The next day, the whole mountain of Fuyao shook with the news that Cheng Qian was to stay and learn charms together with Yan Zhengming.
Cheng Qian’s martial brothers surrounded him, all asking the same question: “What!? You can absorb qi already?”
Rubbing his ear, Cheng Qian felt a little smug. But before he let any emotion creep onto his face, he recalled, suddenly, how he should act as someone who followed the endless path of cultivation, and hurriedly threw cold water on his thoughts to cool himself down.
He nodded in an indifferent and humble way, and said matter-of-factly, “Mhm, sort of.”
His words elicited mixed reactions from his martial brothers.
Li Yun’s was the most normal.
Li Yun was not an unintelligent person, and considered himself quite clever. Although a person who indulged in heretical tricks and even innovated couldn’t possibly be stupid, he simply didn’t work hard at his studies despite his swordplay only being passably good. Just when he stopped playing with toads, he became fond of bugs.
Never had Li Yun thought that a junior brother who had entered the sect a year after him would cross the threshold earlier than he did, so his face showed a wretched expression. Li Yun silently put away his katydid cage… as well as a bottle of worm wine with unknown uses. That day, after finishing his swordplay practice, he went straight back to study rather than fool around with Han Yuan.
This action pleased Muchun Zhenren. He knew that Li Yun would feel terrible for a time, as anyone in his place would. But the sadness was only fleeting; it was the impetus that Cheng Qian gave him which would endure.
Nevertheless, the Master’s satisfaction quickly dissolved when he discovered that Li Yun was the only one who reacted “normally”.
For example, Han Yuan, who was undergoing torture by the detailed sect rules, was entirely apathetic about it.
Ever since he returned from the one-day trip to Demon Valley, his desire for energy feel had faded out. All he wanted now was to eat, drink and play.
“Energy feel? Why should I bother hurrying to learn it? Life is too short; you only live once,” was his thought.
That was why Han Yuan didn’t feel a trace of envy upon seeing that Cheng Qian, who had joined the sect alongside him, was already able to absorb qi. Instead, Han Yuan gloated over the other boy. He patted Cheng Qian’s shoulder while taking his leave, saying, “Haha, extra classes! Your hard days are ahead of you!”
Therefore, Muchun threw Han Yuan out of the Mission Hall after picking him up with the wooden sword.
And there was ‘the treasure of the sect’, his first apprentice. Seeing that another table with a sandglass on top had been placed beside his, he sighed with feeling. “I only acquired energy feel after four years’ worth of swordplay practice… Has it only been a year since Little Copper Coin’s initiation?”
Muchun Zhenren thought that young master Yan had been stimulated, and would finally get his act together.
But beyond all expectations, that was only something Yan Zhengming murmured randomly. At the moment, he smiled from ear to ear and said with feigned affection, “Third Junior Brother, in the future we’ll be able to ‘consult’ each other for charms, just like we do for scriptures.”
“Two more milk cakes to get me to do your charms practices too? Senior Brother, stop dreaming,” answered Cheng Qian with a fake smile.
Yan Zhengming: “…”
Yah! This brat had only been treating him as a living key to the Library! But now that Cheng Qian could enter there on his own, Yan Zhengming had even lost this value to him!
Where was the dignity of the first senior brother?!
In the first class, Master gave Cheng Qian a burin for engraving and a tablet. There were two lines on the top and bottom of the tablet which were separated by a distance of one cun. What Cheng Qian had to do was carve a one-cun-long vertical line on the tablet.
“You’ll feel some resistance at first,” said Master. “Don’t be afraid; just take your time. It took a good half year for your first senior brother to do so.”
Yan Zhengming hacked awkwardly, aware that he wasn’t a good example.
Not until the burin touched the tablet did Cheng Qian understand that charms were never easily carved.
He had already noticed that the burin senior brother had used wasn’t ordinary—it already had charms on it, specially made for beginners.
Cheng Qian had read from Introduction to Charms that a charm beginner was incapable of connecting the charms with their own power, so they needed an auxiliary tool to help guide them.
Obviously this tool wasn’t easy to get along with. The moment the tip of the burin touched the wood, the object in his hand became like a huge whirlpool, seeming to extract strength out from his body at a constant pace.
