SHIFTING TIDES

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CHAPTER 1: TRUE NORTH COUNTRY

Cha Ming and his four disciples looked around in marvel as they entered Beihai City, the largest coastal city in True North Country. They saw boats entering and exiting the busy harbor in the distance, their sharp eyes aiding them in rendering it in the finest detail. The buildings in the old city had a rustic charm to them; their stone construction and the salty air reminded Cha Ming that he’d yet to see an ocean in this lifetime.

“Where’s Mermaid’s Place?” Huxian asked eagerly as he jumped onto his older brother’s shoulder.

Cha Ming scratched him between the ears and smiled.

“It should be near the western docks,” Cha Ming answered. “Coffee first?”

“Coffee,” Huxian said. It was another life and another time, but somehow, the beverage had found its way into this world as well. They entered a crowded building where people discussed both business and their daily lives. Most of them were mortals. Despite this fact, their group of four cultivators and a demon drew little attention as they made their way to a bar staffed by moderately attractive women who made coffee while desperate men ogled them.

“My friends and I will each have a large cup of… True North Blend,” Cha Ming said. The name was purely coincidental. As it were, True North Country resembled Cha Ming’s Earth home in many ways. For one, it was colder than all other human-inhabited territories. For another, it was the only democracy on the continent. Like that would last.

“Do you mean a dabei or a chao dabei?” the lady asked. She wore the innocent smile of someone who’d completely given in to her corporate overlords.

“Chao dabei,” Cha Ming said, massaging his brow. Whether it was corporate culture or strict branding regulations, some things never changed.

Soon enough, they sat on a balcony enjoying their steaming hot beverages. The scent of rotting fish was thick in the air, but as a body cultivator, Cha Ming dulled himself to these external smells. He reserved his senses for sip after sip of blessed coffee, enjoying the dark but slightly bitter taste as it danced around his tongue.

“This is life,” Cha Ming said to the others.

Unlike him, they weren’t taking kindly to the stimulating beverage. Some of them had even polluted their drinks with milk, sugar, and flavoring. A travesty if he’d ever seen one.

“I’d wager I could make something with a similar taste, if a little more potent,” Jin Huang said, smacking his lips in appreciation. “A thousandfold increase in strength might do the trick.”

Cha Ming’s eyes lit up. He took the young man by the shoulders and spoke sternly. “I knew when I first laid eyes on you that you’d be my favorite disciple.”

The others groaned. Noticing that his abrupt movements had surprised other patrons, Cha Ming sat back down and continued to drink. As he did, he pondered his disciples’ paths and how he might help them. His way of thinking had changed during his journey to Jade Moon Planet. The ten years he and Huxian had spent there made him much more suitable to guiding them compared to who he was before he left. As a late-marrow-refining cultivator and a middle-core-formation cultivator, only transcendents could bully him now. As for Huxian and his friends, well, they were only middle-core-formation demon beasts, but he wasn’t the least bit confident about taking them on as a team. All of them had power in spades now.

Power. It’s something we gained in our ten years on Jade Moon Planet, Cha Ming thought. We got techniques, alchemical manuals, and even an entire herb garden.

But he’d give it all up in a heartbeat for one more day with Yu Wen. Now he only had one chance at seeing her again: finding her in the cycle of reincarnation and restoring her memories. And for that, he’d need to become an immortal. His sights were set on the higher realms now, conveniently aligning with Huxian’s ambitious goal of savoring everything in the universe.

Older brother? Huxian asked, jumping on his shoulder and breaking him from his reverie.

Yes, Huxian? Cha Ming asked. He took another sip of dark coffee.

There’s something interesting going on just outside our building, Huxian said. I think it deserves a second look.

I noticed a short while ago, Cha Ming said, focusing on the blip in his intangible field of transcendent force. A teenage girl, surprisingly strong for her tender age, was running away from two men. She had a large lead on them and would soon escape their pursuit.

Is there something I’m missing? Cha Ming asked. Huxian wouldn’t bring it up if it were trivial.

Embrace my shadow qi, Huxian said.

Cha Ming obliged. The world changed as black and white inverted, and a completely different scene appeared. In the shadows, he saw people appearing and disappearing as they entered the dark world for seconds at a time. There were also the usual creatures of shadow that were born one moment and died the next. He ignored these and focused on the area near the girl, where he now saw several dozen deadly pursuers. They didn’t exit the shadows but clung to them with purpose.

“I need to go,” Cha Ming said to his startled disciples.

He and Huxian jumped off the balcony and onto the street below. Vendors and mortals shouted in indignation as he zipped past them. He soon reached the two men chasing the girl in the open. They were normal thugs, nothing more, so he gently tapped their skulls and sent them tumbling to the side of the road, unconscious. He then appeared next to the girl, who looked at him in alarm.

