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Generated: Jul 04, 2021 3:27 PM
Post last updated: Jul 04, 2021 3:27 PM
Sometimes it stares back
Bys in modern earth joins a cultivator chatroom
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Fishing can swing between 'peaceful' and 'boring' real quick. And God help you if you suggest that it's not actual hard work, at least if you're going to make a living out of it. Why did she go with uncle for a trip out to sea and help with the nets again?

Oh. Right. Because she likes the ocean. And for spending money. She has a whole forty quid now, for ten hours' hard work. That's probably illegal or something, but whatever. He's family. Enough to order something online. There's a nice badass-looking leather journal that would make a good dark tome, or maybe she should look for a nice cowl or something...

Eh. After a shower and a nap, she logs on to her computer for some nice aimless browsing. There's a few Discord servers she likes lurking in particularly.

Huh, what's that? Invite to a new server? Someone mass-inviting people, maybe. Sure, why not.

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Everyone please welcome a promising new Cultivator to the server! Butterfly Dancer of the Su sect is a Battle Queen at only twenty-five years of age, a quite remarkable feat. Black Cross got in contact with her recently and vouches for her.

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Welcome, Butterfly Dancer! Did you recently change your Daoist name? 

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I like the new one better. It's metal. 

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Welcome, Abyssal Bride. What has Black Cross told you about the group?

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Uh, seniors? This isn't Butterfly Dancer. I don't know who it is. 

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Are you sure?

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I'm sure, I have Butterfly Dancer in my friends list right now.

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DM me her ID?

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There.

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It seems I made a typo and invited the wrong person. One moment.

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Welcome Butterfly Dancer! This time for sure.

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Thank you! It's very good to be here among so many talented seniors. Thank you again for the invitation!

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What should we do about the accidental invitation?

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One moment, I'm drawing lots.

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Ooh, let me try!~ 

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Great Disaster.

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Oh, we should let the new person stay then.

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My lots say "great compatibility" and "grand success." It's unanimous.

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But didn't Black Cross say it would be a disaster?

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Black Cross' lots are always backwards.

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Hmph.

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Anyway. Until Eight Tails contradicts me the newcomer can stay. They'll probably leave soon anyways. 

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Yes, Senior Starlight.

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Heh. Nice. It seems like pretty different RP from what she's used to, but...

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Hello. I am honored to witness those of obvious power. In all of heaven and earth and the abyss there are ever more mysteries, so I am happy to listen. Perhaps some day the time will come where I may contribute what petty dark knowledge I glean.

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A good attitude to start with, I think.

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Abyssal Bride, are you a Daoist? The name seems indicative of a demonic cultivator but I hesitate to jump to conclusions.

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I am only a bare initiate into the mysteries. Perhaps the name is presumptuous, but I have always loved the ocean.

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Looks like we have a guinea pig for you, Winter Rose.

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I already have Black Cross to test my current pills on. 

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Oh, that reminds me. I've collected that list of ingredients you wanted, Winter Rose. 

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Including the Spring Mountain Grass?

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Yes! I even have some extra left over.

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You can keep it, what I ordered should be a sufficient quantity.

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Thank you Senior!

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Don't mention it, you're the one who put in the effort.

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(She is looking at something else now, but occasionally looking back to the new chat.)

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You'll be sending me another batch of pills, then.

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Body tempering liquid and qi and blood pills. 

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How will you be sending it?

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By sword, of course.

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I'll watch for it.

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Here's my current best recipe if anyone else would like to take a shot at improving it:

There's an attachment listing many herbs used in chinese traditional medicine, as well as a number of more fantastical ingredients such as Spring Mountain Grass.

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You know I'm not a pill person.

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I'll take a shot at it and report my results.

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She does some googling. A very Chinese theme going on here. Flying swords, qi, ginseng and stuff... Her own interests don't really fit in. Interesting that they're going for this much verisimilitude, though.

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If anyone needs unusual fish, pearls, or so on for their recipes, I suspect I am in a good position to acquire them. I live by the ocean and have contacts in this area.

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Thank you for the offer, Abyssal Bride. I'll keep it in mind.

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Out of curiosity, she looks up all the ingredients in the recipe and tries to figure out how much it would cost to make.

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Most of it would cost about £10, but there's a particular herb that's apparently £200 an ounce. And there are four ingredients she can't find with google. 

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Huh. She looks for alternate names for those four ingredients. They're probably from some fiction or something, right? That leads her into spending the rest of the evening reading a Chinese manga, and forgetting about the chatroom until a couple of days later after work when she checks again.

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Hey Abyssal Bride, you wouldn't happen to be by the Irish Sea would you? I've heard you can catch Dragonfish there.

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Pegasidae, also called Sea Moths? Or 'black dragonfish', which are sort of eel-like? Or something else?

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Black dragonfish. Their eyes are useful in a few things, as well as the chemicals that make them bioluminescent. We'd be catching females of course, the males don't generally get close enough to the surface to fish for. 

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The serene depths of night offer no protection if you willingly leave them.

I've never seen someone deliberately go for those before but I suppose it'd be possible. And yes, I'm in Wales. Boat rent is expensive though, I don't have my own.

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Oh, no need to worry about that. Winter Rose always covers the costs of these ingredient hunts.

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If she's willing to spend a lot of money on this I suppose that's one obstacle down. Fishing at night is legitimately dangerous business though. The sea is not forgiving. Is it worth it?

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Yes, definitely. But I'd need your help, I'm hopeless at fishing. 

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...Really, really dedicated hobby group. If Black Cross actually goes through with it, anyway. Well, people spend their money on weird stuff all the time.

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I can help if you hire me. Two people to handle a ship big enough for ocean fishing, at night, is slightly iffy so I may want a third I know as well.

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That's fine. Where will we meet?

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She DMs an address- The local marina, and adds to the DM-

When? I'll need a couple days to arrange things. Weekend would be ideal. And you'll need to prepay when you get here, fyi.

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This Saturday works for me. I'll need some time to recover from the trip anyways. 

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Sounds like a plan. 7 PM should give us enough time to get out to sea and start trying to catch some.

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Okay! It looks like she's doing this. She can charge a good amount, too, if expenses are covered... Who would be a good fit, who wouldn't balk at the prospect of night fishing... Argie isn't usually doing anything on the weekends, and wouldn't turn them down, she doesn't think. Not if he can charge a bit more than usual for boat rental and skipper services.

Ah. Fishing equipment. She looks up what might be needed to catch this specific variety of fish. There's not much information online, though. Asks around town, tells them it's for some rich hobbyist wanting a live specimen. She writes down what the old sea dogs have to say and goes around buying or borrowing what they suggest, too.

She's going to be charging a nice finder's fee too. An opportunity for spending money~ And a bit of an adventure too!

She's standing by the Marina entrance with a little sign that says 'Black Cross' at 7 PM Saturday.

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It's pretty easy to guess who Black Cross is. Black lipstick, black eyeliner, black hair, black nail polish, black dress, black purse. She smiles and waves when she sees the sign. 

"Abyssal Bride?" 

She has a light Canadian accent, all rounded and lilting. 

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"That's me. Good to meet you. I've got things planned out. Argie Burke is one of the finest captains in town," because that's the kind of thing you say no matter what the truth is, though it does happen to be true in this case, "His ship Saint David is a 70-foot diesel trawler - plenty big enough to be stable and safe as long as the weather holds, and the forecast looks good."

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"You'll want to sort out payment, right? Let me see here -" 

She fishes in her purse and pulls out a glossy black credit card. "Credit would be best, but I have cash on me too, I just don't want to flash it around." 

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"Captain Burke would probably prefer cash - he wants you to sign a waiver too, so let's go see him." She indicates the ship in question. "Also, I asked around for the best way to try and catch a black dragonfish, so let's compare notes on that front as we're heading out?"

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"Alright." She puts the credit card back in her purse. "Let's go then. You can call me Nix in public, by the way."

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"I go by Bettrys."

 

Captain Burke is a cheerful man of fifty-five with only faint hints of Fischer-ness. If she wants go looking for a rare fish, that's her prerogative and he'll do his best to enable it as long as the money flows! His rate is not exorbitant for the hiring of such a big ship, but, well... Boats are expensive. He says Betty's pay is coming out of the boat hire fee, so there's no separate line item for it.

(She prefers to be called 'Trys' than 'Betty', as nicknames go, but this is not worth arguing with the Captain about.)

He'll add on 20% to the price if she wants to use a credit card, "On account of maybe you'll issue a chargeback later. First time customer thing, it's only business."

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"Oh, in that case I'll just pay cash." 

She fishes in her purse, pulls out a black wallet, and from the wallet extracts a thick wad of fifty pound notes. "This ought to cover it." 

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(How rich is she? Well. She'll just do her best to be professional and impressive.)

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The Captain diligently counts out enough for 8 hours, then lays out an injury risk waiver for Nix to sign. "Now, we're going to be trawling with the nets at the right depth for your black dragonfish. At night and at that depth, there's not a lot of other fish in the sea, hence the hefty fee. You'll get some of this money back, depending on how full my nets are and how much you pick out of them. I'll be on the bridge the whole time, you and miss Bettrys will have to work the nets. You'll both be wearing lines and safety equipment. She knows how, one hand and a greenhorn will be able to handle a quarter the usual haul-in."

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"Alright." She signs the waiver as Nix Rowan. "I'll make sure to stay alert and listen to all your instructions."

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They go on board. Bettrys very diligently and seriously goes over maritime safety rules and net operation with Nix. The ship sets out, deck lights on. It's cold, but she doesn't seem very bothered in that short-sleeve collared shirt. Once they're sailing out to sea, silence falls for a time.

Would it be weird to talk about the RP server? Would Nix want her to? Engaging with it might lead to repeat business, after all. It's not real and it feels a little - cringey, to be honest. But she's curious, though. The conversations in the server have a sense of weight and reality to them, and that's neat. Will it be the same in real life?

"Do you know where one would get, uh, morning dew grass? I couldn't actually find any to buy under that name."

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"Spring Mountain Grass, you mean? It mostly grows in the Chinese mountains. The sects there cultivate it and trade it for other ingredients. You should ask Butterfly Dancer to send you some, she has extra and it's mostly useless to her, she's past the need for such low-level stuff."

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"A-huh. Makes sense."

And then they have work to do getting the nets ready and hauling things up and down, and there's not much time for talking.

 

They catch some fish. Lots of fish, hundreds, even if the nets could easily hold thousands. Hardly any of them are black dragonfish. Bettrys and Nix both have their hands full digging through the piles of fish- pushing any that aren't the one she wants into a hole that leads to a holding tank.

Eventually, they catch two female black dragonfish in the same net, carefully separated out from the rest of the catch and put in a plastic cooler.

"Do you want to keep trawling for more?"

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"No, these should be sufficient. I don't want to spend more time out here than necessary."

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"-If you say so. We'll just get the nets in and then head back to shore, then."

She uses her walkie-talkie to talk to the skipper and finishes clearing the nets.

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Well then, while the skipper's distracted - 

Black Cross pulls an aquarium out of her purse, and fills it with dragonfish and seawater. Then she pulls out a sword, spucks the aquarium down on top of it, taps a star at the base of the sword, and lets go. 

The sword shoots off into the night at considerable velocity.

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What.

 

 

She stares momentarily, then goes back to tidying the nets. Maybe shaking slightly.

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Nix doesn't seem to have noticed, or maybe she's just being polite. She occupies herself with her work and stays quiet all the way back.

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They end up standing quietly with no more work on the way back.

 

No guts no glory.

 

"...So, it's all real? Really real, not some kind of elaborate RP? I didn't just hallucinate a bag of holding and a flying sword?"

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Nix wordlessly extends her purse so Trys can see inside it. 

Her wallet is about the size of a thumbnail. There's a collection of paper seals next to it, equally tiny, along with a centimetre-long bottle of black nail polish, and a similarly sized nail file and compact makeup kit. There's also a compressed hand mirror, an itty-bitty smartphone, and a scattering of tiny red beads.

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"I would humbly ask for your wisdom, far greater than mine in the hidden powers. I admit... I don't actually know anything. Nothing besides what I've read in that chatroom."

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" - fuck, I thought you were at least Beyond Mortal, what was Senior Starlight thinking -" 

She rubs her forehead. "Later. We can get breakfast somewhere private." 

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"I know I'm weird- Fischers are weird as hell and there's only, what, a couple hundred of us? Never really - thought anything more of it... Yeah, breakfast."

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"Monster bloodline. Later." She pulls her phone out of her purse and starts tapping at it.

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Abyssal Bride is mortal, saw me send Winter's sword home. Advise?

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Standard protocol.

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Tell her about me!

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Read her in and let her make her own decision. Remember my lots.

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Yes, Silver Starlight.

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"Careful with that, no way you're getting it back if it goes over," she says. Then sighs and looks out over the dark sea.

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Nix nods and puts her phone back in her purse. 

"Senior Starlight says I can tell you more. Glad I can do it without risking the wrath of the group."

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"So it's a secret society, masquerade type thing?"

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"Sometimes there are incidents but it's kept quiet usually."

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"Mm."

She's silent until they're pulling in under the marina's lights. It's still the dead of night - 1:35 AM. She helps tie the ship down. The skipper gives Nix about half her cash back. Bettrys carries the cooler from earlier off the boat, to disguise the fact that the fish are already gone.

"There's a 24 hour diner down the street. I'm extremely curious but maybe it would be better for us both to sleep first?"

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She fishes a red pill out of her purse. "Take thi- Wait, you're not a cultivator. Fuck. Okay, I'll get a hotel room and we'll reconvene in the morning. Nine o'clock? And I'll pay for your breakfast."

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"RIght. Sorry for the delay, and thank you. I could push through, but sleepiness makes people stupid. Scientific fact."

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"It's no problem. I'll DM you when I wake up in the morning. See you!" 

She waves and heads off down the street, pulling out her phone to get directions to the nearest hotel.

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She sets her alarm for 8. And checks her phone at 8. And then gets dressed and paces in her room a lot.

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At 8:45:

Hey, you up? Do they have Smittys in the UK? This feels like a giant waffle occasion.

