Mes was the first that stepped forward to welcome Zetsa and Zax. “Big sissster Zetsa, I did as you bid. Martial uncle isss one hisss way”.
“Good”. Zetsa smiled and squeezed Zax’s arm to release him of the bewilderment.
Under the large pavilion, the other four figures lowered the wooden cups in their hands to the table at the center of their gathering, got up and approached the two arrivals.
“Elder Martial sister Zetsa”.
“Elder Martial sister Zetsa”.
Two of the four lowered their heads and said in union while one, a bird type beast, just performed the same greeting gesture.
The three were three humanoid beasts. The biggest one was nearly four meters tall, with yellow spotted fur over his body and a jaguar head. The second biggest was the same height as Mes, around two meters tall, and another lizard type beast but of different species. Her scales were fiery crimson and two silver horns grew out from the sides of her lizard head. The last of the three shared a similar height with Zetsa and was the bird type beast that stayed quiet. Her body was covered by dark blue feathers, she had two black eagle legs, which complemented her griffon head, and her upper limbs looked like folded wings that made up the shape of two arms.
“Zax, these are my junior Martial brothers. This one is Tularg, he is a Dotted Jaguar”, Zetsa gestured over the jaguar head beast. “After me he is the oldest. Rarahel is the third youngest and is a Silver Horns Dragon”. Next she gestured over the silver horns beast. “Mes, that you already know, is the second youngest. His species is Thousand Meters Viper. And Shulip is the youngest, Lakes Griffon”. Last was the beast type bird.
“Greetings, senior Martial brother Tularg, senior Martial sister Rarahel, senior Martial sister Shulip, this one is Zax Zel, nice to meet you!” As he done in front of Mes, Zax lowered his head to pay his respect to the three beasts.
“Little brother Zax”. Tularg offered his hand for Zax to shake. He learned of this ritualistic greeting that was common in humanity’s territory from his big sister Zetsa.
Zax reached for Tularg’s hand and his hand instantly swallowed within the animalistic grip. The pressure of the grip was a bit strong, but the sensation of physical contact with such of a formidable wild existence gave Zax a rush of excitement.
“Can’t take it back now, big sister Zetsa”. Rarahel said. Although she was of the same type of beast as Mes, she did not seem to have any speech impediment.
“Little Rara, stop antagonizing your elder sister”. The final, fourth beast, came forward and as he did, the other three made way.
“Elder Martial brother Simel”, Zetsa said respectfully. “The issue between me and little sister Rarahel is personal. Please forget what she said”.
As he heard his big sister talk, Zax realized two important things. The first was that the ape type beast, Simel, was one of the three elder apprentices of his big sister’s Master, and was genuinely grander than Zetsa herself. The second thing was that, despite her greeting, between his big sister and that silver horn Rarahel was a cold and complicated relationship.
“Nonsense, little Zetsa!” Simel raised his voice in disagreement.
Though he was the eldest of the present apprentices of the same Master, his appearance as a beast could only be counted as meager in comparison to the other four beasts. Being a Silver Skin Gorilla, most of Simel’s body looked like that of a hairy muscular silvery man, around a meter and ninety centimeters tall, with a piece of leather cloth covering the loincloth and a gorilla head. Nonetheless, his tone of voice possessed a unique noble sound and his demeanor when he spoke his mind was highly oppressing.
“When brothers and sisters fight, parents are punished!” His words held meaning that was mutual to all of his junior apprentices and there was nothing else he needed to add to make them submit.
“Greetings, senior Martial brother Simel, this one is Zax Zel, nice to meet you!” Zax hurriedly said when Simel disregarded the others and approached him.
“Hmm…” Was Simel’s first response after an azure luster gleamed in his eyes. ‘I see what uncle talked about... brave boy!’ He said to himself. ‘Poor sister…’ He thought back to how Zetsa must feel, knowing for what she brought him.
“Say, little brother”, Simel turned to Zax. “What kind of beast’s meat, did little sister Zetsa made you eat on your journey here?”
“What?” Zax was dumbfounded by the question and why it was asked. It was true that on their way to this cave Zetsa hunted and cooked for him some beast’s meat, but was it safe to admit it to another beast?!
“Big brother Simel, we had no time to properly search for something special… the best was a shallow water turtle”. Zetsa answered in Zax’s stead.
“‘Shallow water turtle’? Ba!” Simel spat. “Don’t reduce yourself again for this crappy wild beast, little sister Zetsa. Listen up, little one”, he turned to Zax. “If our Master will truly accept you, I personally will take you for a hunt, and so will the others!” Simel promise was absolute and even the others had to give their consent, primarily because it was an actual tradition that started by their eldest Martial brother.
“Martial uncle!” Simel suddenly turned and called out. The other five, excluding Zax, were a bit slower to call in the same obsequious conduct.
‘Big sis’s Martial uncle? Is he the one who found me?’ Zax pondered. For a few seconds now his big sister’s brothers and sisters kept their bowing posture in austerity. They did not emitted mist or soul energy; however, the air they were giving became tense and sultry, so much that Zax found himself spellbound with his gaze to the ground.
