3:10 – The Third Lesson
Xinxin woke up with a start and clutched her forehead. What was that? A nightmare?
“Is something wrong, girl?”
Guilao’s voice called out to her.
Xinxin blinked and looked around. The campfire had turned to ashes and the sun had come out again.
She turned to look at her Sifu. Other than looking slightly annoyed, his expression was apathetic as usual. He wasn’t harmed, he wasn’t melancholic, he just… was.
“Girl. Do I need to knock some sense into you before we start training again?”
“No, Sifu. I was just a bit sleepy.”
“…Whatever you say. Just hurry up. I’ll be waiting in the open fields for you to get ready.”
With that said, Guilao vanished.
Xinxin frowned. “That was awfully considerate of Sifu.”
It seemed out of character for him. Maybe his consciousness was finally catching up to him?
Xinxin shook her head. Whatever the case, it didn’t change what she had to do and why she had asked him to become her Sifu.
“I just have to get stronger.”
Strong enough to fight for herself, to control her own fate. After that… she could think about what came later.
Time passed in a painful but predictable cycle.
Guilao attacked Xinxin and pointed out her flaws while she desperately tried to stay alive. When she passed out, they took a break and Guilao gave Xinxin food. When Xinxin became too dirty from being tossed around on the ground or covered in too much blood, she took a bath while Guilao made sure no one was around to disturb her.
Like that, six days had passed and it was noon of the seventh day since Guilao took her away. A full week.
Guilao stood in front of Xinxin with empty hands. His clothes, a plain black robe, fluttered in a non-existent wind. His hair, once neat but now scraggly, shifted like wisps of smoke as his dark eyes stared at Xinxin.
As for Xinxin, she calmed herself down and raised her weapon, a plain stick she had obtained from the woods nearby. Graduating from the bamboo stick, she had gotten to the level to use the sword techniques without it.
With a thought from her mind, an invisible stream of energy enveloped the stick and Xinxin’s qi turned it from an ordinary twig into a true sword.
Seeing that, for a brief moment a hint of a smile appeared on Guilao’s face. But then it vanished, along with him.
Xinxin stepped to the side and swung her sword. A sonic boom erupted as the lightning fast strike cut through the air.
But it was still slow.
Guilao reappeared in front of Xinxin, unscathed, and jabbed with his left arm.
She stepped back. When she did, her sword slashed skywards to clash with Guilao’s outstretched arm.
A sound like screeching metal echoed through the valley before Guilao leaped backwards and opened up a gap between them.
Xinxin kept her sword raised and carefully watched her Sifu prepare his next move. Would it be another jab? A kick? Or would he grab her and throw her through the air?
Contrary to her thoughts, Guilao did none of those things. Instead, he slowly raised his left arm and aimed it at Xinxin.
Xinxin’s eyes widened and she quickly gathered qi into her sword before slashing it. The colorless energy became dyed in emerald as she used her clan’s Imperial Scythe technique against her Sifu.
Barely an instant later, a surge of shadows spilled forth from Guilao’s hand and tried to envelop Xinxin.
The light crashed against darkness. But the light was too weak. The encroaching shadows grew and slowly crushed the emerald slash of light.
Xinxin didn’t hesitate to act. Instead of retreating or dodging, she charged. Once again, she filled her sword with qi and slashed out. The secondary slash overlapped with the first and pushed the darkness. With each step she took, Xinxin slashed again. Soon, an array of emerald lights had bound the darkness.
This was Xinxin’s chance. While her Sifu’s attack was powerful, he couldn’t move while using it. Whatever secret technique that powerful shadowy grasp was, it locked him in place while using it.
A blessing and a curse. Great power didn’t come without a drawback.
Guilao smiled at Xinxin. It must have been an expression of praise, but on his face, it came off as condescension.
Xinxin ignored it and swung her sword for one last slash. With it, she used all of her remaining qi, draining her energy completely, and compressed it to the best of her abilities with her spiritual sense. The result was a pure emerald line, an attack that was refined to a single dimension, wrought from her pondering and efforts on how to get through her Sifu’s impenetrable defense.
Guilao’s smile vanished, replaced by surprise. His eyes grew wide and he jerked his hand away to try and block the attack. The shadows that were sent to attack Xinxin returned and wrapped around his left hand, slowly forming into a blade.
But it was too late.
Xinxin swung her sword at her Sifu’s arm.
