“THE DAO that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name….”
Panting, Delong peered out from behind a crooked pine tree that barely covered his twelve-year-old body. He blinked away the sweat rolling down his forehead as he tried to discern any potential followers behind the clouds weaving through the area. Youthful voices continued to recite the Dao De Jing, their words streaming out from the building in front of him. Although Delong had taken that class four times and had already memorized the Dao De Jing to the point where he could write it backward, he was still supposed to be in that building filled with nine-year-olds.
Of course, he would never admit this was because he had learning issues.
Being a good student, Delong would have still attended the lecture in the face of humiliation. However, every time the class ended, unwanted “friends” from twelve through fourteen would wait for him near the entrance of the building to “practice” their anti-yao magic. The pain from yesterday’s “training” session had left a shadow in Delong’s heart, and he did not want to endure the bullying any longer. Despite this, Delong was not comfortable with skipping the class altogether, so he ended up hiding in the backyard of the building. As a half-deer, his hearing was better than average humans’, so he could still distinguish every word spoken in the building.
“Heaven and earth are able to endure and continue thus long because they do not live of, or for, themselves,” the instructor said after the children’s voices died down. “To become immortal, one needs to put aside their individuality and selfish desires.”
Delong snorted. Wasn’t the desire to become immortal already selfish? To the average human, the existence of gods and supernatural beings were but unconfirmed myths, but humans with enough magical talent knew better. Thus, Daoist sects such as Cloud Fortress would often recruit children with innate ability to train their skills, and achieving immortality would become the entire purpose of a disciple’s life.
If that wasn’t a selfish desire, Delong didn’t know what was.
“Of course, being selfless and devoid of worldly attachments would not be enough,” the instructor continued. “One would also have to perfect their golden elixir to become a xian.” He then went on to quiz the students to check if they remembered what the six periods of training were: lianqi, zhuji, jindan, yuanying, lianxu, and hedao. As an individual’s internal alchemy became more advanced, the individual’s magical reserve and strength would also have a significant breakthrough, allowing the person to cast higher-level spells and create more powerful tools.
Both lianqi and zhuji focused on refining one’s essence into qi, in which one would reach early-stage zhuji after connecting all the points in one’s small zhoutian. Delong was still stuck at late-stage lianqi, which was why he was forced to retake this class over and over again.
The minimum requirement for humans to pass the first Test of Calamity was to reach yuanying level of training, and most humans in the world stagnated at jindan period.
Only legends could get beyond the first four periods of training, but Delong doubted he could even manage to connect his Eight Extraordinary Meridians and reach the third level at this rate. Without reaching the jindan period, he would never obtain a golden elixir inside the area under his navel. The elixir was the essence of a being’s life, and yao and humans alike needed to perfect it in order to shatter the Void and attain immortality.
While the mentor rambled on about the need to put aside personal desires and self-interest in order to transcend mortality, Delong thought about how hypocritical the preaching was. He had seen his share of politicking among disciples, as more power meant more resources to help them in their training, so at least five out of seven disciples in Cloud Fortress alone did not follow the “wisdom” they were taught. If even one of the most prestigious Daoist sects in the empire was like this, Delong did not need to imagine how the lesser ones behaved.
Delong entertained himself by imagining a bunch of petty, bearded old men reaching the last stage of their training en masse, and upon shattering the Void, they all became angry-looking goats.
On second thought, goats had done nothing to deserve this insult. Not to mention, elks and goats were somewhat close in terms of relationship, so Delong should have picked another animal to imagine. Perhaps… toads? Then again, Delong was sure toads didn’t ask to be ugly, so he shouldn’t be shallow.
Cockroaches, Delong decided. If any organism was practically immortal, it was probably one of those nasty insects. However, Delong only managed to disgust himself when he envisioned those stuck-up instructors turn into a swarm of flying roaches.
Taking a deep breath, he fought down negative emotions and instead diverted his attention to admire his surroundings—he could never grow tired of the beauty of Cloud Fortress.
