PURE JADE

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PROLOGUE

It was a cold autumn day in the Silverwing Mountain Range. The fresh breeze caused Xi Ling to shiver as she ran through the wilderness. She was careful to avoid poisonous plants, disgruntled beasts, and annoying insects. Her cultivation robe stubbornly clung to her body as she weaved through the cluttered trees. She didn’t have the luxury of caring.

Out of five companions, only three remained. A chance encounter with an early-purification demon beast had devastated their small group. Frightened and bleeding, the human cultivators had been a very attractive target.

A piercing shriek caused Xi Ling to look back reflexively. She saw Meng Huan, her Dao companion[1], collapse to the ground after being struck down by a demon bear’s mighty claws. Her heart clenched when she saw the last of his life drain away. She bit back her tears and forced herself to remember Meng Huan’s last words: If I die, live on.

Yet the love of her life had just died, and she longed to join him.

She and Meng Ruxing, her last remaining companion, quickly retreated to a small abandoned cave. The younger man dutifully started a hidden fire, bringing much-needed warmth to their shivering bodies. He said nothing. She knew he liked her, but he had reined himself in once her relationship with Meng Huan had solidified. He was Meng Huan’s elder brother, and she trusted him with her life.

Her fingers soon thawed. As did her bottled-up feelings. She cried like she’d never cried before, so Meng Ruxing erected a qi barrier to prevent the nearby demon beasts from hearing. She soon fell asleep.

The next day, they found themselves wandering through a cold, dark tunnel. Neither of them bothered to use a light source, as their incandescent force provided them with basic visibility. Besides, using light in dark places could attract ground-dwelling demons. Their last encounter had crushed any hopes they had in escaping a second time.

“Why are we wandering down here again?” Xi Ling asked, her voice hoarse from all the crying the previous night.

“To find a safe place to heal our wounds,” Meng Ruxing replied softly. “It’s hardly safe to stay near the entrance of the cave, and it’s equally unsafe to stay in a cave without knowing what’s in it. We need to scout this place out to make sure it’s suitable for us to rest and recover. We’ll make a break for it when we’re ready.”

What he said made sense. It was just that Xi Ling didn’t want to do anything. She just wanted to lie down and die and join Meng Huan in the afterlife.

Unfortunately, she had no choice but to go along with the young man. Whenever she felt like stopping, she heard that delicate voice telling her to live on.

Meng Huan, my love, she thought. She fingered the jade ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. Meng Huan had a matching one. He had said it bound them by karma, so that they would be together in this life and the next.

An hour later, the tunnel widened, and the darkness lifted. It opened into a glowing room filled with various crystals. Purple, clear, and green. And blue. Blue had been Meng Huan’s favorite color. She sobbed softly as she walked but was soon silenced by Meng Ruxing’s outstretched hand tapping her with alarm.

We’re not alone, he said to her mentally. They both pulled their weapons. His was a dagger, an unusual weapon for a man. It suited his rare wind attribute. She had lost track of the amount of times he had stealthily stabbed stronger opponents in the back. At least thirty.

Xi Ling used a pair of elegant swords. One was green while the other was blue. She was a healer, dually proficient in wood and water. Wood and water cultivators were known for their superior defense, one of the reasons she’d managed to survive their deadly encounter.

Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.

Xi Ling paused. It was the terrible sound of claw on stone. She steeled herself and struck out first, her twin swords aiming to restrain the fierce beast and buy enough time for Meng Ruxing to land a killing blow. The beast roared and lashed out with claws the size of her face and teeth the size of her forearms. She prepared herself for the inevitable backlash of crashing against the powerful demon beast.

To her surprise, her swords slashed through the teeth and claws with ease, instantly slaying the beast. It was just a low-level badger, working diligently to expand its cave dwelling. Meng Ruxing hadn’t even rushed forward.

What’s wrong with you? he sent mentally. For some reason, she felt sick to her stomach. Killing demon beasts would have never caused such a reaction in the past, but her emotions were unstable due to the death of her lover. She started dry heaving, and Meng Ruxing ignored her as he gutted its corpse.

