“Is that Jade Moon Garden?” Cha Ming asked as they approached a gigantic jade archway. The intricate structure was one hundred feet tall and covered in many familiar runic fragments. The grand entrance led into a light-green shield that covered the lush valley like a weather dome.
“The one and only,” Yu Wen said. “Built by the Jade Emperor to keep his daughter busy and out of trouble, if you’ll believe it.” She urged her ship toward the archway, which allowed them to glide in unrestricted. The moment they passed through, a set of rules appeared in their spiritual sea.
Do not break the restrictive formations.
Do not harm plants, nymphs, or forest spirits.
Do not kill other demons and cultivators.
Be nice to the garden, and it will be nice to you.
A group of tens of thousands of cultivators were gathered at an altar, while hundreds of thousands were camped beside the woods. “It’s a far cry compared to the millions who made it out of the Bridge of Stars,” Cha Ming said as they approached the shrine.
“Many of them were converted with devil seeds, while the remainder were conveniently slaughtered by both devils and fiendish demons,” Yu Wen said. “Usually the number of cultivators wandering on Jade Moon Planet is around ten million. Now there’s only a fraction of that number.”
The camps near the altar were divided into many factions and sects. One of them stood out to Cha Ming. It was comprised of only four members. He waved at them as they approached on foot.
“Thank goodness you’re safe,” Han Jiling said. He sported a large greatsword on his back that oozed lightning-aligned transcendent might. “If you didn’t make it, Lu Tianhao would have had my head.”
“Of course we’re safe,” Cha Ming said. “We just had to take a detour. How are the others from the Alabaster Group?”
“Only a couple made it here alive,” Han Jiling said mournfully. “I explained what happened with Song Min. Although they seemed to understand, they’re a bit uncomfortable about the whole situation. They’ve allied themselves with a group that’s historically been good to us. I think it’s best if you don’t see them until we get Senior Partner Lu to straighten them out.”
“You’re both lucky,” Zhang Fei said grimly. “Our sect members didn’t make it. That’s why we decided to form our own elite team. Now then, what took you and Yu Wen so long?”
“Have a little tact,” Fang Li said, winking. “I’d take my time traveling with a beauty like her as well.” He winced as Mu Qianlin pinched him hard on the thigh.
“What are you all waiting here for?” Cha Ming asked, changing the topic.
“We’re waiting for them to announce the contents of the examination,” Zhang Fei explained. “Every year, many people come here with herb-gathering quotas. They’re welcome to select whatever they like—except for top-grade herbs. Their supply is very limited, and priority on picking them is determined by the results of a two-part test. The first test determines eligibility and the second test, herb distribution. There is also a third test, whose reward is access to a restricted alchemical library. You can only take the second test if you pass the first, and so on.”
Cha Ming looked toward the wood, where various cultivators were darting in and out of the trees, doing their best to avoid nymphs and wood spirits while they plundered low-grade herbs and fruits. “What about them?”
“They’re people who’ve used their herb-gathering quotas and are trying their luck on low-grade herbs, which are unprotected by restrictive formations,” Mu Qianlin said. “It’s not technically against the rules, but it irks the elementals who administer the test. Given that the first qualifying test is usually arbitrary and bizarre, all of us are staying out of trouble until the contest begins.”
“So that’s how it is,” Cha Ming said, laughing. “What are your plans?” he asked Yu Wen.
“I have something to take care of for the time being,” she said. “Go ahead and keep them company. I have a feeling the test will be starting soon.”
Seeing that she didn’t want to discuss her task, Cha Ming left her to her own devices. He and the four angelic cultivators began playing Xiqi, a game like Angels and Devils that was played by many players on a spherical board.
“How interesting,” Cha Ming said. “It’s much harder than Angels and Devils, given that there are no edges to defend.” He placed a blue stone on the wooden sphere, carefully protecting his growing group of stones.”
“The best part is that openings and strategy aren’t well defined,” Zhang Fei said. “That way, smarter players can’t get much of an advantage over me.”
“I think smart players will generally find a way,” Mu Qianlin said.
The larger man shrugged and continued playing his stones in a scatterbrained manner. It wasn’t long before he was completely choked out of the game. Han Jiling followed soon after.
“Beginner’s luck,” Fang Li, who owned the game, said. He was still playing but was at a significant disadvantage.
“You can always side with me and take her out,” Cha Ming said.
“Like you two did to me?” Fang Li said bitterly. The four others laughed. Winning was one thing, but to them, taunting Fang Li was half the fun.
Suddenly, the laughing died down. Cha Ming frowned and looked around suspiciously. A cut-flower silence had covered the lush valley like a smothering blanket. The forest spirits, which usually sang encouraging songs to the trees, had halted their sacred words. The nymphs had stopped taunting the human cultivators, who began wantonly plundering their natural treasures. Overhead, dark clouds covered the starry sky and began forming a funnel, which descended onto the semitransparent green shield above them. The entire forest held its breath as the cloudy finger stretched out toward Jade Moon Garden’s defensive shield.
