CHAPTER 1: THE PERFECT NUMBER
A gentle wind brushed past Cha Ming as he walked across a fertile meadow. Grazing demons looked up at him, their curious eyes evaluating his threat level as he passed. The demons—redwood elk demons—had healthy coats of thick red fur and elaborate horns. You could find them everywhere around here in the Redwood Forest, conveniently located between Beihai and Gold Leaf City.
Cha Ming, curious to see how they would respond to a strange human, reached out to one of the demons with his bare hand. It inched back slightly but stopped once it noticed the pure and kindly aura coming from him. He scratched the rough fur atop its head, which was slightly sticky and stuck to his fingers.
It’s like the sap that oozes out from behind the tree bark, he thought, looking to the red trees beyond the meadow. He wondered if the substance grew naturally, or if it was simply a byproduct of the creature rubbing up against them.
Life is so fragile, Cha Ming thought. Even among demons.
Though the herd wasn’t well organized, there was a method to the way they moved. The young were evenly spread out across the group to protect them from the carnivorous birds that patrolled the skies above them. Feeding time was a gentle dance, and the slightest lapse in judgment as they ate the emerald-green spirit grass could mean the death of one of their younger members.
A short while later, Cha Ming walked into the woods. Unlike the meadows beneath the open sky, no grass grew here, as the redwood trees blocked out any sunshine that might have otherwise pierced through their massive branches. Instead, mushrooms grew beneath the wide canopies, providing shelter to the demons and beasts that lived there.
As he continued his journey, he looked around and noticed that the demons who typically lurked in places like these were unusually quiet.
“Jun Xiezi,” Cha Ming said, sensing the source of the disturbance. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity finally travel again,” Jun Xiezi said, walking over on a well-maintained path from the opposite direction. The silver-haired man bowed lightly, and Cha Ming reciprocated. Now that he was stronger, he could finally evaluate the man’s cultivation realm: the peak of core formation. It was much higher than he’d expected. He was likely one of the strongest residents of the Quicksilver Empire.
“When I saw the Redwood Forest was on the way, I couldn’t resist asking a local to show me around,” Cha Ming said. “By the way, I finished a few pieces before you came. Catch.”
Several talismans flew out from the Clear Sky World and stopped an arm’s length away from the older man.
“Good lad,” Jun Xiezi said, picking up three sheets of thin red paper. “That painting was one of the best investments I ever made.”
The painting he’d created for Cha Ming, Samsara, had proven extremely useful. Its soul-replenishing properties had been especially useful to the weaker Cha Ming.
“I should have given them to your earlier,” Cha Ming said. “Unfortunately, I had something on my mind back then. I call these three the ‘kindling,’ ‘dousing,’ and ‘energy’ talismans. They keep the same symmetry as my earlier poetic talismans. One day, I hope to complete one for the wood element.”
“Living and dying,” Jun Xiezi said. “That will be a challenge for someone so young.”
“To be fair, I’m over a hundred and thirty now,” Cha Ming muttered.
“Been to a place with compressed time, I see,” Jun Xiezi said with a bemused expression. “Good thing I wasn’t talking about your physical age but your mental one.”
Cha Ming scowled, but the man ignored him.
“Let’s get going. There are many good things to see here.”
Jun Xiezi pushed off the ground and floated onto one of the thick rust-colored branches that loomed overhead. He twisted his body, expertly avoiding demonic cobwebs that lay in wait for lesser prey. Skeletal spiders scrambled away as Cha Ming followed. Demons were especially sensitive to strength and wouldn’t be caught dead tangling with two superior cultivators like them.
Cha Ming was amazed at the sheer variety of beings in the treetop environment. Here, a whole new world appeared, complete with demonic versions of things like squirrels, birds, and even house cats. There were plenty of insects too. Colorful butterflies fluttered around them as they ascended; they took advantage of their presence by intimidating natural predators, creating a beautiful spectacle in exchange for safety. Fearful spiders with bladelike appendages glared at them with hateful eyes as they fluttered through their traps with uncharacteristic ease. Cha Ming, who’d never been fond of spiders, was only too happy to oblige, circle of life be damned.
