It was unfortunate that no matter what resources Zhao Gang applied, it was simply impossible to outright purchase a property in a short amount of time. The bureaucratic chain reaction required to finalize a property purchase simply couldn’t happen in a short enough time for it to be practical in this situation. Thankfully, he had lawyers. They informed him that there was a slightly different, and much easier, path that they could pursue, one that could be finalized as quickly as the owners were willing to agree. Given the bonuses that Zhao Gang was prepared to pay for quick action, the response time was likely to be commendably short.
He was going to lease.
As far as finding a suitable property went, he had made his own luck. The entire Puget Sound area, as a result of his breakthrough, had undergone a major catastrophe. While this wasn’t something to feel glad about, it did have the silver lining of throwing the real estate market into a fair amount of disarray. When the disaster struck, countless homes and businesses all along the coastline were destroyed. Many properties were left in bureaucratic limbo, with the government scrambling to verify the state of ownership for every parcel of land. Many were left without any providence, meaning the government needed to repossess the property and auction it off, lest the land lay fallow.
Recovery from such an event requires huge investments and many years. Given the high value of the properties, not to mention the subsidies on offer, there were plenty of real estate investors willing to take a chance. Construction surged in the wake of the disaster, with new buildings breaking ground almost daily. As inevitably happens, they overbuilt. Not drastically, not enough to cause a serious problem, but enough that vacant properties were still common, even after all this time. In such an environment, it’s easy for an established organization who found their current accommodations unsuitable to move up in the world, leaving their old buildings vacant for even longer periods.
Zhao Gang’s team of lawyers searched diligently and, with the inevitability of hard work, found the perfect place. The now-abandoned property was once a retirement home, a big industrial building masquerading as a manor house from the front lawn. While it only had two hundred rooms, each room was plenty large enough that they could fit two or even three children comfortably. It even had separate accommodations for live-in staff, a real bonus. The meeting halls and other gathering spaces would require some down and dirty re-purposing, but it would be possible to divide them into adequate classroom spaces for a short term stay.
Classroom space, Zhao Gang was informed, was a definite requirement. If he was going to keep his students together, not only would he need to provide them adequate housing, but he had to provide the mandatory schooling. If he couldn’t, Child Protective Services would not only find schooling for them but find places for children to live that made it convenient for them to attend whatever school was found. If classes were disrupted all his efforts would be for naught.
Leasing, being merely an occupancy agreement, could be concluded without the direct involvement of any governmental bureaucracy. This meant that if he wanted to make a deal at an odd hour, say two-thirty in the morning, there were no insurmountable barriers to that happening. Of course, one had to have sufficient pull to get the interested parties to agree to a meeting at such an ungodly hour, but offering twenty years on the lease upfront and in cash, at double the asking price, proved sufficient inducement.
Just two hours after he had eavesdropped on the investigators’ conversation, Zhao Gang sat down with the very irritable real estate agent who represented the relocated Proud Oaks Retirement Home. His lawyers could have handled it but they informed him that it would likely delay the process if he wasn’t there in person. Given the importance of acquiring the property, he naturally attended the meeting. While the agent’s attitude never quite reached happy, several reminders of the exorbitant commission she was about to make improved her mood considerably. By four AM not only was all the paperwork signed and sealed, but Zhao Gang also had the proverbial keys in hand. They had every legal right to move in immediately.
The next step was logistics; he now had to furnish roughly two hundred rooms for immediate occupancy. Zhao Gang just smiled when thinking about it and contacted Xinasa with his Qi.
“Master Zhao,” she said respectfully.
“I have a task for you to oversee,” he said brusquely, not wanting to delay. “I need the rooms at our new building furnished in the next four hours.”
“I will see it done,” replied Xinasa, accepting the task easily. After managing to completely refurbish the meditation courtyard in just three days, furnishing some rooms in the course of a few hours was child’s play. When the connection broke, Xinasa immediately contacted one of the leading elders from each of the dorms and called them over for a meeting.
The five elders weren’t necessarily the leaders of the respective dorms - to her knowledge, the question of who was going to speak for each dorm hadn’t been settled yet. That said, these five disciples had enough status that they wouldn’t have any trouble getting things moving. There was a chance that her looking to them for this task might solidify their leadership, even. Though she was cognizant of the potential power plays, in the end Xinasa cared little for who managed to wrangle the top spots. The few disciples she refused to work with had all been neatly removed from the running early on.