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Not a lot of chain stores in this little village but Aberystwyth has a good waffle place. Half hour by bus. Or the local cafe, but it's really more a fish and chips place.

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I can't believe I'm seriously considering delaying this another half hour just for waffles. 

You know what, you decide. I'll pay for whatever you decide to get and I can manage fish and chips for breakfast if need be.

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Nah they've got breakfast stuff. Just not giant waffles, regular ones maybe. And pancakes and french toast?

Address

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French toast is better than a half hour drive by a long shot. Deal. See you there!

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She takes a lightning-quick shower and is there in ten minutes.

"Hey again. I'm starving. For food and information both."

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Nix waves from her place at the table. "I've already ordered french toast for both of us, hope you don't mind. So - ask away."

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"Nah, don't mind."

 

"...Bearing in mind I expect it to be difficult and painful, any reason I should not try to cultivate?"

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"Your potential is probably going to be capped by the fact that you didn't start cultivating when you were very young. If you join a sect you will be expected to cut all ties with the outside world until you become a master - quite possibly for your family's entire natural lifespan - and if you're a loose cultivator you'll be begging for table scraps. Also you could well be killed by a rival cultivator who wants what you have. That's... pretty much it. You have a monster bloodline though, so the first thing applies less to you."

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"The rich get richer." Sigh. "So monsters are a real thing? That's some high fantasy stuff."

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"Yeah, they exist. Some of them are smart and can take human shapes. Hence Fischers. You're probably a little bit related to those fish we caught yesterday."

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"Huh. Not sure I like that. But at least it's useful. We - I, at least, can hold my breath for a long time and handle cold better, and I'm stronger than I should be. Body tempering liquid is the start?"

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"The start is being fit enough to drink body tempering liquid and not die. It, uh... It helps if you're a virgin. Or gay. No intermingling of Yin and Yang essences. I would guess you're fit enough either way from your monster bloodline and from serving on fishing boats, you've got a good build going. It'd help if I sent a photo of you to Snow Rose, they'd be better able to judge it."

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"...Unless just kissing counts I should be good on that front." She blushes deep blue, apparently. "A photo is fine at this point, though. Just please don't share it too wide."

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Nix holds up her phone. "Say cheese." 

Snap. And into DMs with Winter Rose.

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Can a mortal woman with this physique who's never mingled their Yin essence successfully take Body Tempering Fluid?

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Looks A-OK. Found a volunteer, have we?

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Still talking. We'll see.

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"Winter Rose says you should be okay."

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"Good, good... Hm. You said I could get robbed, as a loner. Does the government not know about cultivators? Nobody who'd enforce laws?"

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"The proportion of criminal cultivators is a lot higher than among normal people. It's easy to become powerful in the mortal world with divinations and magical services, and the power goes to a lot of people's heads. There's an informal détente - you're supposed to fight on the Grievance Settling Platform if you have a clash between sects, for example - but a lot of cultivators flaunt the rules. It's good to know and stay on the good side of stronger people. Which is why I let Snow Rose use me as her gopher."

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"It's probably too idealistic of me to think... Doing what's right should be mandatory. But who says what's right? Agh, cut myself off that train of thought or I'll be philosophizing about the nature of power and why state violence is considered legitimate. Um." She nibbles on waffles. "I'm glad to have indirectly helped Snow Rose, then."

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"If you decide to try her new Body Tempering Liquid recipe and come over to our side she'll probably repay you for that and this with a few blood and qi pills - the red things you saw in my purse, they let you cultivate faster and do a better Hundred Days' Foundation Building."

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"Hrm. Obvious enough name for the first step. Come over to your side meaning, what, being on tap for errands? Joining a sect?"

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"Deciding to become a cultivator. It doesn't really matter whether you cultivate loosely or not, a sect wouldn't prioritize you because you won't have newborn qi for your foundation building... You'll be bottom of the totem pole either way. You wouldn't have to do errands, but if you wanted to advance..."

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"Oh. I'm not going to get anything for nothing, I know that." She takes a deep breath. "I think I will. It's a direction in life, and - a wakeup call, I guess. I could just keep fishing forever, but I'm only treading water. So. She wants an amateur to try the new recipe? See if it's really as easy as all that, and any good at all?"

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"Yeah. It would help a lot with potency testing."

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"...Yeah, 'experimental medicine'. Hah. Well, that's how it goes. Glad to be of assistance. Are there books I can read on the world of cultivation? I wouldn't want to be a pest to the group asking stupid basic questions all the time."

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"Not really, no. Knowledge's pretty closely guarded, since it often makes the difference between life and death. You should ask Silver Starlight, she's the admin and would know what's safe to share. That said, I can sketch the broad picture for you. 

First things first - China is the heartland of cultivation and cultivators from there rule basically everything they have a care to, because it takes hundreds of years to develop high rank and the Chinese have always guarded their knowledge jealously. On the other hand, the world is very large and there is no translation charm. So the chinese cultivators who have their hooks in other countries are mostly quite young - Battle Kings, mostly - and as a result a lot of the planet is really still up for grabs. The chat group is mostly made up of international genius practitioners who've made fifth rank in under two hundred years. So in short: Don't piss off China. Silver Starlight and Eight Tails are sixth-rank True Monarchs and can wipe out whole sects on their own, but even together they're no match for a seventh-stage Venerable."

She pauses to accept the food from the waitress, and takes a slug of her milk. "Looks tasty. Where was I? Oh yes, cultivation ranks. There are nine major ranks - Beyond Mortal, True Master, Battle King, Inborn, Spirit Sovereign, True Monarch, Spirit Venerable, Profound or Ancient Saint or Demon, Tribulation Immortal. Spirit Sovereign is genuinely impressive, True Monarch and above are terrifying. Battle King is the strongest rank you can expect someone to reach in eighty years - I've been in Beyond Mortal for three years now, trying and failing to leap the Dragon Gate." 

She frowns. "I'm telling this all out of order. I should start from the beginning of the cultivation process." She pours syrup on her french toast and starts cutting it up. "To complete the first rank, you do the Hundred Days' Foundation Building, open your Heart Aperture - that makes you Beyond Mortal - then open your five senses and finally complete fish leaping the dragon gate, and that gives you True Qi and makes you a True Master. The five apertures are fairly easy, you can get them in under a year, but leaping the dragon gate can take forty years if you don't have the resources to force your way through. About one in every seventeen cultivators never makes it past. I've tried three times now over three years and never succeeded."

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She has a notebook, into which she is all but scribbling.

"And even the first rank makes you stronger? What is - actually 'cultivating' like?"

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Nix puts some french toast in her mouth, chews, swallows. Washes it down with milk. "The body tempering liquid will put you in the prime of physical health, and then completing the Hundred Days' Foundation Building and opening your heart aperture will give you another forty years of healthy life or thereabouts. Opening your five sense apertures will sharpen the senses significantly and might give you unique abilities - I have a scent ability, I can track like a bloodhound and determine things' makeup just from how they smell, very useful for testing ingredients. Once you break through to True Master your lifespan doubles to around 240 years, and it keeps increasing after that. Senior Red is around 500 years old."

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"The last stage had 'immortal' in the name..."

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"Not technically ageless, but a lifespan measured in millions of years. Practical immortality."

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"Wow. But not without a lot of hard work and luck."

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"Fifth rank - Spirit Sovereign - is a reasonable lifetime achievement to shoot for, and has a lifespan of about a thousand years."

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"I'm eager to get started. And glad I took you seriously. If you need help with errands like this in future, I'm almost certainly willing."

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Nix halfsmiles. "Eat your french toast. Things will take a little while even at the fastest speed. Remember, cultivation can take centuries. Going at it impetuously is a good way to die."

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"Sooner started sooner finished, though."

She takes a deep breath and eats her breakfast.

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"True. Some geniuses cultivate astonishingly fast." She shoves more french toast into her mouth. "You can't bet on being a genius though. I bet there'll be people in the group with jobs for you if you look."

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Bettrys eats more slowly.

"...If I'm gonna be anything, it's determined, I think. I'm no genius by any measure."

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"Good attitude. Keep your head down and you might still be around in a century."

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"Anything else I should know now instead of asking later?"

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"No sharing techniques without permission unless you want nobody to ever share techniques with you again. Don't go talking to randoms about this. Oh, and - do you have a private place to practice?"

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"No. Just a small apartment. I'll make sure to find one."

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"Silver Starlight owns a house in Cardiff if you'd be willing to move. Free rent."

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"...I'll have to think about it. It's probably less valuable than those pills to her, but still it's a sort of debt. And I am used to here."

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"Whatever you decide." 

She keeps eating.

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French toast and coffee and contemplation.

 

"...That's a cool look, by the way. I've thought about buying more gothy stuff but, uh, I guess I'm not actually sure why I haven't."

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"I was like that once. But, like, your time is short. Live your best life."

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"...Mmh. I reject death. It is the ultimate enemy, the destruction of all that makes a person be. There is nothing good, in isolation, about death. Even evil people - it'd be better to put them where they couldn't hurt anyone, if you could do that for free. The greatest possible loss of anything in this world, each person unique- You know, they say scientists are making progress on mundane therapies to delay aging? It's incredibly complicated biochemistry of course, but..." She shakes her head. "I guess that's predicated on, sort of, absorbed nihilism and atheism. I don't know if the cultivation world has any better insight into divinity or afterlife than the mundane one."

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"Oh, me too. I'm just pretty fatalistic. One of the group died a year ago, it was pretty messy. Left an impact on me. And there's the tribulations between ranks - those kill cultivators too. So overall your chances of making high rank are slim."

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"Oh. Sorry." She blushes again. She's getting emotional whiplash, a bit. "I think I will just - buy things I want, later. And I'll ask Winter Rose about that recipe later today. Good luck with whatever else you have to scavenger hunt for, by the way."

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"It happens. And thank you. You finished with your french toast?"

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"Close enough, anyway."

She proceeds to quickly down what remains.

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Nix sets a red pill next to Trys' plate. 

"For being cool. Don't use this unless you've already taken body tempering liquid, and you'll want to just hold it in your mouth and suck on it to start with. It'll refill your blood and qi. Any last questions before I go?"

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She carefully puts the little pill into her wallet, which goes in a pocket. (Handbag? Her? No, thank you.)

"-Use sparingly, especially at first, got it. Not a question, but I'm not that cool. Have a nice day."

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"See you online. Later." 

Black Cross leaves a fifty pound note on the table, gets up, and leaves. 

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Trys chats with the waitress some, explains Nix as 'a friend who wanted to see real fishing boats'. After a bit, goes home, reads the backlog, and posts to the cultivator chat room-

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Black Dragonfish hunting w/Black Cross = success. And I see I've already been discussed. I was really surprised! Once again honored to be included. @Winter Rose, Black Cross told me you were looking for someone willing to try an experimental formula?

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Mhm. Are you willing to take a trip out for it? I have pill furnaces going right now, so I can't just abandon them. 

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Definitely, especially if you're in the EU.

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Berlin. I'll pay your travel expenses, don't worry. Here's my address.

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I'll be able to come by this week, I think. Any particular time or day?

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I'll be minding my furnaces so any day is fine.

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She looks at the differences between a series of bus and train tickets, and a flight. She calls out of work. Obviously worth it for this.

...Flight wins hard on convenience, even if she has to explain her 'medical condition' twice coming and twice going. And it's not even that much more expensive. She looks up hotels before she books.

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Expect me Wednesday afternoon.

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Glad to hear it.

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Good luck!

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🤩 :starry_eyes:

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lol

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lol

I'm sure everyone was as excited to start as I am right?

Also kind of regretting my cringey name a bit,

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You'll grow into it. I did.

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I think it's pretty!

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blushes

I'm going to have to spend a while getting to know people. Ravenous Blade is nice and recognizable and I know Black Cross and Winter Rose sort of now but yeah.

And I am very aware I'm the newbie, so yeah

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aww yeah still got it

We can hang whenever, I've got places most places. I'll let you get your business with Snow Rose done first.

 

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Just remember Eight Tails and Silver Starlight are True Monarchs and that makes them admins atop your seniors.

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Someone mention me, ehe?

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Eight Tails! I was starting to get worried.

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Don't worry, I'm fine. Just took me slightly longer to wipe the floor with those Wen guys than I expected - they had a couple loaner Spirit Sovereigns from China. What's up?

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Abyssal Bride here is new, mortal, about to come over thanks to Snow Rose's experiments. I met her in person, she's cool.

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Hello, Eight Tails. I'm nothing special (yet?), so I'm going to be working hard.

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Hello new junior. I'm looking forwards to your efforts.

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Abyssal Bride has a monstrous bloodline, Senior Eight Tails. 

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She does, does she? Interesting. I'll definitely be watching closely.

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Black Cross opens a DM with Trys. 

Eight Tails is an ascendant fox and not originally a human at all.

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!!

Makes sense, if one of my ancestors was a fish. Magic sure changes things.

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It does!

Nobody else posts in the chat group.

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Super early on Wednesday morning, she takes two buses down to Cardiff Aiport, yawns through check-in, and pays close attention during security screening. If cultivation is a good way to make money, it would follow that some people are at least aware of it, just - not able to do anything about it. Is anyone acting differently about her?

Huh. The low-level grunts were giving her a lot of trouble about 'makeup', but once she got in sight of a manager he basically just waved her through. Did he just recognize something - not worth the trouble? Don't inconvenience the maybe-cultivator and everyone's day will be better? Maybe.

Regardless, she is then on a plane, and then in Berlin, and then checking into a hotel, and then getting lunch, and soon enough ringing the doorbell at the address Winter Rose gave.

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A blue-haired woman wearing a long, clearly custom-tailored labcoat over black slacks and a t-shirt that reads "science is magic that works" answers the door. 

"You're not Black Cross - oh wait, yes, Abyssal Bride. Good to see you." She offers her hand to shake. "Winter Rose. You can call me Senior."

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Handshake. "Yes, ma'a- Senior. I also go by Bettrys. Or junior, I suppose." It sounds weird, but this is a new world and new culture. "Thanks for having me over, and I'm glad I was able to help with the black dragonfish."

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"Thank you for helping out Black Cross. And for volunteering to help with my experiments. Come in, we shouldn't have this discussion in the middle of the street."

