‘To whoever finds this: My name is Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect. In order to leave notice for my family, I have written this last letter before going on to the far shore.’
Something tickled the back of Chen Jiajian’s mind. There was something familiar about that name, Xideng Wa sect. Something familiar about Lian Zhidiao, too. He read on.
‘I was cast out of my sect. Two winters have passed since then, and I have had to find other means of support. I traveled with my jade beast, cleansing stained and crawling earth as well as helping maintain immovable jade beasts that fell into disrepair. However, I made a mistake and somehow my jade beast fractured. I have meditated quietly over this for some time, and have decided that I cannot go on any longer.’
Chen Jiajian’s heart sank, even as protests rose in his mind. What do you mean you can’t go on any longer? I mean, if you hadn’t died, I’d be in a real bad spot, but that’s not the point! The point is: don’t give up! It’s not as bad as you think!
Is what he’d have liked to say, but it was only a letter from someone that was already gone.
‘Please do not mourn. I apologize deeply to you, the finder of these artifacts, for the imposition I will make upon you, but I ask that you return my personal effects to my family. They are expecting them to be returned, and for certain reasons, I cannot return them myself. Although my contributions to this world have been small, there may be some lingering gratitude that you can call upon to accomplish this goal I have set before you. As payment I can offer only the silver taels at the bottom of this bag. I hope that this and your honesty will be enough to see them safely recovered.‘
Sorry Lian Zhidiao, but I’m not sending your material goods anywhere. I’ll need them to live in this world.
Which brought him to the question: what kind of world was he in, exactly? He had his suspicions, but…
Chen Jiajian looked back at the letter, reading it through again. He was still mulling over the name of the sect, when a sudden realization hit him. He looked again at the slashes to his arms and pressed his fingers against the bruising on his neck.
If you weren’t murdered, then who did all this damage? Won’t they be looking out for a chance to finish the job? How could you leave out important things like who your assailants were? I am the one who has to look over his shoulder because you couldn’t write down any useful warnings!
Given the damage, the lack of information about the injuries in the letter was highly suspicious. If he had been watching a drama with this kind of twist, he would expect to find out that it was not suicide, but murder.
With a sound of disgust, he folded the letter up and set it aside to begin going through the rest of his belongings. The spindle with the jade disc he left out to the side, feeling like that was important. The rest of it he took out and inspected one piece at a time.
A set of black robes and undergarments that looked significantly older and shabbier than the ones he currently wore, along with a few pieces of jewelry. There were a few books of bamboo slips, rolled up and carefully laced shut. Unfastening them and reading the first few slips, he discovered that this was something like a manual for the care of jade beasts. Each slip tersely listed a date and location, along with some small feature noted in very neat calligraphy.
‘Jade beasts may be used to concentrate magic, but this is not as effective as concentrating qi.
Jade beasts with an excess of yin may be cleansed with several weeks in the sun.
An excess of yang is rare, but may be cleansed by storing the beast in a river or rice field until cured.’ Small notes were made in silk scraps and glued to the end, noting the successes and failures of various methods. Chen Jiajian unfolded the book a little further.
‘Jade beasts contain the intent of the Emperor, and tend naturally toward harmony. All energy, including demonic energy, that moves through a jade beast emerges in a small exhale of purified qi. However, too much demonic energy will occlude the beast, rendering it unable to perform this function until the blockage caused by demonic energy is removed.’
Chen Jiajian leaned back against a tree. All of this seemed very familiar when he began to read, and now he was sure: this world was one of his own creation, some time very early in his career as a writer. His fourth? Or was it his fifth novel? It hadn’t sold well, earning rude comments from readers:
This is stupid! The jade beasts have nothing to do with the plot! Is this P*kemon??
Jade beasts seem like they’d be powerful enough to solve any problem, so why not just put them wherever they can absorb demonic energy? The author really has no idea what he’s doing.
Is this supposed to be a harem novel? Shouldn’t we like at least one of the women, then?
