Crimson rays flared across the sky.
A team of five disciples flew through the air back towards Whitestone City, heading in from the outer range of the Starfall Mountains at sunset.
Three of them were on flying swords, one was on a golden leaf shaped like a kite, and one was on a stone disk.
Most youths their age would have been accompanied by laughter, joking with each other as they flew.
Those sounds could be heard from time to time, but these five were quieter and had something that tempered their interactions, underlying the jokes and teasing.
It was evident in the way they flew, covering each other's blind spots.
When they reached the outskirts of the city, they waved to each other and split off like a starburst, heading to their separate sects in the mountains outside Whitestone.
In the Seven Sages Sect’s main enclosure, near the peak of a tall, misty mountain outside of Whitestone City where both the sunrise and sunset could be clearly seen, there was a garden filled with spiritual herbs. Dawn had risen and the mountain peak was drenched with golden light that ran like honey.
A translucent pond filled with gold-striped fish was located on one side of the garden and a single crimson sunset blossom rose up in the center. At the base of its red stalk, there was a layer of white sand and lichen. All around it, there were pale green-gold shoots poking up through the sand, signs of new blossoms sprouting.
On the other side of the garden, where the sun touched at daybreak, the fragments of a simple steel sword were embedded into the top of a stone pillar. It looked almost like a sundial. Past that, an opening into the mountainside led into a small cave.
A young man was seated in a courtyard between the herbs, his upper body bare. Currents of warm air twined about him as spring turned to summer. He had dark hair streaked with white that was pulled back from his ears with a leather cord, high cheekbones, and bright green eyes with jade flecks that were more serious than his age suggested.
He was holding his palms in front of him as if he were cradling a ball, studying the energy there.
One hand held crimson-gold fire and the other cerulean water. In between the fire and water, there was a ray of sunlight that moved in slow motion.
A runic symbol decorated each of his well-muscled shoulders like book ends. On his left, there was a golden seal that hummed with warm energy. It contrasted the eerie, blue-green glow from the seal on his right.
From time to time, he found himself looking down at the symbols, wondering how this contrast had come to be, but mostly he focused on the energy he was manipulating.
He was trying to create his first personal technique. It was a rite of passage for an Imperial Knight, the transition point where a squire started to stand on their own.
To outsiders, there was no real difference between an Imperial Squire and an Imperial Knight. Both carried the same symbols and had similar authority in the Empire. Within the Order of Knights, however, there were internal ranks and differences in status, although each member was independent.
Squire was the first rank and there was a large set of techniques and skills to master before the other Knights would recognize him as an equal.
Verse continued to weave threads of the fire and water energies together, refining the sunbeam that he'd captured to isolate the vitality in it. If he could do that, he'd be that much closer to healing a soul.
The fire and water sphere spun between his hands, the sunbeam refracting through the pattern he was building as it released a feeling of intense vitality and strength. It was similar in some ways to the energy of the Introductory Jade Healing Scripture, which was where he'd got this idea.
He frowned in concentration as he felt the weave of energy slipping and the sunlight began to escape. He willed it back together again, stabilizing the sphere, as his hands flickered through a series of runes.
He'd only managed to capture a thread of sunlight like this a day ago. He could feel it changing, its essence infusing the technique in his hands, but it was still wild and fierce.
Too fierce for what he wanted.
He was trying to create a healing technique that was better than the Introductory Jade Healing Scripture, something that could have helped his team recover more quickly from Autea’s experiments.
They’d been lucky to survive, but they’d been hollow-eyed and listless for most of the winter and their cultivation growth had been dealt a setback, preventing them from progressing further until the last couple of months.
Their sects had helped, but they were still just new students. It was unfortunate they had been injured, but they weren't willing to invest special attention in them. He had helped where he could, but he hadn’t been able to fix the main problem.
He needed something that could heal the soul.
Sunlight was a powerful essence, good for life, and it was the first thing that came to mind when he thought about what he wanted to do. Something to create good in the world rather than just destroy. Something that would have helped Teris recover after Old Yuan drained his vitality.
Perhaps even something that would help him to get rid of the ghost permanently, if he followed it far enough.
Healing techniques were rare and difficult to find, especially ones that could do more than heal physical wounds. Almost everyone used pills or talismans, which were readily available and saved the effort.
Unfortunately, he didn't have access to pills that could heal the soul.
Being able to heal directly had become a personal mission. He’d spent a lot of his new life fighting. Being able to destroy was necessary, but creating was even more important. It might also help him with his own problem, which he hadn’t bothered to mention to anyone else.
There was a chance that this technique would help to extend his lifespan, which had dropped precipitously after the Battle of the Ruins. The white streaks in his hair were continuing to multiply.
At the current rate, he estimated he had ten years left. Perhaps a few more.
Despite that, he didn’t regret using Crimson Sunset’s Final Light. If he hadn’t, the battle would have been lost.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look like the technique was going to succeed. The unstable matrix of the technique fell apart in his hands with a small explosion, knocking him backwards as the thread of sunlight dissolved back into the air.
He grumbled and dusted himself off.
That was the third time this morning.
He started again, his hands radiating ripples of fire and water as he glanced towards the sun to see if it was time to leave yet. He had an inner sense for where the sun was in the sky, but he still liked to look.
He had to meet Lord Jao for their twice-weekly training lesson. Then the patriarchs were going to discuss the intelligence on Autea over the last six months. He was included as a courtesy due to his status as Jao’s squire and for his efforts in the battle.
“Will you please do something else," Old Yuan grumbled from inside the ghost seal. His voice was irritated.
The ghost was bored out of his mind. Verse hadn’t been doing anything else for months now except training and exploring the area around the city, and he'd been forced to go along for all of it. He hadn't found to a way to even scratch the seal that was trapping him yet.
