Inside the Red Desert, near the Red Stone Basin, there was the Red Mountain. Aside from its location and its inauspicious reputation, the only remarkable thing about this mountain was that it was split in two. A deep chasm separated the two sides of the mountain. Around the perimeter, there were powerful illusory formations that even a Transcendent master couldn't see through. This was the location of the Silent Silhouette Sect.
At the west side of the chasm, inside a completely black palace, was a man sitting alone with simple-looking prayer beads in his right hand. After nearly two months of secluded meditation, the man finally opened his eyes. He had finally finished healing his soul. With his black eyes, he gave a deep look at the unassuming prayer beads, then carefully stored it inside his storage ring. It was time to initiate the final stage of his plan.
Outside cultivation chambers a disciple was nervously pacing near the door. While his master was in seclusion he was the one in charge of the preparations for the next stage. Unfortunately for him, ever since his master entered seclusion it was one setback after the other. While lamenting the uselessness of his juniors, he noticed a change in the air. Spiritual waves that were chaotic for a long time suddenly became still. His master was finally coming out of the seclusion. Disciple didn't dare wait and respectfully requested an audience.
He entered the simple but elegant looking chambers. His master was still sitting in the middle of the room with his back facing the door. If Han De were here he would've given at least 8 points for the Xianxia contemplative boss pose.
"How goes the search?"
Disciple reflexively gulped.
"We found four, there were setbacks with three… And… We lost one…"
An uncomfortable silence ensued. The disciple couldn't see the master's face, this was a blessing and a curse for him at the same time. A moment later the master asked.
Bracing himself, disciple gathered his courage and spoke.
"It-It seems Han De from the Starfall Mountain bought it from the Brass Stallion auction."
The disciple couldn't see or feel it, but the master was dumbfounded. He thought 'Han De? What Han De?'. Master quickly asked.
"Y-Yes, master. Han De."
"Han De, son of Han Wei?"
"Y-Y-Yes. M-Master. T-That Han De."
"Han De. The heir of the Starfall Mountain and the Han family. The one I killed. That Han De?"
As the conversation continued, the air became more and more oppressive. This wasn't aura, neither was it killing intent. Spiritual energy was just responding to the palace master's mood. Even though the disciple was at the Spirit Origin realm he was still getting suppressed.
"Y-Yes, master. W-We confirmed that h-he somehow didn't die. H-He also made moves a-against us."
The master, Yuan Zemin, was dumbfounded again. He knew his disciple wouldn't dare lie to him. Yet the situation was too out of the ordinary. He had killed Han De through a true soul search. He witnessed how Han De's soul burned as he searched through it. In the end, all that was left of Han De's soul was a tiny sliver.
Normally Yuan Zemin would've just eradicated everything, even if it was only a tiny sliver of a soul. But during the true soul search his own soul was deeply wounded. Therefore he didn't bother with the remains and hastily left along with his apprentice to heal himself.
Wounds in his soul weren't normal. He was an Ancient Realm expert, there were 6 major realms between him and Han De. True soul search would always damage both parties, but the difference in their cultivation was just too huge. At the time Yuan Zemin thought it was due to the residual effect of the prayer beads. His subsequent seclusion supported this theory, it was through the prayer beads he was able to so quickly heal his wounds.
Soul had special characteristics. As long as a tiny sliver of it survived it could be restored. It would take a monumental effort, but it could be done. Such a feat was impossible for the incomplete prayer beads, let alone through a residual effect. Yuan Zemin narrowed his eyes. He felt uncomfortable. His cultivator intuition was warning him.
Disciple flinched, but quickly summarized the events that happened during his master's seclusion. Han De selecting a disciple, Blazing Sun Scripture, deal with the Ming Emperor, Zhao family, capturing and deaths of their sect members by Han De, the Mysterious Bead. He didn't miss anything. After listening, Yuan Zemin was silent for some time.
"Plague-Devouring Demon and the Hell Beast. Are you really sure? There were no containment breaches both times?"
"Yes, there are no doubts about those. Our contact in the Zhao faction died during the attack so we have no way of knowing if more appeared."
Yuan Zemin closed his eyes. His knowledge about souls and demons was nearly unmatched save for the few monsters of his sect. If at this point he didn't recognize what was going on, he wouldn't be worthy of being an elder of Silent Silhouette Sect.
'They dared to calculate against me… How did they know?'
