In Quicksilver City, a large figure wearing a black cloak walked down the elegantly crafted streets of Central Square. Men and women alike practically dove out of his way, his baleful aura causing them to avoid him instinctively. Even the city guards shivered as they walked past him, maintaining as much berth as their dignity allowed them.

Xiao Heilong, the mountain of a man who led the Serpentine Sword bandits, didn’t wear cultivator robes. Instead he wore a suit of black armor with a matte finish. Two weapons were sheathed at his side, large black daggers tinged with red. His black hair was trimmed short, emphasizing the man’s practical nature.

He soon reached a tall black building standing opposite another equally large building made of white stone. The arrangement was obviously a deliberate show of their intense rivalry. Not that he cared. All he knew was there was someone in the black building who would take his money to perform simple services, regardless of their dubious nature.

A beautiful lady dressed in an elegant but revealing black robe welcomed him at a black-marble desk. Her mannerisms and appearance gave the impression that, like all the services offered in the building, she was also for sale. Not that he was interested. He wouldn’t be caught dead frequenting a viper like her. He calmly ignored her coy behavior and tempting gestures while following her to a room upstairs, where a decrepit old man was waiting.

“What can I do for you today, little snake[1]?” the old man asked in a pleasant voice. He wore unkempt black robes that matched his unkempt hair. His large, greedy grin exposed a set of rotting yellow teeth.

A large purse plopped onto the old man’s desk with the clink of coin. “I need you to find someone who killed a member of my group,” Xiao Heilong said, ignoring the diminutive nickname.

“Excellent,” the old man replied. “Do you have something that bears his presence, or the presence of your group member?”

“Of course,” Xiao Heilong said while retrieving a jade slip. It was Wei Chen’s life slip, and it was broken in half. “I need to find the one who killed him while the trail is still fresh.”

The older man picked up the purse, his eyes glittering when he saw the amount inside. “How very wise of you to seek me out as soon as possible. The trail of vengeance fades with every passing day. Wait one moment while I perform some auguries. Do you want the location of the murder, or the location of the man?”

“I don’t give a damn about the location of the murder,” Xiao Heilong said. “I just want to actively track the one who killed him. He likely took my man’s possessions after the fact.”

The old man pulled out a dousing pendulum and walked over to a map of the Quicksilver Empire. After making a few arcane gestures, the silver pendulum darted out and landed on a point on the map. “That’s not so bad. Only a few days away.”

“I need to be able to track him long term,” Xiao Heilong said blankly. “I don’t know when my next mission will come, so it needs to be a semi-permanent solution. At least one year.”

“Patience is a virtue, my friend,” the old man said. He took the jade slip and carried it to an altar. There, he lit some incense and muttered unintelligible words. The air seemed to shiver as the man opened his eyes and shouted, “Evil spirits, heed my call, reveal the crimson thread of vengeful karma!” Several illusory threads, most of them black and white, appeared in the air. The man sifted through them before eventually finding the crimson thread he was looking for.

The old man reached out to pluck the string, but as he did, his hand jerked back. After looking at the thread fearfully, he turned back to Xiao Heilong with a frown. “Grasping this thread is far more dangerous than normal. I have no idea why. I will need double your original payment to do this. Alternatively, I can give you your money back, and whatever information you’ve gained thus far will be free of charge.”

Heilong grunted and tossed yet another purse on the desk. “Old crook,” he muttered.

The man ignored him. A look of resolve appeared on his face as he aggressively shot his hand out toward the thread. The air cracked and distorted as he fought against a massive pressure. The man coughed blood as his hand grasped the crimson thread. He wrenched it free and wrapped it around a needle, which he then installed on a fengxue compass.

Pale, the man handed the fengxue compass to Xiao Heilong, who stowed it away unceremoniously.

“Not worth it,” the old man said while shaking his head self-deprecatingly. He crawled over to a bed in a corner of the room. “You may leave now,” he said, waving his hand.

Xiao Heilong shrugged and left the black building and Central Square. He didn’t particularly care about avenging Wei Chen. However, the man had told him that he had found something big, and that he would take care of it personally. Knowing Wei Chen’s character, that meant that he had found something massive and wanted to keep it to himself. Just when Xiao Heilong had decided to go extort the small fortune Wei Chen had earned, the man’s life slip had broken.