Startled, Cheng Qian’s hand which held the burin halted of its own accord. After this brief pause, it couldn’t move any further on the wood.
Fixing his eyes on the tablet, Cheng Qian found that he had left behind only a shallow notch, like a cat’s scratch.
Muchun didn’t tell Cheng Qian beforehand that the stroke couldn’t break or stop. It must be carved in one smooth motion or all the previous efforts would go down the drain. Seeing that Cheng Qian had already suffered a setback, Muchun moved his feet and walked slowly over to point out his mistake.
He liked using this method when teaching Yan Zhengming, as he believed that a student’s hindsight after committing a mistake would give them a more lasting impression.
But Muchun was an extremely slow teacher. Perhaps because he walked far too slowly, by the time he shuffled over to Cheng Qian, the boy had already tightened his grip around the burin and began his second attempt.
Once again, the burin frantically consumed his energy. Cheng Qian recited Introduction to Charms silently in his heart as he roused his newly-acquired energy feel, trying to make the spiritual energy around him sink into the energy sea1 and flow along his arm to the burin.
Unfortunately, although Cheng Qian had grasped the concept, he had only just crossed the threshold. Even if he absorbed qi into his body, the amount he could gather was very limited and failed to keep pace with the amount that the burin extracted from him.
The first things to feel amiss were his legs and feet. Cheng Qian felt like he had walked a million miles on foot without rest. His feet started to numb, and soon afterwards an excruciating ache assailed them. When that pain became too much, it suddenly reverted back into such a profound numbness that he finally could no longer feel his feet at all.
Next was his waist. If it hadn’t been for Cheng Qian’s other hand pressing down on the desk, his torso would have collapsed because of the stinging spasm in his back. His heart thumped wildly, his spine seemingly bent by something invisible.
Finally, the head.
People often had hallucinations while suffering extreme exhaustion. Many a time did Cheng Qian come close to losing his grip on the burin—even so, when he looked down, he found there was still a half distance to go to reach one cun.
Cheng Qian was a little dizzy, but that word did not do justice to what he felt. Weariness permeated his entire body as if he had run twenty laps around the Fuyao Mountain.
No wonder his first senior brother, who preferred the light and shirked the heavy, would always scratch his head and seemed to be on tenterhooks every time he had to do charms practice.
However, Cheng Qian never did anything “step by step”; he always overachieved instead.
The harder it was, the more unyielding he became, and the further he went to the extreme. The burin made shrill sounds, raking through the tablet. If he went any further, Cheng Qian might even collapse. But, as always, he gritted his teeth and went for it, and though he was at the end of his rope he pushed the tool further down.
In a trance, he saw the illusion of his burin nearly reaching the finish line when an adult’s hand firmly snatched his wrist.
The burin fell onto the desk with a clang. Cheng Qian’s hand gave out and his muscles couldn’t resist shaking because they were too taut to relax right away.
Muchun Zhenren held him with one arm and placed a hand at the middle of Cheng Qian’s back, who blacked out. He could hardly bear clenching at Master’s sleeve. Then he felt some warm current flow from his back to his limbs, and everywhere it passed, those numb and rigid parts seemed to be prickled again by numerous needles.
Cheng Qian broke out in a cold sweat. It felt like hundreds of ants nibbled at his heart. He panted so hard from the pain that the wheezing gasps for air became agonized coughs.
Patting his back worriedly, Muchun kept saying, “You, you…”
Yan Zhengming, who had been cutting his nails aside, looked at Cheng Qian with mouth-opened incredulity.
“Copper Coin, you…” said Yan Zhengming, stunned.
But words failed him. He repeated “you” for several times and finally uttered, “You… why are you so fierce?”
It took Cheng Qian a long while to come to. Muchun Zhenren let go of him and pulled the tablet out of his hand, staring at the line with a complex expression—the starting part was fairly smooth, from which it could be referred that Cheng Qian had mastered the key by himself. But it could also be seen that his strength soon weakened when the latter part began to curve, and apparently, he had drained himself before reaching half a cun. The notch was sometimes shallow and sometimes deep, but even when it looked about to break, it never did. If Muchun hadn’t stopped him, Cheng Qian definitely wouldn’t have let go until his life was consumed.
What a pig-headed child!
