Ze Tian Ji - Prologue
The world is relative.
The Central Continent and the Great Western Island are separated from each other by the ocean, but they are distantly opposite of each other. The east has a high altitude, so it seems the sky is also higher. There the clouds rise up from the sea to dry land, without stopping they float endlessly. In the end they gather together, in the entire year they will not scatter.
This is the tomb of clouds—the grave of all clouds in the world.
In the innermost depths of the tomb of clouds sits a lonely mountain. The summit leads to the endless sky; no one knows where it goes.
Tales say the world is made up of five continents. Each continent has its own different landscapes. Only those who possess the lifespans of immortals can see all the different landscapes. To normal people, the tales are tales. They do not know where the other continents are, do not know how to reach them, do not know that the lonely mountain within tomb of clouds leads to the path to the other continents.
Naturally, there is also nobody that has seen the scenery high above the clouds. Here, the serene clouds are like white silk spreading out in all directions, seemingly without end. Above the endless sky mirror is black endless abyss, inside are countless number of stars.
Suddenly, two stars light up, getting brighter and brighter, they quickly reach the sky mirror. When those two stars arrive before the mirror, it becomes clear that they are not stars but two balls of holy fire.
On this mirror surface that separates the real world from the abyss appeared a spider web of cracks, but in a moment it was restored.
Those two balls of flame, through some magical means, appeared on the other side of the mirror surface in the real world. In the thin atmosphere, the two flames burned incessantly, warping the air and causing it constantly change shape—those are not balls of flame, but eyes.
The entire world, because of this grand descent, is in an uproar. Light is constantly being reflected; on the surface of the clouds appeared a long shadow like a mountain. The space began to warp, as if it was about to break.
A great golden dragon emerged from within the clouds.
The distant sun was completely obscured by its enormous body. The entire world above the clouds consequently grew dim, all around the air rapidly grew colder, and ice began to crystallize in the clouds. The countless rays of light became strange flickers on the crystal surface. Heaven and Earth changed colors; truly this dragon was an awe-inspiring existence.
The great golden dragon looked down upon the world, its eyes indifferent.
The view above the clouds, it had already seen many times.
The dragon flew towards the lonely mountain on the horizon. As it approached, its terrifying dragon body submerged itself into the cloudy abyss, completely vanishing from sight. The endless quantities of fog were cut open by that terrifying dragon’s body. The crags and cliffs of the lonely mountain are extremely precipitous; no plants grew there, not even moss. The deathly stillness made it seem like a tomb.
Just like this the dragon flew through the foggy abyss. Many days and nights passed. Who knows how far it had flown, but it had never left the fog. It met no other beings, but one could faintly see that on the mountain crags appeared moss. The fog had also grown thicker, or perhaps the pressure it gave off was the cause. The fog began to change shape into many crystals. These water droplets also made the air moister.
The dragon bore these transformations with no interest, continuing to fly downward.
The plant life within the lonely mountain gradually grew more and more abundant; the air moister, the water drops pooled in the cliffs gradually became countless thin, leaf-sized streams. These countless thin streams of water flowed down the cliffs into the fog.
As the golden dragon gazed upon these countless streams of water, the look within its eyes became more concentrated, the two divine flames grew more serene—this place was the tomb of clouds, but it was also the source of all water.
Of these countless streams falling from the lonely mountain, the dragon chose one.
The golden dragon flew silently along this single water way, flying countless days and night, almost as if it would repeat again, until suddenly…the fog in front of him scattered.
Before the fog, was the earth.
The bottom of the clouds was flat and smooth, calmly rising and falling in accordance with the ground. Perfectly protecting the space between the clouds and the earth was five feet of distance. Coincidentally this was the height of the average man, as if the Creator himself had fashioned this space. This space that was five feet tall, the surface seemed to go on endlessly, with faint rays of light, but no sun to be seen. On the surface flowed countless streams of water.
The fog dissipated on the dragon’s body, revealing a small stream.
This small stream originated from the moist dew of the lonely mountain. Clear, tranquil, and cold, in the stream there was a wooden basin, in the basin were several layers of cloth, on the cloth was an infant—the infant’s complexion was blue, eyes closed, it was clear that it had just been born not too long ago.
The mist over the stream was like the blossoms of a flower, opening countless thousands of petals, clustering, rushing, scattering, making a chi chi noise; then a golden dragon even larger than a palace slowly emerged from the mist and made its way to the riverside.
