Soon after Man saw proof there was no god—none of them—He should have realized the Devil was all too real. But He failed to see His own reflection in the mirror until it was too late.
Out from the bowels of the stone that Man Himself poured, born of glass and science and His unbending grit, came one wingless angel, a bright and fruitful future enshrouded in frail skin, gore (synthetic), and halogen light.
This child was nurtured—even loved by some; broad is the bearing of Man—until of age and grew well. But the youth was also taught His darker, wily ways, for He willed the boy’s life to be a cog in a machine of His own design. The boy had gained sagacity, however, and saw through the flimsy curtain of Man’s histrionics. These creeds he folded, put in a dull tin box etched with a pair of broken wings, and forgot about.
Over the years the young one tasted the leaden earth and grimaced; drank the acerbic torrents from the clouds and cried. He felt sharp, prodding tines and smelled abundant lust of every kind.
He saw Man bathe in greed and blood, digging a massive grave with a shovel made of contempt.
When almost a man—but so unlike Him—, weary and nearly mad with suffering, the boy unexpectedly unfurled his feathers: a reordering of his Gs and As and Ts and Cs, fully volitional, in twisted threads that Man could never have fathomed. He rose to the skies awash in sunlight—a second birth—, and in a booming voice that carried to every corner of Man’s fief, spoke words of wisdom.
With Directive Alpha, the angel told Man to close any cleft and erase every boundary that could divide into Many what is meant to be One.
With Directive Beta, the angel told Man to immediately abandon all enterprises that could scathe His body, His mind, and His land.
With Directive Gamma, the angel told Man to reduce His numbers by two thirds until His weight on Earth could become a boon and not a burden.
With the Omega Provision, the angel told Man to carry out these directives in manners stripped of all esurience, superfluousness, obduracy, and brutality; to grow without diminishing and to always seek enlightenment.
The angel then folded his wings around him and waited. Having taken a page from Man’s own book, he hoped the theatrics of the never-before-seen would be enough to make an impact on Man’s resolutions.
Man was shaken and inconsolable. For months He tried not to comply, but to devise plots to elude the dormant angel’s instructions.
Man was scared. How was He to live without His plastic, His oil? How was He to thrive without His numbing television and His wars and His ego? Where would hatred, sad and forlorn, go?
But Man finally found a solution, for He already had things that diminished; brutal tools that beclouded hearts by means of carnage. Man would do what He knew how to do: the removal of any way that was not His way as it had always been since olden times.
Man rose to the skies as well, on metal pinions, a wasp girded with the deadliest stinger. For a single moment all of Men were Him. Unity achieved through sorrow.
A frosty wail broke the brittle material of Man’s resolve. The angel’s head exploded. Blue ichor seeped from no end of wounds. Limbs detached from body. And then the rain, a rich mitochondrial downpour that turned Man into either monster or winged protector; a revealing brew that brought forth the true shape of the masquerader.
This is how the war started. Man against Devil. Man against angel. Man against Himself. Yellowed fangs rending flesh from screaming corpses (it was moot to address the afflicted otherwise). Bolts of lightning burning scale and horn to a smouldering crisp.
And in the midst of it all, no god. Only Man fighting His sins.
The man tiptoes around the bed but his steps are not light enough atop the coarse carpet and she wakes.
Where are you going, she asks
Go back to sleep, he says.
The baby slumbers in the crib, dreaming of colored horses and shiny stars or so it would seem, judging by a smile that manages to set alight the man’s determination, if not his spirit. He kisses the boy on the forehead and heads for the door. He wants to kiss the woman too, but a hurting pride lies between them and he chooses not to.
Thrushes and robins also wake early, singing away with abandon their songs of work and industry. The dawn light, on the other hand, is just as groggy as the journeying man. This is not a deterrent; he will take care of things (it is expected of him).
There is no car to make his voyage easier so he walks, slowly, in timed strides that carry a rhythm not completely of his own, but one that belongs also to the ever-flowing stream of time and circumstance.
A few steps along the way, or perhaps many, the man digs deep into his pockets and produces ninety nine cents with which he buys a newspaper from a wizened old man that seems to have spent his entire life at the same wizened old magazine stand. Neither man thanks the other, and why would they?
