KINDLING

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CHAPTER 1: KINDNESS

A fresh spring wind blew past Cha Ming as he meditated in a forest clearing. He was surrounded by five energy-gathering formations that were slowly but surely bolstering his cultivation. High-grade spirit stones were rapidly ground to dust as the energy in his body intensified. He wasn’t short on cash like before—the money he’d left in Wang Jun’s care had already netted him a tidy profit.

The five-element qi circulated through his body before entering his dantian, where a small cracked core was greedily absorbing energy. The process was extremely inefficient; a third of what poured in leaked outward and had to be reabsorbed once more.

Cha Ming let out a deep sigh, exhaling all sorts of impurities from his body. Then, he directed his attention to a nearby cave, where his three prospective disciples were eliminating a group of devilish cultivators.

One of the disciples, Zi Long, wielded a large purple staff. He used a familiar style, one inspired by the many pointers Cha Ming had given him. Unlike his teacher, however, he didn’t use soul pearls to complement it. Instead he used his qi to incorporate more lethal moves into his arsenal of staff arts and movement techniques. He used talismans to jam his opponents’ movements and deflect incoming attacks.

Yue Bing, on the other hand, used a completely different style. She wielded a sword with deadly grace while using her qi to bolster her movements and entrap her foes. Her defensive swordsmanship incorporated offensive talismans to make up for her deficiencies. She danced between Zi Long and their enemies, using his strong battlefield presence as a springboard. The duo worked in tacit understanding to fight off most of the weaker devilish cultivators.

While his two companions focused on the small fries, Ling Dong fought against the leader and elites. He used Earth Wall Talismans to lock himself and his enemies within a large cage. His qi covered him in a five-element shield as he slashed away with his heavy saber. One gash after another covered his refined body as he fought. He ignored these nonlethal injuries while trading blows with his enemies, whittling down their qi before cleaving through their defenses.

“Why us?” the leader said as his last elite fell. “There are plenty more out there who’ve done worse than us.”

“They’ll get what’s coming to them,” Ling Dong said. “You can ask them when you meet each other in the Yellow River.”

Seeing that his defeat was inevitable, the leader burnt his blood essence. His strength surged by a half rank as he abandoned all defenses to concentrate his energy in a single strike. Ling Dong crumbled a defensive talisman, and an icy shield deflected the enemy’s sword. He then cleaved down with his greatsword, cutting the man’s body in half.

His enemy defeated, he banished the earthen walls and climbed out from the makeshift cage. He was greeted by Yue Bing, who immediately got to work healing the many gashes on his bare chest. Unbeknownst to them, jade merit poured into them as the ochre glow surrounding the devilish cultivators dissipated.

“Where to next, fearless leader?” Zi Long said as he wiped the blood off his staff. After recording their kills on a jade slip, he rapidly burned the corpses. A wicked stench filled the air as they turned to ashes.

Ling Dong winced in pain as a dreadful cut on his arm stitched itself together under Yue Bing’s careful guidance. “We still have four more missions. We’ll finish two of them on our way to the Western Wall, and the final two on the other side. My goal is for us to finish them within two weeks’ time.”

“Two weeks?” Zi Long complained. “You’re such a slave driver.”

“If we’re lucky, we can catch them before they hurt anyone else,” Ling Dong said. “The kingdom didn’t issue these missions because they were lazy, they issued them because there’s a lot of work to do, and there are people dying every moment. It’s worth it to go the extra mile, even if that means we suffer extra injuries in the process.”

“I think the kingdom had more than efficiency in mind,” Zi Long said, shaking his head. “They could have solved these small problems by dispatching core-formation cultivators, but they’ve sent us out instead. These missions were issued to have us personally witness these atrocities and grow closer as a country. Strong cultivators will emerge from the survivors and become our new foundation in the war against the south.”

“I wish I was half as smart as you,” Yue Bing said. “Or half as brave as Ling Dong,” she added. “Truth be told, I’m extremely scared to be out here. My dream is to help people, not kill them.”

“Sometimes, it’s one and the same,” Ling Dong said, inspecting the arm she’d just healed. “In fact, healing the righteous will bring harm to sinners. You’re a vital party of this team, Yue Bing, and don’t you forget it.”