In less than a minute the five disciples were in her office. She stood politely as they entered, not wanting to get into a pointless argument over seniority. Once they were all in and seated, she naturally took the seat at the head of the table. None of them protested - a good sign.
“Master Zhao has assigned us a task,” she said simply. “We need to relocate our students temporarily. We have a place for them to go but it lacks furnishings. You five will be responsible for dividing up the rooms appropriately and seeing that all of the students’ needs are met. This task is exceptionally important. Any student that does not have adequate housing could be lost to us. You have four hours.” The elders all looked at each other, their faces sour. While the task didn’t sound important, any floor elders who lost a student would look like an incompetent fool. Xinasa was pleased to see that, as they exchanged looks among themselves, the light of competition flared in their eyes. They thought the task beneath them, of that there was no doubt, but they would do everything they could to best their rivals.
Even though she viewed the competition as a good thing she decided a warning was in order. “Sabotaging each other is out of the question,” she said seriously. “If it happens it will be discovered and punished harshly.” They all gave her a startled look but none of them spoke in outrage. They knew as well as she that someone would try it if she didn’t kill the idea upfront. What caught her attention was that none of the elders questioned her right to promise punishment. It appeared that her status was being taken seriously. What that status was, exactly, had yet to be clearly defined, but even someone who counted with their toes could see that Master Zhao had been habitually delegating authority to her.
She waited a moment to make sure they weren’t going to speak before she continued. “You have a maximum of ten thousand dollars to spend on each student, as well as a general budget for each floor of one hundred thousand dollars. I’ll be available if you require more.”
Xinasa wasn’t particularly worried about their so-called budget but she knew that if she didn’t put some type of limit on their spending their competition would get wildly out of hand. With a wave of her hand, she withdrew a stack of credit cards from her storage ring and threw them at the elders. On each card was printed ‘Immortal Mysteries School’, along with a credit card number. Other than that, and the logo of the credit card company, they were completely black. Cards dispensed, Xinasa quickly relayed the details and location of the new building.
“Go.” The word scattered the five elders like rabbits in front of the hounds. In less than five seconds her office was empty.
As the five returned to their respective dorms, they began sending out mental messages. Each had long since familiarized themselves with the disciples who had joined their dorm, so it took little effort to contact each and inform them of the task at hand.
This would be the point at which a group of mortals would look at the task and determine it to be all but impossible. They would look at the time and wonder if anywhere was businesses were open - no. They would ask themselves if anyone would have a large enough stock of furniture to supply their needs on short notice - probably not. They would wonder if they had time to look at the building before they began making their frantic shopping trips - no.
In essence, from a logistical standpoint, a mortal team would find the task laughable. Even finding an appropriate stock of the necessities in such a short time would be taxing, much less getting them on-site and installed.
The disciples had no such worries. The first order of business for any logistic effort, transportation, was easily solved. While stepping between dimensions was the purview of those who possessed the power of an immortal, stepping across space within a dimension was considerably easier. Not every disciple could do it, but enough could that they had few worries in that regard. Moving the purchased items was similarly considered a non-issue; they might not have storage rings that could fit all of the precious minerals from an asteroid in them, but they could certainly fit enough to furnish a few bedrooms. Since each group of floor elders would be responsible for providing for their students, it wouldn’t be difficult to make it work.
“We need to designate rooms,” said one. They all looked at each other before stretching out their senses. They easily reached across the distance between them and their destination, hunting together for the address they’d been given. It took less than ten seconds before the first took a step and vanished, reappearing in the lobby of the abandoned nursing home just over forty miles away. In the next fifteen seconds, each of others appeared beside the first.
What followed was an intense negotiation. The rooms weren’t neatly arranged like the dorms at the school, so it was inevitable that some dorms would have their floors split up or scattered. Seeing this as a sub-optimal outcome, each elder negotiated bitterly to avoid it. While they haggled, the floor elders were already moving. They had already realized their first real ‘problem’ - nothing local would be open yet. That being the case, they divided up the regions of the world where everyone was awake and working between themselves before quickly disappearing.
