"Careful. Hold tight now… and… flip…" Jian Yue said as she stood behind her little girl with her arms wrapped around her, helping Ning'er flip the contents of the frying pan as they made breakfast together. It was to be Ning'er favorite, pancakes with dried peach slices cooked inside. The six-year-old girl had to stand on one of the kitchen chairs in order to reach the above the stove and looked adorable in her tiny apron.
It was some of the happiest moments the mother had, sharing her love for cooking with her baby girl, the same way her own mother had with her when she was a child.
In those days, her mother would always tell her that one day she would find a man that she loved and that the best way to win his heart would be through his stomach. Because of that she had practiced cooking every day, preparing little gift meals for her friends as practice for the day when she would choose her man. Sadly, rather than being able to choose the man she loved, the choice was made for her. Xiao Yunfeng had rarely ever tasted her cooking, and he hadn't sung its praise the way her father and friends had when she had cooked for them as a little girl.
Jian Yue didn't hate her husband, but she had been fourteen when they got married and he hadn't fit with any of her school girl fantasies.
Her husband didn't regularly join them for meals. He was always busying himself with speaking to city officials and representatives from other clans or trying to further his own cultivation. The Clan Patriarch wasn't getting any younger, and he had yet to name who would be the next Clan Patriarch.
With the birth of Xiao Ning'er, Xiao Yunfeng had scored points within his Clan by having the child with the highest potential, Ning'er green soul sea marking her as a rare genius level talent, just like her mother. But when it came to personal achievements, the four brothers were fairly evenly matched. If any of them managed to achieve the Black Gold rank, then they would win the title for sure.
Not that any of them seemed likely to make it. Each was already into their thirties, if not forties, and had at best only managed to obtain the rank of Two Star Gold Demon Spiritualist. This was actually a serious matter of concern within the Clan.
In Glory City, a clan's importance is considered to be relative to how strong and many Demon Spiritualists they can produce. The power of a Demon Spiritualist was divided into levels going Bronze, Silver, Gold, Black Gold and then finally Legendary, with each level divided in 1-star, 2-star, 3-star, 4-star and 5-star. If a clan has even a single Gold rank specialist, then they can be considered an Aristocratic family. If they have a Black Gold individual within their clan, then they become a Noble Clan. If the Clan produces three Black Gold specialists at the same time, or a Legendary rank specialist, then they become a Major Clan.
It wasn't as easy as it sounded. Black Gold experts were rare. Demon Spiritualists themselves were uncommon, with only a few thousand of the tens of millions of people in Glory City capable of becoming one. There were less than two dozen Black Gold rank Demon Spiritualists in the entire city and only a single Legendary rank Demon Spiritualist had appeared in the past two hundred years.
The Winged Dragon Clan is considered to be one of the seven Noble Clans, but only based upon the connections and wealth from the past. In the last two generations, the clan had not seen even a single Black Gold rank specialist, which has led to the fear of losing that noble status. It was a fear that completely consumed the Elders' every waking moment and influenced everything they did. Trying hard for your Clan was honorable, but Jian Yue couldn't help but think that these people were obsessed. Becoming a Demon Spiritualist is supposed to be about fighting to protect the city, not noble titles. But the people of the Winged Dragon Clan were far more concerned about the Clan's standings than they were about the actual fight to protect the city, though she suspected that they weren't the only Clan to do so.
It was funny how they were all so obsessed with creating a top tier Demon Spiritualist that they completely ignored Xiao Ichigo, who surpassed his forty-year-old father in terms of raw Soul Power when he was only seven. Jian Yue watched year after year as her little boy's strength continued to grow, even though he didn't seem to practice any of the complex meditation that the other Demon Spiritualists did.
