The Balkiri Continent was an extremely dangerous place to live. Especially if you were a human; unlike monstrous beasts, humans are born weak, and only the most assiduous cultivation will prevent one from being weak for one’s entire life.
Monstrous beasts, on the other hand, were naturally blessed in comparison. Not having to worry about cultivation techniques, esoteric arts, or even basic strategy, these monstrous beasts were gifted with long life, ever-growing power, and a single path leading toward invincibility. Not to mention, many types of monstrous beast were smarter than humans as well, and capable of long-term planning to an even greater degree.
Indeed, if you were to say that the Balkiri Continent belonged in its entirety to the monstrous beasts, it would not be entirely inaccurate!
And yet, no matter where you went on the gigantic continent, you would never be too far from human habitation. Despite their relative weakness, humankind was definitely the most successful species on the Balkiri Continent, and the most tenacious survivors.
There were three main reasons for the success of humans, over the naturally gifted monstrous beasts. The first, and least important, was their ability to cultivate martial qi. Unlike monstrous beasts, there was not a single path of growth, but a nearly infinite variety of techniques to become stronger, and humans naturally gravitated towards those arts and techniques that best suited them personally. This added a much needed flexibility to humans as a species, and allowed them to target the weaknesses of their opponents, the beasts, more efficiently and effectively.
The second reason was due to the depth of human history on the Balkiri Continent. Human ingenuity had puzzled out many secrets over the centuries — secrets of qi and the human body, secrets of agriculture and alchemy, secrets of governance and human nature. These secrets were passed down unevenly and inefficiently, but they were passed down, in ancient scrolls, continually updated histories, and even the oral stories passed from father to son. The edge these teachings afforded to the naturally weak, but gregarious, humankind could not be underestimated.
Yet above these two reasons, there was a third reason, unknown and unacknowledged by any native of the mortal realm, yet absolute: the gods had decreed that humankind would be elevated above all others. And the God of Fate had imposed that fate upon each and every human, that although they might be fated to die upon the teeth and claws of monstrous beasts, they would never lose their position as the greatest and most numerous species in every realm!
Yes, that was the balance of fate: the sacrifice of many individual humans, to ensure that humanity itself would never fade.
For all that, the monstrous beasts of the mortal realm could not be directly controlled by fate, and so the God of Fate could not simply decree their extinction. Nor did he see any need to; the individual humans of the Balkiri Continent, even onto its greatest empires and strongest martial practitioners, were far, far beneath his notice. As long as humanity itself still existed, in whatever state, it would serve his purpose. And so he wove his pattern of fate, and set his subordinates to watch over it, and then he returned to his own personal matters. Leaving every human below him to their inevitable fate.
And many, many of those fates involved death at the claws of the monstrous beasts, or their claws, or their terrible, supernatural powers.
But humans being humans, they were not content to fall in vain.
The citizens of North Pine City were not properly cognizant of how fortunate they were, in the context of the Balkiri Continent as a whole. Due to a number of coincidences, and the lingering influence of the empire that once controlled the area over five centuries before, the activity of monstrous beasts in the area was remarkably, incredibly low, with few species offering a credible threat.
Indeed, there were places on the continent where living as a human required you to cultivate to the peak of Qi Gathering to simply survive, and experts in the mid levels of the Core Reinforcing stage were as common as mushrooms after a rain. In comparison, a city like North Pine, where practitioners at the fifth level of Qi Gathering were considered strong experts, could only be seen as less dangerous than a child’s cradle.
Despite this, there was still a need to guard against the depredations of monstrous beasts, even in such a peaceful area. At one time, there had been an organization that had employed various experts to hunt and kill dangerous beasts, spread around the various cities in the area. It had evolved from the remnant of a governmental agency from the fallen empire, and protected the surviving cities in the area, including North Pine, Red Rock, Spirit Depths, Golden Woods, and Eastern Catacomb.
But over the last two centuries, local clans had grown in power, and conspired against that organization, eventually reducing its influence to a single city: Eastern Catacomb City, where the remaining hunters reorganized into something like a sect, and began to leave the other four cities to their own devices.