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She nods and follows Winter Rose in, looking around curiously. Tries to subtly figure out if she's supposed to take off her shoes and backpack, or what.

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Winter Rose is in stockinged feet, and there's a shoe mat by the door. The floor is hardwood; a simple chandelier hangs above in the high entranceway. 

Winter Rose is already moving into another room, from which low beeping can be heard.

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Shoes go off, backpack goes by the shoe mat. She follows Winter Rose.

She makes sure she's not interrupting then asks, "What do I need to know about your experimental protocol? I don't know if you're going to try for blind tests or... Or what."

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"I've already isolated the formula I think will work best - the potency should be high based on tests in rats and taste tests - you just need to take it and let me examine you beforehand and after." 

She gestures to machine that fills most of the room. It looks like an MRI, with a low long table that goes inside a coil, but there are long spidery lines drawn all over the outside, thrumming with soft white energy. "Lie down on the bed and I'll slide you in and scan you."

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"Magic MRI? Interesting. Is this formula based on the one you posted to the group?"

She gets on the table and lies calmly.

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"Similar, but I've improved a bit since my last post."

She slides in the bed. "Hold still." The machine thrums with light and energy. 

After a few minutes, the bed slides back out. "All done. The monster bloodline will confuse things a little but if anything should only produce better results... Anyway, on to the pill room." She stalks out another door.

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Follow, follow.

"I'd be interested if you know anything about my bloodline, or where I could find out more. All I know is that my whole family is like this, we're like - a twentieth of these two villages and that's it."

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One wall of the room is full of what look like electric ovens with runic formations on them. It's swelteringly hot and smells pungently bitter. The wall across from the ovens is covered by glass-fronted cupboards filled with gems, herbs and fruits, many of which are obviously unnatural. There's a small kitchen space with bowls and utensils and a sink on the remaining wall.

"From my tests it looks like a Deep Dragon bloodline - you'll probably have an affinity for sealmaking, they're known for it." 

She opens one of the ovens and takes a deep breath of the stench that rolls out. "This is done. One moment." 

She reaches into the oven with her bare hands and pulls out a metal tray. Moving unhurriedly, she turns and sets it on the counter. It's brimming with a black, noxious fluid. 

"Body Tempering Liquid, version one hundred thirty seven." Winter Rose looks at Trys. "Ready? After this there's no going back."

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She coughs, once.

Nods.

"How much will I take, and what happens after?"

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Winter Rose takes out a measuring spoon and carefully measures five millilitres. "This much. It will taste sweet, then intensely spicy once you swallow it. You must keep it down. You will sweat and it will feel like you've run a marathon when the changes are done, but you should be fine so long as you don't retch."

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"Okay."

She takes the spoon and gobbles it - ugk, what a smell - swallows as quickly as she can.

 

Oof. "-Weren't kidding."

Deep breaths. It's burning. Feels like she's sick, like she's drowning she should be panicking and doing something, anything, she should be running-

Hold the breath, eyes watering. Then out. Then hold again. In, 2 3 4 5, hold, 2 3 4, out, 2 3 4 5, hold 2 3 4...

It's not getting better right away. But not worse either. It'll pass soon enough. Right?

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Winter Rose steadies her. "It will pass. Just breathe."

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No acknowledgement.

She can deal with pain. She can hold steady to something she knows she must endure. Stubbornness is maybe her one good quality, right, so this is no big deal.

More deep breaths.

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"Good. The changes should be starting now, toning and reshaping your body. You've got a decent build but it'll be better in a moment."

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She quirks into a small smile, then winces. Deep breaths.

"Will I - need more of this to - Foundation Building?"

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"Once and you're done. Which isn't to say the rest will be easy."

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"Of course not. I'd - appreciate some hints on that next part, by the way."

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"The chat group will probably send you some introduction presents. Feeling alright?"

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"Still burning but it's not getting worse."

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"Good." She checks her watch. "You should be going into the resculpting stage in a few seconds. It'll hurt, but you're tough, aren't you? And it'll be quick."

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"I probably should have sat down for this, huh?" Forcing amusement into her voice.

 

And then she lets out a grunt of pain and twitches all over, swaying on her feet.

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"No dying." Winter Rose's voice is surprisingly forceful. 

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"Fuck no. I got shit to do."

Breathe, girl, breathe. It really does feel like she just ran a marathon. Or climbed a mountain. Or got beat up.

"-Think it's passing. Woah."

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Winter Rose offers her a hand. 

"Welcome to the club. Need a towel?" She breaks out in a grin. "Or a mirror? You look great. And now you may call me December. Now that I know you're not gonna just die on me."

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"-How often does that happen? Should I have spent a month working out first?" Headshake. "I could use a shower, honestly. And a mirror. Feel more exhausted than - basically ever - and at the same time like I could go swim across the Irish Sea."

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"There's about a one percent failure rate even among fit, healthy aspirants. Nothing you could do to improve your chances. You didn't roll a 1." She waves vaguely at the exit. "I can lend you my bathroom and a change of clothes, I've got some robes that are fairly one size fits all."

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"And every step is like that. Enough chances to roll a 1, and..." Sigh. "I will take you up on that offer, thank you. Don't you need to scan me again, though?"

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"It can wait until you're clean. No need to get my nice scanner bed sticky with sweat."

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"Okay. Hoooo. I have spare outfits in my backpack actually, so I'll just use one of those. Be back soon, then."

She grabs her pack from the entranceway and looks for the bathroom.

-And is stopped short when she looks in the mirror. Holy shit, she was alright before, but now she's some kind of supermodel-athlete hybrid!

 

Eventually she actually does shower and change into her clean clothes and head back into the scanner room.

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"Hey there! Get used to your new body yet? It can be a bit of a shock. Come on, lay down, I want my data."

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"It's gonna be weeks before I stop double-taking. I want to go to the gym after this."

Trys-->Scanner.

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"Interesting. You might develop gills after enough of this. Hard to tell for sure, depends on the exact potency of your line... and this batch looks strong. About a ten percent increase from last time. Congratulations, you're a cultivator."

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"That would be... Strange. Great fun especially if I can learn a spell to see clearly underwater, of course. Hmm. I understand that Senior Eight Tails is, what was the phrase, an ascended fox?"

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"Kumiho, originally - korean murderous fox spirit. She's chilled out over a few hundred years and is pretty nice. She's one of the founders of the chat group along with Senior Red."

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"Huh. If she managed to grow human, I might be able to do - fishy things if I try. Long way off though, right?"

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"Most likely to show up in the third rank when you form your Battle Queen Body, yes. It'll be years. Don't worry too much about it."

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"Hard not to get excited. Thank you for having me over - I think I'm about ready to get out of your hair but please keep me in mind if you need errands more than what Black Cross can do."

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"That's fine. Make sure to ask in the chat about starting your Hundred Days' Foundation Building - and I have a stock of a hundred qi and blood pills for you to take home with you."

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"-Thank you! I'll definitely do that, and pay you back some day. Not that I'm rushing to leave, either, I just figured you have work to do and I'm underfoot."

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"Don't mention it, it's standard for seniors to give new juniors gifts to help with their initial cultivation. This is small potatoes for me."

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She's polite all the way out the door and carefully puts the bottle of qi and blood pills away.

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Then, she posts:

Took Winter Rose's body tempering elixir and didn't die!

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Congratulations on not dying! @Starlight, think this is an occasion for Canadian Fist?

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Sounds like it. Abyssal Bride, check your DMs.

There's a file. Looks like a Powerpoint presentation?

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Phone can't read that, I'll check it out when I get my laptop open. Canadian fist?

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It's a radical new foundation-building technique put together by the seniors of the group. Primarily me. It's based on a variety of international sources to supplement the original Chinese path, ranging from Hermeticism to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It's a thoroughly modern cultivation path, and while that means it's untested it also means it could be a lot better than traditional methods. Black Cross was our first test case.

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I could give you Precise Fist if you wanted a less radical alternative. That wouldn't come free though.

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:thinking:

This sounds like a very important decision. What exactly is a foundation building technique?

Actually how does foundation building even work? I know I have to open my sense apertures...

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You're getting a little ahead of yourself.

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Foundation building techniques are the cornerstone of your style going forwards. So yes, this is important. They are ways you refine Qi and Blood through physical and mental training - martial arts and focus meditation, most commonly. 

First you must make about three hundred strands of qi and blood and fuse them into your Heart Aperture in order to open it. That's the Hundred Days' Foundation Building. After that you proceed to your remaining sense apertures - Eyes, Nose, Ears, and Mouth, Heart does touch - and then you perform Fish Leaping Through The Dragon Gate to complete the rank. Is that fairly clear?

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I think so. Thank you for clarifying.

I'm going to think on it but my gut is leaning towards using Canadian Fist since I'm already in everyone's trust, and I am not exactly a traditional cultivator.

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It does have the advantage of being cheaper.

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Oh hush, Heiress. You know I've put a century into this. Let me have my trials.

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It just hasn't worked out for Black Cross so far.

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Hard to judge since she doesn't have amniotic qi. Given that her progress is strong.

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As you say, Senior.

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It's worked out alright for me, I'd say.

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It's your choice, Abyssal Bride. Do what feels right and fits your Way.

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:thinking: :thinking: I don't have an understanding of these things like you all do. What are the differences between the two techniques on a descriptive level like - more/less controlled/adaptable/fast?

What sort of payment would you ask for, Senior Twice Heiress?

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I would call this a medium-sized favor. Something moderately dangerous and time-consuming. Go and harvest a rare, poisonous plant, say. 

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Canadian Fist is a diverse foundation building art pulling from many sources. It's composed of a punching technique, a kicking technique, an agility technique, and an insight meditation. The kicking technique is derived from Capoeira and is quite difficult but has a very high skill ceiling, and should remain effective even into the third rank; the fist technique is derived from boxing, a counter-punching technique based on keeping distance from the opponent and punishing mistakes; the agility technique is also from boxing, it's called "Ring Dancer" and produces short bursts of high agility. Finally we have the insight meditation, which is a modern Wiccan form - it emphasizes qi direction and control, what witches refer to as "energy work." These work together to produce a flashy style that wears down its opponents with superior speed and then counter-punches or lands a heavy kick for the win.

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Precise Fist is a pure Chinese martial art based on karate and buddhism. It is composed of a fist technique, a sensing technique, an agility technique, a body-strengthening technique, and an insight meditation. It is focused on striking once at a vital area with superior speed and force and thereby deciding the battle; the sensing technique allows you to trace your opponents' qi and strike where their body is weakest, with the rest of the techniques aiming to make the strike a final one. It is tried, tested, and strong enough to form my own foundation as a fifth-rank Spirit Sovereign, whereas Canadian Fist is relatively untested and required much adaptation of the material to qi-powered fighters. 

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Hmm.

She thinks about it for a while. Canadian Fist appeals on one level - flashy, stylish, wearing down the opponent, spacing and control. The modern cultivator. She can almost hear music thinking about it, a heavy rhythmic beating. Precise Fist is appealing on an entirely different level - the decisive strike, standing still at the center of a storm until just the right moment, landing one blow to end entire battles.

After getting back to her hotel, she ponders some more. Fighting sounds like an important part of being a cultivator. Who is she, as a fighter? Maybe she should look around for more options... But that would be considerably harder, and these two seem pretty different already. It'd just lead to choice paralysis.

Pacing, or kicking out the foundations. Flowing motion, or perfect stillness.

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After nearly an hour,

Thank you for the clear explanations, seniors. After due consideration while both sound appealing, I have decided to use the Canadian Fist technique.

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Yes!

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Drat.

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Need I remind you two that this is a serious matter and should not be bet on?

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Yes, Senior Starlight.

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Yes, Senior Starlight.

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In that case, you just need to view the files I sent you on your laptop. They set out the basics with a simple hypnotic technique to improve retention.

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o_o hypnosis that actually works? Cultivation is scary.

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You only just realized that now?

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Black Claw...

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Someone had to say it.

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Not really just now. I've been told I'll probably die of it several times now.

I'm not really clear on how casual this place is. On the one hand, so many powerful seniors. On the other hand, it's a *chatroom*. I'll tone it down?

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We try to keep it informal. We're tired of old stuffy sects, mostly. Just keep in mind the consequences of mouthing off to your seniors. Black Claw has a history.

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Understood. That was meant to be 'impressed' anyway.

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I took it that way. It was a little naïve perhaps but well-intentioned. Don't worry. 

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Both True Monarchs on at the same time, huh?

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Don't say that where Senior Red can hear you. She's coming out of seclusion soon.

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:sweatdrop:

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(She opens the PowerPoint Silver Starlight sent and reads it)

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It's a simple explanation of how the techniques work, but as she reads it she plunges into the feeling of being taught by a faceless master who corrects her form and forces her to put her full might into each of the strikes and blocks. Every technique has a different challenge embedded within it, and they leave her mentally taxed after reading just three of the four.

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It is really weird how it does that. Is the file magic, or is it just the arrangement of the words and such? Well, she has no way to tell.

When she notices how intense it is, she actually sticks to the first two, the punching and kicking techniques, and sits thinking about them for a while. That kicking method is a doozy, she can see why Silver Starlight called it 'quite difficult'.

Her flight home isn't for another two days, so she should probably practice these later. But for now, she has a drink of water and checks the chat group again before starting in on reading the other two techniques.

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Hey, what's been going on?

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Abyssal Bride took up Canadian Fist.

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Good for her! It'll be really something to have another test case.

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This could be the start of a whole new school.

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Fingers crossed!

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Any new tasks up for offer?

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Someone needs to reintroduce Senior Red to the modern world in a month.

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Not it.

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I'll contribute an enchanted dagger to the reward for doing it. 

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I'll put up some sword and armor talismans.

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I'll add in five hundred qi and blood pills.

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:sweatdrop:

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How long has Senior Red has been in seclusion?

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Just shy of a century.

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And it seems she has a certain reputation as well?

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Nobody posts.

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...Well, that answers that.

She reads the other two exercises. She considers actually doing them, but a hotel room is not a great place for that. Nor is a local gym.

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She DMs Silver Starlight,

Senior Starlight, I heard from Black Cross that you have a currently-unused house in Cardiff that may be available to me. I am going to have to hold off on practicing your Canadian Fist arts until I have a good place for it and making use of such an opportunity would be faster than finding a practice area of my own, so I am interested, though of course I would be happy to help you out with occasional errands in exchange.

