Tao Wong's The Sundering Blade is almost here! Want to read the first chapter from the prequel novella, which stars a younger Master Cheng from the A Thousand Li series? Read on...
The lowland lake was muddy with silt churned awake by the floods that had swept through the province days ago. In passing, it had taken villages and lives in equal measure. Stray boards and broken pieces of housing still floated through the lake, carried by the rushing water toward the clogged and teeming exit. Trees at the new shores of the overflowing body of water leaned precariously, even as the cries of cranes and ducks echoed through the deceptively peaceful surroundings.
Approaching the clogged entrance, the hongtou slowed, the single, long sculling oar—the yuloh—pausing before being raised from the water. At the head of the boat, standing silently, a man regarded the exit of the lake with compressed lips. He was young, barely in his mid-twenties if you could trust his features, though the expensive, black silk robes with dark green edging and the sect crest on its chest spoke of his standing as an immortal cultivator.
“Do not stop,” Cheng Zhao Wan said, his voice calm and commanding and highly refined. No peasant guttural growls or the sharp hiss of the tribesmen, but a nobleman’s speech.
At the back, the fisherman dipped the yuloh into the water once more.
Rather than reach for the unadorned jian by his side, Zhao Wan swung his right hand in a lazy cutting motion. Blade intent ripped outward, empowered by the barest fraction of chi from his dantian, before impacting the blockage, sending wood and water spiraling away and making the smell of mud and churning waters rise anew.
Gulping, the boatman pushed sideways on the oar, intent on delivering his dangerous passenger as quickly as possible. Water droplets rained down upon the boatman from the casual attack, along with splinters of broken wood as the pair passed through the opening in the debris. The fisherman shuddered at the wetting, flinched as a splinter bit into a hand, but he kept back any curse he might utter.
One did not anger cultivators.
Ignorant—or deigning to ignore—the boatman, Zhao Wan searched the horizon, seeking the village and their final destination. His other hand, resting on the hilt of his jian, rubbed the spirit ring on his middle finger as he recalled the urgent summons he had received.
The Forgotten Vale Sect was a small sect as things went in the state of Shen, with four Elders in the Core Formation stage and a Patriarch who had lingered at Nascent Soul for over a half decade. Their total membership barely crossed eighty sect members, with the majority—like most immortal cultivation sects—in the Body Cleansing stage of improvement.
Even so, due to a fortuitous encounter nearly a decade ago, Cheng Zhao Wan owed one of their current Elders a favor. And if there was one thing that Zhao Wan hated with a passion, it was favors owed. It was literally inimical to his dao path.
Now, an opportunity to relieve himself of this karmic burden had arrived and Zhao Wan intended to take it. Even if it might require him to lower himself to digging out mortals from their sodden and wrecked villages.
Lips twisted in a grimace at that thought, Zhao Wan exhaled and tried to still his mind. It would not do to show his distaste at such a mortal endeavor. Farmers were important, fishermen as well. It was not their fault they had been born into such positions, and they certainly were better than the merchants who plied their trade and made nothing.
Still, did they all have to be so ignorant?
Unconsciously, Zhao Wan’s fingers drummed against the hilt of his sword. Impatience would serve him no good, nor would speculation about the reasons for his summons. He would learn soon enough what the Forgotten Vale Sect had to ask of him.
Eventually, the village that was their destination made an appearance on the horizon. As the fisherman pushed against the single oar with renewed energy, Zhao Wan eyed the dock. It was a tattered mess, the piling on one side having broken during the recent storm, the floating portion tilting precariously with half of the dock itself still submerged. Once more, the boat owner slowed his vessel, frowning over the top of the low-slung shelter.
“Thank you for your service.” Zhao Wan had noticed the problem early enough, and with their destination so close, he saw no reason to delay.
He leapt off the boat, crossing half the distance with a single movement, then touched down on the water lightly, pushing against it as he exerted his internal chi. The action was sufficient to propel him the remaining distance, and he landed lightly on a post that stuck out of the water at the shattered dock.
Behind him, the boat owner swore under his breath—though not softly enough for Zhao Wan not to hear—as the boat rocked lightly from the cultivator’s swift departure. He then dipped his oar beneath the water, turning his boat around. If he paddled fast, it was possible that the exit would still be clear, and the boatman might make his way back to his village with minimal fuss. In any case, he had no desire to hang around the cultivation sect.
