The journey to Gold Leaf City proved uneventful. Cha Ming and Huxian walked through the city gates, where they were welcomed by the head of the city guard. To their surprise, the man was a peak-core-formation cultivator. The nervous man took great care in explaining the rules of the city.

After assuring the man that they wouldn’t cause any trouble, they proceeded to the city’s bustling streets. Gold Leaf City was the most prosperous place on the continent, as evidenced by both its architecture and the people inhabiting it. They saw very few non-cultivators as they walked through the compact yet large city. The vital underclass remained mostly hidden, relegated to slums kept far away from busier streets.

They really like ostentation, Huxian said as he admired a particularly dazzling storefront. Delicious and decadent ostentation.

The building resembled a local fruit-based dessert, and the runes on its walls could literally be smelled and tasted. There were many buildings like it competing for the precious attention of the masses. Every street-facing structure was covered in runes that both enhanced their beauty and drew uncertain eyes.

The entire spectacle was overwhelming even to them. They rushed past it all, making their way to Gold Leaf Square. Unlike other cities, the central square was designed more like a park than anything else. Families led their children through the carefully tended rows of gold-leafed trees while spirit arborists tended to the flowers that grew beside them. Only four buildings stood tall in the square: the Jade Bamboo Pavilion, the Greenwind Pavilion, the Red Dust Pavilion, and the Spirit Temple.

“What a peculiar square,” Cha Ming thought out loud, stopping in front of a tree and admiring a beautiful golden leaf that was about to fall off. Most central squares would be hubs of commercial activity. Gold Leaf City, the commercial hub of the continent, had instead relegated it to a public attraction.

How so? Huxian asked. Seems symmetrical. And the plants here are all very tasty. I’d eat them if it wasn’t against the rules, and if that pesky cultivator wasn’t hiding behind that tree over there.

“It’s peculiar because of who’s in charge in the kingdom,” Cha Ming explained. “The Golden Kingdom is officially ruled by the Jin royal family. It’s a monarchy that draws its divine mandate from the Church of Justice. That they would allow a thorn like the Spirit Temple to exist here is curious. What’s also curious is that they aren’t located in Central Square with these other four powerhouses. If I were the Church, I’d want the cathedral on the continent in one of these four spaces, if not directly in the center.

“It’s largely symbolic,” a familiar voice said from behind them. “They keep their church to the north, and their reasoning is that faith should be kept separate from money. A doctrine the Spirit Temple obviously doesn’t subscribe to.” A figure they both knew all too well walked out of the shadows.

“Wang Jun,” Cha Ming said, grinning. He gave his friend a tight hug. Huxian ran up to him and hopped onto his shoulder, licking his cheek. Wang Jun laughed and pet his small head. The man had changed substantially since last time they’d met. He looked harder, more practical than before—something Cha Ming hadn’t considered possible. Moreover, his cultivation had increased by leaps and bounds. He was now a half-step transcendent, just a sliver away from carving his core. “I see your advancement is as quick as ever. If only I were so talented.”

“Nonsense, my friend,” Wang Jun said. “You’re much stronger than I am as it is now. I wouldn’t stand a chance fighting against you. If you could catch me, that is.”

“I could catch you,” Huxian said.

“I don’t doubt you could,” Wang Jun affirmed, chuckling. He scratched the back of the little fox’s ears as he looked back to Cha Ming. “It seems my estimate on how long you’d be gone for was off. You’re getting old, Cha Ming. I didn’t give you nearly enough tea.

“Look who’s talking,” Cha Ming said, picking a lock of white hair from Wang Jun’s long blond hair. There were many more than before. “You’re right, I ran out of good tea decades ago. Fortunately, Jin Huang invented Strongman Coffee, so all is well in the world.”

“Bah,” Wang Jun said. “Coffee is just a passing trend, a trend I’m happy to ride out until it stops making me money. Tea is integral of the Ling Nan Plane’s culture. And I insist we have tea after such a long time apart. Follow me. I know the perfect place.”

Wang Jun began walking, not toward the Jade Bamboo Pavilion like Cha Ming had expected, but toward the red building in an adjacent corner of Gold Leaf Square.

“Wang Jun, I never took you for the type,” Cha Ming said as they entered the red-and-gold establishment. They were greeted by two women in red, who bowed as they entered. Wang Jun thanked the “mistresses” on their way in.