Unable to act in time, the only thing Guilao could do was block it with his limb.
Unlike before, there wasn’t the sound of screeching metal. Instead, blood splashed as Xinxin’s attack struck Guilao’s arm and bit into the man’s flesh. Yet, that was as far as it got. Even before striking bone, Xinxin’s sword was stopped by an invisible barrier and the qi forming it was dispersed.
She didn’t even get the chance to be surprised.
The moment the qi around Xinxin’s sword vanished, Guilao stepped forward, grabbed her with his right arm, and then tossed her at the ground.
Xinxin got the wind knocked out of her when she landed, but that was the extent of her injuries. A few seconds later and she was up on her feet. She turned to face her Sifu and smiled. “I did it!”
Guilao’s face twitched and he slowly nodded. “You did. About time, girl. You managed to give me a paper cut.”
Xinxin frowned. “Oh come on, Sifu! That attack did a lot more than-“
Guilao raised his hand to show a thin crimson line etched in his skin. “See? Paper-cut.”
Xinxin pouted and crossed her arms. “That’s cheating, Sifu! People at your level can regenerate from flesh wounds in a single thought!”
“…In any case, your training with me comes to an end here.”
Xinxin blinked. “What?”
Guilao shook his head and then turned his back on Xinxin. “I have nothing else I can teach you that you can’t learn on your own. Right now, the best teacher is experience.”
“Sifu, I don’t understand.”
He turned his head back slightly to look at her. That single dark eye met Xinxin’s, and then he looked away. “This is my final lesson to you as your Sifu: Trust only yourself.”
Xinxin’s heart throbbed. She couldn’t accept those words. “Sifu, I-“
Before Xinxin could say anything else, Guilao spun around and lashed out with his left hand.
In an instant, darkness surged, completely dyeing the valley in shadows and preventing Xinxin from seeing anything.
“Sifu!” Xinxin called out and ran towards where Guilao had been standing. When she reached out, she only grabbed air. “Wait! Don’t leave me behind! Sifu!”
Xinxin’s words echoed and only silence answered her.
After a few moments, the shadows vanished. When they did, Xinxin was surrounded by a horde of profound beasts. Snakes, panthers, birds of prey… various beasts of all kinds that Xinxin couldn’t identify surrounded her. And, judging from the intense kaleidoscope of colors that filled her vision, they weren’t weak either.
Were they all of the profound beasts that her Sifu had kept at bay? Without him here, they must have locked onto her as the one to take out their frustrations.
Xinxin’s eyes grew wide and she quickly formed another sword from her qi. As she wracked her mind on how to get out of the situation, a snake lunged at her.
Xinxin stepped to the side and swung her sword, splitting it in half. Yet, the moment she did, something struck her back.
“Gah!” Xinxin felt the air leave her lungs. But she didn’t have the luxury to worry about that. In the corner of her eyes, she saw a Shadow Panther pounce towards her.
Xinxin forced a surge of qi at the ground to send herself flying through the air. As she did, she saw the profound beasts crash into each other, pouncing at where Xinxin just stood.
Xinxin coughed and steadied her breathing. The moment she did, she heard a bird screech.
Xinxin’s eyes widened and she tried to send another blast of qi to change directions. Yet, with her duel against Guilao and her reckless launch into the air, she didn’t have any to spare.
A falcon lunged at her face.
Xinxin flinched and tilted her head. Because of that, she kept her head. But she didn’t avoid getting injured.
A searing pain erupted on her neck, and as Xinxin fell through the air, she saw a trail of blood scattering like peach blossoms in the wind.
Xinxin clutched her neck, trying to staunch the bleeding. Her body was slowly recovering her qi from natural energy in the surroundings, but it wasn’t fast enough to save her from dying of blood loss or injuries. At that rate… would she even make it back home?
Sifu… why did he-
A bird screech, slow and majestic, echoed through the valley.
As if a siren call, it was joined by an uproar of other beast cries. Roars, hisses, screeches… the profound beasts called out as one and surged towards Xinxin’s falling form.
In the corner of her eyes, Xinxin saw a crimson bird flying in the sky. Their eyes met, and the bird flipped its head, as if scoffing at Xinxin.
That was… the Vermilion Bird? The southern guardian of the Xia Dynasty? The holy beast that embodied royalty and justice?
