Two lines of characters hung in the dark. He thought at first that he had never seen anything like them before, but then he began to feel that he was wrong — a strange, nostalgic feeling like a half-remembered dream. And so he looked at the strange characters, until they began to seem familiar. Eventually, he started to believe — no, he was certain, that the line was a very simple message:
Good morning, hero. It’s time to wake up.
And so, he woke up.
I opened my eyes. The first thing I noticed was the light. Bright and gentle, it illuminated the unfamiliar white domed roof above me. I couldn’t remember how I had gotten here; judging by the light alone, I was no longer in the Cerulean Abyss. The last thing I could remember…
I quietly murmured the words aloud. My memories seemed scattered, and almost flat, as though I were viewing pictures in some noble family’s collection, rather than the recollections of my own life. But I did remember a few things clearly: fighting in the Abyss, desperately trying to survive with my broken body, all but begging people for their aid — and then, finally, getting cornered by three monstrous beasts. My spine had been broken…
Suddenly I realized something important. Ever since that psychotic Li Stahn cut off my left arm, I had felt a phantasmal pain from the missing limb, but now that pain had ceased. I turned my head a bit to look to my left, and I felt a weak shock when my healthy, intact left arm entered my sight. I lifted the limb, and pushed back the sleeve covering it with my other arm. Not even a scar existed where my left arm had been severed.
“How is this possible?” I said aloud. My voice sounded strange in my ears, but I was only paying attention to my restored body, and couldn’t spare the attention for anything else. I realized that not only had my arm been replaced, my entire body felt healthy and free of pain, for the first time since I swallowed that damned pill. It was as though my dantian, my meridians, had all been restored. With a sudden swell of hope, I shut my eyes and attempted to cultivate–
I hadn’t expected to feel any qi, not after my cultivation had been completely destroyed, but I expected to at least be able to sense my dantian, and possibly even determine the state of my meridians. But I felt nothing — as if I had no dantian at all.
This was impossible. All life flows forth from the dantian, and if the dantian was destroyed, so too would life be lost. I felt healthy, possibly more healthy than I had ever felt in my life before. I decided that my dantian had been healed, but I had lost the ability to sense it. This was actually a terrible tragedy: if I could not sense my dantian, I could not cultivate my qi, and I would remain weak trash for the rest of my life.
It was this realization that finally led me to realize the oddity in my emotions. I should have felt despair when I realized that I could not cultivate, but all I felt was a distant sadness. It was as though all my emotions had been muted. I could not feel the anger I had held after Fan Bin murdered my family, or the despair when I realized that my dantian had been damaged beyond repair. Above all, I couldn’t feel the endless emptiness that had grown in me since that time, or the feeling of rebellion that had led me to throw myself into the Cerulean Abyss, rather than simply wait for death.
Instead, I felt calm — and curious. I wondered who had saved me, and brought me to this place. I had gone into the Abyss, longing for a miracle — is that what had occurred? Had I caught the eye of some unknown expert? If so, they would be disappointed when they learned that I could no longer cultivate. Experts had no use for those with no potential, no matter how healthy.
Or perhaps I actually had died. That would make a good deal of sense — if I was actually just a soul awaiting reincarnation, I would obviously not have a dantian or meridians. A true body is required to cultivate, after all. It might also explain why my memories and emotions felt so distant, as well.
And yet… I could breathe. I could feel the coolness of the hard surface I lay upon, and a warm breeze upon my face. I couldn’t feel my meridians, but I could sense my heartbeat, and the blood flowing in my veins. I could see the light around me with both eyes. I felt… alive.
I thought for a while, but couldn’t resolve the contradictions in my mind. At the same time, I wasn’t too upset about the situation. Maybe it was simply because my emotions were being suppressed, but I wasn’t bothered about the question of whether I was alive or dead. I was simply curious about what would happen next. And, since nothing would happen if I continued to lie there, I decided it was time to stand up.
I pushed myself into a seated position, and glanced around. I had been lying on a stone altar in a strange pavilion: six pillars of white stone upholding the domed roof, without any walls between them, exposing the exterior to my view. What I saw outside the pavilion was — crystal. Beautiful, multi-colored crystals formed unique shapes and structures, stretching into the distance. They reminded me, just a bit, of the crystals I had seen in the Cerulean Abyss; but to compare these beautiful crystalline structures to those clumps present in the Abyss, was to compare the heavens to the earth.
