LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

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CHAPTER 1: WASHED UP

Cha Ming woke to the sounds of chirping birds and crowing roosters. He heard children playing and dogs barking just outside his window. He opened his eyes to see a single ray of sunlight illuminating the otherwise dark room.

Where am I? he thought. He tried to get out of the small bed, only to realize that he was utterly incapable of moving.

Why can’t I move? he thought in a panic. The feeling of being completely helpless was overwhelming. While the first part of his life was one filled with sadness, this past year had been full of freedom and adventure. In that world, the helpless were often preyed on by powerful cultivators.

The panic lessened when he realized that he was lying in a warm bed in a wooden house, not a cell. Despite being unable to move his limbs, he didn’t discover any restraining devices.

Perhaps I can use qi to invigorate my body and get out of bed, he thought. He then tried to circulate his cultivation base. This simple act felt like thousands of tiny daggers cutting through his entire body. His screams quickly attracted footsteps to his bedroom door, which was opened without ceremony. He immediately hoped for some answer, but as soon as the person entered, Cha Ming fainted.

Consciousness returned to Cha Ming some time later.

“Don’t try to move,” an authoritative voice said, “and don’t circulate your qi.” Cha Ming opened his eyes to see a middle-aged man with short-cropped black hair. The few streaks of silver and his wrinkled features was a testament to the many hardships he’d suffered in his lifetime.

Cha Ming caught a faint whiff of medicinal herbs coming from the man. However, the man wasn’t wearing a traditional cultivation robe, nor was he wearing a spirit-doctor uniform.

Is he just a common man who practices medicine? Cha Ming wondered. To his knowledge, medical doctors who didn’t cultivate were rarer than a phoenix feather or a qilin’s horn. After all, even the most novice apothecaries could prepare medicines that were much more effective than a mortal doctor.

Before Cha Ming could say anything, the man handed him a bowl of what appeared to be medicinal tea. The pungent liquid was light green, and it smelled so foul that he wondered whether the man had poisoned it.

“Relax,” the doctor said. “It’s just a simple medicinal liquid that eases irritation in the throat and soothes the symptoms of dehydration. You’ve been unconscious for a full month, after all.”

A month. Cha Ming took the bowl and drank it instinctively. He only realized what he’d done when he felt a burning sensation as the liquid wandered down his throat and into his stomach. It felt like hot needles had pierced his entire esophagus. Just as he began to curse the man silently, he noticed that the burning was becoming a cooling sensation. More importantly, his parched throat felt moist and painless. “Good medicine!” he said.

“It’s just a simple concoction,” the man said self-deprecatingly. “You can find much better medicine at an apothecary’s if you can afford it. Unfortunately, not everyone in this world can afford the best medicine. Or practice it.”

“Eh? The paralysis is gone?” Cha Ming lifted his arms and wiggled his legs. He sighed in relief at the knowledge that he wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down. Such a fate would have been worse than death.

“Yes, I stopped administering the paralytic after you woke up last time,” the man replied. “I don’t often treat cultivators, so I wasn’t sure how you would react when you woke up in a strange place. A mere mortal like myself could be killed in the blink of an eye.

“It didn’t occur to me, however, that you would try to circulate your qi right away. I’ll need to make a note that a qi-restraining concoction is recommended when treating such patients. I trust that you’ve noticed circulating your qi is extremely counterproductive for someone in your state. Please don’t try it again in the future, as I can’t afford to treat you in perpetuity.”

Cha Ming was puzzled. “In the future? You mean for the next short while, correct? How much longer must I wait before my qi pathways and meridians heal?”

The man’s pitying look spoke volumes. “I’m afraid that, to my knowledge, it’s impossible for you to heal your qi pathways,” the man said slowly. “Your qi pathways are a complete mess, and even the finest doctor wouldn’t be able to fix them. Fortunately, your dantian—and as such, your cultivation—is intact. Regrettably, you have no way to deliver the qi in your dantian to the rest of your body. While you might be able to soak up a bit of qi while cultivating, your efficiency wouldn’t even be a tenth of the usual. Besides, accumulating qi without being able to spend it is a pointless endeavor.”

Cha Ming wasn’t sure how to react. The cultivation world was one where the strong flourished and the weak were trampled on. He had begun a whole new life full of possibilities. Had this new road finally come to an end?

“I understand that this is difficult to accept,” the man continued. “I also know you likely won’t give up so easily. Please wait a few days and get used to your body’s condition before attempting to cultivate, that’s all I ask.

“You must practice some sort of body-refining technique, or it would have been impossible for you to heal to such an extent in only a month. You washed up on the shore near the village. Some kids found you, and a few adults in the village carried you to my office. You had fifty-seventy fractures, thirteen torn ligaments, and you were covered in cuts and bruises from head to toe. Many of your muscles were torn, and your internal organs were a mess.”

Seeing the doctor’s hesitant expression, Cha Ming closed his eyes. “Please continue. I can take it.”

