All began with One.
One had no Origin, and no Pinnacle. Whatever the nature or intent of One, all that is certain is that One recognized Itself. And from the delineation between One and Not One, came Duality. And from Duality came the Myriad Things: infinite possibility, creation, and destruction. That which turned Potential into Reality came forth from The One, the Prime Mover. Thus, the Primordial Origin was set, and from One flowed out the energy that catalyzed the transformation of the Potential into the Actual: Qi.
To attain Oneness, and acquire an unchanging vessel capable of controlling Qi, Humans learned to Cultivate. Through Cultivation, they attained stronger bodies, and harnessed the energies flowing from One throughout the Myriad Things. Through mastery of their bodies and harmony with these energies, they created Martial Arts. And through mastery of Martial Arts, they Ascended beyond their limits.
The world of Cultivators, a secret society called the Wulin, became a place where only the most powerful dared to trod. The strong oppressed the weak, though there were always Cultivators who claimed to stand for ideals of justice and honor. Upon one great continent, in the Kingdom of Longhu, the grip of the Righteous Alliance cemented itself with an iron fist, while wearing a velvet glove. Though the Chaotic Factions and the Demonic Sects contended with them throughout the centuries, the Wulin and the world of laypeople eventually gained an uneasy peace.
Among these many factions, the Three Supreme Peaks Sect distinguished itself in the eastern provinces. As its Founders grew in power and prestige, they attracted many Disciples who became Masters in their own right. In the current era, the Sect is known for distinct martial styles, fearsome masters of blade and spear, and powerful Cultivation Arts. Its numbers have swollen, and a natural hierarchy has formed. Now, all who join the Sect must trek to the First Peak in order to become an Outer Disciple…and only after years of grueling training, will they be granted the opportunity to become Inner Disciples of the Middle Peak–the “real” training grounds of the Sect.
For two young warriors, that opportunity nears…
Elder Sun Jian
Outer Training Grounds
watched the crowd of young men and women gathering in the courtyard with glaring appraisal. Most wore some form of the Sect’s proper uniform, blue shirts or jackets for the boys and red for the girls, or robes of the same along with dark colors on the legs and bodies beneath. Their attire was simple and undecorated, just like their lives–many were still dirty from carrying out their daily tasks. As Outer Disciples, they could be considered closer to servants than to true pupils. While they were given daily regiments of exercise and training in physical combat, the majority of their education revolved around what was generally needed to be effective adults–literacy, mathematics, and so forth. But there were still those whose roots made them suitable as martial artists, and as cultivators. They ranged in age from little more than babes, at nine or ten, to young adults about to enter their twenties. For the latter, if they could not show results here, then even if they continued to progress in their cultivation they could only ever hope to become like himself–an “elder” in name only, regardless of age or true venerability, destined only to pass on what little he knew in order that the next generation might succeed where he had failed.
He stepped up onto the raised platform. The courtyard, in truth, was little more than a large, flat space of rock encircled by a narrow moat. The water was fed from above by a gentle fall–its sound was little more than a low rumble–and emptied below, into another fall, which zigzagged between a series of rocks to a shallow river much further down. The wooden platform he stood on had been erected upon a semi-circular section of the courtyard’s northern half, covering perhaps a fifth of the courtyard’s area in total. The rocky ground had been graded smoothly long ago, though as time passed the wear and tear of many feet, and a few shifts in the earth itself, had created cracks and dips. That was much the way of this place–the craftsmanship of the Zuigao’s Outer Training Grounds were not dilapidated
, merely…aged. Thus the Outer Disciples were often kept busy keeping the place clean and maintained, but no matter how much they scrubbed they couldn’t remove the years from the place.
“Attention, Disciples! Quiet now, everyone! I must speak!” The murmur of voices died down as he walked along the edge of the dais. Those who had been here long enough already knew what this gathering was about, but no one would dare speak up once he began talking. Though they had a great deal of respect for the Outer Elder, it wasn’t solely a desire to know the purpose of his announcement that held them as rapt listeners.
