“The ‘Oracle,’” Gan Zhu repeated wonderingly. “What is an ‘Oracle’?”
The woman with a warrior’s appearance hummed thoughtfully to herself. “That is an interesting question, young man. Normally, I would say that I am a messenger of the gods and spirits; but there are few spirits in this world, and no gods.”
Gan Zhu stared at her blankly, completely failing to understand her meaning. Surprisingly, it was Lost Justice who reacted to her words, straightening up from where he leaned against the wall. “Hey, wait a sec. That ain’t what ya told me earlier. Ain’t we hiding here because ya didn’t want to get caught by the gods of this world?”
“Yes, that is true,” agreed the woman, smiling at Lost Justice. “But the gods of this world are not gods; they are men.”
“Wait… what?” exclaimed Lost Justice.
“Impossible!” said Gan Zhu at the same time, entirely shocked by the woman’s words.
The warrior woman’s smile became somewhat crooked. “Didn’t we agree that you weren’t going to use that phrase anymore?” she asked, gazing fondly at Lost Justice.
The rugged man snorted, and looked away. “I say what I want,” he muttered under his breath.
The woman chuckled to herself, then turned her gentle smile back to Gan Zhu. “I can explain everything, if you like, but it will take some time. Do you mind?”
Gan Zhu caught his breath, suddenly recalling his current predicament. This woman was acting gentle, but she commanded the dangerous Lost Justice, and had already trapped Gan Zhu in this strange space. If Gan Zhu were to offend her, never mind getting revenge on Fan Bin, he might never see the sky above the Balkiri Continent again, being trapped in this bizarre dimension until he starved to death!
He absolutely couldn’t afford to offend this woman!
Accordingly, he set aside his pride and knelt before the warrior woman, and said, “If honored expert wishes to instruct this humble one, it will be my honor.”
“My, how polite,” said the woman with a chuckle, smiling approvingly at Gan Zhu. Meanwhile, Lost Justice seemed to be repressing laughter, but both the Oracle and Gan Zhu ignored him. “Very well… Gan Zhu, I know that you do not know the structure of this world, so let me start from the very basics.”
The Oracle reached out a hand, and drew a line in the air front of her. To Gan Zhu’s surprise, a glowing blue line appeared in the air, straight and horizontal. “This world is composed of three great realms. The lowest realm, the base upon which everything else rests, is known as the Mortal Realm; your Balkiri continent is just one small region of this unknowably vast world. There are three other continents of a similar size, and innumerable smaller islands, scattered across wide and dangerous seas.
“By the way,” she remarked casually to Lost Justice, “the area of the Balkiri continent is greater than the surface area of your entire planet.”
“Wai–” began Lost Justice, before he caught himself with a cough. “I mean, seriously? Oceans included?” he asked skeptically.
“Phew… well, ya did say this world was weird, I guess,” the man grumbled, rolling a strange piece of metal across his knuckles absently. The Oracle looked pointedly at his hand, and he tucked the metal away in a pocket with a cough.
“And it only gets stranger. Now, Gan Zhu: above the Mortal Realm lies the Immortal Realm.” The Oracle raised her hand, and then brought it down, forming a red triangle on top of the blue line. “This realm is also known as ‘The Eternal Mountain,’ and it takes the form of an enormous mountain which reaches beyond the sky itself. Although it stands above the Mortal Realm, it is also a world unto itself; and as the name suggests, it is populated by those cultivators who have reached the stage beyond Void Transcending: the Immortals.
“To rise from the Mortal Realm to the Immortal Realm, the humans of this world must raise their own level beyond the three stages of Mortal Cultivation as well. They must overcome the first thirty levels of what is known, in the higher realms, as ‘The Hundred Perfect Steps of Human Cultivation.’” The Oracle paused, then said, “At least, that is normally the case.”
“Huh… What happens if a normal human like me goes to this ‘Immortal World’?” asked Lost Justice. If Gan Zhu had not been kneeling, he might have staggered when he heard the man refer to himself as a “normal human,” but the Oracle simply laughed.
“An ordinary mortal, or indeed any human who had not reached at least the peak of the Void Transcending stage, would be crushed to death by the pressure. Again, normally,” she responded. “Incidentally, the current you would probably only be a little uncomfortable.”
“Ah, right,” muttered Lost Justice. Gan Zhu wanted to ask what she meant by that, but a glare from Lost Justice caused him to quickly close his mouth.
