Months ago, at the Crystal Hill
Deep, deep underground, in the Crystal Hill, Bi De sat with Yin and Miantiao upon a rock. A massive crystal formation hung high above them, bathing the room in warm golden light that mimicked the sun. Green, vibrant plants and a multitude of colorful mushrooms bloomed in the cavernous room, a forest equal to any on the surface. A river of pure clean water ran along the edge of the field of growth, falling to become complete with a waterfall. One could easily forget they were deep below the earth.
In the center of the cavern sat his Great Master, motionless. His Qi flowed out of him into carvings on the floor, a grand formation as large as the floor of the Great Master’s coop in size. The formation spiraled and twisted in patterns Bi De could not begin to describe—the work of a true master of the craft. Bi De’s gut told him that such Masters rarely parted with their secrets, and so held his tongue from asking more questions about it. The ritual was working, and Master Gen was extremely intent on it.
From the spiraling formation to the crystals, hovering on the dias. The ritual to transfer the memories within the old, cracked crystal to a new one, provided by Master Gen proceeded steadily, from what Bi De could tell.
Already, it had been ten hours. Ten hours of vigil over his Great Master. Bi De could barely pull his eyes away. All he could think to himself was ‘this is a Master Cultivator.
Yet even as he looked on with pride and admiration at the steady form of his Great Master, he was… vexed. It galled him that he was not the one seated there and that his Master had to be the one to complete it.
Bi De had started this quest to find the secret to the formation, but it was not he who would shoulder the burden of the final step.
His Great Master had volunteered for the task, for although another cultivator could be swapped into the formation to add their own energy, the transfer would be liable to produce instabilities. The crystal was already delicate enough, and any undue eddies in the Qi formation may damage it further.
His Great Master, with his limitless wellspring of strength, was the only one who could shoulder such a burden. Bi De looked on in awe at the absolute steadiness of his Master’s Qi, unwavering and as solid as the earth, as he gave the precise amount of power to the formation.
Bi De had a long way to go.
While His Master was silent and still save for his steady breathing, the monkeys and Master Gen were whirlwinds of activity.
Some stood in a circle around the formation at regular intervals, holding in their hands instruments of crystal and observing them closely while others dashed from point to point on the formation, taking more readings with their instruments and hooting. Master Gen sat in the center of it all, receiving the hooting reports of his kin and marking them down. Occasionally, he would venture to a point in the formation, and with a careful hand, he would shave the barest pieces of stone from the array. Each time he did this, the brightness of the beam connecting the crystals would intensify slightly, or minute wobbles of the crystals themselves would settle. Each action refined the array just a little bit more and it spoke of the extreme skill that Master Gen had that he could refine the formation as it was being used.
So Bi De, Yin, and Miantiao simply sat together and observed. The snake was alert as he always was to treachery; his good eye wandering around and searching for a hint of foul play… though he did not really expect to find any.
Yin sat between them, looking interested at the glowing lights. Her fur was caked with the strange fluids of the mushrooms, as if she had been dipped into a bucket of paint, the glow having long since faded. Bi De’s own feathers were similarly soiled. He had attempted to clean it off in the river, but it was sticky and he would need a much more involved bath than he had time for. Yet he hadn’t had the heart to rebuke her for painting all over him. She certainly hadn’t minded, and the Great Master never complained about a little dirt.
Even if it itched when it got caught in Bi De’s feathers. He had only really noticed once they were out of the thin, winding passageways anyway, and speaking out hours after the fact was petty.
Bi De shuddered. Being underground was as disagreeable as it was the first time, but at least they weren’t as far down this time. It was only mildly uncomfortable instead of completely unbearable.
Bi De shook his head. No sense dwelling on it.
‘How goes the transfer, Master Gen?’ He called out when the monkey paused for a moment. Things seemed stable for the moment, and the monkeys had stopped rushing around so much.
Gen Ten startled, glancing up from his work and seemed to remember that they were there.
“It is remarkably stable.” Master Gen observed, his gravelly voice coming from the crystal at his throat.. “Normally there are fluctuations, but this is…solid. Like stone rather than water, yet still flowing. I dare say this will be complete sooner than I thought.”