“The time for the Inner Court Exam has arrived again, this year. For those of you who may not know–which, for this generation, I do not believe will be many–this is the test conducted by the True Masters of our illustrious Three Supreme Peaks, to select those among you that are worthy! As Outer Disciples, we have raised you, and started you on the long and difficult journey. If you have trained diligently, then you will be allowed to move on from this place!” He saw the many hopeful faces beaming up at him, and inwardly sighed. Many dreams would be shattered this year, as always. “Those who meet the requirements set forth by the Exam will become Inner Disciples, and be allowed permanent residence at the Central Grounds upon the Middle Peak! Your Cultivation, and your Martial Arts, will no doubt reach greater heights if you continue to work hard, and make proper use of the resources granted by the Inner Court!” He whipped up one hand, rustling his voluminous sleeve, and swept it across the air to emphasize the grandeur of this statement. “But!” And then the hand came down with all the seriousness of an executioner’s blade, “In order to be admitted into the Exam, you must first show that your training here has been…fruitful!”
He couldn’t help chuckling to himself. He saw the students look at one another in confusion. And then, some others began to brighten–good. They had realized the purpose of his little joke.
“At this time of year, in the Spiritual Beast Forest on the western side of the mountain’s base, the trees bearing Spiritual Heart Fruits are ripening! This year, we expect to see a larger crop of these fruits than usual. If you are not aware–” Which they should be, considering that the Foundation Establishing Pills they were allowed to receive once every month were sometimes made with the processed flesh of this same fruit, and other Internal Alchemy ingredients known to stimulate the Qi within the body– “the Spiritual Heart Fruit Tree can only grow in areas where the Ambient Qi is fairly thick, enough so that even mundane Breath Cultivation becomes half-again as potent! All of the trees’s Qi, and that which it absorbs from the environment, is concentrated for many months within the Spiritual Heart. For humans, this much Qi can be worth as much as twenty years!”
The amount of Qi in a human body, being roughly analogous to their very life force, could roughly be measured by years. Normally, humans were born with an amount of Inborn Qi–usually not incredibly large–inherited from their parents. The food and drink they consumed, and even the air they breathed, supplied more Acquired Qi from the environment. The Acquired Qi would naturally be refined by the body to refuel the Inborn Qi, for if the Inborn Qi was ever used up, the body would weaken and even die.
Thus, the purpose of Cultivation was to further refine both the Acquired and Inborn Qi, and to expand their capacity by many, many times. Doing so would not only lengthen the Cultivator’s natural lifespan, but change their very essence as mortal beings. Greater strength, sharper senses, faster healing…those who mastered the flow of Qi could do any number of things. But, the amount of Qi required for this was immense–so much so that, to break through from the Training Foundation Realm to the Qi Condensation Realm required a whole sexagenary–60 years’ worth of Qi, calculated by the average human lifespan before the natural expenditure of Inborn Qi would begin to deteriorate until natural death by old age.
Many of these Outer Disciples were well along in their development of the Training Foundation Realm. With something like the Spiritual Heart Fruit, providing a full third of their required energy, their cultivation could make an incredible leap forward!
“In order to qualify for the Exam, you must accomplish at least one of these two tasks: through your own training, reach the Seventh Rank of the Training Foundation Realm; OR, you may present a single Heart Fruit Seed! The flesh of the fruit may be kept, for whatever purpose you desire. But, be warned! The Spiritual Beast Forest is named as such for a reason–the creatures there are dangerous to such low-rank Cultivators as yourselves! If you dare to brave this journey, go prepared!” A Spiritual Beast could not be considered as the same kind of threat as a wild animal. By living for unusual amounts of time or feeding on rich sources of Qi, a beast acquired a “new” sort of life–Spirit Beasts that lived long enough and got stronger could rapidly surpass their mundane species in intelligence, size, or any other factors.
“In light of these requirements, we will be handing out this month’s Foundation Establishing Pill early, and myself and the other Outer Elders will be available in our book room, as well as the training yard. Come to us if you need advice, or to practice more of your techniques! You have one week before the day of Exam Qualification! I wish you all luck, but also pray for your safety! You are dismissed!” He watched as the crowd rapidly began to disperse in different directions. Some students immediately made for the small shop where the Foundation Establishing Pills, along with general supplies students were allowed to trade for, would be available. Others headed back to their bunkhouses, or to the training yard, to make plans and perfect their cultivation. A few even headed straight for the gatehouses–would they really rush off to the Spiritual Beast Forest without making any preparations? Sun Jian sighed. Sadly, depending on the challenge and the quality of that year’s students, it was not unusual for Outer Disciples to be gravely injured, permanently crippled, or even killed by the trials they faced. But, baby birds could not stay in the nest forever–and only those strong enough to fly would be able to avoid the hungry vipers of the world.