Jian Yue had expected that once his Soul Power reached the Silver grade that it would have stopped growing, or at least slowed down. Without merging with a Demon Beast of a higher quality, it was incredibly difficult for a Demon Spiritualist to continue their cultivation. The amount of work it would take to get from a single star Silver rank to two stars Silver rank was nearly twice as hard as getting to the Silver rank in the first place if you didn't merge with a Demon Spirit of at least Gold rank. And yet, in defiance of expectations, Ichigo's power continued to passively grow at an astonishing rate without having ever merged with a Demon Beast, entering the Gold rank and not showing any sign of slowing down.
She knew that she wouldn't be able to hide Ichigo's talent forever. Once he was thirteen he would be sent with all the other children to school to train to fight, since in Glory City, everyone was required to learn how to fight in some capacity. He wouldn't be able to hide himself in a place like that. But she could at least give him an honest childhood until then.
Moving the last of the pancakes onto the stack, Jian Yue lifted her baby girl off the stool and sent her to go and find her brother. He was probably doing some kind of morning exercise somewhere. While he never could be seen meditating, it wasn't uncommon for him to be spotted doing some kind of physical training. When Jian Yue asked him about it, he told her that he had to be strong enough to protect her and Ning'er.
It was just so cute, the way he acted like he was the man of the house.
Ichigo tried his best to steady his arms and let out a deep breath, the same way they always said to in the moves before pulling down on the trigger. The mechanical crossbow fired with a loud snap, sending the practice bolt flying across the miniature range and causing Ichigo to stagger a bit from the recoil from a crossbow that was as large as his entire body.
He could only give a growl of frustration when the arrow spun off and barely hit the target's outer rim. Not as bad as some of his shots, but when compared to the feats he had seen in his pervious life, it was obvious to him that he wasn't going to hit anything with such poor accuracy.
"Man King, you really suck at this." Zangetsu said as he watched Ichigo's failed attempts at learning to use a crossbow. Ichigo pulled hard on the bow string, resetting it and putting on another bolt. This shot didn't even make it to the target and was logged in the ground a few feet away. "Here I thought Quincies were supposed to be naturals with a bow. Turns out you're just a natural failure with one."
Ichigo gritted his teeth, determined to ignore the Zanpakuto spirit's insults and continue to practice. Sadly, he wasn't as much of a natural with a bow or crossbow as he had been with a sword.
All Soul Reaper techniques, from Hakuda all the way up to Kidou, used the body as a medium for building up and transferring Spirit Energy. But with his eight-year-old body, if Ichigo had tried to use those skill, he would only succeed in tearing his body to pieces. He needed a different means of using his Soul Power, which was why he figured he would try his hand at Quincy skills. Too bad he had no talent for them. Everything from footing to muscle movement was so different from his swordsmanship that archery felt unnatural to him.
"Just give it up King. By the time you're good enough to fight using that crossbow, you'll have grown old enough to pick up a proper weapon again." Zangetsu said as Ichigo tried to adjust his footing again.
"Is much as I disagree with that 'proper weapon' comment, he is correct." The Old Man said. "While the Quincy arts provide an outlet for your strength, you aren't going to learn it in time for it to be of any use to you."
"And what am I supposed to do then? Just sit back and wait for something to happen?" Ichigo said bitterly as he pulled back on the crossbow's string again and notched an arrow. "The world is shit, and it isn't going to wait for me to become old enough before dropping that crap on me." The arrow flew, again barely managing to hit the target. "If I sit around and wait, I'll just end up losing people again." The Soul Puppets went silent as they felt Ichigo emotions. Even in a new life, the lose of his first mother weighed heavy on him.
Finally, Zangetsu scoffed. "You're really as stupid and helpless as a child again, aren't you? You talk about protecting them, but all I hear in your voice is fear." The Zanpakuto spirit's words caught Ichigo off guard. "'When you protect someone, you don't let them die.' Isn't that how it is supposed to be? If you are going to do this, stop worrying about whether or not it will be enough. Just do it!"
Ichigo looked down at the crossbow in his hands and reflected on what Zangetsu had just said.
He was right, every time Ichigo had pulled the trigger, he had been afraid. Afraid of missing, and afraid of what the missed shot represented. His fear clouded his mind. It unsteadied his arms. It was pointless.
