Chapter 27: An Eye
Throughout the months during which Bao had lay there still and unmoving, her body never seemed to change at all. Her hair hadn’t grown. She didn’t lose weight. She remained the same as ever.
After waking up though, she felt a wave of weakness building up deep inside of her. It was as if she hadn’t slept during all of those months, and all the exhaustion were on the verge of breaking out at one time. She felt like she might fall unconscious again at any moment.
Other than willpower, the only thing that kept her awake was hunger. Deep, piercing hunger that made her stomach feel as heavy as a mountain.
She swayed a bit back and forth, then placed her hand down on the bed in front of her to stop the dizziness. For the moment, all thoughts of metalworkers vanished from her head.
“Bao, you’re back!” Mao Yun exclaimed, leaping to his feet.
“Hungry,” she said. “Food. Now.”
Mao Yun blinked, then rushed out of the room, whereupon the entire stronghold was thrown into a frenzy.
Mao Yun returned minutes later with steamed buns, pickled vegetables, and cured meat. The food vanished almost before he could put the tray down in front of Bao.
“More,” she said before she even finished swallowing the final mouthful.
Mao Yun’s eyes went wide. For the course of the next three hours, dish after dish was brought in, which Bao wolfed down without hesitation. Even during the time in which the event played out, exaggerated stories already began to spread.
“Did you hear that Chieftess Bao just ate ten bowls of noodles in a row? Without even breathing!”
“I heard that Mao Yun already sent people down to Fan to buy more pickled vegetables. Chieftess Bao ate an entire month’s worth of stock!”
“I heard that at one point she was so hungry waiting for the next dish that she ate the chopsticks!”
“The chopsticks were nothing! They even had to get a new table!”
After three hours, Bao took a deep breath. “Water,” she said. Mao Yun nodded.
More stories spread.
“Third Zhou said we’ll probably have to start working on a new well after this. The current one is running dry!”
“Mao Yun said that for the next month, all the alcohol and wine is free because Chieftess Bao drank all the water!”
“Hey, what are you doing?!”
“I’m going to burn this incense to Eastern Sea Goddess and beg her not to turn Chieftess Bao into a water ghost!”
Finally, Bao finished. She wiped her lips with a cloth handed to her by Mao Yun, then yawned.
“Mao Yun,” she said.
“Yes, Chieftess Bao.”
“I… need to… sleep for a--” She promptly flopped back down into the bed and began to sleep. This time it was not a coma, but she did sleep for three days straight, during which time Mao Yun, Third Zhou and Li Runfa took turns watching over her, just like they had during the long months in which she was in a coma.
Third Zhou was on watch when she woke up again. This time, when Bao suddenly sat up, she didn’t ask for food and water, but instead, a pen and brush. Third Zhou hurried back moments later, followed by Mao Yun. When Bao was handed the brush, she immediately began to write onto the paper.
From north to east the clouds surge forth
From south to west fair feathers sing
“What’s that?” Third Zhou asked.
Bao sighed and shook her head. “I’m not sure.” She looked at the words she had written, then slowly handed the brush back to Third Zhou. “I just felt… as if I had to write them. They were burning within my head.”
Mao Yun looked over at the lines of poetry. “This reminds me of that time we got drunk.”
Bao looked up and grinned wryly. “Which time?”
Mao Yun chuckled. “The first time. Remember, you jumped up onto the table and wrote a poem on the wall?” [1. Bao wrote two lines of poetry when drunk in chapter 9]
“I remember you telling me that story.” Taking a deep breath, Bao experimentally scooted to the end of the bed and swung her legs over the side. When she tried to stand up, her legs felt a bit creaky, but none worse for the wear.
After a moment passed, Mao Yun cleared his throat. “Chieftess Bao, may I humbly ask… what happened?”
Bao looked over at the table where the fallen star lay, perched on a wooden platter. “I’ll explain later,” she said. “First, do we have a metalworker in the stronghold?”
Third Zhou answered the question. “We do, Chieftess. But according to him, treasures like that fallen star are far beyond his level of skill. He said that if you want something made from the star, you should talk to Ruan the Flamingo.”
“Flamingo?” Mao Yun said. “What’s that?”
“A type of bird,” Bao answered. “From the lands on the other side of the Banyan Mountains. I saw a painting of one when I was a child. They’re pink, and stand on one leg.”
“That’s right,” Third Zhou said. “Ruan the Flamingo originally came from the south. Perhaps that why he has the nickname. I’m not sure. In any case, he’s somewhat of a hermit, but is well-known for this metalworking skill. He even made some famous swords and spears when he was younger. He fought against the Demon Emperor during the invasion of Fan, and when the city was sacked, he fled into the mountains. Nowadays, he lives in a cave in the foothills of Mount Fohe.”
“Mount Fohe,” Bao said thoughtfully. “That’s far, but not too far.”
“I already made some calculations,” Third Zhou said. “Most of the traveling would be through forests, hills, and mountains. Depending on the exact route we take, it should take 14-20 days to get there.”
Bao sucked in a breath. “A month-long trip in total, maybe even two months.”
“Chieftess Bao,” Third Zhou exclaimed, “you’re not thinking of going yourself, are you!?”