Why did I bother reading this? The main character is so one-dimensional, and he telegraphs his attack moves well in advance. The only ones dumber than the villains getting defeated by them are the people paying for this drivel.
Indeed, Chen Jiajian remembered some of the cutting remarks better than his own work. Shortly after this novel–Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, he recalled it now–was published, he’d become like a cheap public restaurant, producing anything anyone wanted. New ideas like jade beasts fell by the wayside, forgotten experiments as he moved toward profitability. Slowly his memory of this world had faded away, supplanted by more traditionally gripping martial plots.
Yes, he remembered. That was the problem with this world. The overarching story been about cooperation, and no one wanted to read about that in this sort of genre. He’d tried to catch every kind of fetish with the Beauties in his story, and in doing so, had only split his readers between which girl they liked best. The girl he’d intended for the Hero’s true wife had actually ended up the least popular girl, since she was introduced last. Instead of committing to his choice as a writer, he’d wavered, and this had also made reviewers pan the webnovel. Utterly discouraged, he hadn’t had the heart to publish the last chapter, ‘The Red Emperor’s Wedding’, and it had remained unfinished. It wasn’t until the next novel was done that he began to receive praise from readers.
Of all the worlds of mine to be put into, the cat-emperor chose this one. I couldn’t even be the hero, or anyone significant in the plot. Instead, I’m… Chen Jiajian let his head rest against the tree. I don’t even remember who Lian Zhidiao was in the book. I’ve been transmigrated into the body of cannon fodder.
The sounds of a galloping horse slowly drew near, coming from the east. Chen Jiajian slunk behind the trees, keeping himself hidden until the rider passed him. He looked around the western tree at the green-robed rider disappearing into the woods.
Green… Chen Jiajian frowned as he tried to think back to his notes about this world. Each sect specialized in a kind of elemental magic alongside cultivation, which used qi as the feedstock for spells both simple and complex. It was only available to cultivators of a certain high level, which, given the kind of novel it had been, were rare in name only.. All magicians were therefore cultivators, but not all cultivators were magicians.
Early in his career, before he’d found his own style, he made it easy to remember different cultivation sects by putting them in different-colored clothes. Green magicians lived in forests, red magicians lived in the mountains, and the blue magicians lived on the coast, or out on islands. Black magicians lived in swamps and on waterways. The white magicians had ended up in the plains, deserts, and high steppes, simply because there wasn’t anywhere else to put them. Like any sect, a student could walk up and ask to be taken under the master’s tutelage, but most students kept to the sects associated with their families.
Black robes with green trim indicated he was a member of the sect with high knowledge of black magic, and some knowledge of wooden, or green magic. Black magicians worked with earth, poison and decay, and the sect was particularly prone to instances of qi deviation. There was a high percentage of black magicians that went to study with other sects and learn their secrets, like exchange students. Chen Jiajian crisped the green trim on his sleeves between his fingers. So this Lian Zhidiao had been not just a cultivator, but a black magician, with some expertise in wooden magic.
So, if he was a cultivator—and a magician—before, was that something he could still do? Would this body remember how to use magic?
Chen Jiajian stared at the books in front of him for a few moments before frowning hard.
It doesn’t seem fair to get transmigrated into a world I made and end up just a peasant. There must be something I’m missing.
Then his eyes landed on the red bag, and he remembered the slips of carved jade.
If a member of a sect wanted to protect his secret techniques, of course he’d try to dispose of them when he died…
With eager hands, Chen Jiajian opened the pouch again, pulling out the bamboo slips and setting them out to dry properly. The two jade slips he held in his hands, turning them over and inspecting them more closely.
One had no carvings. The other was engraved with lotus flowers and dragonflies.
Well, with a name like Lian, I should try the lotus one first.
Chen Jiajian picked up the carved slip and held it, wishing for its secrets to be revealed. But nothing happened. Then he shook it a little bit, like a magic wand, and still, nothing happened. Then, at last, he tapped it against the side of his head.
