CHAPTER 3: MOMENTUM
Li Tai’s house was large, and the banquet he served extravagant. Fine wine, a delicacy from a kingdom to the north, was served along with the dozens of dishes. It was the finest meal Cha Ming or the elders had seen for over two years. He took a respectable helping of two vegetable dishes and ate as the mayor spoke.
“We never used to interrogate people,” Li Tai said once they had finished eating. “One year ago, however, pockets of unrest appeared throughout the empire. Bandit groups multiplied, and devil cults began appearing everywhere. It was only with the help of the Church of Justice and the Imperial Army that many of the small towns survived.
“Many innocents mortals have been captured since then. What you were doing, offering free land with relocation, was one of the many schemes they used to entrap mortals. This specific scheme happened to be used here exactly one year ago. Over one hundred residents from this town were captured and brutally killed in devilish sacrifices, thus my caution. It is also why so many residents were suspicious of your motives.”
Li Tai’s eyes teared up. “Even my own daughter was captured. She disobeyed my wishes and married a farmer. It was difficult for them to make ends meet, so I tried to help, but they refused. They left for more prosperous, undeveloped lands, the same hoax I spoke of. The next time I saw her, she was dead.”
The maids served tea once the meal was over. No one ate much after the mayor shared his story. The men from Crystal Falls only understood half his pain. They had been enslaved, yes, but their children hadn’t been killed. They didn’t even have the heart to ask about recruiting farmers for fear of upsetting the distraught father.
“Now then,” Li Tai said, “there remains the issue of finding farmers. Truth be told, this isn’t a problem. I own all the lands here, and there is a large surplus of farmers. They will flock over in droves as long as I give the word. However, nothing is free in this world.”
Zheng Fang frowned. “What did you have in mind?”
“Nothing major,” Li Tai said. “In fact, it will help you. You are an unregistered village. As such, you have not been paying taxes. You cannot remain this way, as the empire will eventually discover you, enforce the law, and appoint a manager. However, I have an alternative.” The man’s eyes glowed as he spoke. “Many of the towns around here have their own mayors but report to me. I take care of processing paperwork and taxes, and at the same time, I arrange regular patrols from the Imperial Army to deter crime. In addition, my people build and maintain roads to facilitate commerce.
“I propose that you become one such village. You would maintain your autonomy but will need to pay me taxes. In turn, I will register your village. Since taxes are based on a percentage of revenue, I will do my utmost to help you develop the village’s economy. What do you think?”
The mayor of Crystal Falls hesitated. “Can we think on it?”
“Most certainly,” Li Tai said. “No pressure, but I will need to report this matter to my superiors. I’m sure they won’t penalize you, but as a bare minimum you will need to register your village independently. I’m just offering you a hassle-free way of resolving this issue.”
They left Li Tai’s house after lunch, and after two days of negotiations, the matter was settled. They left for the village with boats full of young families and bags of seeds. The young families didn’t remain idle once they arrived at the village. They built houses next to their new plots of land and made preparations for the winter. It didn’t take long for them to fully integrate. Cha Ming helped where he could, but eventually he became fully redundant. He could only retreat to his tent and cultivate when the hospital wasn’t busy.
The village had developed its own momentum. Given that his cultivation wasn’t advancing very quickly, he was sure that it was time to leave. But before that, he had one last thing to do. He needed to learn the next talisman in the set, and he already had a good idea of its nature. He lit the gray candle once more.
Cha Ming was standing at the peak of a mountain. It was a wonderful spring day. The mountain glacier beside him was melting at a steady pace and trickling into a stream. He followed it as it traveled down the steep incline.
Eventually it was joined by another stream from higher up. Others joined in until it was no longer a stream but a raging river. He continued to follow it until it became a tall waterfall. The water stopped in a stagnant lake.
