I stood on a rolling, hilly plain, covered with high, crystalline grass. I had never seen this scenery before, I was certain of that; but it had a peaceful, nostalgic feeling to it. The sky above me was a pale blue, and a bright white sun blazed down from its noon-time height. It was a beautiful, calming scene–
“Ah, there you are, young pup!”
A loud, exuberant voice sounded out behind me, and I flinched, startled. Before I could turn, an arm wrapped itself around my neck, and a hand began ruffling my hair. In surprise, I turned my head, only to see a black-furred jackal head grinning at me with open amusement.
It was the demon woman, Marah.
“So!” she said, gazing at me with a carefree smile, “How do you like your new body?”
“…It’s healthy,” I replied slowly.
“That it is,” she agreed. “Much healthier than your former body, so feel free to rampage a bit! You’ll get a feel for it soon, and then you won’t have to worry about the average human warrior. Just keep breathing, you get it?”
“But… I can’t cultivate,” I told her. Her muzzle scrunched up a bit in confusion.
“Kulti-what, now?” she asked.
“Cultivation,” I said solemnly. “Making your body stronger by circulating Qi from your dantian through your meridians to fortify your body.”
“Huh,” she huffed. “Never heard of it. So what?”
“It’s how humans become stronger,” I explained. “Now that I can’t cultivate, I can’t increase my strength, and I will inevitably be bullied by everyone stronger than me.”
“Ah, no way,” Marah said, waving her free hand. For some reason, her other arm was still wrapped around my neck. “That doesn’t apply to you. We’ve got a better system, trust me.”
“…Really?” I asked doubtfully.
“Of course!” she exclaimed with confidence. “Not only that, you’re already implementing the best Arte, so you have no need to worry at all!”
“And that’s… breathing?”
“That’s right!” Marah declared triumphantly, eyes sparkling. “The very best Anubai Arte, the Arte of Breath! The strongest Arte for living a good life!”
I tilted my head at her excitement. “You… are really enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Shards, yes,” she chuckled. “I’ve been waiting for this for ages, you know. Ever since I died. And not only that, I get you before any of the others, so I don’t have to deal with any boring habits you might have picked up from them. It’s literally the perfect situation for me, you know!
“And so!” she announced, pointing at my head. “Let’s fight!”
“Wha–” I barely had time to make a sound before I found myself floating in circles through the air. Panicking, I tried to get my feet under me, but to no avail, as I crashed into the ground and went tumbling through the grass.
“Hahahahahaha!” I heard a laughing voice circling my location, and quickly pushed myself to my feet. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t follow Marah with my eyes, and I could barely pick out her afterimage in the corner of my eye. “This is the Crux, so you can’t die, so just do your best to grasp my Breath, ok? And keep breathing! This is lesson two!”
I felt a sudden impact on my chest, and I painfully flew into the air once more. I tried to retain my balance, but even as I tried to stabilize myself, two more strikes came from different directions, causing me to spin in the air. Without being able to recover at all, I came crashing back to the ground, and the impact drove the air from my lungs.
I struggled to take a breath, and it was difficult — but the moment air filled my lungs, I felt the pain recede, and strength filled my limbs once more. I was still struggling, but a single breath improved my condition by a huge amount. Was this… the Arte of Breath?
“Good!” came Marah’s voice from just beside me. I quickly spun, but I didn’t catch a single glimpse of her before her strike sent me cartwheeling through the air. “Just keep that up! Breathe, and breathe, and breathe, and you can eventually find a way to win, right? Right! Let’s go, let’s go!”
I coughed as I hit the ground once more, quickly breathing in to quicken my recovery. A blow from behind sent me bouncing down a hill, before a second hit sent me flying back up. Any time I almost recovered my equilibrium, a series of strikes would send me spiraling away from the ground once more. Eventually I couldn’t even try to defend, and just concentrated on breathing. Each breath out brought blows and pain, while each breath in brought welcome relief.
All the time, I could hear Marah laughing as she toyed with me. A rebellious feeling began to rise in my heart; I couldn’t stop her from beating me, but I didn’t have to accept it gracefully. Thus, I forced myself to gather a full breath, and shouted out, “Damn you, demon! You’re enjoying this way too much!”