The most astute of the disciples found it rather easy to find shops that had what they were looking for - they looked on the internet. A fair number of the disciples were less savvy, however, and used the more ‘traditional’ method of popping into a place essentially at random, then stretching out their senses to feel for stores that had what they desired. This method proved to be more troublesome, especially since they wanted to buy pre-assembled furniture, but they managed. Without exception, each found the trickiest task to be getting their purchases into their storage rings without being seen. Clouding the minds of the mortals was relatively simple, but avoiding their security measures turned out to be slightly more difficult. More than one disciple simply decided to destroy the offending cameras.
Normally Master Zhao would have punished such offenses. Given the urgency of the task, he decided to overlook them for the time being. He would discuss their wanton destruction of property at a later time. At the moment, his attention was on a different task - setting up yet more new formations. While it wasn’t necessarily a problem, formations were expensive and not just in the ‘play money’ of Earth mortals, but in terms of cultivation resources that took real time and effort to acquire. Given their deadline, Zhao Gang decided to acquire the needed resources personally. Confident that his presence was not immediately required, he stepped away from Earth and into the Heavens.
Not long after Zhao Gang left, Jiang Han carried Ryan Bauchman’s sleeping form into the meditation courtyard. He had spent most of the night working with Orixian Verin. Together they changed one of the formations in the courtyard that was no longer needed by a student. The work had delayed Verin’s departure to the old nursing home by a few minutes, but if this worked it would be worth it.
The changes to the formation they had made would give the average cultivator the shivers. In normal circumstances, no cultivator in his right mind would step into it. That was because the formation, instead of isolating the person from natural energy, now used its power to disperse the aura of the cultivator inside. For anyone else, under any other condition, dispersing one’s aura in such a manner was akin to asking for death. Hesitating only a moment, Jiang Han stepped forward and laid Ryan down in the center.
Everything in the universe had an aura. For inanimate objects, the aura emitted was equivalent to how much power they held inside. Living beings emitted an aura that, under normal circumstances, was proportional to their cultivation level. This aura was caused by a natural ‘leaking’ of the Qi which all things possess. Far from being a detriment or a flaw, however, auras are an exceptionally important defense mechanism.
Natural energy flows throughout all of creation, a tide of power. In some places it waxes, in others, it wanes. This free natural energy, in the absence of a barrier such as an aura, would pose a hazard to anything that comes in contact with it. In the exceptionally dangerous places of the universe, the natural energy is thick enough that even cultivation masters must supplement their aura or be destroyed. But even the lower planes have enough free energy that being without an aura would result in damage, if not death.
For those who follow the way of cultivation, the aura provides other, equally vital, functions. Since the aura is made up of one’s Qi, with the outer edges being Qi mixed with the natural energy of their surroundings, it is possible to maintain a connection with that Qi and generate a ‘spiritual sense’. This lets the cultivator sense the changes in the world around them through the changes in natural energy. Contrary to what one would expect, this sense can be exceptionally acute and is often the first sense to detect danger.
The aura can do more than simply detect danger, however. In the cultivation world, it is not uncommon for enemies to launch surprise attacks. Under ideal conditions, a cultivator has the chance to meet every attack with their full power, drawn up from their core and accumulated deliberately. When subject to a sneak attack, however, the chances of having time to draw up that power, much less shape it properly, are low. This is where the aura comes in. Even though it represents a tiny fraction of the cultivator’s power, it is already in place and ready to be used. A cultivator in desperate straits can coalesce this power to make a relatively flimsy, if still effective, shield. The number of times a cultivator has been saved through such means throughout history were countless. No cultivator would willingly deprive themselves of that final protection without a good cause and many precautions.
In this instance, Ryan’s aura was acting as it should - as a barrier. While the natural energy was penetrating it to effect the necessary changes, that penetration was slow. Imagine that one had to push a pin through a plastic container but the pin couldn’t be allowed to puncture the contents of the container. How could it be accomplished? Through slow, meticulous penetration. This was much how the natural energy was reaching Ryan, through a similar penetration of his aura. To do otherwise would mean that the energy in question would be too violent, damaging Ryan rather than helping.
It stood to reason, then, that if Jiang Han were to disperse Ryan’s aura temporarily it would be possible to greatly increase the rate at which the natural energy reached him. Given any other circumstance, doing so would be akin to asking the tide of natural energy to sweep him away like flotsam, especially considering that he had barely stepped foot on the path of cultivation and had only the barest trickle of his own Qi imbued into his body. This instance was very peculiar, however - all of the natural energy reaching Ryan was doing so under the direction of the plane, which itself was being directed by the Heavenly Dao. Because of this, Han was willing to bet that none of the natural energy which reached Ryan would harm him. Rather, if the natural energy reached him faster, but without undue violence, it would be possible to drastically increase the speed of his metamorphosis.
