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Warm afternoon sunlight played across the polished black surface of the table which took up the majority of the space in the meeting hall. The tall windows that lined the east and west walls were left open, allowing the cool breeze to blow inside. It was, Dong Feng supposed, much like the quieting of the winds that came before the breaking of a storm.

Looking back down to his desk in the corner of the room, Dong Feng resumed arranging his tools to his liking. It was an honor for a Sect Clerk only a bit past his centennial to be selected to take minutes for a meeting of Elders. He would certainly have to buy his senior another bottle of Blossoming Dream Nectar in thanks for the opportunity.

As Dong Feng placed the last strip of jade down and checked the nib of his etching tool for sharpness, the doors at the far end of the brightly lit hall opened, and the first of the Elders swept in with a small rustle of cloth. Elder Hua Su was among the youngest of her rank, he thought idly. Only two hundred and fifty years or so older than himself. Truly a talent and credit to the Sect. He did not raise his eyes as she passed him. Normally, it would be quite rude to not acknowledge an Elder, but as a record keeper, his role was to be a silent pair of hands.

His ears caught heavy footfalls echoing from the hallway a moment later, and he felt a thrill of fear go up his spine as Commander Zhou marched past, barefoot and bare chested. Dong Feng still remembered well his days serving in the Sect military, training under sergeants who had in turn learned directly from the Indomitable himself. His muscles ached at the memory.

“Sect Sister Su,” the man greeted shortly, dipping his head briefly to the other Elder. “Your courses are going well?”

Elder Su gave the taller man a soft smile as she pulled out her seat. “As well as can be expected. Our disciples are an interesting bunch this year, are they not?”

Elder Zhou scowled, and Dong Feng felt himself break out in sweat as the shadow of a vast mountain fell over him, crushing his shoulders with its weight. It passed then, a mere flicker in the Commander’s iron discipline. “I dislike this… circus,” he said with distaste. “There is nothing that I can teach such neophytes that a lesser officer could not. I look forward to weeding out the worst.”

“You underestimate your insight,” the younger woman replied, taking her seat. “Still, it is not often that the Sect is host to such names. Have any yet made an impression?”

“The Bai lives up to her name. She will be a terror in a century or so,” Commander Zhou replied, a touch of irritation in his voice even as he sat down. His seat creaked from his unnatural weight, but the spiritually reinforced wood held. “The Sun is hot-headed and talented but bored by the basic lessons. I have no other insights to share.”

“Neither is much interested in my basic primers either,” Elder Su admitted. “The other though…”

Commander Zhou grimaced. “I have no complaints at her performance,” he replied neutrally.

“Of course you don’t.” The light drained from the room as another voice echoed as if from the bottom of the well, and Dong Feng felt a violent shiver go up his spine as staring, judging eyes formed in his shadow and all across the room. Watching and grading and… He took hold of himself before he could make a mistake in the etching recording the Elders’ words.

Across from the other two Elders, a pillar of liquid darkness arose, frothing and bubbling until it resolved into the gray skinned form of Elder Jiao, lounging in his seat and wearing a robe of eye-searing yellow and a jauntily tilted cap on his bald head.

“Our Glorious Duchess would hardly fail to prepare her heir,” he drawled. “But really, must we talk of this again? Is there nothing more interesting to speak of?”

Dong Feng was quite sure he saw Elder Su roll her eyes during Elder Jiao’s extravagant entrance, but that was obviously a mistake of perception on his part, he told himself. At least the eyes in his shadow were fading away.

“If you have any insights to offer, they are obviously welcome, Sect Brother Jiao,” Commander Zhou replied in a voice drier than any desert. “You have, after all, been so involved in the running of the Outer Sect.”

"Oh, nothing of my work would interest you, Sect Brother,” Elder Jiao replied in amusement. “Just scribblings and such, you know. Nothing for a man of your stature to be concerned over.”

The room shook, and the stone floor rippled as another arrived. The figure of Elder Ying was not an impressive one visually. The stooped figure, wrinkled face, and tightly bound bun of gray hair would be common on any street. All the same, she had emerged from solid rock, and her plain brown gown drawing ripples in the flagstones as she shuffled toward the table and her seat at a deceptively slow pace.

“Do let it rest, you two,” she chided. “We will be discussing our high status guests enough, I think. Why not speak of the other gems we have been given to polish?”

“There are a few,” Commander Zhou grunted. “It is too soon to know if there is anything but potential among the charity cases.”

“And potential hardly guarantees ability,” Elder Su added. “Yet there are two that have the drive to make something of it, I think.”

Commander Zhou grunted in agreement. “Agreed. I am disappointed in the Golden Fields group. I never imagined that Han would coddle his son so.”

“Hmph. Not everything is cultivation,” Elder Jiao replied. “That one is at least well adjusted. There is a reason that the common age for beginning cultivation has risen.”

Commander Zhou scoffed. “We are growing soft.”

Elder Su gave the commander a brief look which Dong Feng could not read, but it was Elder Ying who spoke, her reedy voice nonetheless carrying a great weight to it. The air began to tingle with thickened qi as wills clashed through narrowed eyes. “You know as well as any that beginning before the age of twelve is near pointless. A child so young cannot properly form even the first steps of a Way. You may as well attempt to sculpt a wall from dry sand.”

“But we have an exemplar of such early cultivation this very year!” Elder Jiao said brightly. “And they have such an interesting mind, do they not?”

Elder Ying’s wrinkled face drew into a scowl, and Elder Su frowned. Elder Zhou merely closed his eyes. “I am aware that there is a point which is too early,” the commander said. “That does not change the truth of my words.”

For Dong Feng, things were far more intense. He shivered violently, goosebumps forming on his skin as the qi in the room thickened with raised emotion. Where before he had looked upon a brightly lit meeting hall and four seniors and superiors, now he drowned in a lake of darkness filled by mocking, judging eyes while twin mountains, one a peak of barren gray stone and the other a riot of greenery and life, that both stretched into the sky rumbled and shook at one another.

He felt relief when thunder clapped, rattling the very frame of the building, and the tension in the air dissolved along with the figments of power. Dong Feng gasped for air as the crushing weight fell from his shoulders and chest.

“Hoh, he’s finally here. I am surprised that the Sect Head was so late,” Elder Ying said, sounding curious.

“Must he limit himself so with mortal affectations? He could very well have just entered the room directly,” Elder Jiao complained, a flick of his voluminous sleeve producing a sheaf of densely written papers.

“Not all are interested in abandoning their bodies so, Sect Brother,” Commander Zhou snorted. “You will survive waiting another minute for the Sect Head to traverse the halls.”

Dong Feng almost sighed as the serious atmosphere that had formed dissolved back into the casual one-upmanship and bickering of a normal office meeting. It was always frightening to be reminded of just how far an Elder was above a mere clerk.

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And here's our bonus chapter, voted on by the patrons. Normal update tomorrow, as always


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