The sky, which I could see between the tall crystals, was… strange. It was a light blue that I had never seen before, and yet it felt extremely nostalgic, as though I had seen it before in my childhood. But that was wrong; growing up, the sky had always been deep blue, interspersed with wave-like patterns of pale green. I remembered stories, vaguely, that the sky in other parts of the world could be of many different colors; but I had never expected to ever travel so far away from my former home. But here I was, contemplating a sky of a different color, and somehow it made me feel… happy.
The area closer to the pavilion was covered in a pale green grass. I suddenly realized that there were four figures seated a little distance away from the pavilion, sitting on chairs placed in the grass, with a dark, wooden table placed between them. Instinctively, I knew that these four figures were waiting there for me, and I hurriedly stood up to greet them. Something about the shape of the figures disturbed me slightly, but it wasn’t until I approached them that I realized what it was.
The people waiting for me, in this unusual place, were not human.
From the shoulders down, they looked human enough, although all four were wearing white robes without sleeves, of a style I had never seen before. But from the neck up, all four had the furry heads of jackals. I had never heard of such creatures, but… they were obviously of a demonic race, and the natural enemies of humanity.
I should have found them repugnant, and monstrous. Instead, they seemed familiar, and comfortable, and I did not understand why. Despite their inhuman faces, I could easily read their expressions, and it mystified me.
The left-most person was a female, with golden fur and a cold-eyed gaze, and her expression seemed to be one of disgust. In contrast, the male seated next to her had bright, intellectual eyes and silver-grey fur, and his mouth was open in a friendly smile, revealing sharp fangs. Next to him was another male, who sat with an upright, military bearing. His eyes were sharp and judging, and the expression on his red-furred face gave nothing away.
The last person was another female, with black fur. Unlike the other three, who seemed to have some sense of decorum, she lounged in her seat, idly tapping the table with her fingers as she examined me. I noticed that her fingers were tipped with sharp, curved nails, and a quick glance revealed that the other three had similar claws. Her muzzle was open in a lazy grin, and there was a glitter in her eyes like she had just found a wonderful new toy. As I stared at her, her grin grew wider, and her tapping fingers increased in tempo. I got the feeling that she was barely resisting jumping to her feet, and I felt a distant pang of worry. I didn’t think she was going to attack me, exactly, but…
Just then, the scholarly male cleared his throat, drawing my attention back to him. He spoke, and I immediately noticed two things: first, that the language he spoke was entirely unfamiliar to me; second, that I had no problem understanding his words.
“Good morning, young pup. I know everything must seem disorienting, but I assure you that the feeling will pass.”
I nodded slowly, and asked the most pressing question in my mind: “Am I dead?”
The black-furred female gave a cackling laugh, while the golden-furred one narrowed her eyes in contempt. The scholarly male glanced at both of them alternately, and sighed. “On the contrary, you are just now being born,” he told me, with a sincere expression on his silver-furred face. “In fact, that’s why all four of us are here to greet you.”
“I’m… being born?” I couldn’t understand what the jackal-headed man meant.
“That’s right!” exclaimed the black-furred woman cheerfully. “So listen to your predecessors, pup. We’ll take care of you.” She winked cheerfully at me. Surprisingly, she had a very lovely voice, which seemed well-suited to the mysterious language we were speaking.
The golden-furred woman on the opposite side of the table snorted disdainfully, but she refrained from further comment. The red-furred man kept watching me, but did not seemed inclined to join the conversation either.
“I don’t understand,” I told the black-furred woman.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” she told me confidently. “It’ll come to you.”
The silver-furred man sighed again. “Just… ignore her for the moment, please. Now. I presume you are wondering where you are, especially if you have the memories of a… previous existence.”
I nodded. “Is this the deepest part of the Cerulean Abyss? How did I get here?”
The silver-furred scholar tilted his head slightly, equivocating. “It’s not wrong to say that you are in the deepest part of the Sky Crystal Palace — what the humans call the Cerulean Abyss — but that place is not this place. This place — is the Crux!
