Kiro raced to the harvests in a smooth jog, taking in the fresh morning air. On his right, the forest passed by in a blur of lush greens, and on his left, open fields graced him with a sea of red waves. The sky was as clear as could be, and the sun peeked out over the horizon, staining it with brilliant streaks of multicolored light.
The world had never felt as beautiful.
He laughed, feeling the rush of wind against his face as he dashed along the rough dirt trail. Three days. In just three days, if all went right, he would be selling the first batch of the elixir. Wait, no. He shook his head. Not the elixir — the Starlight's Drop. A named concoction, that he had made after months of research.
After a couple tips from Supervisor Meng, it was more potent than ever, and a surge of energy shot through him every time he thought of the possibilities. If this worked, maybe he could really succeed —
“Hey! Watch where you’re going!”
He narrowly dodged a stumbling Sun, jumping to the side and bowing his head in apology. “Ah, sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s alright. Just be more careful, will you? Wait...” The woman squinted at him. "Kiro, right?"
"Ah, yes?" He turned back towards her.
"Uh..." The other Sun hesitated. "If you don't mind, could you tell your sister thanks for dealing with Supervisor Ba?"
He grinned. "Of course. I'll be sure to tell her."
Suddenly, the slightest hint of pressure brushed against his back, and on instinct he threw himself to the ground, gritting his teeth in anticipation of a supervisor’s wrath. Yet, it wasn’t a supervisor. As if summoned by their conversation, Seira blurred past them at a full sprint.
He coughed, picking himself back up and frantically waving to her back. “Wait, Seira! Where are you going?”
She skidded to a halt, flipping to stop her momentum and landing perfectly back on her feet. “Kiro? What are you doing here?”
Her voice was perfectly cheerful, but as she approached, he could tell something was wrong. In contrast with her normal smile, her face was flushed, and her eyes were puffy and red, as if she had been crying.
“Seira, this is my normal route to the harvests. But you look horrible. Are you okay?”
“Um… Kiro, I…” She scratched her Brave mark, anxiously shifting from foot to foot. “You don’t know how much I need to talk to you, but I really have to be somewhere right now. So tonight? Before dusk?”
He opened his mouth, but the other Sun stepped forwards, bowing to them. “Honored Brave, I just wanted to say how grateful I am that —”
“You’re welcome!” She waved to them, kicking up a cloud of dust as she accelerated back to a superhuman pace. “I’m sorry, but I really need to go! Kiro, tonight! I promise!”
“Wait!” He tried to pursue, but even his best efforts were no match for her mana-enhanced gait.
But he needed to find out what was hurting her so much.
In the distance, Seira turned into the forest, and he memorized the spot, slowly running after her.
* * *
A few minutes later, he finally found her, sitting on a log in front of a beautiful silver tree.
"Are you sure we shouldn't tell anyone?"
He gasped, taking a step back. Was there someone else here?
"No. It's better this way."
A man emerged from the foliage, shaking his head. The mark of a Sun rested on the back of his hand, and Kiro vaguely remembered him as Hong Tian Rynn, from the harvesting group to the east of his.
"I guess so. I just… the clan… all our traditions…"
But why were they together, in the middle of the forest? Was this why Seira had been crying? He nearly revealed himself, but at the last second he stopped. What if the man wasn’t disturbing her, but rather comforting her as a lover?
He frowned. He’d let them be for now. As Seira's brother, he owed it to them to make sure this match was worth the risk. After all, Suns weren’t allowed to marry anyone, much less the clan prodigy.
Seira seemed to grow even more nervous by the second, but Rynn just sat there, looking into the distance. "Brave, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Would you risk it for some sentimentality?"
"No, I guess you're right."
Kiro pushed himself up, brow furrowed. His sister could have any man in the clan, and here Rynn was saying that this was an opportunity for her? Lover or not, nobody could speak to Seira that way. He stood, ready to interrupt, when a woman appeared from thin air.
He nearly shouted. How had that happened? And who was this? He pulled himself back up as quietly as possible, examining her. Shimmering silver hair cascaded down to her waist, falling upon a gray mystic's robe and contrasting with her milky white skin. And her eyes…
None of her other features held a candle to them. It was like staring into a vast whirlwind, as complex and powerful as the heavens themselves.
She surveyed her surroundings, and for just a split second, he could have sworn that she looked at him. He frantically ducked behind the brush, but the woman just continued turning her head, taking in every detail of the forest.
"Alright, my new apprentices, how do you feel?"
Seira clutched something in her hand, and even at a distance, he could sense her unease. "To be honest, honored Saint, a bit queasy."
He ducked further into the bushes, fear coursing through him. A Saint? How had he ended up in the presence of a Saint?
Kiro would have laughed if he hadn't been so terrified. What if the Saint caught him? Would she kill him? Would she take him and force him into an eternity of servitude? Then again, being a servant in the heavens would probably be hundreds of times better than anything the Hong clan had to offer.
The woman pointed a finger, and a couple of plain brown bags floated towards her.
"Aww, I'm sorry, Seira. I know you're still trying to wrap your head around what your matriarch has done."
"I apologise. I just can't believe my entire existence was built around — around this." She handed the object to the Saint, rubbing at her eyes. "And my brother! His entire life was ruined!"
The Saint’s eyes widened a near imperceptible amount, and she went in to give Seira a hug.
"Don't apologise! It's perfectly natural to feel this way. Having everything you've ever known stripped from you always hurts — trust me, I would know. But we're leaving now! Once we ascend, Hong Ma won't be able to get to you."
"But what about the rest of the clan? Can I really leave knowing that they could be tossed to the side as soon as the matriarch gets what she wants?"
"Remember, it's likely to be another century or two before that happens. And by then, even if I can't come back to free these people, you'll be powerful enough to do it yourself. "
"Yeah... I guess you’re right." Seira straightened, taking a deep breath. "It'll be fine. It’ll be fine..."
“You’re wonderful, Seira. I promise it’ll all be worth it.”
"Pardon, honored Saint, but could we depart now?" Rynn clenched his fist, looking back in the general direction of the clan.
"Right. Right." The Saint passed around the brown bags, giving Seira a sympathetic smile. “We could leave right now, but I think that you two probably have some things you'd like to take with you. Those bags are bags of holding, meaning they’re imbued to hold things many times their physical size. Stuff whatever you want to bring into these, and meet me here tomorrow at dawn. We leave then.”
With that, the Saint disappeared once more.
Seira sighed, turning back to the trail. "Well, let's go then. I still can't believe this is happening…"
Rynn pushed ahead, ignoring her and muttering to himself as he marched straight through the forest.
Was that it? A Saint, descended from the heavens?
Kiro closed his eyes, struggling to comprehend what had just happened. This had to be a dream, right? Right? But everything seemed to real, and he could have sworn that the woman had looked straight at him.
He slowly stepped into the clearing, looking for something, anything to help explain. His eyes scanned the forest floor, and he spotted a slab of smooth jade where the Saint had stood. Was this the thing that Seira had been holding in her hand? The Saint must have dropped it when she disappeared.
He approached it, chest tight in anticipation. This little carved piece of rock had somehow brought his sister to tears. How? He reached out towards it.
His fingers brushed up against the runes, and suddenly he was caught up in a furious storm of foreign memories.
He fell back, his body no longer under his control, and a single voice arose to the front of his mind.
Now Playing Stored Memory: The Founding of The Hong Clan