CHAPTER 1: CRUMBLING AND HARDENING
Cha Ming carefully adjusted his position while he sat cross-legged in his temporary accommodation. He held three things in front of him: the Clear Sky Brush, a stack of talisman papers, and a tall gray candle. The gray candle was inscribed with incomprehensible runes and was mounted on a bronze platter. Its wick was whiter than alabaster and gave off a relaxing fragrance. It was the same comprehension candle he had received in Fuxi’s Library. He would soon light it for the first time.
His cultivation was advancing far too slowly for his liking. The difference in cultivation time between half-step foundation establishment and initial foundation establishment was vast. It was unlikely that he would progress soon.
He had one last way of strengthening himself before trouble came knocking: creating magic talismans. However, he had no formulas; the knowledge gleaned from Fuxi’s Library could only take him so far.
What he needed now was inspiration. Inspiration in the form of a gray, runed candle. He lit its white wick, watching it burn with a black flame. The candle vaporized as the heat of the flame ate away at it. The resulting gray smoke invaded his nose, eyes, ears, and mouth, but he felt no urge to cough or wheeze. His surroundings faded as he entered a deep trance.
Cha Ming was dreaming. His surroundings were lifelike and vivid, to the point where he could see and feel everything around him. At the same time, he maintained his lucidity. He was experiencing the best of both worlds: the boundless imagination of the sleeping world and the mindfulness of the waking world.
It took him some time to realize that he was now standing in an open field. A circle of large giants held up a massive sphere. It was as large as a planet, and it was held up with the communal efforts of the entire group.
The large men all sat cross-legged, their dreams projecting a massive hand above them. Some hands were filled with visions of conquest while others were filled with hopes of a peaceful life. Others dreamed of their children growing strong, living a fulfilling life, and supporting their parents. All of these were fantasies, as unreal as the lifelike vision he was currently witnessing.
Time passed, little by little. After what seemed like a lifetime, he noticed a single crack appearing on one of the hands. It was miniscule and seemed inconsequential, but it was there. Another lifetime passed before the strain of the world it supported took its toll, forcing the crack to widen.
Another lifetime passed. One crack became two, and two became three. Before long, the hand was covered in countless cracks. The fragile hand was only held together by the giant’s iron will.
However, this was far from enough. In his effort to maintain the hand, cracks appeared on his body in the same way. The thought of his dreams disappearing brought tears of magma to the stone giant’s eyes. He gritted his mountainous teeth as he mustered every fiber of his being to contain the damage. But the weight of the world was merciless. The cracks continued to multiply, and as the cracks propagated, the stone giant let out a mournful howl. Finally, both his body and his dreams crumbled away into nothing more than the finest dust. The giant and his dreams were no more.
With the disappearance of this one stone giant, each of the other giants’ burdens increased by a small and almost unnoticeable amount. Yet just like the one before them, two giants began to weaken. They struggled heroically, but soon enough, they too crumbled under the weight of the world. What seemed like years passed by. Every few months, the number of falling giants doubled.
Finally, the last giant shattered, and the world fell into the void. Their task seemed impossible to begin with. Cha Ming, in his lucidity, observed that all the giants that had cracked and broken had one thing in common: Their foundations were too weak to support their dreams. Each foundation had a fatal flaw, and once enough pressure was applied, the giant would inevitably crumble.
Do you understand? a voice asked.
Cha Ming woke from his deep meditation with a start. Suddenly, he remembered the heavy burdens that had weighed him down over the years.
He was burdened with Huxian’s fate—if he died, the baby fox would as well. He had been burdened with disability, which had caused him to lose all hope for a short time. Finally, he had been burdened with slavery, and with the fate of the people in Crystal Falls. All these burdens were very real, and their weight exceeded the strength of his foundation. Given enough time, his will would have shattered just like these stone giants.
Hands shaking from this sudden feeling of fragility, Cha Ming took up his brush and began writing. Dark brown ink flowed across the sheet of paper as he poured his feelings of vulnerability and near-collapse.
The weight of the world crumbles countless dreams;
Man’s foundation is ever brittle.
To Cha Ming, these verses seemed like a universal truth. He decided to call it a Crumbling Talisman. It was a poetic talisman, just like Elder Ling’s Ode to Mr. Mao Mao. As such, he had no idea what power it might hold, but he was sure that it far exceeded that of an ordinary mortal-grade talisman.