He still wasn’t done by the time she recovered, so she took the chance to explore the room where the badger had been digging. She focused her incandescent force but noticed that it stopped suddenly near where the badger was digging. The dark space that was only dimly illuminated by the crystals in the other room. She frowned and took out an illumination stone to better observe. The walls were covered in gray, brown, and green stone. The bulk of the brown and gray stone had been scratched off by the innocent badger, leaving the hard green stone untouched.

She couldn’t help but reach out and touch it. A warm feeling shot through her arm when she did. Is it something valuable? she wondered.

Her instincts as a cultivator kicked in. She scratched away the remainder of the brown and gray rock. Afterward, she used her sword and began cutting out large chunks of the green stone. It seemed like some sort of jade, a worthless material used for mortal jewelry. The same material her ring was made of.

Meng Ruxing approached her as she continued to cut out chunks, some measuring a cubic foot. She ignored him as she worked, cutting block after block. And then her blade stopped. She frowned. Magic weapons could cut through ordinary stones like butter. Therefore, she had widened the excavation and began removing larger and larger segments to reach the impenetrable obstacle. Meng Ruxing soon began to help her. He stabbed away quickly and efficiently, storing brick after brick of pure jade.

He’s always been miserly, even with family, she thought.

It wasn’t long before the jade was completely removed. What they discovered shocked them. The wall, which had previously been solid green, now glowed with resplendent green, white, and yellow colors. There was even a spot of purple and a spot of blue. The color was creamy and opaque, much like the stone before it. However, it seemed purer. More substantial.

“What do you think it is?” Xi Ling whispered.

“I think…” Meng Ruxing said hesitantly. “I think it’s immortal jade.”

She furrowed her brow. “Why have I never heard of such a thing? Is it a treasure?”

“More than that,” Meng Ruxing replied. “It’s a treasure so valuable it could cause a civil war.”

She gasped. “What is it used for?”

“It’s used for advancing past core formation,” he explained while walking up beside her. “It’s also used to make top-grade core-formation equipment and alchemical products. It’s not something we can dig out and sell ourselves. We must find someone with sufficient political clout and negotiate a payout.”

She nodded and touched the stone wall, admiring its multicolored surface. “It’s too bad the others aren’t here. We came here to find our fortune, and now they are gone forever. With this, we wouldn’t have had to worry about riches for a lifetime. Meng Huan and I could have moved to the south, where it’s always summer and never winter. We could have lived the rest of our lives in peace.”

Meng Ruxing paused. “Do you miss him?”

“More than anything,” she whispered, still staring at the wall. “I wish I could join him in the otherworld. We could reincarnate together and find each other again in the next life.”

There was naught but silence. Silence followed by a sharp pain between her shoulder blades. She sank down to her knees, unable to move any of her limbs.

“Why?” she asked as her vision blurred.

“I think you know why,” he said. “It’s nothing personal. I wouldn’t even trust my own brother with this secret, much less his Dao companion. Besides, didn’t you say you wanted to join him?”

Xi Ling was angry and shocked, but as her lifeblood left her, she took solace in the fact that she would soon be reunited with her lover. She had tried to fulfill her promise to live on but had failed.

Knowing that his brother did this to me would devastate him, she thought. I shall not tell him. What use is there in telling him if we’ll forget everything when we drink Aunty Meng’s tea?

Her life faded as her soul was pulled toward the unknown. She didn’t resist, and when she opened her eyes once more, she saw a desolate shore near a small yellow creek. There stood the soul of her lover Meng Huan. He was handsome and well kept, his eyes bright and full of intelligence.

“See? I told you she’d be here soon,” a cloaked figure said. He smiled as the two lovers reunited.

They hugged each other tightly before looking at the cloaked man, who hadn’t moved since she had arrived. “Must we step into the Yellow River?” Xi Ling asked.

“Alas, this is the law of the universe. Your souls must be cleansed before being sent into the cycle of reincarnation. You will forget everything after you drink Aunty Meng’s tea.”

