The group’s journey thus far had been very uneventful. This lack of excitement didn’t last long. Around noon on the third day they encountered a group of twenty spirit wolves. These wolves appeared famished, like no amount of meat could let them eat their fill. These wolves swiftly encircled their small group, taking advantage of their large numbers.
“Keep close together, and watch out for combination attacks!” Cha Ming shouted out, moving into a back-to-back circle with the rest of the group. He held his heavy staff near the end, using it to keep the circling pack at a distance. Spirit wolves had a habit of biting their opponents and tripping them, creating opportunities for the rest of the pack to attack. These spirit wolves were second-grade spirit beasts, and their leader appeared to be a fifth-grade spirit beast.
The alpha wolf was easily identified among the group of silver wolves. He was roughly twice as large as the other wolves and was over twelve feet long. His ferocious eyes contained a tinge of glowing red. Streaks of red could also be seen on its silver coat of fur. The red streaks were formed with “Dire Qi”, which wolves accumulated by eating enough spirit beasts, cultivators, and medicinal herbs. Once this alpha spirit wolf built up enough dire Qi he would evolve into a dire wolf, a sixth-grade spirit beast. Judging from the gaunt appearance of the other spirit wolves, they had been intentionally starving themselves to nourish their pack leader. Once their pack leader became a dire wolf, their entire pack’s safety would improve dramatically.
While the other wolves surrounded them, the alpha wolf circled from the back, ready to take any opportunities that presented themselves. The alpha wolf knew that if it died, the whole pack would likely perish. Without its protection, any spirit wolves that managed to flee would eventually be picked off by other predators.
The encirclement continued for half the time it takes an incense stick to burn; the wolves would occasionally bite towards the group to probe their reactions. Not wanting to be caught making the first mistake, Cha Ming used his spiritual force to break off a dozen red beads from his bracelet. First Manifestation, Fire Bolt! The twelve pearls twirled together in a circle that quickly compressed over the next two breaths. He then flung out the pearls towards a group of three nearby spirit wolves. As soon as the ball of fire made contact, the concentrated fire Qi contained in the pearls caused them burst outwards in a ball of raging flame, striking the wolves like pieces of burning shrapnel. The wolves whimpered as a third of their silver fur burst into flames.
The three injured wolves let out howls of rage, gathering their nearby pack members to fiercely attack Cha Ming. Cha Ming used his staff to beat back two wolves, but the remaining four darted past his staff’s reach, viciously biting towards Cha Ming’s legs. To their surprise, Cha Ming had already anticipated their maneuver, and twelve earthy pearls slammed down from above. First Manifestation, Tremor! The group of twelve pearls slammed down onto the four wolves, hitting their thick hides and causing them to cough out blood.
Things were progressing very differently on Wang Jun’s side. As soon as Cha Ming’s attack broke out, Wang Jun waved out a pitch-black three-foot sword. A black mist shot out of the sword, spreading out towards half the wolves. The black mist was quickly absorbed into the eyes, ears, noses, and mouths of the snarling wolves. They immediately began stumbling, tripping on roots and misplacing their paws. Their biting attacks were no longer as accurate, sometimes missing by an entire foot. Occasionally, Wang Jun would stab forward with his black sword. While at first it didn’t seem like his sword would hit anything, the wolves seemed to almost throw themselves onto his sword, impaling themselves.
Not wanting to be outdone, Feng Ming darted out and surrounded himself with a blistering sandstorm. As soon as the wolves saw Feng Ming dart out, four surrounding wolves and the pack leader darted out to attack him. As soon as they entered his attack range, he pulled out his sword with a sword-drawing attack.
“Xing!” An unlucky wolf was quickly cut in half by Feng Ming’s burning red spirit sword, which he had been gifted before leaving the city. The remaining wolves attacking him found themselves closing their eyes. The burning sand made it impossible for them to use their superior sense of smell, and the weaker wolves let out dry coughs as they struggled to breath in the sandy hot air.
Meanwhile, Hong Xin had been so badly frightened by the attack that she could hardly move. She finally managed to start moving her shaking legs just as two wolves lunged at her. Frightened, she let out a fiery punch and struck towards one of the wolves. The second wolf darted underneath her first and viciously bit her leg. She let out a shrill scream as pain shot up her leg, and she was pulled down by the large wolf. The first wolf that she had knocked back had already recovered, and was darting towards her throat.
Cha Ming and Wang Jun both reacted to her bad situation. Wang Jun came in to physically block off some the remaining nearby wolves, and a black mist drifted out and affecting all remaining wolves on the battlefield. Cha Ming was forced to split his attention and exhausted over half his metal Qi to launch the most powerful attack he knew, First Manifestation: Silver Dagger! Twelve metallic pearls fiercely shot out in the shape of a sword, forming a precise blade of metallic energy that impaled the wolf biting towards her throat a few tens of feet away.
