Azure Dragon Island was a typical celestial mountain that was ablaze with flowers throughout the seasons. When looking from the sea, the view was that of an island perennially permeated by a thin fog, like a peachtopia floating on the ocean, where the cultivators dressed either in sharp suits or in graceful Taoist robes.
The lord of Azure Dragon Island was counted among the Four Saints. He’d been in secluded cultivation for years on end and rarely revealed himself. Quite unexpectedly, however, he now came out especially to see Yan Zhengming, and with a genial attitude as though treating his own junior, at that. Perhaps to show sympathy for Yan Zhengming’s upset, the lord of the island didn’t talk much to him. After providing Zhengming’s accommodations, the lord generously stated that all the resources on Azure Dragon Island were at Yan Zhengming’s disposal until he found his master and junior brother and sister.
Of course, other cultivators couldn’t flagrantly gossip over that like uneducated villagers. They did so beneath the veil of secrecy.
That was quite understandable, though. Numerous people piled in to kiss up to the lord of Azure Dragon Island, who didn’t bother to show up even at the decennial Celestial Market. Just what had these kids done to merit his good graces?
Those brats only knew how to throw around their wealth, to say nothing of their low cultivation levels, and they still hadn’t shown any restraint even after they’d come to the Azure Dragon Island. They were fiercely dislikeable.
But Yan Zhengming knew nothing about these undercurrents, and couldn’t even be bothered to care about it. The lord of the island had asked for Cheng Qian’s and Puddle’s bazi, and sent countless cultivators out on search, yet still received no news whatsoever for three days straight.
Yan Zhengming didn’t know how he had made it through those three days.
On the morning of the fourth day, Yue-er, one of Yan Zhengming’s maids, gently pushed open the door of his room. She had a set of tools for combing his hair in hand, and had planned to first burn the incense and then wake the young master up, but was instead surprised to find that Yan Zhengming was not in the room.
Yue-er was scared. She thought that she had gotten up late, and after preparing herself for a scolding, she walked inside hesitantly only to find that the bed had been made up by a Taoist boy, and the person living here was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Young Master?” asked Yue-er hurriedly.
“I heard that they’d gotten news about the sect leader, so Young Master got up early this morning and went to see them,” answered the Taoist boy.
Yue-er stood dazed for a bit—the Yans had good ethics and never maltreated the servants, and it was only that they had spoiled Yan Zhengming. Yue-er was born to a servant of the Yan family, but as she was a girl, she was brought up almost like a half miss. In normal times on the Fuyao Mountain, her only job was to comb young master’s hair, and nothing else. Even when the two devils had fought on the sea, she was safely seated inside the cabin despite the raging storm outside. This was her first time feeling human panic.
Holding a sandalwood box to her bosom, Yue-er asked again, “D-did he say when he’d return?”
The Taoist boy looked back at this insecure little girl and involuntarily toned down his voice, saying, “He didn’t. The situation is still quite unclear right now.
“This is just between us—last night, I heard Young Master speaking to second martial uncle. It’s likely that we won’t be able to go back to the Fuyao Mountain anytime soon if things go wrong. In which case, you have to keep in mind that the people on this island are all cultivators; be their conducts good or bad, they are people with powers. It wouldn’t take much more effort for them to kill us than to pinch an ant. Be sure to not run around or to displease them, clear?” added the Taoist boy in a low voice.
The lord of Azure Dragon Island seemed to be very closely connected to Fuyao Sect. He actually had considered the possibility that Muchun Zhenren and his disciples might be around the Worriless Valley and had sent his men there to wait. And yet for some reason, none of those cultivators dared to enter the valley to comb that area.
After three days’ waiting, they eventually saw Cheng Qian and Puddle come out.
Cheng Qian was as miserable as he could be at that moment. Those cultivators hadn’t expected that Muchun Zhenren had gone and that the two kids had actually walked out of the valley all on their own.
Beasts and small monsters could be seen everywhere in there, yet they still made it out alive. Some soul in the Heaven must be blessing them.
This young boy who should have been tortured by fright, however, was not so easy to deal with as they expected.
Around evening, Cheng Qian thanked a female cultivator who had brought him a bowl of vegetable congee, which she had gotten from a nearby village. After tasting it first, Cheng Qian pulled Puddle over, took a spoonful of congee, and put it near her mouth. The last three days were indeed a purgatory for Puddle and had made her a starving ghost.
Puddle opened her mouth wide to eat, but Cheng Qian abruptly withdrew his hand, and Puddle bit the air.
She stared at him pitifully, looking as though tears were going to trickle down her face.
Cheng Qian whispered, “Remember what I said? This is yours if you do.”
