In the Cerulean Abyss.
The light was dim, even on the third level, which was still relatively close to the surface. Light filtered down from above, illuminating crystalline structures that propagated the distant sunlight into beautiful swaths of color across the dim rocks. Twisted paths wound between sheer cliffsides and bottomless crevaces, and the sounds of monstrous growls and scrittering claws filled the air. The smell of blood drifted, and a palpable feeling of dread clung to everything.
Through this maelstrom which at every moment whispered of sudden death, a man strolled casually down the twisting paths. He was a bald-headed fat man, slightly short, with a face that seemed jolly and peaceful. He wore a simple, threadbare robe, and he wore no sandals on his feet. His eyes were constantly squinting, making it difficult to perceive their color.
Barefoot, he strode through the abyss, casually looking around with enjoyment, as though he were simply sight-seeing. An ordinary observer would be shocked; was the Cerulean Abyss a place that could be treated so casually? Of course not! This weak-looking fat man was simply seeking death!
But as time passed, that observer might began to notice something strange. Though this peaceful-looking fat man appeared to be walking casually, he seemed to have a destination in mind. Furthermore, every branched path, every fork in the road, he chose without hesitation, avoiding traps, pitfalls, and monsters alike. It was like he had a map of everything in his head, which he could simply follow for the best possible result.
Finally, the man turned a certain corner, and exclaimed aloud, “Ah! As expected, here you are!” He strode resolutely forward, across a widening in the path which quickly shrunk once more to a narrow point, jutting out over a bottomless pit. Lying on this outcropping was a person, and it was obvious at first glance that this person… was dead.
Only the upper half of his body remained, and judging by the ragged appearance of his waist, his lower half had been consumed by monstrous beasts. His right hand tightly gripped the broken hilt of a sword, while his left arm had been severed at the elbow by the clean strike of some blade. A deep scar had carved out his left eye, but his right eye remained open. Even dead, he glared upward, and the expression on his face could only be described as — unresigned!
This was the corpse of Gan Zhu!
The fat man looked down upon the young man who had perished. Gan Zhu’s state was extremely pitious, and one might expect an onlooker to look at him only with horror and sadness. But the face of the fat man as he gazed at Gan Zhu, held only fondness and approval.
“One week,” he said aloud to the corpse. “In this deadly hell, where even the strong face annihilation, you held out for a full week. I can’t imagine how you must have felt, challenging this place with a body like that. You were here to fight for a chance to change your fate, weren’t you?
“Sadly,” he sighed, seating himself cross-legged next to Gan Zhu’s body, “you were unable to do so. In spite of all your effort, you died here, in full accordance with your fate. You shouldn’t feel bad, though — if fate were so easy to change, this would be a very different sort of world.
“Yes, fate,” mused the fat man. “There is some time left, so let’s speak of fate for a time. Fate — is the inescapable path of mankind. It is set from the moment you are born, and it sets your path until the moment you die. When you fall into danger, that is fate; when you escape danger, that is fate. When you meet a woman and fall in love, that is fate; when that woman is snatched away from you, that is fate. When you reach the height of mortal cultivation, that is fate; when your cultivation is destroyed by an enemy and you fall into despair, that is fate. Fate — is the inexorable chain of the individual.
“Yes, there are those whose fate is to be strong, and those whose fate is to be weak. You were the latter, weren’t you? Your path towards greatness was cut off at the very beginning, and so you walked into this den of death of your own free will. In order to change your fate…
“Do you know what you were seeking here, in this place? Those stories, of people who changed their fate — do you know what lies behind them?” The fat man lowered his voice, as though imparting a secret to the corpse beside him. “It is… Destiny!
“Destiny, do you know this word? It means that a different path has been chosen for you! A power higher than yourself has determined that you will serve their fate, rather than your own. And so, what should be impossible barriers become mere stepping stones, and you will be like a carp jumping over the gate to become a dragon among men! And yet… your fate will no longer be your own; and once you have accomplished the destiny expected of you, will you not be thrown away? A tool, which accomplishes it’s purpose, is no longer necessary, after all.”
The fat man shook his head, and patted Gan Zhu’s shoulder familiarly. “I suppose for you, it wouldn’t have been such a bad deal. Your fate only led you this far, after all. Sadly, no one reached out their hand to you.
“It isn’t like your efforts were not acknowledged. By… coincidence… there are a great number of powerful figures in the Cerulean Abyss right now. A matter of conflicting destinies, all clashing here in this blue abyss. You even met a few of them, didn’t you? Han Moa, disciple-daughter of Han Vii, who shared a meal with you; Li Stahn, who cut off your arm; Kiir the Phantom Sword, whom you aided at a critical moment. As well as others… but in the end, it had nothing to do with you. Those great experts, carefully watching the movements of destiny, took note of your great inner strength, and had circumstances been different, no doubt you would have found a patron.
“But the Heaven Demolishing Pill made that impossible. In a way, that pill is a rare treasure, able to destroy a body beyond any hope of repair, even for the resources of the immortals. There would be no chance for you to ever progress along the Hundred Perfect Steps of Human Cultivation. By the time anyone realized the treasure you represented… it was already far too late. So even if they were reluctant, they had no choice to let you go.
