CHAPTER 1: GREEN LEAF CITY
A warm breeze blew past a young man as his exhausted footsteps slowly but surely made their way toward a city in the distance. The man had long brown hair and hazel eyes. He was a tall man, much taller than most people from around the area. His clothes were tattered and covered in dust, the result of his half-year long travel from his home town.
The young man’s name was Du Cha Ming. He was born in a small, unremarkable town. His parents were foreigners in this country, and his mother had died during childbirth. Prompted by his father’s untimely death, the fifteen-year-old Cha Ming had started a journey to find a better future, a future where he could finally choose his own fate. His destination was Green Leaf City.
Green Leaf City was a humble city. While it wasn’t an economic powerhouse by any means, its proximity to the spirit woods meant that it had an important function to perform in the Song Kingdom. Every day, groups of adventurers wandered to and from the spirit woods. These adventurers would bring back corpses of spirit beasts, medicinal herbs, and bundles of spirit wood back to the main city. They would then sell these goods to the merchants and spend their hard-earned coin in town, returning to the woods once their wealth ran dry.
The city was surrounded by stone walls roughly twenty feet tall. The city itself was about five miles in diameter. It served as both a trading hub for the raw materials gathered from the spirit woods and a base for adventurers, providing them the various necessities they required between their trips. Various shops, inns, and entertainment venues could be seen everywhere. Apothecaries mixed and sold medicinal pastes and powders and sometimes medicinal pills obtained from one of the few alchemists in town. Blacksmiths crafted and maintained the weapons and armor. Some higher-end stores sold magical talismans and amulets that could be used to attack or restrain the beasts in the woods.
This world was a world of cultivators, vicious beasts, and demonic beasts. It was a world where the strong preyed on the weak, and the weak didn’t have much of a say in anything. Not everyone could be a cultivator—only one out of every hundred people. Out of these people, the majority had barely stepped into the cultivation world, boasting physical strength and Daoist spells whose power highly exceeded that of the general population. These powers could lead adventuring parties, defend the city against beast tides, and could apply their supernatural abilities through various professions.
The goal of every family was to have a child become a cultivator. A cultivator in the family could bring the family out of poverty and ensure that the whole family would at least have a decent life. The cities in turn encouraged such behavior. Cultivators were the lifeblood of a city’s economy and defense, and the power base of each city lord. As such, various schools had been established throughout the continent to foster any and all cultivators.
Becoming a powerful cultivator was also one of Du Cha Ming’s goals. He had realized early on in life that unlike Earth, where everyone could get ahead just by getting an education, this world had a need for genuine strength. Wits, while they could get you somewhere, would not get you very far without any kind of supporting strength. In this land, strength meant choice, and choice was something Cha Ming wouldn’t do without.
Cha Ming reached the city in time to witness the beautiful red setting sun. As was custom in such small cities, the gates were closing at sunset, and the guards were between shifts. Cha Ming approached the large wooden gates, and as expected, he was stopped by a rough, assertive voice.
“Halt!” cried a middle-aged guard. Chain armor clanked noisily as the guard slowly walked up to him. He didn’t draw his weapon, as Cha Ming must have seemed quite helpless. This guard wasn’t one to bully the weak.
“Kid, are you looking to enter the city? It’s five copper coins to get in, but since you’re young and you look hungry, we’ll give you a discount—three copper coins to get in.” The guard was the leader of the crew going off-shift. He had a little girl around Cha Ming’s age, and he had a bit of leeway with entry permits.
Cha Ming fished through his belt pouch and took out his last two copper coins. It was the last of the money his parents had left him, and he didn’t know how he would be able to gain a third coin. Noticing the reluctant look in the youngster’s eyes, the guard frowned. Cha Ming’s eyes darted down as he heard the dull sound of a coin hitting the stony city road.
“You dropped a coin,” the guard muttered softly. “I have a few young kids your age. Kids always do careless things like dropping coins when paying.”
Seeing the gentle look in the guard’s eyes, Cha Ming quickly took the hint and picked up the coin, presenting the three coins to the guard, who dutifully put them into the collection pouch. The other guards pretended not to notice the sleight of hand. Clasping his hands, Cha Ming gave a grateful bow and scampered off into the city.
