Chapter 28: Planeswalker
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The next few days were a blur of activity.

XJ-V spent his days engaged in silent meditation with Arha curled up round his neck like a shawl or training with Fai-Deng. Within the week he had mastered the Dragontail Swipe and perfected his Dragon Tooth. With these two techniques under his steely belt he had the bread and butter of the Eternal Dragon combat style. He could already feel his body adjusting to the increasing flow of Qi that awakened each Chakra at the root of the soul that lay beneath his metal heart.

His meditations, ironically, were causing him far more trouble than Fai-Deng's furious Katas. Whenever he entered the Dao he felt the same pull towards the spectral array of flashing, brilliant light that he knew, deep down, would bring him nothing but oblivion. He resisted, listening to Arha's voice, feeling her claws tug at his face to pull him back to reality, but never forgot the sights he saw wrapped within the fog-drenched realm that was once the Heavens themselves: he saw the great gilded palaces of Qing, beautiful and resplendent, that were now lost to time. He saw the moving images of his flight from burning Hensha, and his eventual trek to Ramor-Tai. His eyes beheld the Wasteland from on high, covered by greying clouds, and he grimaced at the ugliness of its craggy mountains, corrupted shores, and jagged settlements. But by far the most vivid vision he beheld was that of a man clad in an onyx cloak walking through the dead winds of the wastes – a snake wriggling its way towards Ramor-Tai.

He returned to the waking world before he could float down to see the face of the man, and often had to remind himself through application of physical pain that he was back in the real world, in his chamber, watching the fading light of the outside through his oval window.

"Finally!" Arha snapped from the top of his head. "Arha was starting to think you would sleep all day!"

He placed an arm on his chest and concentrated on the fire within him.

Anima Cores: 115

115…he thought. His Qi gathering potential was growing, alright. 120 would see him rise to Rank 3 of Corporeal Temperer. All he needed was more time…

"Oh, now what are you thinking about?" the Huli snapped at his face. "Honestly, Arha can just go away and leave you here, y'know. Her sisters would welcome her back. Arha's sisters love her and appreciate her! You know Arha can just…c…can just…"

XJ-V had begun scratching the fox behind its ears. It's weakest spot.

"This Cog would not allow that," he told her. "He needs his spirit guide."

The Huli buckled instantly, her eyes consumed by the ecstasy of an animal in its element.

"T-this is a dirty trick, d-devious machine!" Arha mewled. "Arha will resist. Arha will…will…"

The fox-spirit flopped on its back and wriggled in pleasure.

"I wish my mind could be as simple as yours, Arha," he said. "For there are things I see that I still cannot believe. Perhaps it is because I am a machine and not a man. Perhaps the Dao shows me things a machine cannot, or should not, comprehend."

That face he saw…there was a connection he was missing between it and the problem of his friend's recent malaise. Feng-Lung had barely left his chambers in the last week. He had not even responded to Mah-Jung or XJ-V's knocking at his door. He had taken his meals there and closed himself off from the rest of the world, sunken in his misery.

That face that haunts me…there is a connection…

He was brought out of his reverie by the little creature nibbling at his static fingertips.

"Did Arha tell you to stop?" she asked through her drooling mouth.

XJ-V smiled as he resumed his petting, trying to forget about the new face that had haunted his Dao-Walks of late.

Because that face – the face of the warrior caked with dirt and grime, moving serpent-like through the uncaring wastes – it bore a striking resemblance to Feng-Lung's.

That evening, there was a great uproar in the Eternal Dragon commune.

XJ-V had emerged from his chamber leaving the sleeping Arha to rest in her bliss, and had wished to try and entice his friend out of his isolation again. He was instead hit by a wave of excited Disciples running the length of the commune halls, shouting about something incredible that was about to happen at the gates of Ramor-Tai.

One of the new young initiates bumped against XJ-V's shoulder and immediately bust into a string of embarrassed apologies:

"I – I am sorry, Cog-Brother!" he screeched like a mouse that had stepped on a lion's tail.

XJ-V waved away young Disciple's worries. The monastery didn't always take in new initiates, but the few that had come and were found worthy in the past few months had taken to viewing XJ-V as a kind of God-like figure among the other Cultivators. They feared his metal skin, yes, but they also acknowledged how much progress he had made in such a short time, how he had demonstrated skills in persuading both Masters to reverse their decisions, and how he even trained with the fiery Fai-Deng of the Tiger Sect.

If he was being honest, he would much prefer they simply looked upon him as another Brother of the Sects like them.

"Peace, Brother Manus'na," he said. "Do you know what has the entire monastery in such an uproar?"