Having exited Central Square, he pulled out the fengxue compass, noting that it pointed eastward. He was about to head in the general direction when he felt a vibration from his bag of holding. Sighing, he withdrew a little black notebook through which he received his missions.

Just my luck, he thought. It was an urgent mission, one that he couldn’t ignore for contractual reasons. Vengeance will need to wait.




Weeks passed. Cha Ming continued his routine of cultivating during the evening and helping the villagers during the day. Over the past week, he had used his ridiculous strength to clear large swaths of land to develop fields for the village. He had removed the large trees with his bare hands while they cleared the brush and dug out the roots. Now it was the oxen’s turn. They plowed the barren fields in preparation for the farmers who had yet to arrive. Meanwhile, the wood he had gathered was used to construct houses.

Whether the land would be able to produce next year would depend on their upcoming outing. They lacked seeds and farmers. Seeds could be bought with money, but farmers could not. He would accompany the mayor across the river tomorrow to recruit ambitious young families looking to build a new future.

Cha Ming worked hard and ended the day exhausted and satisfied. As with most nights, he meditated and attempted to draw the Crumbling Talisman and Hardening Talisman, to no avail. These emotions, while powerful, were elusive to him now. They came and went as they pleased, like naughty children playing pranks on him.

Cha Ming sighed. It was the fourteenth time he had tried and failed. He still needed to increase his strength, and his cultivation was coming along far too slowly. It was time to seek new inspiration. He lit the gray candle once more after a moment of hesitation.




Cha Ming saw an ocean in the distance. It was neighbored by a sandy beach, where many people were swimming. Waves gently crashed against the shore while children and their parents played in the gentle waters. He smiled softly as he remembered such an innocent life. Their screams of joy were intoxicating.

Realizing that this scene was there for a reason, he indulged in it and walked down to observe the people more closely. The children were young. He guessed the youngest was around five and the oldest twelve. While some mothers were out playing, most of them sat on the beach with their fathers, enjoying a moment of intimacy while their children were distracted.

Suddenly, a crackle sounded from above. He saw a peal of lightning, and the winds began blowing more aggressively. His instinct told him that the calm-looking ocean would not stay this way for very long. To his surprise, however, the parents didn’t notice, and neither did the children. The children only experienced greater enjoyment as the waves grew increasingly tall.

It didn’t take long for the situation to run out of control. Two or three children were pulled beneath the waters by the waves. The other children’s screams alerted their parents, who rushed out to the waters to save them.

The scene bothered Cha Ming greatly, but as he moved to save the children, an unknown force prevented him from approaching. It was only a dream, but the thought of doing nothing distressed him. He felt helpless.

He watched on in horror as the mighty waves pulled down twenty children in total. Only six of these were saved by their fathers, and the rest were lost forever. He saw grown men struggling, continuously diving in a futile attempt to save those who had disappeared. They knew it was meaningless to try, but they couldn’t help themselves.

Finally, exhausted by their search, they swam back to shore. He saw the grown men weep, collapsing in tears of grief. Their spouses joined them in their sorrows. They could do nothing else, for this was their fate.

Do you understand?

Cha Ming woke from the vision with sweat beading on his forehead. The dream had been so lifelike that his heart was still crying. He could feel their pain. He picked up his talisman brush despite the tears in his eyes and slowly spelled out his emotions. He wrote the words in dark-blue ink, pouring his feelings of helplessness into the talisman paper through his ink and brush.


The ocean cares not for drowning children;

Man is a slave to the sea of fate.


He called it the Resistance Talisman, for obvious reasons. The words reminded him of a cruel reality, the helpless nature of mankind. So many unavoidable disasters wore away people’s wills. Before long, they would feel helpless, incapable of changing their circumstances. It was the same for impoverished people. Hope became an unaffordable luxury. The resistance posed by the outside world and their inner thoughts were far too high.

Cha Ming felt something was missing when he finished the last stroke. It was as though the two verses were incomplete, missing their second half. However, he felt helpless to finish it. Could he really make the next talisman? More to the point, was he truly helping the villagers?

He questioned his actions over the past several weeks as he drifted off to sleep.





“You can’t be serious,” Li Yin said with disbelief. Cha Ming’s eyes avoided the older man’s as he felt judgment wash over him. “If I understand correctly, you feel helpless and unable to change anything. You feel this despite having just decimated a group of bandits, escaped slavery, and having literally rebuilt half the village. On top of that, you’ve done nine-tenths of the work to open up new farmlands.”