The lake filled in slowly, and what seemed like months passed. One day, Cha Ming noticed the reason for the stagnant nature of the lake: The exit of the river was blocked by a beaver’s dam. Having nowhere to go, the water accumulated. Finally, the pressure exceeded the dam’s limit and rushed out all at once, washing away everything in its path in its pursuit for equilibrium. It passed through various rivers and lakes before finally arriving at the sea’s shore. There, it blended into the ocean and achieved its dream of eternal stability. Or did it? Little did it know that after mingling with the ocean, it would soon evaporate and condense back into rain and repeat the journey once more.
Do you understand?
Cha Ming was reminded of his past and current life. It seemed that fate was always dragging him forward, but he realized his mistake. It wasn’t that fate was dragging him but his momentum that kept him going. Just like the momentum the village had established. Without hesitation, he started a new talisman. His brush flowed smoothly as he painted light-blue characters on the sheet of paper. The words he wrote resonated with his heart.
Flowing down from high to low;
Never questioning his direction.
This was the Momentum Talisman, and it was a continuation of the first two verses. It juxtaposed two opposite phenomena: resistance and momentum. Momentum represented the tendency of things to move and flow, while resistance opposed it. Their nature was complementary. He wasn’t sure what the talismans did, but as he completed the Momentum Talisman, the feeling of despondency and depression he had been brooding over disappeared along with the ink in his brush.
Cha Ming contemplated for days. He had crafted four talismans—resistance, momentum, crumbling, and hardening—only to realize how deeply the emotions affected him. They reminded him that his entire cultivation journey had consisted of lucky chances and being led around by the nose.
His decision to cultivate was a choice, but at the same time, he felt such a choice was mandatory. Later, he fled through the woods and accepted the task to save Huxian. This was also a choice, but it seemed like a false one. He couldn’t have chosen otherwise without betraying his morals.
The concepts of momentum and resistance danced around him. He felt trapped in an inescapable web. When the events in Fairweather unfolded, Wang Jun had said he was pulled there by fate. But after discovering the atrocities committed, he had no choice but to act. He still worried about the fate of the Song Kingdom. Protector Song had been sent by Zhou Li, whose influence was far-reaching.
Perhaps this is my next task, Cha Ming thought. I can’t abandon the Song Kingdom without going against my conscience.
He needed to contact Wang Jun as soon as he entered a city. He also needed to find Huxian. Was he okay on his own? What if he’d been captured? He was just a baby, and the decisions he made were impulsive and conceited.
Going back to his previous mental exercise, he remembered his choice to recover. It wasn’t truly a choice—he knew that if he died, Huxian would as well. Besides, there was no reason for him not to try recovering. After that, helping Dr. Li was just a matter of course. He wasn’t so selfish as to turn the man down after all the help he’d received.
Later, he had helped the thief Lei Dong. It was a foolish but necessary decision on his part. That wasn’t to say that he would do it again—he wouldn’t. But the him before didn’t understand his current reasoning. The subsequent invasion and his enslavement forced him to harden his resolve to resist crumbling under the pressure. He had to. For the villagers’ sake. For Huxian’s sake.
Now he waited for the bandit leader to come, to eliminate the last threat to the village’s safety. The documents in Wei Chen’s bag of holding held a dossier on Xiao Heilong’s mannerisms, deeds, and strength. Given the man’s temperament, he should have come for Cha Ming by now.
Cha Ming sighed once more. What is my goal in life? What is the reason I cultivate? Will I keep floating around in life without choosing anything like in my last life? He had many short-term goals: finding Huxian, saving the Song Kingdom, protecting the villagers, getting Li Yin a medical license, and finally, fulfilling his favor to Wang Jun. The more he thought about it, the more depressed he became. All these goals revolved around others and not around himself.
Dejected, Cha Ming walked around the camp and observed the villagers who were busy rebuilding the village. He looked at the children who happily helped their parents. He saw groups of women preparing food and anything else the village required. Watching their smiles cheered him up somewhat.
“Something seems to be bothering you again, boy,” said an older man behind him. Cha Ming looked back and saw Li Yin, who was walking toward the hospital with his portable medical kit.
