CLEAR SKY

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PROLOGUE

Fate is a funny thing. It plays with people and pulls them around. It makes people love, and it makes people cry. Most people can’t even see the tiny strings that pull them in one direction or another; they just go with the flow, following the path of least resistance and living out their lives. Other people submit to their fate; these people seek divine guidance from above and ask their savior to teach them the way. This isn’t a bad thing. For most people, this is a relief from a world overcrowded with too many choices.

Du Cha Ming was neither of these people. He used to think it was his nature to go with the flow. “Become an engineer,” people said. “You’re good at math and bad at English.”

It was true, his writing skills in high school were mediocre, and his handwriting was atrocious. But there was something about grinding away at a few equations or solving a science problem that satisfied a craving deep inside.

This type of craving was the same with puzzles—like Sudoku and Ken-Ken—and all types of board games, strategy games, and computer games. Games were nice that way. Except in some extreme cases where friends forced you to play something unpleasant, for the most part you got to choose what to play. There were rules, most certainly, but these rules were something you walked into knowingly, unlike the monotonous experience called life.

As usual, Du Cha Ming was at work. With a glazed look in his eyes, he scrolled through his phone. Nowadays he mostly read Chinese web novels. The addictive style, the Chinese culture, the exciting main characters—all of these features appealed to him in a way that regular life never could.

Life… it’s so boring. You start with school for eighteen years, most of which has been decided for you. Then you pick a degree if you want to do well in life. Eventually you date someone for long enough and get married because it seems like the right thing to do. Perhaps you’ll stay together, but it’s more likely that you’ll get a divorce or two, leaving you jaded in work, romance, and basically everything else in life. What would it be like to chase your dreams? he wondered.

“Ming! Ming! Are you coming to see the solar eclipse?” Cha Ming’s eyes focused on the short, bearded man in front of him. The man had brown skin, a thick beard, glasses, and a modern hairstyle that had both sides of his head shaved and the top grown out and combed over. His name was Usama, and Usama was Cha Ming’s good friend. They’d been working for years together and would go out to have fun every now and then.

“I don’t want to,” Cha Ming muttered. “It’s just a solar eclipse, nothing special. They happen every decade or so.” He rubbed his tired eyes. They were tired from all the reading he did.

“Don’t be a party pooper,” Usama said. “Everyone else is already outside, and the eclipse is in three minutes.” He gave Cha Ming a look that hinted that he wasn’t going to move until he got up. He fought the urge to look back at his phone. It was hard to be so rude as to read when someone was standing in front of you.

“Fine,” Cha Ming said dispassionately. He grabbed his coat and followed his smirking friend outside. Usama pulled out a worn welding mask with a rather smug expression on his face.

“I, the great Usama, stole the mechanic’s welding mask so that we can all see the solar eclipse together. There’s no need to thank me; your cheerful smiles are all the thanks I need!”

Usama wasn’t exactly the humble type, but oddly enough, everyone seemed to like him, even if he did make over ten awkward jokes every single day.

“Gimme that,” said Geoff beside him, grabbing the welding mask. Geoff had a wry smile on his face and put the mask on, taking a quick look at the sun. Geoff was a short, burly man, seemingly more like a tank than anything else. After a quick look at the sun, he took off the welding mask and gave it back to Usama, then walked back into the building. A few more people took the mask politely, took a brief look, and then gave the mask back and stood there chatting.

“My dearest friend, have a turn,” said Usama, winking and giving the mask to Cha Ming. Cha Ming put the mask to his face and peered carefully toward the sun. A good three-quarters of the sun was blocked out by a black circle. A solar eclipse had come up a few times in his life, but he’d never bothered to take a look before. This time he was here purely out of peer pressure.

Just as he was about to take the mask off, he noticed there was a white star above the red sun.

Strange, he thought. It was the middle of the day, and even if this was a solar eclipse, there shouldn’t be such a bright star in the sky.

The “star” in question was growing quite quickly, rapidly covering the red sun in the sky. His hazel eyes narrowed as he quickly ripped off the mask. He was nearly blinded by the flash of white light. Cha Ming put his hand above his brow and squinted while peering silently toward the sun. The white flash was gone and nowhere in sight.

