Chapter 8: Eight Paths

Arcane stood at the head of the dock and watched as the last of the supplies were loaded. Annabelle, finally recovered from the demonstration, had taken charge and was shouting orders to the many elfbeasts who were trying to figure out how to sail. For some reason the largest lizard stood right next to Arcane as well, staring down at the busy pier and lazily flicking its tongue towards the ship. Of course one eye was keeping a close eye on Arcane as well, making sure she didn't slip past its watch and go slaughter the remaining sand lizards who were removing the camp from existence.

When the supplies were loaded and the elfbeasts all gathered on board Arcane turned to the lizard and met its eyes.

“So long, my friend. Safe hunting in the sands and may you always find water and shade.” She bade it a fond farewell, for it had been the first and last thing on this world to recognize her as a threat and respond in what she considered to be a courageous and noble manner. Bowing deeply, she walked gracefully down the dock under its watchful eye and climbed up the ropes hanging from the hull, swiftly ascending to wave from atop the railing. The lizard continued to watch her without moving, its tail thrashing and its mouth twisted in a snarl.

Arcane smiled back and turned to observe the freemen’s attempts to sail the ship. Unsurprisingly, they had gotten stuck immediately and were unable to figure out how to steer the boat out of the narrow bay, as it currently lay horizontal to the necessary direction of motion. Arcane watched them frantically try the oars to push the ship off, only to be thrown back in by the waves from the ocean, and open the sails only to race forward and halt on the sandy beach. Annabelle and several other cultivators even got out and started pushing the ship, trying to force it to turn.

Arcane and the lizard merely watched, each keeping their thoughts on the antics of the elfbeasts to themselves. Arcane was inwardly enjoying the show, barely containing her laughter each time they tried something even more disastrous than the last. At the point where she wondered if the next attempt would ruin the ship once and for all she subtly interfered with the mind of the lizard watching closely. Essentially, she told it that the way to get her gone was to get the ship gone, and that getting the ship gone required the ship turned. Making a series of yelping hisses it gathered a large group of lizards, at which sign the elfbeasts gathered on deck to repel a possible invasion, and charged down the dunes to the beach. The rest followed, and they turned as one and threw sand and water at both sides of the ship. Slowly, the vessel turned under the consecutive blows and oriented itself correctly to the narrow opening. At that point a concentrated assault from behind propelled the vessel out of the port and towards the sea, banishing Arcane from the desert and rescuing the elfbeasts on the way.

The ship set out for open sea under the capable command of Annabelle and Jasmina, the rest of the slaves instinctively obeying them. Meanwhile, Arcane climbed up the ropes strewn all across the ship, the rigging if she remembered her nautical terminology correctly. She sat herself down on the mast’s crossbeam, right above the outer edge of the sail. Hanging her legs over the edge of the ship she rested while watching the activity on the deck below.

Annabelle had Jasmina take the helm, the pair of ladies bringing out a map and compass and pouring over it, making sure to keep the ship in sight of the desert coast as they reversed the course the Pirates had sailed the night before. A few enterprising youths were running about in the rigging, tying and untying lines in an attempt to properly set the sails which loosely waved in the minimal breeze, while those with less oceanic experience retched over the sides. But far too many of the former slaves simply sat and did nothing, unable to think or act for themselves without being taken care of and ordered around by a figure of authority.

Arcane took a drink of her waterskin and kept watch over the vast ocean. Humming an old tune to herself, she swayed back and forth on the beam and greatly enjoyed herself through the heat of the day.

