Gan Zhu looked around. He realized that he had awakened in a moderately large cavern, formed entirely of familiar crystals. They glittered in the dim light, forming beautiful patterns in the air; but Gan Zhu had no patience to admire them now. He was caught up in his memories — memories of his own death!
That abominable swordsman, Li Stahn, had cut off his arm, saying that he had a better use for it than a mere cripple. Since that moment Gan Zhu, whose survival had already been extremely precarious, was completely pushed to the edge! Where he had held his own against the various dangers of the Abyss until that time, from then on he could do nothing but retreat, and retreat further, until he was finally caught out on that precipice and could retreat no further.
He had been cornered at last by three Wolf-headed Bears, the strongest type of monstrous beast in the upper levels of the Abyss. The slavering creatures had detected the scent of his blood and proceeded to chase him down to the dangerous third level, before trapping him on that ill-fated cliffside. He had managed to slightly wound two of them, before his sword had finally snapped, and then they had been upon him… He could remember nothing after that.
Nothing, that is, except a dream. Two dreams, in fact: the first was difficult and dim, a half-remembered memory of a fat man, expounding upon fate; the other was clear and sharp, a memory edged like crystal, where he met four demons with the heads of jackals. They had called him “hero” and had declared themselves his teachers… “Breathe,” the female with black fur had whispered, and indeed, it seemed like every breath he took brought him health and strength.
“Hmph, what nonsense,” Gan Zhu said aloud. “Am I to believe a group of demons that I saw in a dream? A human can’t become strong just by breathing, but only through dedicated cultivation. I don’t know who healed my body, but now that I’m healthy once more, I can only start again from the beginning.”
Gan Zhu sat upon the crystal floor, and began to meditate. The first step was to sense the life in his dantian, and convert it into qi. He did not expect any difficulty reaching the first level of Qi Gathering, after all, he had once reached the second level, before Fan Bin destroyed his cultivation. He felt a pulse of hate when recalling the man who murdered his family, but he quickly calmed his emotions. Hate would only slow his cultivation, and he could not afford to lose more time.
Two hours later, Gan Zhu opened his eyes once more. His frustration had reached its peak, and he could no longer keep his expression calm. He noticed his own reflection in the crystal wall in front of him, and his face showed an ugly mixture of disbelief and fear. The murky feelings in his heart could no longer be hidden, because… he could not find his dantian!
It was exactly the same as the feeling he had in his dream. Although his body felt more healthy than it ever had, he could not sense the presence of his dantian. Although it felt like strength filled every limb, he could not feel the meridians that marked the path of qi through his body. And from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, he couldn’t sense the slightest thread of qi.
What sort of trash body had he acquired? How was he supposed to get revenge for his family, and make his way in the world, if he couldn’t cultivate martial arts?
“Damn! Damn! Damn!” Gan Zhu’s voice echoed in the crystal chamber, as he leapt to his feet. “What is this? Why can’t I feel my dantian? Have I escaped certain death, only to become a cripple and a weakling? I may as well have died with my family, if this was to be my fate instead…”
Glancing around, Gan Zhu noticed an arch of crystal that allowed him to exit the chamber. He rushed out of the opening, his frustration and anger preventing him from taking notice of how smoothly his body moved. Outside, he immediately halted, stunned by what he found.
Light blazed in a giant cavern, bigger than a city. In the very center rose a massive palace made entirely of crystals, beautiful, translucent crystals. Even Gan Zhu found his fury ebbing away, leaving only awe and amazement. He felt an immediate kinship with this place, although he wasn’t sure why.
“Sky Crystal Palace,” he murmured to himself. “That is what the silver demon in my dream called the Cerulean Abyss. Does this mean that my dream… was actually the truth? Was I saved from death by demons…?”
He leaned back against a crystal wall, while his emotions roiled heavily. Despite his hatred of Fan Bin, he had never held any ill-feelings for the rest of humanity, and the thought of becoming some sort of demon champion did not appeal to him. He remembered the stories his mother had told him when he was a child, cautionary tales of the fates of those who consorted with demons, or practiced devilish cultivation methods.
As Gan Zhu stared at the beautiful crystal palace, he began to think about his family. His father, Gan Zhou, had been an upright and righteous man. He had truly believed that it was duty of a man to become strong in order to protect the people who were important to him, a belief that he had passed on to his son. Sadly, Gan Zhou had never had the opportunities to greatly advance his own cultivation; that he had ever reached the fifth level of Qi Gathering was a small miracle.
The wife of Gan Zhou was named Mir Nanai. She had not been a cultivator like her husband, but had learned about herbs and medicine from her mother, who had been a healer. She had been teaching her own daughters as well — Gan Zhu’s three younger sisters, Gan Jia, Gan Muri, and Gan Sena. But the meager skills of a peasant healer were worth nothing to Fan Bin, who had allowed his men to do what they liked with them.
Later, once he had recovered enough to move, Gan Zhu buried all the bodies himself.
Afterwards, Gan Zhu had drifted down into North Pine City, filled with feelings of rage, regret, and despair. But his broken dantian had done more than simply doom him to death; as days passed, and he subsided on bits of money begged from passersby or food scavenged from waste, he could feel the pain in his body drain the emotions out of him. No matter how much he wanted to hold on to his hate, his body would no longer support such deep emotion.