“There aren’t many butterflies flying around these days,” Jun Xiezi said, catching a seven-colored specimen on his finger. “They’re much livelier around hatching time. Their predecessors, a variety of demonic caterpillar, take nine years to grow. We’re in the eighth year of their cycle now, so most of them have died off. Next year, the remaining butterflies will lay a batch of eggs that become the next wave of caterpillars.”
“It’s always nine, isn’t it?” Cha Ming asked.
“Nine is the most perfect number,” Jun Xiezi said. “Though many would argue seven is. There are seven virtues and seven vices, after all.”
Eight, if you count hope and doubt, Cha Ming thought to himself. He considered this as they flew through a horde of flying squirrels. The deceptively thin creatures flew from branch to branch despite their low cultivations. Like their mortal counterparts, they were always searching for food. The eight virtues and eight vices were lost to these creatures. They were intelligent, of course, even more so than the average human, but demons focused on survival rather than higher callings like morality. Barring their strange sense of honor and respect, they preferred to avoid the squabbles of men and discourses on religion. Unlike people, the right course of action was engraved into their very bones.
“We’re here,” Jun Xiezi said after they’d traveled for a half hour. Demons began to scatter up ahead, and soon there was not a demon in sight. They crossed a night-invisible threshold that Cha Ming recognized as a demon-repelling formation. It surrounded the nearby area like a bubble. The strange three-dimensional formation was the result of 1,080 smaller ones drawn on redwood bark. He could see the compact runes drawing power from the trees and their nigh-limitless vitality.
“Impressive,” Cha Ming said. “This was the work of a grand-elder-level figure in formation arts.”
“The first inhabitants of Redwood Forest were the servants of a mighty cultivator,” Jun Xiezi said. “He eventually transcended, but the servants and their families remained. They loved the wilderness and hated cities. They preferred a simple life, free from war, politics, and other things that plague dense pockets of humanity.”
“Why did you leave?” Cha Ming asked. The man was an enigma, and the sheer variety of paintings he’d created showed how well-traveled he was.
“To live,” Jun Xiezi replied. Seeing Cha Ming’s puzzled expression, he elaborated. “You can’t live if you stay cooped up in the same place all the time. You need to experience life and its complexities and contradictions, its terrible choices and its bittersweet moments. You need to find a home. Then, when you’ve grown comfortable, you need to move on. If you keep doing that for a while, you’ll find a feeling deep down that everywhere, in a sense, is your home.”
“I can’t say I relate,” Cha Ming said. He’d only lived in a half dozen places now, but most of them seemed transient. Even Haijing City, where he’d spent most of his life, was nothing more than a stepping stone. Yet when he thought about home, he remembered a quiet clearing in Jade Moon Garden. He thought of Green Leaf Academy, his time in Quicksilver, and the people he’d befriended there. He thought of Li Yin, the mortal doctor.
“One day, you will,” Jun Xiezi said. “Now follow me and don’t say anything funny.” He landed on a thick platform made of wooden boards and drew back his soul force. As he walked, his aura grew more and more reserved. His active cultivation receded until he appeared to be little more than a foundation-establishment cultivator. Cha Ming followed suit, suppressing his cultivation to early foundation establishment and early bone forging. They walked directly into the village without anyone stopping them.
“No guards?” Cha Ming asked.
Most cities, even those without cultivators, had guards. Only the smallest farming communities were unguarded, and even then, they posted a town watch.
“Do you have any idea how difficult it is to guard against intruders in three dimensions?” Jun Xiezi said, pointing up at the leafy canopy. “There are no walls, so people can come and go from any direction if they’re skilled enough. Plus, demons can’t come inside. People trust each other here, and the guards roaming around are merely respected members of society that are looking out for their neighbors. They’ll help if someone gets hurt or someone’s cat gets caught up in a tree. Assuming the cat isn’t just being needy.”
Oddly, Cha Ming thought of Mr. Mao Mao. He missed the cat, and he was sure Huxian did too.
