The Parable of Shuxiang Academy [Short]
A forest between Colonies 9 and 10; 11:33 pm.
A young man raced through a thicket of trees on uneven land as fast as he could. His black and white hooded uniform signified him as a student of the Tiger Path. Tucked under one of his arms was an elegant, flat box shaped as a dodecagon.
The forest seemed endless amidst the falling leaves, but he knew it wouldn’t last much longer. Shuxiang Academy itself was within the far reaches of his sight, sitting atop a mountain in the center of Shuxiang Island.
But what worried the student wasn’t the effort it took to descend from the Tiger Path temple, run through a forest, and eventually climb the mountain to Shuxiang Academy. Despite the cover he had from the night and trees, it came to him that he was being watched.
He made sharp turns every time it seemed like he intended to sprint straight, but no matter how hard he tried to throw anyone off, a rustle or a blurry shadow from the nearby rocks and greens randomly came from behind, the side, the front, and even above. This pursuer had to be playing games with him.
Then a shadow blurred past a corner of his eye.
The Tiger Path student’s world came crashing down as an unnoticed foot tripped him off balance for a short skid across the ground. Still clutching the box tight, the student clambered back to his feet.
「Quite the unusual time to be in such a rush, don’t you think?」
A distorted voice from behind made the student’s eyes widen and halt his breathing. He didn’t need to look back; he recognized that kind of voice.
Someone in a gray hooded uniform stood several feet away with their arms folded behind their back. Like the Tiger Path student, this figure also wore their hood up, but their face hid behind a white and blue expressionless mask. This was a member of Shuxiang Island’s shadow operatives, who were known to appear upon detection of any suspicious activity.
The student charged dark miasma-like energy into his hand as a worrisome thought floated in his head.
A Shuxiang Vanguard… I was hoping I wouldn’t get their attention, but here we are.
He spun and hurled a blast of dark energy at the Vanguard, only to create a small crater where his target once stood.
Before the student could charge another blast, the Vanguard closed in from a blind spot. With blurring speed and movements like a boxer, the Vanguard pulverized the student with a barrage of punches while shuffling around until the student collapsed to his knees. It was like getting attacked by multiple enemies simultaneously and not knowing which one to fight.
「Final warning. 」
The Vanguard retreated behind a tree, allowing the student to stand back up and recover.
「Come with me peacefully for questioning, or else. 」
That last warning came from behind a different tree. The student set down the box he was carrying and charged energy into both his hands. He shifted directions in place, unsure where to aim his next atom-disintegrating blast.
「Have you decided to come quietly? 」
Following the Vanguard’s voice, the student hurled a blast at another tree. The damage caused a hole large enough for the tree’s upper half to collapse, but no one stood within range of the crash.
The student clicked his tongue at his apparent miss just as someone ambushed him from behind. He turned around, his other arm unleashing its energy blast, but a rising kick from the Vanguard deflected his arm and forced his attack to misfire toward the sky instead.
The Vanguard attacked their staggered opponent with a combo of strikes using only their fingertips and finger knuckles like blunt knives. Each strike cracked a tiny shockwave as they pelted one of the student’s arms until it fell limp, completely numb and paralyzed.
The Tiger Path student jumped back before he could fall victim to a second combo.
I thought I figured out this Vanguard’s Path because he was fast, but if he knows how to attack pressure points, he must actually be from the Snake Path!
Having analyzed his situation, the Tiger Path student determined he had to fight from a distance. An opponent from the Snake Path meant he was in danger of getting crippled in many ways if he fought up close for too long.
The Vanguard closed onto him to paralyze his last good arm.
Anticipating the moment, the student executed a move most wouldn’t expect from someone of the Tiger Path―spinning out a kick that caught his opponent in the stomach.
It was a crushing blow, but the Vanguard managed to use the kick’s momentum to help them handspring away until they could get behind one of the countless trees in their location. The Vanguard came out of hiding a second later to continue their fight.
That was enough time for the Tiger Path student to charge more dark energy on his remaining hand while gaining enough distance to strike back.
「Path of the Tiger… what?!」
He tried to execute a specialized technique, but his good arm shook in place instead. It wasn’t paralyzed like his other arm. No, an outside force was restraining it. He looked at his opponent, who, to his shock, wasn’t trying to get close.
Instead, one of the Vanguard’s hands motioned like it was grabbing him from afar. As they rotated their hand, the student’s arm conformed with the movement forcefully.
Then he noticed the blurry traces around his arm. That was when he finally realized his situation.
This is… telekinesis?! But only someone from the Rooster Path can do that! Since when was a Vanguard, or anyone capable of techniques from more than one Path?!