Bi De nodded proudly. Of course his Great Master would accomplish this task with ease. ‘My Master’s Qi is a stable, nurturing force. It is as the earth below our feet.’
The monkey nodded in agreement, looking on at the transfer. “If he wasn’t so big, he’d make a good miner. Slow and steady, like my lot.”
‘It's kinda weird he's so quiet.’ Yin said, after a moment longer. She was used to his Lord constantly moving, or cracking jokes. ‘I wonder what Jin is thinking about?’
‘He is quite a bit different like thissss,’ Miantiao noted. ‘Normally, he isss much more animated.’
“Most likely something profound. These cultivators have their sutras and mantras. He must be in a state of perfect peace to have such calm Qi.” Master Gen said.
‘Maybe he's thinking about training with whoever taught him? That always makes me focus.’ Yin pondered.
‘Perhaps he thinks of his projectssss? Or maybe his focussss is so complete he thinks of nothing at all?’ Miantiao mused.
‘I say he thinks of Fa Ram and his wife, of the pleasant rivers and beautiful sun.’ Bi De said. It was what he thought of when he wished for perfect peace.
One thousand, one hundred and ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall, one thousand, one hundred and ninety-eight bottles of beer. Take one down, pass it around, one thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine bottles of beer…
Man, this was taking forever. I shuddered at the idea of having to do this again every day.
Hell no. Staying still for hours was bullshit. I mentally sighed and shook the thoughts away. Nothing for it. I was committed now.
Instead, I drew upon my experiences of very, very long car rides. In the Before, my family used to go on car rides across the country. My father always just wanted to get the drive over with, so we powered through, swapping off drivers. It was just like one of those. Cooped up and unable to move properly, with the only sport being trying to annoy the shit out of your parents.
I must say, I had that part down to an art.
So I centered myself and settled in for the long haul. My lips twitched into a smile as I shuffled through my repertoire.
Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut last night! Last night I found a peanut, found a peanut last night!
For thirty hours, there was little difference in the proceedings. The Qi connecting the two crystals simply got thicker, more pronounced and opaque.
Several monkeys relieved their kin, starting up a new shift, and food was brought to them from the surface.
They kept up their silent vigil. There was no sun to mark the passing of time, the enormous crystal in the ceiling shining down with a constant brightness.
Bi De eventually, at Maintiao’s prodding, properly cleaned himself and Yin off. The snake promised him that his vigil would not waver. Yin heated the water with the power of the sun, as Bi De’s beak combed through her fur. The mushroom sap was sticky, and difficult to remove. He was frustrated in his efforts until one of the monkeys who brought them food handed them a sweet smelling set of herbs.
Once crushed, the liquid within foamed and fizzed as it touched the fluorescent gunk, and after that, it left them both pristine.
‘You should take better care of your fur.’ Bi De tutted staring at the beautiful silver strands, but the rabbit just shrugged.
‘It's fur. If it gets dirty, that's what it's supposed to do.’ she said matter of factly. ‘A weapon doesn’t need to be pretty. It needs to do its job.’
Miantiao flinched at the words, as they settled in beside him again. The silence was slightly awkward.
‘Would such a formation look good on glass?’ Bi De asked Miantiao, gesturing.
The snake snapped out of his funk, and eyed it consideringly.
‘Well, doing such fine linessss would be a challenge, but…’
On the thirty-fourth hour, there was a change.
It happened abruptly. The first disruption since the transfer started.
One of the monkeys at the edge of the circle suddenly hooted, holding up his crystal instrument. It was buzzing.
Master Gen frowned, but did not seem overly concerned as he walked over to the creature. He took the instrument from the other creature and looked at it carefully. Then he nodded.
Bi De had risen to his feet and was watching. Master Gen smiled at him.
“A small spike. Nothing to worry about—” he began, just as the crystal slowly stopped buzzing.
Bi De began to sit back down when another one of the monkeys hooted and raised up his crystal instrument.
Then a third.
Then a fourth.
Then Master Gen’s crystal started up again.
