LOOG Chapter – 72

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Chapter 72: Zhizhu Coral

Two weeks after returning to Zun Shan, Sunan realized something that made his heart sink: Bao had stopped wearing the cloth bracelet.

At first, he thought it was a fluke. But soon there was no mistaking it. She never wore the cloth bracelet anymore.

The first day, his reaction was to rationalize why she had stopped wearing it. Perhaps she felt it didn’t match her clothing, or was too childish. The second day, he tried to convince himself that he didn’t care. The third day, he cancelled his usual sparring session with Bao and spent the day in secluded meditation.

During his meditation session, he focused almost completely on pushing thoughts of Bao and the bracelet outside of his head. However, such efforts were useless.

Worst of all was that with Sun Mai gone, he had nobody to talk with. It was only after Sun Mai’s departure that Sunan realized he had no other close friends. Even the long-time members of the Golden Dragon Division all viewed him with a certain reverence that precluded closeness. In the past, Sunan had never thought much about how often he and Sun Mai talked to each other, but now it was painfully obvious. Of course, having a conversation with Sun Mai had often been as frustrating and useless as trying to juggle a handful of oiled ferrets. But if nothing else, Sun Mai was trustworthy, and to Sunan, having someone to confide in was an asset that he only realized the value of after losing it.

A day of meditation did little good to clear his mind. On the morning of the fourth day, he rose early, tossed a thick cloak over his shoulders, and then stalked toward the main gate of the palace.

The guards there were surprised to see him, and before they could inquire why he was leaving the palace, he muttered something about going for a walk to get some fresh air.

It was cold outside, with a stiff morning wind that bit to the bone. Sunan began to climb further up the mountain, scrambling up the boulders and steep inclines that would eventually lead to the highest peaks of Zun Shan. Based on the extensive scouting the Dragon-Phoenix Sect had done of the mountain, it was completely safe.

Furthermore, Sunan did not plan to climb very high. After hiking for about an hour, he sat down cross-legged on a rock outcropping and looked at the landscape stretching out below.

It was a cloudless day, and the scenery was breathtaking. He could even see the mirror-like Chrysanthemum Lake off to the north.

Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and focused on the Qi in his body. To his surprise, he found that his Qi flow had been altered, and was streaming through different meridians than it usually did. For some reason, it felt soothing, and even pleasant. Drawing on his Qi reserves, he poured more power into the flow, strengthening it, reinforcing it, speeding it up.

Sunan had no way of knowing it, but the reason his Qi flow had been altered was that the spot he had chosen to sit on was itself a meridian, a place where the natural energies of heaven and earth flowed through the mountain toward its summit. Another thing that Sunan was completely unaware of was that the strange location the scouts had reported at the top of the mountain was a very unique place in all of Qi Xien. As such, the natural meridians, and the energy which flowed through them, were especially powerful. By sitting down to meditate and perform breathing exercises on that natural meridian, he allowed his own Qi flow to be altered, much the same way that a compass might be affected upon nearing a powerful lodestone.

The longer the Qi flowed through his body on this new pathway, the calmer Sunan got, until his heart felt as tranquil as the surface of Lake Chrysanthemum.

Before he realized it, three hours had passed. That was when he detected the sound of someone climbing up the mountain from down below.

He opened his eyes, and let his Qi flow return to normal. However, the calm remained.

A few minutes later, Mao Yun appeared on the rock outcropping.

“May I join you, Dragon Sovereign?” he said.

Sunan looked over his shoulder and nodded. Mao Yun sat down next to him cross-legged, wrapped his cloak around himself, and looked out at the scenery.

“A bit better view up here than down by the palace entrance,” he commented.

“Indeed,” Sunan replied.

A moment passed.

“Dragon Sovereign, you’ve seemed… distracted over the past few days.”

It suddenly dawned on Sunan why Mao Yun had come, and the calm from moments before was interrupted by a spark of emotion in his heart that seemed to contain anger, embarrassment, and melancholy, all at the same time.

“I’m fine,” Sunan said.

Mao Yun nodded. “Dragon Sovereign, may I speak plainly?”

“Of course, Mao Yun. You know I don’t care about formalities, especially among friends.”

“Very well. I think I know why you were so… distracted. It was the cloth bracelet, wasn’t it?”

Sunan’s heart suddenly leapt up into his throat before dropping down into his stomach. “W-w-what?!” he stammered. “What bracelet?”

Mao Yun chuckled. “Sunan, you have many talents, but lying isn’t one of them. Most people didn’t notice that bracelet, but I noticed. Bao and I have been close for years now, and we’re even sworn siblings. That’s a secret, by the way. We swore our oaths way back in Daolu.

“Anyway, as her sworn brother, do you think I wouldn’t notice how she took to wearing that cloth bracelet all of a sudden? I didn’t even need to ask her to know who gave it to her.

“I’m guessing that when she suddenly stopped wearing the bracelet a few days ago, it got you… distracted. Am I right?”

For some reason, Sunan felt very, very foolish. Sighing, he shook his head. “Was it that obvious?”

“No, no, no. Sunan, even Bao didn’t notice! But she’s my sworn sister, so part of my responsibility is to be looking out for certain things. Things like this. So I noticed.”