“Don’t mind him, he’s just a little grumpy,” said the Oracle to Gan Zhu with a chuckle. She raised a hand, and above the red triangle she drew a gold circle. “Now, as the Immortal Realm lies above the Mortal, so too does the Deity Realm exist at the peak of the Eternal Mountain. Within this realm reside those whose cultivation has exceeded seventy levels of cultivation: the beings known as ‘Gods’. And above all the other God-level cultivators, there exists one single man who has cultivated to the very limit — the only person to ever reach the hundredth level of human cultivation.
“This man is known as — the God of Fate.”
The Oracle raised an open palm to the simple picture she had drawn. Suddenly, from the center of the golden circle representing the Deity Realm, black lines began to spread. Forming designs like a spider’s web, the lines reached out and began constricting around the golden circle, before spreading down the red lines of the Eternal Mountain, and then across the blue line of the Mortal Realm. Somehow, the creepy movement of the lines sent a chill down Gan Zhu’s spine; he felt like he was watching insects crawling on a corpse, and he felt a wave of instinctive revulsion.
“The God of Fate controls everything within the three realms,” explained the Oracle. Her gentle smile had faded, leaving behind a solemn look. “The web of fate determines everything, from a human’s birth to their death. But most importantly, from the point of view of the God of Fate… it determines the limits of an individual’s cultivation.”
“The… limits?” asked Gan Zhu, confused. “Isn’t everyone’s limit determined by their own effort? Those who put in less effort will naturally have fewer results…”
The Oracle nodded, then shook her head. “That is true, of course. But there is a hidden truth, there. While the lazy person you describe might not reach a higher level than a hard worker, that hard worker will one day reach a point where they will no longer be able to progress. This is not simply a bottleneck; this is a solid wall, preventing them from progressing further. And the only thing that determines the placement of that wall — is fate.
“You — the previous you, that is — did not rise above the second level of cultivation, correct? I regret to say that you would be unlikely to have risen much further, even had you survived; although of course, your death was the work of fate as well. From beginning to end, you were unable to escape your fate…” The Oracle gazed sympathetically at Gan Zhu, and even Lost Justice seemed a bit sobered as he watched on.
Gan Zhu remained silent, trying to understand what he had been told. Of course, in his heart he wanted to reject the Oracle’s words, but he had to admit that they had the ring of truth to his ears. He had entirely blamed Fan Bin for the death of his family, and the suffering he had undergone since that time, but after listening to the Oracle and learning of the God of Fate, he had to admit that he felt a strange sort of inevitability to the events of his life, as far back as he could remember. Thinking about it now, he couldn’t help but feel that everything had been decided for him; and he began to feel a deep resentment towards the God of Fate burning deep in his chest.
Always assuming, of course, that this Oracle was, in fact, telling the truth.
“But, I survived,” said Gan Zhu slowly. He missed the look of surprise that flitted across the Oracle’s face, though her expression quickly returned to a gentle smile. “That fate — my fate — no longer applies, correct?”
“Well, that is true,” agreed the Oracle. “But you are getting ahead of my story, I’m afraid. Patience, young hero.”
Gan Zhu’s eyes widened. “What… why do you call me that?”
“All in good time.” The warrior woman soothed him with a smile. “For the time being… Do you see, now, how the God of Fate controls everything within these three realms?”
“…Yes, I understand,” responded Gan Zhu. “He controls the fate of everything, through that black web.”
“And their limits. That is the most important point,” the Oracle insisted. “Through fate, and the destiny he hands down, he prevents any and all challenges within these three realms. The eternal God of Fate fully intends to remain eternal, and he controls everything to make certain that this will never change.
“But, my dear Gan Zhu, he cannot control anything outside these three realms.” The Oracle quickly raised her finger and drew a circle, completely surrounding the diagram of the three realms she had previously drawn. The line that appeared shimmered with rainbow light, and Gan Zhu felt a strange emotion in his chest as he watched it.
“There are other worlds than these, Gan Zhu; a truly countless number. Some belong to humans, while others are the home of… stranger creatures. The God of Fate is aware of these worlds, and is constantly on guard against intrusions into his domain. Because you see…” The Oracle brought out a small crystal stone and placed it upon the blue line that represented the mortal realm, where it remained hanging in the air unsupported. Immediately upon touching the crystal, the black webs that had twisted around that blue line snapped and began waving freely in the air. “…his web of Fate cannot control that which comes from outside.”
