Li Xingyun and Gu Lan found themselves walking side by side in the Heavenly Plum League’s central garden. One day had passed since they had arrived in the Hidden Cloud Sect and they still felt like they hadn’t taken everything in. Everything about how Zhao Dongmei’s league functioned confused them. After all, her league did not seem like a housing that was meant for fighting. The majority of the large building was set up as tea houses and pleasure dens. A small part of it devoted to selling somewhat luxurious items. Yet, every Heavenly Plum League member they met was ridiculously strong. All Martial Ancestor Realms. Furthermore, Zhao Dongmei seemed to be one of the weakest cultivators in her league. However, she commanded the respect and devotion that Nie Li did in the Divine Feathers Sect. Xingyun knew that everyone from the Tiny World that came with Nie Li were unparalleled ferocious geniuses, but Dongmei had arrived in the Draconic Ruins Realm first. Her presence had been a shock to the Human Sects, as they had not seen a Tiny World person in years. Xingyun was beginning to realize how capable she really was. As he walked in the gardens with Gu Lan he took in the sight of her Heavenly Plum League. Every step filling him with more respect and admiration. Xingyun could see Xiao Lan admiring the outdoor tables. Commoners from the Hidden Cloud Sect were enjoying the special tea and the service of beautiful cultivators. The atmosphere seemed relaxing and pleasant. He suddenly felt that twinge in his heart again. “You know Xiao Lan this is quite shocking.” She turned to him and smiled. Xingyun felt like he was seeing her for the first time. “It is indeed. A very different approach then Nie Li, but just as effective.” Xingyun shook his head. “I was talking about you. My first impression was that of a sick child. My second was that of a strong sword master sworn to Nie Li. Now, I feel like I am meeting our Xiao Lan as a woman for the first time.” Xiao Lan took a few steps back stuttering. Her face red. “Xingyun, what are you even saying. You are interested in Dongmei.” He walked forward and caught her hand. It seemed the famed sword master was about to slip. The rumors that she only had interactions with her brother and no other males seemed to be true. “I admit, gazing at Xiao Mei for the first time was like looking at a rare flower, but when that fades it feels like there is nothing else there. Now, I look at Xiao Lan and see something else. It is quite shocking.” Xiao Lan smirked at him. She did not believe his words. “You say that after you see Duan Jian and her.” Xingyun pulled her towards another garden path. This one lead to the heart of the central gardens. “I think Xiao Lan underestimates my determination and overestimates by perversion. I am not similar to Little Gu Bei. Truly, when we traveled to this Sect I was surprised by how you seemed now.” Xiao Lan looked away from him at the flowers. It seemed she had been right. Nie Li had the power to rewrite fate. They walked in silence until they reached the end of the path. They had stumbled on some kind of gathering place. In the center of the circle clearing was a set off fighting area. There they saw Dongmei facing ten cultivators in the Martial Arts. To their surprise it seemed like she was there to instruct them. She did not seem to be fighting back, simply exposing masterful skills of defense. Neither could understand how she weaved through them and knocked them off balance so easily. The only signs of aggression coming from the occasional throw. Duan Jian was standing by the edge of the area observing the match. Scattered in the grass outer area was a collection of finely set tables. All containing Hierarchs and powerful families. They were being served food and chilled tea by extremely beautiful members of the Heavenly Plum League. They watched a man talking to Hierarch Greysky notice them. He came running over to them. When they reached them the broad shouldered heavily muscled man bowed with cupped hands. “Esteemed Guests, Huang Jianhui welcomes you to Central Cloud Garden.” Xingyun and Xiao Lan exchanged looks. Xiao Lan turning to the large man in confusion. “Huang Jianhui?” The man leaned back and laughed. It was a deep overbearing laugh. Reminding them of the idea that if a bear could laugh it would sound like this. “You met my cousin yesterday, Jianjun.” Both of them nodded their head in agreement. So he was a relative of Jianjun, how shocking. Jianjun did not resemble a large bear, but a well toned lean tiger. Jianhui snapped his fingers. The two watching a woman and man bring a table out over by the fighting area. They began to set it with food. He lead them to the table, pulling the chair out and sitting down before they even did. A beautiful woman with shocking red hair and eyes came over and handed them each a cup of chilled plum tea. Jianhui looked up at her smiling. “Thank you, Chenguang.” The girl looked at Xingyun and blushed. Nodding as she quickly ran off. Xiao Lan laughing. “Xingyun, you have seemed to accidentally pick up a sweet fruit.” He looked away from her in annoyance. Xingyun had attracted many beautiful women in the Divine Feathers Sect, but he come to realize since following Nie Li that there