“Hahahahaha…” Her unrestrained laughter was her only response, along with unceasing blows.
Gan Zhu woke up suddenly, his eyes wide. “You damn demon–” he shouted, before realizing he was no longer in his dream, but back in the crystal palace. He was seated on a low crystal chair, in the center of a tiered amphitheater he had found in the depths of this strange structure. There were many rows of seats, most with strange miniature tables attached to them, and they all faced a single giant curved crystal wall. Gan Zhu marveled again at the space, and wondered what it had been used for, back when the demons had been living here.
Gan Zhu had explored the demonic palace for several hours before finding this room. To be honest, he had become lost fairly quickly, but he was so fascinated by the massive structure that he couldn’t bring himself to worry about finding his way back out. The palace was beautiful, even on the inside, and the sourceless, multicolored light was bright and comforting.
The structure of the palace was strange and complex. The corridors and rooms that Gan Zhu could walk through were obviously less than half of the palace, and he was very curious about what might be hidden away behind the thick crystal walls. For a short while he tried tapping on various walls, looking for hollow spots or hidden panels, but he couldn’t find anything suspicious. On the other hand, he didn’t come across any closed doors, so he could explore any room he became interested in.
The contents of the rooms mystified him as well. A couple he could almost identify from his own experience. For instance, there had been a series of rooms down a single corridor, each filled with a number of crystal slabs attached horizontally to the walls, giving the appearance of bunk beds. Gan Zhu speculated that these might have been rooms for sleeping, although he was uncertain whether the demons that had lived here actually required sleep. Another room had been long and wide, and several tables ran lengthwise down it with benches set alongside them; it looked to Gan Zhu’s eye like a large dining room, but when he explored the area nearby, he was unable to find anything that reminded him of a kitchen.
The palace was mystifying and fascinating, and Gan Zhu regretted not knowing more of the world, in order to make better guesses as to the true nature of this place. But eventually, he found his way to the strange amphitheater, and it’s rings of seats, and he had sat down on the center chair to rest for a moment.
And he must have fallen asleep, then, because he soon found himself in a dream once more. His face twisted as he remembered the beating he had just taken from the excessively enthusiastic demon woman, Marah.
“What was with that…?” Gan Zhu muttered aloud. “Is my current state not miserable enough? Why are my dreams even more ridiculous?” Oddly, his body ached, as though he had taken the innumerable attacks in reality. And yet, every breath he took caused the feeling to fade, while causing him to feel even more healthy and energetic. The Arte of Breath…
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It was only a dream. It’s obviously impossible for a human to become strong simply by breathing. Although… perhaps those dreams are linked to this place, somehow. That Marah woman told me how to escape these depths, before I woke. If I follow those directions… can I really reach the surface immediately?”
In his dream, the demon had eventually ended her “lesson” once it became clear that Gan Zhu could no longer pull himself to his feet. Until the very end his dream self couldn’t sense her “Breath,” whatever that was supposed to mean, but Marah didn’t seem disappointed. Instead, she crouched down next to his body and patted him on the head, praising him for doing well. He had been quite frustrated by the situation.
“Ah, yes,” Marah had said suddenly. “You’re stuck in our Sky Crystal Palace currently, aren’t you? It would be boring to leave you there, but… yeah, I guess there are a lot of strong mutated creatures in the vicinity, huh?”
She snapped her muzzle a couple of times in thought, and then her eyes brightened. “Ah, I have an excellent idea! We’ll just put you directly on the surface. The Room of Transfer should be set to drop you somewhere reasonable, so let’s just use that. Let’s see, you’re in the Master Room right now, so head out the door, turn right, and go straight down the corridor to the end. Take a left, then a right at the third cross corridor, then go through the fourth door on the right. That’s actually a transport shaft, so jump down to the bottom — ah, don’t worry, even though it looks a little deep, the Palace will ensure you reach the bottom safely. Yeah, ok, at the bottom, you’ll exit into a large room, and the door you want is… um, I think it’s third from the right. Or the fourth. One of those. Anyway, there should be an active transfer pattern in one of those rooms, just stand on it and put a drop or so of blood on it, and it will automatically activate. Probably.