“Did you guys see that white light?” asked Cha Ming.

“What light? Are you seeing things again?” said Usama while smirking. Of course they hadn’t seen it. He had been the only one with the mask on.

“It’s nothing…” Cha Ming sighed. Time to go back to his boring work, and his boring life.

The rest of the day passed by uneventfully. Cha Ming drove home, steadily making his way through the congested rush-hour traffic. He stared at a conservatory in the distance, located in a park at the south end of the city, near the river. A white light reflected off the river near the woods, briefly blinding him for a moment before he shifted his gaze back to the road.

Today is a good day for a walk in the woods, he decided.

A couple of hours later, he was sweating profusely. The sweat was burning his eyes a little, so he decided to walk down toward the riverbank. This conservatory was very scenic and inviting. At least, it was during the few short months of summer. The weather was not hot enough to be unpleasant. Many types of terrain caught his attention—rocky, sandy, and earthy. Here and there a metallic glint or reddish hue could be seen on the clifflike riverbank. This land would likely become a mine if any of the companies around town had their way. Aspen trees, evergreens, and rose bushes littered the land as far as the eyes could see.

As he neared the stream by the cliff, Cha Ming noticed that the sun was getting rather low.

I should get back soon, he thought. Meanwhile, he noticed a white mist was starting to drift off the river; the temperature was beginning to cool along with the setting sun. Wiping down his face, he noticed a white gleam in the corner of his eye. The gleam seemed to be coming from behind the bank.

Curious, he decided to ignore the setting sun and edge his way along the narrow, rocky shore. The river current was getting slower, and a small waterfall could be heard in the distance. The mist from the waterfall was making Cha Ming’s clothes stick to his skin.

After a short while the narrow beach widened, and a white glowing mist seemed to linger on the sand and avoid the water.

Strange, he thought, mists usually gather on the water and travel outward.

He hesitated a little and slowly made his way toward the center of the mist. He felt drawn to the mists, drawn in a way that he hadn’t felt in a very long time. It was a similar experience to meeting a lifelong friend; at first you feel just a little bit nervous, but soon you find yourself easing into a conversation, and before you know it you’re spending every day together.

Upon reaching the center of the mist, he noticed an object only a few feet away from him, barely discernible through the mist. As soon as he could make it out, something seemed to pulse. Cha Ming’s eyes darted toward this pulsing, and what he saw was a long staff, buried in a small crater in the sand. The crater, unlike the nearby beach, was completely clear of sand, and the staff was wedged in cracked, rocky ground. The staff was translucent white with red, yellow, silver, blue, and green runes undulating along its length. It was a perfect cylinder, making Cha Ming wonder how someone could smooth out such a perfect shape.

Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the runes on the staff looked a lot like the Chinese characters that he had been struggling to learn recently. And the runes were pulsing in a way that made the staff seem like it was made just for him. After building up a bit of courage, Cha Ming inched closer to the runed staff. If he had to guess the length of it, he would have said it was seventy-two inches long. Looking closer, both ends were covered in five inches of inky-black patterns. These black patterns spiraled out toward the tip where the lines converged upon a flat obsidian surface.

“Why would such a beautiful staff be here?” Cha Ming wondered aloud to himself. As he breached an invisible boundary two feet away from it, he noticed that the multicolored runes were reacting to his presence, spelling out words he could vaguely understand. They were clearly not English. What sounded like the soft voice of a gentle old man whispered these words as they reverberated through his mind in a way that he intuitively understood.

The sages say the Dao made one and one made two;

Two made three and three made many.[1]

Who made this clear Sky?

Who painted first in black and white,

To shape these lonely mists?

Cha Ming reached out toward the staff with a confused look on his face. Reaching out to touch it seemed to make sense. This was his staff after all. He stood in front of it, gripping his hands around its cold surface. The surface was not slippery, but neither did it feel rough. It felt custom made, like it would never slip out of his hands for as long as he willed it. Cha Ming let out a loud grunt as he mustered all the strength he had to pull it out of the ground. His efforts persisted for a full two minutes, after which the staff finally gave way.