existed another kind of beauty. That is the beauty he now aimed for. Xingyun suspecting that Xiao Lan was in possession of this. Jianhui leaned forward smiling. “Esteemed Guest, Gu Lan, indeed has good eyes. Chenguang is third daughter of the Soft Sun Clan. Her father is the current Sect Master Hierarch Suncloud and her brother is the idiot Liu Jin Hai. Her current cultivation status is that of a fifth fate Martial Ancestor.” Xingyun looked at him in shock. She was the third daughter of the current Sect Master! Why then did she come and serve tea as a member of the Heavenly Plum League. She should be allied with her brother Liu Jin Hai, or controlling her own force. “Huuuuh.” Xingyun started to appraise Jianhui. He was only a first fate Martial Ancestor. Jianhui caught him staring and started to laugh again. “Esteemed Guests must be confused. Although our cultivation levels are very different, our relations within the Hidden Cloud Sect posses a certain kind of structure.” Xiao Lan may have lost her anxiousness to Dong Mei, but Jianhui was not as endearing. She narrowed her eyes. “Earlier you seemed to want to say Esteemed Guests Li Xingyun and Gu Lan. How do you know who we are when you have never been to the Divine Feathers Sect and I have never left it.” Jianhui’s demeanor changed as he leaned back into his chair. The once very friendly man seemed suddenly very serious. “Mistress Gu Lan, many of us have speculated who Meihua Xiannu brought back with her. However, no one would dare speak their suspicions out loud. She commands all of our respect. Please relax and enjoy our special Heavenly Plum Tea. Our Mistress has instructed us to answer any questions you have. May I suggest we converse as we spectate the Mistress’ match.” Dongmei had already instructed all of them to be prepared to answer their questions. Gu Lan was awed by her forethought. Li Xingyun concerned about how she demanded such loyalty from an entire sect. That was not an easy feat. Nie Li had accomplished that task. However, it was clear the two of them had used very different methods. Yet, the result was strikingly the same. The two of them casually glanced at the match. Dongmei’s martial prowess rivaled that of Nie Li and Yuyin. Her kicks stronger and better aimed then that of Yuyin and her ability to recognize weak areas as spot on as Nie Li. However, where Nie Li was aggressive she seemed to create an absolute defense that served as a method of offense. Xiao Lan turned back to Jianhui. “What is this event?” Jianhui lit up with a smile. “This is called the Thorn Dance. It is a time when we open up the Center Pavilion to entertain qualified guests with our league’s prowess. Often, powerful people from all walks of life come here to enjoy free food, medicinal tea and gambling. Meihua Xiannu uses it as an opportunity to better our physical bodies and impart a chance for us to display our strengths in front of well known Sect Elites.” Medicinal tea? It was true that the chilled plum tea stirred their interests, but what they felt was a warm push. Nothing compared to Nie Li’s elixirs. Xingyun scrunched his brow in confusion. “Xiao Mei’s Martial Prowess is certainly astounding. I wonder who taught her?” Jian Hui started laughing again. “Outsiders of our Sect may not know this, but to enter the Soul Wave Institute one must posses not only an impressive soul realm, but a certain level of martial ability. Many who pass the first test fail the second. However, not only was our Meihua Xiannu an unparalleled genius, but a master of martial techniques. She displayed these talents at her arrival to the Soul Wave Institute. Xiaoqing was defeated by her and came in second. It shocked the entire Sect. Wu Xiaoqing is the first in line successor of the Sky Seal Clan.” Xingyun let out another huuuuh. The Sky Seal Clan was an unparalleled family in the Hidden Cloud Sect. They were comparable to Long Yuyin’s Dragon Seal Family. However, the Sky Seal Clan maintained their power from the trade of arms, poisons and hired assassinations. Xiao Lan also seemed to scrunch her brow in confusion. “What of your cousin, Jianjun, then?” They followed his gaze towards his cousin. He was standing by the side talking to Xiaoqing. The two seemed to be taking notes of the “instructions” going on in the center. “Originally, my cousin was something like a worthless failure. After Meihua Xiannu tested her soul realm my cousin went up. He was the only one of our common merchant family that dreamed of becoming a cultivator. When he tested he did not even meet the qualifications to enter the Institute. Then suddenly, our Fairy stated she would not enter the Institute unless they allowed him to take the second test. When asked why they said she saw a fighting spirit in him. In the second round my cousin had a much stronger body and martial skill then the cultivators who passed the test. He came in third under Xiaoqing. The Institute leaders had said it was not a high enough level to accept him, but Fairy intervened and asked him to be her Right Hand. The matter was then finished. Jianjun had to enter the Institute.” Xingyun and Xiao Lan seemed to each have another question. Xingyun started first. “If he was expected to be nothing, but trash. How did he