Information sluiced into him like water into a terraced field, filling his mind as fast as he could take it in. The jade slip fell out of his hand onto the soft moss underneath the tree. His mouth went dry and his eyes rolled in his head as he tried to keep track of all the things that he suddenly knew. The secret sword techniques protected by the Black sect: the Swords of the Myriad Dead. In cultivation, patterns of breathing to isolate and expel deviant qi, and spiritual sense techniques like earth-seeing. In magic spun out of qi, spells like bogflame, choking vines, and lightning—it all overwhelmed him. They were just there, as if he had always known them.
Perhaps most enlightening, the moment the cool stone had touched his temple, Chen Jiajian became aware of an inward sense, a way of looking into himself that he had not had before. He was aware of his meridians, the pathways for qi that wrapped up his entire body. He knew his dantian, the place low in his body where his golden core would be. Then, like turning to face the sun, he became aware of his golden core itself, deep and full and brimming with power. More curiously, he could sense something ‘else’, something ‘other’ than his own golden core: a vessel without contents, which he could only imagine was the original golden core of the body he now inhabited.
He had both a golden core and an empty core inside him.
Was this… worldbuilding that I did? Chen Jiajian couldn’t remember. Ah, but then again, it’s not like I’d ever thought there would be transmigration, so it’s natural that the system might not have rules for that. Wait wait wait! Isn’t there supposed to be a System? Or Status? Or something? It’s like a video game, right?
But no matter how Chen Jiajian squinted at things in his peripheral vision, or thought about a system as hard as he could, or visualized menus popping open in front of him, nothing happened.
It seems that there is no System in this world. He closed his eyes again and looked inward, finding his golden core as well as the ‘vessel without contents’. It also seems like the world can compensate for unforeseen circumstances such as this. But it isn’t something I’d imagined to be in the world–so the world is filling itself out in ways that I don’t know or anticipate.
Suddenly Chen Jiajian began to regret the early days when he hadn’t put much emphasis on making a sensible world that followed well-known and defined rules. Much of his story—well, his life—might now be out of his control. Was this temporary? Permanent until a mission was achieved? What could the mission of a cannon fodder character be? Without a system, it was anyone’s guess.
Given that I don’t know what point in the story I’ve arrived at, or if I have any plot armor, I should proceed with caution.
He carefully rolled the books back up and put them away, and turned his attention to the ornate wooden case. It was not locked, and the lid sprung open easily.
Inside was a green jade cat statue. It seemed to have been carved in an unnatural pose, on its back, like an animal in submission. A messy break completely severed the head from the body. Chen Jiajian ran his finger along the jagged edge; small crystals like green sugar collected on his fingertip. So this is a jade beast…
This jade beast had been the key to Lian Zhidiao’s livelihood when it was still intact. Broken, it touched Chen Jiajian’s heart in the same way that the loss of any beautiful thing might touch someone. What a waste.
Is it worth it to cart this thing to the next village? Chen Jiajian looked at the case dubiously, but in the end, it might be better to keep it close for now. Leaving a “dead” man’s things unattended could lead to disastrous consequences. In fact…
It’s best if I adopt this man’s life until I can figure out what’s going on. And so Chen Jiajian cast off his name and became Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao. To survive, he needed to discard what was left of his life in his own world, at least for now. His name was the last thing he had that was given to him by his parents. It drifted away from him, as useless here as his original body, lying in a puddle of blood on the concrete.
A little more rummaging around in the knapsack found a paper packet of dried fruit, and he ate a few of these thoughtfully while trying to decide his next course of action. There should be a village not far from where he was, as long as he hadn’t wandered far afield to die. Most villages were separated by a day or two’s ride, at most.
What’s more, the people in those villages might already know him or know of him. Being able to remember who the character was would be the most helpful, but leaving that aside, the best thing he could do was at least blend in so well that no one questioned him.