Cha Ming’s face flushed red as he was berated by his teacher, who sighed and shook his head. “You really need to stop getting yourself distracted like this. Just keep yourself busy, and you’ll recover. Eventually.”

“Shouldn’t I stay and help you in the hospital?” Cha Ming asked. The hospital was largely empty nowadays, so there was little damage he could do.

“Absolutely not!” Li Yin snapped. “I will have nothing less than fully confident hands on my patients. It’s not just your manual dexterity that’s important. Doctors play a very important psychological role, and I will not have you discouraging recovering patients.”

Helpless, Cha Ming proceeded to the dock, where three men were waiting. One was the mayor, and two were newly appointed elders.

“Where have you been?” the mayor asked. “We were about to leave without you.”

Cha Ming bowed in apology. “It won’t happen again.”

These submissive gestures caused bewildered expressions to flicker across their face, but only for a moment. Their experience and demeanor were why they had been chosen as elders in the first place.




A few hours later, they set up a booth in the largest nearby town called Jinyang.

“Free land for young couples in Crystal Falls. We purchase your starting seed, you farm without worries!” The elders hawked like merchants at every young man and woman who passed them. They continued for hours without success, as most people eyed their stall with suspicion. Cha Ming simply sat down and waited, ready for any trouble that might occur.

The day passed by uneventfully, so they stayed the night at an inn. Everyone but Cha Ming ate and enjoyed the local music while he sat in his room, half meditating and half brooding. He no longer needed to eat very often. Instead he spent his time attempting to replicate the Crumbling, Hardening, and Resistance talismans.

The elemental essence returned to his brush every time he failed, and after an hour, he gave up and began cultivating. He had no pills or supplements and could only cultivate slowly but surely while draining away the energy from mid-grade spirit stone ore. The ambient qi of heaven and earth was insufficient for cultivation at the foundation-establishment level.

Morning arrived. They set up their booth, and like the day before, no one came. The looks became increasingly suspicious, causing Cha Ming and the others to ponder what they had done wrong. Was there perhaps a local custom they were breaking?

“Did we step in cow excrement?” one of the elders asked. “Or did we somehow offend someone powerful? I just don’t know why we would be ignored like this.”

“Who knows?” the mayor replied. “We’re not just getting ignored. People are looking at us as though we are thieves or murderers. We’ll have to move on to the next town if we don’t find anyone today.”

Noon arrived when they finally received their first visitor. It wasn’t a young man or woman like they expected, but a guard. He was dressed in leather armor and wore an exquisite sword. To Cha Ming’s surprise, his cultivation was at initial foundation establishment.

Cha Ming rose to greet the guard. “Greetings, fellow Daoist,” he said while clasping his hands together and bowing slightly.

“Greetings, fellow Daoist,” the guard said, bowing back. “I see that the four of you are recruiting farmers for newly cultivated lands in a place called Crystal Falls. However, I have never heard of this village. Would you care to tell me where it is?”

“This…” the mayor said. “You have probably never heard of it as we have been quite isolated in the past. Our village is hidden in the woods across the river, near the largest waterfall. It is perpetually covered in fog. If you have a map, I would be happy to show you the location.”

The guard nodded and continued his questioning. “Then why is it that you have a sudden need for farmers? Surely there are sufficient people in your village who could manage these lands.”

The mayor shrugged. “In the past, we haven’t done much farming. Recently, however, a disaster struck our village, and we felt the need to come out of isolation. We have never dared exploit the lands in the woods, but due some recent events, the spirit-beast population has decreased substantially. Now we have much land available but no one to cultivate it.”

Cha Ming thought on this with sadness. The spirit-beast population had been decimated by the bandits when they had patrolled and foraged for food.

The guard looked doubtful. “Would you mind coming with me to confirm some things, then? My name is Captain Bao Tiehu, and I oversee the security of this village and the surrounding ones for the emperor. Circumstances as they are, we must ensure the legitimacy of your recruitment.”

“Yes, we can do that,” the mayor replied.

“Excellent,” Bao Tiehu said. “Please come this way to meet the mayor.” He immediately led them down the main street to a large manor. Cha Ming was surprised to spot two half-step foundation-establishment guards at the gate. They immediately joined their group at the captain’s signal. They were taken to a study and brought tea and snacks.