There was no getting around the fact that this particular experiment was risky, but if it worked it would accomplish the task he was given beautifully. Han took just another moment to reexamine his assumptions, the potential consequences, and weigh all the factors, then he confidently inserted his own Qi into the modified formation. It flared to life at once and snuffed out Ryan’s aura like a candle in a storm.
For one endless moment, the world seemed to hold it’s breath, the natural energy failing to react. Then all at once, it pounced, diving into the boy’s body. Han’s face paled as he watched the reaction, the energy seemingly attempting to drown the boy. The anxiety didn’t ease for long moments as he looked on. Normally, even if he couldn’t directly check a patient’s condition, he could get some idea of what was going on with them simply from the fluctuations in their aura. Since Ryan had no aura at the moment he could only read the changes in the natural energy surrounding him and wonder.
Meanwhile, at the old nursing home, now dubbed the Immortal Mysteries Satellite Campus, disciples were appearing and disappearing in a constant stream as they calculated necessities against available space. The building itself was in good general repair but empty buildings rarely see regular cleaning. This particular building had accumulated enough dust, cobwebs, random insects, not to mention layers of dirt, to attest to the fact that it had been empty for several years. A few windows were also broken and there were obvious signs of vagrants, though none were in the building at the moment. How, precisely, a vagrant would be treated if they were found would depend wholly on the mood and temperament of the disciple who found them - not a good bet for anyone.
The original five elders stood surveying the main entranceway stoically, each silently calculating how they would go about cleaning up. While none was daunted by the task they certainly weren’t interested in taking it on themselves and, even if they had the time, they would never imagine doing it by hand. After a few minutes of this stoic appraisal, one elder nodded to himself and disappeared, only to return a few moments later with another, much more junior, disciple at his side.
“What do you think?” he asked his junior calmly.
“I think…” said the junior slowly, “That it will require real effort. Us doing it for free is out of the question.”
“Insolence!” growled one of the other elders, threat ringing in his voice. “This task was assigned by Master Zhao-”
“It was assigned to you by Master Zhao. I don’t see what it has to do with those of us who aren’t elders. All of you fought hard to exclude us and earned your positions. Now the responsibilities that go with those positions are yours as well.” The junior’s voice was calm, but he clearly understood by the other disciple’s expression that his mid-sentence interruption would not be easily forgotten.
“Junior Brother is correct,” said another of the elders. “I, for one, am willing to show my appreciation for any efforts put forth on behalf of my dorm. That being said, time is of the essence and I would expect your group to start on Dragon’s portion of the building immediately.”
The angry elder wanted to refute the words but was unwilling to attempt dodging the issue of compensation a second time. If he did, it was possible the junior would refuse to help him at all. Instead, he stayed silent while the others dickered. In the end, the junior disciple, and presumably his friends, made a tidy profit and the elders were divested of the need to see to the grime personally.
“We expect that this building will be spotless,” said the elder who had first retrieved the junior.
“We have a plan,” replied the junior confidently. “If you would retrieve my brother disciples we would be happy to begin immediately.” The elder nodded and stepped through space, returning in an instant with six other disciples. The group of seven conversed briefly before the original junior disciple turned to the elders.
“Elders, it would be best if the building were empty before we proceeded.” His tone was respectful but, unlike before, there was authority rather than inquiry in his tone. Concerned, and more than a little curious as to their plan, the elders made the necessary arrangement so make sure that the building was emptied and would remain empty until they were finished. The elders then stepped outside themselves.
“Shall we begin?” asked a dark-skinned disciple with rich mahogany hair. His words were directed at the disciple standing directly across from him in their newly formed circle, a man of below-average height and near skeletal stature, though his skin was a healthy tan and his hair had the look of being bleached by the sun.
“At once,” said the disciple in response. His overly skeletal fingers rose and as they did his Qi surged. In front of him, a stream of water began to form. It spiraled around the disciple, curling around and around while simultaneously each spiral grew thicker and thicker until it nearly formed a curtain of water.