“The Crystal Palace,” murmured Gan Zhu, somehow convinced by the explanation. His eyes widened. “The message carved on that wall — could it have been left by the God of Fate? I have never witnessed a more arrogant statement, and it claims to punish with an unavoidable destiny…”
Lost Justice raised an eyebrow. “Do ya have any idea what he’s on about now?” he asked the Oracle, a hint of curiosity in his voice.
The Oracle coughed gently. “To a certain extent,” she said, a note of warning in her tone. Lost Justice squinted at her a bit, then shrugged; Gan Zhu, on the other hand, watched her closely.
“Then… you know of the demon palace, hidden in the Cerulean Abyss?” he questioned.
“Yes, I am aware of the Anubai Sky Crystal Palace,” replied the Oracle, nodding to him. Gan Zhu noted the emphasis she gave the word “Anubai.”
“You… are you associated with those demons?” he demanded, voiced raised in anger. Then he paled as he remembered just who the powerful expert he was yelling at was. He glanced over at Lost Justice, only to see the assassin watching him with narrowed eyes. A cold shiver went down his spine.
But the Oracle simply smiled, and spoke gently to him. “I have spoken to many different beings, including the Anubai, as an extension of my duties as the Oracle — but I would not say that I am associated with them,” she explained. Then, her expression changed to a quizzical frown. “But, why are you angry with the Anubai? They are… the ones supporting you, are they not? You are their hero…”
Gan Zhu pressed his lips together, and did not speak in reply. The Oracle watched him with concern, but did not press him; leaning once more against the wall, Lost Justice tapped his fingers against the grip of his artifact, and kept his own council.
Finally, Gan Zhu spoke out. “I… appreciate, that the demons revived me in the Abyss,” he said slowly. “I am glad that I have the opportunity to redress the grievances I suffered at the hands of my enemies. But, I can no longer practice true cultivation; the demons forced their strange Artes upon me, and I cannot judge my own strength anymore. Even if I wanted to learn their Artes, it seems I have no aptitude for most of them…”
“…And you are understandably worried,” the Oracle finished for him, sympathetically. “You fear that you cannot catch up to your opponents, who have a clear path to growing stronger; meanwhile, you struggle in shadow with abilities you don’t fully understand. And the one teacher you have… is not much given to explanations. Am I not correct?”
Gan Zhu scowled, but nodded to her words. To his surprise, the Oracle stood up from her chair. Although she moved slowly, as though a great weight was being pressed down upon her, her movements spoke of both strength and subtlety, and of a perfect certainty. Quietly she walked over to where Gan Zhu knelt.
Crouching down beside the young man, she placed her hands on either side of his head, and stared directly into his eyes. The conviction in her gaze froze Gan Zhu in place, and he couldn’t bring himself to pull away.
The Oracle spoke with perfect certainty: “My dear Gan Zhu, there is nothing you need to fear. The strength of the humans in this world, the so-called Hundred Perfect Steps — is nothing but a template, a facade. It was something picked up by humans simply so they could live in this world; it was never meant to define humanity. Cultivation as you know it… is simply a weapon. It can be taken up — but it can also be put down, when there is no further need for it.
“Gan Zhu, you have no need for this cultivation. Your Artes, the Anubai Artes, are far deeper, much more fundamental, than any mere body strengthening technique, or tricks with energy manipulation. Furthermore, you are a hero of the Anubai: you have potential for not merely one major Arte, but four! Your current teacher, the black-furred Bloodslayer, can only use the Arte of Breath, for instance; and even the ridiculously potent Sikarnikar could only use the Arte of the Path, in his day.
“Gan Zhu, above all else, you have no limits on your strength. The so-called God of Fate has set his limits on everyone else in the three realms, but these limits mean nothing to you.
“Be patient, watch, and learn from your seniors, the four spirits that were assigned to guide you before you were even born. One day, you will be the true master of your abilities.
“One day… even the God of Fate will not be your match.”
Gan Zhu listened to her words, transfixed by her gaze, and he felt a surge of confidence within his heart. He could tell that her words were sincere and true, and he felt able to let go of his worries to a large degree. It was true — even if he was too weak to face Fan Bin and the Fan clan right now, if they had limits and he did not, all he had to do was train and wait. One day, he would be strong enough to wipe them all away.
Seeing the change in Gan Zhu’s expression, the Oracle smiled happily. She released the young man, and slowly rose to her feet. She staggered slightly, but Lost Justice was suddenly by her side, supporting her. Gan Zhu was surprised, as he hadn’t seen the man move from where he had been leaning against the wall.