Built on top of Mount Hua, Cloud Fortress resided in a heavenly grotto only accessible through magic. Legend held that the founder, Qixiang, had discovered this dimension in his early years. As the air of this grotto was inundated with qi beneficial to training, Qixiang had chosen to settle here. He had laid down the foundations of the structures Cloud Fortress would later become famous for, where the sight of clouds weaving freely through the intricate buildings and beautiful gardens was something no visitor would forget.
Not counting the outer sect and the other floating islands in the dimension, the inner sect was divided into five main sections. Each belonged to a division founded by Qixiang’s direct disciples, and they more or less ended up specializing in whatever their founder had been good at, especially since many new techniques and knowledge became exclusive to each house. The divisions were categorized as specializing in trigram-based magic, tool forging, internal alchemy, martial arts, and external alchemy. Inner sect students took lessons from each house, but after reaching jindan period they would then focus their skills. Delong belonged to the House of Streaming Clouds, which specialized in martial arts.
Every five years Cloud Fortress would determine which house could head and represent the sect through cross-division competitions, which were held on the huge platform hovering high above all floating islands. Once the symbol of Cloud Fortress, Streaming Clouds was now the last among the five inner sect divisions, despite Delong’s master, Ruyan, being a xian and one of the most respected masters of Cloud Fortress. Four centuries had passed since the House of Streaming Clouds last emerged as the head division. Not that Delong cared. Ruyan wasn’t saying anything, so why should he?
Just as Delong’s heart began to calm down, he glimpsed familiar figures heading up the floating steps to the island his class was held on. Delong held his breath, and his pulse began to pick up speed again as he waited for the seven boys to approach the building. When the bullies settled under a pavilion to play some board game, Delong moved. The area offered little cover, but he had already thought out an escape route prior to the disciples’ arrival. Using the fog and few trees to his advantage while making sure no one would notice, Delong was about to step onto the pathway leading down the island when something glowed under his feet, freezing him in place.
Delong’s heart sank with despair, and then it began to pound with fear.
“Well, well, well…. What have we here?” said the leader of the bullies. As Delong did not want to name the bastard, he mentally called the fourteen-year-old boy Ratface. Ratface belonged to the House of Five Fragrances, which specialized in external alchemy. Although the division was probably the weakest of Cloud Fortress in terms of fighting capabilities, they were without a doubt the most influential.
In the Yellow Emperor’s time, humans had access to plenty of resources to facilitate training so they were able to reach lianxu period without much challenge. However, nowadays more humans aspired to become immortal, which meant training had become primarily a fight for the almost-depleted magical resources in the world. What was more, Delong suspected the magic in the air was much thinner than it had been in the past, which affected training efficiency and made supplements more important than ever.
Five Fragrances Division not only concocted herbal pills but synthesized and controlled the resources necessary to expedite training, so no one would dare to offend them, and everyone wanted to get on their good side. Ratface’s master was also a xian, and Ratface had been born into nobility before being sent to Cloud Fortress. With money and influence, of course Ratface would become the leader among children his age.
“I set down a trap, and lo! I caught a stupid deer,” snorted Ratface’s second, who belonged to the House of Mysterious Fogs. This division specialized in trigram-based magic, including anti-yao seals and spells, and everyone in that house looked down on Delong for his heritage as well as his pitiful progress in anything involving trigram knowledge.
“Someone as untalented as this piece of shit has no business setting foot here,” Ratface said with a dramatic sigh. “You’re dragging down the average progress of us inner sect disciples.”
Delong also thought he’d be better off as an outer sect student so he could get away from these arrogant inner sect snobs. At least he’d be able to defend himself if he were up against a group of humans who had no innate talent for magic. He wasn’t thinking this because he was a coward—he could probably defeat these inner sect bullies if he fought them one-on-one. However, fortune did not like him. Gritting his teeth, Delong braced for the torture that was to come.
