Chapter 1: A Brush
Date: 50th year of the reign of the Demon Emperor
Somewhere in the distant northwest of Qi Xien lay a quaint village. It was the kind of village that at one time could have been found almost anywhere, and according to the stories passed down by the village elders, it had existed even in the legendary Era of the Thundering March, which was before Qi Xien even truly existed.
The village was neither large nor small. Few famous people had been born there; for the most part, the villagers were happy to live their lives as they had for the past thousand years. Dynasties had risen and fallen, but this village remained the same.
The adults of the village were mostly farmers and craftsmen. Although stories existed in the village records about times in the past when wars had been fought, and men from the village had been recruited as soldiers into great armies, such things were viewed by the villagefolk as something of legend, perhaps not even real. Besides, none of those men had ever risen to prominence as heroes or generals.
Couple that with the hundreds of years of peace and prosperity that the village had experienced, and one could say that the villagers were… complacent. Happy and complacent.
Except for one of them.
There was one person in the village who was anything but complacent, and his name was Fan Sunan, although he hated being called by his full name and insisted on being called only Sunan. He was ten years old, and he bristled with energy and curiosity. Of course, energy and curiosity are things most young boys possess, but they seemed to thrive without limit in young Sunan.
He was interested in anything and everything. He asked questions of everyone, and wanted to learn all there was to learn. He liked to fight and wrestle, he loved to climb trees, and adored horseback riding, or perhaps it would be best to say donkeyback riding… horses weren’t exactly common in the village. He got bored easily when talking to people. However, that was not because he was easily distracted, although it seemed that way. Rather, his brain was in a constant state of motion. It never stopped. He never stopped. He thought and pondered and considered and mulled over everything, constantly. He read the village records, something that few other people his age would ever think to do.
He wanted to know about the ancient legends. He wanted to hear the old stories.
Some young people yawned when the village elders spoke of how humans came from the tears shed by Goddess Xian Nu Shen, but when Sunan heard such things, his eyes glittered.
Sunan was born into unique and momentous times. Roughly fifty years before his birth, the world had changed. A spectral palace had appeared in the depths of the Banyan Mountains. No one knew when exactly it appeared, because it was originally in a location few people ever traveled to. Eventually, armies poured out of that palace and began to spread across the land. The dynasty of that time, the Hen-Shi Dynasty, fought back, but years of complacency had made them weak.
That dynasty fell, and a new government took its place. The leader of this new government was called the Demon Emperor, although few people had ever seen him. According to the stories which began to spread throughout Qi Xien, he was a monster from another world, who wanted to enslave the lands. Sure enough, after wiping out the Hen-Shi Dynasty, the Demon Emperor’s armies began to spread out and inflict terror upon the populace.
Something else happened around the same time as the appearance of the Demon Emperor, although few people connected the two events. A new energy rose up in the land, which later came to be known as Qi. This new energy gave new power to plants and animals and all living things, and seemed to interfere with the previous barriers that existed with the spirit world.
The combination of the invasion of the Demon Emperor and the changes wrought by Qi, threw the lands of Qi Xien into chaos. Shamans arose who began to study ways to manipulate and utilize Qi, which was of some help in the resistance to the Demon Emperor. Battles were fought. Heroes rose up, and were put down.
Little of that chaos affected Sunan.
His village was located in a remote corner of the Northeast, and was a place of little consequence. As such, for years and years, the effects of the violence and terror did not affect the villagers. For decades, the armies of the Demon Emperor were mostly focused on the resistance in the south and west, and had little time to pay attention to the insignificant Northwest border regions of Qi Xien.
Because of that, Sunan was born into peaceful conditions, and grew up only hearing about the horrific things that were happening further south. Passing travelers told bloodcurdling tales that parents used to threaten their children into doing chores. However, the villagers’ lives were not affected in any meaningful way.
Even the effects of Qi were minimal.
However, when Sunan was a teenager, things began to change.