“You shouldn’t fight so recklessly,” Yue Bing huffed. “It’s very draining to heal such deep wounds.”

The two men laughed and allowed her to work in peace.

Cha Ming retrieved his resplendent force as the trio set off. According to his calculations, these four additional missions would grant them merit glow. After that, they would be ready to accept Fuxi’s legacy.

He brushed himself off before walking through the forest at a leisurely pace. Every so often, he discovered ripe medicinal herbs and other oddities. He encountered no beasts as he traveled. They were subconsciously repelled by his presence.

As he walked, Cha Ming’s features slowly changed. His steps became short and labored, and his hair turned gray. His face morphed and became covered in wrinkles. His clothes became nothing more than rags. Finally, he slashed his side open and allowed blood to soak the rags he wore. He collapsed a short distance away from the traveling trio.

 

***

Yue Bing sighed in exhaustion as they walked toward their next destination. Despite her minimal combat participation, the healing that came afterward thoroughly drained her. It was something that couldn’t be recovered with cultivation—only sleep would make her feel refreshed, despite her peak-qi-condensation cultivation.

A cry rang out overhead as an eagle swooped down and perched itself on Zi Long’s arm. His contracted spirit beast cooed softly before opening its beak expectantly. Zi Long fed it pieces of smoked meat, which it greedily gobbled down before flying off once more.

“Ziying says there’s a wounded man up ahead,” Zi Long said. “He doesn’t think it’s a trap, and there are no other cultivators for several miles.”

“We should take a look,” Ling Dong said, shrugging. “Maybe we’ll be able to help someone in passing.”

They ran down the road until they saw an unconscious man wearing nothing more than rags. He didn’t even have a bag of holding—his only possession was a third-grade spirit sword, which was fastened to his thin body with a hempen rope.

Yue Bing rushed toward the man and infused green runes into his body. The gash on his abdomen gradually began to close under her supervision. It then stubbornly refused to heal any further, despite her intervention, continuing to leak blood onto the forest floor.

He’s only at the sixth level of qi condensation, she thought. Why would such a weak man be wandering out here, where even the weakest beast could kill him in a few exchanges?

The results of his expedition were self-evident. If he didn’t get proper healing soon, he would die of blood loss. She looked at the man uncertainly before firming her resolve.

There’s still one thing I can do, she thought. But who would have thought the first time I would use it would be with a stranger?

She took out a golden ankh, a relic she’d inherited from the family she never knew. As she began pouring qi into the mystical object, Ling Dong grabbed her wrist.

“Are you sure he’s worth it?” he asked. “He could be a complete scumbag for all we know.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Yue Bing said coolly. “And this isn’t your decision to make.”

“Carry on, then,” Ling Dong said, releasing her wrist. “It’s your life.”

As he walked away, Yue Bing focused on the mystical runic characters on the golden ankh. It was only after she’d met her teacher that she finally understood what they meant. Her spiritual force and qi traced the runes, and so too did her life force.

A bloody glow encompassed the ankh as her blood coursed through it. The wounded man stirred uncomfortably as she worked.

Perhaps he’s not so far gone, she thought as she stopped pouring in life force. She then took the ankh in both hands and uttered an incantation.

Bloody light flowed into the man, and the gash on his torso vanished. Color returned to his face as he woke. His eyelids fluttered, and an intense spiritual force covered the three. Before Yue Bing knew what happened, her surroundings changed, and she was now in an open meadow.

“That was a very kind thing you did,” a voice said. “But you should care more for your life, or you’ll find yourself with very little time remaining.”

Yue Bing turned around and saw an older man dressed in a regal robe. His eyes contained a piercing jade glow that shone far brighter than her teacher’s purple-and-green irises. A golden sword hung at his waist, and his gray hair was tied in a knot like a Confucian scholar.

“This junior greets senior,” Yue Bing said, moving quickly to bow. The man suddenly appeared before her and stopped her midway.