Puddle hastily nodded while making a bow, her chubby hands folded in front, and then she got her very first bite of food in these recent days.
A casual observer would have taken it to be a naughty senior brother teasing his junior sister—but in actuality, the bow part was Puddle’s instinctive self-performance.
Upon their meeting with this group of strangers, Cheng Qian had immediately ordered Puddle to not show her wings in front of anyone from this moment on.
“Why did your sect accept such a small kid as a disciple?” asked the female cultivator from where she stood at the side, probably thinking this plump girl to be amusing.
Cheng Qian gave her a thin smile. “Once, my junior brother snuck off the mountain and picked her up on his way to the market. Harvests were probably bad in recent years, and her family might not have been able to afford to raise her. My junior brother found her quite pathetic, so he brought her back—you know, where 10 or 20 years are just a brief moment in the entire life of a cultivator, it’s long enough for her to grow from a babbling baby to a big girl. So it doesn’t matter that she’s small now; time flies.”
The female cultivator couldn’t help joking to him, “You yourself haven’t lived past that ‘brief moment’, yet you’re talking like an adult. By the way, I think you’d better go back with us to treat your wounds; even if your senior brothers came riding flying mounts and travelled day and night, it will take them at least one or two days.”
“I would go with you if I were alone. But since I’m together with my junior sister, she might cause you trouble. So we’ll just wait for our senior brothers. Before my master left, he had asked me to listen to first senior brother. I’m totally clueless as to what to do right now, and I can’t decide myself,” replied Cheng Qian as he wiped off the congee that slipped from Puddle’s mouth.
The female cultivator: “…”
This brat didn’t seem clueless to her in the slightest.
Perhaps because of his young age, Cheng Qian was, in reality, not good at dealing with people. He would rarely say anything of his own initiative and wouldn’t try to form ties with others, either. He was admirably courteous, but he was also as stubborn as a mule.
Cheng Qian had wounds all over his body, some from the beasts’ scraping and biting, some from falls and fractures. The dried blood had glued the strip of cloth around his arm tightly to his skin.
In theory, Cheng Qian should have been exhausted to the point of falling over; after going through the Worriless Valley, one would be at least seriously wounded, if not dead—especially if he was carrying a babbling little girl with him. But contrary to expectations, Cheng Qian appeared as if nothing had happened. He would sooner sleep in the open near the Worriless Valley than leave with them; and as for what had happened in the valley, he just clammed up about it and wouldn’t say a word no matter how people asked him.
Yan Zhengming finally arrived when the moon rose to the top of the willow tree.
He came alone, not bringing Li Yun or Han Yuan, or even any Taoist child. He opened the curtains and jumped off the roc-drawn carriage before it had even stopped moving.
After being haunted by anxiety for days on end, anger had been bubbling up in Yan Zhengming’s stomach. But the miserable sight of Cheng Qian’s bloody body drained half of it, and the remaining half spent itself after he failed to find Muchun Zhenren’s figure.
Yan Zhengming ran over. He hastily caught Puddle, who jumped into his arms, and then took Cheng Qian’s hand and asked eagerly, “What happened? Why did you become like this? Where have you been these days? Where’s Master? Why did he leave you two here alone?”
No reply was given. Cheng Qian simply stared at him in a daze.
Feeling butterflies in his stomach, Yan Zhengming said with his heart clanging, “Xiao-Qian, what the hell happened?”
Remaining silent, Cheng Qian roved his gaze over Yan Zhengming’s face and then over those strange cultivators around them.
These cultivators were from the famous Azure Dragon Island, after all. They gathered straight off that the two martial brothers had something to say, so they mindfully took their leave.
Only then did Cheng Qian release a breath. Using his uninjured arm, he fished a small seal out of his bosom and gave it to Yan Zhengming, saying in a barely audible voice, “This is the Sect Leader’s Seal, First Senior Brother, Master asked me to give it to you.”
For a long time, Yan Zhengming’s mind went blank. When it struck him what that meant, he jerked backward, his face suddenly drained of color.
The seal on Cheng Qian’s bloodstained and dusty palm was like a dreadful monster to him, and his eyes darkened with fear.
But what Cheng Qian was going to say pursued Yan Zhengming to the brutal end.
“Master’s dead,” said Cheng Qian. “He said, you are the leader of Fuyao Sect from now on.”
“No…” Yan Zhengming shook his head by instinct. He frantically pushed Cheng Qian aside and dissolved into sputter. “I’m not… y-y-you take this away, I don’t want it! What are you talking about, how can Master be dead?”
“I watched him die.”
“No way!” Yan Zhengming goggled, nothing coming out of his mouth but stout denial. “No way!”