Several people attempted to talk to her during that time. Young men already thinking about marriage and desiring to gain something from a union with her were the most common, some barely disguising their lust while others remaining gentlemanly no matter how much she ignored them. All left the same way, without gaining even a glance from the brightly colored girl balancing over the ship. A few girls thinking she wanted company of some sort or seeking it themselves approached, though why anybody would decide the person sitting at the least accessible point of the ship wanted company was beyond Arcane’s ability to understand. There was also a youth who asked her if she had any experience sailing (she denied, of course, despite recalling several previous experiences on ships which told her exactly what and how they were doing it wrong), a girl who wanted advice on how to get married after she was rendered impure (Arcane, to whom the concept of purity was somewhat of a touchy subject, sent her packing with the reprimand that men were not the only ones who needed to practice), an older woman who wondered if the great cultivator could help her rescue her son who was taken in a previous slave incident (no promises were made at this time), and an ambitious merchant who wanted to discuss the value of the crystal sword artifacts she had used to dominate the pirates with such ease (Arcane wondered for a moment why they all assumed her powers came from the swords rather than herself, then remembered: cultivators).

Despite the frequent interrupts, Arcane enjoyed the day. She watched the ocean and was treated to the sight of several tropical fish and even the great shadow of what had to be some sort of shark or whale like creature at one point. Coral formations and the evolution of fish like creatures didn't change much no matter how many times it happened, as the most efficient form with which to travel through water had long been defined with only minor details left to work out and change based on the world.

As night fell, most of the elfbeasts withdrew to the internal cabins and slept, the possibility of continuing through the night foreign to them. Arcane was not among them, though, and neither was Annabelle or Jasmina. Perhaps seeing a chance as everyone else either went to sleep or busied themselves with the running of the ship, Annabelle herself made her way up the mast and walked out to take a seat next to Arcane.

“Hello.” Annabelle started awkwardly. Arcane ignored her as she had so many others, waiting to determine the topic before dignifying it with a response. Annabelle, however, was content to sit in silence for a while and watch the water with her.

“I don't remember the trip here, but Jasmina says we should make it back to the Eastern continent in ten days. From there it's three days ride to the Rose City, where my father will be waiting for us.” Annabelle informed Arcane. The other girl simply waited, sure that this was not the purpose of the conversation. Though she was beginning to get the feeling that this conversation would not be as simply dealt with as the others had been.

“I was wondering… will you be traveling with us?” Annabelle asked nervously, peeking out of the corner of her eyes at Arcane while her paws spasmodically grasped on the beam.

Arcane nodded after a moment’s thought. She had nothing better to do on this world, after all. Annabelle sighed in relief and leaned back over the deck, looking up at the starry sky high above.

“That’s great.” She said happily. “My father will be happy to meet you.”

Arcane ignored her, staring at the distant desert shore and the rolling hills of sand beyond. It was seeming far larger than she expected, not curving in the slightest no matter how long they sailed along its coast.

“So, I was wondering… Why do you hide your cultivation? You must be ninth tier at the minimum to crush those dragons so easily…” Annabelle’s voice trailed off as Arcane turned to stare at her with lidded eyes. Arcane found it amusing, honestly, how humanoids reacted to an eyeless stare that still seemed to see.

“I am no cultivator.” Arcane explained simply, though that wasn’t exactly true. She had inherited immense cultivation a long time ago and it grew unconsciously even without her trying, but even so she had never considered it her main source of power, or even in the top five.

“... Then how did you…” Annabelle stammered, the arrogant singularity of cultivators reduced to merely refusing to acknowledge the potential of other energy sources. “Was it that artifact?” Annabelle continued trying to rationalize what she saw in her own worldview, but Arcane shook her head to shatter that illusion.

“That toy is worthless. There are other paths to power than cultivation or training.” Arcane declared, finishing to herself ‘though far fewer can take them, and they are far more treacherous.’

Eight paths in total had been assigned by the time of her birth. They were defined based on the resources that could to be spent in order to gain power. Cultivation merely exchanged time for strength, requiring its practitioners to spend countless hours focusing on the methods of cultivation. The original cultivators, Arcane recalled, had meditated and trained their techniques through repetition, practicing to control their minds and body and in so doing unlocking the way to harness the natural energies of the world. Martial arts had become the martial way, then the path of cultivation. The so called fifth path to power, and the first that individuals, rather than groups, benefitted from.