“I can’t bear my savior abasing herself in such a way, especially after she’s lost so much,” the man said. He reached out with his bony hand and pulled a few strands of gray hair from her head for her to see. She gasped when she saw them. “Your ankh is powerful; it can make you an unprecedented healer, but it can also drain you dry if you try to heal someone beyond your capabilities.”

Yue Bing gulped. “I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“Then I am relieved,” the man said. Then, he tapped his finger on Yue Bing’s forehead. A stream of information poured into it, and an aged voice whispered inside her mind.

 

Devil-Sealing Scripture

A single scripture to seal all evils in the realms.

Can you see what I see with these eyes of pure jade?

Only those who share my will can understand my resolve.

 

She felt a sharp, debilitating pain in her eyes. It felt like a thousand needles were blinding and piercing them simultaneously.

“The pain only comes once, when the technique confirms that you’ve slain a devil,” the man said. “From now on, you’ll be able to see merit and sin as well as angelic and devilish endowment. Beware the color ochre.”

Then, as suddenly as the pain had come, it vanished. Yue Bing gently opened her eyes and saw an entirely different landscape. The meadow was gone, and two jade-colored figures approached her position in the spirit woods from a distance.

“Yue Bing?” a familiar voice asked. Both Zi Long and Ling Dong walked out of the woods wearing relieved expressions. “What happened? Where did you go? Where’s the old man?”

“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you,” Yue Bing said, rubbing her eyes. Despite having exhausted her energy healing the man, she now felt fully invigorated. Her qi seas were full, and her body felt spry and refreshed. She reached beside her ear excitedly but was disappointed to discover a few strands of gray hair.

 

***

Did I go too far? Cha Ming thought as he reviewed the sequence of events. If he’d known about the ankh, he’d have played his cards differently. How are things on your side? he sent to Huxian as he followed the trio.

Things are productive but worrisome, Huxian said. There are many fiendish demons on the mountain, so we’re on our way to find the source.

Fiendish demons? Cha Ming asked.

They’re like devils, but they’re demons instead of humans, Huxian replied. Saint beasts occupy the other end of the spectrum. Both are very rare—demons prefer to stay neutral.

Cha Ming observed his students as the three defeated another group of devilish cultivators. Then, under Yue Bing’s guidance, they saved the prisoners and defeated the disguised wind devil using fire-affinity talismans. Due to her disproportionate contribution, her merit increased until it condensed in a light-jade glow around her, making her the first to succeed in the trial he’d set for them.

I felt you giving the Devil-Sealing Scripture to someone earlier, Huxian said. Who was it?

It was Yue Bing, Cha Ming said. I like her personality the most. I admire her kindness, though she’s a little bit naïve. In a way, she reminds me of myself.

I like Yue Bing, Huxian said. She always pets me. By the way, what do you think of the diagram we got when our Devil-Sealing Scripture broke through to the third stage? Do you think you can build it?

Cha Ming shook his head. It’ll take ten thousand years. We just don’t have that much time. Other than that, I’d need to build a massive grand formation with a central node and twelve peripheral nodes. He shook his head. Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen the formation before.

Maybe you have ancestral memories like me! Huxian exclaimed.

I don’t think that’s the case, Cha Ming said. I’m human through and through. Perhaps I’ve just seen something similar. Even a cultivator’s mind can play tricks on them.

Cha Ming’s watched the trio for two more days. They finished the last of their missions within the Song Kingdom before proceeding to the Western Wall’s fortress. They didn’t linger long before entering the wilderness.

They’re in your territory now, Cha Ming said to Huxian. Take good care of them, but don’t coddle them.

No problem, Huxian sent back.

Satisfied with how things were going, Cha Ming flew over to the Western Wall. He used a different entrance than his students, one that led him directly to the main fortress.

A man with a billowing black-and-gold cape welcomed him. “You’re always hiding and never come to drink with your old friends,” Feng Ming said as Cha Ming landed.

“I’m just too busy,” Cha Ming said. “Cultivation and developing professions are both very time consuming. I’m not like you, a freak who can stumble forward without even trying.”

“Let’s be fair, I’ve had my share of difficulties,” Feng Ming said.

Remembering that the man’s father had passed away recently, Cha Ming could only nod and follow Feng Ming into the fortress.