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You're welcome to use the house so long as you don't mind potentially sharing - the intent of these houses is in part to act as safe places to retreat to for cultivators in distress. No favours necessary, they're a "community resource."

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Very well, thank you. I'll take good care of it. What's the address? Also, I assume you would like updates on how I am taking to the Canadian Fist style?

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Here is the address, and here is the one-time passcode to register you with the security formations. 

I would like to come instruct you in a week once I've finished my business overseas. 

The basic training method for you to get started with is to practice a martial technique until you exhaust yourself and then immediately meditate to form a strand of blood and qi. It will take on average three hundred such strands to open your heart aperture, though some have been able to do it with one hundred seventy strands or so. As you develop more strands your body will toughen and you will be able to get in more training in a day. Use Snow Rose's blood and qi pills to refresh your energy between training rounds; they are also able to substitute for sleep to a limited extent, though I don't recommend going for longer than three days straight without at your level. It's most efficient for you to hold a pill in your mouth, suck on it until you're refilled, and then take it out for reuse until you drain it dry right now - swallowing is a waste, it'll refill your qi and blood faster than you can spend it. 

If you work hard and use the qi pills judiciously, you should be able to complete the Hundred Days' Foundation Building in about two months. Black Cross had similar results.

I would reccommend beginning with the punching technique, then mixing in the agility technique, and only once you have a basic grasp of both proceeding to try the more strenuous kicking technique. It should help you form thicker strands of blood and qi once you start practicing it seriously and reduce your total strand count - for Black Cross it took two hundred fifty three strands, a good fifty less than standard, and she took 51 days - about five strands a day. This is noticeably better than average though not record-breaking. You should be able to do better.

Good luck!

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I will certainly try my best. Looking forward to it.

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Of course Silver Starlight knows that Winter Rose gave her some pills. Standard thing to support the newbies, right? Well, she'll have to try her hardest. After that she calls Kevin and tells him she's off for at least a couple months. He gripes, but she's unapolagetic. 'Something better came along'. She has enough in savings and thinks money is low-value enough to the group that she doesn't need to have a job, during this. Practicing the techniques, getting stronger- That's her job, now. 

She wants to go for a run. She wants to practice these right now. She wants to do a hundred sit-ups in a row because it feels like she could-

But what she does right at this moment is talk to the airline agent and change to a sooner flight for a slightly eye-watering fee. She goes to the airport at 11 PM that day, and is at the house in Cardiff at 6 AM, somewhat tired. Hopefully the magical security system is straightforward to figure out.

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The large house - more of a mansion, really - is out at the edge of Cardiff by the sea, and surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence. It seems normal, but something about it makes the hair on the back of Bys' neck stand up. There's a security keypad at the front gate; presumably this is where she enters the passcode.

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Kind of imposing. And it rather screams 'money'. She feels out of place.

Beep beep beep beep.

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A wave of static electricity washes over her, and the front gate pops open. 

The way up to the front door is lined with gravel and flanked with bushes. There's another keypad by the door. 

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Beep beep again.

She explores the place briefly, picks a bedroom - smallest one, if there are multiple - puts her backpack away.

She's excited. She does stretches idly while she thinks. Her new body, taut with energy and vigor, feels ready to go - a bit more ready to go than she'd expect, since aside from a nap yesterday afternoon and on the plane, she hasn't gotten her full eight hours of sleep. Should she take another nap before actually trying out the exercises?

Maybe she should go get her stuff from her apartment, try to deal with the lease... But that sounds like a massive pain right now. She wants to do.

Alright. She reviews the Canadian Fist PowerPoint again just to make sure it's really nailed down in her memory. She changes into workout clothes. Then she finds a clear area or exercise room, or maybe the back garden if it seems secluded enough, and settles into the first stance for the fist technique, and- Starts the exercises, starts punching, flowing from one stance to another just so. Visualizing, trying to exactly mimic the flow as presented. Footwork and balance are just as important as the arms... Should she be trying to analyze her movements and the vague sense she's feeling that must be qi, or leaning into the instinct and feeling whether it's right? She's not sure. Hmm.

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There's three bedrooms, one large and with an ensuite bathroom, two small and about the same size with a bathroom down the hall. The main floor has a large kitchen with a well-stocked pantry and a magic fridge and a living room with a large plasma TV and a couch and a small gymnasium with punching bags and a warm indoor pool. There is also a two-car garage, which is presently empty. 

When she finally gets the form right there's a sudden snap into focus and a burst of what-feels-like-adrenaline. Her jab whips forwards almost faster than the eye can see and then her footwork dances away like a butterfly. If she moves just so - 

She's suddenly halfway across the gym. 

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"Oh my god!"

Is this the power of cultivation? She turns and does it again!

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It takes a little practice to not overbalance during the sudden bursts of speed, but they're reliable and can be done once each breath for about a quarter-second. 

She could probably do some real damage to a punching bag, too. A sense of natural left-right-left right-right-left jab combinations is falling into place.

There's also a sense that she could follow up with a kick right there

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She doesn't kick. The kicking technique is supposed to be really hard.

Instead, she surges forward and backward, jabbing at invisible foes, grinning, for a while- and then takes a break and a drink of water and falls into the form for the kicking technique.

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Her first kick snaps out like a striking viper, with force that even Trys can tell is enough to kill. She keeps her balance, but when she puts her weight back on her leg a lance of pain goes through her. She's also breathing far harder than she should be from a single kick, and her adrenaline has dropped significantly.

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Ow, fuck. Also, yikes.

Okay. One more try, with the other leg, and then presumably it's time for meditation?

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The pain is slightly less, this time - but clearly her body isn't quite up to this yet. Her adrenaline drops out completely and leaves her feeling more wrung out than even the body tempering liquid left her. 

It's a good thing she's sitting down anyway. 

As she turns her focus inward, following the instructions Silver Starlight left, she becomes aware of a thrumming fizz in her blood, a kind of energy she's never had before. And then, all at once, an image of herself snaps into the center of her mind. It looks just like her, except that it has dark circles under her eyes.

Now... drag the blood out into a thread, and press it into her heart...

It's mentally exhausting to go with the physical punishment, but she finishes the strand and it fuses with her heart. 

That's one.

 

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Woof. 

She lies on the floor for a bit, exhausted, before checking her phone. She won't be ready for more for a while without the pills, but how long did the actual exercises take?

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It's been about two hours.

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Okay.

She pops one of the blood and qi pills in her mouth, removes it as soon as she feels mostly recovered and carefully dries it off. Takes a quick dip in the pool (not bothering to change into her swimsuit, just removing the workout clothes), and then drying off, clothes back on, and...

Again.

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The blood and qi pill recovers her stamina, but her legs still hurt and her mind is still fuzzy. That slows her down during the agility training, and when she goes to do the kicking portion again the pain only redoubles. She's able to drag out another strand through the pain and fatigue, but it's been another three hours.

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It's just after noon, now. She feels... Kind of exhausted. The way you feel after a long workout when you've crossed into 'too far' and started actually hurting yourself. Two in one day? Black Cross managed five a day!

She decides to break for lunch and investigates fridge contents, though. Meanwhile she asks the cultivator chatroom,

How can I tell if I'm pushing myself in training or actually HURTING myself/doing damage? Also, is it normal to look really tired in the true self meditation?

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The fridge has half a beef dip, luncheon meat and cheese slices, margarine, peanut butter, blackberry jelly (same taste as her qi pills), apricot jelly, a bunch of grapes, a bag of like 20 mandarin oranges, milk, cola, and a few other stables like green onion and eggs. There's a loaf of bread on the counter. 

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Dull aching is normal and says the exercise is working. Sharp pain usually correlates with damage, either to the body or to your qi system. You couldn't resist trying the kicks, huh? Be careful with those, they're not usually introduced until at least day five. They'll accelerate your growth significantly, but it's dangerous. If you've made a strand today you are officially doing well enough. Speed comes with practice. 

It's common for the true self meditation to show up anything that could be considered a mark on your soul. Few people are reflected clearly by it. You'll see more changes as you learn more techniques. Hopefully that will include recovery for whatever source of chronic stress that tiredness reflects.

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I made two strands. And did the kicks both times. Might even try for a third (without the kicks this time, because, ow). I thought I needed all three techniques to form a strand...

 

Cooking sounds really annoying right now. And she wants to sit down. Or lie down. Low effort food only. Meat and cheese on bread = sandwich. Mustard, if there is any. Milk and oranges and grapes.

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There is mustard! There's also a table and chairs, with placemats. It's a bit dusty though.

All the food is quite fresh and delicious. It must be the formation in the fridge. And on the breadbag. 

 

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You'll want that later but for now focus on the punching and agility techniques. Two strands is great!  ^_^

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OK :thumbsup: Tired now tho.

Oh actually, are enchantments like I've seen around a True Master+ thing or what? What about talismans, what's needed to make those? I know I'm just barely starting out so I'm not asking how to do them, just like what power level are they?

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Formations are a Spirit Sovereign thing, and talismans and artifacts are just formations bound to objects. Alchemy can be done at a lower rank but takes actually-expensive ingredients. There are different specializations - I make weapons, for instance.

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Impressive!

Gonna go flop somewhere now~

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And she does, after finishing lunch and putting everything away again, taking a half hour nap to rest her aching legs and fuzzy mind, that turns into a two hour nap which she wakes up from groggy and confused and with kind of a migraine and aching legs.

What...? Oh, right. Well, it's 3 in the afternoon, she can make her way home, pack up enough stuff to stay here for a month or two, then maybe go preemptively grocery shopping too. Get back around six... And then try for a third strand with a bit more of that partially used pill, but without the kicking technique. (Urgh. That sounds pretty unpleasant, but well, no pain no gain.) Yeah, that sounds like a plan.

She puts it into practice.

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After another three hours of work, she tries the meditation again - but her fuzzy brain can't focus enough to perform the final drawing-out-and-fusion. The half-formed strand slips away from her completely, and by the time she's recovered enough to make a second attempt, the blood and qi have drained away. She's left exhausted and with nothing to show for her evening.

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Okay. That was a thing. She doesn't use a blood-and-qi pill to alleviate the exhaustion. It'll go away on its own, probably. And it goes to show her what doing too much all at once will do: Waste effort for no good reason.

Two is still good for her first day, apparently. So.

Her life is about cultivation now. Tomorrow she's going to do this ridiculously intense magic workout again and she can not fuck it up. Though relaxing her mind enough to actually focus on it is probably a good plan.

Shower. Flop into bed. Try to watch youtube videos, fall dead asleep soon after instead.

In the morning, she texts her friends some and just randomly browses the internet, not quite wanting to get back to training just yet. Anything in the chatroom?

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So, newbie made it through her first day without dying?

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Dying inside maybe but I bet she's physically fine. Two strands, did you hear?

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Better than my first day. 

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I did better, but people keep calling me a genius.

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lol humblebrag much

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Just giving points for comparison.

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Yeah, I am not very happy rn. but I am not gonna stop. Tried for a third and couldn't yesterday. I think I'm going to pretty muchj stop having a life while I do the hundred days foundation building, so... idk where I was going with that.

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No wonder you look tired to the true self meditation. Take some time for yourself, hey? Enjoy your backing. Buy some shiny things, get it out of your system. If you overtrain it'll hamper you as much as undertraining.

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Honestly I want to see how far you can push it.

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Is my record in danger?~

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Not likely.

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I think Ravenous Blade has a point. The idea of training more right now fills me with dread. Nice restaurant and new laptop and etc sounds pretty nice. I don't really have a ton of friends to enjoy time with tho.

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I could come drop by, I'm in the area. 

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Eep. Well, slight eep.

No rudeness. And Black Claw isn't actually going to hurt her, right?

If you'd like to, Senior. It'd be interesting to meet someone higher level in person! Or I could take the day for myself, I could kind of use that as much as social time I feel like.

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Don't call me Senior, I'm twenty-five. Save that kind of talk for the real seniors. 

Two P.M. work for you?

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Two PM works fine. See you then.

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Between now and then, though, she... Goes out to a nice breakfast place and orders two entrees and eats it all. Wanders into a department store and wanders out with clothes worth a week's wage. And buys a console and several Nintendo games.

She fusses with the console and the really nice TV for a bit before going back to the gym (at 10:30 AM, plenty of time) and working out with the fist and mobility and meditation techniques, trying for a new strand.

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She gets it in two hours, same as her first one. That's three.

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She's not going to push herself as hard today. Instead she swims, showers, lunches, cleans her three sets of dishes and puts them to dry, and then plays Super Mario Odyssey. 

...This is fun!

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Eventually there's a loud buzz from the front door, followed by a clipped British voice:

"Abyssal Bride?"

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Jump. Pause. "That's me!"

She goes over and opens the door. She's dressed in new black jeans she really liked and a black T-shirt with the NASA logo sprawled all across the front. "Hello! Black Claw?"

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Black Claw comes around the corner. He's a slight, dark-haired boy a few years older than Trys, wearing a t-shirt with silver Nordic runes on it and a big grin. 

"Hey! Nice to meet you in the flesh. I'd hug you, but..." He shrugs. "You can call me Cocoa, my real name sucks. Super Mario Odyssey?"

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"...Well, chocolate is delicious so it's a good name. I go by Trys. Yes, Super Mario Odyssey! I have Breath of the Wild too, and Super Smash Ultimate - I used to play Melee but not for a long time, and a couple others. Took Ravenous Blade's advice and did a bit of a shopping spree. I'll need to do someone's errands for cash eventually but for now I have savings and I don't expect it to be a problem, so," Shrug.

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"I think Ravenous Blade was expecting you to buy, like, a car. The whole chat group invested heavily in Bitcoin on the advice of Senior Starlight's lots. We made bank. Not, like, infinite money, but more than enough to spoil you a bit." He rubs his thumb against his ring and middle fingers, feeling the sharpness of his clawlike nails. "I'll play Ultimate with you though. Who's your main?"

