"Okay," the editor said, "to be frank, I don't think this'll fly."
The youth's chest tightened at the verdict but he took it all with a stride and sighed. He clenched his fist underneath the table and prepared for the worst to come.
"I understand, Mr. Han," the youth said. This was the third publisher he'd tried submitting to, and it also looked like the third to reject him.
"Look, Thomas." The editor rubbed his temple while the other hand held the manuscript. "This type of genre just isn't our thing. We're a science-fiction publishing house, not high fantasy." Mr. Han seemed to grow another five years as he said so. "And, okay, I do get what you're trying to do here, setting up this kind of magic system, but to just make up your own way of how the universe works and trying to encompass everything? That's just a bit much."
Thomas sighed again, trying to undo the knots in his stomach, but his breath caught on its way out and the huff sounded closer to a whimper. His cheeks warmed and his reflection's shoulders sagged, slouch growing and spirits deflating.
"Yes, Mr. Han. I'll withdraw this submission." Thomas shook his head, each turn almost creaking with the weight of failure after failure.
"I'm sorry Thomas," Mr. Han said while standing up. "Tell you what, I can put in a word for you to a friend over at Endless." Thomas' ears perked up at the consolation. "They translate light novels into English, and yours sounds a lot like one they might try dipping their hands into."
Thomas looked up, and could only nod at the consolation, speechless. Tears framed his eyes. The lines on the editor's face eased, and the youth was relieved at the sight. Perhaps there was some hope after all, he thought.
Thomas left the building with high hopes and a pocket full of dreams, one hand holding onto the manila folder, the other raised to the heavens. The dream wasn't over yet, he decided.
Then a truck came out of nowhere.
A lot had changed since then.
I lied amongst the flowers with a carpet of grass against my back. Under the shade of a great tree, a cool breeze blew by, bringing the scent of the morning sun and ruffling my robes. The glare shone against my pristine white clothes, and a flurry of dandelion seeds caught in my blond hair. It had been about four years now since I'd been reborn to this world, and at last, whatever doubt was left had evaporated together with the hopes of ever coming back.
I, Thomas Reave, have been reborn on this Doulou continent as Tang Jin, son of Tang Xiao of the Clear Sky sect and future heir of the Clear Sky School.
I breathed in the energy of the cosmos, trails of warmth emanating from my lungs and into my body, tracing pathways I only here learned existed. Like the pumping of blood, the warmth cycled through my torso then limbs before settling by my stomach.
I'd tried everything to try and wake up if this had been a dream when I first came to, but from the moment I'd been born—and that was rather traumatic—to my now lazing about and watching the clouds, there wasn't much doubting left.
I breathed out cold hazy wisps that dispersed in the morning sun—the impurities in my body—and relished the clean sensation. I took another breath and the energy cycled withn me again.
Most of the basics were the same in this world. The days also took about twenty-four hours, then there were also three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, but counting months was a bit weird. Other than that, it was alright. The language was similar to Chinese syntax, so learning wasn't impossible, and with a few of my uhh… perks, life wasn't so bad.
I took a deeper breath, and from my very extremities, the bounds of my self blurred and expanded before grasping a chunk of the free energies and pulled them in with a great heave. The surroundings seemed to lose color before the sunlight returned them all to their normal saturation.
Life was comfortable despite the lack of technology: there was barely any pollution, the food was plentiful and always fresh, and the people were relatively nicer. And, there was this cultivation thing and the spirit tools that made up for the lack of wonders of modern living.
That last great pull shoved a hot mass into my chest, and I willed my own energy to circulate together with it—culling the unbridled heat and dissolving it into my body. A solid feeling welled from wherever the nourishing power passed.
Big fluffy clouds crawled along the sky at almost eye level, the wind sending waves against the endless greenery. Large birds glided along the horizon, riding the calm winds of the mountaintop.
Our Clear Sky school made its home amongst a mountain range. It was beautiful here, with the sunrise and sunset all ours to enjoy together with the expansive vista. But, we didn't come here by choice. Rather, we were here in exile, following a shamed truce with the land's most prominent religion of Spirit Hall.
The elders of the sect say it was our fault, with my uncle kicking up a big fuss with the church's own elders—but my father says otherwise. He said uncle Hao was right for defending his wife, but sadly, strength is all that matters in this world. Reason and honor were only for those magnanimous enough to stay their hand when they had absolute power.