“I am certain you can tell, young pup, but we are not of human descent. We are–” the silver-furred man started to tell me, before he was unexpectedly interrupted.
“We are the Anubai.” The voice was low and rough, with a growl in it that seemed to speak of years of experience. I turned my head to look at the red-furred man who had spoken, and he looked back at me seriously. “We are the Many in One, often known as the Crystal-Born. Similar to the humans, we are known as one of the fifteen Upstart Races. Of course,” the red-furred soldier said with a sudden, unexpected grin, “we exceed humanity in almost every aspect. Keep that in mind, young hero.”
I blinked. For the first time, I did not understand a certain word that was spoken to me by these beings. “What is a… hero?”
The black-furred woman seemed surprised by my question. “Huh? You don’t know what it means?” She turned to the silver-furred scholar with a questioning look. “I thought humans had lots of heroes, though?”
“They do, they do,” assured the silver-furred one. “Just not these humans. It’s been… discouraged, on a fundamental level, in this particular world. That’s one of the reasons why…” He trailed off as he glanced at me, then said, “I’ll explain it later. Our young pup here doesn’t need extra distractions right now.”
“Sure, sure,” said the black-furred woman breezily. “Cracks and shards, this world is boring…”
The scholarly man sighed again, and told me, “To answer your question, a hero is a type of champion. They are associated with various attributes, but I believe the most meaningful one, in our situation, is this: heroes can, simply by existing, completely defy fate.”
The golden-furred woman snorted again, and said disdainfully, “That is a very human way to describe the shifting of event-lattices.”
“So what? Our young pup here has a background in human thought processes,” said the silver-furred man with a shrug. “Why tell him things that will just confuse him? Besides, they’re not wrong. As such.”
“Hmph,” said the golden-furred woman, visibly unconvinced.
“Oh, let it go,” snapped the black-furred woman. “Personally, I thought you were boycotting this little meeting. And I was completely alright with that.”
The golden-furred woman’s eyes widened with rage. “You dare–!”
“ENOUGH!” roared out the red-furred man. “Our time is our own to waste, but the young hero needs to awaken soon, and the formalities must be dealt with first!”
“Of course, of course,” soothed the silver-furred man. “I was just trying to explain a few things to our new pup.”
“Explanations are not necessary,” declared the red-furred soldier. “In this case, they may even be harmful. The young hero can learn his purpose at a later time. The only thing that matters now is his survival.”
“I agree,” said the black-furred woman happily. “Let’s get this vessel moving, shall we?”
The silver-furred man sighed again, but shrugged in agreement. The golden-furred woman stared angrily at the red-furred man and opened her mouth to speak, but in the end she didn’t say anything and merely nodded.
“Very well,” spoke the red-furred man gravely. “Young hero, watch us carefully.”
He raised an arm and held out his hand, palm up. The other three made the same motion at the same time. I was slightly startled by their actions, but my eyes were very quickly drawn to my right. Above the palm of the black-furred woman, a blue and purple light pulsed slowly and clearly. Staring at it, I could almost feel someone’s breath upon my skin…
With effort, I pulled my eyes away from the light. Suddenly curious, I looked carefully at the palms of the other three people — but in the end, I was forced to shake my head. I could see nothing above their hands. I thought for a moment that I could see something in the silver-furred man’s hand, but in the end I could see nothing, and was forced to give up.
“Well, young hero? What do you see?” urged the red-furred man.
I raised my hand to point at the black-furred woman — or rather, the light in her hand. “I see a light above her hand, pulsing slightly between blue and purple.”
The black-furred woman laughed triumphantly. “Hah! He is attuned to Breath!”
The silver-furred scholar frowned at her, and then turned the frown to me. “And the rest?”
I shook my head. “I can’t see anything else. Sorry,” I apologized to the silver-furred man, who seemed disappointed.
He shook his head, and said, “No, it’s not your fault. But…” he trailed off, looking over at the black-furred woman with a difficult expression on his face. The golden-furred woman had a conflicted expression on her face as well, and even the red-furred man seemed taken aback.
“Oh, what’s with you all?” sneered the black-furred woman with amusement. “Of course, Breath is the best place to start. Setting aside anything else, our young pup is going to be in constant danger, so he’ll need the strongest power available, don’t you think?”