Cultivation was in many ways weaker than the four paths discovered before it. The group path’s benefit was ‘E Pluribus Unum’: Out of many, one. The combined power of millions of individuals overwhelmed even the greatest of martial practitioners, and those paths were far more easily understood and refined than the stumbling path through ancient texts and cultivation theories had been. Yet it was currently the most common path to dominate a world. It’s benefits were, after all, self evident: Individual power surpassing the beasts that men had always envied, extension of life and the ability to invest this extension into yet more cultivation and extend it further, and the simplicity of practice as a medium for strength. Most importantly of all, perhaps, was that progress in cultivation was easily measured in the amount of energy one had stored in one’s body. Unlike the prior paths where mistakes could set one back in a heartbeat and status was often uncertain, it gave mankind what they had always dreamed of: clear, easily perceived levels with which to measure their strength and hierarchy.

“Other paths… I’ve never heard of that.” Annabelle murmured, returning Arcane to the present once again.

“Look up.” Arcane instructed, following those orders herself and gazing at the stars.

Annabelle copied her, turning her head to the heavens. “The stars the gods placed above us to light the night… What do they have to do with anything?”

“... Every one of those lights is a sun much like your own.” Arcane lectured, bemoaning the culture of primitives who believed themselves the center of the universe.

“A sun? But I can’t see any worlds…” Annabelle continued, turning her head to look this way and that. Arcane wondered if she seriously had a geocentric view of things, though at least she didn’t seem to have a flat world delusion.

“Worlds are tiny. Specks of dust floating among the endless void, circling massive stars which proclaim their existence with power beyond imagination. Every second, each of those suns produces enough power to turn this entire world to dust.” Arcane said, dramatizing the glory of the heavens above and the might of stars, but not by much. Fusion reactions were immensely powerful and if concentrated to the volume of a single planet could very well vaporize thousands of them. Even at the highest levels mortals refrained from carelessly meddling with stars. Their normal function was devastating enough to make mortal power appear just that, mortal, and the occasional supernova annihilated all life in an area tens if not hundreds of light years in diameter.

“The sun is just the light of the gods looking down from heaven…” Annabelle started, and Arcane shook her head to cut her off.

“That’s a myth, and a foolish one. But my point is this: I have traveled among those stars. I have seen their myriad races, the countless existences who call those uncountable worlds home. So I can say for sure that cultivation is not the only path. Can you, who has never left this one, honestly declare the opposite?” Arcane challenged, watching impassively with her eyeless stare.

Annabelle hesitated and finally shook her head.

“Good.” Arcane said, hoping the cultivator would have a revelation around now (new information was remarkable in its ability to stimulate cultivators to cultivate, although the two were rarely connected except psychosomatically) and leave her in peace. Alas, it was not to be.

“Are you a god?” Annabelle asked slowly, her eyes wondering as she stared at Arcane.

In response, Arcane merely sighed and shook her head. “No. Not by my definition, at least, though frequently others call the merely strong gods. I suppose I would fit that definition.”

“Merely strong? What is a god to you then, if not the strongest being?” Annabelle wondered, still hanging onto Arcane’s every word.

“Something more.” Arcane said simply. “Though what, I do not know.”

Annabelle was disappointed in that answer, but Arcane refused to talk further on the subject of gods and faiths. It was a subject far too complicated to explain to this tiny child. Eventually, Annabelle was called back to the deck below by Jasmina and Arcane was left alone with her thoughts… and her memories.

With a resounding crash, a particularly large wave crashes over the side of the steel ship as Arcane cowers against the wall. Looking both ways to see if anyone saw her fear, Arcane straightens up and glares back at the turbulent ocean below.

To her disappointment the sea doesn’t react to her glare, continuing to rage without concern for the puny ship floating on its surface. Arcane takes a deep breath and grabs the rail to guide herself towards the front of the massive metal vessel.

