"Don't y'all touch anything. It's bad enough having you in my cave. I don't want your stink everywhere." The Old Bear said as he finally let them into his cave-like home. Ichi Guo had to give the extremely old man a large barrel that smelled strongly of honey before he had grudgingly agreed to let them enter. "Gods, that smell. Make sure you wash the dragons blood off of y'all. It smells so rancid I think I'll puke."
"Amazing you can smell anything over that greased up filth... oh wait, that's your face." Ichi Guo said, having more blood on him than any of the others. "I have to see to the bite victim first. I don't have time to take a bath. I'm also going to need some of your herbs."
"Oh, not only are you using my home and my bed, now you want my herbs too?" The Old Bear grunted.
"Don't act like I ain't ever done anything for you." Ichi Guo growled back.
Rong Rong stumbled in the darkness. She wouldn't exactly call the Old Bear's home a cave, but it was a massive underground area shaped out of the earth. It was cool and large, but after walking for just a minute there was absolutely no light at all. Not that it seemed to matter to the Old Bear or Ichi Guo.
One of the kids bumped into something in the dark and that something fell over onto the floor with a loud thud. "Watch where you're going you dumb brat! What are you, blind!?" The Old Bear shouted angrily.
"You're the blind one, dumbass. It's pitch black in here. How do you expect them to see?" Ichi Guo said with a snort.
The Old Bear let out a sound close to the growl of a wild animal. "Only an idiot depends on their eyes." He snapped back.
A wind picked up in the cave followed by a flash of light that forced all of the spirit master's to cover their eyes. Once their eyes got more accustomed to the sudden light, they all stared in disbelief at the eight large spirit rings that floated in the air around the grumpy old man. He was a Spirit DouLuo, one who had exceeded the rank eighty mark. There were only a few thousand individuals alive in the entire world to reach such a rank. What was one doing in a cave in the middle of the forest? "There, is that better?"
"You could have just lit a damn torch, no need to show off." Ichi Guo said, rolling his eyes.
"I am not going to have smoke in my cave! What do you think I am, a stinking dragon!?" The Old Bear shouted.
"No, I think you're a grumpy old bear!" Ichi Guo shouted back before looking at the travelers. "My little sis will have some spirit stones you can use for light. So don't worry, you aren't going to have to stick to the bear just to see."
The cave was absolutely massive, seeming to go on forever. For a man who clearly didn't care about his living conditions and probably didn't have many friends over, he sure had a large living space. What did he even need all that room for?
Rong Rong looked down into one of the side passages when she heard some shifting noised down it to see a large furred creature slipping into the shadows out of sight. After that, she decided it was best to stick closer to Ichi Guo and the Old Bear.
She tried to ask the Old Bear what his real name was, but only got told to 'mind your own damn business, Princess!' After that he started a rant about how in his day the Seven Treasures Glass Tower didn't let their kids run around causing trouble for decent folks. Leading to another shouting match between him and Ichi Guo about whether or not the Old Bear counted as a 'decent' person.
Ichi Guo had been right about the Old Bear, he was a completely unlikable person. Then again, Ichi Guo himself wasn't exactly a paragon of social skills. Perhaps that was why they got along as well... or as poorly as they did. At least Ichi Guo was kind of cute.
The room wasn't what anyone would call pleasant on the eyes, but that hardly seemed to matter for the owner. The bed was a misshapen mass of stitched together hides of various animals with a blanket made of soft furs that still had bits of membrane attached to them from inexpert cleaning. The furniture in the room was all entirely made of stone, like almost everything in the entire cave, and the walls and ceiling may have been flattened, but the coloration was weird and not at all pretty, though it is doubtful that the owner was even aware of this.
The small girl from before was standing by the bed, her hands glowing with a steady green light as she held them to the man's bite wound. "It's about time you got here. You couldn't have gotten your rush on a bit? I'm slowing his blood flow to stop the spread of the venom but that only delays the problem."
"Sorry Rukia. Old Bear was being an ass again." Ichi Guo said, walking up to his sister and taking her place, his hands beginning to glow the same green as hers had. It was a healing ability. The boy had a healing ability?
"As I said, bite me." The Old Bear growled.
"I absorbed the spirit ring, so I know how to treat the poison, but I'm going to need some things." Ichi Guo said, ignoring the Spirit Douluo's comment.
"Just tell me. I know my store room better than the girly anyways." The Old Bear said sticking a finger in his ear and pulling out a small clump of earwax before eating it. Rong Rong had to supress a shiver at the sight. "Just take all of these filth covered humans to get cleaned up. I'm tired of all their stink."
"So you do want to be helpful." Ichi Guo said with a smirk.
"I want him out of my bed!" The Old Bear shouted before Ichi Guo started listing off ingredients that would be needed to make an antidote, every few words exchanging insults with the old man.