Having finished his new creation, he collapsed in the tent, shivering. He wasn’t sick, nor was he physically injured in any way. However, he couldn’t shake that feeling of helplessness, that feeling of almost failing. He could feel his own cracks widening.
“Your hands are shaking,” Li Yin said to Cha Ming as the younger man tried to steady his needle.
Cha Ming was currently stitching a cut on one of the many carpenters who was new to the village.
“It’s nothing,” Cha Ming said, preparing to insert the shaky needle into the man’s arm. Just as he was about to proceed, he felt an old worn hand grasping his arm. There was no power behind Li Yin’s grip, only undeniable firmness.
“Let me take care of this one,” the doctor said authoritatively. He proceeded to stitch the wound in only a few minutes and sent the carpenter on his way. Then he closed the door to their shack, one of the few wooden buildings in town.
“What happened?” Li Yin asked.
Cha Ming sighed and sat down on one of the three chairs in the room. “It just seems like I was so close to failing, so close to crumbling in the mines. Dr. Li, it was my mistake that caused so many people to suffer. And if a lucky chance hadn’t come about, I wouldn’t have been able to escape and kill the bandits. Everyone here would have eventually suffered a miserable fate.” He looked up at Li Yin with red eyes. “How can people still trust me?”
The doctor looked at him compassionately. “I’ll admit that many don’t,” the doctor said. “But many also realize that people make mistakes. You could have run away after escaping, but you didn’t. You owned up to your mistakes. And tell me, will you make that mistake again?”
Cha Ming shook his head.
“Then quit worrying about it.”
Li Yin placed a hand on Cha Ming’s shoulder. “You’re strong, Cha Ming. You’ve withstood what many people can’t. Yet you overcame all that. Are you really going to forget this and crumble now that the pressure is gone? How laughable would that be?”
Cha Ming couldn’t bear to look at the doctor.
“Today is not your day, it seems,” Li Yin said. “You’re useless to me here when your hands are shaking. Go outside and get some sunshine. Don’t come back here until you’ve straightened yourself out. You’re better than this. I know you are.”
Cha Ming spent the rest of his day performing manual labor. Nothing skilled, just brainless hauling of wood and stone. Many people gave him odd looks as he trudged on like an ox, but he took pleasure in being able to perform these simple tasks.
If I have the strength of an ox, he thought, I may as well use it. Meanwhile, he agonized over his failure in raising Huxian. He hadn’t even tried looking for him, and the poor little fox was all alone in the wilderness. Was he all right?
Cha Ming wiped the sweat off his brow as he pulled a load of stone to the newly built frame of the future inn. It was a priority building, as it would accommodate the many workers they had brought in from neighboring villages. After a bit of looking, he spotted the chief mason.
“Where do you want this load?” he asked as he pulled the wagon up to the middle-aged man.
“Just over there,” the man said, pointing. “Are you free right now? We could use a hand setting up some large beams. They are heavy as all hell, and without you, we’ll have to set up a pulley and waste a few days.”
“My hands are a little shaky today,” Cha Ming said hesitantly.
“It doesn’t matter,” the mason said dismissively. “All we need is someone who can hold the weight up. We’ll take care of the shaking. If you can pull a cart, you can hold up a beam.”
Cha Ming helplessly followed the chief mason, who continued to give orders as they walked. The workers moved quickly as he barked out directions. Soon they arrived at a large pile of thick tree trunks. They were spirit trees, judging by their size. Each trunk had been shaved of bark and branches.
“Each trunk weighs three thousand jin,” the man explained. “I want you to pick one up and walk up the stairs we built, then down the central beam. You can lay it down at the other end. Once you get there, do your best to hold it in place, and my men will fasten it down. Piece of cake.”
“It’s no problem as long as you keep people out of the building in case I fall,” Cha Ming said. “No need to worry about me. I’m sturdy.”
“Done,” the man said. He took a minute to shout a few dozen offensive words at the workers. They hustled out of the building like their life depended on it. He then looked to Cha Ming. “It’s all clear.”