come to posses such power?” Xiao Lan adding, “Please explain how being named a right hand would ensure his entrance.” Jianhui turned to look at Dongmei. His eyes were watery and soft. “Meihua Xiannu spent most of her earlier time here aiding the cultivation and skills of commoners and ungifted talents. Each was personally gifted a cultivation technique, God Rate Spirits and advanced tutoring in cultivation tactics. She crafted my cousin into one of the strongest cultivators of our sect. As for the matter of right hand and left hand, our Sect is strictly structured. Each cultivator of the Hidden Cloud Sect chooses a Right and Left hand. They are their more then just sworn allies, but extensions of who they are within the Sect. They go where ever their center goes. It is how I entered the Institute later in life. My cousin, Jianjun, asked me to be his right hand. Chenguang for example is much lower down on the tree.” The two shook their heads with understanding. This was indeed a highly organized system. Xiao Lan speaking up once again. “What matters led to someone like Xiaoqing becoming Xiao Mei’s Left Hand?” Jianhui turned his attention to the fairy standing next to his cousin. “When Xiaoqing lost many of her high ranked uncles and aunts came to kill our Fairy. Somehow, none of them were able too. Instead, she had them escort her to the Sky Seal Clan. There she met Wu Xiaoqing’s mother. It seemed her body was destroyed by the Blackened Rain Clan. As they had feared her growing power. Fairy was able to cure her and restore her cultivation. The Sky Seal Clan became indebted to her. All she had asked of them was to help her provide tools for the commoners she took under her wing. It is said that she told Wu Qingling that many of the leaders she had observed were leading this sect to ruin, so she wished to support a generation of cultivators who understood a wider view of the sky. The Hidden Cloud Sect had no reason to be viewing from a well. Wu Qingling agreed on the condition that she aid her own daughter in cultivation. Xiaoqing decided on the spot to become her Left Hand. Fairy accepting. It was later revealed that the Blackened Rain Clan had received a secret poison from the Demon Sect. Meihua Xiannu eradicted the entire family with the help of the Sky Seal Clan and earned her first praise from the Sect Master.” The two looked back at Dongmei. The ten Heavenly Plum League’s members had left the field. Duan Jian walking towards her. Wings spread wide. Jianhui smiling at the scene. “Besides Jianjun and Xiaoqing, the only two capable of matching her martial prowess is Duan Jian and Demon Lord. Spectators often come to witness their exchange.” The two nodded their heads. “Jianhui, if the Sect Master’s son is up for his possession why then is he here spectating on this match?” Xingyun turned his head to look at the current Sect Master. He was smiling away at the beauties. Jianhui seemed to regard him with a sense of disgust. “The competition later today is just formalities. He intends to have his son save some face. Fairy had been selected since years ago. After the incident with the Blackened Rain Clan she had served as an advisor to the Sect Master. All Demon Sect spies were discovered and killed off. Spies of her own seemed to appear in other Sects, numerous gifts to the Sect were given out and she warned the Sect Leader of tragedies to come. Her accuracy never wrong. The entire Sect knows that in one month we will loose to the Divine Feathers Sect. When you closed your doors she announced to many of us our fate. Fairy explained that it does not have to be a failure, but a step to our success and foresight. Lose and create a stable unparalleled force. Naturally, we all agreed.” They turned to Dongmei in shock. How could she possibly have known. Nie Li killed off all spies. He was an existence similar to Mount Tai in their Sect. Yet, she knew. Her fight with Duan Jian capturing their intention. Both of them seemed to be smiling. Dongmei caught their eyes and stopped the fight. “Xiao Lan! Come over and join.” Xingyun looked at her shock. Jianhui and the rest laughing. They raised their glasses at her. Xiao Lan stood up and walked over. Duan Jian returning to a stone demeanor. She smiled at Dongmei. “Xiao Mei, why request to fight me. Duan Jian seems more capable then I.” Dongmei laughed. “Sister is too humble. Your sword intent is beyond us. I wish to try my hand.” Sword intent. That was a rather specific thing to be interested in. The sword did not suit her. Duan Jian sighed and walked out of the clearing. A Heavenly Plum League boy coming over and handing her a sword. She saw the young child blush at her. A young girl had handed Dongmei a fan. She intended to fight her sword with a fan. It was not a good match up. “Xiao Mei, why don’t we fight without weapons. You can still witness my sword intent.” She chuckled into her sleeve. “Sister Lan, you have no reason to worry about my safety. Please, explain to these Hierarchs the Divine Feathers Sect’s true strength.” Dongmei was too smart. She knew Nie Li sent them here to watch her. Yet, she managed to turn the whole situation around to aid her own agenda. Nie Li would have to be made aware of her abilities. Xiao Lan nodded and