
“Of course not. I’m not afraid of some bad luck.”
“But Sifu,” Xinxin said. “You’re beyond the Core Formation stage, aren’t you?”
“Why does that matter? I’m powerful. That’s all you need to know.”
“But Sifu… Heavenly Tribulation isn’t a superstition. It’s a requirement to advance to the next major realm of cultivation.”
Xinxin stared at her Sifu. From his blank look, it seemed that he didn’t know what she was talking about. After a few moments, she said, “Sifu. Have you really never suffered Heavenly Tribulation?”
Guilao didn’t respond.
“Sifu. Are you from another-“
Guilao charged at Xinxin. Before she could respond, Xinxin felt a pain in her abdomen and was sent flying through the air. The world spun around her and then she landed with a thud.
Xinxin gasped and her vision blacked out. When it returned, she was greeted with the sight of her Sifu standing over her.
When he saw that she was awake, he dropped something in front of her eyes. It was the bamboo stick that he gave her before.
“Get up, girl.”
Xinxin considered ignoring her Sifu, but then she remembered his personality and forced herself to get up. As she did, she felt a breeze and reflexively grabbed the bamboo stick. She swung it in the air. At that time, her arm shuddered as a heavy force struck the bamboo stick and sent her staggering backwards.
Guilao watched Xinxin get up.
She slowly raised her weapon. For some reason, her body didn’t hurt. Even so, she felt rattled from the last attack.
“For the next week,” Guilao said. “You will undergo hellish training. Teaching you normally will take too long, so I’ll have you memorize it with your body.”
“S-Sifu. I don’t think this is-“
Time passed in a blur of pain and unconsciousness for Xinxin. Her Sifu barely gave her a chance to rest and brought her to the edge of death over and over again as she was forced to defend herself against all sorts of attacks.
She was convinced. Her Sifu was an immortal from the upper realms. He was tireless, never suffered Heavenly Tribulation, and the entire time they were in the Vermilion Bird’s domain, not a single profound beast dared to draw near.
Xinxin panted, bent over and trying to catch her breath.
“Tired already?” Guilao asked.
“Just give me… a moment…”
Guilao sighed and then tossed a package at Xinxin’s feet. “Spare clothes,” he said. “Go take a bath in the stream and relax. I’ll wait here for you to get back.”
Xinxin grabbed the package and started heading off before her Sifu had a chance to change his mind.
“Stupid Sifu,” Xinxin muttered. “Not holding back even against a girl…”
Most people would hesitate to attack her. But no , not her Sifu.
Xinxin grimaced as she remembered that exchange.
“Your appearance will be your greatest weapon. Most will not expect a dainty girl like you to be powerful and even the most vile of demons will hesitate to harm you. In that gap, you can immediately cut them down.”
“…Then why does Sifu not hesitate?”
“I’m a nobody. Do you think I have the capacity to care?”
“You’re still teaching me even though you could have left.”
Xinxin shook her head. In her recollection, she had managed to reach a secluded stream within the woods.
After taking off her clothes and slipping into the stream, Xinxin let out a relieved sigh. It was nice to rest her body in the cool stream as well as to wash herself.
Since it felt so pleasant, Xinxin leaned back in the stream and let it wash her worries and fatigue away. She closed her eyes and started to drift off… but the thought of why she was training so hard drew her back.
She wondered what her father would think about her suddenly disappearing with her Sifu. Would he be upset? Was he under pressure by the clan? By the Wang Clan? And what about Xiaomei? Was she being threatened? Punished?
Xinxin sighed and opened her eyes. The moment she did-
Xinxin spun around and covered her chest. “Sifu! Don’t do that!”
Guilao leaned against a tree nearby, pointedly looking away. “You should be more aware. Just because you haven’t met any profound beasts doesn’t mean there aren’t any here.”
“Hmph!” Xinxin scoffed and reached over to the package her Sifu had tossed her before her break started. She pulled out a towel and began drying her hair. “…I’m not worried about my father. I just don’t think the Zhan Clan will sit back and just let you keep me out here.”
“Don’t worry about it, girl. The most that will happen is that I get the reputation of a mysterious senior and your father will say that you’ve gone into closed-door cultivation.”