“Young Master Jun,” a voice said. “I didn’t expect to see you today. With an important guest no less.”

“Mistress Bai Ling,” Wang Jun said, greeting the newcomer. The pretty lady in red had a competitive look about her. “Cha Ming, Bai Ling is the best Angels and Devils player I’ve ever met. You’d do well to learn from her.”

“Nonsense,” Bai Ling said, only giving a token protest to hide her pleasure at the mention. “You’ve never lost a game, though you’ve tried very hard. And you,” she said, looking to Cha Ming, “must be the illustrious transcendent elder from Haijing City, Cha Ming.”

“I’m surprised you’ve heard of me,” Cha Ming said. “I just left Haijing a couple weeks ago.”

“We’re in the business of knowing,” Bai Ling replied with a sweet smile. “What will you be needing today, Young Master Jun? I would offer entertainment in the form of a game, but I feel you’re looking for a private place to catch up.”

“The headmistress?” Wang Jun asked.

“Indisposed,” Bai Ling said, pursing her lips slightly. “While she’s more than happy to meet with you privately, she’s not willing to meet strangers.” There was an awkwardness to the exchange Cha Ming couldn’t put his finger to.

“Unfortunate,” Wang Jun said, the frown on his brow disappearing as quickly as it came. “I’d like a private room for the both of us. Many vegetable dishes, many large meat dishes for the fox, and your best tea. Do you have someone who could play the zither for entertainment? Someone trustworthy?”

“Mistress Huang happens to be available,” Bai Ling said. “She is the most discreet of our members.”

“Thank you,” Wang Jun said.

They walked down a hallway with red carpets and gold runic gilding on the walls. There were also paintings, several of which Cha Ming recognized.

“It’s impressive that the Red Dust Pavilion was able to commission so many of Brother Jun’s works,” Cha Ming said, admiring the set they had on display. “He’s very selective with his customers.”

“Ah, those,” Bai Ling said. “He painted them for the Red Dust Mistress from two generations ago. He was a young budding artist back then. Hong Yinyue saw potential in him, so she did her best to secure a few paintings. Though they aren’t his best works, the passion contained in these paintings doesn’t miss out to his masterpieces. Not many people get to brag about being a fan of someone before they become famous.”

They soon arrived at a door in the hallway. Bai Ling slipped her hand across a strip of runic symbols, and something within the door clicked. She slid it open and led them to a table that would normally seat eight. It stood right before a small stage.

“I assume that the demon accompanying you suffers from the usual demonic food lust,” Bai Ling said.

“Doubly so,” Cha Ming replied.

“Then we’ll make sure he’s adequately fed,” Bai Ling said.

“Much obliged,” Cha Ming replied as she excused herself. They took a seat, and by the time Wang Jun had brewed the first pot of tea, the first dishes arrived. Mistress Huang also arrived alongside them. She pulled out a gold-and-red zither and began playing a relaxing tune. The music had a calming effect on his soul despite its transcendent nature. “Good music.”

“The musicians of the Red Dust Pavilion are the best in the city,” Wang Jun said. “That’s one of the reasons I brought you here.”

“The other is to avoid your family,” Cha Ming said.

“You guessed right,” Wang Jun said. “Things have never been more tense between my family and me. You see, we’re competing financially, and I’m winning. Unfortunately, it’s going to take far more to convince them I’m the right man for the job.” He motioned to the cooling cup in front of Cha Ming. “Please, drink. This tea is rather special. It’s a very difficult tea to obtain here in the North. It’s from a place called the Shattered Lands, located in one of the few wealthy kingdoms in the South, the Ji Kingdom.”

Cha Ming took a sip. “Metallic,” he said, letting the tea roll around on his tongue. “And earthy.”

“Right,” Wang Jun said. “The Shattered Lands contain the single most concentrated ore deposit on the continent, though it’s very difficult to extract due to an ancient curse. Anything that grows near there and survives absorbs some of its metallic aura, giving it a unique flavor.”

“It’s good tea,” Cha Ming said. He ate a few pieces of a strange green vegetable with a spiraling stalk and enjoyed its pungent flavor. “I take it your information network has kept you up to date on my activities?”