Cha Ming had never been to a city in this life. He had just turned fifteen when he left his hometown, and it had taken him nearly a full year to get to Green Leaf City. Although he had seen many major cities on Earth, he had never seen such grand construction. The majority of the buildings in the outer part of the city seemed hewed out of whole pieces of gray stone. Here and there he could make out flickering torches that lit the way to different residential areas.
He didn’t have anywhere to go, so he walked around aimlessly as his stomach let out one loud growl after another. Food was a problem for tomorrow, when there was light. There would be no food or a place to stay for the night. His face was dirty and his clothes even more so. His breath was beginning to mist as the night chill settled in.
He was used to the chill; he had lived outdoors for most of the past year, and this wasn’t his first night going hungry. Low key, he thought as he continued down a deserted and poorly lit street. He was looking for a small alley of some sort, or something that could provide him shelter from the wind for the night. Preoccupied with his search, he barely noticed the sounds of guards walking toward him.
“You there, halt!”
Cha Ming turned, his dirty hair blowing in the wind, and saw a pair of guards. He frowned. The guards had an unfriendly look in their eyes.
“Don’t you know it’s past curfew, street urchin? You looking for a beating?” growled the second guard, who proceeded to crack his knuckles. He was clearly not in a good mood.
“Sirs,” Cha Ming said, “I’m not looking to cause any trouble. I’m new to the city, and I’ll get off the streets right away.”
If there really was a curfew, why would the guards have let him into the city in the first place? Still, he was in no position to put up a fight. Even worse, if he displeased them, he might just get thrown right out of the city and have to save up another three to five coppers.
Without any warning, an armored boot flew out and landed in the pit of his stomach, throwing Cha Ming back a few steps. He knelt on the ground, clutching his stomach, and looked at the guard in shock.
That kind of reaction was the sort of thing the psychopath was looking for. Somehow he knew that. The guard was clearly angry and trying to blow off steam.
“Trying to pick a guard’s pocket is a serious crime,” the guard bellowed. “It’s our duty to educate you on behalf of your parents. Now be obedient and take your beating!”
He hit Cha Ming across the face with a powerful backhand. As Cha Ming resigned himself to his fate, a soft voice sounded out.
“Ma Fu, isn’t it below your station to be beating innocent children? If I didn’t know any better, your wife must have put you out to the doghouse. She’s such a nice lady. Why do you need to keep stepping out of line?”
Cha Ming turned and let out a sigh of relief when he saw the voice was that of the helpful guard captain who had let him inside the city.
It must be my lucky day.
“What do you know, Hong Jin? Chen and I caught this little pickpocket trying to steal our belt pouches. Since he’s young, we’re not arresting him, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discipline him!”
Both Chen and Ma Fu had their arms crossed as Hong Jin walked over and helped Cha Ming up. A trickle of blood was running down the corner of his mouth, the split on his lip caused by Ma Fu’s backhand.
“This young man is my guest. To think you had the brass balls to assault the guest of a guard captain. I should file a report to the commander and let him know that our junior guards are lacking in etiquette. It’s nothing severe discipline can’t handle, but it’s best to handle these small problems before they get out of hand.”
Hong Jin walked up to the two guards as he lit a cigarette. After inhaling deeply and burning out half his cigarette, he blew out a smoky cloud that lingered around their faces. Ma Fu and Chen hesitated. They were looking for easy pickings and to let off some steam. Getting tangled up with a guard captain, especially if they pushed things too far, likely meant a pay cut.
Ma Fu snorted loudly as he whipped around his crimson guard cloak. “Consider yourself lucky, kid.” He and Chen stormed off, likely looking to cause more trouble in another neighborhood. Once they rounded the street corner, Hong Jin signaled for Cha Ming to follow him. They walked down the dimly lit streets toward a nearby residential area.
“What’s your name, kid?” asked the guard captain while walking, tossing him a rag to wipe off his face.