Naturally, although this pleased the clans like the Sun and the Fan, who had solidified their control over their own city, it left the weaker citizens to a certain extent at the mercy of the monstrous beasts who quickly adapted to the disappearance of their most effective foes. The large clans naturally protected their own people and investments, but there were independant merchants and farmers who found themselves in dire need of support.
While some independants reluctantly gave up and became vassals to the clans, others took matters into their own hands by hiring mercenary experts to protect their own interests. In addition, many weaker monstrous beasts could be used for various purposes, either to cultivate qi, or create various alchemical potions and pills. Accordingly, some of these mercenary monster hunters would proactively hunt lesser beasts, and sell them to various merchants and alchemists for a reasonable sum. Naturally, the rarer the beast, the greater the payout.
And so, for the past two months, a new mercenary monster hunter had plied his trade in the area around North Pine City. Naturally, a newly inducted mercenary would not be able to establish a wide reputation in a mere two months, but those who interacted with this new monster hunter quickly gained a dual impression of him: first, he was extremely reliable; second, that he was extraordinarily creepy.
The name of this strange hunter… was Gan Zhu. He worked independently, refusing to join any organized mercenary brigade, although on occasion he would accept a commission that required him to work together with a small group. His temporary teammates would often wonder about the taciturn young man, but there were few that tried to pry into his privacy; many mercenaries intentionally concealed their past, after all.
Gan Zhu actually had no idea of the existence of mercenary monster hunters, before he descended into the Cerulean Abyss. His Gan family had been vassals of the Fan clan, and they had been provided with a certain amount of protection from that clan, including patrols that passed through the area, aiding to detect and expel monstrous beasts. Accordingly, Gan Zhu’s father had never had to deal with the mercenary hunters, and so Gan Zhu never learned of their existence in the nearby North Pine City.
But in his short week in the in the Cerulean Abyss, Gan Zhu had come in contact with a number of such mercenaries, and had actually formed a certain good feeling about the profession. Certainly, they were the epitome of the self-serving cultivator, only concerned with how to advance their own interests; but they were also not given to casual cruelty, unlike the experts associated with the local clans. A mercenary had to be concerned with their reputation, after all, or they would lose contracts to rivals who could comport themselves with greater tact.
Strength is strength, of course, and stronger mercenaries, or those with the backing of a strong brigade, could act just as arrogantly as any clan-born cultivator, and no one would dare to cross them — but it had been Gan Zhu’s good fortune that he had not yet encountered such a person. Indeed, the individuals he had met in the Abyss had all taken time to speak with and advise the broken young man, even offering him food and aid. And so, he held a good impression of the mercenary monster hunters, and when he finally returned to North Pine City, he decided to become a monster hunter himself.
His return had taken some time, however. Gan Zhu had been completely lost when he emerged from the Cerulean Abyss, and after his encounter with the Wolf-Headed Bear, he had spent several days wandering around the forests near the Abyss. He could neither find the entrance to the Abyss itself, nor the main road from North Pine to the Abyss, nor even any signs of human habitation, despite there being several villages near the Abyss, such as the village where Tai Mei lived.
If there had been anyone tracing Gan Zhu’s path from above, they would notice that he was wandering in circles, often crossing over his own path, and generally demonstrating a complete lack of direction. Not only that, whenever it seemed that he might accidentally wander in the direction of human habitation, he would soon veer off and travel in a different direction, as though he was deliberately avoiding meeting anyone!
During this period, Gan Zhu had naturally grown quite hungry, and had begun looking for food. Unfortunately, the vegetation outside the Abyss was much different from that within, and the crystalline grass that had staved off his hunger back then was nowhere to be seen. In addition, the few plants he did try to eat were not very tasty, and did not do much to fill him. This was completely natural, of course: now that Gan Zhu had a healthy body, he could no longer keep it at full strength with such minimal fare.
Fortunately, before Gan Zhu could begin to grow weak from hunger, he was attacked by a rather stupid example of a monstrous beast, a Toothy Black Rabbit. This particular beast was not especially dangerous to humans, but they were extremely common and prone to ambushing all sorts of prey without caring especially how strong their potential meal was. If they were not so prolific, they would no doubt have been wiped out due to attacking humans and beasts much stronger than they; but somehow, there were always more Toothy Black Rabbits.