“Martial nephews and nieces”. A husky voice broke the silence and the six apprentices straightened, Simel first, Shulip last and Zax imitated.
The imperious figure of Martial uncle overshadowed the impression that Zax received from the five beasts apprentices. Martial uncle figure was completely black from his hoofs to the tip of his crown like set of horns atop his stag head. Except for his posture only his burly torso looked like that of a man, though it was coated by shining black fur. These two features of him were the sole indications that he, too, was a humanoid beast.
“Zax, he is my esteem Martial uncle Kartius, hurry up and greet him!” Zetsa urged Zax.
“Greetings, senior Martial uncle Kartius, this one is Zax Zel, nice to meet you!” Zax said and as he lowered his head again he had an acute feeling that something was off with this Martial uncle, yet he could not determine what it was.
“Joined me around the table”. Kartius told Zax and the others and proceeded to sit next to the table.
“Martial uncle, what about Master?” Zetsa asked. She hopped that her Master will be more amenable toward her brother if he will meet him and see in him what he saw in her.
“Big brother won’t come”. Kartius said bluntly.
“Did you not call him, Mes?” Zetsa looked at her Martial little brother heatedly, pondering if he had the audacity to disobey her in fear that their Master will catch on about him doing something stupid.
“No, no, no, big sissster Zetsa! Martial uncle toldsss me not to call Master!” Mes said defensively.
“Indeed I told him”. Kartius responded to Mes’s imploring gaze for help. “Zax’s stay here was left for me to decide”. Saying so far, the six apprentices understood their Master’s intention.
Zax was allowed to stay in the cave, but his cultivation will not be supported by Master’s care.
“Martial uncle Kartius!” Zax abruptly raised his voice firmly, shocking the six.
Which one of them, ever in his or her life, dared raising their manner of speech in front of their Martial uncle?
“Please allow me to stay and train and become as strong as my big sis… No! Stronger than anyone here!”
“Zax!” Zetsa barked.
“Bahaha!” Simel burst out laughing.
“How impudent!” Rarahel criticized.
“Ssss, future Martial brother Zax, ssss”. Mes was also amused.
Tularg and Shulip preferred to keep their opinion privately.
Zax ignored everyone but Kartius. He thought that it will be more appropriate for him to bow his head when he opened his mouth and shocked everyone, but an audacious feeling in his heart instructed him to stay unyielding as his will and the person that he aspires to be.
“Boy”, Kartius said and everyone fell silent. “Don’t let your condition abolish rational thinking. I see that your soul is at the top of level D. That fast of a progress combined with the only other path that you have, certainly makes you a promising practitioner of the Martial path. But, the path to becoming stronger is embedded with more than just the difficulty of cultivation. On your own territory it won’t mean much, but here it’s a different matter. I’ll say without beating around the bush, stay here and it’s more likely that you will lose something important or die by someone else, sooner than you may imagine!”
Kartius crossed his arms and surveyed Zax as he done the first time he saw him. The state of the boy’s Qi channels remained the same, but his soul became terrifyingly strong to his level and had something else in it. That something else was the reason for him not using a murderous intent to give the boy a peek to the abyss that is known as the Martial path.
Zax had countless things to say in return. How he already lost something important. How he continues to lose important things deliberately and without restraint. How he is not scared. How he fared against death more times in the past than any child should. How he himself considered death as better than living at one point during this year, since he woke up…
At the end, he chose to say nothing. Everything sounded the same and shared the same purpose, to stand his ground with his resolution. Enduring quietly was akin to showing that his mind did not sway by this Martial uncle’s cautionary words.
“Very well, boy, Zax, you have my approval, you can stay”.
“Martial uncle is generous, thank you, Martial uncle!” Zetsa was fast to react and singled Zax to do the same.
“Thank you, Martial uncle!” Zax said.
“Congratulations, Zaxss, from now on you are the youngest Martial brother of usss six and the other two that are currently out”. Mes’s golden eyes narrowed in delight.
“Swhit! Swhit!” Shulip whistled.
“Shulip is also happy not to be the youngest sister anymore”. Tularg interpreted and then he explained to Zax. “Bird type beasts have hard time changing their vocal cords to reproduce sounds other than whistles. Wait for her to reach the Core Master level for her to tell you herself how happy she is to have a younger brother”. He chuckled.
“Swhit! Swhit! Swhit!” Shulip waved her arms, which turned into two marvelous wings, and sent gusts of winds to strike Tularg.
“Grahahah…” Tularg half laughed half roared and with a slight move of hand canceled the four blades of wind. “She thinks that I’m embarrassing her in front of her new younger brother”.
“Enough of this juvenile behavior!” Just as Zax was about to get out of his awe toward these two beasts, whom with barely moving caused havoc in the air, Kartius raised his voice in mild anger. “If you will destroy the pavilion I’ll have you drink thousand cups of water a day for ten generations of the Krikitories!”
What may sound as a joke clearly was not treated as such by Tularg, Shulip or any of their Martial brothers and sisters. The two apologized right away.
“Sorry, Martial uncle, he won’t dream of harming the pavilion”.
“Swhit! Swhit! Swhit!”