“My surname is Du. My given name is Cha Ming,” he replied politely. The middle-aged man thought for a while and sighed. He grabbed the dirty rag and threw it up in the air. It burned up in a puff of smoke and not even ashes remained. The guard captain was clearly a cultivator, one who cultivated fire techniques.
“My name is Hong Jin. Come to my place for supper, and we’ll let you stay the night. It doesn’t look like you can afford to stay anywhere else.”
Cha Ming stopped and hesitated. He already owed this guard for the coin, and he didn’t want to owe him for yet another thing. Seeing the hesitation in his eyes, the guard sighed and continued walking. After a few steps, he paused.
“We all have choices in life. Some choose to bully the weak, but others just want to help out. Who knows how things were in a past life or how they will be in the future? Who’s to say that I won’t be in exactly the same position as you a thousand years from now?”
Cha Ming, unlike most people, remembered his past life. The hesitation in his eyes faded away, and he gave the guard a soft smile.
“Sir, you are very right,” said Cha Ming. The kindness you show will surely return to you ten times in the future. Still smiling, he followed Hong Jin to his house. Even if karma did not pay Hong Jin back ten times, Cha Ming surely would.
It took about twenty minutes for the pair to reach the house. It was a narrow townhouse dwelling, which was quite common in the district. The district wasn’t poor; quite the contrary, it seemed that one had to reach well into the middle class to be allowed to live there. The streets were swept clean, and the road was made from a white stone, unlike the gray stone that made up the main city streets. Most houses had a few brightly lit rooms, and the flickering made it evident that these room were all lit by spirit light.
“Daddy, Daddy!” yelled a sweet voice followed by the soft sound of running footsteps. They were still about twenty feet away from the house, but they had already been spotted. A clanking sound rang out as a teenage girl ran out and tackled her father.
“Attack hug!” the girl yelled as she landed, almost knocking her father over. Hong Jin laughed softly and put down his daughter, lightly ruffling her hair in the process. She finally noticed the dirty street urchin beside her father and looked at him curiously.
“Daddy, who is this?” Then she blushed, perhaps realizing that Cha Ming had seen her rather enthusiastic greeting. It clearly wasn’t a side she showed to strangers. Women her age were expected to be gentle and reserved.
Hong Jin smiled as he ushered his daughter and Cha Ming inside. As they walked inside, the sounds and smells of cooking emanated from the kitchen. Two older boys came downstairs to greet their father. His wife came out of the kitchen smiling. This scene reminded Cha Ming of the family he never had in this lifetime.
The mother in the family, seeing Cha Ming standing awkwardly to the side, gave him a warm smile. He glanced at Hong Jin, who looked at his wife and kids and introduced him.
“This is Cha Ming, and he’s new to the city. I thought he could use a warm meal and a place to stay the night. Cha Ming, this is my wife Xu Lin, and these are my three children, Hong Xin, Hong Xun, and Hong Ling.” He beamed proudly as he introduced his family members. Du Cha Ming quickly clasped his hands and bowed.
“Du Cha Ming greets Madam Xu.” He then clasped his hands once more and greeted the children. Remembering that he was probably filthier than most of the dogs on the city streets, he awkwardly held his hands to his front and seemed to hide behind Hong Jin. The understanding Madam Xu quickly noticed this and motioned to her youngest son.
“Please Cha Ming, call me Aunt Xu, and call my husband Uncle Hong. Xun, how about you take your new friend upstairs to take a bath and get a change of clothes? You’re roughly the same size, so finding something shouldn’t be a problem.”
Hong Xun nodded eagerly and motioned for Cha Ming to follow, explaining that he had turned seventeen earlier in the year. He quickly brought Cha Ming upstairs to clean up. Xun was a very obedient child, and while he was quite curious about their guest, he didn’t dare delay in his task. There would be plenty of time to talk over supper.
The pair were done a half hour later, with Cha Ming wearing blue robes. His shoulder-length brown hair had not yet dried. In contrast to his previously haggard appearance, he now seemed like a proper, handsome teenager.
It was now time for the family supper. The first family supper he’d had in a whole year.
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