Cha Ming nodded, grasping the first beam, using a sling. It creaked and strained as he lifted the beam off the ground, and the soil sank as he walked with it. After carefully checking his balance, he walked up the makeshift steps that led to the top of the building.
The massive central beam creaked only slightly as he traversed it, carefully standing firm despite the blowing wind. It was a strong beam, worthy of being this large building’s foundation. It would last at least a hundred years if properly maintained.
Sweating, he walked steadily until he arrived at the predetermined location. To his surprise, the large beam wasn’t shaking. It was likely due to its massive weight.
For some people, he thought, a larger load is best. A king can easily bring ruin to a small household. However, he works best under the pressure of a nation.
At his signal, a pair of men scrambled onto the roof and fastened the large log. He helped them with the next nine, successfully aiding them in installing the roof’s foundation. He ended the day tired but satisfied. However, once he got to his tent and saw the gray candle, he couldn’t help but shiver and recall the emotions he had poured into the talisman.
Surely there is a balancing concept, Cha Ming thought. He hesitated slightly before shutting the flap of his tent and taking out talisman writing materials. Then, wincing, he lit the wick on the gray candle once more. The black flame roared to life.
This time, Cha Ming saw an entirely different scene. He saw a young boy whose family’s finances were crumbling. His father and mother could no longer take the pressure, and it was evident that they would lose their home and be forced to live on the streets.
The boy had many younger siblings. He couldn’t bear to see his parents in such a state, and he could only imagine what would happen to his siblings should he hesitate. Therefore, he decided to leave school to support his family. He became a carpenter, and he toiled away day after day, barely making enough to feed them.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. His third brother was rather intelligent, and only with proper schooling and private tutoring would he be able to bring out his full potential and become a government official. So the carpenter badgered his boss repeatedly, and eventually he was appointed as assistant manager. After one year of stellar performance, he was promoted to manager. Then, using his influence and his newly improved finances, he managed to put his brothers and sisters through school.
Unfortunately, his success was short-lived. The kingdom was thrust into a war that he knew nothing about. They conscripted him into the military, and he was forced to kill men on the battlefield to survive. Many of his brothers in arms fell before he eventually became a captain. Even as a captain, there was little he could do to alleviate the suffering.
Decades passed. After much hard work and determination, he became a general. He defeated the kingdom’s enemies, earning much praise and riches from the king upon his retirement. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t move to the capital or take many wives to start a large family. Instead he returned to the small town where he grew up.
The town had been stricken with poverty and drought ever since his departure. His parents had long since passed away, but many of his brothers and sisters remained. After seeing their plight, he used everything he had earned in the military to purchase food and building supplies. He poured his sweat, blood, and tears into improving the village, and soon, it was prosperous again.
He spent the rest of his days with his friends and family, and when he finally died, the entire village mourned. It was the story of a man who, despite having been through so many things in life, just wanted to feed his family. And that’s what he did until he breathed his last.
Do you understand?
Cha Ming awoke to tears of joy and satisfaction. He recalled the misfortunes he had overcome. He recalled fighting against the heavenly tribulation with Huxian and becoming crippled in the process. Despite the setbacks and subsequent depression, he discovered a way to save his life and recover his cultivation. Eventually, Li Yin took him on as an apprentice.
Later, an impulsive decision brought the bandits to the village. He was enslaved, and he lost his mind to the vicious chains that imprisoned him. After escaping, he strengthened himself and came back to eliminate Wei Chen and his lackeys, freeing the villagers.
With these thoughts in mind, he painted the next talisman with light-brown ink. His stone-like will was infused into the paper through the following verse:
Hardening through countless ages;
Never questioning his resolve.
He called it the Hardening Talisman. It was an obvious continuation of the first two verses, juxtaposing two opposite phenomena, crumbling and hardening. Hardening was defensive while crumbling was offensive. The verses belonged together, but he did not have the strength to combine them.
Looking down at his hands, he found that they had stopped shaking. His emotions were no longer unstable. However, as he tried to paint another Hardening Talisman, he discovered that it wasn’t possible. The same applied to the Crumbling Talisman. He had poured his emotions into these talismans, and his heart had yet to recover.
He slept peacefully that night. His dreams were filled with a field of rocks. Some were solid, while others were feeble. Some were cracked, others unbreakable. He woke to a funny thought: In more ways than one, people resembled stones.
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