It's barbaric, but it's not like I can't get behind that way of thinking. Whoever stands on top is the good. Imperfect, but at least it doesn't come with the backstabbing intricacies of the life I've left behind.
I pulled from within and roused the mass of energy lying dormant i, and like coming out of the water, I felt a burden lighten as brilliant gold light shone from my body.
It was a bewildering experience when I learned of the peculiarities of this world, and even now, I still get goosebumps.
From the light, a Crown of clear amber condensed over my left hand and my heart danced in my chest. I took hold of the yellow crystal with both hands and set it on my head—and the world expanded before me.
The field filled with colors and burst into a hundred more hues, the breadth of each leaf and petal becoming crisp in my eyes. Each blade of grass beneath my back became distinct in a mess of sensations with a hundred different widths and lengths. Then the ever-changing wind traced along its path, the pockets of hot and cold guiding the twirling dance.
This was the same crown I'd written about in my story—it the manifestation of my soul, and it did most of what I wrote it would do.
As the world shifted into focus, I saw simple bars overlay my vision: displaying my current state. A big blue bar displayed a hundred percent spirit power, while a smaller red bar marked stamina sat underneath. Below all those further at the foot of my view was a bar marked cultivation while a number ten marked my level. I envisioned the Amber Crown to function like an operating system for managing magics, but I never expected it to display something like Spirit Power instead of Mana or Magic Power.
Just above the cultivation bar were nine empty boxes, which I figured spells or aspects would go into, but besides the ones I'd already written about, none else filled the slots.
To the far left of the empty boxes in a triangle of circles, were icons for the major aspects I'd written into the Crown—rather, into Amber Artifex. There was Eidos Interface, which allowed me to see my self as I would a program; Pranus Core, which allowed me to gather and store the energy of the cosmos—though I don't understand how this was a real thing; and Amber Domain, which expanded my soul to overlay others. The point of the domain was to serve as some scanner for learning what made things tick, but it didn't work as I intended. It allowed me to inspect myself, checking for any damages or strange conditions, but when expanded out allowed me to forcefully grab energies instead of learn, so it wasn't a complete bust. The fact that I understand part of whatever's happening was already good enough
I let the full breadth of my aspects loose, expanding my Domain and manifesting my Core. Near solid amber light spread out around me, dyeing the flowers and grass and roots in a brilliant gold, and from my Crown, a clear jewel appeared, siphoning that yellow light into my crown.
Letting out my Domain was like turning a dome of space around me into me. I felt everything within my space, down to the smallest bending of grasses or jittering of ants. And with my Core opened, assimilating energy was a bit less tedious since it all directly.
The sunlight around me dimmed—the brilliant rainbow of colors dulling with each hungry pulse. Slowly, the cultivation bar inched towards eleven, yet for the love of god just wouldn't.
When I awakened this Crown half a year ago, I was already at level seven and the next three levels after that were a piece of cake, but this last hurdle was just too much.
A rippling sensation touched my Domain and I turned my attention West, noticing the direction.
"Little Jin," echoed grandpa Shan's voice. "Come little Jin, we have lunch waiting for us."
I sat up from the shade and stood up, stretching my arms and legs and back. There was no stiffness in my limbs or any awkwardness to my movements, and my skin was taut and smooth and fair. Being young again sure was great.
I took a deep breath and raised my voice to its loudest, "Yes grandpa Shan."
I willed the spirit power to my legs, and an image of my body overlaid my view as a glow stirred from my gut and travelled down, indicating the reinforcement of spirit power.
My little hideaway was a few ways away from the main compound, and as long as grandfather Shan knew I'd gone beforehand, he usually wouldn't bother picking me up himself.
I leapt hard and felt the wind brush my robes and hair, it took a second before I hit the ground running, my little legs blurring together with my vision at the sides as I passed over hills and rocks and little beds of flowers.
Spirit power was useful for a lot of things, like recovering stamina or strengthening the body—it even did some strange stuff like that thing I felt touch my Domain earlier. That was grandpa Shan's way of finding me.
My breath was even despite the frantic running, and neither was my heart pumping hard. I kept my frenzied pace, the wind whipping my robes as my legs flew over the ground. Not long after, I saw the familiar grey and blue walls of the compound, and I retracted the spirit power in my legs, bringing everything back to a balance while letting the excess re-enter my Core.