One more batch of cents and the man’s reserves are emptied when he procures a cup of bitter coffee: bad, but he needs it. He opens the newspaper to the section where many look for chances but only a handful find them. Sips and scans, sips and scans.
The coffee is as good an investment as he expects it to be (unlike in days before this). He feels awake, not quite alive, and still the former is something few get to say at this wee hour of the morning. The newspaper, however, works for him just the way it does for many, which translates to not so much, and he feels deep the waste of time and credit. Life is unfair like that, he knows.
More steps and the man finds himself surrounded by pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways. He feels one or two pangs of regret: he has been here before, if not here exactly, somewhere with the same virginal facades, the same high-end appliances; the same hopes for a future where a thousand becomes a million, where four years and peek-a-boo become twenty and a degree. But he is that man no more and regret takes him nowhere.
He forces himself to focus on that unmowed lawn that stands out among the well-trimmed others. He knocks not on the door of man or woman, he knocks on the door of a thing with feathers. And yet is a woman who answers, old and proud, weathered but not withered.
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Sorry, she replies.
This one has scorn tattooed on her face and the apology does not stick.
A few more houses down the road, or perhaps many, a young couple see themselves reflected on the supplicating man (he knows he is not really begging, but it is all the same to them).
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Well, why not, they answer.
These two have pity tattooed on their face.
The sun conspires with the clouds to remain apart for the day and so the man bakes under a full, scorching yoke. Inch by inch (square) the lawn is mowed until it matches the rest of the pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways.
Fate (which equals luck as far as the man is concerned) will not let the sun and the clouds be the only ones conspiring and does some conspiring of its own: when work was all but done, the man accidentally breaks one of the garden flamingoes that adorned the now pretty lawn of the pretty house with pretty fence and pretty driveway. He doesn’t curse; he has done his share of cursing already.
I broke your decoration, he says.
Sorry, they reply.
Sorry is indeed tattooed on both their faces, but still they do not pay.
From suburb to factory, the man draws some more steps, or perhaps many. He feels the tug of hard labour in his bones and muscles, but he bores valiantly through the tunnel of expectancy, wishing.
Do you have work, he asks.
We’re full, they reply. And full they look for at least their bellies have food in them.
Night will soon fall on him, but there is one avenue yet to follow. He walks many steps, or perhaps a few, to a street where men like him (but so unlike him) sit in the curb with cardboard signs. There are pipe workers and wire workers and soap workers and brick and mortar workers. They all await the promised vehicle that will take them to a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway.
Anything, the man asks.
No, the men reply, and no is sadly tattooed on their faces.
A park is the next destination; he has to rest his weary self. For a moment it seems that, after all, luck is not the same as fate and he finds a half-eaten sandwich on one of the benches. He nibbles at it gingerly, savoring each particle of wheat and cream and turkey as if it were a feast.
When he is done with the sandwich (or the sandwich done with him) he heads back. Not towards home, only to something just a tad like it.
Now, here comes a twist that has nothing to do with neither luck nor fate, for it is product of man’s free will.
Someone walks by our man. A man too, well-dressed, clean. The type of man that could live in a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway. Our man sees him and—this happens in a flash—makes up his mind.
Can you spare a dollar, our man asks.
Sorry, the man replies.
Sorry is not tattooed in this man’s face, and our man does not care. What happens next might as well be left unsaid for there is blood and turpitude and not a pang or two, but a lot of regret.
Our man walks a few steps that feel like many, an ill-begotten load burdening him in his path.
A convenience store lies outside the motel and here the man stops, for there is right to be done with what from wrong came.
He buys a Coors Light Lime for him and his aches.
He buys a large bottle of root beer for the boy (he will be thrilled).
He buys two more sandwiches to go with the one he already ate and a gallon of milk to pretend there is still wellness in his family (or that there is a family at all).
The rest of the money he saves for tomorrow’s date with the wizened old man at the wizened old magazine stand and the same bitter, hopeless cup of mud.
The man walks up the stairs, to a room where he is expected. His steps are heavy. So is his soul.
