KINDLING

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CHAPTER 3: JUSTICE

“How are those younglings coming along?” Wang Jun asked as he poured tea for two. The green-clothed man looked substantially more relaxed than a few months ago, largely due to his rapidly increasing fortune.

“You realize we’re only a few years older than them, don’t you?” Cha Ming said. “Technicalities aside, they’re coming along well. From what Huxian tells me, two of them have already condensed merit glow, and the third is not far off. Once they are all successful, I can start teaching them Fuxi’s legacy.”

“Do you think they’ll follow in your footsteps?” Wang Jun said.

“Doubtful,” Cha Ming replied. “They’ve all picked a path that best suits their personality. Although I’ll make sure they have a foundation in runic arts, I feel that Yue Bing will focus on healing and may dabble in alchemy, while Zi Long will likely to focus on staff arts, talismans, and formations. As for Ling Dong, I’m not too sure. He can make talismans well enough, but I don’t think they suit him.”

“Oh?” Wang Jun said, raising his eyebrow. “Then what’s the point of teaching him Fuxi’s legacy?”

“There are many ways to apply the runic arts,” Cha Ming said. “Perhaps he’ll learn combat formations, but I have a feeling he’ll pursue an entirely different path. Only time will tell. How about you? How has your business been faring?”

“It’s been doing very well,” Wang Jun said. “The country is recovering swiftly, and the real estate investments are starting to pay off. I can’t give you your money back yet, however. I’ve been using all available funds to acquire many key sectors needed for fulfilling my family’s task. Soon, the Wang family will have a dominant position in every corner of the Song Kingdom.”

“Take as long as you need,” Cha Ming said, taking a sip. “Have you planned your journey to Gold Leaf City yet?”

“Only vaguely,” Wang Jun said. “There are too many variables, too many changing conditions. Due to my impending return, my brother has begun to move aggressively on many fronts to lock me out of the market.”

“I take it the family’s leadership is chosen based on financial performance?” Cha Ming said.

“Current success is the best indicator of future success,” Wang Jun said, shrugging. “To be honest, it’s not my brother’s legitimate financial activities that worry me. A little bird told me about some scattered Wang family business ventures in the south.”

“The Wang family does business in the south?” Cha Ming said, frowning.

“Not officially,” Wang Jun replied. “And that’s what worries me. Hiding is my specialty, so I’m acutely aware of how effective clandestine operations can be. If these businesses are under my brother’s control, things could get messy, and fast.”

Cha Ming sank deep in thought as he nursed his cup of tea, heating it with qi whenever the temperature dipped below a certain point. Then Feng Ming walked in.

“To what do we owe the pleasure?” Wang Jun asked him as he served a third cup.

“I went treasure hunting and came back with some goodies,” Feng Ming said, sitting down. He tossed a ring to Cha Ming, whose eyes widened when he saw the contents.

“So fast?” Cha Ming said. “I thought it would take months to put all this together.”

“Fortunately, liquified elemental essence is easy to find, and evanescence is stockpiled by the royal family,” Feng Ming said. “My father-in-law has been rather doting on his only daughter. And Prince Lei doesn’t seem to mind now that Prince Tian is out of the picture.”

“He’s lost all motivation,” Wang Jun said helplessly. “He helps me out when he can, but he’s catching up on all his time away from his wife and kids. He told me he has no interest in the throne, and it can go to the king’s grandkids for all he cares.”

Feng Ming frowned. “Wait, is this why he started pushing us to have kids all of a sudden?”

Cha Ming laughed. “It’s not so surprising. The king still has a few hundred years ahead of him. Why should he care about something like direct succession?”

“Fair enough,” Feng Ming said, taking a sip and nodding appreciatively. “Now that the civil war is done, he can take his time in finding an heir and focus on the war to the south instead. Speaking of which, have you thought about my proposal?”

“I find the concept of defense contracting for the Song Kingdom intriguing,” Wang Jun said. “Before we proceed any further, I want you to understand that mercenaries can only be so loyal to the kingdom. When it’s the choice between their lives and their duty, they’ll choose the former without hesitation.”