Rukia got out some spirit stones out of a spirit artifact pendant and handed them out to the others. With just a little bit of spirit power, the stones glowed with a soft blue light that helped a lot with the darkness of the cave.
"Come with me. The Old Bear has an underground hot springs a little deeper in. It is a little hotter than I would prefer, but it isn't scolding." Rukia said as she walked through the cave in front of the group. The large black cat spirit monster seemed to materialize out of the shadows to follow the girl's heels, startling the group who couldn't sense the creature's presence. "Us girls will bathe first, if any of you idiots are caught peeking, you will be fed to Yoruichi for dinner, got it?" Rukia said, glaring up at the men who all nodded in earnest. It was less out of fear of the cat than out of fear of the girl's brother and the 'Old Bear'.
Rong Rong didn't react at all. She could hardly tell what was going around her as all her focus was being consumed by something she was sensing from that little girl. She had thought she had felt something strange about her before, but she had chalked that up to panic. Now she no longer had any doubts.
The Seven Treasures Glass Tower was considered to be the most powerful gem type spirit essence in existence. As such it was able to sense other stones and determine just how valuable they were. It was this special ability that had gained the clan its immeasurable wealth.
From this small black haired girl, Rong Rong sensed a jewel like no other. Something that could not be compared to anything else on Earth. A stone that had somehow escaped the vault of heaven. A godly treasure.
Rong Rong tried to figure out where the feeling was coming from, but it seemed to emanate from the little girl's entire being, the same way it would have if it was her spirit essence. But that couldn't be right. Rong Rong had seen the girl's spirit. It was that long black chain.
The Ning family princess smiled and moved up next to the girl. "Hey. I'm Ning Rong Rong. It's nice to meet you." She said in her normal cheerful manner.
The black haired girl looked slightly taken aback by the girl's sudden outgoing nature. "Um... I'm Rukia. Nice to meet you too... I guess." Rukia responded, looking the pink haired heiress up and down.
"Thanks for helping us out. I don't know where we would be without you and Ichi Guo."
"You'd probably be in a dragon's stomach." Rukia said with a shrug, causing Rong Rong to twitch.
"Well, maybe." Rong Rong said, laughing weakly before cheering up. "No matter what, I'm still grateful for your help. How about we be friends? I'm sure we would get along really well."
"Uh... yeah." Rukia said, sounding a bit unsure of herself.
"...You're not much of a conversationalist, are you?"
"I suppose not. The only people I really talk to are Ichi-nii and the Old Bear, and in case you haven't noticed, they don't have the greatest social skills." Rukia said with a shrug before patting Yoruichi's head, causing the cat to purr. "Even Yoruichi here has better communication skills than those two."
"Ichi-nii? I thought his name was Guo?"
"It is. Nii is a term from another language that means brother."
"Hm... I've never heard of that before." Rong Rong mumbled tapping her chin. The Heavenly Dou Empire and the neighboring nations all shared the same common language, but a few of the subjugated people might have kept their old ways, or mixed things in. "I think your brother said that you two didn't live in the forest like... the Old Bear. So why don't you talk to any of the people back where you live?"
"No one talks to us back there. Not unless someone gets injured or sick and they need a healer, or if a monster or bandit is attacking. Otherwise they avoid us like the plague." Rukia admitted. "People don't really like having Yoruichi around, and most commoners hate Spirit Masters in general."
"They do!?" Chen Yan said in surprise, again forgetting that she wasn't a part of the conversation. She blushed as the other two girls looked at her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to eavesdrop. I'm Chen Yan, It's nice to meet you. But, what was that you were saying about the commoners hating Spirit Masters?"
"It isn't like all of them do, it's mostly those in rural areas, but for those who do, it isn't hard to tell why. It's the Spirit Masters' allowance. Each Spirit Master who reaches a decent rank is given enough money to feed an entire village on. Where do you think that money comes from?" Rukia asked rhetorically. "Spirit Masters make up one percent of the population, and everyone else is taxed into the ground just so that the Empire can deal with them. Hardly any of the farmers own the land they sit on. Ichi-nii says that most of them are in so much debt because of the high taxes that they don't even own their own lives and are basically slaves. Some really are sold into slavery when they want to move the population around a bit, breaking apart families and friends."
"I... I never knew." Rong Rong said, covering her mouth in shock. Her father had talked about helping people who were enslaved return to their homes. She understood how bad slavery was, but she never really thought too much about what caused them to become enslaved in the first place. Did people really hate Spirit Masters?
"It's not just that. If a Spirit Master walks into your village and starts making trouble, there isn't anything that a normal person can do about it. They can steal, bully and rape all they want, and no one will stop them. Not unless another more powerful Spirit Master happens to be in the area and bothers to help."
"No Spirit Master would do such a thing!" Chen Yan objected.