Across from him, the dark-skinned disciple responded by beginning his own summoning. The disciple held up his hands, eyes closed, and from the gaps between them, sand began to pour out. This sand glowed a pure untainted gold color as it slowly built into a pile on the floor.
As the piled of sand reached his knees the spiral of water seemed to lash out, diving into the sand. It tunneled through it vigorously and when it emerged it had turned cloudy, taking on a bit of that golden hue. The spiral continued to loop through the sandpile, the cloudy color diffusing until it reached an even distribution. By the time it had consumed the majority of the pile the spiral looked more like the water on a lake bottom after it had been thoroughly disturbed.
After a brief moment, the dark-skinned disciple furrowed his brow and said “Heat.”
The response was immediate. Another disciple, a rather plump man who looked to be getting on in his years stepped forward and spread his hands wide. In a matter of moments, a large flame formed. Without hesitation the spiral dove through this as well and as it did the flame flickered and swayed but didn’t die. The disciple controlling the flames, as well as the one controlling the spiral, were focusing intensely now, obviously battling to control the reaction between Qi of opposing elements. It helped immensely that they didn’t fight each other, focusing instead on allowing the heat to suffuse the entire spiral.
Two of the four disciples, now intently focused on perceiving the precise flow of Qi as the spiral circled endlessly, lifted their hands. From each, a thin cord of water stretched out and connected with the end of the spiral. They waved their hands and the other end of their cords stretched out. One disappeared quickly out the door and into the dumpster waiting outside while the other coiled obediently in front of the dark-skinned disciple.
“Current,” said the dark-skinned disciple. In response, the water of the spiral began to spin, it’s tip taking on the appearance of a drill. As it spun faster and faster, the dark-skinned disciple pushed out his hands as well. The previously cloudy water now took on a distinctly odd appearance, containing two sharply delineated regions. The exterior of the spiral now spun violently, the spinning seemingly sucking all of the sand out of the center region. In contrast, the center region seemed to calm, its currents suppressed.
“Let’s test it,” said one of the disciples controlling the water-cords. The other disciples nodded. In a flash, the spiral stretched out and struck at the floor before running along at a pace faster than a fit man could sprint. As the ‘bottom’ came in contact with the floor it flattened out slightly so that its width was in contact with more than a foot of the floor as it raced forward.
The two disciples who had previously been unburdened raised their hands and made a weird kind of circling gesture. As they did, the water-cord stretching outside, previously crystal clear, turned brown, then black as the accumulated gunk that was stripped from the floor flowed through it.
Standing on the front walk, two elders looked at a smartphone being held up by a third. On it, a video was playing, showing a man waving a black wand back and forth as a high-pressure liquid sprayed out the tip. They looked on with raised eyebrows as the man seemingly waved away all the dirt and paint that was coating the outside of his house.
“And they are going to do this… ‘sandblasting’ throughout the entire building?” asked one of the elders, his skepticism obvious.
“That is their plan. You can see how the dirt is being pulled through the water and into the dumpster now. If it works as well as they expect it shouldn’t take long at all.” The pleasure of the elder holding the phone was obvious. It was easy to see that he’d had some hand in coming up with the scheme.
One of the elders watching the video let out a snort and shook his head. “I’ll just be grateful if they don’t tear the entire building apart.” The video ended and the three turned as one to face the building, their senses focused on the ‘sandblasting snake’ as it greedily devoured all the dirt in the lobby, dutifully pumping it, completely dry, into the dumpster.
“Seems to work well enough,” said the smartphone elder, his smile widening.
Inside, the seven disciples working in concert all smiled contentedly. “It works,” said the dark-skinned disciple.
“Tell me why we didn’t just do this a more normal way?” asked the skeletal disciple.
“It’s a test of our ability to merge our Qi,” said the disciple that had produced the flames.
One of the other disciples gave a derisive snort. “You just thought this way would be more interesting.”
“Isn’t it?” asked the flame disciple. None of the others responded. Seeing that the conversation had died, the dark-skinned disciple reasserted his leadership.
“Well, the test is a success. Let’s expand.” The others all nodded. As one they poured out their power, their minds utterly focused on directing the energies being unleashed. The spiral swelled, going from three feet across to nearly ten. The dark-skinned disciple poured out golden sand from his hands onto the previously unused water-cord, which efficiently funneled it into the expanding snake-thing.
Less than ten minutes later the entire building was spotless, though it needed a new coat of paint.