Frightened, Muchun Zhenren discovered that he’d nearly brought Cheng Qian to disaster by treating him like Yan Zhengming.
Charms practice was actually boring and harsh in the beginning because Muchun Zhenren wouldn’t teach his students how to carve anything useful. For those who had just learned to absorb qi, Muchun Zhenren only allowed them to be guided by the burin so that they could exercise and broaden their channels2.
Broadening one’s channels wasn’t a pleasant experience. It meant depleting the energy that had accumulated in one’s energy sea over and over again.
It was like stretching: regularly stretching every day would do you good, but if you stretched too rashly then your muscle might break.
When young master Yan had just started, as soon as the tip of the burin poked a hole in the wood he’d begin to cry that his hands, bottom, and every part of his body ached as if he would soon be no more. But then he vigorously threw a tantrum—no matter what, he absolutely refused to touch charms again.
Muchun had no choice but to give step-by-step directions to him for two months, and had barely taught him the rudiments.
Even now, when Muchun Zhenren asked his first apprentice to go back and work on those practices, Yan Zhengming just played around with a fruit knife to scratch the tablet—as though his master didn’t know.
Muchun Zhenren’s face fell. He scowled at Yan Zhengming and then said to Cheng Qian, “You’ve been to the Library?”
Cheng Qian: “…”
Yan Zhengming: “…”
Muchun Zhenren took a seat on Cheng Qian’s desk and looked from close-up at this cub who was still wet behind his ears. “What else did you read besides Introduction to Charms?”
Cheng Qian dared not say a thing.
“Let me see, cultivation methods, swordplay, views of all schools, and probably…” Cheng Qian’s head dropped lower as each word came out of master’s mouth. Master walked around the desk and a word popped out, “Diabolism?”
Cheng Qian’s heart gave a giant leap. “Master, I…”
Muchun Zhenren stared at Cheng Qian’s tiny hair whorl, waiting for him to disavow or be scared to tears.
But this guy did neither. He stood there silently, and after a while said quietly, “I’m sorry.”
“How are you sorry?” Muchun Zhenren didn’t believe in the slightest that he was truly repentant.
Cheng Qian: “…”
As expected, he hadn’t meant it.
Yan Zhengming felt a little sorry for him. As the bond between Yan Zhengming and his martial brothers grew stronger, he found he could overlook the hateful parts of his third junior brother. Sometimes he still suffered homicidal urges toward Cheng Qian, but would always forgive him soon afterwards. He felt Cheng Qian was just a defensive and bad-tempered wolf whelp. When angered he’d give you a bite, but upon taking a closer look you’d find that he’d only just left shallow teeth marks on the skin. He knew who treated him well and who didn’t; he pretended to be fierce but, all in all, he usually took great care not to hurt anyone.
“Master, you can’t blame him. I took him into the Library. There’s no entertainment on the mountain, so I wanted to get a few delightful books for junior brother…” Yan Zhengming made excuses for him.
“Is Introduction to Charms included in those delightful books?”
“Maybe he just happened to catch a glimpse of it.”
“Zhengming, do you think of him as you?” Muchun Zhenren raised his eyebrows.
Yan Zhengming: “…”
He was not sure whether master was scolding Cheng Qian or him.
Muchun Zhenren sighed. Looking at Cheng Qian who peered tentatively at him, he felt that if he went on like this, he wouldn’t look like Zipeng Zhenren’s father anymore—he’d look like her grandfather!
He beckoned to Cheng Qian and wiped the cold sweat off the boy’s forehead with his sleeves; though it was his intention to put on a more severe look, the end result was that he failed. He only looked a little cloudy.
“The seniors of our sect have walked 3000 paths, as is recorded in the Library,” said Muchun Zhenren. “Have you been to second-to-last floor? Definitely not, because you didn’t think there would be anything useful to you. There, the records of the paths our seniors have walked, along with their fates, are kept. I know you seek your own path[Tao]; I just hope you don’t choose the hardest one.”
Cheng Qian only partly understood. But he felt the heaviness in his Master’s words, so he nodded.
Both Yan Zhengming and Cheng Qian received the punishment of copying scriptures thirty times.
Poor first senior brother. The blame of his junior brothers’ mistakes seemed to always fall on him.