“I have no choice,” she replied. “The fallen star… is too dangerous. Plus, only I know how to control it.” She frowned for a moment in thought. “Make preparations. We leave the day after tomorrow.”
The following two days were a buzz of activity as various preparations were made. They didn’t leave the stronghold until noon. Third Zhou and Li Runfa were left behind to administer the daily affairs. Mao Yun went with Bao, as well as a handful of other followers, some from the old bandit group, and some from group they had assimilated after the untimely death of Lord Shu.
It wasn’t until they were well into the journey on the second day that Bao finally had a chance to explain to Mao Yun what had occurred to her. Although she didn’t go into explicit detail, she didn’t hide anything either. After she finished with her tale, Mao Yun shook his head.
“It’s almost unbelievable,” he said.
“I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t experienced it myself.”
“How did you do it? How did you stand up to the… the ‘oversized chicken’? How did you defeat her?”
“I didn’t defeat her. I just… suppressed her. I think it had to do with confidence. The further I go along in life, Mao Yun, the more convinced I am that confidence is the key to everything. Those who lack confidence never come out on top. Those who maintain deep and unswerving self-confidence have what it takes to be victorious.”
“But Bao, that Phoenix Demon, she’s… like a god! You said she talked about Xian Nu Shen as if she knew her personally? And she fought with Supreme Judge Yu? I don’t know if I could even look her in the eye, let alone have a battle of willpower with her.”
“Well, from the very beginning, she made a mistake. She said that she had been watching the Pure Phoenix Sect for a long time. But the Pure Phoenix Sect was nothing more than a joke. Who was it that brought it up the first time? Second Zhou?”
“First Zhou. Well, First Zhou and Second Zhou, to be most accurate. It was actually on the trip to look for the fallen star. Somehow they started talking about how you fight, and Second Zhou said your fighting style was like a dragon. Then First Zhou said that since you’re a woman, it should be a phoenix. And then they both joked that you were ‘pure phoenix.’” Mao Yun chuckled.
“That’s right, I remember now,” Bao said, also chuckling. “When I started talking with Sect Leader Sunan, I remembered that his group was called the Golden Dragon Sect, so for some reason that ‘pure phoenix’ joke popped up into my head, and told him that we were the Pure Phoenix Sect. The Phoenix inside the fallen star must have heard that, and taken it to be the truth. That was what made me realize that she was lying.”
“Pure Phoenix Sect,” Mao Yun said. “It actually sounds quite impressive.”
“It does,” Bao replied. “Actually, I think we should keep it.”
As they traveled further south, the terrain grew more mountainous. Eventually, they hired a local guide with the odd name of Piduk to help them make their way through the valleys, foothills, and mountains that led to Mount Fohe.
In the end, the first leg of the journey to Ruan the Flamingo’s cave took a bit over two weeks. An entire day of that time, the last day, was spent simply finding the actual cave, even though they knew they were in the right general location.
A door had been built into the cave mouth itself, somewhat defying the image that Bao had built up in her mind about what the place would look like. When Ruan the Flamingo appeared, it was instantly obvious the reason for his nickname.
He only had one leg, and walked with a crutch.
As was expected, he was old, with a long scraggly beard, and one eye that was milky with blindness. He opened the door of his cave dwelling, stared out at the group, then said, “Well? Whaddya want?”
“Your skill,” Bao replied. “And a private audience. The matter is… sensitive.”
He peered at them with narrowed eyes, then said, “Fine, come in.”
As Bao dismounted, she gave a meaningful look to Mao Yun and then said, “You stay out here with the men.”
Ruan the Flamingo led her into his cave dwelling, which was much more luxurious inside than she would have imagined. A small audience chamber was built into the side of the main tunnel, where the two sat down at a wooden table. Ruan served her a cup of tea.
Not waiting for him to ask questions, Bao pulled out a burlap sack which she placed onto the table with a resounding thump.
“I want something made from this,” she said, carefully rolling the fallen star out into the open.
Ruan’s eyes went wide. “That’s….”
“A fallen star,” she replied.
He reached out with his index finger to touch it, but her hand shot out like lightning to grab his wrist. “You must not touch it under any circumstances.”
He looked up at her. “Do you mean to tell me….”
“There’s… something inside of the star. Something like a Demon.”
Ruan sucked in a breath, then leaned back. “Dangerous. Very dangerous. You want me to turn this thing into a weapon of some sort, and keep the demon sealed inside?”
“Have you done something like that before?”
He grinned. “Oh, once or twice. I even designed a chariot once.”
“Very well then. The final form doesn’t matter to me. It could be a dagger, or a bracer, or a bowl for all that matters. The most important thing will be to use this design as the final sealing element.” She produced a piece of paper, upon which had been sketched a magical symbol, the very same symbol she had seen on the forehead of the phoenix.
Ruan looked at the paper for a moment, then back at the fallen star. He leaned his face close and inhaled deeply, then produced a pair of wooden tongs from underneath the table. “May I?” he asked.
Bao nodded in affirmation. “Just don’t touch it with your flesh.”
For the next few minutes, Ruan analyzed the fallen star using a variety of methods. “I can do it,” he said. “However, I’m missing an ingredient, something I don’t have here in my cave. Get that for me, and we have a deal.”
He looked up and smiled. “An eye.”