Jun Xiezi led them from bridge to bridge, platform to platform. On one of the bridges, they saw a group of youngsters. They were around ten years old, and to Cha Ming’s surprise, they were having fun by hopping off the bridge using crude ropes. They swung about, knocking into each other with little fear of falling. He soon saw what gave them the courage to do so: A thin net covered the area beneath the bridge. It wasn’t large, but anyone unfortunate enough to fall off the bridge would be caught.
“Master Xiezi!” a voice called out.
“Master Xiezi!” another called out alongside it. A boy and a girl ran up to Jun Xiezi and hugged his loose robes.
The older man laughed as he kneeled and rubbed their heads. “No need to call me master or anything like that. Just calling me Teacher is fine.”
“We’ll remember, Master Xiezi,” the girl said. “Are you opening up your shop again after so long?”
“What do you mean, so long?” Jun Xiezi said. “I only stepped out for a year this time.”
“After only staying for a month,” the girl grumbled.
“I was traveling,” Jun Xiezi said. “I always travel. It’s how I get ideas.” The little girl crossed her arms in displeasure. “I’ll tell you what, I have something here for you if you’ll forgive me.”
“Really?” the girl asked, her anger vanishing as quickly as it had appeared.
“Yes, really,” Jun Xiezi said. A small one-foot-by-one-foot painting appeared in his hands. It showed a bird’s-eye view of Quicksilver City in all its radiance. With his keen eyes, Cha Ming could spot an exquisite amount of detail in the painting. It even showed the workers building the rails that crisscrossed the city. “I made you a small painting. Remember how you said you always wanted to see a city?”
“Is that really a city?” the girl said, her voice filled with awe. “I don’t see any bridges or bark. How can they live there?”
“They live in stones on the ground,” Jun Xiezi whispered with a mischievous grin.
The girl’s frown deepened. “That seems really unsafe. How do they stay away from the monsters down below?” She shuddered. “I like it better here.”
Jun Xiezi chuckled. “That’s fine too. Do whatever makes you happy.” He then looked to the little boy standing beside her with an expectant look on his face. “I know you don’t much like paintings, but I know you like games.”
He waved his hand, and a deck of exquisitely painted cards appeared. He waved once more, and the cards collapsed into a deck, which the boy grabbed.
“I’ll go play right now!” the boy exclaimed. He ran toward a row of houses that were built of redwood, either directly within a trunk or on a platform built along a larger tree branch. The girl hesitated before ultimately chasing her brother.
Both Cha Ming and Jun Xiezi laughed as they walked past the remaining children hanging off the bridge, completely oblivious to them in their games, and headed toward where the buildings grew larger and denser. There, they saw busy people going about their daily lives. Bakers baked, merchants sold, and smiths shaped metal. That last one surprised Cha Ming, who’d always seen metal as the antithesis of wood.
“What, you think people can survive without metal up here?” Jun Xiezi said when Cha Ming asked.
“No, I just thought the high heat required for spiritual blacksmithing might damage the trees,” Cha Ming said. Though he wasn’t a spiritual blacksmith, there were commonalities between smithing and alchemy. Even without training with a hammer, he could generate flames that would melt peak-core-formation treasures given enough time. These massive redwoods were much less sturdy in comparison.
“Hah,” Jun Xiezi said. “These redwoods would survive an all-out war between the North and the South. There’s nothing on this plane that could take them all out. And if one tree was damaged, the others would all support it. The trees are like a community, Cha Ming. If one of them is hurt, the others all pitch in to help it get better. It’s been that way for thousands of years, and it’ll continue being that way for a long while yet.”
They continued down the busy streets, peeking into the various open-air shops they saw. Eventually, they came upon a small building with no sign. There, Jun Xiezi took out a dull iron key and unlocked it. He tapped his finger on the wall, and colors flowed from his hand onto the building’s exterior, which now seemed more like a canvas than anything else.
Vivid yellow, orange, and red colors appeared along with the green and reddish brown of the redwood trees. The sky in the painting was obscured with smoke, and fire ravaged the lands. Cha Ming blinked when he realized that Jun Xiezi had painted exactly what he’d imagined—the redwood trees were burning, and the source of the fire was a spiritual smithy.