Tears flowed down Xi Ling’s translucent face. “Do you mean we won’t find each other in the next life?”

“There are no absolutes,” the cloaked figure said. “Luckily, you purchased these jade wedding bands. Wonderful things. I have a friend who makes a killing selling them.”

Xi Ling glanced at her finger where she saw a faint jade glow where the ring had been. She also felt a soft line connecting her to Meng Huan. “The rings have bound you by karma. You will meet in your next life, for better or for worse. The rest is up to you.”

The couple’s worries evaporated. They nodded to each other before stepping into the yellow stream, hand in hand. Their souls transformed into white balls slightly tinged with yellow. They were connected by a jade tether, entangled and inseparable.

 

***

 

“Mortals lead such beautiful lives,” Yama said, sighing. “It’s a pity they are so short, like flowers that bloom only to wilt the next day.”

Unlike those two youngsters, he was aeons old. He was destined to be forever alone as he watched the streams of reincarnation. No one would ever want to share his immense burden.

Besides, the Underworld was filled with a bunch of gold diggers. Sifting through the crowds of women that fawned over him every single day was a near-impossible task. Even the most sophisticated dating apps in the universe hadn’t yielded him any convincing results, causing him to completely give up on finding a Dao companion.

Yama teleported back to his office after finishing the round of inspections. His assistant appeared shortly after. As the ruler of the Underworld, he had a special exemption to the strict no-teleportation law that applied to the entire city. However, he could only teleport to his office from outside the city and vice-versa. Failure to adhere to this rule would result in fines. Fines that would impact his operating budget.

It is as I feared, he thought. A new universe war is coming, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

The Underworld had always been neutral. They treated souls of mortals, angels, devils, and demons. Only buddhas and evil spirits were outside his control. They were a bunch of cheaters that didn’t play fair.

“Have you booked today’s appointment?” Yama asked his secretary. She wore a designer suit-top with a tight skirt that rested just above her knees, her blonde hair kept in a tight bun.

She wore red glasses today, he thought. She must be in a good mood. No way she’ll ask for a raise again.

“Of course, Your Excellency,” the secretary replied dutifully. “I’ve taken the trouble to compile an update to his file since his latest promotion.”

Subtle hint drop, Yama thought. Very subtle. “We’re old friends. Why would I need an update?” Yama said while batting away the file.

“But you know that he is rather pedantic,” she said. “This promotion is quite substantial.”

“Nonsense,” Yama said with an air of finality. “I’ll have none of it.”

He ran down the stairs in a fashionable jogging suit. The elevator was the fastest way down the 666 flights of stairs, but he was in dire need of exercise. His aging limbs were stiffening. He panted as he ran toward his dear friend’s residence, which was fortunately quite close. The tall tower, his destination, was made of pure obsidian. The eye-shaped fire atop it was wedged between four angled stones for dramatic effect.

Large guardians appeared as he approached the massive black gates. They recognized his aged figure and began pushing large steel wheels. The doors opened at a slow, calculated pace. His friend had always loved drama, which was why his recent foray into show business was quite successful.

All to stoke his gigantic ego, Yama thought.

He arrived in the courtyard a short while later, and seeing that his friend had not yet arrived, he dematerialized his sweaty jogging suit and resummoned his traditional black robe and cloak.

An Underworld hour of jogging is surely sufficient for the remainder of the week, he thought.

“My friend, you made it!” a joyful voice called out. A tall figure wearing an imposing-looking black helmet was walking toward him. The impressive piece of headgear incorporated many spiky bits and deep eye sockets for extra effect.

“Cut with the theatricals, my dear lord—” Yama started.

“It’s marquis now,” the tall figure cloaked in black interjected.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Marquis of the Rings,” Yama said in an annoyed voice. “Does this mean that your father—”

“No, no, he’s quite all right,” the man said while removing his spiky helmet. His figure looked boyish and immature. His thick square glasses didn’t make things better.