His thoughts were interrupted as the Vanguard took control of his other arm and slowly forced both to bend the wrong way―
「No… no… Stooooooop!!!」
―until a sickening wet crunch disturbed the forest.
The excruciating pain of two broken arms forced the Tiger Path student to scream, but an unseen strike to his throat silenced him before any sound could escape his mouth. He passed out from pain shock a few seconds later.
And thus, the battle ended with no further noise.
As the Vanguard telekinetically laid the unconscious student down, two people came out of hiding from the trees. They, too, wore the same hooded gray uniform and expressionless mask as their colleague.
「I think you went a little too far, 」 said the Vanguard that silenced their target with a quick throat chop.
「Sorry, but people like him are too dangerous unless their arms are disabled, 」 said the one who utilized telekinesis.
「Besides, his arms were broken, not torn off. They will eventually heal, 」 added the third, who paralyzed one of their target’s arms.
After binding the student with rope and securing the box he tried to smuggle, the three Vanguards discussed their next move.
「Since we are dealing with someone from the Tiger Path, I think we have no choice but to present him to his leader. 」
「You don’t mean…」
「Xadrian Li. The Deva of the Tiger Path himself. 」
Colony 6; 12:15 am
The festival celebrating the arrival of the newest Shuxiang Academy students had ended.
Everyone living in Colony 6 had retired to their homes, all lanterns and other decorations had been cleaned up, and all vendors that set up shop at the festival had either closed for the night or returned to their usual stations in other colonies.
All except one.
The lights of the “Wok in Out” food cart continued to glow brightly in a corner of the sleeping colony. Its owner and chef, Gao Shen, finished cooking some honey lemon chicken, egg fried rice, and wonton soup. All three meals were presented in bowls to one special customer.
「So you’re telling me this is only your second meal today, Xadrian? 」
「Mmm… That’s right, 」 he said with a full mouth. 「I was in a rush to get ready for today, so I barely ate breakfast. Then my duties led me to forget about lunch and almost dinner. 」
「By ‘duties,’ you mean offering your assistance to everyone you come across, down to the last ant with its leg trapped under a pebble? 」
「Like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got a lot of weight on my shoulders, and this is just a part of it. 」
Xadrian Li held nothing back as his chopsticks stuffed his mouth with every last bit of food they could shove in. His table manners were sloppy, but he didn’t care… at least for now.
Watching his customer eat so voraciously led Gao Shen to laugh.
「What? 」 Xadrian got defensive. 「No one is finally watching me be a role model, so let me act like a total slob while I still can! 」
「It’s not that, 」 Gao Shen said after exhausting his laughter. 「Last time I saw you, you were this little brat who kept screwing things over. And now? Here you are before me as one of the Twelve Devas, worshipped by his fellow Tiger Path students as a god. 」
「I get why they’d do that, but why won’t they listen when their ‘god’ tries to insist he’s not one? 」 Xadrian groaned. 「How many times must I remind everyone that the Devas are still human? Sure, we’re probably the strongest of our Paths, but we’re still flesh and blood humans! 」 he sighed. 「And Shen? I may be fifteen years old now, but I’m still the same brat you knew back then. 」
「Heh.」Gao Shen smirked at his friend’s rambling. 「You sure are. 」
「Anyway, I shouldn’t waste any more of your time. 」 Xadrian sped up his already fast eating pace. 「I’m almost done, so prepare to go home. You can now, right? 」
「All thanks to you. 」 Gao Shen smiled at his food cart’s two big wheels, especially the one that was cloudy-white in color. 「I thought my luck had run out when one of my wheels suddenly broke, but luckily you were around to create a new one. The potential of yin and yang qigong sure is amazing. 」
「I guess so, 」 Xadrian said, leaving some money to pay for his meal. 「It’s just sad that it’s easier to learn how to destroy than create. 」
After making sure everything was in order, Gao Shen prepared to return his food cart to his usual business location in Colony 8. He had one more question for Xadrian before leaving.
「I, uh, don’t have to worry about this new wheel suddenly vanishing into thin air… right?」
Xadrian chuckled. 「It will last for as long as I live. 」
After sending Gao Shen off and making sure he was alone, Xadrian’s demeanor changed.
He spoke in a calm but firm tone.「I can tell when I’m being watched. Show yourselves. 」
Three shadowed figures appeared behind him, all kneeling. They did it not just out of respect but because the sheer pressure of Xadrian’s presence weighed them down.
Raising their heads, the three Vanguards gazed upon one of the most powerful beings to walk upon Shuxiang Island.