“This time I’m supervising a few juniors near the walls as they exterminate some aggressive demons,” Cha Ming said. “Will it be a problem to grant me gate access in case I need to leave quickly?”

“Not at all,” Feng Ming said, tossing him a black token. “In the meantime, I need your help with something.”

The black-armored man led Cha Ming down a series of corridors to a shimmering blue shield.

“During my time in this fortress, I discovered that the Western Wall used to be known as the Westvale Wall. It’s a transcendent treasure that predates the Song Dynasty. I stumbled upon this shield through sheer luck. This blue shield has a flaw in it, and it’s coincidentally the entrance to a command center not unlike the one at Southhaven Fortress.”

They crossed the shimmering blue barrier, and an immaculate room filled with various empty projections surfaced. A thin sheet of blue material with white lines was sprawled on the table. Cha Ming was amazed to discover that it contained an intricate runic diagram that exceeded his comprehension. Here and there, small pieces were highlighted with yellow coloring.

“Where did you find this?” Cha Ming asked.

“When I entered the room, the system came to life for a brief moment,” Feng Ming explained. “Using the last of its energy, it materialized this runic diagram. I can’t understand any of it, but I figured you could.”

“It’s a blueprint,” Cha Ming said, looking it over carefully. “A blueprint of the chamber we’re in. It’s the most complex formation diagram I’ve ever seen. In fact, I feel like just reading this for a few days will help me break through to grandmaster level in formation and talisman arts.”

“Lucky,” Feng Ming said. “Can you fix it?”

Cha Ming stared hard at the white lines and glanced at the yellow portions. He then walked over to a corner of the room and formed some hand seals, which revealed complex white lines on the walls. Only the lines highlighted in yellow were missing.

Thinking for a moment, Cha Ming summoned his Clear Sky Brush and poured creation qi and pure liquified elemental essence into it. Then, seeing that the white coloring of his own ink wasn’t as intense as that of the wall, a thought occurred to him.

Cha Ming’s mental avatar appeared in the Clear Sky World and walked over to the seven pools of elemental essence he had created. Then, he withdrew a small glob of each of the five element pools and tossed them together. They didn’t mix and remained in their own separate compartments.

Not willing to admit defeat, he grabbed a glob of wind essence and tossed it into the pile. To his surprise, the five pools didn’t merge, rather they separated. The elemental essence began transferring from one pool to the other as though guided by the wind essence, slowly forming a white circle. Wood fed fire, which birthed earth, gold, water, and back to wood once more.

This cycle repeated itself twelve times before the five pools suddenly glowed white and combined into a large pool of the purest white ink he had ever seen. Despite its liquid appearance, Cha Ming could sense a billowing breeze hidden deeply within it.

“I’ll call it creation essence,” Cha Ming thought out loud.

He then repeated the same process with five-element essence and lightning essence. This time, a black star cycle formed, and after twelve revolutions or sixty transfers, it condensed into a small black pool.

“And this one is destruction essence.” The destruction essence gave him a peculiar feeling. This ink could never make a talisman or formation—it could only destroy.

Cha Ming awoke from his trance to a bored-looking Feng Ming. He rapidly summoned the entire pool of creation essence and completed a few dozen white strokes. The glowing white lines snapped into place beside the older ones and formed a seamless whole. The blueprint on the table glowed slightly. The yellow lines Cha Ming had corrected had turned white.

“It looks like I can fix it,” Cha Ming said cautiously, “but I’m going to need a very large amount of elemental evanescence and liquified elemental essence.”

“How much are we talking?” Feng Ming asked.

“One million two hundred thousand jin of liquified elemental essence and twenty jin each of wood, fire, earth, gold, water, and wind evanescence,” Cha Ming said after reviewing the blueprint. “And I’m not even taking a commission.”

Feng Ming hissed through his teeth. “That’s an enormous sum of money for such a small kingdom. How confident are you?”

“I’m one hundred percent confident I can fix the runic lines,” Cha Ming said. “The real question is, do you feel lucky?”

Feng Ming thought for a moment before nodding. “I’ll get you that elemental essence. You can count on it.”



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