Notching another arrow, Ichigo glared at the target. "What is there to doubt? When I fire the arrow, it will hit." He said as he hoisted up the crossbow yet again. Zangetsu and the Old Man would have smirked, if they had lips capable of it, when they saw Ichigo's eyes glow blue with his Soul Force. The arrow's tip shined a bright blue just as Ichigo pulled the trigger.
The arrow landed in the dead center of the target before passing straight through the canvas and form target and striking the stone wall behind it, cracking the stone as the wooden shaft of the arrow burst into pieces.
"Well done, Ichigo." The Old Man said, though Zangetsu only scoffed.
"That was amazing!" Ning'er shouted, letting her presence be known. Ichigo hadn't noticed when she had snuck up on him while he was practicing. He kicked himself, less because of any sort of need to keep the young girl in the dark, than because he was letting himself become complacent.
Ning'er wouldn't tell anyone about how powerful her brother was. Less because of an understanding of it being a secret than because she didn't really have anyone to tell it to. She rarely was allowed outside of the family grounds, and the only other children around her own age, other than Ichigo himself, were from different factions within the clan and as such kept separate from each other. The only time Ning'er was allowed to interact with other kids was at the occasional social party when the other Clan head bring their own kids. The only person who could maybe be counted as her friend was the City Lord's daughter who she played with whenever there was a party at the City Lord's Mansion. Ichigo had never met the girl, couldn't even recall her name, but Ning'er seemed to like her.
As for telling any of the adults, she never talked in front of them. Because of their constant insistence on forcing her to act like a noblewoman, and Ichigo's own tendency to glare at the elders whenever they were around, Ning'er had adopted her own cold, blank expression that she would put on whenever they were around.
Not that the old farts could tell the difference between a cold look of indifference from a look of obedience, and they never bothered to look at Ichigo or else they would have seen his much more aggressive icy glare.
It was only when she was alone with Ichigo, their mother, and some of the servants that Ning'er acted like her real, cheerful, kind self, rather than that doll that the Clan wanted to make her.
"Big brother, teach me how to use a bow like that." Ning'er demanded in that way that young children often do.
Ichigo couldn't help but smile, seeing his little sister's stubborn, childish nature shining through. "Maybe once you get a little older." Ichigo said patting the girl on the head.
"Wha!? But I want to learn now!" Ning'er pouted. "Please! I promise I'll listen closely!"
Ichigo gave a weak chuckle, knowing he wasn't going to get out of this. "Alright fine then." Ichigo said, handing the crossbow over to his sister. "The first thing you are going to need to do is draw the arrow mount back until it clicks into place." He explained, pointing towards the metal plate attached the to spring.
Ning'er nodded, grabbing onto the plate and starting to try to pull it back. She tugged at it again and again, pulling as hard as she could until she went blue in the face, but she didn't manage to get it more than an inch back before the crossbow pulled the mount back to its original position. Ning'er gave a cute squeal of frustration and Ichigo struggled not to laugh.
"Don't worry. It will be easy once you get a bit bigger. I'll teach you then, I promise." Ichigo said in an attempt to placate his little sister.
"As if you know jack shit about archery anyways." Zangetsu scoffed. "Lands one shot and he thinks he's fucking Robinhood."
Ning'er glared down at the crossbow in her hand before holding it out to her brother, grumbling under her breath. "I need to drink more milk." Then, seemingly remembering something, she perked up and grabbed Ichigo's arm. "Oh right, big brother, breakfast is ready. It will get cold if we don't hurry. Come on, come on!"
"Ning'er slow down or you're going to choke." Jian Yue said as her little girl finished downing her second cup of milk.
"But I've got to drink lots of milk if I want to get as strong as big brother." Xiao Ning'er said, as she put the cup down, revealing a white milk mustache.
"Alright, but if you drink to quickly you are going to get the hiccups." Jian Yue giggled as she took a napkin and cleaned up the girl's face.