SORE AND hurting all over, Delong managed to drag himself back to the building he shared with Ruyan, and when he pushed through the folding doors, he found his master sitting near the entrance and tending to a small bluebird she had picked up somewhere.
“How was the lecture?” Ruyan asked offhandedly as she teased the chirping creature with tickles. Staring at her, Delong could not help but wonder for the thousandth time just how the hell this woman had managed to become a xian. More often, he suspected she had taken him under her wing only because she liked fluffy animals. For now he supposed he could still qualify as one—she had always been particularly amiable whenever he took form as a small elk.
“It was… the same,” Delong said, which was true. A squirrel scrambled down the beams and scuttled out through a window. Wait, did that little rodent just steal the pastry Delong had hidden under his bed?
What a way to worsen his day.
Ruyan sighed softly and glanced at Delong. “The instructor of that class told me you did not show up.” She stood up and crossed her arms. “What is troubling you, Little Lu?” She always addressed Delong by his surname, because it sounded like “little deer.” Frankly Delong did not like the nickname, but Ruyan was his master and benefactor, so she could address him however she pleased.
“I… I’ve taken the class so many times I already know what the teacher is going to say before he actually says it,” Delong lied. “I’ve tried, I have really tried to listen to the theories about Dao, but I can’t force myself to put down my sense of self, especially since no one in this sect is doing that.”
“You….” Ruyan examined him, her brows slightly furrowed. “All right. Maybe you are still too young to understand the wisdom of Dao. At the moment, you’re not required to do so in order to advance in your training, anyway.” She was obviously attempting to comfort Delong, because he knew how many disciples younger than he could pass the rudimentary tests while he remained stuck. He could not blame the biased examiners entirely, as he was well aware of how unqualified he was.
Yet, although children could easily accept the logic behind how Dao worked, when they grew up and learned more, they no doubt would forget about the wisdom anyway, just as Delong’s tormentors had.
“Well, what about the divinations class earlier?” Ruyan continued, her eyes shining with hope. Three years had passed since Delong had proven himself useless in everything other than martial arts, but whenever Ruyan was in Cloud Fortress, she would ask the same questions every day with undying optimism. “Try reciting the Book of Changes—I know you can do it!”
Delong hoped he could, but he knew he had already forgotten whatever he had painstakingly memorized this morning. He could memorize every other text without much effort, but for some reason the words in the Book of Changes never stuck with him. No matter how much effort he used in attempting to retain the knowledge, he would always somehow miss chunks of it, and even if he remembered something, he would be unable to understand the mysteries behind the cryptic words.
Nonetheless, Delong cleared his throat. “Qian: what is great and originating, penetrating, advantageous, correct, and firm,” he began. “Vast is the “great and originating’ indicated by Qian. All things owe to it their beginning: it contains all the meaning belonging to heaven. The clouds move and the rain is distributed; the various things appear in their developed forms….” He paused. What came after? In what order?
After the twenty-first sentence, he finally decided it was hopeless. Even though Ruyan had not shown any disappointment, Delong knew that by now he was just making things up. He coughed, feeling shame color his cheeks, and stared at his feet. “Sorry.”
With a sigh, Ruyan patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry. I know you are an intelligent child—no matter what, you will always be my beloved pupil and a Cloud Fortress disciple.”
“Cloud Fortress disciple… eh?” Delong muttered with a bitter smile. “I can’t even—”
“Although Perfected Person Qixiang was a great feng shui master and the most powerful exorcist of his time, he was personally most proud of his unique martial arts and qi regulation techniques,” Ruyan interrupted, flicking her hand lazily to dismiss Delong’s depressing words. “So what if you have trouble with the trigrams and Daoist philosophy? Your martial arts far exceed that of disciples your age, which means you have inherited the essence of Cloud Fortress perfectly well.”
Although she made sense, Delong suspected that Ruyan, being a former weapons master, was biased in favor of martial arts. “But Perfected Person Qixiang transcended mortality,” Delong grumbled. “Everyone now only remembers that he is an enlightened official in the Heavenly Court.”