I retracted my Crown too, lessening the ease of manipulating spirit power, and pushed open the heavy iron gates with a silent creak. My shoes padded against the stone tiles of the main corridor as I headed towards the dining hall. On my way, I passed the outer courtyard where some of my older cousins were practicing the sect's martial arts with their spirits—the Clear Sky Hammer.
My cousins stood about a meter apart from each other in a neat grid in the more than fifty by fifty-meter space, and swung their glowing black Hammers according to the instruction of uncle Zhang, brilliant ethereal rings of yellow shining behind them while uncle had four flying behind—two yellow and two purple, the ideal configuration.
Besides spirit power, there was this thing called spirits in this world—like the avatars of people's souls is how grandfather had explained it, and together with these spirits was the process of cultivation to develop them. Spirits were further divided into two categories: beast spirits and tool spirits, and our Clear Sky Hammer was a tool spirit.
The rings on the other hand, were the souls of spirit beasts, animals who cultivated like us humans and taken in by the spirit. But what they did and how to get them, besides killing a spirit beast—since I'd have to take its soul—I wasn't sure. Maybe absorbing it somehow maybe? But for sure it helped make spirit masters stronger.
I opened the door to the dining hall and saw grandpa Shan by a table with a generous feast for a boy of just turned four. Today was my birthday, and supposedly the day when my spirit was awakened just like all my other cousins before me—just earlier. But then, wasn't my Crown my spirit? Though the expectation was to get a Hammer, so, uhh sorry family if I don't have it.
"Come little Jin, eat." Grandpa Shan beckoned me to the table.
"Good morning grandpa." I took my seat. There was a light soup and some steamed buns and tea boiled eggs, my favorites.
"Eat well and we'll have the ceremony with your cousins later," he said, "your father will be there to watch, so you better be on your best behavior."
I nodded. "You know I always am." I brought up the small bowl of egg drop soup to my lips and took a light sip.
"No harm in reminders." He sipped at his own. "And if you'd like, you can keep wearing your crown even in the compound."
I stopped sipping from my bowl. At that, he laughed with a bellowing roll, and I answered with a grimace. I'd already known he'd known of me using my Crown, but it pays to keep up appearances.
"I'd expected you to be more surprised," he said while stroking his beard. He removed the steaming paper from his bun and bit into the soft white bread.
"I never intended to keep it secret, grandpa." Which was the truth, but shame on me for finding it embarrassing to have a different spirit from my family. "I just don't like being different."
He nodded to that and huffed. "Bah, so what? Us spirit masters only have our pride and strength to prove it with." He smiled at me and ruffled my blond hair, his greying eyes meeting my gold.
Everyone else in the family had their hair and eyes in shades of black to brown, so there was a bit of commotion with my birth—as I'd heard from rumors later on. But according to grandpa Shan, both mother and father knew they'd only had each other ever since, so it was already deduced I probably had a variant spirit—like a mutated version of the sect spirit, though they weren't sure whether good or bad.
I'd say good though since it was my spirit.
"I understand," I said, and finished off my soup in one go, feeling the trail of hot liquid down my throat in all its sweet and salty goodness. "I'd like a second bowl please." I held the empty bowl out.
"Good, good," he said, laughing again.
And just like that, we continued eating.
After our meal, I was told to bathe and get dressed for the occasion.
One of our sect's colors were the endless blue of the sky, so me and the other children who've just turned six—since the elders, namely grandpa Shan, wanted to do it all in one day—were to undergo our spirit awakening in our formal robes. It was already a foregone conclusion and everyone was bound to get while I was sure to get a Crown.
The real clincher then was how high our innate spirit powers would be, and if I were to completely trust in my spirit which even I didn't completely understand, I'd surely have the maximum level on awakening. Even if I cultivated it myself from a still high seven.
I stepped out onto the courtyard and saw the whole darn family watching. Which is to say, a lot of people. There was only three in mine coming from the directly descended line: me, my father and mother—since grandfather Shan wasn't directly related. But there were numerous branches, and altogether, us third generation children numbered upwards of twenty, with five of us taking this awakening this year.