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"-Well, I have like ten grand in savings, not a hundred. More like seven now after those plane tickets and today's stuff. If I were rich I'd buy a boat. As for Ultimate, I literally haven't even tried it yet. I did buy extra controllers, though. I used Link and Samus and Falco back in Melee, but if you're expecting a tough match out of me you might be disappointed."

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"I'll talk to Starlight, she manages the accounts. That should get you set up. I'll happily beat your pants off at Ultimate." He grins. "Battle King Body is pretty fucking unfair for things that take reflexes."

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"We can play some, yeah. I'll get sick of losing after a while. I think there's a handicap feature?" Shrug. She steps back from the doorway. "I'm looking forward to the big leagues for sure, though. Gonna get cracking on the training again later today, go for number four and five."

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"Oh, good for you. And sure, I'll play with a handicap. Only fair. Let's get to it!"

He flops onto the couch, still with that irrepressible grin.

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She changes out the game cartridge, tosses him a pair of controllers. While Smash Ultimate loads she asks, "So mind telling me just - in general, what's waiting for me in the True Master and Battle Ki- Queen zones?"

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"In True Master it's the eight Dragon Dantains. Each one takes an average of five years to break through with medicines and so on - you proceed upward from the groin to the head, each time forcing through a gate with a surge of True Qi. After the last one, there's a lightning tribulation - I took an injury there and have only just recovered, so I don't have much to say about the Battle King realm from experience. The minor realms are the Four Meridians, but I haven't infused the first yet."

He starts the game and picks Robin for his fighter.

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"I guess everyone in the group is pretty exceptional, you did forty years of work by the time you're, what, 25? Do you know how to set up the handicap?"

Samus, why not. If she remembers right Samus is floaty and has ranged attacks.

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"Yeah, I got it. One sec..."

Black Claw gets the handicaps sorted. 

"And yeah, most people in the group are quote unquote 'geniuses' except Black Cross. She's still learning though."

He starts the game. Looks like it's going to be a projectile fight.

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She shuts up for the game. Her reflexes might not be great but... Actually, she's not that great at other aspects of the game either. But it's fun!

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Cocoa beats her handily with his crazy reflexes. 

"That was fun. Not sure I want another round. Want to show me the Canadian Fist you've got down so far?"

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"It's less fun when there's so much - gap, yeah. Sure? I'll try the kicks again too, at least once." She grimaces. "I don't know what else we have to talk about, honestly."

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"Well, uh... I can tell you more about the group? And we could swim, there's a pool here."

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"I do like swimming. And maybe we turn out to have like, shared interests beyond a bit of vidya. Fantasy novels, history stuff, for me..."

She walks towards the gym.

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Black Claw follows. "I'm more of an outdoorsy type. Hiking, cycling. Fantasy novels are good but I prefer the real thing."

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"Heh. Well, the real thing is more of an option now. -Do you want to go sailing?"

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"I've never been, but I'd love to try it. You're a sailor?"

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"I've worked on boats since I was 14. Usually the kind with motors and fishing nets but yeah, I know how to sail and navigate by the stars and all that." She's smiling kind of wistfully. "I'm going to go change and show you what I have so far of Canadian Fist now, though."

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"I'd love to go sometime. And works for me."

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"I'm sure we could rent a sailboat in town somewhere."

She's back in barely a minute in workout clothes, and starts running through the punching and mobility drills. She moves at a steady and slightly slow pace, somewhat unused to this but growing more comfortable with it. Though overall it's a bit mechanical and rote.

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Black Claw gets out one of the punching bags and starts slamming combinations into it, hitting it with enough force to sometimes slide it across the floor a little. In between rounds he casts appreciative glances over at Trys. 

"You're doing pretty damn well for your second day. Still building up qi for the kicks?"

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She doesn't notice the specific character of the glances. He's probably sizing up her technique, if anything. (Though she does get out a punching bag of her own for a target, she hadn't noticed those yesterday.)

"I did the kicks yesterday but they - kind of hurt a lot. I'm saving them for last."

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"Good plan, if you use them without enough qi to burn you could fuck yourself up seriously. Say when and I'll break to watch."

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Sharp nod.

About half an hour later, "When. Time for kicks."

She braces for the expected pain and aims for a punching bag. This is just barely beyond her limits. She can do it. Breathe in and-

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The bag rattles and slides a little ways across the floor. 

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Black Claw whistles. "Damn, she wasn't kidding when she said it was a third level technique. You could hurt me with that. You'd need better form and some more training, but I see the potential. Again."

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Better form. She envisions the hypnotic instructions in her mind. She will HIT that punching bag. Breath in, feel the stirring of qi- Lash out! "HA!"

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"Good! Now do your meditation quickly while your qi and chi are still excited."

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"Right."

Down she goes. Focus. Draw it in. It's HERS. Is it easier this time? If so, she wonders, why?

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It's slightly easier now. She's getting the mental motions down, though they're still a strain to actually execute. 

 

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Black Claw offers her a hand up from her seated meditation. "Get the thread?"

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"Yeah." Breathe out. "The mental stuff is a bit trippy. Like a muscle I didn't even know I had. I can only assume getting very good at it is important."

She accepts the hand up, palm sweaty.

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Black Claw grins and ducks his head with a small blush. "Here I am getting all master-y. Yeah, it's important. It's a muscle like any other, it'll get easier as you practice. Eight threads in a day is pretty doable at the end of the Hundred Days. So yeah, keep honing your body." He keeps his opinion on the current state of her body to himself.

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She smiles back. "Mm, it's more like a student tutor group than you being a wizened old master? You're not giving me a lecture or assigning me homework, just little tips."

She starts stretching unselfconsciously as part of her cooldown. Elbow above her head in that behind-the-back stretch, and then further.

"-Geez, I'm way more limber than last week. It's pretty exciting to have such obvious progress, though? Working out as a mortal kind of sucked. Ooh, are there like- Control exercises easier than condensing a thread to practice that part?"

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His gaze lingers, then darts away. "Yeah, body-tempering liquid does a lot. Shame about the fail rate, but." He shrugs. "As for control exercises - you pick things up. Try a thirty minute workout without the kicks, it won't excite your qi enough to get a thread out of it but it'll unstick it enough to let you practice calming and focussing."

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"Shame about the fail rate. It'd be great to give to more people. I'll try that!"

...Um. She's finally noticed the looking and flushes slightly about it.

"-You, uh, don't have to not look at me. If I were worried about that I'd- Well, I was a little bit nervous before you got here but mostly that you wouldn't think I was cool, or something, so uh. I'm saying this all wrong. Nevermind."

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"Yeah, uh... you're very fit. And I'm not immune to it. Another thing to thank Body Tempering Liquid for, hm? Though I'm sure you looked good before..." 

He trails off. "Anyway yeah, you're zeroth rank and I'm third so nothing serious is likely to happen, I'd be endangering you. Though, ah... never mind."

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She ducks her head with a smile, but then,

"-Wait, do you mean I'd be a target to get to you or that having sex between ranks is literally, like, hazardous- I remember something about mixing yin and yang being bad-"

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"You'd be a target to get to me, there are also - pairwise cultivation techniques, it's called being someone's dao companion, so if we got serious cultivators would assume we were working together like that and that they could squeeze you for my techniques. Something casual would be fine, like I said it's not hazardous... in fact with someone second stage and up you're fine on contraception and diseases too... but it's probably a bad idea for us to get, like, involved."

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She nods slowly. "Well- I'm honestly not sure how I feel about all that, but I know I wouldn't want to jump into a serious relationship with someone the day I met them. And probably not with anyone for a while. But, like, I've done... Some kissing, and stuff, and it was nice, so maybe more of that would be nice, and you're cute in a hard to define way, and, but-"

She's blushing too much now, and looking to the side. (She blushes blue).

"Anyway! Lemme go shower and let's swim or something. Or I can look into sailboat rental, it's not too late in the day for that."

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"Swimming sounds like a great plan," says Cocoa. "For reasons." He grins. "Let me just grab my swim trunks and change."

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"-Heh. Reasons, right. See you in a bit." She's been leaving her swimsuit in the gym's changing room, so she goes and showers and luxuriates in the nice hot water for a bit, then gets into it. It's a sporty black two-piece, somewhat more covering than a bikini and with faint camo-like patterns in grey. (Man, she still can't get over the fact that she has abs now).

...Wait, he brought swim trunks along? He didn't seem to be carrying anything. Storage ring? Eh, probably not important. Poolwards she goes.

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Black Claw just left his pack in the front hall before she saw him. He goes and digs out his swim trunks and changes in the spare bedroom. Leaves his pack by the bed in case he wants to stay the night. 

He meets her by the pool. He's lithe, with an androgynous swimmer's build and good muscle definition. "Nice to see you." His gaze roams over her body; he's not making any effort to conceal his appreciation any more. "Let's swim."

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"Mm-hm!" Well she can look appreciatively too, so hah.

She's a really good swimmer, perhaps unsurprisingly.

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Black Claw keeps up, also unsurprisingly. 

"This has been fun," he says. "Still want to go sailing with you, but that's for another day. For now I think I'll turn in? And you can keep training."

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"Yeah, makes sense. It was good to meet you."

Her workout routine calls. She gently sucks on another blood and qi pill, then goes for two quick half hour runs to practice the mental motions, then condenses strand number four and tries to judge whether she should go for five.

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She feels surprisingly good for all the workout she's done. Her legs hardly even ache. Maybe she could chance it?

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Escalating growth is a wonderful feeling~

She'll go for it, with determination and heart!

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It's easy this time. Her focus exercises must be paying off.

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Yes!!! Should she go for number six?

...Nah. The soreness all throughout her body and the fuzzy weight on her brain is getting to the same point as when she failed, yesterday. Better not to push it. She can maybe go for one more a day, every day, until she gets to eight per day - or more!

She checks the chatroom, plays some more vidya, is called by her parents and has to bullshit about her "new job" since they've heard the small town rumors about her ducking out by now, and vegges out (and maaaybe idly fantasizes about Cocoa a tiny bit) before bed.

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Someone knocks on her door in the morning.

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Well, it's not her door, but she opens it and says, "Hello?" Nonetheless.

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It's a fit, brown-haired woman she's never seen before. She's holding a plate of bacon and eggs with toast and jam in one hand (utensils included) and a black lacquered box in the other. A sword is hovering in the air in front of the door, hilt facing the door. 

"Hey," she says. "It's me, Ravenous Blade. Can I hand you this food?"

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Blink, blink. "Uh, yeah." She takes the food. If the 'wards' she can barely sort of feel at the edge of her awareness let her in, she's probably legit, so.

The plate goes in the kitchen a seat down from where her abandoned bowl of cereal and milk is. "-I was totally picturing 'ravenous blade' as a guy. Also, Black Claw is upstairs, unless he left already. By the way."

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"Yeah, we talked. You get up early as a cultivator, we let you sleep. I came to give you this." She offers the black-lacquered box. "All the other daoists were kind of shirking tradition, so I figured even something half-assed would be better than nothing. Threw this together in my forge overnight, hope it helps you out."

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"The tradition of... Giving newbies stuff? I mean, I have to earn my place, right..."

She opens the box.

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"That's bullshit. You need to be given a fighting chance first."

Inside the box, lying on a bed of red velvet, is a single black iron knuckle. 

"Figured you'd need a weapon, just in case. It's got amplification formations on it that'll make your blows hit an order of magnitude harder."

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"-Ooh. Uh, not that I'm especially expecting to get into fights? I'm not sure how often that really happens. Does it have limited charges or anything?"

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"Like I said, just in case. As long as you stay inside the building and let us restock your groceries you're fine, but there are all kinds of opportunistic types out there. No charges, I wouldn't do that to you. It uses your own qi to do its thing. Might tire you a little faster but not seriously so. Wanna try it out?"

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"Yes." She picks it up, decides it'd go better on her right fist as she leads with it, puts it on. "Not that I expect this out of you or the others, but it seems like it'd be possible to make one that... Poisons me or steals my energy for you or something? I'm trying to get a feel for the, like, range of scary shit out there."

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"Poison for sure, Snow Rose has some nasty trap-seals, but subtler things are harder. Maybe Silver Starlight or Eight Tails could, but I'm not sure how I'd make something that'd merely hamper rather than kill."

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Nodnod.

She heads gym-wards. "Gonna punch one of the punching bags. They seem pretty tough. And later today I am gonna try to get to nine strands." Smirk. 

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"Nice. If you keep up this rate people might start calling you another genius soon. I'll come along to the gym."

She follows at a lazy lope that somehow never actually falls behind.

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"Determined, not a genius."

She does some punches and mobility-leaps on empty air, trying to feel for the difference wearing the knuckles.

Then she zips up and whams a punching bag!

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The punching bag falls over and slides halfway across the gym. 

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"Nice one!"

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"Yikes! I like it! I hope I don't need to use it, but I like it."

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"Hope for the best, prepare for the worst." Ravenous Blade shrugs. "My advice is just to stay inside for now - I caught a second-rank signature lurking around the house with my sensing, but they must have noticed me noticing them because when I went looking they were gone. They won't try the formations. most likely. Just dogs sniffing around, probably won't bite. Still, be safe."

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"Mmh. I was planning on ever going outside again. I can stay here for a week or two and not be super obvious about leaving and bring these knuckles. I'm assuming we're just ignoring UK weapons law at this point...?"

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"There's a warding formation on it. Reach for it with your qi and you should be able to make it invisible."

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She furrows her brow, then manages this without much fuss.

"Neat!"

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"Not my best work but it'll do. I recommend keeping it on you in a jacket pocket or similar."

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"Yeah. Are you just here to drop that off, or to uh meet the new face as well, or?"

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"I was mostly here to drop that off. We could hang, but I'm probably kind of scary and I wouldn't want you to be sweating bullets." 

She frowns. "Incidentally, you didn't hear this from me, but... what do you know about Senior Red?"

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"You are a little scary... Everyone is nervous about her. She's five hundred, and in seclusion for a century. But she's probably not actually murderous if she's in the group?"