She looks older in this memory, perhaps 12 or 13 years old in appearance. Her hair is still bright cyan in color, but she had styled it in a pair of twin-tails hanging from the side of her head giving her a cute and innocent style. Her dress is also the trademark bright cyan color, short skirt hanging down over her thighs damp with the spray from the ocean wind. Her narrowed eyes are obscured by lengthy lashes, but their clear blue-green radiance visibly aims itself at the raging waters.

She hates sailing, currently. Unlike the protective embrace of space vessels with gravity control, oceanic ships react to every little change in their medium making for an unstable journey not suitable for a child to be brought on. Sailing, she decides, is not a proper way to travel. Nor is it a decent method of relaxation, even when the water calms down and leaves the vessel somewhat steadier.

Looking up at the distant stars and imagining she could see the myriad orbital installations about which swarmed the far superior ships of space, Arcane makes her way past the archaic metal guns that line the antique destroyer and grant it the appearance of a floating hedgehog. Once she reaches the open platform ahead of the frontmost tower she relaxes and returns to the middle of the ship, away from the thin railings between her and the cold ocean waters. Arcane sighs as she approaches a pair of girls standing calmly at the front of the ship, calling a greeting towards their backs.

“I’m here, Flame!” Arcane says, her words answered by the turning around of the girl on the left, a scarlet haired tanned girl who gave off a rather aggressive impression. Arcane thinks to herself that, for someone who dislikes being called a ‘firecracker’, Flame certainly does spend a lot of effort reinforcing that first impression.

“Glad you could join us. Faith, this is my sister Arcane.” Flame says, holding out her arms and giving Arcane a great hug when she came closer. The two girls looked more like twins than sisters, their faces having the same symmetric features and their dresses almost clones of each other except for the difference in color. They had very different atmospheres as well, Flame choosing to create a wild and sensual appearance while Arcane wears a clearly childish and innocent hairstyle.

“Ganging up on me, are you?” The other girl teases Flame, turning to meet Arcane’s eyes. Arcane nods a greeting; the two of them already knew each other from prior interactions. Her name is Faith, and her features are similar to the twins although her symmetry had a far more asiatic inclination with slanted eyes and a flat nose. Faith’s colors are black and white, her hair a shimmering map of the night sky (though not any sky Arcane had ever seen) with a base of ebony black over which dance several specs of white in a truly lovely pattern. She wears a cloth draped over her more like a robe than a dress, tied around the waist with a belt of similar cloth in an attire that closely resembles a kimono but isn’t quite the same as the old fashioned garment a certain group idolizes.

“Oh? Are you so unconfident in your faith, Faith?” Flame says, giggling at the bad pun. Arcane elbows her sister while sighing in exasperation.

Faith rolls her eyes and retaliates, “No more than you are in your flame, Flame.”

Flame doubles over in laughter at the terrible jokes while Arcane sighs again and steps between the two of them. Faith nods in thanks and the two look out across the ocean while waiting for Flame to recover.

“You two have no sense of humor.” Flame says when she’s done laughing, straightening to stand beside them.

Faith snorts, but Arcane mutters back, “Of course I do, but your jokes aren’t punny.”

Flame gasps at the insult while Faith takes her turn giggling to herself, her mouth opening and closing as she tries to think of a comeback. “Well, your name is just arcane in meaning, Arcane.” She finally spits out, pouting.

Arcane stares at her and shakes her head. “That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Yeah, I’m not proud of it.” Flame says, looking pointedly away.

“What were you two talking about anyway?” Arcane asks Faith, deciding Flame was not a reliable source at the moment.

Faith pauses and looks up at the night sky. “Flame claims that faith is a meaningless exercise in emotional masturbation. I disagree.”

Arcane takes a second to glare at Flame, who had the decency to look guilty. Then she turns back to Faith. “I must apologize for my disrespectful sister. She’s been going through a nihilistic phase and chooses to use crude expressions to show that.”

Flame rolls her eyes and peeks around Arcane at Faith. “I must apologize for my virgin sister. She thinks a vagina is only for peeing.”