Seeing that Hong Xin was protected, he shot twelve white pearls from his hand which immediately glowed green. First Manifestation, Healing Hand! The hand reached out and softly grasped her leg. Her bleeding leg immediately started to heal. He didn’t have time to retract them, as he quickly darted out to join Feng Ming and Gong Lan. Gong Lan had darted to Feng Ming’s side long ago, and she was surrounded by a freezing cloud. Inside the freezing cloud, her twin Taichi swords struck out in a soft and gentle manner, like a drizzle of rain.
Upon realizing that half his pack was dead, the alpha wolf let out a howl of pure rage. The red streaks on his silver fur suddenly started glowing with an ominous light as he activated his only spirit skill: Dire Form. Instantly the alpha wolf’s size increased by fifty percent. The alpha wolf then darted out twice as fast as any of them were capable of, knocking Feng Ming to the ground and dispersing the blistering sandstorm.
Cha Ming had been waiting for the alpha wolf’s attack. He fended off a couple of the remaining wolves with his staff, and shot out another Silver Dagger. This time, he reinforced the Silver Dagger with Earth Qi, making it twice as powerful as his previous attack! The yellow-tinged Silver Dagger hit the alpha wolf on its rib cage, knocking it off Feng Ming.
Gong Lan, having dispatched a nearby spirit wolf, jumped over Feng Ming and started striking the alpha wolf with her twin swords. While these swords did not deal much damage, the alpha wolf was clearly affected by the strikes. Cha Ming noticed that each cut left a white mark on the wolf, causing cold Qi to sink inside the wounds and restrain its movements. Inspired, Cha Ming unleashed another twelve white pearls, which glowed blue and swirled around him, forming a frost-mist cloud. The nearby wolves’ reactions were slowed down, just long enough for him to strike out with his staff, breaking three of their backs consecutively with a sickening crunch.
Finally, all the other wolves were dispatched and only the alpha wolf remained. It howled in grief, swinging out with its powerful paws to kill at least one of these wretched humans before it collapsed. With Wang Jun’s signal, a black mist wandered over from the nearby wolf corpses and darted into the alpha wolf. This black mist, combined with the cold, completely restricted its movements. Cha Ming, who had hurried over after fighting the remaining wolves, jumped up and brought his staff down, delivering a crushing blow on the alpha wolf’s skull. They heard a sickening crunch as blood poured out of its ears and mouth and it fell over, dead.
Realizing that the fight was over, the adrenaline quickly faded, and Cha Ming realized everything that had just transpired. He was overcome with nausea, throwing up what remained of his breakfast. Hong Xin, Gong Lan, and Feng Ming followed suit, leaving only the ever-calm Wang Jun with a full stomach. Cha Ming’s body was shivering and his mind shuddering. This was his first time ending a life, and smell of smoldering fur and beast-blood overwhelmed him with revulsion.
As his nausea faded, he was overwhelmed with thoughts of regret and pity. Why was the world made this way? Cha Ming had always tried to cause as little harm as possible, but this time he had ventured into the woods to gather herbs with his friends. He had entirely avoided the issue of hunting spirit beasts, and the two-dozen bloodied and burnt corpses awoke him to a harsh reality: not only did he directly kill these wolves, but if he hadn’t ventured out into the woods, this fight could have been completely avoided.
The first to recover in the trio was Feng Ming; killing spirit beasts did not cause him any psychological trauma and he had just been affected by the harsh smells of fire and blood. While Cha Ming, Gong Lan, and Hong Xin sat down and recovered, Wang Jun and Feng Ming tended to the corpses of the wolves which they had just killed. The furs of most of the wolves were mangled and burnt and had no re-sale value. On Wang Jun’s direction, they quickly cut out the wolf’s fangs. The alpha wolf’s corpse was stored whole in Wang Jun’s storage bag. Finally, their swiftly cut open an incision on every wolf’s head, withdrawing a valuable beast core. These cores contained thick demonic Qi. The alpha wolf’s beast core also contained a line of concentrated dire Qi.
Once their grizzly task was completed, their group swiftly ran away from the wolf corpses to avoid any spirit beasts that would inevitably be attracted by the smell of blood and burnt flesh. After a few hours, they silently set up camp and started a fire. Cha Ming was still shivering and had no appetite to eat. Eventually, his brooding mood was interrupted by Gong Lan, who created a cloud of thick mist and used it to clean herself and Hong Xin. Cha Ming followed suit and created his own misty cloud, washing away the fur and blood from his skin and clothes. Wang Jun and Feng Ming were self-sufficient in this regard; Their clothes were magical tools which repelled blood and dirt, keeping them clean at all times. Now, the only smell that remained was that of wood smoke from their fire.
A few hours later, Wang Jun interrupted their silence. “Do you all feel like you’ve done a wretched thing?” Cha Ming averted his gaze while Hong Xin started bawling. She had a naturally kind disposition, and the fight had taken a lot out of her.
“The path of cultivation is very brutal, and this is nothing. Even before I started cultivating, simply being close to powerful cultivators ensured that I was surrounded by death and carnage from a young age. Aside from a few specific trades, cultivation is centered around violence. Even supporting occupations can’t remain untainted!
Cha Ming, you have crafted and sold talismans, correct?” Cha Ming nodded as he finally realized the implications of his trade.