The 5 foot space between the mists and the river was quite narrow to the dragon—the golden dragon’s physique was hidden within the mists, part of its head was also hidden within the mists. It made the dragon seem all the more majestic, mysterious, terrifying.
The golden dragon quietly waited by the riverside.
The wooden basin floated on the water, bobbing up and down.
In this insignificant wooden basin was this abandoned, eyes closed, blue-faced, newly born infant.
The fog gradually scattered, everything returned its serene and tranquil state.
However, this peace was only temporary…in the deepest depths of the mist, all the way till the lonely mountain; all at once there were countless mournful sounds, panic-stricken whistling and howling!
In this seemingly lifeless world, there was in reality many birds and beasts. Everywhere within the fog was the sound of many flapping wings. There was also the sound as if a unicorn was heedlessly destroying countless tens of thousands of trees in its rush to escape; there was even the extremely brilliant cry of a phoenix!
A string of divine and intangible fire emerged from the river side and spread to the horizon. The moist grass suddenly became incomparably dry, even the plants within the water suddenly curled up!
The golden dragon remained expressionless, noble, and apathetic; lord of all under Heaven.
All the beasts in the world under the clouds all fled, the dragon paid no attention to it. Even if the phoenix fled, the dragon paid no attention to it. The dragon only stared at the small stream, stared at the wooden basin floating on the stream. From the lonely mountain fell tens of thousands of little streams, but the dragon looked at only this particular stream. After 30000 years, the dragon only descended to this world for this infant in the wooden basin, who could shift its gaze?
A very thin piece of silk slowly fell. This piece of silk was golden on the outside; on the inside it was a divine pure white, it seemed as if it was giving off its own light. The front of the piece of silk was very thin, but gradually grew thicker towards the end until it grew as thick as an arm. The surface of the silk was perfectly smooth. It seemed to penetrate the depths of the cloudy abyss, making it even more beautiful.
This piece of silk seemed to be made of gold or jade, giving off a very heavy feeling. But in fact it was very light, swaying with the breeze from the brook, as if it were dancing, wanting to touch that wooden basin, only to again draw back.
It was the golden dragon’s whisker.
Now, the divine fire within the golden dragon’s eyes was no longer in that eternally calm state, the eyes had gone from apathetic to pondering, as if hesitating over something. The two dragon whiskers, like two soft fingers, lightly touched the edge of the wooden basin floating on the river, as if gently stroking it, but in reality not touching it at all.
This golden dragon had already lived countless years, possessed unimaginable knowledge, yet this simple wooden basin presented to it an unsolvable problem—the mood within the dragon’s eyes became more and more complex: there was longing, vigilance, hesitation, and finally, struggle, perhaps unintentional, perhaps intentional. A slight change in the breeze, the edge of the wooden basin that should have touched the dragon’s whiskers swept past, until finally the whiskers were able to touch the wooden basin for the first time, even brushing the infant’s ear!
This light touch brought about a violent reaction—the two divine fires within the golden dragon’s eyes suddenly exploded, becoming a myriad of stars. Within that ocean of stars came an undisguised callous and greedy desire!
This desire, it was praiseworthy, it was moving.
It praised life, it was moved by life.
It was life’s most primal longing.
The golden dragon gazing at the wooden basin, opened its mouth, dragon’s breath like broken jade poured out.
The infant’s eyes were still closed; it simply did not know what would happen in the next moment.
A shadow enveloped the stream.
Dragon’s breath surrounded the wooden basin on all sides.
In the next moment, the wooden basin and the infant within would become the golden dragon’s food.
At this moment.
A hand was put on the edge of the wooden basin, pulling it out of the river!
This was a hand covered with scars; thin, weak, and small.
Hua hua, the water’s surface was broken. That pair of hands pulled the wooden basin and ran to the creek edge.
The owner of that hand was a three or four year old Daoist boy.
The boy pulled the basin to the stream edge and hid it between a stone and his own body, then drew a sword from his belt and turned to look at the terrifying, enormous golden dragon’s head.
This was a very strange boy.
He was blind in one eye, missing one ear, when he was running on the water one could tell that his legs were somewhat crippled. From his empty sleeve, one could see that he also only had one hand.
No wonder he had to first put the basin behind his back before he was able to pull out the sword.
Seeing that enormous dragon head above the water, the small boy’s complexion was pale. His teeth were chattering, not because of the ice cold water from the stream, but because of the fear in his heart.