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"She's a bitch who has no chill about being disrespected by her juniors. She's also dangerously pretty - pretty enough to  distract straight women - and she's a practical joker too. And if that wasn't enough, it's like she steals luck from everyone around her. It's dangerous to be near her, though often also lucrative - if you can avoid the danger, you can profit from it. Needless to say, if you repeat any of this to her I'll make you regret it once she's done with me. Her favorite weapon is a whip of lightning, she's that kind of person. So long as you show respect and stay on your guard around her it can be worth it to follow her, and she's very loyal to the group - but she'll want to test you and the other new additions, and that could be... fun." She sighs. "I recommend biting the bullet and taking the bounty for acclimating her, she's going to come after you either way. At least you could get something out of it."

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Gulp. That sounds tiresome and risky. But, what an opportunity, right?

And it's not at all that Ravenous Blade doesn't want to deal with that, huh?

"...I see. More likely than not I will at this point. I've been thinking about it, but I feel... Unprepared for adventure and it sounds like helping Senior Red would very much be an adventure."

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"Just keep in mind that if it's not you it'll likely be Nix. The seniors will pull rank to get out of it if they have to."

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"I don't know if Nix would also like to avoid this. Though- I might be better at it? I am a very serious person when I'm trying. Hmm."

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"Talk to her when you get a chance, then. I'll see you around?"

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"Right, don't let me keep you. Have a nice day!"

...She surveys her new outfits for a nice jacket or hoodie to keep the enchanted brass knuckles in. Then, she finishes breakfast and gets to working out. She'll be at it all day, with half hour breaks. If she runs through the exercises faster, even when it hurts a bit, she'll be able to manage three strands again, maybe even four, right?

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Four strands it is. 

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Towards the end, Cocoa comes down and joins in the training with her, not saying anything, just grinning.

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"Nine," she says, lying on her back exhausted that afternoon. "God, that's a workout. Four today. Five tomorrow, one hopes. That's what I'm smiling about, what are you smiling about?"

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"Saw Hannah leaving, figured that means you got a prize. She's a big old softy. Also Breath of the Wild is a good game and you're hot. I'm enjoying my vacation."

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"Makes sense. Glad to contribute, I guess." (She has slightly more complicated feelings about it than that, but why bring that up, it wouldn't help.) "Yeah, she said she threw it together in one day, a set of brass knuckles. If we go sailing I'm keeping them in a pocket just in case."

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"Have you checked the group today? Apparently some kind of dog monster's shown up in Cardiff and is causing trouble. Seems low-level. Eight Tails posted a bounty of a dozen fifth-stage armor seals if someone can stop it from causing trouble. We could go together, split the seals? It'd be a good way for you to get your feet wet."

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"-Mmh. Yeah, makes sense. How does this sort of thing tend to go? Just, wander around a whole city looking for strange feelings, since we can sense qi?"

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"The reports say it's in the harbor district, so we'd have a general area to search. And I have a perception ability from my first realm that should let us track it - apparently it smells of cigarette smoke from the eyewitness reports." 

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She kip-ups into a crouch in one smooth motion with a grunt, then looks slightly surprised she managed to do that.

"Let me go grab my weapon. Can these things be negotiated with? Are they smart at all, typically?"

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"They're people usually, though they're generally... bestial. Strong urges, strong instincts, not inclined to higher reasoning. We might have to put it down, or we might be able to talk it around. It depends on the monster."

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Sharp nod. She has a lightning-quick shower and changes out of workout stuff.

Puts on a nice new leather jacket, grabs the brass knuckles, and googles canine body language on the way back down. Maybe it'll help. Maybe not.

Looks around for Cocoa.

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Cocoa is doing one-fingered push-ups in the front hall. He gets up when he spots Trys and flashes that smile again. "Ready to go then?"

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"-I know you're higher rank but geez. Yeah. I guess I'm the lookout and idea-bouncing wall? Since you're the muscle and tracking."

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"Yeah. Watch my back and if need be use your knuckles. Should I call an Uber or something or do you want some agility training? It's getting late, probably won't be too many witnesses around."

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"I do need more training, though I'm already kind of tired from training today... I don't like Uber anyway, though, so let's not."

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"Agility training it is then. We'll use the phones for this - I'll go ahead and make sure the path is clear, then text you to let you know you can hop over. You can just home to my phone, there's an app we use."

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After dealing with phone logistics, she follows Cocoa outside, trying to look as inconspicuous as she can in long sleeves and pants, hoodie and leather jacket, and with a dark blue face and white hair peeking out.

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Cocoa darts off ahead into the evening.

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A couple minutes later, she texts:

No bystanders so far. Come to me. 

And Trys' phone lights up with a position almost a kilometer away.

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K

She's tense and trying to be alert. The late evening feels off, and she keeps glancing at shadows. That's probably her anxiety at play more than anything, though.

She fast-jogs in between uses of the Ring Dancer technique, trying to move quickly-ish without completely exhausting herself. It's a lot more intense when you're doing one after another continuously. Then again, she worked through this much strain in workouts the last three days, so why not in real life (as it were).

Though her habit of warm and concealing clothing plus intense workouts is not really going to be a fun combo. Oh well.

She catches up to him three and a half minutes later.

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He's sitting against a tree playing a match-three phone game. 

"Great to see you. Another four legs like that. Think you're up to it?"

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...She takes off her jacket and bundles it up under one arm.

"Sure. Too bad I can't pause to meditate when we get there, though," she adds sarcastically.

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"Nah, you totally can, I'll guard you. It's unlikely the monster would show up right when we did anyway."

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"I don't wanna waste your time." (Keep breathing those deep cooldown breaths...) "Either way I guess."

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"If I wanted to just do this and get the reward I wouldn't have even mentioned it to you. We're in this together. A little delay for your sake and maybe another thread is just fine with me. I have Bejeweled."

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"Right. I guess I'm just like that." Shrug. "I'm ready to move again."

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"Alright." Cocoa pockets his phone and zips off into the night.

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Here.

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More Ring Dancer. Heart's pounding, breath gasping, her legs feeling strained in a different way than they did after the nasty twinging of the kicks on her first day. If she pushes herself too hard she will no longer be paying attention for signs of trouble, though. When she notices her vision narrowing slightly she steps down the pace a bit.

Zips up to Cocoa again with a nod, then scans the surroundings, sweat beading on her forehead.

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They're still a couple klicks outside the harbor district, on the edge of the city.

"Good for another one or should I let you use a qi pill?"

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"Will I progress faster if I don't or will it just hurt me?"

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"You'll progress fastest if you go to your limits, meditate, and then use the qi pill. Are you at your limits?"

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Given how hard she worked before and how bad she's feeling now...

"...Maybe another half a leg and I will be. Thanks."

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"Alright, I'll give you a half-leg. We're starting to get into the city anyhow, I should be a little more careful about bystanders."

And off he goes again.

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There was a gardener about halfway down on the right side, keep an eye out, jog past and then it's safe. 

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She's taking more time between activations now anyway. Definitely reaching her limits. Just an ordinary jogger, nothing to see here...

Still tense and on alert when she catches up again. She glances around - then falls into the meditative pose on the ground, breathing hard.

She's worn, yes, but she's excited. Alert. She's on a mission. She's done this before and she'll do it again. Draw all that buzzing energy in like breathing, pull it tight, press it down.

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It buzzes, tenses, slides past her -

But she's wise to its tricks now.

She gets it. 

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"Well, did it work?"

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"Yeah. Close thing, but yeah. I think that's really the last one I'll manage today, though."

She has an Altoids tin with a half dozen of the pills rattling around in her hoodie pocket. One pops into her mouth. She shuts her eyes and lets it seep into her.

Then out again, napkin, back in the tin. "No sign of the cigarette dog-thing yet?"

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"Not yet. We've still got half the journey left. It's going to get built up pretty fast though, so we might have to slow down anyway. You should be able to manage a normal jog for a while, right?"

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"Oh, I can jog normally for ages. Even have enough left in me to run or try a strike if we get ambushed, I think. I'm just not going to try for a sixth thread."

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"Then let's do one more leg with the agility techniques and jog in for the last one. It'll probably be too populated for comfort anyway."

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Nodnod.

She follows when he says it's clear, still feeling the strain and tiredness. But it's a good tired. They're really in the city now.

...She's just gone several kilometers in like twenty minutes, on foot. If that doesn't make cultivation sink in properly for her, what will?

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Cocoa is leaning against the side of a building, playing Bejeweled again. 

"Alright, from here we just jog in. Keep your eyes and ears open - I'll be heading towards the strongest concentration of cigarette smoke, but that could just be someone, you know, smoking, so..."

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"Right."

And this is a docks area, which she's familiar with, except it's a big city version. There's parks and apartment buildings right up next to the water, and there are those huge cranes that do container ship loading behind a fence across the water. She's not as at home here as she would like. Cities always make her a bit uncomfortable. At least that helps with the 'lookout' part as she glances around anxiously.

 

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A work crew is coordinatiing the unloading of a container ship, but otherwise the place is fairly quiet. The sun is beginning to set.

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Cocoa jogs confidently past the work crew and towards a warehouse complex on the other side.

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Look like you know where you're going. She knows where she's going. This is a dockyard and she's a sailor. These places run skeleton crews anyway, she thinks, just a couple of crane operators and a few guys on the ground handling paperwork. There should be hardly anyone here, really. Anyone paying attention to them, though?

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One of the guys handling paperwork looks up and notices her, but he just goes right back to his paperwork.

They round the corner of the warehouse complex, and discover... a dockworker taking a smoke break. 

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Cocoa passes the dockworker at a jog, then pauses at the entrance of another warehouse, "catching his breath." 

"I was afraid of that. I hope it's not Break Hour."

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"Honestly, at least he's doing it out here. Away from anything that could catch fire."

She's practically radiating anxiousness, but at the same time, she knows these sorts of places and that's visible in her body language, too.

"Any idea what a dog-thing might want?"

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"It's been hassling the workers here, so it must be something they have. Some fish went missing, maybe it's hungry? I don't know why it's bothering people though, you'd think there'd be safer ways of getting food. Maybe it just enjoys scaring the muggles."

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"Hmm. If it were hungry, I think it'd go for dumpsters? Maybe it came in on one of the containers, or it's looking for something that's in one of them? Lost and confused?"

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"Maybe lost, yeah, but it'd be smart enough to take cues from the workers. It might even be able to take demi-human form if it's third rank or higher. And it hasn't been caught outright, which implies some cunning."

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"...Is it cunning plan time yet or should we look normally some more first?"

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"Let's hear your cunning plan."

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"One of us makes an obvious show - calling out for it, flaring qi, something like that. The other hides nearby and watches likely hiding or stalking spots for when it gets curious and sniffs around."

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"Sounds like a plan. Let's -"

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Something barks, deep and basso, and the worker from earlier goes past at a dead run, looking like he's seen a ghost.

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When they turn to look, there's a black fox the size of a bear standing there. It steps forwards to where the worker was - his cigarette is still lying on the ground - and barks again. 

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How is something that big that sneaky.

She glances at Black Claw.

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Black Claw has pulled a knife from his jacket and is holding still in a combat stance. 

"Don't make me hurt you. We can talk this through."

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The fox chuffs, and blinks once. 

Then, it starts to shrink. Once it gets down to about person-sized, the joints realign and the whole body twists. Most of its fur melts away, leaving behind...

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A dark-haired woman, completely nude, with black fox ears and a black fox tail. Her nails are long and sharp. She stoops to the ground, picks up the still-lit cigarette, brings it to her mouth and takes a drag. 

"I don't recognize you two. Thought I knew every cultivator around here. All of them too weak to give me a real fight. But you, with the knife - you look like you could maybe be a challenge.

She tosses her hair. "Get on with it, I don't have all day."

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Okay. Hostility.

She will...

Back away slowly, both hands in her jacket pockets. One on her tin of pills, the other putting on her brass knuckles.

If Black Claw is forced into a fight and seems to be losing...

'You could hurt me with that. You'd need better form and some more training, but I see the potential.'

...She can eat a qi and blood pill, charge in and at least be a distraction, give him a moment to recover before bracing for fury. The black fox is probably faster than her so she can't plan on landing a kick unless she's very distracted. It'll have to be the weaker punches- Though she does have the brass knuckles.

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Cocoa holds. "What do you want? Why have you been attacking the workers?"

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She takes a step to the side, circling into the warehouse. "I need my smokes. Do I look like I can just go into a seven-eleven and buy a pack?"

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'Maybe if you didn't attack people' 'Hey, I do alright, people have seen weirder' 'So if someone got you smokes you'd stop fucking with people?'

She should say something. But all of these might trigger a fight. Maybe the fox would leave them with just a beating-

-Vast jaws closing on her, flinging her to the side with terrible ripping force-

Or decide to murder them. A fight she might not survive. Or that Cocoa might not survive.

She should do something. Say something. Right? Or is Cocoa handling it? He'd better because Trys doesn't. Seem. To. Be. Doing. Anything. Locked in place, deep frown and steely eyes.

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Cocoa turns smoothly to keep the black fox in his sight. 

"I can bring you smokes. And clothes, and food. You've been stealing from the nets, haven't you?"

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The fox narrows her eyes, and a wave of killing intent rolls off her. "And what if I have? These humans don't have the strength to keep it from me. It's rightfully mine."

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"I agree. But if you keep terrorizing the kine of other cultivators someone with the strength to put you down will eventually show up. Can't we organize some from of tribute?"

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"Tribute." She takes a deep drag of her stolen cigarette. "I like the sound of that." 

She sits down cross-legged on the concrete. "Alright, let's talk terms."

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Black Claw carefully puts away his knife, and sits. He gestures for Trys to sit as well.

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So they're not about to end up fighting. Good.

She does, hands visible and clasped in front of her. Tries to smile.

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"So," asks Black Claw. "What do you want?"

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"Cigarettes. A dozen packs in a variety of brands, I want to find a favorite. A black silk kimono. Baseball caps, sneakers, socks, underwear, t-shirts and jeans, all in my size. Food. Chocolate cake. Hamburgers. Steak. Bloody rare. A phone. Unlocked, with a data plan. Fifty qi and blood pills to aid my cultivation and energy. A house. Not an apartment or a condominium, a house. That nice knife of yours."

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"I can do this, but it will take time to put it all together."

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"Mm. You have a day. And I will take the knife now."

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"Do you swear to uphold the terms of the agreement?"