Arcane thrusts her fist into Flame’s stomach, causing the other girl to double over, coughing. Her face turning red rapidly, she turns to Faith and bows in apology.

Faith stares at Arcane and shakes her head. “That’s not all that bad, you know? Even discussions on the theology get much more graphic. There was this one time we wondered why virgins were preferred for sacrifice, because whether or not something has had a penis in the vagina should not be a matter of importance, especially when anal virginity doesn’t matter. In fact, anal sex doesn’t break celibacy in a lot of religions… Are you okay?”

Arcane was swaying, her face and upper arms bright scarlet and steam almost coming out of her ears as her eyes looked everywhere but Faith. She shakes her head and takes a couple of steps forward and slapping herself a couple of times to clear her head of the images that fill it, though none would evoke even a parental guidance advisory for most nations.

“Arcane, you need to get over that.” Flame criticizes, shaking her head at Arcane’s over the top reaction.

“She’s not pretending?” Faith asks, startled.

“No. Sis is that bad with sex.” Flame says, rolling her eyes as Arcane came back and stands facing them.

“We aren’t talking about that any more.” Arcane declares simply.

“I have to ask, though…” Faith starts

“Something. Else.” Arcane cuts her off with a few growled words, eyes promising suffering to any who dare cross her. Flame ignores them and begins ticking off her fingers.

“Has hair grown down there yet? No. Has she ever masturbated? No. Has she ever seen a penis or a dildo? No. Does she wear a bra? Yes. Has she ever had a boyfriend? No. Does she know how sex works? I hope so, but I’m not sure. Is she-” Flame lists off a number of questions that made Arcane blush even brighter with each one before she finally snaps at the last one.

“FLAME!” She roars, her voice breaking in suppressed shame as she glares at her sister. “We’re not talking about that.”

“Jeesh, fine. Not my fault you’re so innocent.” Flame shrugs and turns back to Faith, who is giggling behind a hand as Arcane takes a step away to banish the crude thoughts filling it. “So, where were we?”

“You were explaining why divine powers were, and I quote, insufficient evidence for the existence of gods.” Faith says, still giggling slightly at the incoherent Arcane.

“Right. I probably led with the fact that gods created from men can’t be called gods at all, to which you probably said something on the lines of ‘all gods are born from men,’ and I claimed that gods were supposed to have created men and that wasn’t possible if they were created by men, and you said something about not all gods have to create men, right?” Flame asks, confirming that Faith was nodding before continuing. “But now we need to look at the other side: are we even sure these so called gods are even there in the first place?”

Faith looks at her while stifling a yawn. “I’ve talked to several, Flame. They’re there.”

“Ah, but are they?” Flame says knowingly, wagging a finger at the starry girl. “How do you know it’s not just some poor bloke picked up in the middle of fornication-”

“AAAAHHHH!!!!” Arcane screams to drown out the mention of sexual activities.

“-Rude.” Flame says towards that outburst, wagging her finger again before picking up her line of argumentation. “Some poor bloke forced into the roleplay of god having a good laugh out of the whole thing?”

“In that case, he has all the properties of god, so can be considered to be one.” Faith replies evenly, dismissing Flame’s argument with a simple gesture.

“But does he? He was born human, and is just roleplaying as a god. Maybe he doesn’t even have access to the power, or his access is like yours. Are you claiming yourself to be a god now?” Flame challenges, easily countering Faith’s comeback.

“Are you talking temporary or permanent manifestation as the divine in that case?” Faith asks, thinking.

“Either.” Arcane says, adding herself to the conversation. “Flame’s right, in either case they become distinct from the being you call ‘god’ and merely exist as an intermediary between you and the true controller. And you cannot confirm that they are receiving orders from a higher power or acting on their own accord.”

“Hm, didn’t think of that but she’s right. How do you answer that one, Faith.” Flame nods to Arcane, tapping her finger against her chin.