And so his emotions faded, until he could barely remember what it felt like to feel them. He knew, then, that he did not have much longer to live.
But then something strange occurred. One night he was leaning against a wall in a back alley of North Pine City, fighting off the pain of his body, when two men suddenly appeared in front of him. Without taking any notice of him, they drew swords and began fighting each other without a word. Two — three — four — five strikes rang out, followed by a pained grunt. One of the men fell to the ground, dead, while the other took one step forward and unhesitatingly flew away, leaving the corpse in front of Gan Zhu.
For a while, Gan Zhu stared at the corpse, trying to understand what had just occurred. Gradually his eyes drifted to the sword that had dropped next to the dead man. It was an ordinary sword, with nothing special about it, but somehow it sparked a memory in his mind. A memory of when he was younger, and sitting beside the fire while his father told him stories of the martial world. He had always loved his father’s stories.
The story at that time had been about a terrible cavern known as the Cerulean Abyss, where many brave cultivators had lost their lives searching for the mystical secrets contained within. Legends of powerful artifacts from ages past, guarded by terrifying beasts; reclusive cultivators at the peak of the Void Transcending stage secretly developing forbidden arts; and most importantly… strange, potent plants and herbs, with miraculous healing properties.
Staring at the sword, something in Gan Zhu’s heart rebelled. He was suddenly unwilling to simply sit, bearing the pain and waiting for death. Was there not a sword in front of him? Hadn’t his father taught him how to swing a sword? His body ached with pain, to the point that he could barely move — so what? It was just a little pain!
There was no one in that alley to observe him. If there had been, they might have noticed Gan Zhu’s attitude suddenly change, and grow extremely cold. The pain in his eyes, the misery, the suffering, all slowly drained away, leaving behind a cold, hard nihility. It was as if the beggar who had been sitting there a moment ago, had been replaced by a completely different person!
But Gan Zhu himself did not take note of the change. Without worrying about the pain of movement, he got smoothly to his feet, and walked over to the corpse. He picked up the cheap iron blade, without considering the stinging feeling in his joints as he gripped it. The sword felt correct in his hand; even the pain of holding it felt correct, to his current state of mind.
He stepped over the corpse, and untied the sword’s sheath from its former owner’s sash. The sheath was in bad shape, cracked and worn, but Gan Zhu didn’t mind. He simply tucked the sheath into his own badly-worn belt, and placed the sword within. Armed once more, he turned his sights in the direction of the north-most gate of North Pine City.
He had expected to have a long walk ahead of him, but who could have known that on his way out of the city, he would fail to notice a certain approaching carriage, and inadvertently offend the fourth young master of the Sun clan…
Staring at the beautiful crystal palace, Gan Zhu fell into a strange mood. He actually hadn’t expected to reach the Cerulean Abyss alive; if his broken dantian didn’t fail and cause him to die instantly, no doubt he would starve to death on the road; obviously he had no money to gather provisions. Yet instead, he was picked up by the Sun fourth young master, and delivered to the mouth of the Abyss that very same day.
Furthermore, once inside the abyss itself, he found himself able to subsist to a certain degree. He quickly learned that the strange crystalline grass inside, while sparse, would soothe his hunger. Gan Zhu did not know, but this strange grass was called Cerulean Leaf, and it was an ingredient in certain alchemical pill recipes due to its potent restorative effects. Under normal circumstances, these effects would only become manifest when the Cerulean Leaf was refined, and ingesting the grass would cause very little change; but Gan Zhu’s body was already so prodigiously broken, than the minor effects of the grass were enough to fully restore his reduced stamina.
The monstrous beasts were of much greater concern. Although the beasts of the first level of the Abyss were comparatively weak, even the weakest of them would have been enough to kill the crippled Gan Zhu in a straight fight.
Fortunately, they were also fairly stupid, and Gan Zhu had found it fairly simple to lead them into traps he created from the scavenged remains of past explorers: lost bits of rope, broken tools and weapons, and even the occasional alchemic rune. Many cultivators, both strong and weak, had died in the Cerulean Abyss over the centuries, and their belongings became part of the treasures to be gained within its depths. And due to the vastness of the cavernous labyrinth, there was still plenty for Gan Zhu to discover, even on the first level.
Thus, the most deadly danger to him in the Cerulean Abyss came from other humans. From young scions of minor clans, to powerful individuals seeking secrets in the depths, every person needed to enter the Abyss at the very top, and work their way down. And not one person had any reason to lift a single hand to help one Gan Zhu.
Still… he had been fortunate. He had avoided every human party he could, and after a couple days his grasp of the terrain grew strong enough that he could hide from most parties. Not from anyone in the Core Reinforcement stage, naturally, but such an exalted individual would have no reason to take note of such a wretched cripple. But in the end, he had not been able to avoid everyone.