There were quiet murmurs together with the giggles of children and proud cooing of their parents, and uncles, and aunts, while I stood apart by myself. My parents were still in the inner hall with the elders, and I was admittedly not the friendliest of kids. Not a lot of people—read as young cousins—would bother pestering the future clan head, so I mostly stuck to myself growing up and did whatever people here did for fun: cultivate. Which was the only real thing to do, though admittedly, taking in the energy of the universe is a pretty cool experience.
The elders stepped out of the inner hall with grandpa Shan and father leading the procession, and the whole courtyard hushed. Those eight people in fancy robes of black were the highest authorities in the sect, and by right of inheritance, so too was I. Though I didn't have much use for it. They were dressed in the color of the Clear Sky Hammer's power, and together, it represented the fickle nature of the sky with the clear blue.
They stood in a line in front of everyone else, then grandpa Lin stepped out with his iconic pot belly and short beard. "We have gathered here today," he announced in a stately voice, "to witness the awakening of our sect's third generation disciples. Please come forward."
From the crowd, five of us stepped out in shimmering sky blue robes, me shorter than all the others. We then walked towards the line of elders and formed a line of our own in front of them before bowing once. Father and mother smiled at me, and grandpa Shan huffed, the pride clear on his face.
"Now, please step forward from the youngest to the eldest. Starting with little Yan." Which naturally meant I was left for last.
Grandpa Lin's hands flashed and produced a crystal clear ball the size of my head in one hand, while a gigantic black war Hammer materialized in the other. His spirit had a handle about as long as his arm and the head was bigger than his own torso—completely unlike the mallet looking spirits of my older cousins, or the larger but still just as proportioned one of uncle Zhang.
But even more surprising was the number of rings behind him, altogether, there were nine: two yellow, two purple, and five black. And from the light his Hammer released, the air seemed to congeal and solidify around his dense and visible aura.
"Tang Yan, step forward and we'll awaken your sprit," said grandpa Lin.
Yan bowed again before stepping up. He was the youngest of us and had a half-shaved head with a mild manner to him, only speaking after spoken to or always helping with cleaning the yards/
With a wave of his hand, that enormous war Hammer floated with a slow and deliberate grace towards Yan, then grandfather Lin made him touch the head with both hands.
The Hammer glowed in deep black, and Yan's eyes shone with the same light—a small Hammer appearing in his hand, its handle just right for him to grip. It had a burgundy shade to it and some swirling patterns on its rounded head. Despite everyone sharing the same core spirit, no two were exactly alike since no two souls were the same either.
Grandpa Lin then presented the crystal ball to him, taking back the large Hammer. Yan obliged, putting his hands over the smooth ball.
It issued a glow less majestic than the earlier black and Yan's body released a white light that darkened over time.
"Clear Sky Hammer, with innate spirit power of four," said grandpa Lin, and the people around us broke into applause.
Yan stepped back into line, blushing, but the smile on his face wouldn't go away. After that was Daiyu with also a Hammer, and hers had a bloody red body and jagged black lines adorning it. She had an astounding innate spirit of six, eliciting thunderous applause. Lihua followed, her Hammer having an off-white body and purple scales, and her innate spirit power was also four, getting just as much praise. Last was Bai with spirit power of five and a mustard colored Hammer with a solid square head.
After Bai stepped back into line, father raised a hand and everyone fell into solemn silence. It didn't take a fancy crown to know all eyes trained on me.
"Tang Jin," said grandpa Lin, his voice echoing in the still courtyard. "Please step forward."
I could already tell this was going to go weird. Grandpa Shan met my eyes, and a glint flashed in them. Meanwhile, curious eyes dotted the rest of the people at the fronts.
My feet carried me towards the elders, butterflies skittering in my gut. There were hushed whispers here and there, and my father's face was impassive, next to him was my mother, just as stoic as the rest of the elders except for grandpa Shan.
"Tang Jin presents himself," I said, then bowed to the congregation.
"Tang Jin," said grandpa Lin, "step forward."
I did so and stood without ceremony, the extra attention I could do without. Grandpa Lin again presented his Hammer, and I raised my hands towards it.
"But before that," grandpa Shan cut in, "don't you have something to show us first, little Jin?" He had on a knowing smile, and though my father and some of the elders gave him chiding looks, none of them protested. Startled sounds came from the crowd.
Why was I not surprised?
"By that, grandfather, could you specify?" I narrowed my eyes at him, making sure to frame my expression away from the other onlookers. He raised an eyebrow back.
"Naturally, your spirit," he said with a bellowing laugh.