'Blazing Sun was the Void Flame Sect's scripture, only Xin family left from it now, stuck in that hidden realm. Ming Empire holds the few remaining weak spots. If they made a deal…'
Yuan Zemin came to the inevitable conclusion and sucked in a cold breath.
'That damn brother of mine! How could you do this?!'
Silent Silhouette Sect was a demonic sect. Betrayal was a fact of life for them. Yuan Zemin wasn't angry about his own brother betraying him, how could he? He was about to betray that brother of his in the first place.
'How much of an idiot can you be to cause a new intersection!?'
Yuan Zemin's face darkened. For his brother to act in such a way, he had to have the support from the sect. Everything became clear in his mind. Han De was a trap for him from the beginning. While he was licking his wounds they made their move. Yuan Zemin felt trapped. He never would've imagined getting outplayed to this extent.
He couldn't trust the sect anymore. Yuan Zemin was certain that he was isolated. He was a decisive man, after understanding the situation he didn't hesitate.
"Get everyone trustworthy to the palace. Discreetly. Instruct 5th through 12th to go to the Royal Maw and kill anyone that comes in or out. They have to cut the Xin family from the continent as long as they can. Contact Chu and tell him to break everything."
Disciple was shocked. He didn't understand why they were splitting away from the sect. Despite that, he didn't question his master. He bowed and swiftly left.
Yuan Zemin was in deep thought. The weight on his shoulders increased tremendously.
'I will never allow another Breach. No matter the cost.'
* * *
In the middle of the endless Sea of Fire and immense heat, was an island. On this island, one could see many settlements spread around a single mountain. On top of the mountain was the True Flame Pavillion, where the Xin family matriarch resided.
The matriarch, Xin Meili, was in deep thought. She had received a message from her favorite disciple nearly half a day ago.
In the message, Xin Qiang had described the events that happened between her and Han De. How they met, Ning Bi's peculiarity, Han De's threat, and his following actions during the auction. Xin Qiang's conjecture was that Ning Bi was practicing a superior version of the Blazing Sun Scripture.
Xin Meili's eyes finally left the communication jade. She stood up and looked at the endless Sea of Fire.
This place, this hidden realm, was found hundreds of thousands of years ago by the Void Flame Sect. They didn't know who created it, or for what purpose. They realized it was an ideal place for their cultivation method and moved into the hidden realm. Over the years disasters struck, Void Flame Sect disappeared and only Xin family remained.
The matriarch of the time had to sacrifice her soul to seal the hidden dimension from the continent. Xin family spent the last 50 thousand years in isolation. They could only use a small natural gateway every few hundred years to send and receive a limited amount of people between the hidden realm and the continent. Just getting new blood to the family was an ordeal thanks to the strict requirements of the Blazing Sun Scripture.
Xin Meili's resolve was wavering. Although the family survived the destruction, it seemed as if they just delayed the inevitable. For the last 50 thousand years, they were living a slow death. Their numbers dwindled. Old died but there were no young to replace them. Gateway was too narrow and too fragile, they couldn't leave this place even if they wanted to.
And now, Xin Qiang sent a message. A Blazing Sun practitioner from the outside, using a superior version! Was it a remnant of the Void Flame Sect? How else could it be explained otherwise? Sea of Fire was calming down as Xin Meili's mood changed. She was the current master of this hidden realm. Her state of mind would naturally cause changes in it.
Xin family had no idea, but Void Flame Sect had a different name before they found this realm and moved into it. They were a branch of Flowing River, a sect that focused on the Water element. As that sect grew they realized they couldn't just concentrate on a single element, and created internal branches for different elements.
Creators of the Void Flame sect was the fire branch. One day, they stumbled upon this hidden realm and found the Blazing Sun Scripture within. Seeing the ubiquitous resources of the island and the profoundness of the scripture itself, they severed their ties with the Flowing River and created the Void Flame.
To Void Flame, the entire island was holy ground. Everything in it trained a person to be more proficient at Blazing Sun Scripture. This hidden realm was obviously created solely for training the scripture and the accompanying arts, or so they thought. However, the reality was different.
Nearly 10 million years ago, a boy was envious of his senior brothers' palaces. Unfortunately for him, he didn't have enough skill to get a palace of his own from his master. In despair, he created his own hidden realm to serve as his palace. He decorated it according to his own tastes. He was cultivating Fire Qi, so he thought his realm should be surrounded by fires. The thought of fires intensifying when he was angry sounded really cool to him. That was what his 'taste' boiled down to. Everything in the hidden realm was designed to be cool.