This was his first time seeing a real dragon. He didn’t even know what a dragon was; only that it was terrifying. Yet he did not flee, but held that flimsy looking sword and tightly and securely hid that basin behind him.
The golden dragon gazed indifferently at the boy, only a being as strong and powerful as it could tell that deep within the abyss of its eyes were anger and cruelty.
The boy did not say anything, face pale, fear extreme, but he did not let go of the basin.
The golden dragon grew angrier, dragon’s breath encompassed both sides of the stream, and death was coming.
The sword was left in the water, the boy took the basin and held it to his chest.
The golden dragon’s scales rubbed against the mist, bring about countless divine fires, causing the water within the stream to boil.
At this moment, a middle-aged Daoist appeared on the by the stream.
The middle-aged Daoist looked upon the golden dragon with a calm expression.
The heavenly fire over the stream was suddenly extinguished.
The golden dragon looked upon the middle-aged Daoist and spoke a dragon word!
This dragon word was extremely long, almost as if it continued on forever without stopping, it surely contained an extremely complex meaning, hearing it was like listening to a most complicated piece of music, but also like the sound of nature’s most horrifying storm, it was a mixture of unimaginable power!
The middle-aged Daoist looked at the golden dragon and spoke one word.
It was a single syllable word, its pronunciation extremely strange and difficult to understand, it did not seem like a human language at all, a fragment seemed to contain endless meaning, overflowing with ancient meaning.
The golden dragon understood, but it did not agree.
Then the fog over the stream fiercely rose up.
Dragon’s breath was sprayed everywhere, the moist grass and trees suddenly turned into a frightening scene of fire.
That small Daoist boy with his back to the river simply had no idea what was going on, his head was bowed down in fear, his eyes shut, holding the wooden basin tightly to his chest.
Who knows how much time passed, the stream side at last grew quiet.
The small Daoist boy gathered up his courage and looked behind him, but only saw the clear water of the creek. The fire on both sides of the creek had already been extinguished, only the burned trees and roasted stones attested to the terrifying battle that had occurred.
From the cloudy abyss came a dragon cry. This cry was full of anguish, unwillingness, and regret. The dragon was telling the world’s five continents about how his own hesitation had brought about such profound regret.
The Daoist boy was frightened badly. With his one hand holding the wooden basin, the boy limped onto shore and walked to the middle-aged Daoist’s side, timidly looking up towards the cloudy abyss.
The middle-aged Daoist reached out his hand to put out a fire on the boy’s shoulder.
The Daoist boy thought of something, and with difficulty raised up the wooden basin.
The middle-aged Daoist reached over to the wooden basin and gently took up the infant; his right hand took the cloth and wrapped it over the infant’s body. His brows creased.
“Your fate…is definitely not good”, he said with pity as he looked upon the cloth-wrapped infant.
In the Eastern continent’s East, there is a small town called Xining, outside of this town there is a small stream, by this small stream is a mountain, on this mountain there is a temple, in this temple there are no monks, only a middle-aged Daoist and his two disciples cultivating the Way.
The hill is a nameless hill, the temple is abandoned. Of the two disciples, the elder is called Yu Ren, the younger is called Chen Chang Sheng.
Xining was within the Zhou country. 800 years ago, the Great Zhou Dynasty made the Way the state religion. Down to the present Zhengtong era, the state religion united the country as one. It was indeed worthy of respect. If speaking reasonably, a master and his two disciples ought to have lived a life of silk clothes and jade rice. But Xining was too remote; the abandoned temple was even more remote, other people were rarely seen, so they could only live a very plain life.
Daoists naturally practice the Way. Presently there are countless ways to cultivate, but that middle-aged Daoist’s method of teaching the Way compared to other sects was completely different. It did not specify any specific cultivation method, it did not care about absorbing light from one’s fated star, nor did it care about refining the mind; it only emphasized one word: Memorize.
From his childhood, Yu Ren was memorizing the texts of the Way. Chen Chang Sheng, from the moment that he could open his eyes, was placed before the yellowed and old books. The first thing he could recognize was a room full of texts on the Way. After he learned how to talk, he learned how to recognize letters, and then he learned how to memorize the characters in the classical texts on the Way.
Reciting and studying until able to memorize backwards, this was the life of those two disciples.