“Won’t this upset people?” Cha Ming asked nervously.
Jun Xiezi shrugged. “If they’re not used to my antics by now, they never will be.” He flicked his hand as they walked in, and instead of turning on a light, the colors in the room grew brighter and more vivid. A tiny fireplace lit up, and dried up plants, which had been dead in their pots, came to life as though he’d never been gone in the first place. “Now make yourself at home. I’m about to get really busy.”
Busy was an understatement. By the time the man was sitting down with a brush in hand and a blank canvas before him, four people had already entered the shop. Jun Xiezi, not wanting to be bothered before finishing his first painting, grunted and summoned hundreds of paintings that flew onto special stands on the walls. Each one was accompanied by a note explaining the scene in question. The paintings were all highlights of his travels, available for very modest sums.
There was an unofficial system in this shop. For the most part, the clients walked in and chatted with the elderly painter, who was only too happy to share stories of his travels as he painted. He answered any questions they asked, and after three or so questions, they chose something from the walls and put their payment inside a bowl at the front of the room on their way out.
Every person that left meant one of the many people lined up outside could enter. The older man painted as he talked. Occasionally, he asked his own questions. The customers found themselves pouring out their greatest joys and most terrible sorrows.
Whenever he heard something especially moving, Jun Xiezi would pause and begin to paint what they described. He didn’t paint exactly what had happened, but his interpretation of the events. He brought life to their weal and woe in a way only he, the painter, would ever understand. These paintings were gifts, and each one was at least a magic-grade treasure. Occasionally, however, he was able to create something more vivid and lifelike. These paintings were core treasures, but he still gave them out to mortals and cultivators alike, who had no knowledge of their true value.
Three days passed in this way. During that time, Cha Ming watched Jun Xiezi paint. Occasionally, he brewed tea or picked up something for them to eat from a local establishment. He saw life through many different viewpoints and considered many things. He tried to use these to supplement his understanding of life, but unfortunately, there was something missing. Their experiences were not his own; they were but a mere shadow of something real.
“What makes a painting good?” Cha Ming asked at the end of the third day. He, too, had taken out a canvas. He was painting a familiar scene with his Clear Sky Brush, depicting the warm reception he’d received from the Hong family in Green Leaf City. It was a decent painting, but compared to those he painted of Yu Wen or his experience in Crystal Falls, it lacked something. This one was just a mortal-grade painting, a far cry from the peak-magic-grade treasures he sometimes created.
“That’s a difficult question to answer,” Jun Xiezi said, putting the finishing touches on his own painting. Like many of his creations, it featured ponds, lilies, and people bathing. The man never seemed to tire of painting some rendition of this scene. It, like most of the others he painted, became a mid-grade-magic treasure. “You can achieve the peak of spiritual painting through technique and mimicry. Or, you can fumble around blindly until you get there. The former is more reliable, while the latter is ephemeral but allows one to paint something beyond one’s technical skill. Only by combining the two can you make a true masterpiece.
“Where did you study?” Cha Ming asked.
Though Zhou Li had been a peak-grandmaster painter, he’d never found any literature on the subject in Haijing’s library.
“Painting is only taught through apprenticeship,” Jun Xiezi said, “as books are considered too shallow a medium to pass along the exquisiteness of the art. At lower levels, class sizes can be quite large, but higher-level arts are only taught to a select few. Teachers lecture as they paint and teach techniques on a whim. They usually do it at the end of their lifespan, however, when they feel they can contribute nothing more to society.”
“Strange,” Cha Ming said. “No one teaches for money?”
“Painters make money,” Jun Xiezi said with a smile. “But those who focus on money won’t ever reach the peak of their craft. It cheapens the art, much like it does poetry and writing. Selling your work is fine, of course, though many would rather detach themselves from the process and hang their works up in an art gallery and be done with it.