Unfortunately, he never finished decorating his realm. During a friendly tournament, he died at the preliminary rounds. None of his senior brothers knew about the hidden realm either. There wasn't much inside it anyway, just a few beginner martial arts and the beginner cultivation method he practiced.
Over the years Void Flame sect rewrote their history. Blazing Sun Scripture they found was now 'invented' by the sect founder. Martial arts and spells were 'created' by its founding elders. No one but the first generation of the sect had any idea about their origins. Xin Meili was no different.
Sea of Fire calmed down and the flames in it turned crimson. The temperature of the entire hidden realm dropped. Xin Meili detached herself and analyzed the situation. After a few minutes, everything turned back to normal. Xin Meili opened her eyes.
'Starfall Mountain found a remnant or a legacy of the Void Flame sect. I cannot stay idle anymore.'
She knew that once she left the sect, she and Xin Qiang couldn't return for the next few hundred years, maybe even more. As the matriarch, she had the highest cultivation of anyone in the family. The gravity of the situation demanded her attention. She could not avoid her responsibility. After instructing a few of the family members and informing other elders of the situation, she left.
She exited the gateway and saw it close in on itself and sighed involuntarily.
'Little Qiang, please be safe.'
Before she could do anything, she felt some low-level experts move towards her with killing intent.
* * *
Xin Qiang left the Brass Stallion city as fast as she could. She was an Ancient Realm expert but she wasn't allowed to use her true cultivation to avoid the attention of others. She moved towards the Sun Empire capital at 'full' Nascent Soul speed. She had already failed this part of her mission, she wanted to lay low for a few years before looking for promising disciples. Every few hundred years Xin family would look for people that had high purity fire element roots. Requirements of Blazing Sun Scripture was extremely high, and they would more often than not fail.
Xin Qiang flew all night and arrived at a small village as the sun rose. She decided to lay low and mix in with lower realm cultivators by restraining her aura to the Foundation Establishment Realm. Before entering the village she wore her veil, then paid a few spirit stones to the guards. From now on she would travel with merchants and make her way around the Sun Empire.
Inside a small house nearby, Wu Fu's eyes were shining. As the most important advisor of the Sun Empire, his protection was only second to the Emperor himself. The Divinity Formation master that was guarding him described the characteristics of Xin Qiang. As an Ancient Realm expert, Xin Qiang could fool anyone under her realm, but she couldn't fool an expert that nearly stepped into the Transcendent Realm.
Wu Fu, the white-haired Core Formation expert that was nearing the end of his life wanted to visit his childhood village one last time. A new emperor was coronated a few years ago, only now his work was light enough for a short visit. He knew he wouldn't have a chance to see the rolling hills of his home town in the future. Unexpectedly, this short visit brought an opportunity that he wasn't going to miss.
After returning to the Sun Palace, Wu Fu had ordered a complete report on any and all actions of Han De. It took him and his subordinates more than a month to comb through the reports. The more time they spent analyzing, the more impressed they became. Han De was anything but simple. Since then Wu Fu would frequently try to find methods to get closer to the Starfall Mountain and Han De. This visiting Ancient Realm expert had quite pure Fire Qi, and the Divinity Formation expert himself noticed how similar it was to the Han De's disciple. An opportunity!
Xin Qiang rented a small hut after haggling with a villager. When she entered the continent first, she used her real name out of pride. After the incident with Han De, she didn't dare and was now giving a fake name instead. She found the entire ordeal shameful, but she had no choice. She sat and meditated to think through her options.
'I can't contact my family. I can still return, but if I do the gateway will close for at least a century. I cannot risk returning without searching for a potential disciple. Mayb-'
Her thoughts were interrupted when she realized two people were heading towards her hut. She kept vigilant and waited. Eventually, they reached her door and she heard a knock. Even while posing as a Foundation Establishment realm rookie, she used her Ancient Realm senses to passively gauge their cultivation. Both of them were in the Core Formation realm, but the feeling she got from one of them was too stable, which meant their cultivation was either on par, or higher than hers. Before she prepared herself an old and weary voice could be heard from outside.
"Miss Xiao Daiyu, I apologize for disturbing you. We do not have bad intentions. We just came here to offer goodwill and desire to cooperate. I am Wu Fu, an adviser of the Sun Empire."