Ruyan shrugged. “Pah, who cares about what they think?”
Delong stared at his hands. “Do you… think Perfected Person Qixiang will approve of me, then?”
Chuckling, Ruyan poked Delong’s chest. “The most important thing is what you think of yourself, Little Lu. You have to be confident and accepting of yourself first. Speaking of which, I expect you to get at least into the top ten in the competition next month.” She smiled sweetly, which was at stark contrast with her evil words. “No pressure, correct?”
Delong did not know whether to laugh or cry—as if he felt none! Even though martial arts specialists could win the yearly internal competitions at the early stages of training, the gap would shorten as time passed, and disciples from other divisions with over two decades of training would begin to surpass those in the Streaming Clouds Division. No disciple with three decades of training from his house would be able to win the tournaments, so Delong could only be thankful that he was still young.
“Do you think our founder will show up this time?” Delong said at length. “He didn’t even show up for the two-thousandth anniversary….” In fact, six centuries had passed since he had last visited. Delong almost believed Qixiang had given up on Cloud Fortress Sect because of what it had become.
The smile on Ruyan’s face faded a little as she examined him. “I do not know what is going on in the Heavenly Court, but I know it is doubtlessly not easy being an official there,” she said softly. “Perfected Person Qixiang may be too busy to tend to the mortal realm now.”
Ultimately Qixiang did not attend the anniversary ceremony. Shortly after the event, where Delong fought tooth and nail to win second place of his generation, Zhou Ruyan disappeared without a word.
Black Moon Sect
“ONE HUMAN heart for three silvers, get two for five!”
“Livers of young women! Livers of young men! Buy one and get one spleen for free!”
The gory stench of flesh and blood permeated the air, though Delong passed by the stalls of the dim and ghostly street as though he were merely strolling through a “normal” market selling animal organs. He eventually arrived at a small tent, lifted the black cloth over the entrance, and stepped in.
Unlike the shops outside, the interior of the tent was permeated with the aroma of countless herbs, oils, and minerals. The yellow-bellied weasel who had been shuffling through a basket of mushrooms perked up and glanced at Delong. He sniffed twice before scrambling out and transforming into a thin, short man. The skin around his eyes was slightly darker than the rest of his face, making him look like a weasel even in human form.
“Delong!” Jizhua exclaimed in his squeaky voice. His gaze remained fixed on Delong’s stomach as he patted dust off his brown cotton clothes. “It has been a while—always a pleasure to see you. How may I be of help?”
A small smile found its way to Delong’s lips as he reached inside his robes and took out a pale blue toad, which Jizhua immediately tried to pounce on. “You know I spent the last five years training on Tian Shan, so I brought some souvenirs back….” He held the frozen amphibian higher, away from Jizhua’s reach. “To trade, of course.”
The weasel stared wide-eyed at the toad and licked his lip. “Binghan Toad,” he said after a gulp. “I haven’t seen one in twenty years. How did you get this?” He jumped, tearing his gaze from the amphibian so he could examine Delong instead. “What else have you brought back? I’ll buy, I’ll bid for the best price, so don’t offer to sell to anyone else!”
Chuckling, Delong reached inside his robes to pull out a pouch smaller than a third of his palm. “Relax, I am not that heartless—as all humans do, I consider friendship first, business second.” He picked out a seed from the yellow purse and glanced at the soil below. “May I?”
“Go ahead.” Jizhua drummed his fingers together.
Delong planted the seed and used magic to speed its growth into a large flower bud. The petals spread open, revealing some of the goods he had brought back from his trip—mostly herbs and berries, though he had managed to get a hold of a rare rock and a bone as well. Out of everything, the Binghan Toad had been the most difficult to obtain.
“Plant magic is so convenient.” Jizhua sighed as he scrutinized each and every herb before he placed them into a basket. “I’ll have you know beforehand that I have taken special care of your shaman friend the past five years you were gone,” he added quickly. “I visit her every month to trade!”