Xinxin’s heart throbbed. Staring at the Vermilion Bird, seeing the profound beasts surging towards her…
It wasn’t fair.
Xinxin’s body fell through the air towards the ground. The moment she landed, she would be mobbed by the horde. From the look of things, the Vermilion Bird was commanding them, and didn’t intend her to live past the day.
It wasn’t fair.
The fact that her Sifu didn’t trust her, that her father betrothed her against her will, that even though she gained strength, it wouldn’t be enough to make it back home alive.
It wasn’t fair.
Falcons, eagles, and other birds of prey surged towards Xinxin.
In a moment, she would land on the ground and have to face the horde of profound beasts.
She would die.
She would die…?
She would die, after all her Sifu did to help her?
Something in Xinxin resisted it. Her body’s absorption rate of the natural energy magnified. In an instant, her fatigue vanished and her wounds healed.
Live. She would live. She had to live.
Qi gathered around her body and her descent slowed. At the same time, her vision, filled with colors, began turning transparent. The colors she saw with her spiritual sense, the natural energy in the air, the qi radiated by each of the profound beasts… they began fading, drawn towards Xinxin’s body.
Xinxin gently landed on the ground.
The falcons and birds arrived first, all trying to tear Xinxin apart.
A thin emerald line cut through the sky. With it, blood splattered and carcasses fell to the ground.
At that time, the horde of profound beasts arrived.
A normal cultivator or mortal would have frozen in fear. Among the horde of profound beasts were creatures that could fight against a Late Core Formation practitioner and even stall a Nascent Soul practitioner. Together, they were something that would give pause to the patriarchs of the great clans.
But Xinxin didn’t hesitate. Compared to her Sifu, those beasts were nothing.
She stepped forward and her sword lashed out. With every step, another beast was cut down.
Limbs flew through the air. Bodies crashed into the ground. Blood scattered like peach blossoms.
Her heart throbbed with every beast killed and her blood thrummed with every death inflicted by her sword. Power crept into her veins and her attacks became swifter, more precise.
Step, cut, thrust, slash. Her body became a machine, reflexes ingrained into her by her Sifu suddenly bearing fruit.
And then she was alone, standing on a hill of corpses.
For a moment, she stood there in a daze and stared up at the sky.
The sun had sunk into the horizon, dyeing the blue expanse a deep crimson. It wouldn’t be long until night fell completely, leaving her alone in the dark.
The Vermilion Bird had vanished and once again, Xinxin was alone.
…What should she do? She might have killed a lot of the profound beasts in the valley and the Vermilion Bird might have left, but that wasn’t an assurance of her safety sleeping in the open.
Scanning the surroundings, Xinxin saw a cave in the mountain side. Considering that she would need to climb it in order to gain her bearings to return home, she decided to head towards it.
Her footsteps echoed in silence, and nothing appeared to disturb her. Whether that was due to her slaughter or increased strength, she didn’t know.
When Xinxin arrived at the cave night had completely fallen and the glassy moon hung in the starry skies. Because of that, she took a moment to sweep the cave with her spiritual sense.
There was nothing inside. The occupant was likely one of the beasts she had slaughtered earlier. With its death, she didn’t have to worry about any confrontations.
Just in case, Xinxin gouged out a slab from the cave wall to cover the entrance. That done, she found a relatively clean area and then sat down, resting her head against the wall of the cave.
She pulled up her legs to her chest and tried to get some rest.
Maybe it was the fatigue from fighting so long. Maybe it was the stress from her Sifu leaving so suddenly. Or maybe it was just the acclimatization process from her body gaining and using so much energy at once.
Either way, the moment Xinxin closed her eyes, she fell into a deep slumber.
Beneath the glassy moon and the starry sky, a nameless man walked towards a manned gate. His figure wasn’t covered or obscured, and his stride was purposeful and determined.
Yet, the guards there didn’t notice him. No, it was that they couldn’t notice him.
That was their undoing.
Shadows gathered, hidden from the eyes of the world, and then lashed out.
Metal was torn apart, blood was sent scattering into the air, and then corpses fell to the ground. But the moment they did, the shadows stirred and began absorbing them. A crimson mist erupted from the corpses, slowly eroding them into nothingness. When they completely disappeared, the nameless man walked through the gates.
“Still not enough… but after tonight, it should be.” He looked up into the night sky and muttered, “Serena. It’s about time we settle this.”