Cheng Qian went silent. He continued holding out the Sect Leader’s Seal while watching Yan Zhengming with a deep gaze, the grief on his face so heavy that it felt wrong on the face of such a young boy.
“It’s real,” he muttered. “Senior Brother, it’s rea…”
Cheng Qian hadn’t finished speaking before his head suddenly tilted sideways, and he collapsed to the ground without warning.
Yan Zhengming subconsciously reached out his hand to catch him, and through that contact, a grisly bloodstain rubbed onto his white sleeve.
Cheng Qian’s body was freezing cold, and Yan Zhengming nearly thought he had stopped breathing. He turned Cheng Qian over in a hurry, reaching out two fingers to feel Cheng Qian’s breath. But his fingers were shaking so hard that he didn’t get a result for a long time.
Puddle usually didn’t utter much sound, for she could not speak yet. Therefore, at this moment, she had no way other than crying to express her feelings—in recent few days, she had almost used up all the tears she had accumulated since her birth.
Yan Zhengming’s ears were filled with buzz and his head was a blank. He gripped and tried to heat up Cheng Qian’s hand, but it remained icily cold. For a moment, all he knew was to keep mechanically repeating, “Don’t cry, Puddle, don’t cry.”
He had no clue how long he had knelt rigidly on the ground—maybe a long time, maybe just a few seconds, until someone grasped his shoulder and shook him back to himself. Yan Zhengming looked up blankly and saw a nameless cultivator looking at him in worry.
Yan Zhengming thought his countenance must be paler than a ghost’s, for he found the cultivator seemed to have misunderstood something as he subconsciously did the same thing as Yan Zhengming—he reached out a finger to feel Cheng Qian’s breath. A few seconds later, the cultivator let out a sigh of relief. He looked up and said, “He’s breathing. I have some pills and medicine at my place. Don’t worry, it may not be so serious.”
Yan Zhengming nodded and bit his own tongue fiercely. The acute sting and the blood smell pulled him completely back from the stupor. He pulled himself together and took the Sect Leader’s Seal from Cheng Qian, holding it tightly in his hand. Then he bent to pick Cheng Qian up while saying to Puddle, “Can you walk on your own?”
Puddle cautiously stood on her feet and stretched her arm to get a grip of Yan Zhengming’s garment.
After a day and a night’s travel, the roc carried them back to the Azure Dragon Island. Being at his wits’ end, Yan Zhengming felt suffocated. Rationally, he knew what Cheng Qian said was most probably true. Much more often than not, Master treated them with excessive indulgence and inadequate strictness. As long as he was still breathing, there was no chance that he would leave Cheng Qian and Puddle alone at such a dangerous place.
Li Yun and Han Yuan had been anxiously awaiting Yan Zhengming’s return on Azure Dragon Island, and as soon as they saw him, they rushed up.
“What happened to Xiao-Qian?”
“Ah, why didn’t Master come back with you?”
“Where did you find them?”
“I don’t know!” Yan Zhengming strode past his junior brothers, the restlessness in his heart making him want to scream. “Don’t ask me! Shut up! Just wait for him to wake up!”
But Cheng Qian remained unconscious. For one thing, he was still wounded; for another, he definitely hadn’t gotten any rest for the last few days, as he had to look out for Puddle in the Worriless Valley.
Yan Zhengming stayed immovably by Cheng Qian’s side. In the beginning, he hoped and prayed for Cheng Qian to wake, and was on the edge of his seat, desperately wanting to know what exactly occurred in the Worriless Valley. But the longer it lasted, the more fearful he became.
As soon as he closed eyes, he would remember the scene where Cheng Qian was covered in blood and looked deeply at him while telling him Master’s death, which deprived him of sleep.
In such a state of agitation, an idea naturally formed in Yan Zhengming’s mind. He thought, “I may just go home and be a simple young master.”
Once this idea flashed into his head, it soon took root and dominated his thoughts.
Right! Anyway, his family was rich enough to ensure his life of extravagance and pleasure. Why should he cultivate? Why should he seek the Tao?
As for junior brothers and sister, he could take them home together. They were free to do anything they wanted, whether to continue practicing martial arts or to study for official ranks. All they would need was only a few pairs of chopsticks, after all.
Making him the sect leader?—don’t joke. The sole job he was competent for in his life was to be a young master!
He couldn’t even make a perfect primary talisman, not to mention his unremarkable swordsmanship. And forget about the formidable masters on Azure Dragon Island, even their errand Taoist boys had higher cultivation levels than him. If Yan Zhengming became the sect leader, what would the sect be like?
