In the near dark of the distance, the stubby silhouette of a short man gradually takes shape on the horizon. The shadowy figure makes its plodding way forward through the early morning gloom, growing increasingly nearer, clearer and larger. A minute later the apparition halts, turning towards the east to greet the spectacular phenomenon that is the dawn of a new day.
As the sun kisses the sky and slowly brightens the surroundings, one can finally see that the advancing figure is not actually a short man. It is none other than Fatty Li Feng, who only turned 10 a mere week ago.
In front of Li Feng’s appreciative eyes a truly idyllic scene unfurls. The rising sun peels back the receding darkness to reveal the intimidating details of the local scenery laid out like a feast before him. To Li Feng, it felt like beholding an accomplished painting for the first time. The new sun was shining a light upon a masterpiece, evoking an unearthly feeling...
“After three weeks of walking, I’ve finally arrived!′ Li Feng sighs in relief. “Fen-er, I will find you!”
He has encountered so many hardships along the way. Countless hours of walking had worn holes in heels of his boots... Shivering, often sleepless nights spent huddled in drains for warmth, or hiding behind bushes to avoid bandits. All to save his few measly coppers, spent on weevil-ridden meals... Fortunately, it was still early autumn and the weather had generally been bearable...
Finally though he's made it. With hands on hips, he soaks up the moment and the morning sun, gratefully accepting the hope that comes with the dawn. He can't help but recollect the fateful incidents of a month ago. It all started after their clash with that brat Liu Tong...
In her haste to race Jian Cheng home, Fen Ling has - not for the first time - forgotten her share of their six fish. Naturally, it falls to poor old Fatty Li Feng to play the delivery boy.
While he grumbles and scuffs his steps, distractedly dribbling a pebble along the dirt path, Li Feng can't actually deny he has lost the race home... Again... He always does... And, also as always, he does live closer... Hmm, it appears that over the years, he has been regularly taken advantage of...
What irks him the most though, is constantly being reminded he “could do with the exercise”.
After sulkily kicking the relieved stone into a nearby ditch, Li Feng arrives at the Ling’s back gate. Through the open backdoor, he spies the tall, lean figure of Fen Ling’s father standing in their lounge, staring out the window toward the sunset.
Just then, the slim silhouette of Fen Ling’s mother ghosts into the room and hugs him from behind. Outside in the lengthening evening shadow of the open door, the boy halts, reluctant to intrude on an intimate moment between husband and wife, especially with his fistful of dripping fish... However, the welcome evening breeze has other ideas, wafting their whispers gently over into his burning ears...
“You indulge her.” The wife sniffs primly.
“And you don’t,” her husband replies, leaning back into her embrace.
“She has so much to learn... Letters, etiquette, court decorum, her numbers on the abacus --”
“Why?” Wei Ling's head slumps forward and he sighs. “That life is no longer ours to live. Truth be told, I don’t really miss it. The most important things in my life ,were always you two...”
In the shadows, Li Feng stifles a gasp. It seemed the Lings have a deep, dark secret. He just stands there, a stunned mullet with two gaping-mouthed catfish clutched in his quivering fist. After a full minute, he gulps and raps loudly on the door with his knuckles. Ducking through the doorway, he deposits the two catfish on the kitchen bench.
“Just some fish,” he'd stammers, as Fen Ling’s parents regard him suspiciously.
“Enjoy,” he manages, then turns and flees.
Li Feng can't keep a secret to save his life - instantly he cuts across the nearest corn field, headed for his only other friend’s house.
In half an incense stick of time.
“How interesting,” Jian Cheng leans back and steeples his fingers. “So how long have you known?”
Thick trickles of sweat roll down Fatty Li Feng’s brow, some even worm their way down his back, causing him to shiver. Why were these silly secret meetings always held in the sweltering forge?
“Just teasing.” His friend smirks in an irksome manner. “Everyone knows that a big blabbermouth like you can’t keep a secret for more than a minute. It is interesting though... Perhaps they’re actually deposed royals on the run from a bloody coup?”
“You think so?” Fatty is flabbergasted. “En, Fen-er does act like a little princess a lot of the time...”
“Maybe.” Jian Chen shrugs. “If it's true they’ll surely need soldiers though, if only to storm the palace and slaughter the usurper’s army... And conveniently here we’d be, ready, willing and waiting in the very same village...”
To Li Feng’s ears - with a working brain between them - this sounded as foolhardy as it was unlikely. The latter half being the much better part of that particular proposition... He needs to rain on this imaginary parade, before it somehow becomes a plan set in stone...
“Um, I’m not sure I really want to be a soldier.”
“What?” Jian Cheng snaps bolt upright. “Of course you do, a huge lump like yourself--”
“I think I’d rather be a gardener or something...”
“You’re left-handed!” Flecks of his furious friend's spittle sizzle on embers beneath the still cooling forge.
“That’s a gift from the gods for any elite swordsman..."