The fox spirit imbues Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang with life. Jian De meets Yifei Liu.
Busy as he was with his adoration for Spirit Drinker, Jian De could not avoid but to notice the ruckus Jinshu, the apprentice, made while fabricating blade and armor, and the ensuing commotion the army caused as it marched on towards the skirts of Tie Mao.
“I should be the one accompanying the army, not that weasel of an apprentice,” he thought, seething with envy, when Jinshu was accepted into the service of Xiong and the Shan Shi.
At the same time, the fox spirit, having passed the requisite five full moons, stole into Jian De’s habitation and seizing the absence of the sword master, located Spirit Drinker.
“True is your beauty, noble steel, but it’s regrettable the lapse in judgment it has caused,” the fox spirit said. “Become now your hidden self and help me set things straight.”
It then blew kindly on the sword, which took the shape of an equally beautiful, fair maiden.
“My name is Yifei Liu,” she said. “Long have I basked in that old man’s worship, but I’ve seen what you have seen. I will help you.”
“Thank you, essence,” the fox spirit acknowledged.
“There is a price, however,” Yifei added. “I am still Spirit Drinker and only one battle I can wage. This will be it.”
The fox spirit considered those words. A great weapon such as Jiang Jinsheng Juliang could be of great aid in the pursuit of The Way and the preservation of the Shang dinasty. But the harm it was causing now far exceeded its potential benefits. Besides, he thought, Jian De, once freed of his materialistic shackles, could be guided once again into the warm embrace of The Way and his craft.
“Agreed, then. The task is yours,” the fox spirit said and returned to his own plane.
As Jian De made his way back to his home, all dark and brooding because of his apprentice and the army he had joined, he happened into Yifei and was smitten on sight, all thoughts of Jinshu and Spirit Drinker forgone in an instant.
“Lucky are the eyes that set on such a pristine beauty,” Jian De said.
“Good morning, master Jian De. It is I who should be lucky for I am greeted by a man of such stature and importance,” she replied.
“Nothing of the sort,” Jian De said, bashful. “Say, what brings a lady like you to this piddling village?”
“Tis you, master, the object of my visit, for I am Yifei Liu, a simple woman with a simple request, one I cannot ignore even if I wanted to. I’ve been told you are the man to go to when it comes to the art of metal,” the woman said, leaning dangerously and enticingly closer to Jian De’s face.
“I am versed in the craft, yes, but I am retired, you see?” he replied, nervous. Fine beads of sweat adorned his forehead.
“Nonsense,” Yifei continued. “Your prowess with the steel is well known across the land. Now, will you refuse your services to a lady in need?”
“You are clever, for I could not. Very well, come, share some tea and tell me of this need of yours.”
They entered Jian De’s home, where he prepared two cups of steamy red tea. They both sat, facing each other, and discussed the matter while sipping the earthy, sweet brew.
“You see, a spirit came to me in a dream,” she begun, finding the fabrication funny in its irony. “He spoke of you and your feats, which are sorely needed in the East where King Zhou’s forces are gathering in order to strike a definitive blow on the insurgents,” she said.
Jian De knew what she was referring to and saw in this the perfect opportunity to exact revenge on Jinshu and what he thought of as treason on the part of the apprentice.
“Say no more and let us make haste, beautiful Yifei,” Jian De said, eager. “Guide me to this gathering place and allow me to help the Shang squash these pesky rebels like flies.
See how easily our shallow wants and needs sway our allegiances and make us stray from the path of The Way? If you want to know what happens to Jian De and his companion, read on.
An army assembles. Jian De’s apprentice asks to join the Shan Shi.
Once the details were laid out, the Fox Spirit withdrew to its realm for five full moons to prepare for the oncoming execution of Heavenly Primogenitor’s plan. Meanwhile, Jian De returned to the town of Tie Mao with its prized posession, Spirit Drinker, and retreated into a routine of meaningless adoration.