This particular Rabbit’s skill at ambushing was, sadly, no match for Gan Zhu’s sensitive hearing. The young man killed the beast almost by accident, slapping the leaping rabbit out of the air and into a nearby tree entirely by instinct. He snorted, and turned to leave — but suddenly, he froze. The smell of blood had reached his nose, and he noticed that the Toothy Black Rabbit’s smell was actually quite appetizing!
Almost without thinking about it, he scooped up the corpse of the Rabbit, and ripped out a piece of flesh with his teeth. To his surprise, it was actually delicious, even raw, and he quickly found himself tearing into his unexpected meal. Very soon, he had reduced his victim to nothing but fur and bones, leaving him feeling full and satisfied.
From that moment on, he hunted Black Rabbits and other low-leveled monstrous beasts, and ate their flesh raw to sate his hunger. He soon realized that he was extremely sensitive to the sound of breathing, and he could track his prey by listening carefully, even distinguishing between different types of beast by their breathing patterns alone. Few beasts tasted as good as the Rabbits, but somehow Gan Zhu could stomach the meat of any type of beast at all, including a few that he was certain should have been poisonous.
It was pure good fortune that about two weeks after leaving the abyss, Gan Zhu accidentally stumbled across a small group of monster hunters returning from a mission. The group had been suspicious of the young man who claimed to be lost, but since he wasn’t carrying any weapons, and didn’t have the aura of a cultivator in the first place, they allowed him to tag along until the group reached North Pine City.
On the way, Gan Zhu asked a lot of questions about becoming a monster hunter, which were generally answered by the bemused leader of the group. Despite being cautioned that the work was too dangerous for a young man with no cultivation, Gan Zhu quickly absorbed the important points, and once they finally reached North Pine, he quickly began making the contacts necessary to begin his new career.
Two months later, Gan Zhu was running through the forests toward North Pine City, barely disturbing a single blade of grass in his path. He had learned much from his fellow monster hunters, but one thing he had not learned was the proper method of fighting human opponents. Thus, he could only view his battle with Li Stahn as a complete defeat, and he felt quite depressed about it.
“Still,” he comforted himself, “at least I know my weakness now. If I started fighting Fan Bin while still thinking I could handle anything under the strength of Core Refining, I might suffer quite a bit.
“But who is that Li Stahn? What is the Infinite Sky Devil Sect? What kind of training did he undergo, to be able to wield a sword to that inhuman degree?” Gan Zhu sighed. “I am still so ignorant of the world… I need to learn more, not just about beasts, but about man as well. But where should I go to learn, and whom shall I learn from? The Fan clan is only interested in this one city, as far as I can tell, while my fellow hunters are simply taking advantage of the Fan’s attitude without worrying about conditions elsewhere. I presume the other nearby cities are effectively the same…”
Gan Zhu frowned, and stopped in place as a thought hit him. “Perhaps… I should go to Eastern Catacomb City. Although it has been closed to outsiders, I am curious about the rumored monster hunter sect, and the deep tomb they are said to guard. I am fairly successful as a monster hunter myself — but the beasts around North Pine are really too weak. I want to try hunting something stronger.
“Of course, if I simply want stronger opponents, I can simply return to the Cerulean Abyss,” he chuckled to himself. “If nothing else, I want to learn to kill Wolf-headed Bears; and I am certain there could be more opportunities for my own growth in that place…”
Actually, Gan Zhu surprisingly found himself attracted to the idea of returning to the Cerulean Abyss. While he told himself that it was for logical reasons, he couldn’t help feeling that the atmosphere within the Abyss had grown comfortable to him. The image of the beautiful crystal palace passed briefly through his mind, and he felt a strange ache in his heart, almost like homesickness — though of course, that place was not his home, nor a place for humans to live; or so he told himself.
He shook himself, shaking off the strange mood, and said aloud, “Well. There is no reason to make a quick decision. At the very least, I should do a few more jobs in North Pine City, and gather resources for a journey. I would prefer not to be reduced to eating raw Black Rabbit meat again.” He smirked in self-derision. “Speaking of which…”
His form flickered, and disappeared. In an instant, there was a high-pitched shriek, followed by a swift cracking sound. Two unfortunate Toothy Black Rabbits had come across Gan Zhu as he contemplated, and they had been moving silently toward the young man in an attempt to ambush him. But how could they have known that Gan Zhu had already heard their breathing, and knew exactly where they hid? Instead of ambushing, they were ambushed instead, and they did not have a single chance to flee before Gan Zhu snapped their necks with a single hand apiece.