“Your organs are failing,” the doctor said in a grave voice. “While I may not be very good at treating injuries, I pride myself on my diagnosing skills. While inspecting your body, I noticed that most of your organs have suffered severe burns. The damage to your qi pathways has made it difficult for them to recover. The only reason you’re still alive is because of your unreasonably sturdy body. I’m not sure how long you’ll be able to last. Days… weeks… months…”

Cha Ming understood what wasn’t spoken. Years were not an option. “Can I have some time alone, please?”

The older man nodded before walking toward the door. “Come find me if you need anything,” he said. “Lunch is at noon.”

As soon as the door closed, Cha Ming began weeping. Not only had he lost his ability to cultivate, but he could die at any moment. Both he and Huxian were doomed. While he wasn’t sure where the baby fox was, he was certainly alive. Cha Ming lay in his bed, dejected. Myriad memories, thoughts, and dreams passed through his head, and he unknowingly fell asleep.

 

***

 

A six-year-old boy with brown hair and hazel eyes opened the door to a small wooden shack. The door creaked as it opened.

I’d better find some grease before the hinges rust over, the young boy thought. He was carrying a pouch of rice, cabbage, and some tofu. It was all he could afford to buy for the time being.

As he entered the shack, he heard the usual snoring sounds coming from the single bedroom in the house. It wasn’t his, of course. His father slept in the bedroom while he slept on a thin mat in the living room. The boy sighed and got to work. He started a cooking fire and took water from a bucket and mixed it in with rice in a pot.

He then chopped up the cabbage and the onions. By the time he finished, the blazing fire had died down somewhat, and it was now at the ideal temperature to cook. He hung the small pot up above the fire and installed a cooking plate above it. He placed a large wok above the cooking plate and began putting in the few ingredients he had available.

He poured in oil, and then dropped in the onions and cabbage. These were best added first, as they required much time to get tender. Frying them lightly helped. He added in a small amount of soy sauce to the dish, as well as cooking wine, before adding in the tofu and letting it simmer. After a half hour, he placed the dish and the rice in two large bowls on the table and placed two smaller bowls with chopsticks on placemats. He also set two small cups near the bowls and poured boiling water in each of the cups. They were too poor to afford tea.

The boy then mustered up his courage and slowly opened the door to his father’s room. The smell of liquor assaulted his nostrils, but he crinkled his nose and continued crawling through the litter-covered room. Tattered robes, used undergarments, and a multitude of empty bottles made it difficult to maneuver to the small mat in a corner of the room. His father lay there sleeping. He reeked of wine, the only thing he found solace with in their wretched world. His left hand clutched the stump that remained of his right arm. His father was a cripple.

“Father, dinner is ready,” the boy said. He waited a few moments before repeating himself, but to no avail, so he walked up to the larger man and began shaking him. The man only grunted and turned over. He sighed and prepared himself mentally before crawling over his large body and doing the only thing that would surely wake him up—he touched the man’s stump.

As expected, the man swept out with his right arm. He was prepared, crossing his arms in front of his chest and dissipating much of the blow. Despite this precaution, however, he was still knocked onto the floor. Fortunately, he’d taken note of every bottle in the room and managed to position his limbs so that bottles didn’t shatter as he tumbled.

He looked toward his father, who had woken up from his daze. “Is that you, Cha Ming?” the man said. His face was tinged with regret and shame at what he’d just done.

“Dinner is ready,” the boy said. The man nodded, waving him off. Cha Ming returned to the kitchen and began cleaning dishes. He heard the sounds of splashing water and the clinking of bottles as his father fished around for an acceptable set of clothes.

He hadn’t always been this way. Before Cha Ming was three, he hadn’t touched a drop of wine, making sure to carefully feed the growing boy three times a day. However, everything changed after Cha Ming’s first birthday. He got fired because his disability caused him to drop an important order he was carrying. It was the last place in town that was willing to employ him. Ever since then, he’d been drinking. Whenever Cha Ming asked where he got the money, he just mumbled something about a military pension.

 Still, it was his father, and he would take care of him. They ate dinner together but didn’t say much. He knew how much Cha Ming did. After their short meal, he took out a few silver coins from inside his room and placed it on the dinner table. Money for groceries for the next week. Cha Ming swept them up as he cleaned the table and washed the dishes. The crash of bottles from the bedroom let Cha Ming know that his father had resumed drinking.

That night, like the many nights before, he brought out his mat to the living room along with two thin blankets. Despite the loud snoring coming from the adjacent bedroom, the exhaustion of his days of work overcame him, and he finally fell asleep.

 

***

 

It was dusk when Cha Ming woke up again. He looked around and saw a set of simple clothes and sandals. He also noticed his bag of holding had been placed on the table beside him. It was damaged, ripped in three separate places. Using his soul force, he opened the bag with great difficulty. A quick account made him realize that he was both grievously wounded and broke.

All that remained in the bag were three golden crystals from the gold formation eye, a few Barrier Breaker pills, three Foundation Establishment pills, and the black-and-white orb Elder Ling had left for him. Every bit of crystalized elemental essence and every spirit stone, and every last drop of ink had been used by the Monkey King when he made the formation. Cha Ming had also used all his talismans in the final battle in Fairweather.