Things had gotten a bit better when Verse went out on contribution point missions, since there had been fights to watch, but it wasn’t enough. Verse hadn't even come close to death.
On top of that, Verse was refusing to speak to him most of the time, which he wouldn’t have cared about except he was the only person he could talk to.
The ghost seriously hoped that something would die soon. Preferably Verse.
“Go fight, go kill something...anything. Cause a war, please. Get revenge on that matriarch!”
Verse continued to tune out the ghost, pretending that he didn’t exist. He still hadn’t found a way to block off the ghost’s obnoxious commentary, but he was getting better at ignoring him.
“She hurt your friends! Come on...get her before she gets you. Torture her family for information.”
Even if he did slip up from time to time.
“I am not torturing her family,” he grumbled back at Old Yuan, letting a thread of his attention separate from the construct in his hands. “The more you distract me, the longer this will take.”
"You aren't human anyway. Your soul is too weird for that.... What does it matter if you kill a few for fun?"
Verse managed to ignore him this time. The ghost couldn't escape from the seal, so it tried to upset him instead. It just wanted a reaction.
He isolated another beam of sunlight between the fire and water energy, the opposing elements aligned to create a unique spell form.
Like his team, the elements were working together to achieve something that wouldn’t have been possible alone.
Six months ago, this type of combined technique would have been beyond him, but during the battle with Autea, he’d achieved the Heart of the Dao stage with the Crimson Sunset, one stage higher than Touch of the Dao, mostly as a result of his spiritual body and memories combining with his final attack.
It was sooner than he should have achieved it, but he'd broken through the threshold when his entire life had been turned towards that single purpose.
It had come with benefits for him. His memories had been purged by the Crimson Sunset’s flames and his old anger had burned away, leaving him clear-headed and more at peace with his past. The memories were still there, but he was able to consider them objectively.
He looked over at where the crimson sunset blossom was growing in the garden and at the new buds beneath it. It was the third and last of the blossoms he’d stolen from Autea’s garden in the Valley of the Lost. He’d kept it in his spatial ring until he’d been able to create this garden around it.
Planting it and getting it to take root had required special effort, but he had nourished it with his own essence, encouraging it to grow.
The blossom burned with the same crimson and gold spiritual flames that were in his blood, its bold petals unerringly tracking the movement of the sun in the sky.
It was a reflection of him. He too had taken root in the soil of Whitestone.
The Heart of the Dao was the stage where your dao influenced your own nature, enhancing some traits and repressing others. It added greatly to your strength, but it came with risks, sometimes changing your personality or your body. Autea had been at the Heart of the Dao stage with Shadow, which may have been what made her so uncaring of others.
He hoped that this technique would solve the damage from fighting her, but if nothing worked, ten years would be enough.
Ten years to live again.
He turned his attention back to the technique in his hand.
The Crimson Sunset was a complex dao and that made it difficult to blend it into techniques, but understanding it had helped him to achieve Touch of the Dao in Fire, which he was using now.
This wasn't the only technique where he'd merged daos. He'd had some success in combining the Crimson Sunset Sword with Ten Waves of the Tide to make blended techniques, like Crimson Sunset’s Piercing Rain, which he named after Rain's sense of humor, but it wasn’t completely original.
This new one was built from the ground up on its own merits.
As he continued to weave the elements together in his hands, trying to distill the essence of sunlight, he could feel that this would be his last attempt for that morning. It was almost time to meet Lord Jao.
When the sun reached mid-morning, he released the technique. The thread of sunlight darted away like a fish struggling to escape his hands.
He was making progress.
He brushed the accumulated ash off from the various failures and put his robes back on, covering up the seals on his shoulders.
“Finally!” Old Yuan grumbled. “Go kill something. Or get laid. Or steal a treasure.”
Verse ignored him, although it didn’t seem to discourage him.
“If you find out where Autea is, you’re going to go fight her, right?”
Verse snorted. Tangling with Autea was still beyond him, even though he’d reached the ninth rank of Energy Gathering.
The resources from the Seven Sages Sect were helpful, especially the Seven-Colored White Star Pills he’d earned the previous year, supplying him with energy almost as fast as he could refine it.
As for getting rid of the ghost, he hadn’t had much luck.
He’d asked Master Kiel to introduce him to an elder of the Dark Illusion Sect who specialized in soul techniques and was familiar with ghosts, but she hadn’t been able to help with exorcising Old Yuan.
He’d studied the three soul techniques that the Seven Sages Sect had in their library, but none of them had been effective either. He was going to have to go farther afield if he wanted to get rid of the ghost, and that required becoming stronger than he was currently.
At the moment, he had responsibilities here until he finished his training with Lord Jao, which would be complete by the time he achieved Essence Condensation. At that point, he would be qualified to set off on his own.
It was also a goal that Lord Jao had set for him. Once he was able to craft his own technique, he would remain Lord Jao’s squire, but his training would be complete and he would be able to accept tasks from the Order.
He looked around and smiled for a moment. Until then, this mountain peak was his home.
The small cave was sufficient for his needs and was where he slept. Except for buying some resources, most of his wealth had gone to purchasing this place from the sect and turning it into a garden for the crimson sunset blossom.
He still had some herbs and other resources in his spatial bracelet, but he was reluctant to turn them in. He planned to experiment with alchemy as a way of better understanding how the five paths made up Jade Essence and the herbs would be useful for that. He just had to reach Essence Condensation first.
But right now, he was going to be late if he didn’t get moving. He pulled a flying sword out of his storage bracelet and let it expand. When it was large enough, he jumped onto it and flew up into the air.
Flying was the easiest way to get from his mountain peak back to the city and there were no laws here about flying above the sect, at least for disciples.
Once he got to the city, he’d have to walk.