“And that’s why I only want year-long contracts,” Feng Ming said. “Those who wish to remain on the payroll can join the army, and we have many ways to convince them otherwise once they join. For every mercenary who converts to the army, you’ll get a hefty commission. Just think of this as unorthodox recruiting.”

“If you’re all right with that, I’ll start laying the groundwork,” Wang Jun said. “You’ll need to handle army integration and joint operations, and I can take care of the rest.”

“It’s a deal,” Feng Ming said, finishing his cup of tea. “Cha Ming, you have the goods. When you do you plan on starting the repairs?”

“I’m free right now,” Cha Ming said, finishing his own cup. “My students are there, so it wouldn’t hurt to work on it while they finish up.”

“Well, don’t feel obligated to keep me company,” Wang Jun said. “I may not be busy, but I’m not idle, either.” The two men left Wang Jun to his afternoon appointments and a mountain of paperwork.

 

***

 

“Such an intricate and complex design,” Cha Ming said as he painted what could have been the thousandth line. It was white and curved and connected two functional runes for power distribution and the wall’s self-repair capabilities. There were no sudden changes when this line was completed; the formation was a closed circuit, and it wouldn’t function until it fully mended.

Having depleted most of his mental energy, Cha Ming took out Samsara, Jun Xiezi’s painting, and focused on replenishing it. He focused on the life-filled portion of the polarized painting and ignored the death-filled portion that would wear away at his soul. The dual mysteries of life and death eluded him as he watched, taunting him with the splendor inherent in the painting.

One thousand down, fifty thousand to go, Cha Ming thought.

He began painting once more while simultaneously studying the complex design. He focused on the smaller details first, and when he understood them, he linked them together. There was a logic to their structures, and although the rules weren’t explicitly stated, they could be deduced with enough effort. As he painted, his repertoire grew from linking a few runes together to linking hundreds. His progress only slowed once he reached a thousand.

With every line he painted, he realized there were some mistakes in his original thinking. Every new insight allowed him to add more lines to the diagram in his mind. One thousand became one thousand and fifty, which soon turned to one thousand and seventy. The toll on his mind grew until he could no longer perform the repairs and could only sit in contemplation. A week passed before he finally opened his eyes.

“It wasn’t one thousand and eighty like I thought it would be,” Cha Ming muttered as he imagined the completed diagram. “But that all makes sense now. One hundred and eight is perfection, while twelve is just the beginning. Therefore, 120 runes are the foundation of core arrays, and these runes are connected with twelve hundred runic lines. As for Gong Lan’s 10,080 rosary, that must be unique to the Buddhists.”

After this sudden epiphany, he continued painting the remaining lines in the fortress. His progress was swift, as his soul had grown much more corporeal, and his resplendent vestment much brighter than before. Unknowingly, he had broken through to the middle of the resplendent soul realm.

Soon, he was finishing off entire walls. It wasn’t long before he finished the final character on the final wall, causing the pattern to glow slightly before fading.

It’s deficient in energy, Cha Ming determined. He tossed a pile of high-grade spirit stones onto a dedicated energy-gathering formation. It activated instantly, and white lines began glowing around the small mound of crystals. The lines expanded until they encompassed the entire command center.

Feng Ming walked into the room after sensing the disturbance. Projection screens and diagrams lit up wherever he looked, and on the table where the blueprints once lay, a different diagram appeared. It was a blueprint of the entire wall, whose runic lines were mostly destroyed. Despite this heavy damage, they were being rapidly regenerated, starting with those nearest to the central fortress.

“It should only take a day for the wall to completely recover,” a voice said from behind them.

Both Cha Ming and Feng Ming were surprised to see a middle-aged man in strange robes. His hair was cropped short and his figure semitransparent.

“Are you the custodian of this place?” Cha Ming asked.

The man looked at him in surprise. “Yes, I was sent from a transcendent realm to preside over this fortress. How may I address these two masters?”

“Please call me Cha Ming, and this is Marshal Feng Ming,” Cha Ming said. “Do you have any instructions for us?”

“None,” the man said. “This fortress was sent down from the transcendent realms ten thousand years ago to defend the World Tree against a tide of fiendish demons. Once the fiends were defeated, the fortress’s purpose was fulfilled. My instructions were to pass on command tokens to those with sufficient merit if the fortress was repaired in the future.” He flicked out his sleeves and sent out blue tokens to the two of them. “What are your orders?”