Cha Ming joined him. “I’m just wondering about life and life goals. I’m not sure about my reason for existing. I just feel like I’m going with the flow, getting dragged along by a sea of fate. I never seem to have a choice in anything that happens.”
“Oh?” Li Yin said, raising an eyebrow. “For a man so good at attracting trouble like yourself, I find this very unlikely. What particular event is bothering you?”
Cha Ming sighed and told the story of his current life and his perspective on it. It took him took until supper to finish the telling.
“I honestly don’t see your problem,” the older man said between mouthfuls of food. “It seems to me that you’re leading an exciting and fulfilling life. You’ve made plenty of decisions, plenty of choices. But maybe it’s easier to see it from the outside. Let me give you an example. In my life, I’ve become a doctor despite being crippled. I saved a man despite knowing it was a trap. I continued my practice despite a ban by the medical association. Do you think I’ve made many choices in life?”
“Absolutely,” Cha Ming replied. “You didn’t have to do any of these things, but you did. I admire you greatly.”
“But it’s rather funny, now that you mention it,” Li Yin said. “I really don’t feel that I had any choice in the matter. Becoming a doctor and helping people was my dream. I would not be Li Yin if I had made different decisions. Every choice I made didn’t feel like a choice. Each one felt natural and unchangeable.”
Cha Ming was silent for a moment. If he had not made those choices, he would not be Li Yin, he thought. Was he misunderstanding the nature of choice?
“You need to change your perspective, Cha Ming,” Li Yin continued. “You need to realize that all this time, you have been making choices. For example, you could have chosen not to cultivate. For the you right now, it doesn’t make much sense as a decision, but many people appreciate a peaceful and normal life. The decision made you who you are. It seems like you didn’t have a choice, but I assure you that if you had made the other choice, you would feel the same way. But you wouldn’t have been Cha Ming.
“The same applies to your decision to fight devils in Fairweather, the decision to save your fox friend, the decision to save the bandit, and finally, your decision to return to the village when you could have easily left it. Instead, you came back to save us.
“You seem to be upset because of a lack of choice that could go either way. Well, I hate to break it to you, but such choices don’t exist. The makeup of a person will make them tend to choose certain things. It takes a person without morals or values to decide everything at the toss of a coin. Since you have morals and values, things aren’t so simple. You weigh everything, and the math isn’t exact. You make choices that only seem predetermined.
“Give up on the idea of having a life goal if you don’t have one already. Let nature take its course. Settle for small-scale goals. Do whatever you feel you should in the moment. Who cares if you don’t have substantial ambitions and run around helping everyone for the rest of your life? That’s what I’ve done all my life. All my decisions were made not because I selfishly wanted to become a doctor. Rather, I did these things to help people in the way I knew best. And I have no regrets in my life. None.”
Cha Ming spent the rest of the night watching the flickering flames where the villagers were gathered. It was true. He didn’t need a long-term goal. He had five smaller goals, and his actions in the near term would be decided by them. To contribute to the Song Kingdom, he would need to contact Wang Jun. To do this, he would need to go to a city. And to succeed in anything else, whether it be Wang Jun’s favor or protecting the Song Kingdom, he would need power and wealth. Therefore, he would need to pursue the next level in his craft. Pieces were moving, and that was good enough.
He slowly realized that this was, in fact, another form of momentum. It wasn’t that he was being dragged along by the river of fate, but rather, his goals were causing him to willfully move forward with purpose. It was all a matter of perspective. Each poetic talisman he made was also a matter of perspective. The Resistance Talisman could either slow down his opponent or stabilize his body for defense. The Momentum Talisman could either make it difficult for his opponents to control their movements or grant his staff arts unprecedented strength.
Even the Crumbling Talisman could either be used to break his opponent’s defenses or to crumble his inhibitions. The Hardening Talisman could be used to bolster his defense and courage or to solidify his opponent’s perspective and make their movements rigid. It was all a matter of perspective.
That was what made emotions so frightening. He could either ride them to great heights or let them break his will and shatter his resolve.
He aimed to do the former.
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