The hooting spread until every monkey was hooting worriedly, their cries mixing with the buzzing of their crystal instruments into a cacophony that echoed and redoubled itself against the stone walls. Soon, the entire room echoed with the calls of worry.
Master Gen’s head whipped back and forth as Bi De alighted beside him along with Yin and Miantiao.
‘What. Is. Happening.’ Bi De demanded.
There was a pulse of Qi from the monkey and all of his kin stopped their wailing, leaving only the buzzing of the crystal.
“I don’t know quite yet. Everything just suddenly started spiking, but—” the monkey abruptly cut off as he glanced up, his eyes locking on the crystal. The band of Qi was thickening rapidly and the crystals, floating low over the dias, began to rise into the air.
“What?” Master Gen demanded. “The calculations of our Great Ancestor are perfect! I triple checked them, this… this…” The monkey trailed off. The thick band of Qi began to feather, strands of energy sloughing off it as the connection got thicker and thicker. It looked like liquid as it churned and bubbled, multicolured light refracting off the crystal above.
It was obviously something not intended to happen. Bi De glanced at his Master, but he was fine, seeming to have not even noticed.
The monkey swung into action, removing another crystal. It was a flat pane of bright green swirling bands of black and pink across the front of it.
Bi De restrained himself from commenting, the monkey obviously worried as he checked. His fingers flew across the device. His eyes were narrow with concentration. Bi De checked on his Lord again. He had a bead of sweat upon his brow, but his eyes were still closed as he fueled the formation.
The crystal in Master Gen’s hands chimed. He nearly dropped the piece.
“Honoured Ancestor, preserve us.” the monkey breathed. The tone that prayer was said in was exactly what Bi De didn’t want to hear. “I thought it was part of the crystal. Part of the recordings.” Master Gen murmured, his deep voice calm as it came through the crystal on his neck, “But…”
A thick swallow and he continued, “But… there's something alive in there.”
The crystal pumped. The band thickened to be wider than the crystals, churning ominously.
The giant light crystal in the ceiling flickered again. The buzzing tones of the monkeys’ crystals reached a pitch that was painful to hear, and then abruptly every single one of them cracked and went silent.
The monkeys screeched with shock and fear, the hooting starting up again. Things were spiraling out of control too fast for his liking.
Bi De felt a certain calm come over him as the Qi in the air began to writhe.
‘Master Gen, how do we abort the transfer?’ he asked.
The monkey stared at him uncomprehendingly for a second, before he shook his head. He hooted, then froze, his fingers coming up to the cracked crystal around his neck.
‘Your Master must stop the transfer of his Qi. Failing that we can break the formation, but the backlash for doing that would be... not ideal.’
Bi De nodded and turned to alert his Master, but Yin was already there at his side, staring up at the unmoving man with worry.
‘Uh… Bi De? There's something wrong with him!’ Yin shouted, staring worriedly at the Great Master. He remained unmoving, even as the crystal pumped and sucked more of his Qi into its ravenous depths.
The sloughing tendrils grew and grew, filling the room with light. It seemed malevolent now. Writhing and pulling.
Bi De was beside his Great Master in an instant. His Great Master was like a statue as he sat there, completely oblivious to the rumbling and flickering.
‘Master! Great Master!’ Bi De tried, but it was for nought. His Lord was in some kind of trance. Yin slammed her feet into the Great Master’s side. A blow that could reduce a tree to splinters in an instant struck home… And did nothing.
The great formation that shone down on the cavern from above flickered and died, while the sinister glow from the recording crystal intensified.
‘Gen! Break the Formation!’ Be De commanded.
The monkey, to his credit, nodded solemnly. He raised his hand high, the limb covered with scintillating Qi, and brought it down upon the formation. A strike that would have surely disrupted it, and cut off the energy.
The monkey’s arm slammed home on the precise point that should have ended the ritual.
Instead it skittered off with a snap as one of his fingers broke, rebounding off the Great Master’s energy as it saturated the ground.
‘Shit.’ Yin opined.
‘Shit.’ Bi De and Miantiao agreed.
The light from the crystals burned, becoming almost too much to look at.
And then tendrils of light lashed out from the connection enveloping each and every one of them.