The Demon Emperor had subjugated the majority of the realm, and now he was turning his attention to those small places which he had ignored for so long. As his forces marched further and further north, more and more refugees began to seek shelter in the village.
The villagers finally began to feel their hearts thumping with fear.
The Demon Emperor had already defeated all the major forces that existed, and now he was headed their way.
There were rebels, of course, some of whom passed through the village and attempted to drum up support for their causes. Few villagers were impressed. So far, despite the lingering fear they felt, the Demon Emperor was still just a vague concept, a story, something frightening but amorphous.
The villagers were complacent.
Except for Sunan.
Whereas the village elders tended to look to the past and think about how stable things had been, Sunan was filled with a sensation of imminent change. All the stories of the fighting and wars filled his mind with thoughts of adventure. Although he never considered running away from home, he thirsted for action.
As chance would have it, one of the refugees who stayed in the village for a few months happened to be a retired soldier. It took some urging, but the soldier agreed to teach Sunan a few things about fighting.
When his parents found out, it caused a bit of a scene. It was dinner time when one of Sunan’s young sisters suddenly piped up and said, “Sunan, did you learn anything from your Master today?”
“Master?” his mother asked.
“Sunan is learning to fight people!” another sister declared.
“Is that so?” his father said, taking a sip of yellow wine.
Sunan’s jaw jutted out. “Shut up, sis, I don’t want to fight people. I just want to be able to defend myself.”
His mother smiled. “Sunan, you remember what your grandmother alway said. Boys fight with fists, men fight with words.”
Sunan rolled his eyes and changed the subject.
Later that night, he and his father were outside looking at the stars.
“Son, I agree with your mother and your grandmother. But if you want to learn to fight, to be a soldier or a warrior, then... I support you.”
Sunan smiled. “Thanks, dad.”
“Figure out what it is that you want to do in life, and do it. I’ll always be here to help you, no matter what.”
The next day, Sunan decided that his sister was right, he should call his teacher Master. They trained morning and evening, and Sunan absorbed his lessons like a dried out sponge.
“Put your foot there, and there,” his Master would say. “Remember, you’re young and small, but that can be an advantage! Use your opponent’s weight against him!”
They sparred and practiced to the point where Sunan could defeat him three times out of ten when sparring.
One summer night when Sunan was seventeen years of age, he woke up because of the heat. It was a strange thing, because he was used to the intense summer temperature, having lived with it his entire life.
His eyes were blurred by sweat, and it took a moment for him to realize that the heat was not from summer, but from fire. His bedroom was aflame!
He tumbled out of bed, bleary-eyed, to face a wall of flame. Covering his face with his arm, he leaped out of through the paper window into the night outside.
What met him was a scene from a nightmare.
The Demon Emperor’s armies had finally arrived. Soldiers were everywhere, laughing and slashing about with swords. Villagers that Sunan had known since birth were cut down in front of his very eyes.
He saw 3rd Uncle Fan kneeling on the ground, his intestines spilling out of his belly.
He saw Granny Chu’s head lopped off, causing blood to spray out like a fountain.
He saw the village chief’s throat being cut with a wickedly curved serrated blade.
Even as he stood there in shock, a burly man began to stride toward him. He wore odd-looking leather armor emblazoned with a mark that looked like the face of a monster.
Sunan immediately cleared his mind. His Master’s words echoed in his mind, and he quickly struggled up and placed his feet and hips in the correct position.
He’s bigger than me, thought Sunan, but if I’m careful, I can toss him to the ground like a sack of flour!
As the burly man neared, Sunan prepared. However, instead of lurching forward to attack, the man stopped about a meter away.
“What do you think you’re doing, kid?” he growled. “You’re gonna try to fight me?”
Sunan didn’t respond, but instead, extended his left hand out in front of him, and placed his right hand near his waist.
The burly soldier laughed and strode forward.
At the last moment, Sunan’s hand shot out toward the soldier’s hip. Then, he twisted his waist and knee, only to find… that it did nothing.