The quelled whispers returned with a vengeance, gasps rising from different voices. Grandpa Shan looked like he was enjoying himself, while all the other elders had mixed expressions. I kept my face straight, no need to fan the flames any more than necessary.
"Understood," I said. It would have been cheeky to refuse after having it spelled out.
I extended my left hand and willed my Crown into being, my body lightening and my consciousness sharpening to an edge. The same golden light condensed in my palm, and the commotion hushed itself. None of the elders looked surprised, it wasn't exactly kept secret, just not publicized.
I put on my Crown and my awareness grew back into its true glory. From the corners of my vision, shocked looks decorated the rest of the attending clan members, some staring in disbelief, some still with dumb stares, and my fellow generation of just awakened cousins speechless beyond reprieve. I sighed and pursed my lips at grandpa Shan.
"As requested, Tang Jin presents his spirit." I kept my gaze level with grandfather Lin, his skin smooth despite the advanced age and greyed hair. His youthful appearance was one of the pros to becoming a spirit master, since the cultivation of cosmic energy nourished the body way more than any earthly food. It wasn't such a hard concept once you got past the whole cosmic energy thing.
"Impressive," said grandpa Lin. "And I suppose you'd like to skip this ceremony?"
Most of those watching waited with bated breath. It was annoying to be so aware of all these reactions. "I'd like to continue regardless, grandfather," I said, bowing again.
He nodded back, "Very well."
He presented his Hammer, and I swallowed a lump in my throat. I set my hands on the spirit, and felt my own spirit power touch his as my eyes closed.
There came a push, at first a gentle nudge, as Grandpa Lin's spirit power enveloped me in a vast veil of weight, the energy swirling around and spinning my spirit power together with it as a rising feeling started from my chest. It went on and kept spinning faster, and I breathed in the energy of the universe, adding more into the growing swirl.
My Interface displayed the cultivation bar slowly trickling towards eleven ang the spinning pulsed with a great heave, sending a wave of energy roiling into my body and throwing my breathing in disarray. With a quick wave of my Domain, the excess energy was tamed and absorbed into my body, a sliver of heat circulating in time with the outside.
Then came a wave, and alarms rose in my Interface, indicating the unexpected power entering, but before my Domain could capture it, another wave came, followed quickly by another and another, and the swirling became a maelstrom. My breath caught in my chest and my stomach turned in spasms, the oversaturated energy becoming sickening and the gentle heat turned into a blaze.
Without any other choice, I pushed the energy out, consuming my spirit power as the blue bar drained a quarter in one go. And still, the maelstrom kept all that chaos contained with me in its eye and I could only by blown like a leaf in the wind.
In desperation, I opened Pranus Core, and the torrential power poured directly into my soul like a waterfall of boiling water washing down the crown of my head and body. It alleviated the burning with another but another heave broke through, and I lashed outward with my Domain in some vain effort to stay the fires.
I pushed again with all the spirit power I had left and there came a lull in the torrent—a silent space within the raging storm, but the emptiness quickly filled with the purified energy.
The temporary reprieve died out, and the torrent came back with a vengeance, pushing Pranus Core to the brink. But it was also in that lull that I felt something throb, and all that new spirit power rushed towards into that presence seemingly disappearing into nowhere.
I pushed everything into that black hole, and no matter how much entered, no limit was felt within reach.
With the unexpected break, my eyes opened to see my right hand stretched out as Grandpa Lin broke out with a surprise.
More and more energy entered my body and I urged it all to enter my hand, my Domain's light piercing through the swirling black yet still lost in that vast sea. There came another push, and my Domain kept pushing wave after wave into my hand, a speck of black growing in the golden aura.
Grandpa Lin's eyes widened as a smile traced on his lips behind the beard. The cultivation bar just beneath my vision was already half-way towards eleven, the progress in these few moments far greater than the last half-year I'd been trying.
My spirit power had replenished back to full, and seeing that spot of black, I pushed everything I had into it, then the gold film around me dissolved completely into that small speck and I fell to my knees with an irresistible force dragging my right hand down and cracking the courtyard floor.
The pressure stopped then, and grandpa Lin wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead, a big grin plastered on his face. His eyes were locked where mine were too, and thanks to my Crown, everyone else's eyes were glued to the same spot.
In my hand, completely devoid of light, was a little black Hammer.