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"Yes, yes, I swear to uphold the agreement. So long as you deliver the promised tribute I will not bother the kine here for one month. I will have further demands in a month."

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"Then we are agreed." 

She flips the knife, and offers it handle-first to the fox.

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She can probably arrange some of that for Cocoa. If her heart will stop going a mile a minute.

She's the humble junior now, just listening silently. It doesn't help that... Those demands sound kind of unreasonable and rude to her, but Cocoa just - accepted them? Is the group that rich? Is she a big deal somehow? She has no context. Piping up would be worse than useless. So she doesn't.

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"I will see you here again tomorrow at this time and have you bring me to the house, which will contain everything I have demanded. Until then."

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She shifts again, the dagger disappearing under her skin, and becomes a regular-sized black fox. She pads off into the night. 

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"Well. That went well. Let's discuss back at the house."

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"Yeah, I- Yeah."

 

Once they're jogging back, she says, "Wish I just - knew when to shut up, but I was too scared to move for half that."

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"It's natural. First time doing a staredown. You did well - you let me talk and didn't start shit. Now we're going to be able to resolve this peaceably."

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"Was she-" Headshake. "No, shutting up, discuss back at the house."

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"Yeah. She's shadowing us, I can smell her. Some of this is better discussed where she can't hear."

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Makes her twitchy. Her hand goes in the pocket with the knuckles again, not entirely consciously.

She's quiet the rest of the way back.

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Black Claw gets the gate and the front door, and then they're safe. 

"So. Give me your analysis of that negotiation, hey? And then I'll explain to you what I know."

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"I lack context. I don't know this - world. Um. She snuck up on us. Higher level than you? But- Hmm.

She wanted food. Shelter. A weapon? Reasonable if you're scared all the time. And smokes aren't exactly a necessity to her but- but she wasn't just asking for cash or treasure.

"......Either savage, like ascended animal or something, or desperate, and she didn't seem savage. She knows about phones and hamburgers."

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"Yeah. Even monsters have enough internal organization to provide the necessities of life. She had none of them. No food, no shelter, no ability to pass, and no satiation for her addiction. No wonder she resorted to attacking people - she's homeless and desperate. Likely she got thrown out of her clan for something. "Tribute" was just a way for her to save face when what really we were negotiating was getting her on cultivator welfare. And next time we negotiate, one of the Seniors will be in the room with us. Probably Hannah since she's close. With the power firmly on our side of the table, the next set of demands won't be so unreasonable. I'll probably even get my knife back."

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"I only guessed that just now, though. Ugh. It's so... Feudal. The guy who the guys with swords are following makes the rules."

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"Yep. But we'll be making an effort to rehabilitate her from that kind of thinking. She's officially Our Problem Now, basically."

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"Should I help with the arrangements? I can do the grocery shopping at least. Or make a clothes run, if you can guess her size."

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"That'd be great, we're going to be a little strained to get it all together on a day's notice. We have the funds, obviously, it's just a matter of time."

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"Yeah. I kind of just want to fall dead asleep right now, though. Urgh. Do you have a credit card I can use? Unless something's changed I think mine's close to maxed. And - hold on, we should take down notes on what exactly she wanted, so we don't forget-"

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"Yeah, do that and then let's sleep, most places will be closed now anyway. I'll ask Hannah to come help out."

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She focuses and tries to remember.

Cigs- Variety. Kimono. Ordinary clothes. Food- Cake, steak (raw), hamburgers. Unlocked phone w/plan. 50 blood+qi pills. House. Black Claw's knife.

"I miss anything? I'm worried I missed something."

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"It's important we get her baseball caps so she can hide her ears. Also she specified the kimono should be black silk - we shouldn't forget the details, they show we're playing ball. Other than that I think we're good."

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"I guess I'm used to going without concealment and spouting the 'medical condition' bull. Don't know where to get a black silk kimono. Hobby shops?"

She annotates the list.

"Ah- My plan if a fight broke out was to hang back and try to distract her for a moment to let you recover if she seemed to be winning. Figured we couldn't run from a giant fox. Does that sound about right?"

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"Fox ears and tail makes you look more like a cosplayer than someone with a medical condition, and if they figure out they're real you might be sunk." Cocoa shrugs. "As for the kimono, I'm pretty sure there'll be specialty asian shops somewhere in the city, we'll just have to google and then call around. For a high-quality silk one we might have to drop by London though. I'm sure London would have one, it's an international city." 

"And for the fight - you should focus on protecting yourself in a situation like that. Stay close to your senior, maybe distract the enemy if you can - but your senior is going to be busy protecting you, so don't do anything stupid."

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Nod nod.

She yawns.

"...Deal with this tomorrow... You handle telling the group?"

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"Yeah, don't worry, I'll get it organized. I need less sleep than you and haven't been driving myself to exhaustion all day."

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"Great."

She showers. Again.

Pajamas.

Bedflop.

Nightmare. But a vague one, that she shakes off after a moment of waking terror and eventually gets back to sleep from.

In the morning, she wakes up with a headache and tosses on clothes and trudges downstairs hoping for tea and checking the chat group's reaction.

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Met the black fox that was causing trouble, negotiated with her. She took my knife but I got her to accept being on welfare by phrasing it as "tribute." She had a list of demands - food, clothes, shelter, cigarettes - probably a stray kicked out of her clan. Senior Ravenous Blade, think you could stop by to offer some negotiating weight?

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Only if you give me a share in Eight Tails' bounty. 

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Could I get a new knife for a fifth-level armor talisman?

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Sounds like a fair trade.

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Then thank you for the offer, Senior, but I don't need you.

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Suit yourself.

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I'm glad things seem to be being settled peacably, but I won't release the bounty until it's clear the problem is solved long-term.

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Understood. I should sleep now. 

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Goodnight!

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Goodnight.

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Cocoa has put the kettle on and is eating bacon and eggs. There's some left over in the pans for Trys. 

"Nice to see you!" 

He picks up a thick sheaf of twenty-pound notes from the table and waves it. There's another similar sheaf of fifty-pound notes by his elbow. 

"Dipped into the house cash reserves. This should be enough for you to take a shopping trip today and get the clothing, food, cigs and phone. I called ahead to an couple asian style shops and found one called Sanna Silks, they have a kimono in the right style. I'll deal with getting the house on short notice and also the phone plan once you get the device. Sound fair?"

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Well, time to face the day.

"Sure. I'll get a rental car too, to move all the stuff. Though I think you deserve more than half the reward, heavy hitter and all."

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"If you insist. Two-thirds share, I take eight you take four?"

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"Yeah, I insist. I may be the junior but I don't want to be an out right burden."

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"I couldn't do this without you, you know. But I get your point. Let's get a move on."

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"Right." She eats breakfast and gets a move on.

The rental car place is a bit frustrating to deal with. She's a little nervous about driving, doesn't do it that often, but does have a license and manages to fail to get into any wrecks. Though she does notice that... She seems to be just - faster? Mentally faster, and a bit better at paying attention. Goes for the specialty shop's kimono next and has them pack it neatly in a fancy box. Then a couple different electronics stores until she finds one that's happy to give her a latest-gen smartphone for over a grand in cash. She texts Cocoa on hers to find out where he is to drop it off. Another clothes shopping spree, just going to the same places she went to a few days ago. Picking up so many cigarettes raises some eyebrows but she says her friends put her up to it. She buys coolers and ice for the grocery run she does next so it can sit in the car and be fine - and kind of goes all out with nice groceries, low on the veggies and high on the meat. Remembers the steak. Gets frozen hamburgers and asks Cocoa if they should also order some from a nice restaurant just before it's time to go meet their 'client' again.

It's a very busy day. She wishes she were exercising instead. Late in the afternoon at least there's some time for it. Hopefully.

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There's no response till late in the afternoon, then:

Here's the address of the new house, bring everything over. Did you remember to get a SIM card for the phone? I like your idea of showing up with takeout, she's probably starving and it'll distract her and help lower her guard a bit. We might even be able to eat with her and gain some trust that way. 

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It came with a sim card but not activated. OMW.

She shows up with the rental - a nice, newish luxury SUV - soon after.

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It's a nice house in a quiet part of town, neither very large or very small.

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Cocoa is standing outside, and waves. "Hey!"

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She parks carefully.

"Hey. Stuff's all in the back seat and trunk."

She's in kind of a bad mood, which might be visible now that Cocoa has hung out with her some.

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"Missing your training?" Cocoa asks as he hauls in a pair of ice-filled coolers.

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"Yeah. That and wondering if more cultivators are like miss black fox. -And kind of annoyed at her. But I'll be respectful."

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"Her attitudes are regretfully common. The group's a little better, but..." He shrugs.

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She grumbles and en-fridges stuff and neatly puts away clothes, keeping the kimono and a single casual outfit back.

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Cocoa takes the phone, activates the sim card and gets a plan set up paying from his group credit card. He puts the kimono box on the kitchen table and leaves the phone atop it. 

"The cigarettes?" He asks.

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"In the trunk. Should I just put them by those?"

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"Yeah. And then there should be time for you to train some before we go pick up Ms. Black Fox."

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"Right." She does this. "I hope you have the blood and qi pills, I don't really want to give up mine, even for a little while."

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"I have them, don't worry. The house supplies include blood and qi pills as well." He pulls what looks like an eyeglasses case from his pocket and sets it on the table. "There."

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"...This is probably better than getting in stupid fights. It feels like an important lesson of some kind." Sigh.

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"This is what makes us different from other cultivation groups. Put bluntly, we give a shit."

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"...I'm gonna drive back to the other place and go exercise. Want a lift there?"

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"Nah, I'm gonna hang around and guard the new house just in case."

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She trains. Furiously, since there's only a few hours to do it in. Faster than before. Faster. Work out that frustration, that anger. If people will push her around until she's strong enough, she'll just have to get strong faster. It'll feel like ages still, but sooner started sooner finished.

Kicking. Ring Dancer Punching. Fast and furious, without pause. And once the buzzing rising qi is at that critical point, let all the frustration go. Focus and pull in. Maybe she can get two in a couplefew hours. Maybe three, but probably not?

She's missed a text from a friend, asking if she wants to drink with the usual crew down by Dunner's Rock, a stupid name for a petty local landmark. It's just a rock on the beach. Not even a particularly big one. She replies 'nah, super busy'. Lissa asks if her new job is giving her shit over being a Fischer, and she also replies 'nah. it's hard work though so I'm always tired'. Lissa doesn't text back.

Her old life really is over, isn't it? Not much of a loss, maybe.

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She gets two strands before it's time to go pick Cocoa up and fetch the fox girl.

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She drives to Cocoa. "Takeout or nah?"

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"Let's, shouldn't take long."

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They get takeout. A big burger for their guest. "...Do I still have to watch what I eat at all? I imagine I'll burn through it right quick if I keep training."

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"You can abuse your body in all kinds of ways as a cultivator and mostly get away with it - see Ms. Fox's smoking - but I personally think getting in the habit of it distances you a little more from everyday people, and I'm careful about that kind of thing."

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"Makes sense. Fast food as an occasional treat, mind the unhealthy stuff somewhat. Got it."

She orders a smaller burger, chips, diet coke, and whatever Cocoa wants. And then it's off towards the docks. Carefully, city driving is harder.

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Cocoa gets a burger too. 

"Alright, we're close now. Find somewhere quiet to park, we'll be bringing Ms. Fox back with us and she'll probably draw attention."

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There's a Q-Park near the bay. It's mostly empty this time of day, even, they don't have to go in the big parking garage section and find a spot near the entrance of the flat lot.

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Cocoa rolls down the window and takes a deep breath. 

"... I smell smoke down the way we were. She's probably hanging around. Let's go looking. You carry the food just in case she tries something."

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"And evade if she does?"

She gathers up the bags.

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"Yeah."

Cocoa gets out of the car, and his body language shifts. He's ready and alert, his shoulders square, his stride confident. Battle King Black Claw walks south towards the warehouse rendezvous.

 

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Abyssal Bride follows, tense and alert, ready to grab her weapon if needed.

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When they reach the front of the warehouse, out of sight of the few remaining dockworkers, a black fox pads forwards out of the shadows. 

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It becomes the woman from before, still without any clothes but plus a knife. She rubs the flat of the blade across her other palm and grins. "Hey. I can smell hamburgers. You son of a bitch, you really did it didn't you?"

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"I swore I would, after all."

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"That wouldn't stop some. Alright, I'll follow you. In fox form, I'll stick out less. As soon as I'm somewhere reasonably private I'm eating a hamburger though."

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"My associate here has clothes for you if you'd like to try them on, actually."

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She holds up a plastic bag, gently tosses it over. Inside: plain underwear, dark blue t-shirt, jeans, a black baseball cap without any logos or such. White socks and a pair of those expensive-ish running shoes. "Kind of guessed on the size, but it should be close."

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She stoops. "I'll get these on, then." 

It takes a few minutes for her to dress and tuck away her tail and ears beneath pants and cap, but afterwards she passes for a human fairly well. The clothes are a little large, and there are slight bulges in the cap and the pants, but it's not very noticeable. She tucks Cocoa's knife away in her jeans pocket. 

"Alright. Pass me the food."

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Food is a bit too delicate for tossing.

She walks up and hands the fast food bag over at arms length not looking terrified at all!

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Anna takes it. She's polite enough not to snatch. 

"Three hamburgers?"

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"Two of those are our suppers."

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She pauses. Cocks her head. Reaches in, takes one burger and its fries. "There'll be more food at the house, yes?"

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"You have my word that there will be. Steak, and more."

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"You can keep your hamburgers then." She offers the bag back to Trys.

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She takes it back and backs up. Tries not to look like she's deliberately keeping black fox in her field of vision.

"Car's next to that garage over there. Are going now, or in a minute? We'll have to return it later, though."

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"Let's go now. I'll eat on the drive."

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Cocoa nods sharply and turns around to lead the way back to the car.

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She is still anxious but much less so.

When they're in the car she takes the driver's seat and waits for everyone to buckle their seatbelts out of sheer habit.

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The fox sits in the back, puts her legs up on the bench seat, and starts eating her hamburger.

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"...forgive me if this question is impertinent, but have you been in a car before?"

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"No."