Bad things happened near immortals, especially to mortals.
Those who sought immortality were often embroiled in battles and other eventful tragedies, as though their very existence brought the wrath of the heavens and the twisting skeins of fate to the fore. Better for the immortals to exist in the jianghu and the mortals in the world beside it.
Zhao Wan searched the bamboo forest before him, spotting the muddy path that led away from the lonely dock. He also noted the broken signpost, blown over, next to the head of the path. From his position, the mud-covered signpost was illegible, though he glimpsed the character for what could have been for “forget.”
Choice made and without a greeting party, he leapt once more, letting his chi flow through his body and into his aura. He moved swiftly now, eager to see the end of his trip. His aura allowed him to utilize his sect’s Wind Steps qinggong method to swiftly run across the muddy ground. His passing barely disturbed the earth, and even the occasional rain drop or mud splash missed him as his aura easily deflected them.
Speed was important, but a good appearance was just as necessary. After all, he was representing the Verdant Green Waters Sect here, the most powerful immortal organization in the state of Shen. Furthermore, being the youngest Elder in the sect at this time, he had the most to lose if rumors of his uncouth appearance were to spread.
The Forgotten Vale Sect was neither in a vale nor forgotten. Its original Patriarch—the current Patriarch’s Master—had told tales of originating from such a place, hidden by mists and guarded by powerful Spirit Beasts.
His tales spoke of a land that he could never return to, for his banishment was permanent and he dared not, even when he reached the Nascent Soul Stage, challenge the leadership of his village. Of course, few believed him. Such stories were commonly created to boost the standing of an immortal cultivator who had no true lineage to call upon. Still, it was clear from the cultivation techniques and battle formations he utilized that he had acquired some lost knowledge.
Such occurrences were not uncommon.
In a land replete with powerful Spirit and Demonic Beasts, outposts of civilization could be overrun long before powerful cultivators or dutiful armies could arrive to save them. In such a world, a lucky wandering cultivator might stumble upon resources thought lost forever more.
Other tales, of cultivation caves where isolated hermits had faded away in pursuit of immortality or smaller sects slaughtered by the dark sects that plagued the jianghu, were commonly bandied about, popular stories being replete with drama and bloodshed.
In the end, no one cared so long as one could back up their wild tales with sufficient strength.
Nowadays, the Forgotten Vale Sect stood on a small rise, their pagoda-like residence overlooking the surrounding lands. What used to be rice fields sat beneath the hill, stepping down from the top to the cleared land in gradual waves. After all, even immortals had need for sustenance.
Recent flooding had seen many of these fields damaged, earthen walls broken, and gathered water flooding outward to spill below. Smaller buildings, residences for the farmers and other servants, stood mostly unharmed, dotted between these fields and steps.
Amidst all this wreckage, mortal peasants worked, their pants rolled up, their chests bare as they propped up sodden walls and sank long branches into the earth to stabilize foundations. Others moved among the dry rice stalks in the upper fields, picking their way between the crops to destroy pests and save the harvest as best they could.
More importantly, to Zhao Wan’s gaze, was the sight of the single Guardian standing aloft the sect building, uncaring about the breeze that threatened his perch. Yellow robes trimmed with purple fluttered in the wind, long dark hair streaming behind him as he watched over the surroundings. Yet as Zhao Wan neared, his gaze locked upon the cultivator.
“Welcome, fellow cultivator. to the Forgotten Vale Sect.”
The voice that spoke seemed to arrive in Zhao Wan’s ears without passing through the intervening space, the smallest bit of chi threading through the air the only hint of the cultivation technique in use.
“We beg forgiveness and understanding for the disarray you find our lands in.”
“You have nothing to excuse. The heaven’s will, and the earth sustains,” Zhao Wan said, trusting the other to have a skill to pick up his words at a distance. He certainly had no such technique to project his voice, though he made a mental note to look into one in the future. “I am Elder Cheng Zhao Wan of the Verdant Green Waters Sect. My presence has been requested by Elder Tung Chee Ying.”
“We have been expecting your arrival. Welcome, once more, honored guest. I am Guardian Mah. Elder Tung awaits you within on the third floor,” Elder Mah replied smoothly. After offering one last nod, he turned his gaze to the surroundings once more.
Zhao Wan did not take offense, understanding that the guardian’s duties required him to be on guard. In a time of calamity such as this, his duties were even more pressing. Demonic Beasts, sensing easy prey, would stalk the mortals whose regular routines and protections were in disarray.