“Most of them,” Wang Jun said. “Everything from when you came back to Quicksilver, your trip to Haijing, and the rest. I don’t know anything about what happened on the Bridge of Stars. Care to talk about it? It must have been an exciting journey.”

Cha Ming’s eyes dimmed somewhat at the mention.

“Ah. Never mind Jade Moon Planet. It’s not important.”

“What’s there to say?” Cha Ming said with a sigh. “I found a way to heal my core, but the price was too great. I met the love of my life there, Wang Jun. And I lost her.” An awkward silence ensued, and they ate away at their dishes as memories flitted through Cha Ming’s mind.

The rollercoaster of emotions he expected didn’t come, however. Instead, every memory that came and went seemed to give him a sense of closure and resolution.

He soon realized the memories came to his mind at a certain rate and rhythm, and that rhythm was the same as the music they listened to. One section, one memory. Minutes passed, but to Cha Ming, they felt like a relaxing eternity. The music didn’t stop until he’d gone through each key memory, and though they weren’t any more distant, he felt more comfortable with them.

“Did you find her?” he asked, finally dragging himself out of the musical trance.

Wang Jun took a sip of tea. “No, I didn’t. I did everything I could to find her, but as far as I can tell, Hong Xin no longer exists on this plane.”

Cha Ming sighed. “A pity,” he said. “She was such a fragile thing, with such a caring family. I don’t think I can muster the courage to see them anymore, seeing as how I’ve failed them.”

Wang Jun shook his head. “It’s not your failing; it’s mine.”

“It’s both our failings,” Cha Ming said. “Now, tell me about your problems, Wang Jun. Tell me what I can finally do for you. I don’t have long left here. Once this most recent war with the South is over, I’ll transcend to a higher plane of existence. It’s a long road to immortality, and I can’t afford to wait too long.”

“Sprinting when the race is a marathon, I see,” Wang Jun said. He took another sip of his tea. “All right. Let me lay it out for you.” He snapped his fingers inaudibly, and the shadows in the room moved as he willed and formed two figures. Though these weren’t illuminated, the depth of the shadows allowed Cha Ming to see their details in the darkness. “The one on the left is my brother Wang Ling. Like I told you before, he killed my younger sister, Wang Hua. The one on the right is the patriarch of the Wang family, Wang Wuling.”

He summoned a third shadow behind them. “The third figure is Grand Elder Wang. He’s the family’s transcendent, the core pillar of our family. He isn’t very active in our affairs, and mostly lets his will be known through Wuling.”

Cha Ming took in a deep breath. “And you still want me to kill your brother? Is that still necessary?”

Mistress Huang, who’d been calmly playing the zither, missed a beat in her song. Cha Ming raised an eyebrow to Wang Jun, who reassured him it was all right. Cha Ming shrugged. For the most part, he wasn’t worried about a single transcendent trying to act out against him.

“If only that was all it took,” Wang Jun said with a light laugh of exasperation. “My family’s problems run much deeper than a single person. These three people, the heads of our family, are currently entangled in dark business with the South.”

“How dark are we talking?” Cha Ming asked.

“Have you heard of the soul trade?” Wang Jun asked.

“I can’t say I’ve heard of it,” Cha Ming said. “Though I don’t like where this is heading.”

“The Spirit Temple doesn’t usually do this kind of business in the North,” Wang Jun explained. “So your ignorance is not surprising. In theory, they’re even stricter in the Golden Kingdom. The process of extracting a soul is quite gruesome, so I’ll skip those details. The end result, however, is that they capture tens of thousands of resentful souls. They do this by inflicting unspeakable horror on innocents then capturing their spirits before they enter the Yellow River. They use them to feed other evil spirits in the Spirit Temple, or they make them devour each other in competition, like gu in a jar. The winner becomes a proud member of the Spirit Temple, and the losers are wiped out from existence, never to reincarnate.”

The chair in which Cha Ming had been sitting cracked as he accidentally crushed the wooden armrest. He looked to Mistress Huang in apology but realized the wood was enchanted. It slowly began repairing itself without any outside intervention.

“That’s atrocious,” Cha Ming said hoarsely. “And the Church of Justice is fine with it?”

“Officially, they don’t do it in the North and focus on their soul communion and assassination businesses,” Wang Jun said. “Their contract business isn’t very popular in the North since the Church of Justice officiates most documents here. The Spirit Temple does a damn good job of convincing the Church of Justice they don’t trade in souls in the North, so they’re left alone.

