Soren Greencastle tossed in his sleep, his dreams fitful. He thrashed about on the bed where he was lying as red starbursts exploded through his soul.
His mind moved closer to waking, swimming upwards through an ocean of guilt that was shot through with flares of hope.
His dreams were filled with images of his brother’s death, his own shadow doppelgangers ripping apart Teris in a shower of blood and gore, as well as the profile of the man he'd been trying to kill.
To those watching, it had been less bloody than that, at least until the end, but to Soren everything was drenched in blood. He could feel eleven lines of pain on his body, in the same places where his technique had struck Teris, and they burned with cold fury.
There were myths of furies, the spirits of ancient cultivators, who punished those that killed their family members, driving them insane. If Soren had remembered those old stories, he might have recognized some similarities with his own condition.
But at the moment, his mind was too far past that. He was awash in a blood-red sea that was filled with shards of regret and islands of hate.
His madness was a cloud of red lightning attacking his soul, but there was something in its way. It was the soul binding that Autea had placed on him twenty years before.
That binding was like a cage holding Soren’s soul in place. But a cage has bars, and the soul binding’s inscriptions were no different. It didn’t cover his soul completely.
The red lightning crackled across the cage, corroding it and charring the seals on it as it tried to get through. As a result, his soul inside began to twist, burning as the cage pressed into it.
It increased his suffering and ensured that he wouldn’t wake up easily.
Month by month, the binding continued to flare, and the cracks in it continued to spread.
Six months passed like that, Soren’s torment unending. Even though his mind wasn’t conscious to feel it, his soul felt every moment.
Eventually, Autea’s seals fragmented and the binding became chaotic. Now, it was a tangled, spiked trap that wrapped around his soul and squeezed, its edges filled with broken wires and mangled teeth.
Inside it, Soren’s soul twisted, moving away from the pain as it tried and failed to escape. His contortions pulled at his soul, jerking it into strange shapes until it barely resembled anything human.
A weaker person would have died, but Soren refused.
One day, the remnant power of the binding shattered, its sigils turning into shards of power that stabbed his soul a final time, trying to satisfy their last instructions to dominate or kill.
The shards burned into him, branding his soul in that twisted contortion of life, ensuring it would never be able to regain its original form.
His soul was now a twisted, enraged thing, transformed beyond all recognition. It no longer looked human at all.
His eyes flicked open. The world around him was filled with red shadows, their claws reaching towards him.
The patriarchs were gathered in an airy pagoda next to a crystalline lake on one side of the city lord’s estate. There were only six of them, since a replacement still hadn’t been chosen from the Curved Dagger Sect.
Autea’s old sect was under censure, watched by the Fire Mountain Sect and the Five Fury Sect, whose use of fire daos was the most direct counter to the Curved Dagger’s shadow magic. They would be imprisoned until it was clear that Autea hadn’t left any trouble behind. Even if there had been a new sect master, it was unlikely they would have been allowed to attend.
Master Kiel and Patriarch Five Fury nodded to Verse when they saw him arrive with Lord Jao, but both of them were in discussion with the other patriarchs.
“I’m telling you,” Patriarch Fire Fury burst out, his eyes blazing with his natural state of half-anger, “that something is going on near Dragonwell!”
“It’s not important, even if it is true,” Patriarch Fire Mountain growled back. “We have more important concerns here. Dragonwell can take care of itself.”
“It may be important to investigate,” Matriarch Whitewater Bamboo interjected, frowning as she considered the idea. “It is very close to us, after all.”
“All we have are rumors,” Master Kiel said, breaking into the conversation as he returned to a point that he’d been on before Verse arrived. “But they are important rumors. Thousands of people don’t just go missing while searching for an old tomb. What if it’s a threat?”
Lord Jao just nodded to the patriarchs as he arrived and took a seat on one side of the round table, with Verse sitting to his left.
“Let’s hear it,” he said, once everyone had settled down. He turned to face Master Kiel. “What’s the news from Dragonwell?”
The patriarch of the Seven Sages Sect was the most scholarly of the group and the least likely to jump to conclusions.
“What we can tell for sure is limited,” he said, frowning again as he reached up to pull at his long white beard.
“All we know is that some thousands of people, perhaps as few as three thousand or as many as ten thousand, have gone into the mountains near Dragonwell and disappeared. They’re either chasing the rumor of a legendary tree that's famous in the area or the tomb of some ancient expert.”
“Not a human expert, though,” Patriarch Fire Mountain interjected, making his opposition to investigating clear. “Whatever is there, it will be of little interest to us. Let the other races search the mountains for myths and get themselves into trouble. We have enough of it here.”
“It is only a thousand kilometers away from us,” Patriarch Dark Illusion spoke up, his voice quiet and echoing. “Whatever trouble is there, it will find us next.”
“It is important that we at least get better information,” Patriarch Green Dragon spoke up, his voice firm. In many ways, he was similar to Lord Jao. A solid and sensible man whose primary interest was in protecting the city. “Without that, it's difficult to plan.”
“We can’t spare any of the current forces around the city,” Patriarch Fire Mountain insisted. “We have plenty to deal with as it is, and almost half of our strength is currently focused on the Curved Dagger Sect.”