JIan Cheng's tanned face turns sheep-fat pale. Li Feng can't tell if he livid with anger or aghast from shock - it turns out to be a bit of both. "What use is being left handed to your garden variety vegetable grower? Won't you need a whole new set of tools?”
His voice grew higher and higher, until it threatened to change completely.
“Oh look, there’s a weed over there. Unfortunately it’s on my left... If only there were such a good thing as a left-handed gardener in this world!”
Whoops, Li Feng has poked a sleeping bear here. The rant runs on for the time it takes to make tea, an activity he’d much rather be engaged in... Eventually the raging river anger calms into a stagnant pond full of continuous confusion...
“It's the army rations isn't it?”
Of course Li Feng is concerned about rations. Always would be too... The very word "ration" implied shortage and scarcity, which was a gnat’s whisker away from actually starving...
Enough food was always an issue, not just for him, but the whole village. Maybe not for the mayor and his council cronies, but it is hardscrabble hand-to-mouth for him and his grandfather for sure...
The Ling family weren’t much chop as farmers either, and the Cheng’s forge barely put food on their table... Times were tough in Rusty Creek. On seventh day they had fun for sure, but the catfish they caught were always sorely-needed and stretched out for several days...
Speaking of food, his stomach growls... It is well after dinner time... Yum, catfish congee... He really needs to slip away somehow... Finally, Li Feng manages to fob his friend off, but only by solemnly vowing to reconsider a soldiering career... Straight after the qi testing...
“No-one would hire a soldier with low qi, now would they?”
A cold, hard fact that even the great General Cheng couldn’t and didn’t deny. He didn’t even reply... The mere mention of the testing ceremony has struck the martial maniac dumb... Lost in dreams of guts and glory no doubt... Li Feng slips away in the silence, leaving his friend staring off into the darkness, his shining eyes brim full of passion...
Now a month later, Li Feng's own eyes tear up recalling these naive memories now tainted by time. His talented friend, despite having all the will in the world, is a void... Trash destined to never tread the martial path of the jianghu... If he could swap their test results, he would in a heartbeat. Neither of them have got what they wanted. Actually all three of them are apparently cursed... That was the only reason he was here...
Straight ahead of him, proudly stood a domineering mountain. The towering peak poked out amidst wispy clouds, which hid its true magnificence, but gave the resident sect it’s Misty Cloud moniker - a name that shook the continent since ancient times. The epic peak is the pinnacle amidst an imposing ring of similar-sized alps. A vast array of thickly-forested foothills and smaller mounds abound on each side.
In the middle of the Misty Mountain, barely discernible through the thick morning fog, stood a huge hall, surrounded by a smattering of smaller buildings - this was Li Feng’s destination. Even covered by the clouds, the bright light emitting out from the hall seemed almost holy, making many pilgrims want to worship it.
“Ah, it’s truly worthy of being the location of one of the few remaining immortal sects.”
Little did he know, Misty Cloud Sect may have been a leading force of the entire cultivation world 500 years ago. However, with the inexorable passage of time, it has shrunk to its current size and was now only scarcely able to retain its foothold in the cultivation world.
The resounding echoes of demonic beast roars ring out from the forests nearby, causing Li Feng to hurry forward. Several hundred chi ahead, a path of a thousand twisted steps snaked its way down the mountain to greet the weary traveller’s feet.
“Unbelievable.” Li Feng groans as he adjusts his heavy knapsack on his aching shoulders. “There must be a million of those stupid steps at least...”
Li Feng stares resentfully at the walkway looming large before him... At that moment, he feels someone tugging at his shirt sleeve and spins around.
“Present your token!” a cold voice demands. The bored words belong to a dopey-looking teenager and Fatty, for one, wishes he hadn’t bothered sharing them. The shi-xiong is dressed in plain black robes with the Misty Cloud Sect emblem embroidered on the chest. He has the long face of of a horse and must have been waiting in a hidden garret room - or stables? - somewhere near the base of the stairs.
Li Feng doesn't bow but does lower his head, leaning forward to tug his necklace off. A moment later, he holds out his hand. In his palm, threaded onto a cheap ribbon for safekeeping, is the wooden token he’d been given at the qi testing ceremony .
“Hmph, merely second tier? Another piece of rubbish left for me to pick up.”
The gawky guard flips the token over as he looks at Li Feng with disdain, pointing towards the twisting stack of stairs as he sidles away. “This senior is actually a bit busy right now, so just visit Misty Cloud Hall on your own.”
Clearly, this nag-faced guard is required to guide Li Feng to this place called Misty Cloud Hall. However, he doesn't seem to place Li Feng’s tier-two rank in his eyes and has decided to simply ditch him, leaving him to his own devices. So much for sect solidarity! Li Feng suddenly gets a sinking feeling about his future sect life. Sigh... Do dreams always disappoint?
Despite the glorious dawn mere moments ago, life doesn't appear to be all sunshine and light at the Misty Cloud Sect after all.