In the near dark of the distance, the stubby silhouette of a short man gradually takes shape on the horizon. The shadowy figure makes it's 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 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 made it,' Li Feng sighed in relief. "Fen Ling I will find you!"
He'd encountered many hardships along the way. Countless hours of walking or on good days hitching rides in farmer's wagons. Shivering,, often sleepless nights spent huddled in drains for warmth or hiding behind bushes to avoid bandits. All to save his few measly coppers for food... Fortunately it was still early autumn and the weather had been bearable...
Finally though he had made it. With hands on hips, he soaked up the moment and the morning sun, gratefully accepting the hope that came with the dawn.
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," Fatty thought.
Little did he know. Misty Cloud Sect may have been a leading force of the entire cultivation world 500 years ago, with many branch sects. However, with the inexorable passage of time, it had 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 rang out from the nearby forests 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 groaned as he adjusted his heavy knapsack on his aching shoulders. "There must be a million of those stupid steps..."
Li Feng stared resentfully at the walkway looming large before him... At that moment he felt someone tugging at his shirt sleeve and spun around.
“Present your token!” a cold voice demanded. The bored words belonged to a dopey looking teenager and Fatty, for one, wished he hadn't bothered sharing them. The shixiong was dressed in plain black robes with the Misty Cloud Sect emblem embroidered on the chest. He had 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 didn't bow but did lower his head, leaning forward to tug his necklace off. A moment later, he held out his hand. In his palm, threaded onto a cheap ribbon for safekeeping, appeared the wooden token he'd been given at his qi testing ceremony .
“Hmph, merely second tier? Another piece of trash left for me to collect”
The gawky guard flipped the token over as he looked at Li Feng with disdain, pointing towards the twisting stack of stairs before sidling away. “This senior is actually a bit busy right now, so just visit Misty Cloud Hall on your own.”
Clearly, this nag-faced guard was required to guide Li Feng to this place called Misty Cloud Hall. However, he didn't seem to place Li Feng's tier two rank in his eyes, deciding to ditch him and leave him to his own devices. So much for sect solidarity! Fatty suddenly got a sinking feeling about his future sect life. Sigh...Dreams always disappoint.
Despite the glorious dawn, it didn't appear to be all sunshine and light at the Misty Cloud Sect after all.
A winter chill ran its frosty fingers down Jian Cheng ’s spine. He shivered and ducked his head lower between his knees staring glumly at his homemade sheepskin boots.
“Ugh,” he thought sniffing his feet. Holes in the frayed boots let out the fetid stench of musty wool, which mingled far too familiarly with the smell of the damp sheep droppings, already hemming him in.
Bleak Peak was, as the name implied, a dreary site. It had one solitary redeeming feature, he could see his sheep from it. He could see a lot from it actually. All the countryside for miles around... Including the foothills of the Forbidden Forest.
He wasn’t supposed to stray this near to the demonic beast-filled forest - especially with his flock - but he figured this was as close as he’d get to adventuring in this little lifetime. A little thrill from living dangerously... As much as a 12 year-old mortal boy and 13 bleating sheep could handle.
In the sullen aftermath of the sect selection - two years ago now - it had been hard to face his father. Often Jian Cheng would catch him out of the corner of his eye ruefully shaking his head. His parents tried to treat him the same, but a lot of their hopes had hinged on him and he knew it... Their dreams had died, burned to ashes within a cold unmoving orb too...
The part that truly broke his heart however, was seeing little Fen Ling carted away, crying his name constantly...
"Jian ge-ge! Save me. I don't want to go. Li ge-ge! Jian ge-ge!"
Frantic she was, wailing like a little banshee. Her tiny clawed hands were clutching at him as she was carried away over an elder's shoulder... While he was powerless... Would forever remain powerless...
He'd learned later from Fen Ling's parents the details of what had actually transpired. The Misty Cloud elders had discovered she had a rare twin affinity of wind and lightning. At the time of her initial testing,, the senior elder must have glimpsed it in the orb, but kept it to himself until afterwards. With a tier three twin affinity she was destined for the inner court. Eventually, if her cultivation advanced rapidly enough, Fen Ling could even become a core disciple...
She had no idea though. She didn't care either. Worse she had been given no choice. Even her parents were given no face and had no say in the matter... The sect elders simply snatched her. It was called kidnapping in the mortal world. And it was a crime! In the martial world it was apparently no large matter. It still mattered to the little people directly affected. It mattered to Jian Cheng...
She wanted to stay... And he didn't have the power to save her... Or even accompany her. He couldn't help... Fatty had stepped forward and signed up immediately... Still the shame burned in Jiang Cheng's belly like a forest fire.
He’d sulked for a week after that fateful day, until one morning at dawn, his father burst into his room and yanked him out of bed. He'd been dragged into the courtyard and thrown a sword, before he could open his mouth, his father had launched attack after attack. He’d been soundly thrashed that day. And every day after. His father was no longer holding anything back.
After a fortnight Jian Cheng finally figured out why. Without the luxury of a cultivation path to follow, he would have to become a much better technician to compete with even the bottom rung cultivators. Stronger and fitter too. He'd always had the smithy to literally forge his strength, but there was not enough work for two, so he tended sheep three days a week. Their rundown household needed the few coppers it brought in. Also, the up hill, down dale exercise was good for his leg strength and overall stamina.
It didn’t help with his depression though. Not for the first time he wondered why he still bothered? He was basically a martial artist training for a future that was no longer there...
Jian Cheng remained lost in thought, until a sudden flash of bright light burst his eyelids and reverie apart. A shooting star!? How about that! For once he’d have something to share with his mother when he got home in the morning. Wow, it was a bright one`too. Weren’t you supposed to wish upon them?
It was far too easy to guess his wish so he didn’t even bother.
He quickly counted his sheep - a good habit he had formed - although for some reason it made him sleepy.... But when he turned back towards the star it was even brighter... And getting bigger... Was it actually a meteor? Now he had a story his father would appreciate too. It was getting nearer and nearer to Bleak Peak as well.
Then it occurred to him that meteors were often made of valuable materials, especially for forging! Jian Cheng felt his spirits rising... If he could grab a rock or two of rare ore, his family's fortunes could be restored overnight! It was actually doable... As long as it didn’t land in that damned demonic beast forest…
Bam! The bright light was extinguished.
Damn! It had landed fair square in the Forbidden Forest... Not too far in though... Jian Cheng girded his loins. He didn’t have any prospects, so didn’t have anything to lose. He would gamble regardless. Sheep forgotten he stood up. The cold wind whipped around his body but he ignored the physical and mental shivers slithering inside. Determined, he and began jogging towards the treeline in the direction of the impact...