“And then, you can go rampage with those humans to your heart’s content!” she finished triumphantly, looking proud. Gan Zhu, still lying prone on the ground, had looked at her with a blank expression. Noting his lack of comprehension, Marah laughed and shrugged. “Ah, you’ll figure it out. Now off you go! See you soon!”
And with a laugh and a smile, the demon woman suddenly — ripped out his throat with her fangs!
“That damn demon!” Gan Zhu shouted aloud upon recalling that scene. “Not only did she not explain a single thing, she even killed me! What an evil dream!” He ground his teeth in anger, then sighed as he forcibly suppressed his rage. The demon woman wasn’t here for him to get angry at, in any case; further, she might not even be real, which would mean that he was getting angry at his own imagination. The thought made him feel slightly depressed.
In any case, following the directions in his dream seemed nonsensical, but they were the only clue he had to escaping this place. To begin with, if this palace truly was in the depths of the Cerulean Abyss, there was no way his body with zero cultivation could face the numerous monsters and dangers. If a shortcut back to the surface existed, he definitely needed to find it!
Gan Zhu stared downward in disbelief. “She calls this ‘a little deep’? This is obviously a bottomless pit!”
His voice echoed in the deep, dark hole; oddly, the ubiquitous light somehow failed to penetrate the darkness of the descent. The directions from the demon woman in his dream had been accurate, up until he reached the room she had referred to as a “transport shaft.” He had been prepared for a long drop, but he couldn’t even see the bottom! It was obviously suicide to jump into that pit!
And yet… Marah had said, “the Palace will ensure that you reach the bottom safely.” Gan Zhu wondered what that meant. Was this Sky Crystal Palace… alive? He remembered his father’s stories, about how legendary weapons used by peerless experts would occasionally awaken a form of intelligence, and become able to destroy mountains and level forests with a single swing. Once those experts died, the weapons would be unusable by any except the one the weapon acknowledges as its next owner. But did something like that apply to something as huge as a palace made of crystal?
“I’ve come this far, and I have working body now. Even though I can’t cultivate now, I’m not resigned to simply dying. After all, perhaps in the future I will find a way to restore my dantian and meridians to a normal state! Therefore, I definitely don’t want to throw myself down this bottomless pit,” Gan Zhu muttered to himself. “And yet, surrounding this palace should be the Cerulean Abyss! Even if I was an all-powerful Void Transcending cultivator, I would still be in grave danger. If I were to wander randomly, I would almost certainly lose my life!
“Are those my two choices? To throw myself into this pit, risking my life with only a dream to guarantee my safety, or to try to escape through the most deadly location in the world?” Gan Zhu laughed, dully. “Truly, for what reason do I still have a life? At this rate I’m just going to end up throwing it away.”
He stared at the pit for a moment, then resolutely turned his back. “It seems to me… that I have not confirmed that this palace is in fact the lowest level of the Cerulean Abyss. I should explore around the edges of the city outside, to see if I can find an exit from this cavern. If I run into trouble, it won’t be too late to retreat back to this place. I’m only concerned about finding food — I’m not hungry, yet, but I’m certain that I have seen nothing to eat since I awakened in that place. This could be a huge problem if I am, indeed, trapped here…”
Unbeknownst to Gan Zhu, the Sky Crystal Palace was truly the heart of the Cerulean Abyss. And the guardians on this level were so far above his comprehension, he wouldn’t have even a moment to regret his decision before he was killed. That they had not attacked him until now, was entirely the influence of the Sky Crystal Palace. Once he left its environs — he would be attacked immediately!
Perhaps, then, it was simply good fortune that as Gan Zhu began to stride away, a sudden incongruous feeling stopped him. In that instant, he had thought that he had heard something behind him: a quiet, almost undetectable, susurrus of air.
He turned immediately. Nothing had changed to his sight, and for a moment he wondered if he had imagined it. But moved by an impulse, he closed his eyes, and simply listened. Ever since he had entered the palace, he’d heard nothing but the sound of his own breathing and movement. This had reassured him, at the time, as he was wary of meeting anything that might live in such a bizarre structure.
