“Astounding!” Wenchai marvelled, as Sylar willed the Phantom Steeds to dissipate, Shadow Essence returning back to the Hollow Reality. He passed his hands through the fading mounts, black motes of Essence slipping through his fingers. “Such a grand Spiritual Art!”
They had passed through to the Lu Manor without issue, Suo Wenchai apparently being a frequent visitor both to Penshan City and to the estate of the local governor. From the brief description he’d heard of the city from Wenchai, Penshan seemed to be one of the smaller cities within the state of Wu, but took charge over most issues of governance in the local province of Jinxiang.
After being ushered into the stables of the Lu Estate, their attendants had hurriedly gone on to inform Master Lu of their arrival, and Sylar took the opportunity away from peering eyes to prematurely put an end to his spell. If the local mages didn’t have access to magics like these, it wouldn’t do good to attract unwarranted attention from more people until he had a clearer picture of how he wanted to proceed. Even in Resham, some commonfolk tended to get a little jumpy around lifelike horses fading away into nothingness, and he’d had to deal with the annoyance of being accused as a Necromancer before, even though spells of Illusion had nothing to do with that branch of magic.
Compared to Nimbria, Penshan City was… different, for lack of a better word. Even though the Kingdom of Nimbria was one of the smaller powers in Resham, it was not uncommon to see adventurers boasting all manner of weaponry looking for quests to take up, or street magicians casting a cantrip or two to entertain onlookers and ply their trade. From what he had seen of Penshan during his brief ride atop Wenchai’s ruined carriage, however, the people of Penshan were dreadfully mundane.
Market stalls sold fruit, meat, and vegetables, rather than adventuring supplies, or magical reagents that complemented the Essences used to cast spells. The guards at the city’s gates who had stopped the carriage and asked for their purpose of visit had dull iron swords strapped by their waists, rather than iron tempered by Zeroth Level spells of Enchantment. Even the Lu Estate, whose head seemed to fulfil the role of local bureaucrat in the Jinxiang province, was woefully unguarded – simple gates of reinforced steel were all that barred unlawful entry to its grounds.
“What troubles you, Sylar?”
He glanced over at Wenchai, who was removing the bags of goods that had been deemed salvageable following the damage to his cart. Thankfully, during the long ride to Penshan City, Wenchai had decided to drop the honorifics he had used in addressing Sylar. Though it was flattering, repeatedly being called ‘sir’, ‘master’, and ‘great’ in various combinations with ‘Spellsight’, ‘cultivator’, ‘not-a-cultivator’, and ‘hero’ had started to become unnerving.
“Just thinking. What do you even have with you, anyway?” he asked, genuinely curious. “You never told me what business you traded in.”
“Oh, this and that, but… aha!” Wenchai beamed proudly, tugging at one of the drawstrings of one bag. “Funny that you should ask, Sylar! I believe I have something that might interest you! Feast your eyes on this!”
He reached into the bag, pulling out a thin, cylindrical bundle that had been meticulously wrapped in velvet cloth. Placing it reverently on a nearby table, he unrolled it, revealing what was inside.
Sylar stared blankly at it.
“Well?” Wenchai spoke expectantly. “Impressive, isn’t it?”
Sylar looked between the small bundle of what looked like herbs – what kind, he didn’t know – and Wenchai’s excited expression, wondering just what ever gave him the impression that Sylar much cared about botany.
“Um.” Sylar stepped closer, leaning in. Perhaps there was something obvious he was supposed to see? After a good few seconds of examination, all while the merchant’s grin continued broadening, Sylar admitted defeat. “I have no idea what I’m looking at.”
“WHAT?” he exclaimed. “But you… Sylar… ah, but of course!”
Again, he winked, and tapped at his nose. This time, Sylar at least understood what that gesture was supposed to convey.
“No, really,” Sylar stressed. “I don’t actually know.”
“These are daoshi herbs! he said, aghast. “Daoshi, from the Vibrant Meadows!”
“Oh.” The spell of Tongues was meant to transmit semantic meaning, but all that he understood of daoshi was that it roughly translated to ‘Initiation of the Path’. “Uh… they’re pretty?”
Wenchai stared at Sylar for several seconds more. Only then did he seem to realise that Sylar was, in fact, telling the truth.
“You actually don’t recognise these at all?”
“Not in the slightest.”