“Regardless, they’ve been culling souls in secret over the past ten years. Wang Ling has been facilitating shipments for tens of thousands of souls. I’d love to expose him, but my entire family would get caught up in an inquisition. I’m in a very delicate position, and the Church of Justice isn’t exactly on good terms with me.”

“Then what can I do for you?” Cha Ming said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a better formation artist, talisman artist, or alchemist on the plane.”

“If making money was all it took,” Wang Jun said, “I’d have already solved the problem.”

Cha Ming nodded. “Not only do you need to win this competition, but you need to disentangle your family and the Spirit Temple.”

“And I’d prefer to do it without a mass slaughter,” Wang Jun said. “I can definitely identify those responsible—and trust me, I’ll be doing my best to give them an untimely ending—but that’s not enough. I need the Spirit Temple to be enemies with my family. Only with open hostilities between our two organizations will the Church of Justice be convinced of our sincerity after this is all over.”

“Can’t I just destroy the Spirit Temple in Gold Leaf City?” Cha Ming asked. “I doubt their transcendents could do much about it. Besides, we’re in the North.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Wang Jun said in bemusement. “You and Huxian wouldn’t be at risk. Neither would I. You have a transcendent soul, so you’d be immune to most of their attacks, while Huxian is a Godbeast. I could hide indefinitely from them. But tell me, what about the people we know? Our roots? It wouldn’t take much for them to find out where you’ve been, where you’re from, and who you know. They’re assassins, Cha Ming, and there’s a good reason the Church of Justice hasn’t uprooted them. More to the point, you’d have trouble seeing most of them. Your strong soul will help, but many would still escape your detection.”

Cha Ming clicked his tongue. “That’s quite the problem.”

“Yes, and it’s not one that can be solved in Gold Leaf City,” Wang Jun said. “Which is why I want you to go south of the border.”

“Wait, what?” Cha Ming said. He’d expected something in their area of influence. But in the South? How could he possibly do anything there undetected?

“We have an unofficial family branch in the Shattered Lands,” Wang Jun explained. “It’s run by my brother Wang Qian and makes him quite a bit of illicit money.”

“So, instead of destroying your family’s relationship in the North, you want to do it in the South,” Cha Ming said slowly. “I’m not sure I’m the right man for the job.”

“Oh, I think you’re exactly the man I’m looking for,” Wang Jun said. “My teacher spoke quite favorably of the technique you practice, the Seventy-Two Earthly Transformations. It seems a monkey used it to cause quite a bit of chaos in the Seven Heavens and the Seven Hells.”

He’s right, Sun Wukong sent from within the Clear Sky World. If you want to hide, I can teach you. I’m the best at hiding.

Except for your tail, Cha Ming muttered.

Wait, how did you know that? Sun Wukong said. He coughed in embarrassment. I fixed that problem aeons ago. It won’t be an issue.

“I take it you have a plan?” Cha Ming asked Wang Jun.

“Yes, as a matter a fact, I do,” Wang Jun said. “I don’t know who exactly is working there, as many people are running interference, but I have it on good authority that our family is helping the South develop a special weapon in the Shattered Lands. I want you to pose as a spiritual blacksmith and somehow enter our Wang family. Then, I want you to use this identity to sow conflict and discord between our family and the various factions in Bastion, the capital city of the Ji Kingdom.”

He summoned a black folder and placed it in front of Cha Ming. Cha Ming perused its contents, then summoned Grandmist flames to annihilate the papers after memorizing them.

“All right, I’ll do it,” Cha Ming said. Then he noticed something in the information he’d just read. “The most concentrated source of gold energy on the plane? High possibility of forming Gold Source Marrow?”

“You’re welcome,” Wang Jun said. “You can look for the Gold Source Marrow while sowing chaos in the South. Besides, I heard that whatever they’re building, it’s Zhou Li’s pet project. He cares a lot about its success.”

“Then I can’t let it go as planned,” Cha Ming said. He held up his cup of tea. “To our success.”

“To our success,” Wang Jun said. They clinked cups and drank. “Now, let’s stop talking business. Let’s talk about life, adventure, and the future.”

They switched to wine, and the rest of the evening was a blur.


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