“Therefore, please don’t hold a grudge against them. Although they might decide the destiny of mortals, they have their own fates as well, and cannot afford to fight a lost cause.” The fat man bowed his head while cupping his hands in entreaty; the corpse, naturally, did not respond. The man seemed to take its silence as acceptance, however, as he raised his head with a smile. “I knew you wouldn’t disagree. After all, I, too, have been watching you this past week. Setting aside questions of fate… you are quite a good person.
“While bearing your own pain and weakness, you never hesitated to aid others. When you came across people beleaguered by monsters, you would draw a few of the creatures away, and make them chase you into traps you had prepared earlier. You never hid information, but presented an open hand to everyone. You shared the little food you had, gave guidance to those lost, and in all ways, your were a breath of refreshing wind, in this deadly labyrinth.
“You listened to Han Moa, and helped her resolve her resentment towards her master with a few words. You fought back to back with Kiir, and helped bind his wounds. You even ignored the provocations of Li Stahn — although in his case, I suppose it was more like he did you a favor,” chuckled the fat man. “After all, you were probably in less pain than before.”
The fat man’s expression suddenly lost its good humor, and became unwontedly serious. “You have treated your fellow man well, with no hope for reward. That is no longer a thing of fate, boy; you have touched the edge of karma.
“Fate is individual; karma is shared. While your fate was decided from beginning to end, how you face your fate matters! In this world, the people believe that the strong will always rule over the weak, and the weak shall never overthrow the strong. This is the truth — but it is not the whole truth! The place and time where that truth runs out, that will be karma. The karma shared between two people, the karma shared between all people, is the world’s karma — it is the world! It does not lose to fate! It subsumes fate!”
The fat man grew more excited as he rambled on, extolling the corpse in front of him. Gan Zhu, naturally, did not respond, and the lack of a reaction seemed to recall the fat man to himself. He coughed in embarrassment, and said, almost apologetically, “Well, this probably means nothing to you. Good karma was unable to prevent your fated death, after all, so I can understand if you think that I’m just muttering meaningless platitudes about things that don’t matter. Well, perhaps I am.
“But!” the fat man exclaimed, raising up a finger. “There is indeed a reason for what I say! You see, you have reached the end of your fate; your fate has ended. You have no more fate, and thus, no more life.
“But although your life has ended — the karma of your life has not! The good you have done lingers on! Because of you, other humans may face their fate with hope and courage. And perhaps they may help others, like you helped them; and perhaps those others will go on to help further others… This is not a certainty, but a possibility that only exists because of you. I can only thank you, for bringing forth this grace.”
The fat man sighed theatrically. “And yet, there is still no reward I can offer you. You have already died, after all. Whether it be mortal, immortal, or divine, nothing can give life back, once life has departed. It is one of the truly immutable rules of the three realms.”
After a moment, the serious expression on the fat man’s face was erased by an extremely sly smile. He bent down, close to the corpse, and spoke in a mock whisper. “But let me tell you a great secret, boy: There are other worlds than these!”
“Yes! There are other worlds!” shouted the fat man with glee, apparently forgetting that he was supposed to be imparting a secret. “They rarely touch our own, and when they do, the consequences are calamitous! The rules outside these three realms, have no relation to those within. That is to say, invaders from the outer worlds — are not governed by fate!
“They have no fate, as we know fate. They cannot be manipulated by destiny. They are the natural enemies of this world, and of these three realms.
“And yet, they have karma.”
The fat man suddenly looked up, as if in reaction to a sound only he could here. He tilted his head slightly, and his eyes darted around, gazing at sights only he could see. With a sigh, he lumbered back to his feet.
“There isn’t much time left,” he said to the corpse of Gan Zhu. “I told you before that several destinies were clashing in this place, today. The confluence of influences are going to create an opportunity — a gap in the defenses erected around that place. It is only the slightest gap, for the briefest moment, and nothing living could actually exploit that gap. I should know; I helped put the barrier in place, all those years ago.”
The fat man looked gently down at the corpse, with a quiet smile. “As you no doubt could surmise, I have deep connections to the karma of this world. Karma is not a thing that can manipulate fate, and thus, I was not able to avert your fate. But you have no fate now; so perhaps your karma, might be able to fill a gap I can only perceive, beyond the influence of fate. Perhaps… under the influence of another world… Gan Zhu might live again…”
A subtle rumble began to shake the Cerulean Abyss, like an earthquake, or perhaps as though some huge monster stirred deep below. The fat man listened carefully, and gave a brief nod. He addressed the corpse at his feet with a wry smile. “Please understand that I hold you in the highest respect.”
With a suddenness that belied his size, the fat man kicked the corpse of Gan Zhu off the precipice!
The body hung in the air for a moment, before plummeting down into the darkness below. The fat man followed it’s progress with his eyes, even after it had fallen out of sight. Time passed, and the shaking in the Abyss became more pronounced. The fat man held his breath, his eyes and senses reaching out to monitor everything around him. Finally, the rumbles ceased, and he slumped with a sigh. Slowly, a smile crept back onto his face.