“Not to mention, there’s word that two Azurewind Guards will be showing up soon,” Matriarch Whitewater Bamboo added with a sigh. “They’re likely to destabilize things here even further, since they’re guaranteed to be at the Aligned realm.”
Lord Jao frowned at that, even as his concern grew, until he finally interrupted. “What's the news of the Azurewind Guard? The regional commanders wouldn’t send them here without a reason.”
The Azurewind Guards were a group that Verse had heard of a few times, usually respectfully, but he’d never seen one. They were a semi-official guard force from the middle provinces, closer to the imperial heartlands, who were sponsored by the regional lords. They didn’t often come to the outer provinces.
“They are coming here to investigate the Deian Ruins,” Master Kiel added, frowning as well. “I only received word of them from a messenger earlier today. Their progress from Haeran City has been slow, since it seems they aren’t in a hurry.”
“They’re probably taking this as a simple job to get away from their work for a while,” Patriarch Fire Mountain jumped in. “Why worry about them? Let them have the ruins and it will save us the trouble of guarding those too.”
“They may cause some difficulties with the ruins,” Lord Jao’s frown deepened as he considered the implications of having two Aligned-realm cultivators appear. “When I sent word back about the ruins, it was meant to be a military secret. How did they find out?"
"Not every military commander is as strict about security as you," Matriarch Whitewater replied fondly. "You know what must have happened."
Lord Jao grimaced at her words, but nodded. "Are they on official orders from a regional city, or are they just coming out of curiosity?”
If they were on official orders, it would cause some problems for him, since he would be obligated to support their investigations. Each provincial city answered to one of the regional cities in the middle ring, even though they rarely spoke. The caravans that carried imperial supplies to the provinces and took resources in the other direction were the majority of their interaction.
The regional city lords outranked Lord Jao, both in terms of influence and cultivation. He would be hard-pressed to refuse their commands.
He wanted to keep the ruins secret so he could make the best use of the herb fields there. It was a path to strength for Whitestone. The more people who knew about it, the less control he would have.
“It would be better to keep the ruins to ourselves, of course,” Master Kiel added, also unhappy, “especially with the value of the herbs that we are continuing to grow there, but we may not have a choice. Hopefully they are just here exploring, now that the word has gotten out.”
“Let's not worry about the source,” Matriarch Whitewater Bamboo interrupted, her face unruffled. “It is just as likely that one of the remaining Black Eye bandits or someone else passed out the information, perhaps even Autea herself.”
“Either way, the arrival of the Azurewind Guards is badly timed for us.” Five Fury jumped into the conversation again, still rumbling as his aura radiated around him with a constant sense of heat and pressure. “They’re difficult to deal with even when things are going well. Now we have one more thing to manage.”
“Three things, to be precise,” Master Kiel interjected, expanding on the topic. “First, the matter of these guards and the Deian ruins, which we still haven’t fully explored. Next, the continuing matter of the Curved Dagger Sect and whether or not they can be trusted while Autea is still at large. Third, the news from Dragonwell, which may affect us sooner rather than later, if word of this tomb reaches our citizens. They will be as curious as the cultivators in Dragonwell and tempted to go explore.”
“Is there news about Autea?” Whitewater Bamboo asked, once Master Kiel had fallen silent. “That was the nominal reason we gathered here today. I haven’t heard anything personally.”
A round of frowns was visible around the table, but no one spoke. It seemed that there had been no luck in tracking down the old matriarch. Verse grimaced at that. He had hoped for better, but perhaps it was best to not find her until he was stronger.
The debate around the rest of the table continued, making it clear that most of the patriarchs’ attention was focused on the city. Fire Mountain, in particular, was dead set against committing any forces outside of Whitestone, since he thought the situation here was likely to grow even more unstable.
“Do not look at me like that!” Fire Mountain grumbled, belabored by the others as he retreated slightly from his position. “There is too much to do here! At most, we could send a single team to investigate near Dragonwell. We can’t spare any more than that!”
It was clear that he was unwilling to even do that much, but the others had pushed him.
“The information from there is incomplete,” Lord Jao said, nodding in agreement. His voice brought an end to the discussion.
“Sending a single team is reasonable. However, we will prepare in case more are required. We cannot risk being caught unaware again. One group of trouble on our border was enough.”
“That is acceptable to me,” Dark Illusion spoke up in support, quiet as always, his voice shrouded by solemnity. “But who will go?”
“At least one sect elder, since we must stay here,” Five Fury rumbled again, adding his opinion. “One of mine perhaps.”
“The mysterious events in Dragonwell suggest less obvious forces,” Dark Illusion spoke up again, surprising those around him. “More subtle magics may be needed there. I will send someone.”
“Mine would be better,” Fire Mountain interrupted, his voice insistent. “I don't like it, but I will spare one if needed. It has to be someone I can trust.”
A round of glares were directed towards Fire Mountain, who frowned back at them. It was clear that old politics were not soon forgotten.
“No, it will be a Dark Illusion sect elder,” Lord Jao clarified, breaking into the discussion again. “Unless someone has a better suggestion. Dark Illusion’s idea has merit.”