“But we can confirm the existence of the power.” Faith counters. “We know that human faith generates the reservoir, and that at a certain level the reservoir takes on a personality matching that of the deity we worship. True, we cannot confirm that the personality is not a fake, but we can certainly confirm that there is a reservoir behind it?”

“That reservoir is not necessarily a god though.” Arcane states.

“That’s a matter of opinion.” Faith retorts.

“Oh that’s a cop-out and you know it!” Flame complains, pushing Faith gently.

Faith knocks Flame’s hands away and waves her hands. “Fine, if we define a god as a reservoir of so called divine power energy than we can confirm that they exist, just not the nature of such a being.”

“If you don’t define the nature of such a being how do we know it has value?” Flame grabs the opening in a heartbeat.

“And how can you say that the faith which creates such a being is worthwhile either?” Arcane follows up, the sisters flashing a smile at each other at the successful one-two combo.

“We can draw on the power, though.” Faith says after gathering herself again. “If we can draw on it, it has at least some use. Further, the entities that manifest as the ‘personalities’ of the power, no matter where they originate from, follow the human desires installed into the power like a sort of code. Thus we can use faith to create and program entities that watch out for our worlds. I wouldn’t call that useless.”

Flame and Arcane exchange a glance, the quality of the retaliation beyond their expectations. Flame takes the lead after the brief consultation. “Back to my argument on the existence of gods, how do we confirm that the power reservoir need be created by faith rather than some other factor?”

“It’s never been done before, though I guess it is theoretically possible.” Faith admits.

“Is Ira really representing faith? I thought that god was fueled by rage?” Arcane wonders aloud.

“Ira’s faith.” Flame answers quickly.

“Yeah, it’s faith in the god of wrath but it’s still faith.” Faith confirms.

“Oh. Sorry.” Arcane nods in answer.

“Still, you can’t deny it could work.” Flame continues after the interruption.

“I guess.” Faith nods, “But that still doesn’t disqualify the existing reservoirs as gods created by faith.”

“Yes it does. It shows that faith is unnecessary to create a being called a god, thereby undoing your ability to define a god as such a reservoir of power and returning validity to my argument that gods don’t exist.” Flame declares.

“Hypothetical, Flame.” Arcane mutters in correction. “And strawmanning.”

“You too?” Flame complains at Arcane’s treachery.

“She’s right, it’s not a real argument. I would have called you on it if she didn’t.” Faith shakes her head. “But you are correct that we cannot so easily know the nature of the gods we create; the personality merely seems to reflect that of the god and we can’t make a Turing test to confirm if it is proactive or reactive.”

“Seriously? Now you’ve redefined god to the reservoir rather than the personality that doesn’t help me in the slightest.” Flame growls to herself. Arcane pinches her on the wrist, causing her to jump and exclaim “Ow!”

“So I believe that means we can agree that gods exist, correct?” Faith says triumphantly. To her surprise, Arcane shakes her head.

“We claim there are reservoirs of power, correct?” Arcane says. Faith nods slowly, believing it self evident. “Try reaching for that reservoir.”

Faith rolls her eyes and humors her, drawing out divine powers through her usual channel from the nearest god and manifesting it. Then she draws a sharp breath, quickly followed by Flame as they look at the ball of power forming the smiling face of Arcane.

“Replicating something along the lines of a reservoir with magic is trivial, if you’re strong enough. Can we really say you’re drawing on reservoirs instead of other humans allowing access to these powers for unknown reasons?” The face made of power mouths as Arcane practices her ventriloquism. It fades slowly out of existence as Flame slaps her on the back and Faith lets her hands fall to her sides.

“Good one, Sis!” Flame says happily.

“The only retort I have is that no one outside of you can do that, but I suppose I can’t prove that claim absolutely.” Faith adds, smiling crookedly at the cyan girl in front of her. “I would have expected that from Flame, not you, though.”

“I’ve been practicing. It’s extremely difficult to intercept a channeler’s reach, you know?” Arcane says, breathing heavily from the exertion.

