1 When The Sand Timer Breaks

If you knew that the future would be different to what you've been raised to believe, would you change your present self in hope that your grief of future regrets is less? The burden of the unknown settles in many people's minds yet there is still hope for the achievement of what is defined as personal happiness. More so contentedness rather than happiness as it is impossible to be happy all the time. However, what is the importance of the woes of the future when the present is just making itself known.

Xun Hai lived by routine. Each day followed the same, from hour to hour and rule to rule. Today was no different. Or so he thought.

However, as much as he abided by these rules, Xun Hai stood out to his fellow peers. His height being a head taller than most peers, some even a head and half. His body was more tanned due to spending his spare time practicing more in the sun than his peers, who preferred the shade in hope of keeping the image of an ethereal appearance with pale skin.

Xun Hai who prefers to wear his hair in a ponytail rather than the traditional sect bun which other peers would worry about fixing after a vigorous practice of exercise. Even in formal events he keeps the high ponytail but styles it with the silver hair piece his father used to wear rather than the dark green ribbon he usually ties his hair up with. He plans to only wear the bun once he becomes the sect leader after his great-uncle, Xun Feng, decides to retire from leadership. This family connection is another reason, partially the main reason, that Xun Hai stands out to his peers. Although he doesn't let it affect his performance, his great-uncle isn't a man of bias.

Other than these appearance differences, his uniform remains the same as the others in the sect. The Frozen Jade Sect, otherwise referred to as the 'mould covered jade' sect by its' neighbouring sect, White Jade. This is because the uniforms that were once a pale blue now for the past 30 years have been a dark green due to his great-uncle's design.

The uniform in all occasions is a knee length double layered dark green robe, the outer robe with it's wide sleeves fold at the elbows whilst the inner robe sleeves cover to the top of the hands and tie to a silver ring on the middle finger of each. Around the neck over the collar of the robe is a thick silver necklace with an individually carved green jade. This necklace is important to the sect as once a cultivator is without it, it is a sign that they have dishonoured their sect, once removed for the third time the cultivator is asked to leave the sect for good.

Wrapped around the waist is a belt of silver branches with blooming jade buds at the tip of each branch. This belt is a replica of the headpiece that was Xun Hai's father's, a gift from Xun Hai's grandfather which his great-uncle took inspiration from after redesigning the sect once his brother died. The robes then split at the thighs revealing the same coloured trousers but wrapped around each thigh is a long oval shaped metal armour with the image of the sect welded in, at the back of the thighs is metal band that buckles to keep the heavy metal piece in place. This piece is the only item that remains from the original uniform as after battle, in death, a cultivator's thigh piece is either taken by the enemy as a war prize or saved by the sect and given to the family of the cultivator. Losing or breaking one piece means you can only wear one as to die naturally with both pieces is an honour.

In all seasons, even winter, the sect practices without upper clothing, only the thigh pieces and the necklace remain as the necklace is to never to be taken off unless forced. Focusing on controlling the body temperature is a main part of the Frozen Jade's cultivation. As long as a person is one with their body, it's easy for the mind to follow.

Xun Hai's grandfather's death happened fourteen years before he was born, only one thigh piece however remains on the display, the other kept by the enemy sect in the west. Neither of his father's thigh pieces are in that glass display - as along with the body of his father, 6 years ago, neither was found. War with the west sect has been an ongoing battle for almost a century, there has yet to be a winner or an alliance. The Black Wood Sect mirrors the image of Frozen Jade, it's buildings lay in an overgrown forest on the west mountain of Black Moon. It's believed that the forest is so dark that even the moon looks black.

The Frozen Jade Sect lies in the east of China, in the Forest Of Forgotten Forgery. Although the buildings that were once blue, now of dark green, are vast in size meaning that the forest only surrounds the sect, it is not woven in. Cultivators are required to not go into the forest unless supervised. The only way to enter and exit the sect is through the forest but it's a maze in itself, it tricks the mind and many die in there never getting to leave. Another part of the training is to learn to focus the mind and conquer forest, once you achieve that then you are free to enter the forest, with permission that is.

At the current moment, bordering the forest, lies the fighting grounds of the sect. It is autumn here now in east China and the first season of training is coming to an end. Xun Hai watches as the first years fight to pin their opponent down, his peer watching the green sand timer ready to let Xun Hai know when to call time.