“Who are you?” the girl asked, clutching her right hand warily. He saw it flash as she retrieved something from her storage device.

“A friend,” Cha Ming said gently. “Are you aware that there are forty men trailing you in the shadows as we speak, all of them armed and dangerous?”

Her eyes narrowed. Before she got a chance to reply, Huxian yelled out in warning. Incoming!

Explosions of blades, flames, ice, and gold erupted from the shadows. Cha Ming summoned a barrier of sigils and blocked the bulk of these techniques, picking up the surprised girl as he did. She might be strong for her age—a middle-bone-forging cultivator—but she was nothing compared to these men. His body tanked damage from several blades, healing instantly from the shallow cuts and lacerations. Cha Ming summoned his Clear Sky Staff, then, seeing the nearby vendor stalls, chose to block an incoming blow rather than kill the assailant.

It’s a little hard to fight back against them, Cha Ming said. Can you take them out without destroying the city? He was, after all, responsible for all damage both he and Huxian inflicted.

On it! Huxian said. He entered the shadows, and all around them, puddles of blood appeared out of nowhere.

Do you have any parents or guardians I could take you to? Cha Ming sent, clutching the girl closely.

I have two guardians near Central Square, the girl sent back, shivering in his tight embrace. Fire came out of nowhere, and Cha Ming summoned a shield of qi to protect them. He reached out into the shadows and plucked out a cultivator by the throat. The surprised assassin transformed, his skin instantly transforming to the purest gold.

“Wrong move,” Cha Ming said. His eyes turned pale jade as he poured Devil-Sealing intent into his fist and crushed the devil’s throat. It howled as it became gold shavings that littered the city streets. Civilians and cultivators alike screamed to get out of the way as a burst of fire erupted around them. Cha Ming summoned two icy formations, one for them and one for their audience. The strain was ultimately too much for their own shield, so he expanded his qi to surround the girl with a protective bubble.

Huxian appeared beside them, his maw covered in blood.

“Was that all of them?” Cha Ming asked.

The small fox nodded.

He loosened his grip on the girl, but just as she left his embrace, Cha Ming felt a burst of power and a glint in the distance. It shot toward her at lightning speed. He threw up three hasty combat formations, but what looked like a small golden pin pierced through them all in an instant. He threw up his qi shields to block for her, but it was too little too late—the pin pierced her in the chest, knocking her backward and into his arms.

“Get him, Huxian!” Cha Ming growled. He lay her down on the ground and realized there wasn’t any blood. A quick inspection confirmed what saved her: a golden medallion with mystical blue runes nestled behind her clothes. “It’s better to be lucky than good,” he muttered.

His eyes flickered as two powerful presences appeared. To his surprise, they were both peak-marrow-refining cultivators. He doubted there were more than a handful of these on the continent.

“Unhand her,” the man said calmly. “If you release her now, we’ll grant you a swift death and won’t hunt down your entire family.”

“I think there’s a misunderstanding,” Cha Ming said with a raised eyebrow. But before he could react, the man appeared behind him and put a sword at his throat. The woman slipped in front of him and carried the girl off to the side.

“Any last words, savage?” the man said.

Cha Ming shrugged. “Do you really think an assassin would kill his own men?”

The man paused. He looked around and noticed pools of blood in the surrounding blocks, along with puddles of water and heaps of gold. Vicious, poison-coated weapons littered the streets around them.

“I suppose not,” the man finally said, pulling back his blade. He walked over to the girl, who’d just woken up. She was coughing and rubbing the spot where the pin had struck her medallion.

“Thank you,” the girl said, looking up at Cha Ming. “Thank you for saving my life.”

It was only now that Cha Ming noticed how strange she and her guardians were. Her hair was long and white, and her skin was a slightly blue shade of white that was covered in blue-and-gold runes; it was completely at odds with the normal clothes she wore. She looked fourteen, fifteen at most. Her guardians, unlike her, did not sport any runes on their skin. They did, however, have strange white hair that seemed to float about, despite the absence of wind.

“Haijing thanks you for your assistance,” said the woman. “My name is Gong Rufeng.”

“And my name is Gong Su,” the man said.

To Cha Ming’s surprise, the two mighty cultivators bowed at him with arms raised and fists clasped. “We thank you for saving our young mistress.”

“It was no problem,” Cha Ming said. He looked to Huxian, who’d just come back with a man in tow. He threw the late-core-formation cultivator to the ground. Cha Ming moved in to interrogate the man but noticed he was already dead.

“Poison,” Huxian said. “Ate it when he knew he was caught. I hate eating poison, so I brought his body back.”