“Dammit to Freeda, are ya trying to make yourself collapse?” grumbled Lost Justice. “If ya pass out now, we’re all in trouble, ya know?”
“It’s not… that bad,” insisted the Oracle, slightly breathlessly. “We are almost done here, in any case.”
Lost Justice cursed bitterly under his breath, but he assisted the Oracle in moving back to her chair. Once she was seated once more, the Oracle breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and smiled once more at Gan Zhu, who had been watching her with concern. “Now, my dear Gan Zhu. I shall explain why I have brought you here.
“My companion and I have come to this world, these three realms… somewhat by accident. We did not intend to intrude… but now that we are here, leaving has become something of an issue.
“In a way, we were quite fortunate,” the Oracle mused. “I had obtained this magic item for a different purpose, but once we fell into this world, I was able to deploy it immediately, to hide us from the God of Fate and his minions. I do not fear this so-called God, of course; but I — we — cannot afford to be trapped here for a long time. And if we are detected, we might even end up like the Anubai, sealed away by the God of Fate for countless eons.”
She gestured once more at the floating diagram of the three realms. The black lines, which had been severed in the vicinity of the crystal stone, suddenly reached out to each other. Quickly, they spun a cocoon of black thread around the crystal, cutting off its gleaming brilliance, and a black lump was all that was left upon the surface of the blue line, which was entirely choked by the black webs once more.
“I see… So they are trapped here,” murmured Gan Zhu, convinced by this explanation. “But why would the God of Fate not allow them to leave? Surely, he wouldn’t want a race he couldn’t control in this world…”
“Mm, it’s difficult to explain,” said the Oracle with a nod. “Simply put, the more beings who leave this place, the easier it is for more dangerous enemies to find it. The God of Fate has turned paranoia into an art form; he is quite practiced at deciding which risk is the smaller of two choices, and then making the best decision. Rather than the unknown enemies outside, he’d prefer enemies that he could see, and neutralize.”
“Makes sense,” remarked Lost Justice with a nod. “Better the devil ya know…”
“Precisely,” agreed the Oracle.
Gan Zhu shifted uneasily. “So… how do you intend me to help you? No matter how strong I might grow in the future, my current self is far too weak to face a god.”
“I have no intention of making you confront the God of Fate directly, my dear,” said the Oracle with a laugh. “I don’t believe in big confrontations much, in any case. Lost Justice is usually good enough to take care of such matters for me… But this is a moment for subtlety.
“And so, I would like to make a trade,” she announced.
“A trade?” Gan Zhu repeated, confused.
“Yes, indeed. Specifically, I would provide you with knowledge you do not currently have: the true nature of the Anubai Artes of the Breath, the Eye, the Path, and the Blood.”
Gan Zhu caught his breath. This could be a major opportunity for him! Although he was still slightly resentful that he could no longer cultivate, he was actually quite impressed by the sheer power he had received from the Arte of Breath. Could it be that the other three Artes would bring similar gains? If he were to gain knowledge of his latent abilities, even if it was only a little, wouldn’t his strength increase by leaps and bounds? Only–
“And? What do you want in return?” he asked, trying to hide the eagerness in his voice. Naturally, the Oracle could see through his anticipation, and she smiled as she raised two fingers on her hand.
“Two drops,” she said.
Gan Zhu’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Two drops?”
“Of your blood,” the Oracle finished.
- A~nd we’re back! I pledge, on my name, to bring out a new chapter of Anubai every Friday! 😀
- …Which immediately presents a problem, since next week is MEA, and I have my kids at home almost the entire week. No alone time = slow writing progress. But I’ll do my best! Fight-o! 😛
- Like the last chapter, this chapter heavily features guest characters Lost Justice and the Oracle, original creations of OhMario for his own fiction stories. I’ll go ahead and keep linking to his site, as thanks for letting me use the Oracle to deliver important setting information for a setting she doesn’t even belong to. 😉
- Speaking of the Oracle: if you read my previous Sunday post, remember how I mentioned the Bazil Broketail series (at length 😛 )? Well, my treatment of the Oracle owes a great deal to Lessis, Queen of Birds; although I only realized it after I started rereading the series. Lessis is quiet, unassuming, and gentle; she is also one of the three most powerful witches in the Empire, habitually manipulates the emotions of people around here (to their own benefit and the benefit of the empire, but still), and is part of a group of spies that are so secret, being part of the official intelligence agency is actually her cover story. Having a role model for a character makes things infinitely easier, I find. 😉
- Thanks for reading! 😀