When they awake at dawn, they are memorizing books. Under the scorching sun, they are memorizing books. In the evening, they are memorizing books. When the spring comes and flowers blossom, when the summer storms thunder, when the autumn wind blows, when the winter snow chills; they are in the row of crops, by the riverside, under the tree, by the plum flower; holding the classics of the Way in their hands, studying, memorizing, not knowing the time gradually passing by.
The abandoned temple has a room completely filled with classics of the Way. When Yu Ren was seven years old, he was bored and counted them. There were 3000 of these books. In these 3000 books, one book might have several hundred words, or perhaps several thousand. The shortest classic, the Classic on Gods, was only 314 words. The longest was the Longevity classic which had more than 200000 words. These books were the entirety of what they had to memorize.
The elder and younger disciple ceaselessly memorized, only seeking to remember, not seeking to understand. They knew early on that their master would never answer the questions they asked, only say: “Just memorize, and understanding will naturally come.”
To those children who studied the Way but lived leisurely lives, this sort of life is hard to imagine. Fortunately this green mountain is very out the way and was rarely visited by people, so there were no external things to distract and the mind could concentrate. These two disciples’ temperaments were exceptionally good. Unexpectedly they did not find this lifestyle to be dull, just going from day to day memorizing, not realizing that several years have passed.
One day, the sound of studying that had gone on for several years suddenly ceased. Two children sat upon a stone, shoulder to shoulder, a book propped open on their knees. They both took a glance at the book, then at each other, both at a loss at what to do.
They had already memorized to the last book, but they had no means to continue because they could not understand. The words on this classic were unfamiliar—to be precise the words were very odd, the radicals and strokes were all recognizable but the character as a whole was a queer thing, how to study? What does it mean?
The two children returned to the temple and found the middle-aged Daoist.
The middle-aged Daoist said: “In all the 3000 classics of the Way, you have read up to the very last book, this book has 1601 words. In all the time that the Way was passed down, no one has been able to completely understand the meaning within this book, how could you two?
Chen Chang Sheng asked: “Teacher, even you could not understand?”
The middle-aged Daoist shook his head and said: “There is no person that would say what they truly understand and do not understand, I also cannot say.”
The two disciples looked at each other and felt some regret. Though they were only children, they had memorized all the 3000 classics of the way but one; of course they would not be happy. Of course, they were not ordinary children, from the time when they were in ignorance they had accompanied each other in studying the classics of the Way, their personalities were also rather relaxed, so these two people were prepared to turn around and leave.
At this moment, the middle-aged Daoist continued speaking: “…but I can read it.”
From that day, the middle-aged Daoist began to lecture on the method to read the last classic of the Way, one by one imparting the pronunciation of the characters. These pronunciations were particularly monstrous and strange. The syllable was simply, but it required the use of some certain throat muscles and also had some specific requirements. In short, it was not the sort of sound that a normal human being could produce.
Chen Chang Sheng did not understand at all, he was like a little duckling, obediently copying his master’s pronunciation. Yu Ren occasionally thought back to many years ago by that creek side, when the master faced that monstrous beast and spoke those words.
Yu Ren and Chen Chang Sheng spent a long time grasping the pronunciation of those 1601 words, but still did not grasp the meaning. When asking the middle-aged Daoist they still could not obtain the meaning. In fact, they had already spent an entire year on this last book. Afterwards, they began their usual method, holding the last book in their hands and reciting, until at last they had it memorized.
When they thought they had at last brought an end to their life of memorizing the classics of the Way, the middle-aged Daoist required them to study the classics a second time. With little choice, the children were compelled to repeat their studies. Perhaps because this was the second time studying the classics of the way, they felt it was even more exhausting, they even felt like speaking bitter words.
It was also at this time that they began to question, why did their master want them to study these classics? Why not teach us to cultivate? Obviously in the classics of the Way was written how Daoists should practice the Way, it should be correct to pursue longevity.
When Yu Ren was ten and Chen Chang Sheng was six and a half, in the autumn, a white crane came. It brought with it a silk document. On this document were a birth date, a marriage document, and a letter—some high official that the middle-aged Daoist had once saved wished to fulfill a promise he had made.
The middle-aged Daoist saw the marriage document and laughed so hard he could not speak, and then looked over at his two disciples. Yu Ren waved his hand and pointed at his blind eye, smiling as he rejected the idea. Chen Chang Sheng had a frustrated expression. He did not understand the meaning, in confusion he had somehow ended up taking the marriage document, and now it turned out he had a fiancée.