The ones who win the duel get to finally start training with their thigh pieces whilst the losing opponent has to wait another season before getting to wear theirs. If the spar ends in a draw as they run out of time, the duo must be woken up to fight at dawn again without a time limit until one pins the other.

"Time." Xun Hai voice rings, it is not a yell but is loud enough to cause what feels like time itself to still. Each student pausing their movement waiting for,

"Line up." Xun Hai continues, watching the students hurry to line up in three rows. One for the winners, the second for the draws and the third for the losing.

Xun Hai at sixteen, was only a second year but as he had finished his season yesterday he chose to spend his free time, before the next season, to help with the other cultivators. He saw this as a way to practice authority, he knows it is important for when takes over the sect.

His peer Deng Su, who stood by his side at a similar height, was someone Xun Hai wasn't very fond of. Like him, Deng Su also chooses to give his free time to the sect, his mother the second wife of the sect leader Deng Shen from the neighbouring sect, White Jade. Some can't understand why Deng Su would choose to study here instead of under his fathers sect but many believe it's because he has no right to the future title. Being only the third born of the family, his father's first wife had two children, a boy and girl, before dying quietly many many winters ago.

But Deng Su never spoke of it, a man of few words chose it was better to practice closely by Xun Hai's side since joining the sect a year ago. Much to Xun Hai's irritation but he won't deny the skills that Deng Su has, it's better that he be of use to Frozen Jade than any other sect.

"The first line may wear their thigh pieces when the season begins again, two weeks from now. You may depart. Those who have drawn will be woken at dawn, if you do not rise it will be an automatic loss. You may depart. Those who did not make the mark must focus on the mistakes they made during the next two weeks and the season that follows." Xun Hai pauses, looking at the dejected faces of the students in front of him. He couldn't relate to that feeling, he had won his sparring on the first try last year.

Taking a step forward with his hands behind his back, he continued addressing the fallen faces, "I recommend not taking these two weeks as a break, this isn't a reward. The ones who remain here are the ones who remain behind. Your body will never be your own if you don't learn how to master it. Depart."

The following students scurry off leaving only Xun Hai and Deng Su at the fighting grounds. The chime of the bell that makes presences signifies the end of the training day meaning all students must prepare for the evening meal an intense stick from now. However as Xun Hai turns to Deng Su to part ways, the bell chimes once again meaning that the sect leader wishes for all students to come to the main hall.

Furrowing his brow, Xun Hai watches as Deng Su, still holding the green sand timer, starts walking towards the main hall. Xun Hai follows in haste, worried that it must be an issue since despite this being in the rule book, an unscheduled meeting has never occurred in Xun Hai's cultivating experience.

Entering the hall, all 120 students of the 4 years gather into two parting rows of lines, leaving the middle free waiting for the sect leader to arrive at his awaited seat. Xun Hai walks in but remains at the back instead of joining Deng Su who stands with his other peers towards the front. He hopes to first catch the expression of his great-uncle to calm his nerves, he has a terrible feeling something bad is going to happen.

Not even a moment later the main hall doors open at the back of the hall but Xun Hai stands still facing the front like the other students. Hearing his great-uncle's voice, he turns his head slowly to see him smiling gently at someone who remains outside. A person not in Xun Hai's eyeline. But before he can view the person he catches eyes with his great-uncle who mouths to him,

'Face the front'

Xun Hai turns his head, slightly embarrassed, followed by the sound of his great-uncle's footsteps becoming louder as he walked towards the seat at the front. Once arrived, he sits as everyone bows their upper body forward, waiting for command to ris-

"Rise. This evening I have called you all to appear here before me as I have news I wish to share with all you students," Sect Leader Xun Feng pauses, looking through the parted gap between students.

"All of you have had the privilege of joining this sect as first years and I believe most of you have settled in well. Now here today I bring you a new student, of the age of sixteen. Despite no prior experience in cultivation he will not be joining the first years. I believe he will settle best in his own age group in the second year. I -,"

The sound of a door closing cuts sect leader Xun Feng's speech. In a harmonious way the heads of all students turn to the back of the hall where the grand main doors have now shut, leaving a shoulder length haired boy standing awkwardly by them.

There at the door stood a newcomer. Unwelcomed by the silence of the sect. An eyesore, an unfamiliar face. A nameless stranger…..a nameless stranger in familiar clothes. The uniform they all wore.

For the first time, in Xun Hai's existence, he felt that his routines of life alongside the sound of that closing door -

break.