“So you could confirm the existence of the reservoirs.” Faith challenges, trying to regain some ground.

“I can confirm that there exists a source of energy which you draw upon. I cannot confirm that it is not a human like me.” Arcane easily denies the charge, smiling at the expected attack.

“Well played. Did you plan to make me define gods as the reservoirs or did you just go with it?” Faith asks curiously.

“I took the opportunity presented. But no matter where you define god it fundamentally cannot be proven to exist, correct? Isn’t that the premise of faith?” Arcane teases, using the definition of faith to make meaningless Faith’s last few minutes of effort. Faith, realizing this, grimaces as Flame giggles into her hand.

“Yeah, yeah, be happy you two.” Faith says unhappily, turning away from them in mock anger.

“Yep, god can’t be proven, else he is not god.” Flame quotes from some religious scholar. “So we’re back to whether or not divine power has any value. And without gods to receive it, it’s just emotional…”

“-Extremely valuable.” Arcane interrupts her sister, who stops in shock.

“... traitor.” She mouths in horror.

“You chose the wrong side there, Flame. Even if it doesn’t create gods, or even power reservoirs of energy, faith unifies the minds of men and gives them the ability to find meaning and determination in their lives. Sorry if I like those things, sister.” Arcane explains, causing Faith to whirl around and beam at her.

“I completely agree! Faith brings people together and gives meaning to their lives, bringing peace and harmony to the galaxies!” She exclaims in joy.

“Peace? Seriously, you two? Faith caused more wars than every other cause combined even before it was found to grant incredible powers to its priests!” Flame counters, not backing down in the slightest.

“Sometimes there must be war for there to be peace.” Faith justifies.

“That’s a lie and you know it. Faith may have been claimed as the cause, but it was really a variety of factors including resources and power dynamics every time.” Arcane rebuts, shaking her head.

“Ah, but those power dynamics were based around faith most of the time, right?” Flame points out.

“You’re stretching and you know it.” Arcane scolds her.

“I won’t deny a healthy dose of xenophobia, but faith and more specifically differences in faith was certainly a factor!” Flame challenges.

“Faith tries to eliminate xenophobia in its true form, and also teaches love and peace which help resolve those other differences. There are a few faiths that encourage war, sure, but that cannot be used to the detriment of the practice as a whole!” argues Faith angrily.

“Only yours! Everyone else but the Myriad Temple is exclusive, or did you forget?” Flame returns with similar hostility.

“Girls, girls, calm down!” Arcane yells, pushing the two apart. “Everyone else is sleeping now.” She adds in a hushed whisper.

“Arcane.” Flame says in a patronizing tone, clapping her hand on her sister’s shoulder and gesturing towards the massive ship. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this is a destroyer. People are supposed to sleep through the firing of those guns, you know? Though I guess you two might be louder...”

Faith and Arcane stare at her and then glance at each other. As one they take Flame by the shoulders and steer her towards the railing without letting go.

Flame starts to panic as they don’t let up even as they bump into it. “Whoa whoa whoa I didn’t mean it! It was a joke, a joke you two. Seriously stop!” She struggles to escape as Arcane and Faith pick her up before tossing her backwards and throwing nothing out over the rail. Flame breaths a sigh of relief while laying on the deck.

“You two take this way too seriously.” She complains, pushing herself up and dusting her dress off.

“It was a bad joke.” Arcane explains in a deadpan tone.

“Very bad.” Faith agrees with a similar level of expressionlessness.

“Alright, alright, I’ve got it. I’ll stop.” Flame says, waving her hand to ward off the expressionless glares.

“How have you been lately, Faith.” Arcane asks, changing the topic abruptly and walking away from Flame, who runs to catch up.

“Pretty well. The Saint’s collective has more infighting than outfighting at the moment, but so does everyone else but you nine.” Faith says sourly, frowning at Arcane and Flame.

“That’s hardly our fault.” Flame defends herself, but Arcane merely nods in acceptance.