His eyes fell on the jade ring with its ebony wood spindle. Even though he now knew how to use it, putting it into practice was something that he should try at least once before needing to apply it in a tense situation. He tied the belt around himself, over the cloth belt he already wore.
He lifted the weight by its silken cord and let it hang from his hand, thinking on what the jade slip had pressed into his mind.
‘The belt must be made of silk, for a single long fiber transmits qi better than many short fibers. The qi is collected in the hand; the magician is a distaff, and he spins the qi through the silk. It is the transmissive and refractive power of jade that allows qi to be changed into one of the elements.’
Lian Zhidiao gathered up a handful of qi and began to spin the spindle in his hand, with thoughts of fire. The jade weight on the spindle bristled as each of the silken cords floated briefly in the air, and then the spindle itself ceased to weigh anything at all.
‘Changing qi to elemental magic is non-conservative; the golden core is diminished with each spell spun. Repeated use of magic will leave one out of breath and weakened at a rate higher than cultivation alone. It would be possible to destabilize one’s cultivation base and lose one’s golden core entirely through the overuse of such magic, although no one has ever done so. The utility of magic is in providing more tools at the skilled cultivator’s disposal, to allow problems to be solved for the good of the people.’
The tip of the ebony wood spindle floated up, and Lian Zhidiao pointed it at an unsuspecting bush across the road from where he was hidden. With a clipped thought, he released that strand of qi. The spindle spun once more, and then a fireball the size of Lian Zhidiao’s head rocketed out of the wooden tip. With an explosion of flame and smoke, it set the entire bush ablaze. Its job done, the spindle slowly sank in the air until its weight was once again pulling on Lian Zhidiao’s fingers.
It’s slower than paper talismans, but can be adjusted as conditions change. Lian Zhidiao looked at the burning bush across the road, and his lips twitched at the roaring fire he’d made. It’s also infinite, as long as you have enough qi.
He raised the spindle’s weight on his fingers again, this time spinning blue magic. Again the spindle floated up in front of him. He guided the magic in the right direction with the help of the ebony stick. The spindle whirled, cords radiant, and then a sphere of water the size of the bush squeezed out of the tip of the ebony wood. It rolled in the air like a runaway parade inflatable, and landed awkwardly on the fire, more-or-less extinguishing it.
Maybe that could use a little more work.
Lian Zhidiao let the spindle come to rest again. It seemed like green and black magic would produce similar effects, like shooting vines or raising a hill of earth, but what would white magic do? He hadn’t actually written anyone using white attack magic in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World.
He twisted the silken cord. Qi flowed from his forearm into the silk, and again the spindle rose into the air, hovering in front of him. It began to spin, the knotted cords whirling out from the edge. Light collected at the tip of the spindle. Focusing on the burned bush, he let the threads of qi in his fingers snap.
There was a distinct whistle, and then the heavy sound of something hitting the bush. The spindle fell to his side, hitting him in the thigh as he ran to the other side of the beaten path. Searching through the blackened, wet mess, he found what must be the result of white magic: a black iron bolt, buried in the woody trunk. As he handled it, it crumbled away in his fingers, turning to ash. But the proof was in the deep gash in the trunk of the bush.
Not just archery, but armor-piercing! What fearsome power!
Lian Zhidiao straightened up, dusting his hands off. That was elemental magic handled. All I have to figure out now is how well I can handle cultivation and–
The sound of a horse cantering along the path made him stop mid-thought. It was coming towards him from the trees to the west.
Next Chapter > Chapter 3: Lian Zhidiao Has Not Unlocked Fast Travel
Previous Chapter < Chapter 1: Chen Jiajian Throws His Life Away
One thought on “Chapter 2: A Cannon Fodder’s Guide to Magic and Identity Theft”
I like the process of discovering the world with him. The worldbuilding is very unique, and the spindle I’m imagining as a sort of long handled top with tassels!