But now, he was beginning to realize that he could hear something else. It was quiet and slow, but unceasing, and now that he had noticed it he couldn’t stop hearing it anymore.
It was the sound of something breathing.
Gan Zhu slowly began to feel true fear, a feeling as though he had been swallowed by a gigantic beast. “Is this palace… alive?” he murmured. “Some sort of crystal monstrous beast? Could this deep pit simply lead into its stomach?”
He hesitated, caught by an instinctive revulsion, but before he could collect his wits enough to flee, a new thought caught him, holding him in place once more. “That demon woman directed me here, and now I’ve begun to hear a breath in this place. Could this be related to… the Arte of Breath?
“If I grasp the breath, like she instructed at that time… could I then reach the bottom of this pit safely?”
With a sudden firm resolve, Gan Zhu seated himself on the floor, and relaxed as if he were going to begin to cultivate. But rather than seek out his dantian to circulate Qi, he simply listened to the sound of his own breathing, and the long slow breath that seemed to belong to the palace itself. Without trying too hard to understand his own intentions, he began to match his breathing to that distant cycle.
For some time, although he felt that each breath left him stronger and healthier, he couldn’t seem to come to any new understanding. But slowly, his own breath lost synchronicity with that of the palace, and started to fall just slightly behind it. But this slight difference — brought forth a huge change! Instead of matching the mysterious breath, Gan Zhu was resonating with it; and this sense of resonance brought huge gains!
Firstly, Gan Zhu felt his body’s strength and toughness grow abnormally quickly; he was now completely certain that he was getting stronger simply by breathing. This alone was enough to completely shock him, but he also quickly realized that his hearing was growing even more acute. He could literally hear the blood flowing in his own veins!
In addition, he now realized that he had a profound connection to the crystal palace itself. It wasn’t so thorough that he could grasp its layout, but he could sense movement beneath its crystal walls. This movement was the breath he had heard, and it seemed that it was also a quiet but invincible force which flowed from the palace into his own body.
“Is this… Demonic cultivation?” Gan Zhu muttered, his words sounding like a shout in his own ears. “I am certain that I am growing stronger, but… the power is not coming from my own dantian, but an outside source. If I leave this place, won’t I lose the strength I gained?”
He considered the question in his mind, but… in the end, he would have to leave this place eventually, and then he would find out for certain. There would be no point in worrying about it until that time.
Gan Zhu turned his attention back to the deep pit in front of him. Immediately he understood why he had suddenly heard the mysterious breath in this room: it was clearly circulating in the shaft. Unlike the breath hidden in the walls, this breath was exposed and relatively obvious. Not only that, it gave Gan Zhu a feeling of security, as though it would definitely hold him up.
He opened his eyes, and looked doubtfully at the pit. Its appearance had not changed, even now; but he could hear the power in the air. He closed his eyes once more, and when he opened them again, they were filled with resolution. He stood up and glared at the shaft.
“Hmph! I don’t want to be some demon’s servant, but if they are going to offer me power, I will certainly accept! And if it’s simply my madness, then it is better to put an end to this existence! Either way, I will not hesitate any further!”
Without another word, he dashed forward and threw himself into the shaft!
Gan Zhu’s feet landed gently on the crystal floor. His expression was complex, and even he wasn’t sure if he was feeling excitement or fear.
In the end, he had fallen — no, he had drifted down the long shaft for an extended period of time. Disturbingly, there had never been any feeling of motion at all, not even the feeling of wind rushing by his body. It seemed more like the world itself had moved around him while he stayed fixed in place.
And then he reached the bottom, more suddenly than he expected. The floor had approached quickly, but before he could slam into the unyielding crystal his speed was dramatically reduced, and instead he touched down as lightly as a feather. He felt relief; yet at the same time, he felt like this was simply to be expected. He wasn’t sure where this confidence was coming from, and it worried him, slightly.
Just like Marah had told him in his dream, a large chamber awaited him outside of the transport shaft, with several doors around the perimeter. What she had failed to mention, however, was the large slab of highly reflective crystal that stood in the center. It was a hexagonal pillar that seemed to be holding up the ceiling, but Gan Zhu had the feeling that it’s true purpose wasn’t nearly so simple. He approached the pillar cautiously, and for the first time since his reawakening he beheld his own form.