He sighed, then willed the Clear Sky Brush to appear. Unsurprisingly, the elemental characters on the brush were dull. He peered inside the Clear Sky World and discovered that none of the liquified elemental essence remained. Not that it mattered—painting talismans and his Seventy-Two Earthly Transformations Technique required qi as a guide. Without qi, he had lost his profession.

He looked at his ruined bag of holding regretfully. It was a very useful item, and he wasn’t sure where to store his items.

Wait a minute, he thought, can the Clear Sky World hold these items just like it did the liquified elemental essence?

He used one of the gold crystals to test out his theory. To his surprise, it disappeared when he willed it to, storing it safely in the Clear Sky World. He sighed in relief and collected the remaining items. He also made a note to buy a new bag so he could camouflage his Clear Sky Brush’s storage capability.

A short while later, Cha Ming walked into a narrow wooden hallway. It was a short hallway that led to four rooms. Six pieces of art decorated the walls. They were beautifully framed, even if the contents were not particularly impressive. The paintings had clearly been made by children. Despite the lack of skill displayed, Cha Ming felt a little warmer when he looked at them.

He continued down the hallway into a living room, which doubled as a dining room. Wonderful smells emanated from the kitchen, and he could hear clanging pans and sizzling food. He was about to go in and greet the doctor when that same middle-aged man walked out into the dining room from the opposite direction. He was accompanied by a little girl. She seemed a little pale, and Cha Ming confirmed that she was sick when she let out a light cough.

A few sharp sounds came from the kitchen, and a middle-aged woman walked out. The little girl darted out and hugged her.

“How is she?” the woman asked the doctor.

He shook his head and smiled. “No need to worry, my dear, she just has an infection in her lungs. Feed her one of these pills every day for the next two weeks, and she’ll get better.” He handed her a bottle of pills before continuing. “Make sure to feed her lots of soup and tea. Avoid cold drinks. She should also get at least twelve hours of sleep every day.”

The woman seemed relieved. “I made supper while you were treating her. I’ll bring it out shortly.”

The doctor nodded in appreciation. After an incense time, the mother, her daughter, the doctor, and Cha Ming were all seated at the table.

“This young lady is called Jin Xia, and this is her daughter Wang[1] Yi,” the doctor explained. “Jin Xia’s husband is Wang Cai, a carpenter in the village.” He thought for a bit before shaking his head in embarrassment. “My apologies, you just woke up today. My name is Li Yin. What’s your name, young man?”

“My name is Du Cha Ming. Many thanks for saving my life,” he said, smiling. The young girl was hiding behind her mother’s sleeve shyly while the rest ate. Cha Ming guessed she was around six or seven years old.

“I’m sorry, she’s a little shy,” Jin Xia said. “Please forgive her.” The little girl continued to shyly observe him as he ate from several vegetable dishes and ignored the meat dishes. The doctor and the mother saw this but said nothing.

“Little Yi was one of the kids who found you,” Li Yin said between mouthfuls of food. “She and three of her friends were playing by the shore when they found you washed up. They tried to carry you to my office but had to stop after a dozen feet. That’s when they gave up and ran to me for help.”

Thinking of the river, Cha Ming’s thoughts wandered. He thought of the dark waters, and he thought of his friends. He thought of Wang Jun and the promise he could no longer fulfill. The man had given up ten years of his life for nothing. Finally, he thought of Huxian. If there was a way to cancel their contract of brotherhood, he would do it. Now, he could only implicate his friend. After all, they both shared a life, and if one died, the other would as well. That, and it was very unlikely that he would survive his next shared tribulation with Huxian.

 The rest of their dinner passed in awkward silence, and the mother and her child left soon after. Cha Ming recovered his faculties shortly after they left. He saw that Li Yin was busy looking through a book, so he picked up the dishes and took them over to the kitchen. Fortunately, a pot of boiling water had been prepared in advance. He used a brush and soap to scrub away at the pots, pans, and bowls before setting them out to dry. Then, seeing as the older man was busy, he went back to bed and rested.

The next morning, he woke up at dawn. He looked around and confirmed that it hadn’t been a dream. He was injured, and his future was ruined. Still, he felt hungry, so he walked out of his room and saw that Li Yin had yet to awaken. Since the man was taking care of him, he prepared a breakfast consisting of rice porridge and some vegetables he saw lying around. He also found some pickles and prepared them as well. Li Yin arrived just in time to see him setting the table.

“Thank you, my boy,” the older man said before sitting down. They ate breakfast in silence. Once breakfast was over, Li Yin retrieved a teapot and served a cup to each of them. Cha Ming drank in silence, but his despondency was very apparent.

Li Yin hesitated before speaking. “You looked happy when you were cooking breakfast and cleaning the dishes. People need to keep busy, or their inner demons will keep gnawing away at them. This is a hard time in your life, but you can’t let yourself get lost in thought.”

Cha Ming didn’t respond, so the man left him to his brooding.

 

[1] Chinese names are usually presented with the family name first, and the given name second. In this case, Wang is the family name and Yi is the given name. In China, it is common for a woman to have a different surname than her child because the family name is passed from the father. The wife’s family name is rarely ever changed, as it is considered dishonorable to her own family.



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