“An assassination attempt that could have been avoided,” the man said with a scolding tone to the teenage girl. “If only you’d stayed by our side. Have you learned your lesson, young lady?”

The girl, who’d somehow grown a little paler, nodded. “I’ll stay beside you from now on.” She then looked to Cha Ming. “I’m not sure what I can give you in payment.”

“No payment required,” Cha Ming said. “It was my pleasure.”

“Nonsense,” the girl said. “I, Gong Shuren, owe karma. Karma is something Haijing cannot owe, so I must somehow repay you.” She thought for a moment, then her expression lit up. She reached around her neck and pulled out the blue-and-gold medallion.”

“You mustn’t!” Gong Su said.

“I must,” Gong Shuren said, berating her guardian with her gaze. “And this as well.” She pulled out a blue-gold disc, and within it, Cha Ming could see a swirl of something intangible. Huxian stopped him as he moved to refuse her.

That disc contains the essence of time, Huxian said. Accept it!

“Thank you,” Cha Ming said, taking the disc but leaving the medallion. It was clearly very precious. He closed her hand around it. “No need to give us any precious treasures. My friend here says this disc is extremely valuable. It will do. You owe us nothing.”

“But—” she started.

“No buts,” Cha Ming said. He clasped his hands and bowed to the two cultivators. “I’d better get going. Do be careful as you travel. Those assassins weren’t normal cultivators but devil cultivators. They’re more dangerous than they seem, and the lives of others are meaningless in their eyes.”

Seeing Gong Su’s grave nod, Cha Ming rushed back to his disciples, who’d been waiting anxiously in the café. They were greeted by angry guardsmen and a civilian police officer.

***

Well, that could have gone better, Huxian grumbled as they walked out of the guard office.

“How so?” Cha Ming said. “They just want us to leave within twenty-four hours and ban us for a year. I think it’s reasonable, given how many things we wrecked.”

But it’s their fault for letting assassins into the city to attack people! Huxian exclaimed.

“They frankly don’t care what people do, as long as they don’t commit crimes and destroy buildings,” Cha Ming said. “Though self-defense is allowed, collateral damage is not.”

It’s so unfair, Huxian said.

All four of his disciples rose as they exited the prison.

“Master, we missed our appointment with Lan Xue,” Yue Bing said. The woman, who used to be a gentle spirit doctor, now wore red robes. Her temperament had changed drastically since he’d left for Jade Moon Planet.

“Yes,” Cha Ming said, “I heard he’s a little eccentric. I hope he’s still willing to take us.”

They walked down several roads until they reached a poorer area of town. The buildings there were dirty and worn, and they wondered if they were in the right place. They soon discovered the place they were looking for: The Deep Sea Emporium.

The Deep Sea Emporium was, admittedly, a bit of a dump. Scattered, disorganized treasures littered the shelves, and a man was sleeping at the counter. He seemed to be dreaming. Cha Ming felt a tingling sensation as he walked across an invisible boundary. He frowned and repelled the invading dream, while Huxian ate it. All his disciples but Zi Long suddenly crumpled to the ground as they were dragged into a dream.

“It’ll do them some good to suffer a mental technique, especially a non-offensive one,” Zi Long said, shrugging.

“My thoughts exactly,” Cha Ming replied. “You’ve learned a few extra tricks. Illusionist, right?”

“Something like that,” Zi Long said. “I’m now a heart-force cultivator, majoring in illusions. It might seem like a small distinction, but it makes a world of difference.”

“I’ll bet,” Cha Ming said. Through his transcendent soul, he could see a violet hue staining his disciple’s soul. A spirit resided there as well, much like Sun Wukong resided in his own Clear Sky Brush. It didn’t seem malevolent, so he left it alone.

Yue Bing’s eyes snapped open first, followed by Jin Huang’s. Ling Dong came last, and he awoke with bestial fury. Cha Ming appeared beside him and placed his powerful hand on his shoulder, holding him down to prevent any misunderstandings. They might not know how powerful the sleeping man was, but he did.

“Let him at me if he wants,” grumbled the man, who’d clearly been feigning sleep. He yawned and stretched out his arms. “I could use a warmup.”

“As much as I care about their education, Lan Xuan, a peak-core-formation cultivator bullying juniors isn’t exactly educational,” Cha Ming said.

Ling Dong’s eyes widened as he realized the mistake he’d almost committed.

Lan Xuan grinned. “You’re too soft on them, Cha Ming.”

“I feel people learn best by example,” Cha Ming said. “Why don’t you tussle with Huxian? It seems dreams make for good eating.”

The black-and-white fox was salivating, almost begging the man to oblige.