The soldier sneered, then reached out toward Sunan’s shoulder. He brushed his hand in a dismissive motion, and Sunan felt as if a tree had hit him. He flew backward through the air, flipping head over heels numerous times until he slammed into a wall, which collapsed over him.
When Sunan awoke, what he first took to be the smell of roasted pork turned out to be the reek of burning flesh. Nothing remained of the village but ashes and blood. He found his parents, decapitated. His Master had been ripped limb from limb. He found one sister, and the realization of what had happened to her caused him to immediately vomit. As for his other two sisters, they were nowhere to be seen.... Eventually, his mind went blank.
He collapsed, weeping until there were no more tears left within him.
Finally, he fled, heading north toward the Huang Mountains, heart filled with sorrow and terror. Time blurred, and eventually he took up residence in a cave.
The horrific memories which played over and over in his mind haunted him for weeks and months. In order to escape them, he began to travel, carefully making his way west through the mountains. By this point, time had no meaning to him.
One day, he happened to be crossing a ravine via a fallen log, when suddenly the log snapped and he fell, landing in a small pool of water below.
As soon as he splashed down into the water, he noticed that the water was different. It seemed to glow and sparkle in a way that was different from the water he was used to seeing in the well back in the village.
Sunan didn’t know it at the time, but because of the natural landscape of the area, this pool had become infused with that special energy that the Demon Emperor brought with him. When he took a sip of the water, the energy suddenly began to flow through his body, causing him to gasp.
The sensation was strange at first, but also pleasant. Sunan quickly took another drink of water, and felt more of the energy seep into him. Gradually, the weariness and aching in his bones and muscles began to fade away.
Sunan took up residence near the pond. Every day he would drink from the pond water, and would gather food from the surrounding forest.
One day, while sitting cross-legged on a stone outcropping, looking up at the stars in the sky, Sunan closed his eyes and focused inwardly. The pain and horror from the slaughter of his friends and family in the village was something that still continued to haunt him, and he remembered reading about a way to deal with such feelings.
Back in the village, he had learned a bit about something called meditation. It was something the village elders usually practiced, and had been laughed at by the children, who said it was just sleeping while sitting up.
According to what Sunan had been told, it was a way to calm the mind and heart, which was something he desperately needed to do.
Therefore, he closed his eyes and began to breathe in a set, rhythmic fashion. Slowly, his mind emptied, and his heart grew calm. In that state of peace and quiet, Sunan suddenly became aware of something that seemed almost like a spark, burning deep inside his body. Curious, he focused attention on the spark, prodding it with his mind. The spark responded, twitching, moving, almost as if it were alive, and yet… not.
Fascinated, Sunan spent the rest of the night experimenting with the spark. He pushed, pulled it, stretched it, and finally began to send it circulating into other parts of his body.
That was how Sunan began to learn about that special energy.
It was on that same night that he had a strange dream, a dream of golden statues and shining light. Normally, Sunan did not remember his dreams, but this one was different. The following morning, he could remember it in detail. It felt… real. However, he had more pressing concerns than a dream about golden statues, so he dismissed it and concerned himself with more practical matters.
In the following weeks, he continued to drink from the pond water, to live as part of nature, and to learn more about that energy. Soon he realized that the energy had come to be part of him because he had been drinking the pond water. However, as more energy built up in him, and he became more skilled in manipulating it while meditating, he realized that it could be absorbed in other ways. Furthermore, by controlling his breathing in certain ways, he could improve the rate in which Qi flowed into and through his body. Soon he reached the point where it wasn’t even necessary to drink the pond water, except as a source of refreshment when his tongue was dry.
As time passed, he became more proficient in manipulating the energy. However, other than the invigorating effects it had on him, Sunan wasn’t sure how it could truly benefit him. Eventually, the weather started to turn cold, and Sunan realized that autumn was about to turn into winter. If he stayed by the pond, he would very likely end up stranded by a winter storm, and then would surely die.
Now was not the time to be complacent.
Without a backward glance at the pond, he headed down out of the mountains and made his way toward the nearest city, Daolu.