“Hmmm, it seems lunch has come calling,” the young man spoke cheerfully. “I could cook you myself, I suppose, but… why don’t we stop by Old Mehek’s place? He might grill up one of you for me, if I gift him the other. It’s fortunate that your meat is delicious to everyone… although, I suppose it is unfortunate for you two.”
Chuckling, Gan Zhu began to run again. The prospect of a meal had revived his spirit, and he was actually quite hungry after fighting Li Stahn for such a long time. Thus, he began to hurry back to the city, anticipating the delicious taste of grilled rabbit.
It was unfortunate that, when he finally arrived, he learned that Old Mehek would not be grilling his Black Rabbits, or anything else for that matter.
Gan Zhu stood atop a building, and stared gloomily at the former market which had held the majority of his contacts. Corpses were lying everywhere, and the entire district had been burned to the ground, leaving only smoldering ruins. The soldiers of the Fan clan could be seen patrolling the area, assuring no one could approach.
“What… happened here?” he muttered to himself. “Is this my fault? Is this because I killed those useless Fan soldiers earlier? Ridiculous, who would destroy an entire market over a single unit of guards? There must be something more to this, something I don’t know, however…”
Gan Zhu looked at the corpses lying in piles, and thought he recognized one or two personally. He spit to one side, and glared at the soldiers laughing nearby. “I had initially only intended to punish Fan Bin for his crimes, but it seems that the entire Fan clan is the same way. Fine, then. I will see the entire clan brought down by my own hand,” he vowed quietly to himself.
He turned his back on the destroyed market, and the Fan soldiers, and slipped away into the city. On his way, he tossed the Black Rabbits to a group of street children who looked half-starved; personally, he wasn’t hungry anymore.
The sun was just beginning to set as Gan Zhu arrived back at the small room he had rented, in a poor section of the city. The security in the area was bad, and guards never came to the area. Still, the desperate people who lived in the area knew better than to draw the attention of an obviously dangerous person like Gan Zhu, so he was never robbed, or assaulted by the local thugs. His landlord was an ugly old man who asked no questions as long as Gan Zhu kept paying him.
There were others living in the same building, but they ignored the presence of Gan Zhu, and he ignored them in turn. He kept nothing of importance in his room, and thus did not even bother to lock the door. In the short time he had lived there, no one had ever entered his room except him, as far as he knew, and none of his limited possessions had ever gone missing.
As he walked up the stairs that led to the upper floor where his room was located, he could hear the others who lived in his building breathing in their own rooms. The landlord on the first floor was counting coins and grumbling to himself, while the crazy man who seldom left his room was muttering and drawing on the walls again, judging by the scratching sound. It seemed that the prostitute who lived across from Gan Zhu had already left for the evening, as he couldn’t hear her in her room. She had propositioned Gan Zhu once, but he had bluntly turned her down and she hadn’t approached him again, seemingly slightly frightened of the strange young hunter. There were three others around the building, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything of interest.
Gan Zhu heard nothing from his own room, which was exactly as he expected. He opened his door and walked in, confident that he was alone; and therefore, he was completely shocked when a voice next to him spoke in a strange accent: “Freeze. And keep those hands where I can see them, mister.”
- I’m actually posting on time? Madness! 😛
- That said, I already anticipate the next chapter being late, since I have to handle it a little carefully. Full explanation once I post it. 😉
- I don’t know… I have a feeling that this chapter was just all over the place, with world-building, GZ’s recent past, and his current feelings, and I’m not sure I transitioned everything well. If anyone has any complaints or suggestions, please leave a comment…
- Actually, even if you don’t have any complaints or suggestions, please leave a comment. I have about 25 WordPress followers, which is cool, but only three people usually leave comments, leaving me unsure about how many people are actually reading/enjoying my stories. I get insecure, y’know? 😛
- Thanks for reading! Me and my U-Boat will see you on Sunday! 😀