Lan Xuan grunted. He walked over to a desk and pulled out a piece of pure white paper with blue lines. Beihai City was a single dot at the edge of the ocean, and Haijing City was a bright golden dot in the center of it. The two points were separated by a gap ten times wider than the plane’s single continent. He handed white discs to each of them. Unlike normal compasses, they contained two needles, one blue and one gold.

“The gold needle points to Beihai City, while the blue one points to Haijing City,” Lan Xuan said. “If any of you get lost, you only need to follow the needle along the sea floor or the surface, and you’ll find your way back to Beihai. The pressure near Haijing is intense, even for peak-core-formation cultivators, so I don’t recommend heading back there.”

Cha Ming nodded. “Do we need anything else?”

“City passes,” Lan Xuan said. He held out blue tokens with gold writing to each of them. “Haijing issues a limited quantity every decade, and they’re expensive. Don’t lose them.”

“Not a problem,” Cha Ming said.

“Everyone should get some sleep,” Lan Xuan said. “The darkness down there can be unbearable. I want everyone in good mental shape before we go down. Understood?”

“Yes, sir!” everyone said.

“Great,” Lan Xuan said. Then, to Cha Ming’s surprise, the man snapped his fingers. Everyone but he and Huxian fell asleep.

Cha Ming chuckled. “Saves on hotel rooms, I guess.”

He found an empty room. Then, instead of sleeping, he summoned a gray portal and entered the Clear Sky World.

***

“Took you long enough,” a gruff voice said as Cha Ming entered Jade Moon Garden, the single landmass floating within the Clear Sky World. He looked toward a nearby mountain and appeared beside a tall red-bearded man holding a large stone staff. Now that his soul was healed, Sun Wukong sported a furry red monkey tail as well.

“My apologies for keeping you waiting, Teacher Sun,” Cha Ming said.

Sun Wukong grunted. “It’s not as lonely here as it used to be. The fish and the nymphs taking care of the garden are pleasant company. Especially the nymphs if I look past their dreadful, soul-sucking habits.”

Cha Ming cleared his throat. “What’s next on the agenda?”

“So impatient,” Sun Wukong said. “So hardworking.” He lifted his hand, and a cauldron appeared. “Today, we’re going to learn about fire.”

“Again?” Cha Ming groaned. It was his least-favorite subject.

“You have your strengths, and fire isn’t one of them,” Sun Wukong said. “You might cultivate five elements, but your proficiency in each isn’t balanced. You’re going to have to work ten times as hard as anyone else to be an alchemist, and the only reason you have half a chance is because of your absurdly strong soul.”

Cha Ming closed his eyes. “What will it be this time?” he asked, accepting his fate.

Sun Wukong grinned. “You’re finally accepting your place. Great! To celebrate, I’ve thought up an extrafun activity.”

He closed his fist, and Cha Ming disappeared and reappeared inside the cauldron. Sun Wukong’s voice came from all directions. “Evade the flames for as long as possible.”

Ten flames appeared in five different colors. “You’re to evade them while keeping five different flames summoned and circulating, as I taught you.”

Cha Ming gulped. After all, unlike before, he was here in the flesh; whatever had brought Jade Moon Garden into his Clear Sky World had changed the Clear Sky World on a fundamental level.

He summoned five different alchemical flames, one for each of the five elements. The blue flame controlled flow while the red one controlled temperature. The brown flame separated while the golden one lacerated. Finally, the green one gave life. He circulated all five of them along a complex runic pattern he didn’t understand, using over nine-tenths of his transcendent force to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the ten flames in the cauldron danced. He used his remaining soul force as a sort of peripheral vision, twisting and turning to avoid them as they attacked. Before long, he made a mistake; his soul projection suffered a minor burn.

As time passed, the drill gradually became easier. When he finally managed to control his flames and resist the attacks, ten more flames appeared for a total of twenty. Then, when he bested twenty, ten more appeared. Their training session ended after ten hours. Cha Ming’s body and soul were scorched, but he had to admit that his gains were noticeable.

He appeared as a collapsed heap outside the cauldron, where a flurry of rainbow fish appeared to greet him. The smallest among them was grinning ear to ear. “Cha Ming! Cha Ming! Do you want to play a game?”

He smiled sadly. “Sure, what game would you like to play?”

“Chicks and eagles,” the fish said. “You make a great eagle, and it’s so difficult to run away.”

Memories of playing the same game with Yu Wen surfaced in his heart, and the warmth eased the pain of the burns he’d just suffered.

“Sure,” Cha Ming said. He looked to Sun Wukong. “Are you game as well?”

The Monkey King snorted. “I’ll be in my cave. Go ahead and play your childish games.”

The game soon started, and for thirty brief minutes, Cha Ming knew peace. Then, he woke.



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