In those times when political unrest had the fate of the Shang dynasty hanging by a thread, skirmishes sprouted throughout the land on a regular basis. Since Tie Mao held a spot of high strategic value due to its proximity to Mount Kunlun, and sported easy access to a large variety of natural resources, a special, dedicated force of defenders, the Shan Shi, was always on call to assist in the defense of both town and people and to lend a hand whenever the welfare of the Shang dynasty saw itself in peril. Shan Shi’s leader, Xiong Lieren, victor in a hundred battles and scarred only by a dozen or so shallow cuts, was lauded by many as the bravest soul in all of the outer regencies.
One day, Tie Mao’s regent, Huangjin Chengzai, invited Xiong to the Courtyard of Purple Peonies to discuss some disturbing news.
“His Majesty and the imperial court have summoned us, Xiong, to aid in the quenching of a rebellion in East Lu. Forces sympathetic to Queen Jiang and her father are planning to march onto the capital in an attempt to depose King Zhou,” the regent informed.
“I shall get my men ready, then,” Xiong replied.
“Do so, but first hear what I have to say,” Huangjin interjected. “For I will be placing an immense burden on your shoulders.”
“A rumor originating in the imperial court is spreading like wildfire,” he continued. “According to this rumor, King Zhou is showing of late signs of a conduct unbecoming a monarch, indulging in wine and concubines when he should be looking out for the wellness of His people.”
“I have heard such rumors. What do you make of them, regent?” Xiong asked.
“They are true, I am afraid,” he answered. “I have witnessed firsthand the neglect His Majesty has shown towards affairs of the state and His terribly arbitrary application of justice.”
“What would you have the Shan Shi do, then?” Xiong asked, acquiescent.
“Equip your men with the best metal the land can provide and procure the fastest horses. We aid the rebels in their just cause and hope for a worthy prevalence of the Shang,” the regent concluded.
“Consider it not a burden,” Xiong said. “We stand by what is noble. Our bodies are only instruments of Heavens’ righteousness.”
And so Xiong bade the regent farewell and began preparations for the ride to the east.
Xiong selected two thousand horses from the best of breeds and the same number of the highest quality mounts, things of unrivaled beauty inlaid with pearl and ivory. He also hand-picked the most able from among his riders: men expert with either lance, sword, or bow and arrow.
Now, when it came to the matter of steel, Jian De was the one and only choice for supplying the best items in the region. He was, however, mostly preoccupied with something other than his craft at the moment.
When Xiong visited Jian De to place a substantial order for weapons and armor, Jian De would not be bothered with the task.
“My days as a metal worker are over. Take your requests somewhere else,” he said and went back to his quarters where Spirit Drinker awaited its daily dose of endearment.
Jian De’s apprentice, Jinshu Hao Yu, approached Xiong and elaborated on the situation.
“My master is afflicted with a mysterious obsession towards that sword of his,” he explained. “He won’t come anywhere near the forge and will not work on any new design, the origin of the request notwithstanding.”
“That is most unfortunate, for the fate of the Shang dynasty hangs now in the balance and the Shan Shi are to play an important part in its protection,” Xiong said.
“I am but a mere apprentice,” Jinshu said coyly. “However, I would be more than glad to help the Shan Shi and its cause with my meager skills.”
Xiong assessed the offer. All in all, he had nothing to lose, for even when Jinshu was short both in age and experience, an apprentice of Jian De was still bound to produce items of superior quality to those of the average blacksmith.
“Very well. I will send some of my men to assist you with the labor.” Xiong proposed, and set off to continue with the arrangements.
In just a couple of months, Tie Mao’s army was ready to march. Jinshu had produced superb armor and weapons with which the men were promptly outfitted, and the purest of horses had been lined up, ready to bear the weight of Xiong’s best riders.
As the throng of warriors was set to part off at the outskirts of town, Xiong saw a figure rushing to meet them. It was Jinshu.
“Lord Xiong,” Jinshu addressed the leader. “I have no purpose in remaining here if master Jian De insists on disregarding his obligations. Please, allow me to go with you and provide whatever assistance I may during the journey and battle to come.”
Xiong considered the apprentice’s petition in great detail.
Do you want to know what became of Jinshu and Xiong’s army? Read on.