Crack. A fissure appeared across the obscured sky. Crack. Another one joined it. Thousands of cracks appeared all around them as pieces of luminescent glass tumbled toward the valley from above. The cultivators near the shrine looked up fearfully at the powerful presence. Those near the forest, however, picked up speed and continued their plundering. The nymphs and forest spirits ignored them and chose to retreat to their shelters.
“You think you can do as you please in the Jade Emperor’s sanctuary?” a voice boomed. A giant creature made of jade vines flew up from the forest. It placed its hand on the shield, mending it faster than it could break.
A black-cloaked figure appeared. Although it was difficult to distinguish it from the dark night sky, its black eyes stood in stark contrast to everything around it. “It was worth a try,” the figure said. “But why do you bother? You and I both know you’re incapable of holding out against me with the shield’s power source.
“There’s only one way to find out,” the creature said. “I have sworn to protect this place, so I will fight you with everything I have. A wood elemental’s dignity is inviolable.”
“Suit yourself,” the black-cloaked figure said. Over a thousand jade spikes covered in black runic fragments appeared at various positions above the dome. They whirled intensely as they accumulated their power. “Destroy!” the figure yelled.
The spikes stabbed downward at his command. Each one pierced a few inches into the shield, forming black runic lines across its surface. They joined together in an elaborate network that exceeded Cha Ming’s comprehension.
“Your kind only knows how to damage and destroy,” the elemental spat. It opened one hand, which contained a green spark. Then it opened the other vined hand, revealing a red spark. The spark was familiar to Cha Ming—it was the fire source that he and Yu Wen had retrieved from the volcano.
Does she have a relationship with Jade Moon Garden? he thought.
“No wonder you were confident,” the black figure said as he saw red and green energies pouring into the barrier. They formed a counter-formation against the spikes, preventing them from eroding the shield further. “But you’re just delaying the inevitable. I have plenty of time to counter this.”
“Counter away,” the elemental said.
The black-cloaked figure snorted and disappeared. The starry sky reappeared behind the black formation encapsulating Jade Moon Garden’s original barrier, and peace returned to Jade Moon Garden. The wood dryads returned to tending herbs as they glared bitterly at the cultivators. The rogues shifted uncomfortably as they realized they’d likely stepped out of bounds.
The elemental looked toward the cultivators by the shrine as the black-cloaked figure disappeared. “Those of you who have waited respectfully will be taking the second trial tomorrow at dawn,” it said. “Those of you who did not will now get their just desserts.” It looked to those in the forest in anger. Tens of thousands of vines burst out from the forest floor and bound the men and women in place.
“Seeing that you care so much about these lesser herbs that you would plunder while we’re in danger, your punishment will be to nurture them,” the elemental said. It waved its hand, revealing hundreds of thousands of green sparks that shot into the offending cultivators. Wails of anguish filled the forest.
After observing them for a while, Cha Ming gingerly retracted his resplendent force, doing so out of disgust—the cultivators had all begun experiencing extreme and endless diarrhea. It oozed out from their orifices and leaked onto the lesser herbs, which greedily absorbed the premium fertilizer.
“For now, you will be fertilizing these plants,” the elemental said. “Remember this lesson—you will have a chance to redeem yourselves later.” He then flew back down to the forest. The cultivators let out a sigh of relief as the elemental’s oppressive aura disappeared.
“I told you they were all fools,” Zhang Fei said. “One year, on a whim, one of the elementals forced all the cultivators to pick weeds for a year. Only those who’d picked at least a million weeds were allowed to participate in the second trial. This time, the contents of the first trial was harsh but easy to pass. One simply had to be nice to Jade Moon Garden, and Jade Moon Garden was nice to them.”
Cha Ming nodded, but inwardly, he had his suspicions. Was the first test was rigged in his favor? Who knows, Cha Ming thought. All I can do is try my best tomorrow. He sat cross-legged and awaited the trial with the few thousand remaining cultivators.
Yu Wen arrived just before dawn. “How did you like the first test?” she said, snickering.
I knew it, Cha Ming thought. “Who would have thought that you’d have connections with Jade Moon Garden’s elemental? I take it Huxian and Xiao Bai are hunting for another source?”
“Yes,” Yu Wen said. “But they should be fine on their own, and it’s now very difficult to leave the garden. We can only wait and hope for the best.”
Cha Ming nodded. “Will you be participating in the examination today?”
“I don’t have much to do, so I might as well follow you into the library,” Yu Wen said.
“The library?” Cha Ming said. “The test is related to learning?”
Yu Wen held a finger to her lips, and her voice lowered to a whisper. “I’m not allowed to say much. What I can tell you is that the second and third tests are related. It’s best if you don’t get distracted by other things in the library. I know that you’re looking for a solution for your core, but you won’t find it here. Only the alchemical library after the third trial has what you need.”