"No I *hiccup* won't…" Ning'er said before giving a pout. Jian Yue wanted to squeal in delight at the cuteness of it.
"*giggle* Well, speaking of growing up big and strong, its time to take your elixirs." Jian Yue said pushing forward the glass bottle that contain the 'Body Fortifying Elixirs' that the clan had provided for Ning'er.
Ichigo's mouth twitched at the mention of the pills.
'Body Fortifying Elixirs' was basically a pretentious way of saying 'growth hormone stimulants'. The same kind of thing that they fed cows in his old world. It was commonly believed that an individual's training was most effective from the time they started puberty till they are around forty. Because of this, noble family bought drugs in order to hasten their children's development in an attempt to give them the most time possible to train to become as strong as possible.
Or that was the idea. In reality, there wasn't that much difference between training for twenty-seven and twenty-eight years. It merely gave the noble children a year's advantage over the less privileged children of the same age group. The amount of money that went into the bragging rights was downright embarrassing.
Ichigo didn't care about any of the politics of it, but he did worry about the elixirs themselves. He knew from his previous life that using hormone enhancers can cause weird side effects. It wasn't because of training or good breading that male Demon Spiritualists from the noble families tended to be over seven feet tall and have arms like tree trunks, or that the women were all tall with long legs and gigantic bosoms. Ichigo personally suspected that some of their overly aggressive, or perhaps down right obsessive, behavior was because of abnormal hormone levels effecting their brains.
Actually, there were a good number of drugs, or 'elixirs', taken in order to enhance performance while training, all of it given to children and all without any care about the possible consequences of giving them to a still growing mind and body.
Normally, children would take these pills from when they were around eight or nine until they were eleven or twelve, but the Winged Dragon clan was starting Ning'er on them early, because of their own hope that she would prove to be a strong heir for the clan.
Ning'er own face fell at the sight of the small green pill. "Do I have too." She whined weakly.
"Now sweetie, the Elders are just trying to give you every advantage they can. These elixirs are going to help you grow up quicker." Jian Yue said, trying to persuade her daughter to eat it. Ning'er still made a face. "Tell you what. If you take it like a good little girl, that mommy will put some ice cream on your pancakes."
Ning'er face immediately brightened up. "Okay." She said, taking the pill and quickly washing it down with some of her milk. It was a weekly routine, Ning'er not wanting to take her medicine and her mother bribing her into taking it with ice cream. Or so Jian Yue thought.
As the mother got up from the table to go and fetch Ning'er's treat, the little girl spit the pill back out into her hand and held it under the table. "Come on Yang, take it." Ning'er whispered, trying to get Zangetsu's attention.
The white Soul Puppet got up and went over to the little girl, taking the pill in his mouth before leaving the dinning room to go out into the garden where he would bury the pill along with all the other ones. Ichigo snorted before trying to control himself, not wanting to reveal to their mother what Ning'er had really been doing with the elixirs.
Was Ichigo a bad influence? That was a matter of perspective.
Ning'er didn't need to hide her smile, as she had plenty to smile about when their mother returned with a short stack of pancakes covered in ice cream. The little girl gave a squeal of delight as she started to dig in.
The scene was peaceful and happy. Just the three of them there together. It was enough for them to forget that the majority of the human population was all huddled behind a giant wall, too afraid of the monsters outside to risk going far beyond the outer rim of the city. All of it seemed like someone else's problem as they sat comfortably inside of the more than modest home that was provided for them.
That is, until the sound of the gongs penetrated their peaceful place.
Jian Yue and Ichigo froze as the loud, reverberating gongs sounded again and again. "Mommy, what's that noise?" Xiao Ning'er asked, confused by the sudden sound. Neither Ichigo nor Jian Yue answered, as they tried to will the sound out of existence. But it was no use, the reality that had seemed so far away just moments ago was now crashing back down on them.
A Demon Hord was approaching Glory City.
I'm trying to take things slow and weave in most of the ideas and events for people who have never read Tales of Gods and Demons, as well as offer a new perspective of events and groups for people who have read it.