stepped back, gathering her sword intent. Dongmei flicking her fan open with the slightest movement of the wrist. Wind blowing out from her. Indeed, Dongmei’s skill with the fan must be masterful. A defensive weapon for a defensive expert. However, Gu Lan was not a defensive expert. She was a killing expert. She waited for Duan Jian to call the match to start and then ran towards Dongmei. She intended to end this with one swing. To her shock Dongmei managed to take one step to the right and remain unscathed. Her fan snapping shut and heading towards her neck. She barely recovered in time to guard with the hilt of her sword. Dangerous. Dongmei was very dangerous. Xiao Lan turned to see her smiling at her. Waves of chills running down her spine. The two began to exchange blow after blow. The spectators standing to watch in excitement. Many Heavenly Plum League members sitting down to watch the match for notes. Xiao Lan had to admit her martial prowess seemed to help her survive against her techniques. Many times over she felt herself hit in the sides, neck, stomach or head with her fan. Xiao Lan even had times where she was pushed off balance by the tip of her fan. She felt the urge to end this quickly. Xiao Lan gathered up all her remaining sword intent and rushed Xiao Mei. What happened next she still can’t explain. At the last second Xiao Mei opened up her fan, allowing the blade to run through it. She pulled her fan downwards twisting the blade from Xiao Lan’s hands. Xiao Mei offering her a hand afterwards. “Xiao Lan is indeed incredible. I have never had to sacrifice a fan to an opponent so far. Even having to go so far as sealing parts of your intents off.” So that’s what she did. Every strike was planned to weaken her. How diabolical. A predator pretending to be prey. The crowd cheered. Many Heavenly Plum League members shouting her name in praise. None of them could make Xiao Mei go that far. Xingyun walked to the center field and smiled at her. “Xiao Lan. You are indeed as strong as I thought.” Xiao Lan was very confused. Why was she the one receiving all the praise. Duan Jian walked over and quietly took one of Dongmei’s hands. He turned to whisper in her ear. Her face turning completely red. The crowd roaring back to life. Hierarch Suncloud walked over to them. As well as Jianjun and Xiaoqing. The Sect Master smiled at Xingyun and Xiao Lan. “The Divine Feathers Sect is indeed as powerful as Dongmei has predicted. I see why she campaigned we form a true and honest partnership. With youth like you, I may not have to worry about our futures. Please come by to chat when you have time in the future.” Xiao Mei smiled at the two of them. “How great. You two are already friends with Sect Master Suncloud. It took months for the old man to warm up to me.” Everyone seemed to laugh. Xingyun and Xiao Lan realizing how skilled Dongmei could be. She had introduced the power of the Divine Feathers Sect and erased all doubt of not following her lead in forming strong ties with the Divine Feathers Sect. Xingyun bowed and cupped his hands. “We would be honored, Sect Master Suncloud.” The old man laughed again. Duan Jian bowed to the Sect Master. “Sect Master Suncloud, I wish to escort Xiao Hua to a smaller pavilion to rest. May we take our leave now.” The old man nodded his head delighted. How could he stop two geniuses from getting together. “Go on, Duan Jian. I believe we all wish to converse with Li Xingyun and Gu Lan.” Xiao Mei winked at the two of them and followed Duan Jian out. Xiaoqing turning to Jianjun. “Da Jun, I believe it is time we go too.” He smiled at her and took her hand. The two of them shocked. They had not expected that to be a pair. Dongmei’s Right and Left Hand disappearing from the field. A crowd of people rushing over to them.
Duan Jian escorted her to a small pavilion in the Winter Plum Garden. He poured her chilled tea and sat next to her. Dongmei leaning into him. He seemed worried as he looked at her. “You push yourself too hard.” She smiled sadly at him. “In order to defeat the Sage Emperor I must.” Duan Jian pulled her onto his lap. He rested his head against hers. “We cannot win if you lose your life before the battle.” Dongmei wanted to laugh, but she couldn’t. Her existence in this timeline was not stable. She was an after image brought back from the future. An accident from the two pages that fell from the Temporal Demon Spirit Book. However, it had led her to the one person she felt like she could love and trust. Dongmei chose to nod her head slightly. She really did think she loved this man. Even if the Celestial Frost Feathered Pheonix Heart had frozen her heart solid. It still allowed the person to feel the warmth of love. She had found it in Duan Jian. “Duan Jian, I have no interest in leaving you just yet.” He smiled sadly at her. “In the future I am dead. You are a slave. Nie Li has changed that for us. We must make use of the gift.” Dongmei nodded. She loved how reliable his wide chest was. “Never waste.” He pulled her in closer and kissed her forehead. “Meihua Xiannu, what do we do now.” She reached her arms over his neck. “We ensure Nie Li has everything in order.” The two kissed. Duan Jian scooping her up and walking back towards the Tea House.