Under her veil, the beautiful face of Xin Qiang showed doubt mixed in with surprise. She could either run away now, or run away after listening to them. Listening to them didn't pose any immediate threat to her as long as she was careful. If the expert's cultivation was higher than hers, her options were limited anyway. She decided to accept their 'goodwill' and invited them in.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Wu Fu brought up the main topic.
"Position of the Sun Empire stayed constant throughout the years. Change is inevitable, and along with the coronation, the empire changing too. One has to be careful during this process lest they lose the plot. Miss Xiao Daiyu, would your family be interested in cooperating with Sun Empire on charting a weak spot?"
Xin Qiang was listening to the old man in front of her. Of course she knew about the significance of a weak point in space, but she was puzzled about the reason why he was asking for cooperation from her. She chose Xiao Daiyu as her fake name, could it be that there is a powerful Xiao family? Could there be a Xiao Daiyu in Foundation Establishment realm in that family? Surely such a coincidence wouldn't happen...
"Elder Wu Fu, I am not sure why you are telling me this…"
Xin Qiang decided to probe a little. Wu Fu didn't mind this, cautiousness was only natural. He quickly spoke to dispel any uncertainties.
"My apologies, my guard here was present during our visit to the Starfall Mountain. As such he was able to recognize your cultivation method. We wished to offer collaboration between Sun Empire, Starfall Mountain, and your family and did not want to invade your privacy!"
The old man in front of her immediately bowed as he apologized and explained. His shameless yet sincere behavior would've moved Xin Qiang, if he did not mention Starfall Mountain. She hid her panic and probed.
"Starfall Mountain, and my family… I hope you'll forgive me for asking, I have been away for a number of years…"
Walking encyclopedia known as Wu Fu understood the situation. Either this lass was reluctant and didn't want to acknowledge it, or she truly didn't know. Both options were possible.
This was a hidden family, and hidden families wouldn't come out in the open often. Wu Fu didn't doubt her authenticity as a member of the Blazing Sun Scripture hidden family. His knowledge was extensive and he was sure that no one but the Starfall Mountain possessed the scripture, and even then they failed spectacularly at cultivating it. Odds of a 3rd party appearing with the same cultivation method was zero.
Wu Fu had already extended their goodwill, it didn't matter if it was accepted or rejected. As long as it reached higher-ups in the hidden family his objective would be complete.
"I apologize, since the Starfall Mountain and your family cooperated openly, I thought it would be… Perhaps I was too hasty. We will take our leave, we just wanted to extend our sincere desire to collaborate."
As Wu Fu and his guard left, he took out a sealed scroll he had prepared earlier. One had to have a certain amount of shameless if they wanted to obtain results in diplomacy.
After they left the perimeter of the hut, Xin Qiang looked at the scroll Wu Fu left. It was marked and sealed with the Sun Dynasty characters. The Xin family was isolated, but few every hundred years they would send a family member to gather items, disciples, and information. According to Xin Qiang's knowledge that she got from her family and the information she collected after coming to the continent a few years ago, this seal looked accurate. Whether if it was fake or not was something she could not determine.
The implications of this conversation were huge. She sat in a lotus position and calmed down. Taking deep breaths, she detached herself and reviewed the information available to her.
'Matriarch always wanted to lead the Xin family into the continent. If this man was truly Wu Fu, the chief adviser of the Sun Empire, then matriarch really did establish relations with Starfall Mountain after I left…'
'If that is the case, Ning Bi was the fruition of matriarch's efforts. No one else could produce a superior version of the Blazing Sun…'
Panic was now slowly creeping into Xin Qiang. Looking at the events from Han De's perspective, she, an Ancient Realm expert that hid her cultivation kept probing his disciple. If Han De didn't have Transcendent masters with him who knows what this Xin family expert would've done? Han De's worries about his disciples were justifiable from his perspective. Xin Qiang's actions could mean the Xin family regening on their deal!
Xin Qiang broke into a cold sweat. She couldn't believe how naive she was. How could she encounter Blazing Sun in the continent, and a superior version of it at that, and not even think about its relation to the Xin family matriarch. Xin family had extensive records of their history, chances of leaking their scripture were zero.
Xin Qiang decided that she had to remedy this situation. Although she had sent a message to the matriarch already, she had no idea if the message was successfully received. The situation was too serious to leave it on its own. She had to salvage this, no matter the cost.