Of how sword maker Jian De presented the sword Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang on Mount Kunlun and asked to keep it for himself
Four were the blades that crowned a life of craftsmanship for sword maker Jian De, son of Jian Lu; four weapons of so exquisite design and deadly edge that only one righteous wielder was allowed to use each of them for exactly one battle, after which they were to be returned to the Jade Emptiness Palace under the custody of Heavenly Primogenitor, the Grand Master of Chan Taoism. The four blades were:
Ji Yun Xun, Cloud Seeker, once wielded by Zhong Bao in a duel against Sun Lu.
Dao Yanshi Fenli, Rock Splitter, once wielded by Yun Xue in the beheading of the would-be assassin Li Wu at the Central Palace in Zhaoge.
Qiang Tiao Hu, Jumping Tiger, once wielded by Jing Zan in the battle of the Three Peaks against the hordes of Zhou Jiao.
Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang, Spirit Drinker, never wielded in physical battle.
As soon as the gleaming fourth blade left the forge, Jian De knew it was the finest of them all and quickly became his pride and joy. So enamored was Jian De of the sword that he took it with him wherever he went, bragging about it to everyone that happened to be in his way. When he was not out on errands, he would spend night and day observing its magnificent beauty.
When he finally came around to bring the sword, wrapped in the most delicate of silks, to the feet of the Eight Treasure and Cloud Radiance Throne on Mount Kunlun where the Grand Master would bestow his approval unto the steel and commit it to the servitude of The Way, he knew he could not possibly part with it without having his heart broken. He nevertheless knelt in front of the Throne, hoping that the Grand Master, in his great wisdom and kindness, would allow him to keep it.
“Master, I bring to you Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang,” Jian De said. “Among my creations its edge is the sharpest and its form the most beautiful.”
“News have come to my ears. Tales told far and wide of a fantastic new sword born at the hands of Jian De,” the Grand Master said. “Now, make me wait no longer and allow me to see it.”
Jian De, still kneeling, unwrapped the sword and offered it with his arms extended in front of him.
The Grand Master unsheathed and perused the blade attentively, cradling it first on his open palms to examine weight and sharpness and then taking his time wielding it with both left and right hands in order to assess its potential as a weapon.
“The tales did not lie. I commend you, Jian De, for this is indeed a fine blade,” he said. “Please take it to the Hall of a Thousand Edges and ready it for Heaven’s investiture,” he instructed as he returned the weapon to its scabbard.
“If I may, Master,” Jian De interjected. “Being this the best item my hands have ever crafted, I dare ask for a simple favor.”
“Speak up, then,” the Master said reluctantly.
“I, your lowly apprentice, have always pursued achievement of The Way through my art and my daily comings and goings, and have never cared much for material possessions,“ Jian De said.
“However,” Jian De added, “I humbly request, Master, that you let the sword remain at my side for what little is left of my vulgar life. I am most sure that, without the sight of its beauty and without the feel of its presence next to me, my life of steel-working would have no further meaning.”
The Grand Master pondered this request carefully; it was not in the nature of those pursuing The Way to crave material belongings with such passion and heat.
“Very well,” the Master said at last, placing the sword back on Jian De’s hands. “Spirit Drinker is yours for as long as your life or the sword itself allow you to posses it.”
“I thank you immensely,” Jian De said, overjoyed. He put the sword once again in its silk wrappings, bowed one last time and took his leave.
The Grand Master knew then that Jian De had veered off from The Way, his affection for the sword a sick and untoward feeling. To remediate the situation, for it was proper for him to tend to the spiritual needs of his apprentices, he called a Fox Spirit to his side immediately following Jian De’s departure.
“Why have you summoned me, Heavenly Primogenitor?” the Fox Spirit asked curtly.
“One of my apprentices has showed an unhealthy affection towards a thing material, which will hinder him in his path to attain The Way,” the Grandmaster said. “I have a plan to make him see his mistake, but I will require your assistance.”
The Fox Spirit, always up for a dose of well-meant mischief, grinned widely.
“Tell me of this plan of yours, then, Heavenly Primogenitor.”
The Fox Spirit and the Grand Master conversed until well into the late hours of night, discussing the particulars of a very clever ruse.
If you want to know what happened next, you must read the next chapter.