Xinxin frowned. “How do you know that?”
“Eh? But Sifu, I don’t have any clothes or my weapon.”
Sifu’s response was to charge towards her with his eyes closed.
“Dammit, Sifu!” Xinxin jumped out of the stream and swung her right arm towards Guilao, reinforcing it with qi. At the same time, she covered her chest with her left arm and said, “You’re being too shameless!”
Guilao blocked the attack and then stepped in with a roundhouse kick. “People will be even more shameless towards you in the future!”
“Gah! Dammit, Sifu!”
“Less talking, more fighting!”
After a long and arduous day, the sun had set and was replaced by a white, glassy moon.
Xinxin was lying down by a campfire to rest for the night. She had changed into the clothes her Sifu had given her, a black lacy dress hand-crafted for her, and was using a mat and blanket her Sifu had also given her to sleep.
It was strangely nostalgic. Despite having only been a few days since she met her Sifu, it felt like she had already spent an entire lifetime with her Sifu. Probably because she was beginning to lose sense of time with the intensive training he put her through.
Xinxin tossed in her sleep, trying to rest, but she found herself unable to. Even though her body was tired, her mind raced and kept her awake. Since she couldn’t sleep even if she closed her eyes, Xinxin stared off into the distance.
Her Sifu sat a fair distance away from her and the campfire. The moonlight shone, illuminating him with its rays. With his pale skin, he seemed to actually be a ghost, haunting the earth.
Guilao closed his eyes and breathed, meditating.
Xinxin couldn’t look away.
Energy swirled around her Sifu, and the very night seemed to have fallen still. The world twisted, flickering as if it was an illusion, as if he was absorbing the world itself.
And then he spurt out blood.
Xinxin covered her mouth, but she kept staring.
What was her Sifu doing? Was he suffering internal injuries? Despite his tough exterior, was he pushing himself to train her?
Guilao wiped the blood away with his sleeve and then continued meditating. The energy swirled even faster and a blood mist began to form. At the same time, his body began fading away.
Guilao stopped and opened his eyes. Immediately, the bloody mist disappeared and the energy vanished. Seeing that Xinxin was awake, he raised an eyebrow and said, “Satisfied with what you see, girl?”
Xinxin immediately shut her eyes and steadied her breathing. Her heart raced, hoping that her Sifu wouldn’t do anything.
After a few moments, Guilao scoffed and said, “Whatever. Just actually go to sleep.”
With that, the air grew quiet once more, her Sifu no doubt returning to his meditation.
She decided to heed his words and let herself drift off.
Still, the moment before she fell asleep entirely, Xinxin had a thought.
…Why was her Sifu trying so hard as to tear his entire being apart?
Bloody ruins and a crimson sky. One that seemed to mark the end of the world, despite the fact that it was an ordinary day. Smoke filled the air, carrying with it an acrid scent.
There were no people, no buildings. An entire city, once thriving and filled with life, was gone. In its place, corpses and ruins stretched out as far as the eye could see.
The remains of a slaughter, an act that he had long become accustomed to.
He felt nothing. For him, there was no emotion. Such a scene was already routine to him, who had experienced countless lives.
Staring into the sky, he muttered. “Still not enough.”
A melancholic calm. Despite the blood, death, and destruction around him, his expression remained unchanged, apathetic.
In that way, Xinxin saw the memory of a nameless man.
A ruthless emptiness in his heart drove him to seek greater strength. Hiding his thoughts, hiding his actions, even hiding his own self from the entire world, he lost who he truly was.
Not living, not dead. He was nothing more than a nameless ghost. No one knew his name. No one knew his past. No one knew his desires, or his intent.
The memory started to fade and Xinxin realized that she was waking up. With the end of the dream, that reality would disappear and she would return to the present.
But before it did, something about that really annoyed her.
He was an idiot.
Just because he had been betrayed in the past… just because he had been careless once, he cut himself off from everyone and everything around him. Pursuing power at the expense of his humanity… if he kept going down that path there would be nothing left.
But he didn’t notice it. No, if he did notice it, he ignored it. Going on like that, he would never be happy.