“Made it,” he muttered to himself. “I thought I had misjudged, for a moment. Well, well, well… I suppose everything depends on his fortune from here.
“Ah, yes, I should have told him further… Fate can be manipulated by destiny, but neither fate nor destiny can determine the face karma shows you. Only fortune can determine your karma… Boy, I wish you good fortune…”
The fat man trailed off. He tossed a final, fond look into the deep Abyss, before turning away from the cliff. He took one step, two, three — and suddenly, before another step could land, he disappeared. There was no afterimage from a high speed step, nor was there the warping indicative of spatial warping. He was simply… gone. As though he had never been there at all.
A few minutes later, a ripple appeared in the air above the precipice where Gan Zhu’s body had lain, exerting a formless, overbearing pressure. A foot stepped forth, and landed upon the air as though it stepped upon solid ground. A body clothed all in black followed, finally revealing a handsome face with piercing silver eyes. His hair, an even deeper black than his clothes, flowed unrestrained down his back.
The ripple disappeared, but the overbearing pressure remained. It was obviously the man in black’s martial aura, but it was qualitatively different from that of a mortal cultivator. This man was obviously — an immortal!
The man in black gazed around the area, obviously disturbed by something. Eventually, he began to mutter to himself aloud. “What happened here?
“This place is right above the sealed chambers… Under normal circumstances, anything falling down from here would be destroyed in the barrier formation, but… who could have expected that, just as those two little Void Transcending fools began to fight over the Emerald Keystone, that group of youngsters would attempt to drain the formation to repair their sword, only for that crazy madman surnamed Sitchi to attempt to break into the outer core by force…
“It seems that some person met their end here, leaving their blood on this rock… Perhaps the shaking from that madman’s assault caused the body to fall into the crevice. But to think that it would fall just as the upper barrier was compromised…”
The man in black shook his head. “Fortunately, it was simply a dead body, otherwise the consequences might have been dire. No one can be allowed to awaken that heaven-thwarting power, even if it means collapsing the entire Cerulean Abyss.
“At that time, five of us entered those chambers, and read that message. Of those five, two have reached the end of their fates. I, Kir Tai, watch over this place, while brother Bin Sol guards the Five-fold Mausoleum in the realm above. And as for brother Zebu Biel — he walked away from his fate, becoming one with formless karma.”
Kir Tai sighed, and a look of melancholy could be seen in his silver eyes. “It has been so long, since then… We promised to become great together, or die trying, and this is the result. We became great indeed — but there was always someone greater, to kill us, or force us to yield… Now I am bound, Bin Sol is bound, and only Zebu Biel moves as he wills, but the price for him was worse even than what we suffered…
“Was it you, brother Biel?” said Kir Tai, softly. “Were you here in this place, at this time? I thought I saw you, for a moment, but you were gone before I arrived…
“What did you intend to do? You are not affected by fate, anymore, but neither can you affect the fate of others. It was you who explained this to me — did you lie? Or is there an exception somewhere that I can’t see?”
Kir Tai’s eyes hardened. “No, I don’t believe it. You, of all people, know that what lies below could determine the end of humanity, and the destruction of the world itself. You would not take that risk. I… believe, that you still love humanity. Despite everything… you would not destroy this world.
“Enough. The Emerald Keystone is safe, the formation is intact, and that madman Sitchi has fled. Those children were collected by their elders, and the other interfering busybodies have been expelled as well. My Cerulean Abyss is quiet, for the moment. There is no reason to linger.”
Kir Tai raised a hand, and tapped on the air in front of him. Immediately a ripple formed, exactly like the one he had arrived through. Without a second of hesitation, Kir Tai stepped forward through the distortion, and was gone. The abnormal pressure departed with him, and soon the ambience of the Abyss had returned to it’s normal, unwelcoming malevolence.
Unbeknownst to Kir Tai, in the depths of the Abyss a great change had taken place. But he would not learn of this until much later.
- This was the scene I imagined first, when I was forming this story. It changed slightly, but the main point is still the same: A man kicking a dead body off a cliff, in order to cause a domino effect resulting in… well, that would be telling. 😉
- I tried to make the relationship of fate, destiny, and karma clear in this chapter, because they have a very big influence on this world. Basically, everyone has an individual fate, which although it can be affected by others, can’t be changed by the individual himself. In order to change fate, you have to become something like a chosen one, by getting a destiny from someone or something stronger than yourself. The downside of that is, you are no longer telling your own story, but someone else’s. On the other hand, karma is the collective result of everyone’s choices, because fate doesn’t affect how you treat other people. But while the effects of karma are all-encompassing and pervasive, it can’t be directed like fate can, so whether you aided by good karma or hurt by bad karma, depends solely on luck. Did all that come through? Or do I need to work on Zebu Biel’s monologue some more?
- Yes, all the named characters will return. Haven’t decided how and when, though. 😉
- Hmm… next chapter… is probably going to be a bit surreal… 😐