“Most successful painters are surprised at the success of the works. The works they’re most proud of get little attention, but works they casually painted, those filled with flaws and misconceptions, tend to attract the most buyers and collectors.” He shook his head. “It’s truly a strange thing, but I suppose it’s like the rest of life and all its wonders.”
“Can you teach me?” Cha Ming asked.
Jun Xiezi chuckled and shook his head. “No, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be a suitable teacher. You’re a strange man, you know. You’re too powerful, too lofty for your young age. You’ve seen too little of the world and too much of it at the same time. Besides, I feel you’d resent the technical aspects of painting. You’re the type of person who paints with your heart. And I want you to know that there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Cha Ming mulled over these words. It was true that he enjoyed the process, and the thought of imitating someone else’s hand irked him. Still, specific tips would go a long way.
Just as he was about to ask, however, the door opened abruptly. A dozen men with angry looks on their faces walked in. Their leader was an arrogant-looking cultivator who’d reached the peak of core formation. Cha Ming frowned when he saw them. He looked to Jun Xiezi, who simply smiled and held up his hand, signaling that he’d take care of it. Ironically, to them, it probably seemed like a greeting.
“What can I help you gentlemen with?” Jun Xiezi said pleasantly.
“You know the drill,” the leader replied, puffing out his chest in an unsubtle effort to look tough. “Just like the past eight years, you give me a third of your profits, and we don’t mess up the place.”
The men behind him nodded with crossed arms. Cha Ming couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly at the situation. They could no more rob Jun Xiezi than a newborn child could scold him.
“I was wondering when to expect you,” Jun Xiezi said, still smiling. Then, to Cha Ming’s surprise, he summoned a pile of spirit stones from his spatial ring and placed it on a small table beside them. “I hope my results aren’t too disappointing.”
The leader grinned and picked out a few choice stones. “Look at what we have here,” he said, inspecting a high-grade spirit stone in the pile. “We don’t see a lot of these around here.”
“I thought you’d like it,” Jun Xiezi said. “I put it there because I wanted to ask you for a favor.”
The man frowned at that. “A favor? What kind of favor?”
“Nothing much, nothing much,” Jun Xiezi said. “You see, I’ve been working on a painting for the past nine years. I was hoping you could help me out with it. It’s almost done.”
“A painting, eh?” the man said, stroking his chin. “I’ve never considered myself much of painter, but I suppose I could try.”
“Don’t worry, I just need a model, not an assistant,” Jun Xiezi said, motioning to a spot beside him. He then walked to the back of the room where Cha Ming noticed there were nine stands. The older man waved his hand, and nine canvases appeared, facing the men. “The first time I saw you here, you were just an innocent man trying to make ends meet for your new family.”
Jun Xiezi’s brush flowed along the canvas, and many colors seeped onto it. The painting took three seconds to materialize before Jun Xiezi walked up to the next one. “The year after, it seemed you had something on your mind. You came here with friends that year. It looked like you were trying to impress them.” Once again, his brush touched the canvas, and a painting appeared. He did the same for the third.
“It was the next few years where things really hit a groove,” Jun Xiezi said, touching the fourth through sixth canvases. The mood in the paintings grew harder and darker. While the first three depicted a man who dabbled in thuggery, the next three highlighted a deep change in character. The man no longer doubted himself. He grew harder and more confident, and his posture seemed to reflect the violence he’d grown increasingly comfortable with committing. The seventh and the eighth highlighted these features even more. The man’s appearance was growing ugly, almost devilish. Cha Ming could see a subtle turning point. The ninth painting would define the man’s character for the rest of his life.
“Ling Yu,” Jun Xiezi said. “What would you like me to paint on my next canvas? What type of man would you like to become this year? They say nine is the perfect number. Nine defines all facets of a person’s character.”
Ling Yu had been staring at the paintings all this time. His expression had grown dimmer and dimmer with each painting that so perfectly captured his history and his descent into darkness.
The eighth had been particularly hard on the man. His eyes twitched, and his hands shook. “I’ve never hurt anyone too bad,” Ling Yu said. “Not too bad.”
If Cha Ming wasn’t looking the man straight in the face, he’d guess the man was crying.