Thinking that, Yan Zhengming bounced to feet and called in a Taoist boy, “Zheshi! Zheshi!”
Zheshi trotted in front of him. “Young Master.”
“Fetch me a writing brush and paper, I’ll write home,” ordered Yan Zhengming in an urgent tone. “Pack up our things and get the ship ready. As soon as Xiao-Qian wake up, I’ll go bid farewell to the Lord of Azure Dragon Island.”
Zheshi was stupefied. “Young Master, are we going back to Fuyao Mountain?”
Yan Zhengming: “What Fuyao Mountain? Home!”
“Young Master, what about the sect…” said Zheshi, seized by astonishment.
Yan Zhengming waved his hand. “There’s no Fuyao Sect anymore. It’s dissolved, you know? Be quick, we’ll set off in a couple of days.”
Zheshi ran away as if to escape.
Two days had passed by the time Cheng Qian woke up. When he tried to move a bit, a hand immediately fell on top of his forehead. A familiar fragrance of orchids came swelling over, but somehow this smell had thinned a lot. Cheng Qian moved his lips and said soundlessly, “Senior Brother.”
His throat hurt so much that he lost his voice.
Yan Zhengming helped him sit up and gave him a bowl of water without saying a word.
Cheng Qian finished it up in one swallow and only then faintly asked, “Where’s junior sister?”
“Yue-er and other maids are looking after her.”
In a daze, Cheng Qian’s forehead pinched, and he asked again, “The Sect Leader’s Seal… did I give it to you?”
Yan Zhengming pulled out a string from his neck, and there was a small seal tied to it.
Cheng Qian’s muddled and tense look finally eased a bit, but soon tiredness crept up to his face.
Fuyao Sect had always had chaotic days. Older ones didn’t know how to humor younger ones; younger ones showed no respect for older ones. It felt like it was just yesterday that the two of them had a quarrel, yet today when they faced each other, everything was as different as if a lifetime had passed.
Yan Zhengming sighed and asked softly, “Are you hungry?”
Cheng Qian shook his head. He sat in bed, dazed, after a while, broke the quietness in the room. “Master, Junior Sister, and I, we got there because of the flawed talisman we made that night.”
Yan Zhengming didn’t interrupt him. He sat there silently, hearing Cheng Qian out.
Cheng Qian’s strength hadn’t recovered. On and off, it took him a good half hour to make the whole thing clear. But after that, Yan Zhengming couldn’t say anything for a long time.
The candle flickered, the light somewhat burning. Yan Zhengming came back to earth and straightened up with all his strength. He suddenly felt the Sect Leader’s Seal on his neck was a thousand tons heavy, almost weighing down his neck.
He stood up and gently placed a hand on Cheng Qian’s head. In his tenderest voice ever, Yan Zhengming said, “I’ll have someone get you a bowl of congee. Eat some before applying the medicine.”
Cheng Qian nodded tamely.
Yan Zhengming turned to walk outside, saying to himself inwardly, “Alright, now that I know what happened and he has woken up, we can go home tomorrow.”
Home was the best. You would only have to hold out your hand to be dressed and open your mouth to be fed, no need to practice swordplay in the early morning or to exercise cultivation methods in the late night.
Just as Yan Zhengming reached the door, his heart heavy, Cheng Qian suddenly uttered, “Hold on, Senior Brother. You didn’t discard my books, did you? Can you have someone bring me some sword books?”
Yan Zhengming’s hand, which had touched the door, paused all at once. He stood ramrod straight with his back towards Cheng Qian, as though his entire body had been frozen.
“Anything wrong?” Cheng Qian was perplexed. “Did you throw them away?”
“You can’t even get up, why do you want to read sword books?” inquired Yan Zhengming, his voice hoarse.
“Martial Grandfather said we linked up Fuyao Sect’s broken bloodline,” Cheng Qian said. “The bloodline won’t break just because I can’t get up—and Master also asked me to work harder on swordsmanship.”
Yan Zhengming stood transfixed for a long time before he suddenly turned around, walked back, and swept Cheng Qian into his arms.
The Sect Leader’s Seal wedged in Yan Zhengming’s clavicle, hurting him. He thought, “Go to hell! This sect is not dissolved. I am the sect leader, I am not dead!”
He was holding Cheng Qian tightly, desperately, his whole body slightly trembling from stiffened muscles. For a moment, Cheng Qian thought that he must be crying.
Cheng Qian waited long for Yan Zhengming’s tears. But after a while had passed, what he received were comforting words which first senior brother spoke into his ear.
“It’s okay,” Yan Zhengming said, “It’s okay, Xiao-Qian. Senior brother is here.”