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"You should face front and buckle your seatbelt. It's for safety in case of a collision. Not sure if you'd need it, but my junior would not like to be hit by you going flying in a crash."

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Sigh. "This thing?"

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"Yes, the metal and plastic thing. It goes in the red slot."

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"That was fairly obvious, thank you."

She buckles herself in properly. 

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Then she can turn the engine on and drive! The radio goes to the same Top 40 channel it was on previously and the A.C. whirrs to life and she pulls towards the exit while digging for the remains of the cash stack to pay for parking.

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The fox's voice comes from behind Trys' seat. "Kill the radio please."

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"Of course." She pokes the button without more than a glance. Now there's only engine, road, and eating noises. And the tinny instructions of the parking ticket payout machine when she rolls down the window.

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"So who are you two anyway?"

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"Battle King Black Claw. And my junior, Abyssal Bride."

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"Never heard of either of you."

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"We're from out of town. I'm a Londoner, Abyssal Bride is from a nothing village up the coast a ways."

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"You're what, twenty-five? And a Battle King already. And established enough to throw this all together fast. Glad I didn't fight you."

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"Likewise. Do you have a name?"

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"Not a Daoist one. You can call me Anna."

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"Cocoa." He points at Trys. "Trys. Mind if I get out my burger too?"

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"Not a problem with me."

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And the rest of the journey is eating noises.

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City driving is kind of stressful. It's worse when she's keyed up like this. But they don't hit anything or even have to brake especially hard, though she does start a right turn and abort it with a scowl once.

 

They are at the house fifteen minutes later.

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Anna gets out of the car. "You first," she says to Cocoa.

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Cocoa fishes the keys out of his pocket and steps up to the house. He opens the front door and steps inside, gesturing for the others to follow.

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She locks the car, again out of habit. Grabs the fast food trash.

Follow, follow.

Things seem pretty - resolved-ish now? Hopefully?

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Anna steps in, looks around. "Where's my cigarettes? And the food?"

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"Everything's in the kitchen if you'll just follow me." 

He leads her into the kitchen and opens the fridge, pulling out the steak and waving it. "I think you'll want this."

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Her eyes light up. "Gimmie."

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He tosses it.

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She snatches it out of the air and pulls off the plastic wrap. She uses Cocoa's knife to tear off a big hunk, and eats it raw. 

"Mmmmm."

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"Good huh?"

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"Yeah. Now I just need a cigarette and this will officially be a good day."

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Cocoa wordlessly offers her one of the packs on the table.

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She pops it open, pulls out a cigarette. A little flame blossoms at the tip of her index finger, and she lights it. She puts it in her mouth and takes a drag. 

"And I see the phone and I think that's the kimono underneath?"

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"It is, yes."

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She puts the phone aside, and opens the box containing the kimono. She picks it up, holds it up to the light. Shakes it out. 

"That's very fine. Real silk. Who got this?"

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"My junior."

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"Well, thank you Trys."

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"No problem. Just a bit of searching, and Cocoa helped with that part."

She glances at Cocoa, trying to ask 'what now' without saying anything.

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"The house is yours. Here are the keys. We'll need to arrange a notary and organize a legal identity for you so you're legally the owner, but it's yours to use starting now. The fridge is fully stocked and the rest of the house is fully furnished. I've already set up a private chat group on your new phone with just the three of us in case something isn't to your liking. Do you need any information on how the house works, the kitchen appliances...?"

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Anna takes the keys and stuffs them in her pocket. 

"What's this thing?" She's pointing to the microwave.

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"It reheats food. Thirty seconds should be good for most refrigerated things, a minute or two for frozen. Don't put metal in it, it can start a fire. It's called a microwave." 

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"Alright. I think I can get the rest on my own. Thank you. Now shoo."

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"I'll get out of your territory. Trys, with me."

He goes out the front door and onto the front porch.

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She waits until they're in the car and driving away before commenting, "Ugh."

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"She was crying, when we were walking away. Quietly, but I could hear her."

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"...I mean..."

...Sigh. She drives.

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"Senior Starlight would say everyone deserves good things. I won't go that far, but clearly Anna's been through some shit. I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt for now."

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"I don't disagree that everyone deserves good things, necessarily. But it feels dangerous. Like appeasement, like a bad equilibrium, like we should demand more respect - less rudeness, I mean - or at least not be so generous, because she came on hostile. And I kind of hate that I feel that way, now that I'm aware of it."

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"You have good instincts. Respect is the real currency of the cultivator realm - it's why we bother with all the fancy titles and so on. But there are still more important things than it."

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"Definitely. It's just so terribly sad to have people... Not cooperate, destroy trust and fuck up the commons. It's called the tragedy of the commons for a reason."

 

 

"Is it... Is there, like, that thing in the novels where - coming to a new understanding of yourself helps you cultivate? 'It's all connected... From the roots of the world to the heavens themselves! And with that insight he burst through to qi condensation stage'... I feel like that's just a cliched trope."

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"There's artistic and self-expressive components in the higher stages, yes. Drawing the Dragon Patterns on your Gold Core, completing your earthly desires. And if you swear an oath you could be prevented from advancing until it's fulfilled. But all of that is higher-ranked than what you're dealing with right now by a long shot."

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Nod.

"I just hope Black Fo- Anna eases up a little if we have to keep interacting with her."

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"She probably will once she feels safer. And once Silver Starlight talks to her."

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Nod.

"Think I'm going to try training more tonight. I'm badly itching to get stronger so- I don't have to be quite so terrified."

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"Don't forget to sleep, but go ahead." 

He pulls out his phone and starts texting.

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She sets an alarm reminding herself to return the rental car tomorrow morning.

Then: Gym. Then: Sleep.

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The next morning she returns the rental car first thing, and:

Black Fox seems peaceable enough. Hopefully. As for me- Eleven and counting, and hoping to hit five more today.

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There's a conversation from last night: 

Got the fox settled in accommodations. She seems... satisfied. Senior Starlight, you'll be in the area, do you mind dropping by to put the fear of god in her? 

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That'll be fun. I won't even charge you a seal. 

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Thank you Senior.

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Things seem reasonably settled. I'll send the seals over by delivery sword; watch for them tomorrow morning, I'll send them to the house's front porch.

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Thank you Eight Tails.

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And there's a message from Anna in the other chat group:

I can't get used to this human bed. I barely slept. I need a fox one.

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I'll sort it out.

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Hannah texts back. 

Eleven on day what, three? Nice. Heard about the fox earlier. Good work.

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Day four technically I think. 2 + 3 + 4 + 2 (yesterday was sorting out her new stuff)

Black Claw did most of the hard stuff, de-escalating and talking. All for the best that nobody ended up fighting though.

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What are you going to do with your armor seals? They're worth a lot in trade since they're rank five. You could get more lower-level ones, some blade talismans, more qi pills, immortal food, some basic artifacts, maybe some cheap techniques...

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Dunno really. Still in my foundation establishment so I'm kind of clueless. Seems like a good idea to have trump cards in hand but if Eight Tails's are that amazing maybe I don't need that level of firepower. I think I haven't even gone through one qi pill total so far though. Techniques sound good. What's immortal food good for?

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You'll start going through pills faster soon. As for the food, it's extremely delicious and also good for artistic creativity and nourishing the body. It helps at any stage of cultivation.

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Not sure that's worth a whole seal to me right now. I'm sure I'll be able to handle more errands once I actually have a foundation established anyway. I'm interested in a movement technique that works in water, or some sort of sensory technique.

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You'll get sensory techniques soon from your aperture openings, so it's probably best to wait for that first. The water-movement technique idea sounds interesting but I don't know that we have anyone with one...

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I know Turtle Breathing, which is kind of a mobility technique? It lets you breathe where there's no air.

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!!! Yes good

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Two seals sounds fair for it to me. What do you think?

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It's not like I know the market. I'll just trust you on that.

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So you'll take it?

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I will. Though I don't have seals in hand yet.

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If you swear to deliver them as soon as practical I'll send you over diagrams for Turtle Breathing now.

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Oaths are important, right?

I swear that when I receive Eight Tails' reward seals I will send two to you as soon as practical in exchange, or if this proves impossible due to circumstance or misfortune, work in good faith to negotiate equivalent alternate payment.

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Good wording. I accept. I'll DM you the diagrams.

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Thank you! Where should I send them?

I will practice this technique quite a bit and get comfortable using it for long periods first but I'm very excited to use this for diving.

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You can mail them to my address in Germany and I'll get them.

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Will do!

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Time to get to training, then! She's in a good mood and thus able to throw her all into it, though maybe not quite as much all as her short, intense session yesterday.

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She gets two strands fairly easily over the morning. 

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Cocoa asks for the keys to the rental car around lunch. "I've got to go pick up a dog bed for Anna. I'd use agility techniques, but transporting the damn thing would be a pain."

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"-Uh. Shit, I already returned it, actually. To save money. I can go get another one?"

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"Oh. Nah it's fine, I'll go rent one myself. You need to train, after all."

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"Yeah, I do. Still, sorry. It's lunchtime for me though. Kind of want to get out of the house, figure it's safe now that miss black fox has a place of her own? Wait actually-"

She checks for the new technique in her messages.

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It's there!

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And is learning it pretty much the same experience as the Canadian Fist techniques?

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It is. More like the meditation technique than the agility or attack techniques - it's all about a certain kind of qi flow through the lungs - but it has the same kind of hypnotic assisted learning as the earlier ones.

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She will go practice this in the pool!!!

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While she uses the technique, she has no need to breathe. It does burn qi though. Her reserves are burnt through after about a half hour of use: the need to breathe comes back slowly, like she had just taken a deep breath of air. 

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Can she stagger the technique - does it refresh her if she holds off for two minutes and then uses it?

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She can! It's less comfortable but uses less qi. 

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Oh, excellent. It combines very well with her monster-bloodline ability to hold her breath for a while.

Eventually she gets tired of hanging out underwater for absurd lengths of time and dries off.

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Turtle Breathing combines well with my bloodline. I'm very happy with it!

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Glad to hear it! Do you have the seals for me yet?

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Eight Tails dispatched them last night, so,

They should be here, I'll have a look around and send them by express mail.

She searches obvious places in the house and texts Cocoa if she can't find them.

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Cocoa's left Trys' share on the kitchen table with a note.

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Here's your four. I recommend Swiftsnake Couriers for the mail, they handle cultivation artifacts frequently.

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She googles Swiftsnake Couriers, then. And calls a phone number, if she finds one.

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They specialize in moving fragile, expensive and confidential cargo, fast. The receptionist is professional and quotes a slightly eye-watering fee for overnight delivery to Berlin.

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Ouch.

"-Okay, give me a minute to check something and I'll call back."

Cocoa said something about getting her some money a few days ago? If that hasn't just - materialized in her bank account she'll text him and ask if he wants to buy a few blood and qi pills for cash.

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There hasn't been an abrupt materialization. 

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You want to sell qi and blood pills?

Don't, we'll support you. There's a black suitcase on the top shelf of the first floor closet. The code is 5272. Make damn sure you get the code right, it's trapped. Inside will be three compartments, one filled with cash and precious materials, one with a selection of credit cards, and one with thick stacks of rank five sword and armor seals. The seals are for defense of the house ONLY, don't mess with them. You can take one of the black credit cards and use it for your own; they have a limit of a million American dollars and are paid off entirely by Senior Starlight monthly.

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...

ok

That much money doesn't feel real and it doesn't feel like i should have access to it. The nice house is one thing if it would otherwise just be empty but. idk.

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Each of those qi pills is worth about a thousand pounds, just so you know.

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She doesn't respond. She's a little shaken, actually. This is at least slightly insane.

Well, she can take the black card - carefully, after double checking the combo twice - seal the case up again and call the delivery company. For that price they'd better send someone here to pick it up, though. She'll eat lunch while she waits.

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You should ask Snow Rose how many Qi and Blood pills she'd trade for one of those rank five armor seals. 

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The company comes by and picks up her package.

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To Cocoa,

OK. Thanks for your help.

DM'd to Winter Rose,

Winter Rose, your two seals are on the way by Swiftsnake Couriers. [tracking number]. I'm still deciding what to do with the others, but how many qi and blood pills would you offer for another?

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Thank you! A hundred sounds fair to me.

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...Turtle Breathing costs two hundred thousand pounds.

 

Okay, I'll consider it, but for now I'm going to get back to my training. Goodbye for now.

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Trying very hard to forge three more strands this afternoon seems to be the correct response to feeling overwhelmed like this! When she sucks on the same pill she's been using all this time, it finally disappears completely, and she thinks 'car payment gone'.

Investment. It's an investment and she has to make sure it's efficiently applied.

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She gets one, but after that her progress slows to a crawl with multiple failed attempts. The turtle breathing meditation she did seems to have worn down her capacity to draw out strands.

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Ugh.

...Worth it. It was amazing to spend a solid hour underwater, even if all she did was swim back and forth in that pool.

 

How's miss Anna? 

She texts Cocoa later.

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Grumpy as always but she seems a little more relaxed now. She was obviously tired when I saw her.

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Let me know if you need help or think she needs a visit or anything. I'm feeling a bit wrung out though so might just sleep early.

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No, I'm cool. Get some rest.

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Time to sleep, then. And have a nice if slightly incoherent dream about freediving in coral reefs.

And in the morning: More training. Fourteen so far, the number is going up steadily...

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She gets another two in the morning without too much trouble. It's definitely getting easier as she goes, though the effect is fairly subtle. 

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Cocoa is around, playing more Breath of the Wild. True to his word he seems to be on vacation.

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That's fine with her. She chats about the game a bit on clearing-her-head breaks. Does the dishes and takes out the accumulating trash while she's at it.

She goes for a third strand - seventeen - then spends the rest of the day alternating between shorter workouts and non-strand-attempt 'practice' meditation, and Turtle Breathing practice.

(...And balance-transfers her recent activity from her current credit card to the black one. If anyone fusses at her about it she'll deal with that later.)

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Nobody fusses about the credit card. 

There's still another day before Silver Starlight is slated to show up. 

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Cocoa makes waffles for morning breakfast. "Hey! Tomorrow is Senior Starlight, right? Do you want some info about her?"

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"Probably a good idea. She seems kind, and like the nominal head and organizer of the whole group?"