Pouring additional chi through his body, Zhao Wan sped up further, crossing the open land. His passing raised a strong wind that fluttered robes and sent soggy leaves spraying out behind him as he ascended the hill, the peasants exclaiming in surprise at his sudden arrival. Within moments, he was at the door of the pagoda, landing lightly with the barest noise, and released the chi in his body. The pull of the earth resumed once more, making his bones and muscle ache a little at the sudden increase in weight, his hair settling just a touch faster behind him.
Sweeping his hand down his robes and feeling the precious silk slip through his fingers, Zhao Wan ensured he was presentable. Then he knocked.
The door swung open almost immediately, a boy—barely fourteen and an outer sect disciple by his drab robes—offering simple directions. Zhao Wan stepped within and turned toward the staircase alongside the outer wall. Above him, the enclosed wooden timber ceiling with its raised top allowed light to stream in, aided by spirit lights set through the building.
The pagoda itself smelled of wood, of mud and churned earth, of medicine and incense. Shuffling feet, a cough from above, the whisper of a brush on bamboo paper echoed down from above, though it was quieter than what Zhao Wan expected.
He was only required to ask directions once more when he reached the third floor, the scurrying inner sect disciple leading him directly to his benefactor’s door. Yet even before he reached it, Zhao Wan’s nose wrinkled. For a smell, dark and cloying like burnt tar, permeated the floor. At first in traces but growing stronger as he neared the door, such that he held a silk cloth to his nose in disgust.
His guide knocked once before stepping aside and Zhao Wan made his handkerchief disappear, knowing better than to show his distaste.
“Come.” The voice was familiar, but different at the same time. Weaker and thready, unlike the deep baritone Zhao Wan recalled.
Before Zhao Wan could collect his thoughts, the door swung open, releasing a concentrated miasma of the same odor and revealing the horrific sight within.
“Oh, senior…” Zhao Wan stepped within, his voice tinged with dismay, his shock fully exposed.
Elder Tung lay on his bed, propped up on one emaciated elbow, eyes sunken and a corner of the blanket pulled down, exposing his side and revealing the creeping darkness that had infected his torso.
“Young Cheng…” Elder Tung said, gesturing Zhao Wan to his bedside. “You have grown strong and famous. The exploits of the Sundering Blade are spoken of by many.”
“I could not have achieved the heights I have without senior’s guidance.” Zhao Wan bowed low as he crossed the distance and stopped by the bed. He schooled his face, even as the smell grew stronger now that he was near.
“A small enough thing.”
“Not to me.”
A tired laugh, then Elder Tung murmured, “What is a single life saved worth?”
“Everything. Nothing. It all depends on the person, does it not?” Zhao Wan replied.
Squatting with his legs folded underneath him, Zhao Wan clutched his benefactor’s hand, feeling the hot and papery-thin flesh slide under his fingers. Elder Tung should have been in his mid-fifties, a healthy middle-aged cultivator; instead a scarecrow was before him, a sickened and wizened man whose hair was sparse and his eyes hollow and darkened like a panda’s. Still, deep within those pain-filled eyes, a cunning light flickered.
“Modest still. Do you still follow that foolish dao you wrote to me about? What was it, a few years ago?” Chee Ying said softly. When Zhao Wan nodded, the injured man let out a laugh. “Fool still, then. No man can survive alone. Not unless they choose to be a hermit.”
“Hermit perhaps, one day. But I have too many ties that must be severed first,” Zhao Wan said. “I must free myself of these binding threads before I take such a step.”
“But you will eventually?”
Zhao Wan could not help but nod. He would. He had to. He would ascend to the heavens free of karmic burdens, of all debts. Then he would truly be a free agent, unburdened by mortal concerns or future attachments.
“Fool, boy.” Chee Ying closed his eyes. He fell so silent, his breathing so light that Zhao Wan almost thought he had fallen asleep. “So be it. I called you to relieve you of one such binding then. You may cut the thread between us, after you resolve this matter.”
Zhao Wan inclined his head in thanks, even as he wondered if this act of generosity had just added to the karmic thread between them. All such thoughts were washed away as Chee Ying uttered his next words.
“I charge you, Elder Cheng Zhao Wan of the Verdant Green Waters Sect, with avenging my death. Find the dark sect members who have crept into my sect and our lands and eradicate them. One and all.”