Tai–his full name was Feng Tai, but unless forced he hardly used his surname; why use a family name when you had no family?--pocketed the Foundation Establishing Pill given out by the Elder who manned the shop, and glared at the ground as he walked away. Maybe he should go back to his room to think things over and cultivate…then again, since the Outer Disciples didn’t actually know any of the three Cultivation Arts taught by the Inner Court, he wouldn’t get any results there that he hadn’t already experienced before. The same would be true if he went to the training yard and practiced his forms again…maybe it was finally time to ask the Elders if they would teach him the second form of Dragon Slaying Tiger Fist, or even the third form…
No. He clenched his fist. He hadn’t yet mastered the first form. There was something crucial he just hadn’t been able to understand yet, and despite other students leaving him behind to practice more advanced techniques, he felt that if he couldn’t grasp these concepts then the higher forms wouldn’t be of any use to him anyway.
What was it he was missing? Was it just…raw Qi energy? Some people were born with more of it, some people could hold onto more of it when they absorbed it through cultivation. Tai couldn’t be certain how he really compared to other students–if they were of a higher rank than him, logically they had to have more Qi, and that was all there was to it.
Was it physical strength? Intelligence? Combat experience? His outlook on life? There had to be something holding him back. He was at the Fourth Rank of the Training Foundation Realm…a whole three ranks under the requirement for the exam. The Foundation Establishing Pills could provide up to a year’s worth of Qi, if
they were properly absorbed by the body…but the fact that they were only handed out once a month meant that it would take, at bare minimum, five whole years for a student to reach the Qi Condensation Realm.
So, getting the Spiritual Heart Fruit would be his only option. What would he need, to make that journey into the Spiritual Beast Forest? Camping supplies? A weapon? What about–
Tai collided with someone, as he was so focused on his own thoughts he hadn’t paid any attention to the path in front of him. He was fine–the other student, however, now sat bruised upon the ground. With a hiss they shot up to their feet again, glaring at him.
“Watch yourself, fool!” said the other young man.
Tai recognized him as Lu Xue–an infuriatingly competent blowhard of an upperclassman.
“I ain’t got time to watch out for you
, bastard.” Tai growled, and made to push past the other Disciple–only for two of the other students following Lu Xue to block his path. He snarled at them, and they seemed to second-guess this strategy, but then their “leader” spoke up.
“Ah! Feng Tai. I should have realized only a boor like you would go around charging into people!” Lu Xue shrugged and shook his head. “And of course, you can’t even apologize to your betters!”
“Oh I would–if any of my betters
were around!” Tai slowly turned. Lu Xue was older, and said to be one of the most talented of the Outer Disciples–but Tai was almost as tall as the other boy already, and stared him down eye to eye. “Get moving, and take your two oxen here with ya!”
“You want to try and order me
around?! You’re courting death, Feng Tai!” Lu Xue pointed dramatically at the tip of Tai’s nose. “I’ll have you know, I have already reached the Seventh Rank of Training Foundation Realm–I am certain to pass the Exam, and enter the Inner Court! Why, I bet my Master will immediately make me his Core Disciple!” The cocky brat smirked.
“That the guy you’re always going on about? The one they say bought
you, like a pig at market, and then dropped you off here?” Tai knew it would hurt–because it wasn’t all that dissimilar from what had happened to Tai himself. But he expected Lu Xue to do what others had done in the past when Tai’s cruelty cut them–shrivel up, sniffle, and ultimately shy away. Instead, Lu Xue’s face became stormy and dark. His cheeks didn’t turn red. He didn’t immediately scream in rage. But Tai recognized the look in the other boy’s eyes.
Both of them curled their hands into fists. If someone else didn’t step in, things were going to get real ugly, real fast…