“Setting aside the question of whether Breath is stronger than Eye or Blood,” said the silver-furred scholar dryly, “I’m more than a bit concerned about you being his first teacher. Your history–”
“Enough,” interrupted the red-furred man quietly, and the silver-furred man quickly stopped. “While I might wish to begin teaching the young hero myself, it’s obvious that he isn’t ready for the Path, the Eye, or the Blood. That is fine. Learning the Breath will provide a strong foundation — and your concerns over our sister’s habits are meaningless. Remember, we are all here for a single purpose, which we will uphold, or suffer the consequences.” He looked at each of the other three in turn, and even the black-furred woman nodded obediently at his gaze. I was getting the impression that the status of the red-furred man was a great deal higher than the other three, even if they were treating each other as equals.
“Young hero,” he said, turning back to me. “Learn carefully what she has to teach you. From now on — the world itself will be your greatest enemy. We shall meet again, when the time is right.”
He stood, suddenly, and turned away from me and the others. I had a sudden impression of a great road stretching out in front of him as he stepped forward, and then it was gone, and the red-furred soldier had gone with it.
“Well, then,” said the golden-furred woman. Some blue-green liquid swirled around her for a moment, and I heard the distant sound of a heartbeat. Then the liquid flowed away, and she was gone as well.
The silver-furred, scholarly man sighed again, and gazed at me imploringly. “Just… take it easy, alright? Don’t get too caught up in her pace. I’ll be seeing you soon, I hope…” With that, the silver-furred man… flattened, as though he were simply a picture painted on the air; a picture that quickly faded away.
The black-furred woman had a smug look on her jackal face, and she looked at me with a carefree smile. “Well! Now that the hindrances are out of the way — it’s good to meet you! You can call me Marah, or Big Sis, whatever you prefer. We’ve been waiting for someone like you to be born for a long time now — don’t ask me how long, because I slept through most of it — so why don’t you just hurry up and live already?”
I felt a jolt, as if something inside me that had been stuck had just been loosened, and I felt the edges of my vision start to grow dark. Somehow I understood… I was about to wake up from this strange dream. The black-furred woman, Marah, cackled with laughter, and leaned towards me.
“Oh yeah. I wouldn’t want them to accuse me of not doing my part, so here’s your first lesson, young pup!” She leaned forward, and whispered a single word in my ear.
In a place that wasn’t here, I felt myself take a long breath.
In the depths of the Cerulean Abyss, there lay a certain chamber, created by thousands of intersecting crystals that scattered beautiful patterns of light everywhere. In the center of this space, a single crystal larger than a man was enshrined. Within the depths of the crystal, a dark shadow could be seen…
Suddenly, without any warning, the crystal cracked!
A single crack in the surface spread out, splitting off into many branches, until the entire crystal was riddled with flaws. Small shards began to flake off the large crystal, but before these pieces could hit the ground, they would lose form and change into light, which would then shoot back through the cracks into the interior of the crystal. It was a mysterious scene, as though the giant crystal was devouring itself!
Suddenly, the entire crystal began to glow, losing its shape at the same time. The light pulsed, and drew inward, settling into the form of a man. Slowly, the light began to fade, drawing back down to reveal the form and features of a certain young man. A young man who, three years ago, entered the Cerulean Abyss on the verge of death. A young man who had been ignored and passed by every power, because his body was broken and his death already written in stone. A young man who had died unresigned!
This young man was Gan Zhu! Here, in the deepest depths of the Cerulean Abyss, he took a deep breath, and opened his eyes once more!
- I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to use first-person for this section in the Crux. In the end I decided it would work, but… it’s kind of a departure from my original intent for this story. Meh. 😐
- But as long as we’re not in the Crux, I can go back to the original style! Yay! 😛
- I was going to write a note about Gan Zhu’s personality, but… it occurs to me we actually haven’t seen too much of his personality, yet! Something to remedy next chapter. 😀
- Yes, it’s been three years. No, Gan Zhu doesn’t know that yet. Yes, we are going to be catching up with Sun Lan and her family soon. Just not yet. 😉
- Thanks for reading! 😀