Frowns of dissatisfaction ran around the table again, but no one openly disagreed. Lord Jao’s influence and personal power were both guiding forces in the city, even for the seven sects.
Eventually, an agreement was reached.
“Do we have a point of contact in Dragonwell?” Green Dragon spoke up again, clarifying the arrangement now that it was down to practical matters. In all regular votes, he simply sided with Lord Jao, so he didn’t feel the need to speak as much as the others.
“One,” Master Kiel spoke up, slowly. “We have never got along well with the sects there, not since the battle forty years ago over that spirit wood forest, but...the city lords have negotiated in the past.”
He turned to Lord Jao. “It might be best if you led the introductions and made it clear to Lady Mella that we come in peace? It should be an official mission. The city isn’t likely to receive our people well otherwise.”
Lord Jao frowned as he considered the matter. It was true that a messenger between the city lords would probably be more acceptable to Dragonwell than an unknown group, which might look like spies.
“If that’s the case...we need a messenger,” Lord Jao rumbled back, the sense of stability around him never failing.
His head eventually turned towards Verse, hiding a glint of humor that only the squire could see.
“Although he is still not fully trained, my squire is the most reasonable person in the city to represent my voice.” He nodded towards Verse as he spoke.
“He will be better received than others and can be in charge of an official party. I will send one of my lieutenants to protect him, and your elder must be tasked with the same goal, Dark Illusion. Even if they are in charge of the investigation and details with the city, he will be the ambassador.”
Master Kiel nearly spoke up in protest, his eyes widening as he looked towards Verse, but he managed to hold himself back. Lord Jao's decision to commit his squire was not something he could interfere with, even if that squire was also his sect disciple.
As always, he wanted to keep Verse out of trouble, even if it was futile.
The old master was better to him than he deserved. It made Verse smile, although he was quick to hide it, even as a growing sense of anticipation built up in him.
"I will leave at once," he responded immediately, his eyes brightening. He’d been looking for exactly this type of mission for a while and Lord Jao knew it. He wanted to do this, especially if he could find a way to take his team along.
For the last couple of months, he’d been trying to find something long-term that they could work on together, since it would be a good way to develop their capabilities and take their minds off of things around the city. Ever since their encounter with Autea, they had been serious and their humor a bit darker.
He had kept his promise to come back for them. That foundation, along with the past six months of working together, had slowly begun to transform the five of them into true friends, even though the scars hadn’t faded and might not ever.
They had become more like the team from Verse’s life in the Terran Forces, which was a fact that didn’t escape him. It was one of the reasons he was dedicated to making the them all as strong as he could. He didn’t want the same thing to happen again.
One dead team was enough.
They’d also begun to get to know each other for real. Their personalities were coming out more as their experiences tied them together. The only problem was that it was difficult to get four different sects to agree on timelines and shared goals, and the disciples were still too junior to be able to do what they wanted.
This idea to go on a scouting mission to Dragonwell was perfect for what he had in mind. He just needed to find a way to convince their patriarchs.
Almost as if Verse’s thoughts were plain to see, help came from an unexpected source.
“That is acceptable,” Dark Illusion spoke up, without much delay, as soon as the other patriarchs had fallen silent to consider the idea. “But the squire should not be the only youth. Let him take his friends along. We have all seen them traveling about the city together."
He paused for a moment, to let the others take in his words, before he continued.
"It will be a broadening experience for them and a handful of young disciples be received better than a group of old guards. It will look like a typical visit for the younger generation, only made special by the inclusion of the squire. The Essence Condensation cultivators can keep an eye on them while they're there.”
“I agree,” Fire Mountain jumped in immediately, nodding vigorously to approve the idea, since none of the disciples were his. “That will keep the necessary forces in the city.”
This was to his liking since no large forces would be needed, although he was still put out about not getting his elder on the team. The patriarchs looked at each, trading silent thoughts one by one, until they all signaled their agreement.
“Do the patriarchs of all the sects agree then?” Lord Jao asked, looking around the table after the nods had come.
There was no voice of dissent and Lord Jao nodded in confirmation.
It was what he expected. The patriarchs weren’t too concerned about sending their disciples with Verse, so there was no need to protest. It was only a few disciples and they should be safe enough while the Essence Condensation cultivators did the real work.
“We should at least fashion some life-saving talismans for the disciples and make sure that they are well supplied,” Master Kiel interjected. "Anything less would be sending them away unprepared for what they might encounter."
Shrugs followed from around the table, as well as the occasional nod. It wasn’t that the rest of the patriarchs were against the idea—they just didn’t care as much about it as he did. Not everyone was as dedicated to their students as Master Kiel.
There were a few more small disagreements, but eventually the conversation died down and the patriarchs turned to look towards Verse expectantly. Lord Jao did the same.
“Then it is settled.” Lord Jao said, radiating a strong feeling of amusement within his stony persona that only his squire could tell was there. He’d been looking for something challenging for Verse to do anyway, under the theory that too much time indoors would only stunt his growth.
“Squire,” the knight said as he looked at Verse, “it appears that you have your first mission.”