“Every single talisman crafted contributes to taking lives, whether the lives of spirit beasts, demons, devils, or humans. Even a defensive talisman will be used to avoid the repercussions of fighting with someone in the first place. Usually, if the defensive talisman does its job properly, the person that was saved will turn around and kill their opponent! Countless humans and beasts die this way every single day!
Even alchemists and spirit doctors have blood on their hands! Every pill they make that ensures a breakthrough will lead to the death of another weaker cultivator. Their pills cause fighting wherever they go. Spirit doctors heal many people every day and save many lives. However, their patients will often take their new lease on life and continue fighting and killing!
Ultimately, there are only two ways to avoid fighting and killing. The first way: give up all choices and don’t achieve anything. In this way, you can lead a pitiful but peaceful life. You can’t avoid every conflict, but you can minimize your impact.
The other way is to become stronger! Only the strong can show mercy, or prevent those around them from fighting in the first place. This is a path paved in blood, and by the end of the journey, you will find that while you have a lot of impact, there is only so much that you can do.”
After making his speech, Wang Jun got up and walked out towards the woods. “I suggest you all get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch for the night.” Cha Ming continued observing the fire until it finally burned out. Once the last ember faded into darkness, he realized that he was completely exhausted. He quickly grabbed a blanket from his bag of holding and rested on the soft, forest floor. His nightmares were filled with blood and ashes.
A few days later Cha Ming and the rest of the group were walking merrily along a path in the forest. It was a chilly morning, and the gold and red leaves which never fell were coated in their usual frost. In Green Leaf Forest, there was neither rain nor snow in the Winter.
The yellow grass was also frosted, and it seemed like tens of thousands of yellow and white daggers were piercing out from the frozen ground. These stalks of grass did not stay frosted all day, as the heat of the earth would thaw them out by noon. Winter was actually a very good time to be hunting for medicinal herbs, as medicinal herbs would rarely turn yellow with the cold; their bright colors would appear in sharp contrast to the surrounding dry, yellow grass.
Cha Ming, who had been keeping his sharp eyes constantly alert, spotted a blue glint in the distance. Their group approached what seemed to be a plant covered in blue bells. This Blue Bell Frost Flower was an herb that flowered only in the winter. In most other countries, it would be difficult to find it as the ground was covered in snow. This forest was the perfect place to look for the frost flower, and often, groups of adventurers would get into fights over them. Although their group had had a fair number of fights with both spirit beasts and humans, they did not encounter any particularly strong groups. The groups that could pose a problem to them were mostly in the middle region of the forest.
Cha Ming carefully bent down to pick the delicate blue bell-like flowers. He was careful not to touch these flowers directly. After carefully clearing the other nearby plants, he withdrew a small clear sickle which had been provided by his teacher. This clear sickle was made of a mysterious precious material called Soul Alloy. Soul alloy was a mysterious material that was not formed from the five elements, and was especially sensitive to soul force. This same material was used to forge soul pearls and other soul-force related objects.
Shortly after plucking the blue bells, he used his soul force to carefully transport them to a small opaque box; the bells would only keep their freshness for twelve hours after they were picked, unless they were stored with special means. This box was made from a special material called soul jade. Soul jade was much more affordable than soul alloy but very brittle. Fortunately, his teacher had lent him many such boxes and a bag of holding to store the many herbs that they had been tasked to gather.
While Cha Ming was hard at work, Wang Jun seemed more like he was on a vacation. He seemed to dote on Hong Xin, giving her advice on things they came across or picking up particularly beautiful flowers and leaves to show her. While most people would just assume that he was showing a romantic interest, things seemed a little more complicated to Cha Ming. Often, when Wang Jun was looking at Hong Xin while she ran around playfully, Cha Ming could see a tinge of sadness and nostalgia in his eyes. He didn’t ask about the details; he would wait until Wang Jun was ready to share his secrets.
After cutting off and storing the last of the nine tiny blue bells, Cha Ming frowned and stood up and looked off in the distance. They were fairly close to the middle forest, and the possibility of a group of powerful beasts was constantly on his mind. Off in the distance he could barely make out the figure of a large, black hound.
Their small party had fought off many groups of spirit beasts over the past few days. Cha Ming and the rest were finally accustomed to the smell of blood and fire. Cha Ming had experienced a drastic change in temperament. Perhaps, deep down inside, a rage that he had kept hidden away deep down inside had started to surface. When he fought, his eyes would take on a baleful, reddish glow.
Often, their group often didn’t need to fight at all, as Cha Ming’s newly-found baleful aura inspired fear into man and beast alike. Even the girls were afraid of Cha Ming when he started fighting. Was this one of these legendary cases where a kind buddha became a vicious demon? Only time would tell. It was apparent that Cha Ming himself didn’t notice this change.
Seeing that only a single black hound was running out towards them, their group drew out their weapons. It was not the first time that they had fought a lone midnight spirit hound in these woods. Their enthusiasm was short-lived, however. Shortly after the first wolf came a second, and after the second came a third, and finally over fifty midnight spirit hounds were charging in their direction.