“I figured.” She says complacently before going on, “The paths of heavens, riches, weapons, and bindings all are fighting over a limited pool that their own are competing for more than outsiders. And the path of battles is, well, the path of battles.”

“Cultivators.” Faith says in disgust.

“Cultivators. But their champions aren’t a bad sort except for that, honestly.” Arcane agrees, though she did temper her displeasure.

“They’re young. You can’t consider them full cultivators until they’ve lasted a century and spent their first decade in ‘closed door training’.” Faith retorts, refusing the qualification and essentially spitting on the group’s stereotypical habit of disappearing.

“Stereotypes are bad, Faith. Didn’t you preach love and peace for all?” Flame teases, though she herself agreed firmly with the other two on that particular subject.

“Give me contractors with their strange fetishes, give me wielders who talk to statues before people, even give me mages thinking they are the end all be all of the universe, but heavens forbid you give me cultivators beating up everyone who looks at them wrong while being sure they’re the absolute summit of existence.” Faith complains, shaking her head.

“You forgot priests devoting themselves to absent gods and economists throwing money at every problem as if that will fix it.” Flame adds with a grin.

“What about technocrats?” Arcane asks, not sure what the stereotype was for that group. Flame and Faith just look at her in exasperation.

“Arcane, you’re the only champion in any of the six paths who even thinks about mocking the technocrats.” Faith says with a sigh.

“Yeah, don’t mess with them. What could we say, technocrats knowing everything and still acting as if they know nothing, or fixing a problem and deciding the solution wasn’t elegant or efficient enough?” Flame adds with a shake of her head.

Arcane nods in agreement while being annoyed internally. She didn’t much like the technocrats and their dominance over all aspects of life and reality.

“It’s getting late isn’t it?” Faith adds, shivering exaggeratedly in the chill night air.

Flame looks at her oddly and then at a watch on her wrist. “Faith, it’s early. 2 am in the morning to be precise.” She declares simply.

“Yep, that’s early.” Arcane says, checking her own watch and nodding in agreement. “Let’s get a bit of sleep before sunrise, Flame.”

Taking the scarlet girl’s hand, Arcane walks towards the side of the ship to engage in the laborious journey along the narrow railing back to their cabin in the below deck labyrinth. Faith follows just behind them, pausing once to look out at the sea before the trio enter the dark corridors below deck and go their separate ways.

Arcane’s memories were ended at about the same hour as the memories stopped, if her measurements of the current position of the stars and the rotational speed of this world were accurate. She lay back on the beam hanging above the far more primitive ship of the non-human civilization on this world, long after the world of her memories had been destroyed by calamities beyond her control.

Eight paths, there were once. The path of heavens, followed by priests who combined the thoughts of many people to create gods and draw upon their powers. The path of battles, created so that training and time would enhance the power of mortals with the natural might of worlds. Three more, the paths of riches, weapons, and bindings, often taking a secondary role to one of those two.

Arcane filled in the final three mentally: The path of blood, the very first path to strength followed by any living being. The path of secrets or magic, that which Arcane herself was the poster child. And finally, the last path. The path that had taken a primitive, ape like species from cave dwelling animals to the top of every food chain to the rulers and eventually builders of universes.

Flame had been right, so long ago. Sure, the technocrats and the path of knowledge they practiced was among the slowest of all paths, taking centuries to move forward even a single step with the greatest of geniuses at the helm. But each step they took was firm and could be parsed into easily understandable details. Alone among the eight paths, a monkey could be taught to utilize the power of the technocrats and take advantage of their advances.

It had once been called science, the only one of the eight paths that worked without any need of the mysterious energy that took the forms of mana, qi, and divine power depending on the path with which it was processed. And once upon a time, that energy had not existed in any universe. That the technocrats had changed that was at once their greatest success, and their greatest failure. For it brought them to heights unimaginable to any former or later ages, and it brought them to their complete and utter destruction.


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