“How did you know about my core?” Cha Ming asked. It wasn’t something they’d spoken about.
“My space-time camera is a soul-bound treasure, Cha Ming,” Yu Wen said. “I know more about you than you think.”
Cha Ming forced a smile. “Are you sure I can find something in the alchemical library?” he asked.
“I asked a friend,” Yu Wen said. “I guarantee it. Also, I have some good news for you. There is a Burning Samsara Lotus as one of the ten top-grade herbs this time around. As long as you finish in the top five, you should be able to obtain it.”
“Why the top five?” Cha Ming asked. “Are there other, more valuable treasured herbs?”
“There are,” Yu Wen said. “But I don’t think you’ll choose them.”
“I don’t need any others,” Cha Ming said. “But I have to thank you.”
“Thank me for what?” Yu Wen asked.
“For giving me hope,” Cha Ming said. He tilted her chin and kissed her gently. At this moment, a gong sounded, and the green elemental from the day before flew up above the shrine.
“Only those who are competing should stay near the shrine,” it said. “Though I encourage everyone to stay, as I’m in a good mood. With the help of those other cultivators, the forest is growing smoothly. Therefore, the test will be non-harmful in nature. Everyone can only benefit.”
Many cultivators’ faces brightened. After all, it wasn’t unusual to be sent out on punitive expeditions against demon beasts for the second trial. Given the situation outside the shield, such a scenario seemed highly probable.
The elemental waved its vine-covered arm, summoning a large green portal. Beyond the shimmering surface stood a large building. “Everyone who wishes to participate, please enter through this door into the Jade Moon Library. There, you will find billions of books on any conceivable subject. Weaponsmithing, alchemy, medicine, and cultivation—none of the basics are missing. Although the contents aren’t as plentiful as those in the Sacred Jade Library, I dare say that it would be impossible to find such a comprehensive library on any of your respective planes.
“Your task today is simple. Each of you will answer ten questions in the archaic field of herbology. The final placing will be based on the completion percentage for each of ten questions at the end of three years. You have unlimited attempts, though remember that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While only ten top-grade herbs are available, hundreds of thousands of high-grade herbs can also be obtained by participants. What’s better—the selection of a few herbs or a treasure trove of knowledge?”
With these words, the elemental stepped back and walked toward the forest to tend to the latest crop of fertilizer. The cultivators began pushing and shoving to enter the library. After one hour, Cha Ming and Yu Wen finally entered the jade-green portal.
The moment they entered, Yu Wen sent him a mental message. Bookshelves 1-74930231, 1-62930492, 1-17384940… and 1-10294810. The ten numbers she gave him were all on the first floor. She then blew him a kiss before disappearing up a spiral staircase to the second floor of the library.
It took some time before Cha Ming reached the first bookshelf Yu Wen directed him to. The titles on the aged books were obscured by a thick layer of dust. He grabbed one of them and blew on it, revealing thin gold lettering. The book was titled An Introduction to the Fundamental Principles of Herbological Dousing.
The shelf had to do with the fifth question: “Provide an herbal remedy to douse an inflammation caused by Seven-Vices Fever Root.” He paged through the book before quickly finding the answer. Then he memorized the book for good measure.
“What other good things can we find on this shelf, I wonder?” he said. He pulled out a random book and began reading. Given his strong soul, it only took him forty-five breaths to finish the entire book. He frowned once he finished it. “There’s more than one answer?”
He quickly organized the knowledge he’d gleaned in his mind before confirming that there were indeed two answers to the problem. Just to be sure, he pulled out a third and fourth book. These did not provide any additional answers, but he discovered that they completed some gaps of knowledge he’d found in the first two books.
The fifth book, however, gave him a large headache. It contained no less than five additional answers to the problem, and one potential answer that was proven false using knowledge gleaned from the prior four books.
“How could I have thought the test would be easy?” he muttered. He was fortunate enough to have Yu Went as an inside contact to point him in the right direction. Others would need to wander through the library unguided. Then again, there were likely many multiples of the books he’d perused.
Seeing that there were no shortcuts to be taken, Cha Ming began reading through each book on the shelf, one at a time. He read anything that was loosely related to herbology. Ten days passed, and during this time, he read 20,000 books. Although his returns diminished with each book, he left nothing unread. This even included the loose research notes piled up on the shelf.
Finally, he spent ten days consolidating, reconciling, and reorganizing the information in his mind. Then, he poured the results into a jade slip that he titled Dousing Using Herbs, Roots, and Fruits, A Summary.
“One down, nine to go,” he muttered before setting out toward the next shelf.
Bio: I'm a 31 year old part-time writer / part-time English teacher whom, at the ripe old age of 30, decided to quit his successful engineering job and start a new life. I'm constantly reading, usually Chinese Web Novels because they are easy to find on my phone. I also like games - mostly board games but sometimes internet games.