Xadrian had fair skin and long chestnut hair, most of which was tied in a low and sleek ponytail.
As the current leader of the Tiger Path, he wore a black and white uniform, but it was unlike the standard uniform of his fellow students. Aside from its sleeker and sharper design, every trace of this uniform’s black and white also sported accents of gold, as well as a few precious jewels and red tassels. Two golden ornaments resembling a tiger’s jaw were placed on his left shoulder and right hip. All these aesthetics gave Xadrian’s Tiger Deva uniform a regal splendor.
「Xadrian Li, Deva of the Tiger Path, 」 one Vanguard reluctantly spoke. 「We humbly ask for a moment of your time. 」
Xadrian looked at them over his shoulder with sharpened amber eyes decorated with red eye shadow.
「Is this because I ate my dinner like a pig? 」 he growled.
For a moment, there were no sounds other than chirping crickets and the wind. A tumbleweed passed by.
「Er… we do not interfere in matters like that, 」 the Vanguard informed him. 「Ahem, we’re here because we have captured someone under suspicion of thievery. This suspect comes from the Tiger Path. 」
「Oh good, I mean, oh no, not good, 」 Xadrian stammered as he spun on a heel and approached the three Vanguards.
Standing up, they presented the captured student and the flat box he had stolen.
Xadrian went to the student first and unhooded him.
「You… you’re the one who offered to tidy my chamber this morning for some money, 」 Xadrian uttered before addressing the Vanguards. 「Leave him with me. I’ll question him later once he wakes up. 」
Next, he approached the box, which he recognized from the time he earned his current position.
「I assume you did not look inside this? 」 he asked the three Vanguards, who all stood firm in response.
「We are not allowed to without permission, 」 one of them answered.
Xadrian opened the box and checked its contents before closing it. He made sure no one saw the changes to his expression ever since he peeked inside.
「This could be a serious matter. I would like to present this to my fellow Devas and also ask them to help me investigate. Will that be alright? 」
「Understood, 」 one of the Vanguards said. 「Then, if you’ll excuse us. 」
「Wait, I have one more request, 」 Xadrian stopped them from departing with an outstretched hand. 「Please unmask yourselves and tell me your names. I want to thank you personally. 」
Instead of an immediate response, the Vanguards stood like statues. There was a reason why their specialized uniforms were designed to make them look and sound the same regardless of gender or age.
「I swear on my reputation as a Deva to keep your identities a secret, 」 Xadrian added with a more relaxed expression. 「If you’re worried about eavesdropping from any outsiders, I can provide us some privacy right now. 」
He raised his right hand, which glowed with white energy. Particles of this energy scattered about and worked together to quickly encase the four people inside a cloudy-white barrier shaped as a cube.
Assessing their situation, the Vanguards realized that while the barrier around them did grant privacy, it was also a near-unbreakable prison at the same time. Having determined that Xadrian put them in a position where no wasn’t an answer, they complied with his request and removed their hoods and masks.
The first Vanguard to reveal themself let out a flowing curtain of ivory-black hair as soon as she removed her hood. The removal of her mask revealed a shy face with slanted eyes and pale skin. She united her hands to form a symbol and performed the signature salute of her true Path.
「It is an honor to speak with you, Lord Xadrian. 」 Her voice came out stiff. 「I am Zheng Fenghuang of the Rooster Path. 」
He returned her gesture with the Tiger Path salute, which looked like he was shaking hands with himself.
「Just Xadrian is fine. I may be a Deva, but I’m also around your age. Pleased to meet you, Fenghuang. 」
The second Vanguard unmasked to reveal her tanned skin, bubbly hazel eyes, and rose-red hair styled as a medium bun. Unlike how she behaved as a Vanguard, this person became more chipper as she saluted and presented herself in English.
“Pleased to meetcha! Viola Knightley of the Snake Path, reporting for duty!”
“You’re from the West?” Xadrian said, amused. “No problem. English is natural for me too, so pleased to meet you, Viola.”
“Mate, is that so? I guess that’s how I’ll introduce myself then.”
The last of the three Vanguards unhooded to reveal a tousled mop of sandy-blond hair. Unmasking himself revealed a face of fair skin and a pair of gray eyes under thick eyelashes, a characteristic of his ethnicity.
“Oh, aren’t you that new student?” Xadrian blurted before retracting himself. “No, that can’t be right. But I'm sure I saw someone who looked like you here at the festival.”
“Did you, now? Then you must be talking about my lil’ sis.” The Vanguard cracked out a half grin while Zheng Fenghuang nodded his way. “So, Shannon did make it here. Oh, right, I’m Allen. Allen Grey.”