“You speak as though she is the only one who benefits from the exchange,” Delong said, mildly amused. “I believe you have earned quite a lot of coin thanks to her patronage.”
Jizhua scoffed and picked up the goat horn from Delong’s magical plant. “I don’t just sell to anyone.” He sniffed the horn before scraping it with a sharp nail. “Many of my goods are too rare for average customers to afford, and to think, I had to visit a mere human myself.”
Delong leaned against the plant he had summoned. “Am I hearing a complaint?”
“Oh no, of course not!” Jizhua said quickly as he moved on to examine the moss-covered stone next to the goat horn.
While Jizhua busied himself with evaluating the goods, Delong looked around the tent. Since he had been receiving guidance from Wenpo, he had learned quite a few medicinal practices to complement his plant magic, especially as Wenpo was a healer with thousands of years of experience and thus well versed in both human and nonhuman cures. Furthermore, Delong had also gone out of his way to memorize books such as The Classic of Herbal Medicine and Huangdi Neijing. He picked out some herbs and fungi he could use and then put them on the giant plant for Jizhua to see. “I’ll be trading these. Give me the extra in empire currency,” he said.
Fortunately he and Jizhua had gotten past the haggling stage, so Delong knew he would get compensated properly for the items. Their business relationship had evolved into a partnership of sorts, so Delong would allow him some space for profit. Not that Jizhua could trick Delong, anyway—he knew exactly how much every item was worth on the market.
“I never understand why you lot are so enamored by the Central Plain. Don’t the humans there hate yao?” Jizhua said as he used earth magic to part the ground, revealing a den that contained precious items he would not sell to strangers under normal circumstances.
“Not all do. They were just taught to be wary of your kind… and for good reason,” Delong said as he watched Jizhua place the Binghan Toad, goat horn, and moss stone into the pit before dragging out a tightly sealed box. “Besides, you’ll understand when you see the glamorous cities for yourself. I don’t want to be disrespectful to the people of the grasslands… but the khaganate simply pales in comparison.”
“Pah. I am not interested in being chased around by hard-headed daoshi—some of the monks here are already a pain to deal with.” Jizhua took off the necklace containing the key and unlocked the box. He counted some silver sycees, weighed them, and then placed them onto the giant flower. “I’ll give you fifteen silver taels. Ten for the toad, three for the horn, and two for the rock. The plants you brought back will cover the items you wish to trade for.”
“It is a pleasure doing business with you.” Delong happily scooped up the currency. Granted, he was far from being rich, but at least he was much better off than he had been before he had arrived in the yao kingdom. He then turned the gigantic flower back into a seed so he could tuck it back into the small pouch.
“By the way, Delong,” Jizhua drawled while he watched Delong stuff the pouch into his robes, “are you still taking on contracts?”
Delong chuckled and patted his clothes flat. “What, you want to hire me? I’m not that cheap anymore.”
Jizhua rolled his eyes. “Getting rather self-assured now, are you? Nine years ago you were just an annoying brat who was nice and humble. I liked you better then.” Technically Delong was still a “brat” to Jizhua in terms of age, as Jizhua was over three centuries old.
“Ah yes, I miss those bargaining battles with you too.” Delong stroked his chin in fond memory. “I won’t mind haggling for something right now, just to see if you’ve gotten any better at swindling people.”
“I am serious, Delong,” Jizhua growled. “Don’t you want to prove yourself to Qaraaltan?”
Delong straightened himself to attention.
“I hear his nephew, Qurchanaria, is planning to infiltrate a branch of Black Moon Sect, and the wolf is looking to hire any skilled yao to join. There is one more vacant spot available, though currently he has not been satisfied with any of the applicants—which means you still have a chance to get in. Succeeding will definitely prove to Qaraaltan that you can handle covert, dangerous, and complex missions… as long as you impress his nephew. You don’t have that much time left, do you?”