"It happens all the time." Rukia said, sounding a bit sad about it. "Face it, in this world, power is everything. Just be glad you weren't born weak." She stopped outside of one of the arched doorways where steam was coming out. "Come on, we'll clean ourselves up, then I'll show everyone where they will be sleeping. The Old Bear might not get many guests, but he still has over a hundred rooms to put people in. Digging this place out is kind of his hobby, so try not to get lost."
Ichi Guo sat underneath the starry sky leaned up against the wall outside the cave with a guitar, plucking the notes to a song that he remembered from his old life. He must have seen Chad play that song a hundred times. Ichi Guo might not have been much of a genius in his own books, but he was good at memorizing things and picking them up by watching other do it. He had learned how to play by watching Chad practice. So while he couldn't read music, he was able to play those few songs. After playing them long enough, he picked them apart and made his own songs. Never made any lyrics though. He wasn't much of a singer.
After making sure the injured man would be alright, he cleaned himself up before returning to the surface for some fresh air. The Old Bear joined him, bringing along the keg that Ichi Guo had delivered to him earlier that day. He had poured himself a mug full of the stuff and was sipping from it with a thoughtful expression on his face. The smell of honey coming off the thing was completely overwhelming.
"Ah, honeyed rum. Nothing beats it." The Old Bear said with a sad smile. "So good, I can hardly taste the poison you put in it."
"How many times do I have to tell you. It's medicine. Not poison." Ichi Guo said, rolling his eyes at the old man.
The Old Bear scoffed. "You act like there is a difference."
"The stuff isn't strong enough to hurt you. It's meant to kill the weakened cancer cells. If you don't keep taking it you'll get another tumor, and next time I might not be able to remove it." Ichi Guo snapped at the man.
"If it happens it happens." The Old Bear said, closing his blind eyes. "I'll be dying sooner or later. Even if becoming a Titled DouLuo would cure me, I doubt I'll make it. If it isn't this cancer stuff, it will be something else."
Ichi Guo's fingers stopped strumming the guitar. "...Don't talk like that. You old bastard."
The Old Bear started to chuckle until the laughter turned into struggled coughing. "Funny, for one of Yama's dogs you sure are squeamish about death."
"I never worked for Old Man Yamamoto. Me and that bearded asshole never really got along. Pretty sure if I died he would try to kick me out of the afterlife a second time just so he wouldn't have to put up with me." Ichi Guo joked though his face was still flat. He didn't hide what he was with the Old Bear. There was no point. Neither of them was what they appeared to be, and they both could tell exactly what the other was. Ichi Guo didn't call the Old Bear an old bear for no reason.
"Hmph, I understand the sentiment." The Old Bear said with a cheeky grin that showed some of his yellowed teeth, then, feeling how upset Ichi Guo still was, he gave a sigh. "I'm over three hundred thousand years old, even Yama isn't as old as I am. If I live for another day or another hundred years, it won't make much of a difference. My dream was the naive and impossible dream of a fool. Something that not even the gods could achieve and had more sense than to try. I was too stupid to realize it until I already gave up my longevity for the attempt. Better to just pass on and hope that the heavens are kind enough to let me see her in the next life." He said, looking with dead eyes across the graveyard to one of the old graves that lay within the valley of flowers.
Ichi Guo pressed his mouth into a hard line, not trusting himself to talk. He didn't want to ruin the man's last hope. He didn't want to tell him just how miserable a place the afterlife was. How he would probably never see his cherished daughter again. He just sat there as the old monster-turned-human reminisced.
"My little Mi Li, she was such a sweet child. Those short years I watched over her were the most beautiful of all my millenniums." The Old Bear mumbled, tears coming to his blank eyes. "War is such a horrible thing. Why do humans create kingdoms, when they only seem to cause wars? What is a king to a child anyways?"
The man started to reach for the keg to refill his cup, but Ichi Guo reached out a hand to stop him. "You've had enough. Too much of this stuff is bad for you, remember?"
The Old Bear started to laugh. "So you admit its poison." Ichi Guo only sighed and let the old man laugh. He leaned back, trying to remember a happier tone he had once heard in his last life.
So the two unusual individual sat through the night, the reincarnated substitute death god and three hundred thousand year old Earthen Bear Demon turned human.
Sorry if things seem weird here. That tends to happen when you put aside a story for a while then come back.
The Old Bear's full background story isn't going to be revealed until he is giving Ichi Guo his spirit ring. So don't expect that to happen, since I probably won't get that far in my writing.
One of the things that I don't like in the Soul Land story is that it isn't ever explained why Xiao Wu chose to be reborn as a human. What was her motivation? What did she hope to accomplish with it? And don't tell me it is for power, or immortality. The hundred thousand year old spirit beasts live longer than anyone could reasonably want to live and they are stupidly powerful already.
So I'm making sure that the Old Bear has a reason why he chose to become human. Followed by the epiphany where he realizes that he can't achieve his goals because reality just won't allow it, beating him down into the miserable man you see here.