The Disciple perked up, jumping at the chance to deliver unheard news to the Cog: "We have heard news on the winds that a Planeswalker of Ramor-Tai is returning tonight!"

Planeswalker…a word I have heard before. Yet it is a word not even the library of Gira holds information on…

XJ-V let the initiate go and began following the crowd, becoming absorbed in the flow of their excitement. As the congregation of Brothers swelled and spilled out into the monastery courtyard, XJ-V saw that the entire night sky was ablaze with amaranthine light – something that could not have been natural. Around the monastery Disciples from both Sects were climbing up the rooftops, running along the length of the great halls, and floating high above the tips of the great chambers of the Masters to get a look at whoever this new visitor was that was apparently going to arrive.

He then felt a powerful hand grab his shoulder from behind.

"Brother Cog!" Mah-Jung shouted over the din of the crowd. "A fine night to witness a legend, is it not?"

XJ-V's mind raced towards his question: "Who is this 'Planeswalker', Mah-Jung? Why is his arrival drawing such a crowd?"

Mah-Jung drew his robot companion close and whispered as though he were imparting a grave secret. "Rarely are they talked about, Brother, but all Cultivators of the Sects know and revere them almost as much as they do the wise Masters."

Mah-Jung ascended in his Dragon-Leap and took XJ-V with him, stopping to float amidst the other experienced Cultivators of the monastery.

"Ho-ho! Behold who it is, Brother Fai! Your lover has taken a new partner!"

The voice had come from the Eastern portion of the crowd, and through the swells of laughter from the Tiger Sect Disciples, XJ-V saw Kai-Thai waving to him and Mah-Jung below, prodding the irritated looking Fai-Deng beside him.

"Brother Kai!" Mah-Jung replied. "One of these days, we shall do battle with jokes and wit, and see who is the true funny-man of Ramor-Tai!"

"On that day shall you fall, Mah-Jung!" Kai-Thai shouted back.

The Cog smiled and waved to his Brothers of the Tiger, being unsurprised entirely that Fai-Deng did not return the gesture. But what did surprise him was the glint of excitement that the young warrior could not fully suppress – the tapping of his feet and the grating of his nails on his arms suggested an almost childlike expectation.

And if this Planeswalker was someone that impressed Fai-Deng, he must be a powerful man indeed.

"The Planeswalkers," Mah-Jung continued as they both picked out the silhouette of a man appearing from the lip of the ten-thousand steps. "Those born to a single Sect who, after achieving the rank of Core Regulator, deign to walk the earth of the wastes – battling through the evils of the physical and spirit world to reach the four corners of the earth where the other monasteries lie. There, they train with each different Sect until they have mastered all known techniques beneath the sun."

XJ-V heard the words with the kind of blank reverence a child does when they are told the earth is round – the information was simply such a stark contradiction to everything he knew about Cultivation that it simply defied belief.

But as the figure of the cloaked man appeared at the gates, XJ-V forgot about all logic he knew.

"You know something, Brother?" Mah-Jung said with a sly smile. "I think we both deserve front-row seats for this. Don't you?"

Without warning the brash Disciple launched them both through the air and let XJ-V go just above the thin beam of Ramor-Tai's gateway. The Cog laughed in the face of his friend's bravado and summoned two Dragon-Tooth punches to ease his fall on the gate beam. Mah-Jung enacted his own little flourish – spinning through the air with ten threads of ruby-red flames spilling out from his fingertips and twirling round his body as he landed perfectly on his tiptoe beside XJ-V.

The crowd of Cultivators cheered for them below, their forms silhouetted by the dazzling lightshow of the sky. But more than anything, XJ-V wished Feng-Lung could be here to see this. In this moment, he finally felt accepted by his Brothers.

"A Cog."

The gruff, cold voice came from beneath the gate and instantly silenced every Disciple in the courtyard. The world seemed to stop on its axis as every Cultivator there sensed the sheer volume of Qi that was emanating from the man who had just spoken those words up at XJ-V. His stocky, broad-shouldered form shifted a little as he removed his onyx hood to reveal a dark face lined with the tattoo of a pale crescent moon – one that trailed down his nose and cheeks like it formed the varicose veins of his face itself.

And XJ-V's eyes widened as he realized he'd seen this face before – it was him. The snake. The wanderer. The man who saw him as he walked the Dao…

For a moment, no one said anything at all, and the collective eyes of the entire Ramor-Tai monastery were focused on the face of the Planeswalker as he stared up at the Cog, his thin, slitted lips slowly forming into a smile.

"A Cog Cultivator," he said. "I bet old Longhua just loves you."


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