“It’s stupid, I know,” Sunan said. “Those bracelets, back where I come from, they….”

“I know. Sunan, I was born in Yu Zhing, as was my father, but my mother was originally from Qi Fao. So I know all about those bracelets. They’re relatively common among the villages and towns that surround the Bay of Yu. And I also know what it means when a young man gives a bracelet like that to a young woman who isn’t a family member.”

Red heat began to seep up Sunan’s neck onto his face, and he suddenly felt as if he were being strangled. He tried to think of some way to respond to Mao Yun’s words, but the only sound that came out of his mouth was a slight gurgling noise.

“Sunan, the reason Bao took that bracelet off is that she cherishes it.”

At first, Sunan wasn’t quite sure he’d heard correctly. Then his eyes went wide and, without even thinking about it, he turned to look at Mao Yun. “What?!”

Mao Yun sighed. “She’s been wearing it for a while now, and it was beginning to fray. It was even soaked with the sweat of far too many sparring sessions. During the battle with the Bone General, it was also splashed with some of his blood. So she took it off, carefully cleaned it, and then put it in a jade box which she keeps in her room. Sunan….” He chuckled softly. “Maybe it’s because I’m watching all this happen from an outside perspective, but, sometimes, I wonder just what the two of you are thinking! You run one of the most powerful sects in all of Qi Xien, you’ve fought and killed Ogres, you’ve experienced visions of ancient times, you’ve defended against armies, you’ve slaughtered hordes of demons, but when it comes to each other, you might as well be fumbling around in the dark with your ears plugged!

“I told Bao that you would be upset if she stopped wearing the bracelet, and she responded that I was being silly and than you wouldn’t even notice! Sunan, I’m not much older than you, but at the moment, I feel like someone from the elder generation talking to a little boy. You must know what’s happening between you and Bao. You know, right?”

Mao Yun’s words struck Sunan’s gut like physical blows, although he tried not to let that show on his face. Clearing his throat, he said, “We’re… we’re just friends and the leaders of the–”

Mao Yun burst out laughing, cutting Sunan off. “Sunan, you said for me to speak plainly, and so I shall. The two of you are falling in love! You don’t have to admit it, but you know it’s true! This situation with the bracelet makes it more clear than ever.”

Sunan was at a complete loss of words. “I… I….”

“Sunan, we in the martial world live different lives than those in the mundane society of Qi Xien. That much has become more and more clear over the past years. In ordinary society, things like these would be arranged by your families and the matchmakers. But neither of you have families to make such arrangements. You two need to do things differently. We’re not part of society anymore, and don’t need to conform to all those ancient customs!”

After Mao Yun finished speaking, the only sound that could be heard was the cold mountain air. A long moment passed, a moment that seemed to stretch for an eternity. However, Mao Yun could sense that it was a moment in which he shouldn’t speak, so he held his tongue and waited for Sunan to break the silence.

When he did, he only spoke five words.

“Alright, what should I do?”

**

Located in Zun Peaks in the southwest of the Banyan Region, was a fortress built into the face of a cliff, which had come to be called the Grotto of the Timeless Master. In a stone chamber deep in the fortress, a meeting was currently underway, led by the Timeless Master himself, Li Buwei.

Those who had never seen the Timeless Master generally expected him to be tall, dashing, and heroic-looking. The reality was quite the opposite. He was rather short, even stocky, with blunt features that made him look different from the average inhabitant of Qi Xien. However, his eyes glittered with a profound light that made him seem extraordinary to the extreme.

Also present in the stone chamber were other heroes associated with the Timeless Master, including his wife, the famous swordswoman Lady Qixia, Drunken Crane Ping Fangrou, a new arrival to the fortress, Hero Qian Chengsi, as well as many others.

Currently, the Timeless Master was staring down at a table-full of maps, one of which showed the Banyan Region, and the other, the Dai Bien Forest.

The other heroes at the table were also studying the maps, frowns on their faces.

“Is the matter at Bixie Lake that important?” Lady Qixia asked.

The Timeless Master nodded. “Yes, and we can’t afford to go down there without a sizeable force. We still don’t know the truth about this Hua Pi character, or where his loyalties lie. If he forms a coalition opposed to us, we would be in a very dangerous position. And ignoring his invitation would be tantamount to a direct insult. So the question is, what do we do about Huisheng?” He looked over at Qian Chengsi. “Are you sure your information is correct?”

Qian Chengsi nodded. “Absolutely. I saw it with my own eyes. The Zhizhu Coral is in Huisheng.”

The Timeless Master looked back at the map. “The Demon Emperor never leaves the Zhizhu Coral in any city for longer than four months. That means time is limited. We have to strike quickly.”

“We don’t have enough people to split them between Huisheng and Bixie Lake,” Lady Qixia said.

“I know. It seems the matter of the Zhizhu Coral must be handed over to someone else. Perhaps the Dragon-Phoenix Sect? If they hurried, they could get to Huisheng in time.”

Ping Fangrou smiled. “Should I prepare for a trip to Zun Shan?”

The Timeless Master nodded. “Leave within the hour.”

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