Upon seeing himself, Gan Zhu immediately felt relief, because his appearance completely matched his own memory of himself. But because he had never seen his reflection since his destruction at the hands of Fan Bin, he failed to notice that the impression he gave others had completely changed. The traces of suffering on his face, as well as the pain present in his every movement, had entirely disappeared. Even more strikingly, he no longer had the dead-eyed gaze that had so disturbed Sun Tzi and the others. Instead, his eyes held an overwhelming strong conviction, as though he was absolutely certain of his own strength. Indeed, if any of the people he had met in the Abyss saw him now, they would have a hard time recognizing him as the same person!
Instead of his face and body, Gan Zhu’s attention was drawn to his clothes. It hadn’t occurred to him until this moment, but he was not currently wearing the threadbare clothes that were his only outfit at the time he entered the abyss. Instead, he was wearing a clean, off-white tunic and pants, with a grey sash tied around his waist. The outfit was very low-key, and unlikely to gain him a second glance in a cosmopolitan city like North Pine, but the cut seemed a bit unusual to his eye, and he was uncertain what material the threads were made of, although he was certain it was neither cotton nor silk.
Still, the outfit was comfortable to his skin, and unlikely to draw unwanted attention, so Gan Zhu decided that replacing it was not a priority. With a nod, he turned away from the mirrored pillar and walked towards the rooms that the demon woman had suggested would hold the key to his escape.
As it happened, the third door from the right was merely a gently curved corridor, which Gan Zhu decided not to follow. Instead, he investigated the fourth exit from the right. Inside that small room, a strange geometric pattern was drawn on the floor. He eyed the pattern warily, as he could hear that the Breath of the palace was much stronger in this place. Opposite from the door, a strangely tilted table stood next to the pattern.
Curious, Gan Zhu circled around the outside of the pattern to take a closer look at the table. To his surprise, the surface of the table flickered with patterns of light, patterns that reminded him of written characters, although he couldn’t understand the language they were written in. He reached out a hand, but then he hesitated.
“I shouldn’t touch this,” he murmured aloud. “That demon said that the ‘transfer pattern’ would send me some place reasonable. If this table is connected to the pattern, which seems likely, a random change might cause it to send me some place unreasonable instead. I am… reluctant… to trust the words of a demon, but she hasn’t guided me wrong thus far.
“Fine, I will take the risk!” So declaring, Gan Zhu strode to the center of the pattern. Immediately, he could feel the power of Breath on his skin, and he shivered in reaction. Even now, he wasn’t certain that he wasn’t making a mistake — but he no longer had room to hesitate! Deliberately, he put his thumb into his mouth, and bit down. His teeth cut his skin, and a drop of blood welled up on the surface of his thumb. Grimly, but without hesitation, he shook his hand, causing the drop to fall upon the pattern carved into the crystal floor.
Immediately, the pattern surged with light. The strange geometric figures suddenly took on a third dimension, as beams of coherent light encased Gan Zhu in eldritch shapes he couldn’t hope to immediately comprehend. And then, everything around him blurred, the colors smearing, the very space around him twisting and spiralling. This all happened in an instant, before Gan Zhu had a chance to react; and then, the world snapped back into place, and the light faded. But as he had half-expected, he was no longer in the crystal palace, or even the Cerulean Abyss!
Gan Zhu looked around in amazement. He stood atop a craggy hill, covered with tall pines and underbrush. A brook trickled nearby, and the air was filled with birdsong and the buzz of insects. He took a deep breath of delicious fresh air, and broke into a wide smile. The demon woman Marah hadn’t lied: he was back on the surface!
But before he could take stock of his current location, he heard a familiar howl nearby, and his smile immediately disappeared as his face paled. He had last heard that howl on the third floor of the Cerulean Abyss: it was the distinctive howl of a Wolf-headed Bear…
- It’s long. Which is fine. But it takes longer to write long chapters. #ObviousTruths
- Cliffhanger? What cliffhanger? >.>
- Template? What template? <.<
- I know what’s going to happen next chapter. But not the chapter after that. Maybe this would be a good moment to switch novels again? 😛
- Thanks for reading! 😀