“Are you able to help us against the current tide of fiendish demons?” Feng Ming asked. The custodian closed his eyes, and the view on the projection screen changed to that of the mountain range. Small ochre dots appeared near a large mountain.

“The fiendish demon origin has been defeated, so there is no need for me to intervene,” the custodian said. “While I can prevent them from breaching the wall and can easily clear out all of the remaining fiendish demons, your juniors seem to have the situation under control.”

“Then let’s let them take care of it,” Feng Ming said after thinking for a moment. “While some of them might die, we need to be strong to fight against the Southern Alliance.”

“I’ll leave these military matters to you,” Cha Ming said. “Custodian, do you mind if I take a look at the fortress’s array diagrams once more?”

“It’s not a problem,” the custodian said, summoning the blueprint. This time, it was a three-dimensional structure that could be manipulated at his leisure. “If either of you need anything, let me know.” Then he vanished.

“So, was it worth it?” Cha Ming asked Feng Ming.

“We’ll see,” Feng Ming said. “I still need to evaluate its defensive measures, and I need to see if the wall can be integrated into the Southhaven system. I know next to nothing about this type of mystical equipment.”

“Let me know if you need any help,” Cha Ming said. “I’ll be studying this diagram in the meantime.”

He had barely taken a few steps before he received a mental message from Huxian. “On second thought, I need to take care of something.”

He swiftly disappeared from the room, leaving Feng Ming alone with the central display.

 

***

 

“They’re in an interesting situation,” Huxian said to Cha Ming as he flew up beside them. “I thought you’d like to see how they do.” He and his two friends were eating large slabs of roasted meat. “Watching juniors fight against each other is the best.”

“You know you’re only a few years old, right?” Cha Ming said.

A few miles away from them, a group of peak-qi-condensation cultivators were fighting against a larger group. From what he could tell, one group had discovered a valuable medicinal root, while the other had attacked them out of jealousy. While there were no deaths yet, many of the cultivators had been grievously wounded.

Meanwhile, his three students were rapidly approaching the two groups. Cha Ming noticed that although Zi Long hadn’t yet condensed a merit halo, he had already advanced to foundation establishment before the others. His foundation consisted of five pillars, surrounded by five qi seas, but in between these seas, wisps of black and white had begun to accumulate.

“Interesting,” Cha Ming said, taking out one small cup and three big ones. He filled his own with a peculiar blend of Pu Er tea while he filled the others with Demon Soothing Tea. “Let’s see how they choose.”

 

***

 

“There’s a fight up ahead,” Zi Long said as they abruptly changed course. He used his aura to repel many lesser beasts as they moved through the forest. “There they are,” he said as he landed. The three walked toward a large group of people. Half a dozen cultivators were huddled in a tight circle with their backs to the center while twenty ragtag cultivators encircled them.

“You’d better hand over the Foundation Spirit Root,” an ugly man covered in scars said to the smaller group. “Even foundation-establishment experts would fight over such a treasure. Do you really think you’re worthy of it?”

A younger man leading the smaller group gritted his teeth before pulling out an orange root. It was brimming with heaven and earth qi, to the point that it made Zi Long’s heartbeat quicken.

Should we take it? Ling Dong said. It’s not a treasure either of their groups can protect.

Zi Long pondered the matter before entering the fray. He walked slowly as he expanded his aura, causing the aggressive group to cower in fright as the purple-robed man walked toward the central group. “Thank you for finding the root for us,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’ll be delivering what I promised once we return to Songjing.”

The leader of the smaller group gulped. His hand trembled as he reached out and placed the orange root in Zi Long’s hand. The purple-robed man looked behind him toward the ruffians.

“They didn’t cause you any trouble, did they?” asked Zi Long.

“It’s nothing worth concerning yourself over,” the leader said, gritting his teeth.

The leader of the bandits is an atrocious excuse for a human being, Ling Dong sent from the outside of the encirclement. Just how many atrocities did he commit to accumulate so much sin?

I’m more concerned about the woman beside him, Yue Bing said. Yue Bing’s eyes glowed with jade light as she inspected the beautiful lady. She’s different from the others. She glows ochre, much like the fiendish demons we’ve fought. The rest can leave, but those two should both stay.