Looking closely at the staff, he finally realized that it was not truly a staff. At the end of the long handle was a twelve-inch-long black-and-white brush.

“Who painted first in black and white to shape these lonely mists?” he wondered softly. To him, it seemed like a question as old as the universe itself. As he pondered this question, the whole world seemed to fade. He was struck with a sense of foreboding, an inexplicable sensation that he only had moments left in this world, and his life was coming to an end.

Oh well, he thought, it was a boring life anyway. Who could have predicted that my curiosity would kill me? Still. If there is a next life, I want the ability to create my destiny and be free from the shackles of society. I want to choose my fate.

 With this last thought, his entire body, starting with his hands, then his arms, then his legs, and finally his whole body, turned ethereal. So did the brush. Everything faded into white, and soon the brush and Du Cha Ming were nothing more than a white mist floating off into the starry skies.

--

In the distance, an old fisherman was sitting cross-legged on a boat, wandering down a slowly flowing but mighty river. This was no ordinary river, nor was it an ordinary boat. The old man was not ordinary either. To most people he would appear to be an ordinary fisherman. But how could an ordinary fisherman be fishing in this river?

The river in question was the Yellow River[2], also known as the River Styx to some. This river flowed only one way, and that way was toward Diyu, the underworld of souls. After what seemed like an eternity, the old fisherman removed his conical hat and the hood of his cloak, revealing a mantle of long white hair. His strange black eyes had no whites, and anyone who dared to look him in the eye would be struck by the endless vicissitudes found within. The man’s name was Yama, and he had been around since the beginning of the universe itself. He was born with a duty, one assigned to him by Pangu at the time of his creation and Pangu’s demise.

Although Yama never involved himself with the squabbles of Heaven and Earth, he had seen far too much in his lifetime. For some unknown reason, a thousand years ago, he had decided to come inspect this section of the Yellow River. He wasn’t sure why. Frowning, he berated himself for his moment of impulsiveness. Every moment he was away from Diyu was a chance for all those ingrates to line their pockets. He wasn’t omniscient after all.

As he peered out into the distance, he pulled out an old ebony pipe, which he then stuffed with tobacco and lit. He’d always enjoyed smoking, and it was one of the few pleasures he had other than fulfilling his duties as lord of the Underworld. After smoking for an undetermined amount of time, he sighed and put away the pipe. It was time to go.

He wasn’t sure why he’d come here, but there was surely a reason. His intuition had been honed over countless grand-kalpas, and he could count the number of times he’d been wrong over the past million universe cycles on one hand. Nevertheless, he couldn’t stay forever. Putting on his conical hat, he pulled out an old oar, which he used to propel himself swiftly down the river.

As he traveled down the river, he observed the yellow-tinged souls of various mortal life-forms. They didn’t scream, as one would expect. They simply followed the river along the Collection, a wide network of tendrils that spread throughout space to collect souls from each mortal plane. Some of the branches were as narrow as ten full-grown elephants. Others were as thick as a thousand Nile Rivers. Yama had been waiting on a branch of the Collection that led to the mortal plane that contained the current Earth.

He noted, with interest, a particular river the size of the Yangzi River. Likely, the mortal plane which fed it was undergoing a fierce power struggle or a natural disaster. The river was a steep contrast with another neighboring river; its flow had slowed to a trickle, due to the establishment of a prosperous and peaceful kingdom.

As his boat continued to travel, the river he occupied grew at an alarming pace, as nearby tendrils merged into the Yellow River. After arriving, he stopped paddling and lay down on his small boat to relax. Occasionally he knocked the ashes from his pipe into the river before lighting another batch of tobacco. It had taken old Yama several breaths of time to hop from his original location to the main river, which was a testament to the size of the massive network. Such effort was no longer needed. The current was strong, and it only led to one place.

Of course, this moment of relaxation was serious business, or so he told everyone. It was an inspection of sorts. Nearby, he observed a group of administrators who implemented “the thinning.” These administrators were a specially groomed group of sea turtles, who unceremoniously ripped off pieces of the passing yellow souls. This yellow hue was the stain of sin, which had been accumulated by the soul over the course of its previous life. The biting sea turtles administered a form of painful punishment, which served to cleanse the souls before their rebirth.