“What do you think the matter is?” Cha Ming asked his companions. “Is it illegal to recruit workers in the empire?”

“I’m truly not sure,” the mayor replied. “It has never been a problem to recruit workers in the past. There was no issue when we recruited the carpenters. I’ve also never had problems buying or selling in towns as long as I paid the appropriate duties and taxes.” The mayor paused thoughtfully. “Something unusual must have happened recently to make them suspicious. And it must have been a high-profile occurrence given that even normal people refused to speak to us.”

A quarter hour passed before the captain of the guard entered with another middle-aged man. A younger initial foundation-establishment cultivator wearing religious robes followed them inside. Cha Ming knew that two half-step foundation-establishment cultivators as well as many peak-qi-condensation cultivators were present outside.

“Please forgive my caution, friends,” the middle-aged man said. “My name is Li Tai, and as the mayor of this area, I take the security of my residents very seriously.” He motioned to the young man beside him. “This young man is an inquisitor from the Church of Justice, and he will validate the truth of your words. Will that be a problem?”

Cha Ming recalled the time in Fairweather when the issuers of the rescue mission had hired an inquisitor to verify the truth of their statements. According to Gong Lan, this was common practice with important transactions. It made sense that this also extended to security duties.

The three men shook their heads, and Cha Ming followed suit but added, “It’s fine as long as the questions aren’t too personal.”

“Naturally,” Li Tai replied. “Lai Zhi, will this be a problem?”

The young inquisitor’s gaze rested on Cha Ming, and he shook his head self-deprecatingly. “This man’s soul is two levels higher than mine. I will need him to slightly lower his soul defenses.” He lifted his hands apologetically. “Please understand that I mean no harm to those who do no evil. However, some recent occurrences have rendered these precautions necessary. I will by no means take advantage of your lowered defenses.”

Cha Ming relaxed upon hearing these words. “Since these are the words of an inquisitor, I am reassured that you aren’t lying. I will cooperate.” Cha Ming immediately lowered his soul’s natural defenses by one level. “Is this sufficient?”

The young man nodded in response.

“Excellent,” Li Tai said jovially. “My first question is this: Does the town called Crystal Falls really exist, and where is it located? You may use the large map on the wall to point it out.”

Zheng Fang, the mayor of Crystal Falls, walked up to the map. “Crystal Falls exists, though it is currently being rebuilt after recent catastrophic events. It is located here, right beside the large waterfall where the clouds accumulate. It is surrounded by woods, and we have been secluded and difficult to find for many decades.”

“Why was the town secluded for so long?” Li Tai asked.

“These are personal reasons. Please forgive me for not answering,” Zheng Fang said.

Li Tai frowned but didn’t press him. “Very well, that isn’t relevant. I take it that the town’s secrecy is no longer required?”

“That is correct,” Zheng Fang said.

“Why are you in sudden need of farmers?” Li Tai asked.

“A disaster struck our village, which coincidentally decimated the local spirit-beast population. As such, we were able to open large tracts of land, for which we don’t have enough population to farm. The trees are already removed and the ground tilled. We only need seeds and farmers to have a successful harvest next year.”

Li Tai looked to the young man, who nodded. “Interesting. And you have no ulterior motives for these farmers?”

“Pardon me?” Zheng Fang asked, offended.

“Please entertain me and answer the question,” Li Tai said. “Then I will explain everything.”

“We have no ulterior motives for these farmers,” Zheng Fang said. The mayor’s gaze traveled to the other three, and they all replied in the same way. Li Tai visibly relaxed after hearing their answers.

“I apologize,” the mayor said. “Please join me for lunch and an explanation, after which I believe I can help you get what you need.”

They left the room and followed Li Tai. As they departed, Lai Zhi bowed and left in another direction. As he left, he sent a mental message to Cha Ming.

It’s a good thing you weren’t lying. Otherwise at least half of us would need to die to apprehend you.”

Cha Ming chuckled inwardly but didn’t correct the man. Indeed, if they had tried to apprehend him, Cha Ming could have slain them without breaking a sweat.


[1] His name, Xiao Heilong, means little black dragon. Little Dragon is another way to say snake in Mandarin Chinese.

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