Nie Li sat in the chair of his room. Long Yuyin standing behind him. He had just received a letter from Duan Jian. He explained why he kept Zhao Dongmei from him. She had told him of the Sage Emperor. Had expressed knowledge of his future death and her plans to confront the Sage Emperor. Swore to him she owed Nie Li her second life. Grateful, that she did not have to also destroy the Demon Lord’s life, as she owed him her first. The letter was ended with a single shocking line. An apology for falling in love with someone that was a potential risk to the man he owed his life too. The statement that he would kill himself if requested by Nie Li to fix his own betrayal. Not that Nie Li considered it a betrayal. Duan Jian had provided him with a thorough account of all her actions since he met her. The two of them being married seemed like a debt owed to them from their first tragic lives. Did his faithful brother not deserve to be happy? He turned around to Long Yuyin. “Yuyin, it seems trouble may be coming faster then expected.” She walked over and took the letter from his hands. Even she seemed filled with worry. “Nie Li, this matter has gotten even more complicated then what you told me. Can you destroy the woman your loyal follower loves.” He leaned back into his chair and shook his head. “I don’t think I can if it is real love.” Long Yuyin knelt. “If it needs to be done to secure our future, I will do it.” He sighed and patted her shoulder. “Yuyin, I know our relationship started with intense anger and mistrust, but you so far have become a precious student of mine. At the moment, only you know of our greatest enemy. Why would I stain the hands of my close friend.” Tears welled up in Yuyin’s eyes. This was the nicest thing Nie Li had ever said to her. Even if Xiao Ning’er and Ye Ziyun was in his heart, she now had taken the place as one of his most trusted and loyal aids. She would stand by his side as they all struck down the Sage Emperor. How could one not be satisfied with that? He would take her along with him to the pinnacle of strength. It was her original most important dream. Nie Li stood up from his chair. “I do wonder though. Would their child have wings?” Long Yuyin burst out laughing. “Isn’t that a little soon to wonder.” He shook his head. “Yuyin you are still naive to the ways of man. If a man like Duan Jian is requesting to marry her then he plans to create a family very quick. I suspect his knowledge of the Sage Emperor makes him feel the desire to have a family even more.” Yuyin stood up. “One can relate. However, the idea seems too selfish and dangerous.” Nie Li nodded his head. “It is very selfish, but it proof of human spirit. Even I at times wonder if I could have a family soon. Then if I die to help succeed in the death of the Sage Emperor at least a part of my care towards everyone remains behind. Maybe even someone who can help ensure a stable future.” Yuyin leaned forward. “My mother’s offer….What if we took marriage off the table for now.” Nie Li looked at her shock. “Yuyin.” She looked at him shyly. “I think what Master Nie Li says is correct. Now would be the only time we all could do something like this. Soon we must go out and face the hardest cultivation of our lives. Fight the hardest enemy. Many of us will die for the sake of all of our futures. This is the moment we can breathe.” Nie Li looked at her in shock. He already had two women in his heart. There was no room for Long Yuyin in that way. He had no desire to anger Ning’er or Ziyun with playboy antics. “Yuyin. It would stall your cultivation. You are one of the most talented sisters I have.” Yuyin looked away from him. “Your excuse is understand. Yet, I will still ask you to think this over. I can guarantee it will not come with any strings attached other then if we survive you love the child as a father.” She turned and walked out of the room. Nie Li pulling out his chair to collapse into it. He was accumulating too many new debts in this life. Still, the urge to have a child was in him as well. Nie Li at least wanted to marry Ziyun before they marched to their deaths. If he could give his sworn brothers and sisters anything it would be there chance at love. He wrote a letter to Xiao Xue, Ziyun, Ning’er, Du Ze, Duan Jian and the rest. He said that if their was anyone they loved and wished to marry he would support them. When the gate to the Tiny World opens they will greet each other’s families and move forward. “This is the only sure thing I can offer you all now.”
Three Variations of the Plum Blossom Theme 梅花三弄
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