Zi Long’s eyes narrowed. He looked to the bandit leader and his assistant coldly, and his figure blurred before appearing right next to the scarred man and the beautiful woman. He struck out with his purple staff, expertly slicing them both in two despite the staff’s blunt nature. While the man’s corpse fell to the ground, the woman’s body disintegrated into sawdust. Their ochre and yellow auras dissipated and converted to merit, which joined together with Zi Long’s and formed a jade glow surrounding him.

“The rest of you may leave,” Zi Long said to the group. “I’d suggest you stop robbing people, or you’ll end up like your two companions.”

“Thank you for your mercy, Elder,” the remaining eighteen cultivators said one by one, leaving behind their leaders’ corpses. Only the six cultivators who’d gathered the spirit root remained. Zi Long tossed him the orange root before walking back to his companions.

The leader ran up to him, confused. “Many thanks for your assistance,” he said. “We’d like to offer this spirit root in repayment.”

Zi Long looked back and shook his head. “It’s your root. I’m not a robber.” Seeing the man glance uncomfortably toward the wall, he looked toward Ling Dong and Yue Bing, who gestured for him to do as he saw fit. “But it’s a long way to the wall. How about this: My companions and I will accompany you there. In exchange, we’ll take a quarter of the spirit root. The rest is yours.”

Their leader let out a sigh of relief. “Then I, Ding Shen, am eternally grateful. Those bandits were right—it’s not a treasure we can protect.”

“It’s not unusual for weaker people to hire mercenaries and guards,” Zi Long said indifferently. “Just consider this a simple business transaction.”

After cleaning up the battlefield, they left together toward the wall. They weren’t bothered by man or beast, though several groups of adventurers didn’t leave before probing their group for weaknesses. As for the others that didn’t bother them, suffice to say that Huxian and his friends returned to the fortress with full bellies.

Yue Bing and Ling Dong closed themselves up in meditation soon after arriving, leaving Zi Long to guard them as they broke through to foundation establishment. He sat outside their rooms patiently, keeping a careful watch on his surroundings.

As the sun set, an aged figure in tattered clothes appeared in the fortress. He had a kindly expression and eyes that shone with pure jade. He slowly walked up to Zi Long, who opened his eyes as he approached.

“Teacher, are you not embarrassed when you wear such an obvious disguise?” Zi Long asked.

Cha Ming coughed awkwardly and quickly transformed to his normal appearance. Huxian also appeared beside him. “What gave me away?”

“You mean the random gestures of goodwill, and our eye colors suddenly changing to match yours?” Zi Long said. “Or maybe the fact that you happen to have a fox that has three tails accompany you everywhere?” He shook his head. “You really ought to put more effort into your disguises if you want to remain anonymous. Like that time when you planted the body-cultivation technique for Ling Dong. You made some mistakes, but it wasn’t so blatant.”

Cha Ming sighed and sent the Devil-Sealing Scripture into the air, which quickly shot into the man’s glabella. Despite the immense pain in his eyes, Zi Long didn’t even blink as they gained a jade coloring.

“You’ve proven to be a just man, and all three of you have accumulated merit halos. Since you’ve passed the test, you are now my disciples,” Cha Ming said, tossing three jades to Zi Long. “Keep one for yourself, and give the other two to your disciple brother and sister. Come see me in Songjing once you’re done here.”

“What’s inside it?” Zi Long asked as he dripped his blood on it.

“A foundation,” Cha Ming said. “I’m not sure about Yue Bing and Ling Dong, but I’m confident you’ll be able to fully learn everything on this jade slip. When the time comes, I’ll give you another.”

“Master, I have a question,” Zi Long said. “Why are you being so nice to us when we haven’t done anything for you?”

“The first reason is that I owe karma,” Cha Ming said, chuckling. “As for the second reason… can you tell me why you protected those cultivators and didn’t take their treasure? Or why Ling Dong was willing to sacrifice himself to save you? Or why Yue Bing is always willing to help strangers, even at the cost of her lifespan?”

Zi Long nodded slowly. Seeing that the younger man was itching to study the jade slip, Cha Ming chuckled and walked back to the command room to study the blueprint.



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