And yet, those he did meet tended to treat him unreasonably well. Most were suspicious, of course; since a cripple had no reason to enter the Cerulean Abyss and hope to survive, many thought that Gan Zhu was hiding his true power, just as So Tan had initially suspected back in North Pine City. But they were reassured somewhat by the complete lack of interest in Gan Zhu’s eyes. Even if he was hiding his level of cultivation, it was obvious that he had no interest in them or their possessions, so unnecessary conflict was avoided.
It hadn’t been that long ago, in Gan Zhu’s mind, but for some reason the memories of that time were somewhat hazy. The only person he clearly remembered meeting was Li Stahn, and that was mostly because the bastard had cut off his arm. Even that could be considered relatively fortunate, in that Li Stahn had deliberately left him his sword arm.
And after that… his luck had run out. Next came the precipice, and the Wolf-headed Bears. And now? Now he stood before a beautiful crystal palace, most likely in the deepest depths of the Cerulean Abyss, with no food, no weapons, and only a single word from a dream to assist him: “Breathe.” Gan Zhu could only sigh with melancholy.
“Even though my body is intact once more… I cannot cultivate anymore. I will never be able to get revenge on Fan Bin, or pursue the summit of martial arts; had I anyone left, I would not even be able to protect them, but would need protection myself! Of what worth am I, now?” His words echoed through the crystal cavern, but no answer returned to him.
Sighing again, he pulled himself back to his feet. With no better destination in mind, he headed toward the scintillating crystal palace, winding his way between buildings that seemed to have grown from crystal, rather than built by any hand. Eventually his path sloped upwards, leading him to a wide road that led up to the entrance of the palace itself. The hill was relatively steep, but to Gan Zhu’s healthy physique it was no real trial, and he appreciated the feeling of overflowing strength in his body, although he was certain that it was simply an illusion of his mind.
As he approached, he realized that the size of the cavern had mislead his eyes, and the palace was far larger than he had initially assumed. It was by far the largest structure he had ever seen in his life, almost ten times larger than the grand mansion of the Fan clan in North Pine City that he had glimpsed at a distance. He sighed in awe and appreciation at the sheer scale of the transcendent palace, and felt a certain eagerness to explore its inner secrets.
But as he walked toward the entrance, something seemed to grab his attention. His step slowed, and then stopped, as he began to feel a vast presence behind him. He was suddenly concerned that he had attracted the attention of some immortal guardian beast, and he quickly spun around to confront this possible threat.
Gan Zhu felt his eyes widen, and his jaw drop. On the far wall of the cavern, over a kilometer away, a message had been scrawled with huge letters by a strong, confident hand. To be readable at that distance, each letter must have several meters in width and height, causing Gan Zhu to wonder at the method of its creation. Furthermore, the letters glowed even in the bright crystal cavern, burning with a brilliant red light.
Dumbfounded, Gan Zhu read the message that had been left behind by some unknown being in the distant past.
You have foolishly ignored my warnings, and penetrated deep into this abyss. So be it. The great I shall have you pay the price for your arrogance.
Know that this ugly creation is the home and heart of a race of terrifyingly powerful demons, that wished to claim these three realms for their own nefarious purposes. Although the great I has exterminated every last living member of this disgusting race, no force can completely destroy these demons’ souls. Thus the great I has sealed them here in their own ugly citadel, placed at the center of an eternal seal. Although this may cause the local space to twist and warp, and cause beasts to mutate into strange forms, these effects are harmless and ignorable.
The great I has left traps and warnings to bar your path, but they were obviously not enough to restrain your greed. This, then, is your punishment: you will now serve as the guardian of this place, and prevent any others from approaching my seal. This is not an order you can ignore; this is your destiny, set forth by the great I! Those who betray their destiny shall perish! It shall be so, by my name!
Beneath the message was a symbol: four lines intersecting each other within a circle. Although the symbol looked simple, Gan Zhu felt a shudder in his soul as he gazed at it; it was obvious that whatever ancient expert had left it there was not simple at all!
Yet, as Gan Zhu stared at the message, he couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “Although I have no intention of becoming the tool of the demons in my dream… I also have no intention of becoming some sort of watchdog for this place! So you think you can decide my fate so easily? Come make me obey, then!”
He waved his hand in a rude gesture at the message on the wall, and the symbol beneath it, and resolutely spun on his heel. With no further hesitation, he marched into the crystal palace.
What Gan Zhu did not suspect… was that the power behind that message was real! No matter how strong the person who viewed it, they would immediately have their fate overwritten, and would be left with no choice but to obey the message’s intent, and to guard this place forever. Even the most powerful immortals would be captured by this ultimate trap! Such had been the fate of Kir Tai, Bin Sol, and Zebu Biel, over 2000 years before.
But Gan Zhu had no fate! No destiny could control him, now… and so he could turn his back on this message, and the power behind it could do nothing to stop him. Even though that power — was the power of a God!
This was the first confrontation between Gan Zhu and the God of Fate, the first of many. And although neither knew it had occurred, the result — was Gan Zhu’s complete victory!
- After deep thought, I’ve decided on two important points: Time will be measured in hours and minutes! Distance shall be measured in meters and kilometers! I know it’s traditional to measure in li with this kind of setting, but nuts to that! 😛
- …Eh, I guess that’s all I’ve got. See ya next time? 😉