To be exact, Delong only had a few months left, because he would need to go through months of training and preparation for the mission if he qualified. Although Xuanshe had said she would make sure he would be included in the expedition no matter what the cost, Delong wanted to be able to earn his place in it. He was tired of being a burden.
This was the perfect chance to see how his abilities measured up against others. For almost a decade, he had been training to perfect his internal alchemy, hoping to become less of a burden to Cangji the next time they met. Despite using yao methods to advance his training, he had ended up following the human path to attaining immortality instead of advancing in terms of how many centuries of training he had. This was most likely because he had meditated using the dragon-magic regulation method Cangji had taught him. Naturally Delong was still nowhere near becoming immortal, but he had already entered late-stage jindan level in terms of his training, which was much further than what Cangji had originally said he would be able to reach. “Great. Do I just show up to contest for a spot?”
Jizhua raised a brow. “You’re not going to ask for the reason behind this mission?”
With a shrug, Delong flashed a toothy grin. “It’s Black Moon Sect—I hardly think we’re going there to slaughter any hapless innocents. I can easily guess the reason: either Qurchanaria has his eyes on some alchemic pill, or he has unresolved business with a master-level disciple there.”
“Why haven’t you tried to become a magistrate or a criminal investigator?” Jizhua said at length. “I hear your empire respects officials greatly.”
“I failed the imperial exam,” Delong explained with another shrug. “The examiner did not like my essays because I didn’t bribe him with any gifts. Not that I could afford to,” he added. “As for criminal investigator, I quit when I was ordered to arrest an innocent who was to become a scapegoat for a rich noble.”
“Well, I can’t say it is a shame that you didn’t end up living the rest of your life as an insipid human.” Jizhua chuckled. “At any rate, you are correct about Qurchanaria having unresolved business with Black Moon Sect, though I do not know the details. Just pay him a visit and state your purpose. He lives with his pack in Qaraaltan’s territory.”
Naturally Delong would have to find Qurchanaria’s actual living place himself, as Qaraaltan’s territory covered over half a mountain. “Much appreciated.” He turned and made his way out of the tent, then eventually arrived back at his own place.
When he stepped through the barrier protecting his land, he almost fainted at what he saw: rabbits. Countless rabbits. They had practically overtaken his territory! Even breathing was difficult, as shed fur filled the air. Worse, however, was his garden. All the plants had disappeared, and even the grass beds were bald.
“Little Bai!” he bellowed, feeling a strong need to relieve the itch in his knuckles.
A white rabbit scrambled out from a tunnel that had definitely not been there five years ago. The furball transformed into a half-humanoid with white hair, though he could not hide his ears or fluffy tail, and his large feet were also disproportionate to his overall body. “Ah, Master Lu! You have returned, I see. Have you—ouch!” He rubbed the spot on his head that Delong had knocked.
“One of my requirements was for you to water my garden. I did not lend you my territory just so you could make it into a rabbit-breeding farm!” A migraine worked its way to Delong’s brain as he watched the furry pests hop around as if they owned the place.
Little Bai chuckled sheepishly. “I can’t help it…. You know how the urge is with my kind.”
Even more unforgivable. For the past nine years, Delong’s only “mate” had been his right hand, and this stupid rabbit was rubbing the fact into his face. “Then breed somewhere other than my territory!” he roared. “Get your offspring out of my land, and I expect you to fix my garden before I return tomorrow!”
Mumbling a string of complaints he had absolutely no right to say, Little Bai gathered his descendants and led them off to his old home in the forests governed by Feilian.
A gust of wind blew by, and Delong stared at his garden, the sight of bald soil and numerous burrows like a hammer to his balls. Although he could use herbal magic, he could not create plants out of thin air or speed up the growth of nonmagical plants. Creating one regular magical plant took five days at the very least, during which time he would constantly have to channel energy into a seed to grant it magical properties. Decorating his garden with magical plants would be a waste of his time.
Not wanting to face the reality of the view in front of him, Delong turned and headed for Qaraaltan’s territory.