“But you have hurt others,” Jun Xiezi said. “I can feel it in each painting, the deepening darkness. You were driven by necessity at first, which was why I let you take some of my earnings those three times. But after the fourth time, it seemed like you wouldn’t change your ways. You grew dependent on my money, dependent on the thuggery. And in the subsequent paintings, you can you see the result of your actions and the man you’re becoming.”
The ones accompanying Ling Yu were shifting around uncomfortably. They clearly wanted to leave, but Cha Ming saw that Jun Xiezi had used his powerful soul to lock them in place.
“What is your choice? What do you want me to paint this time? You won’t be taking stones from me again either way. I’ve been painting this for nine years, and today, I will finish it.”
Ling Yu’s throat trembled. His eyes watered, and he suddenly fell to his knees. Then, the man who’d hardened over the eight consecutive paintings did something no one would have thought possible. He wept. He wept tears of regret that poured onto the wooden floorboards beneath him. He cried out years of pent-up frustration and regret.
As he blinked away the tears, he saw that Jun Xiezi had already finished the ninth painting. He’d painted the weeping man and his plea for redemption, his willingness to change. This wasn’t a man whose character would be locked in for the rest of his life, but one who was undergoing a metamorphosis, a transformation, like a caterpillar into a butterfly.
“Go,” Jun Xiezi said. “And never come back to my shop. If you regret how you’ve treated others, make it up to them. Do you understand?”
The man wiped his eyes and nodded. Then, to Cha Ming’s surprise, he kowtowed to Jun Xiezi. “Thank you,” he said.
“No need to thank me,” Jun Xiezi replied. “Now, are you going to scram, or do I have to kick you out?” He sent his resplendent force out at the men, who instantly fell over themselves as they scrambled to get out of the room. Ling Yu was no exception. After giving one last deep bow, he shut the door, leaving the bewildered Cha Ming and a scowling Jun Xiezi alone inside.
The scowl turned into a smile the moment the door was shut. “Well, that went well.”
“That’s an interesting way to make a painting,” Cha Ming said. “Most people try to flesh out what they’ve experienced, not stage the experience in the first place.”
“It’s interesting to capture the lives of others as they are changing,” Jun Xiezi said. “And some people need a bit of a push. Like writing a book, painting is a way to live a second life. Your own experience isn’t the only valid one.”
As Cha Ming stewed on this thought, Jun Xiezi made tea. They drank and chatted for the remainder of the evening. When they stopped, the sun was rising above the Redwood Forest. Soft streaks of yellow light peeked through the cluttered branches that loomed above them.
“I think it’s about time I went,” Cha Ming said. “I have an old friend to visit, and by my count, I haven’t seen his face in over a hundred and twenty years.”
“Go on ahead,” Jun Xiezi said, nodding. “I’ll stay here for a few more days and head back to Quicksilver. Heavens know when I’ll finally be able to retire.”
Cha Ming chuckled. The man was always talking about retiring, but it was obvious to everyone that he enjoyed his work. “Good luck with your paintings,” Cha Ming said, clasping the man’s hand.
“Good luck with life,” Jun Xiezi replied. They shook hands, and Cha Ming left the treetop village by flying through the canopy above it. A multitude of birds flew out around him as he entered misty skies still red with the rising sun. He heard a yip in the distance. Huxian appeared along with a frog, a mouse, a bird, and a purple mist. The mist was bunched up like a tiny purple pyramid.
“It took you long enough,” Huxian said. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Huxian and his friends hadn’t been able to cross the demon-repelling barrier—at least, not without destroying it. Therefore, they’d decided to play in the redwoods and bully the local wildlife.
Cha Ming shook his head. “The essence of living is difficult to capture. I doubt I’ll find it by staying here.”
“Then where to next?” Huxian asked.
“Next?” Cha Ming said. “Next, we live. Let’s find Wang Jun. It’s high time I pay back the favor I owe him.”
At Huxian’s signal, Silverwing transformed into a large, 330-foot falcon. They hopped onto his back and flew east toward the capital of the Golden Kingdom, Gold Leaf City.
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