Later on, every New Year, that white crane would return, bringing from the capital that noble man’s greetings, along with some meaningful small gifts for Chen Chang Sheng.
Chen Chang Sheng slowly came to understand what marriage meant. Often at night, by the starlight he would look at that marriage document sitting in the drawer. He had some feelings he could not speak. Towards his similarly aged fiancée, he had some happy, some embarrassed, mostly frustrated feelings.
In this peaceful life of studying, when Chen Chang Sheng was ten years old, there came on unfortunate accident. On a night, he was on his 72nd time in his memorization of the 1601 words of the last classic, when he suddenly felt a strange feeling in his body, he began to drift away in this forest on the green hill. His body began to emit some sort of beautiful scent.
It was not the smell of a flower, nor was it the smell of a fruit, nor was it some sort of perfume. To speak of taste, while it was blown on the night wind for a while it did not scatter. To speak of its smell, it floated on the end of the nose, faintly discernable, but not a smell anything in the mortal world could produce. Incapable of grasping, but extremely alluring.
The first to notice Chen Chang Shen’s situation was Yu Ren. When he smelled the rare scent, his expression grew severe.
In the tree covered and remote parts of the green mountain, there were lion roars and tiger cries, there were cranes dancing and dragons rushing, there were the thunder-like cries of frogs that originally only emerged in the summer. In the east of the green mountain, where no people dared to enter, from the misty abyss emerged an enormous shadow, who knew what sort of creature it was. Under the greedy and reverential gaze of countless creatures, Chen Chang Sheng emitted his rare scent, his eyes closed asleep, not knowing when he would wake.
Yu Ren on the couch suddenly began to fan himself. He wanted to fan the smell on Chen Chang Sheng away, since this smell was making him salivated and giving him strange and terrifying ideas. He fanned himself to fan away these thoughts.
The middle-aged Daoist did not know when he came to the side room, stood beside the couch, and saw the sleeping Chen Chang Sheng. He spoke one sentence that only he could understand: “The reason is once again appearing?”
A night passed.
The dawn light covered the green mountain, the scent coming from Chen Chang Sheng suddenly disappeared. One could no longer pick up the slightest scent. Chen Chang Sheng returned to his normal self, and the myriad monsters of the green hills and the monstrous shadow also took their leave.
Yu Ren looked at his sleeping junior brother and stopped panicking, letting out a long breath. He wanted to wipe off the cold sweat on his forehead when he realized that his arm, from an entire night of fanning himself, was incapable of movement.
Chen Chang Sheng opened his eyes and woke up. Though he was fast asleep all night, he knew that there was some problem. He saw the painful expression on his elder brother’s face and his pale complexion and asked: “Master, what’s wrong with me?”
The middle-aged Daoist looked at him, and was silent for a long time before saying: “You are ill.”
According to the middle-aged Daoist, Chen Chang Shen’s sickness was due to a congenital deficiency. The body’s nine channels were not connected. Last night’s scent was because the spiritual energy had nowhere to circulate, it could only emit outwards. This scent carried with it a human’s essence, which carried a unique scent. This was a kind of strange disease.
“Then…does master know a way to treat it?”
“No, no person can treat it.”
“An incurable disease…this is just fate, right?”
“Yes. It is just fate.”
After his tenth birthday, the white crane no longer came to the green hills. The capital’s side cut off information, as if the matter of the marriage document had never been raised before. Chen Chang Shen stood by the creek side, looking to the west, began to recall this situation.
Of course, he was thinking about a lot of things. His illness, his fate…his health was not poor, besides that he easily fell asleep, he looked to be very healthy. He did not seem like a person that would die young. He even began to doubt his master’s prognosis. But if his master’s prognosis was correct, what then? Chen Chang Shen resolved to leave the abandoned temple to see the flourishing secular world. Besides himself wanting to go see, he also wanted to see the legendary Mausoleum of Books, and he also wanted to return the marriage document.
“Master, I’m going to leave.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the capital.”
“Because I want to live.”
“I said before, your illness is fate.”
“I want to change my fate.”
“In the past 800 years, only three people have succeeded in changing their fate.”
“Those were all extraordinary people?”
“I am not, but I would like to try.”
The capital, Chen Chang Shen wanted to go, regardless of if he could treat his illness or not, he always wanted to go. Not only because he wanted to change his fate, but because the marriage document’s other party was also in the capital.
He packed his luggage, took Yu Ren’s small sword, and turned to leave.
This 14 year old Daoist priest descended the mountain.