Yama had always encouraged his mysterious dressing habits, as they made him look less like some dweeb who got stuffed in lockers. Layers of armor soon disappeared, revealing a skeletal frame. A single golden ring covered in runic characters glowed brightly on his middle finger. It was the one wedding ring that he’d forged for himself many aeons ago.

“I just recently married into a noble family, so I’m a marquis now. I was never satisfied as a lord. Now I can flaunt it like I always dreamed of.”

“Fair enough,” Yama said, chuckling. “You are the best jewelsmith in the Underworld. And here I was, wondering what you would do with all the money you earned by marketing those fancy limited-edition wedding rings of yours. It turns out you were amassing a dowry. Remind me, there were nine for mankind?”

“And some of the elves and the dwarves,” he replied. “And for some reason they all ended up killing each other over them. I just don’t get it. Regardless, it made for a very good story. I made a killing off the movie and merchandising. I have no regrets.”

“I don’t suppose you have a bit of that fortune left?” Yama asked. That was why he was here, after all.

“Money is a bit tight, I must admit,” the Marquis of the Rings said. “But I can always spare something for an old friend. What do you need it for?”

“I’m promoting a candidate for mayor,” he said. “I need him and his policies to get more workers to manage the upcoming flood of souls. Can you do it?”

The Marquis of the Rings hesitated. “I can contribute a little, I suppose… with a sponsorship ad of course. Does ten billion work for you?”

“Ten billion?” Yama snorted. “More like ten trillion. Elections aren’t cheap nowadays, you know. It’s money that wins elections now, not the platform.”

“You may as well bleed me dry,” the man said with an aggrieved expression. “That’s my entire life savings. I’d be a pauper!”

“You know that’s not true, you big whiner,” Yama said. “Besides, I have some good news. This mayor, he really hates many of the pieces of bad art in the city.”

A gleam appeared in the man’s eyes. “Do continue, my dear friend.”

“Well,” Yama said, “it just happens that we need to nominate ten million pieces of terrible art for destruction. Now as you know, terrible is a very subjective term. If I were to have your competitor’s advertising statues destroyed…”

The Marquis of the Rings fell silent, pensive. “Fine. I’ll do it. But I have one more condition.”

“Oh?” Yama said. “Pray tell.”

His friend had always been this way, trying to milk the most out of the situation with the least amount of effort. It was no wonder a few halflings he had short-changed had melted down his wedding ring once. That practical joke had stung his friend deeply.

“I want the statue of the white wizard gone,” he said gravely. “I’ve always hated that jerk, ever since he humiliated me in school.”

“But it’s a work of art!” Yama protested. “It’s truly a beautiful statue.”

“I don’t care!” the man yelled back. “This is personal. It’s this or no deal. I want to be able to talk about his destroyed statue at all the balls and parties.”

“Just because you’re not man enough to fight him yourself, doesn’t mean I need to indulge your petty grudges,” Yama said sternly.

“It’s not petty and you know it!” he said. “Do you have any idea how many of my shadowfire demons he’s killed? Do you have any idea how many orcs he’s slain, just because he feels like it? And he cloaks it all in a mantle of righteousness. I really can’t stand that prick.”

“Can’t you think of anything else you want?” Yama said. “How about I arrange a date with the elf queen. You’ve always wanted to—“

“I’m married now!” the Marquis of the Rings exploded. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to have to put up with that she-devil? All for the sake of this title? She doesn’t even let me go to bed late. Lately, she put me on a stupid diet. Don’t you dare bring up the elf queen again.”

A moment of silence ensued. “Fine,” Yama admitted. “I stepped over the line there.” He walked toward the man’s beautiful flower bed, the one he personally grew, watered, and weeded. Despite his despotic reputation, the man was truly a kind and caring fellow. “Is there truly nothing else you want?”

“None,” the Marquis of the Rings said with his arms crossed. He wasn’t budging.

“Fine,” Yama said. “It’s a deal.”

 

[1] Dao companions in Xianxia novels are martial cultivators who have chosen to embark on a lifelong journey of seeking the Dao together. It’s effectively marriage but for cultivators.



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