After observing the turtles for some time, Yama proceeded to observe another squad, the one he was most proud of. Some evil doctor from a planet called Earth had developed a technology that had improved the performance of the shark squad by thirty percent. All the evil doctor had asked for in compensation was that the squad now be called “sharks with freakin’ laser beams on their heads,” a price which Yama had been eager to pay. It was a good name.

The boat’s next stop came naturally, after the river became pure and white. The souls had completed their cleansing. The old man passed under a large bridge, the Bridge of Forgetfulness. There, he observed millions of flesh and blood workers tossing basket after basket of specially prepared tea leaves into the river below. The tea leaves mixed with the white river, causing soul after soul to lose the memories of their past life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect process. Many people retained memories of past lives, pervading each mortal realm.

As he observed the falling tea leaves, the lord of the Underworld massaged his temple, recalling an ongoing HR problem. The root of the problem lay with one of his staff members, Qingguang. He didn’t get along with Meng Po, the only one in the universe who could brew the Tea of Forgetfulness. As such, he often put forth motions to have her fired, which was his right as the assistant to the regional manager.

A rare smile lit Yama’s face as he recalled the success of this rare innovation—before Granny Meng’s tea, reincarnation had been chaos. People had kept their memories of past lives in perpetuity, which had led to the destabilization of the universe some time ago. The legendary Tea of Forgetfulness had fixed this pressing problem, which was why, despite King Qingguan’s bickering, Granny Meng was still employee of the year. After all, one couldn’t mistreat talent when running such a tight ship.

Yama continued to float under the bridge, then he braced himself just before plunging down a huge waterfall. The rocking boat stabilized, and he continued his fishing and smoking. He stared off into the distance at a literal ocean of souls. These souls would wait in this ocean by the beach for a full lifetime before reincarnating.

He continued his fishing for many lifetimes. During this time, countless pigeons had swooped down beside him to carry off souls who were due to be reincarnated. They carried the souls—for they had forgotten how to walk—to a group of six sixty-li-wide reincarnation portals. There was one for each of the six paths of reincarnation: Hell, Hungry Ghosts, Beasts, Demons, Humans, and the Heavens[3].

The carrier pigeon system had been fine-tuned over countless ages. It was one of the management consulting marvels of the universe and the epitome of the slogan “You don’t have to be small to be nimble.”

As Yama floated on the white ocean of souls, a yellow trickle flowed down through the collection system to the Yellow River. This yellow trickle contained a bit of white mist, which followed the trickle until it joined the Yellow River. The mist was spread thinly, and Yama himself had trouble making it out. The white mist provoked no reaction from the thinning system or its domesticated, soul-devouring creatures. The mist was unaffected by Meng Po’s tea, retaining its memories.

But how can a mist have memories? Because that mist was a person, of course. It was Du Cha Ming, who had left his previous life behind.

Upon reaching the final sea, the mist drifted over the pure white ocean. Yama, as if sensing something, stared straight at the mist but couldn’t discern anything out of the ordinary. After spending some time trying to solve this mystery, he grabbed his oar and made his way to his old hut by the shore. A very long, indeterminate amount of time passed, after which the mist floated out to the human path of reincarnation and entered it.

For Cha Ming, it was time for a new life. A life where he could choose his fate.

 

[1] “One made two, two made three, and three made many” is a classic saying in Daoist scripture. It takes many forms. Sometimes they say the Dao made yin and yang as well.

[2] While the Yellow River is a large and literal river in China, this refers to the commonly known Yellow River of the underworld, which leads to the Ten Courts of Hell. It is similar to the River Styx, its Greek equivalent.

[3] The six paths of reincarnation are commonly seen in Buddhist literature. The destination of each soul depends on the merit and sins. Naturally, a sinful soul will move down in realms, while a kind soul will move up in realms. It can take many lifetimes to move up to Buddhahood in the highest realm of reincarnation.



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