In truth, even if he did not say anything, the two would never have the nerve to make the tiniest of scratches on the pavilion’s wooden beams and roof or marble floor. It was a gift from the Krikitory tribe to someone that none of those who attended this welcoming gathering will think to offend.
“As long as you remember…” Kartius said to the two and got up on his hoofs. “Regarding the matter of a new Martial brother to you lot… Zax will join our Martial family and you will get a new junior apprentice, however, not as a Martial brother, but a Martial cousin”.
“Uncle Kartius, you mean?!” Simel said in disbelief.
“Martial uncle?!” The other apprentices had the same expression as Simel.
“I mean that I discussed it with big brother, your Master. Zax will join us as my apprentice, if he will accept me as his Master”. Kartius’s eyes fell on Zax, his crown of black horns made him almost look sacred.
Initially Zax thought that his big sister will continue to be his Mor and teach him all about the bodily refining technique. Yet, as he met eyes with Kartius, Zax sensed once more that this beast possesses some profound secret that he must uncover. “Master!”
Zax recalled an old martial arts movie that he saw at Dane’s house. The protagonist dropped to his knees and called “Mor!” to the old man that accepted him as an apprentice. Zax copied the protagonist but instead of “Mor” called “Master”, since this was how his big sister and her Martial brothers and sisters referred to their teacher and how Kartius referred to himself.
“Martial son!” Kartius answered.
“Congratulations, Martial uncle! Congratulations, Martial cousin!”
The six who watched the exchange from the side applauded their new junior and even more so, their Martial uncle.
“Little brother Zax, you might not know it, but you are the first apprentice, Martial son, that Martial uncle has ever accepted!”
“Thank you, Martial uncle, for seeing in my little brother what my Master saw in me”. Zetsa thanked. It was obvious to her that just by staying in her Master’s cave, without getting his support, becoming an official apprentice; he will have hard time cultivating the bodily refining technique. Even her two elder Martial brothers and elder Martial sister will not be able to provide the required assistant.
Her Martial uncle never had an apprentice before. Therefore, in a normal situation Zetsa would have preferred for her Master to accept Zax as an apprentice. However, this situation contained a couple of complications which no one could help with. Due to these complications Zetsa had to agree that Zax will benefit more from having her Martial uncle as a Master, than her own Master.
“Zax”, Kartius turned to his first apprentice. “From now on you can either call me ‘Father’ or ‘Master’, they both hold the same meaning, ‘a teacher of the Martial path’, so I’ll let you choose. When you decide, get up and never kneel as frivolously as you do now! Learn first what the difference between bowing slightly, as your seniors do, and kneeling!” Kartius said in a stern voice. “For mutual respect your knees should never touch the ground... That is all I’m going to say on the matter”.
Zax gulped every word like the first drops of water after a long drought, which was a thing of the past in New Earth but still a taught subject in schools.
“Master!” Zax repeated and stood up. Although Kartius said that both forms of addressing were the same, to Zax they meant two different things. Besides, his big sister referred to her Master equally the same and frankly, Zax still did not know what was wrong with “Tal” and “Mor”.
“Then it’s settled”. Kartius said. “Zax, and you too should listen”, he turned to the others. “While I said that Zax can stay, my approval is only temporary. Even if I accepted him as my Martial son, he still needs to receive big brother’s own approval. If it was ten years ago, big brother would not have mind to give him the same chance he gave Zetsa. Unfortunately, these days big brother is very… anxious. To let Zax stay indefinitely, when the time comes big brother will want to test Zax’s abilities, he has the right to and a good reason. To make sure that my Martial son won’t disappoint, I received three years to prep him, Zetsa, I believe, already mentioned that to my Martial son and now I want all of you to know as well”.
The sternness in Kartius’s voice vanished, his speech mellowed as his next words were spoken from his sincere heart.
“For the next three years I plan to concentrate every second on preparing Zax, not just for big brother… During this period of time you can treat us as if we entered closed doors training”.
“Martial uncle, are you planning to take Zax?!” Zetsa unintentionally blurted. Her relationship with Zax has just got better and now she will not be able to see him for three years!
“We will not be interrupted unless it is big brother who is calling for either of us!” Kartius stated as an undisputable fact. “Nevertheless, it is very improbable that big brother, in his current temperament, will send a call for us. Because of this, my request for you, Martial nephews and nieces, is to please take care of big brother in my absence. His anxiety hampers his training… Your senior apprentices already doing the best they can, so they won’t be able to help if something were to happen in that cave”.
“We know and understand, Martial uncle”. As the eldest, Simel’s response represented the other five apprentices as well.
“I’m grateful”. Kartius said. This will be the second time in a short period of time that he will not be by his big brother’s side. He could only trust on his big brother’s sons and daughters to fill in for him.
“Say your goodbyes to your Martial brothers and sisters, Zax”. Kartius told him.
‘Three years…’ Zax lingered in his inner mind on the notion of separating from his big sister again. Nevertheless his decision was made the moment his Master instructed him to say goodbye and he very well understood it.
Zax said his thanks and goodbyes to his new Martial brothers and sisters and could not stop himself from running into his big sister’s arms for a hug that would last him for three long years.