Wenchai sagged over in defeat. “Well, the Righteous Heart Sect buys them. They’re very rare; grows only in the Vibrant Meadows over in Yanghai – took me a month to get a contact in Fengdu who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows how to collect them – and another month to finally track down the fellow.”
Normally, Sylar wasn’t much one to be interested in herbalism. The mention of the local mage equivalents, however, stirred his interest.
“Really, now?” he said. He reached out. “May I?”
“Go ahead!” Wenchai handed it over, a knowing smile on his face. “I knew that would interest you!”
Sylar stared at the herbs, focusing. If mages were collecting seemingly mundane objects, it stood to reason that they were reagents of some form.
To Divine their function, however…
He inhaled, concentrating. Identify was an interesting spell – it could range from a mere Cantrip, all the way to theoretically a spell of limitless level. The underlying matrix had only been successfully theorised up to the Sixth Level. At each increment, the information that the Diviner would be able to glimpse grew.
Sylar didn’t have as much Fate Essence drawn in as he would like – after his battle with the Spirit Wolves, he’d been cautious for further assailants, and had filled his Essence capacity with more combat oriented Essences – but it was enough to at least get some hint.
Three Fate-Fate pairs in the first two shells, the four Fate-Primal pairs in the third shell, and then the seven Fate-Transcendental pairs and a Fate-Chaos pair in the fourth…
Identify, cast at the Third Level, allowed one to perceive Essence held within an object. At this level of casting, having been built by a composite of Fate Essence with each of the other Primal, Core, and Transcendental Essences, it gave the additional benefit of identifying the type of Essence held within. If anyone paid attention, there would have been a soft, yellow glow to his eyes as the spell took hold, but it was one of the most subtle of magics.
And, true to Wenchai’s word, the herb held a decent chunk of Life Essence.
The quantity itself wasn’t what mattered – draw in ambient Essence long enough in this local realm, and he could eventually gather the amount the herb beheld. What made it useful was the fact that the Essences were concentrated into a single object, which allowed for ritualistic casting. They were series of spells, cast together in quick succession to form a single, more complex spell.
What sort of rituals did these cultivators use it for?
If it contained Life Essence… perhaps creation of enchanted armour, that would bolster the vitality of its owner? A warding field to fend off decay?
“Do you know why the Righteous Heart Sect uses it for, Wenchai?”
“Why, to create elixirs, of course!”
“They… brew them?”
“But of course!” He reached over, taking back the herb, having seen that Sylar had finished his inspection, and then reverently and delicately put it back into its original bundle. “I mean – I’m no cultivator, so I don’t actually know – but the one who sold this to me said that they have a secret formula to grow their internal energy! It’s supposed to help junior cultivators with their training!”
…once more, the local mages just had to reduce everything to being able to punch harder. Sylar was no alchemist or potioneer, but he’d come across his fair share of them. They would be crying at the injustice of wasting such valuable resources when simpler potions would suffice, even if their effects were more temporary. Herbs containing Life Essence were more useful when distilled into healing potions.
Sylar had to unfortunately bite back any scathing remark he might have had on the questionable practices of the local mages, because the man he assumed was the owner of the estate had arrived. He was dressed in a fine set of embroidered yellow robes with just a tinge of gold, looking to be around his forties – assuming the local humans aged the same rate as those of Resham, of course – with hair that was just starting to grey, and numerous stress lines across his face.
Still, he beamed a wide smile at the merchant.
“Just Jin, please,” he said hurriedly. “There is no need for such formality between friends.” He cast an eye over the ruined state of the cart. “My men have told me that you met into some trouble on your way here, but…”
“Ah, yes. Ran into some of the Guardians of the Silver Forest, in fact! You might want to inform the Elders in the Penshan Sects that they are behaving rather aggressively.”
“The Silver Guardians?” Lu Jin gasped, aghast. “You are unhurt?”
“Ah, don’t worry about it!” Wenchai slapped a heavy hand against the wood of his cart. It gave an uncomfortable creak, causing both the locals to glance at it for a moment. Then, Wenchai shrugged. “I wasn’t worried in the slightest! Luckily, Sylar here was able to rescue me before they could ruin my precious products!”
Sylar snorted. “Funny,” he said. “I was under the impression that you had been running for your life.”
Wenchai beamed. “Funny how fate works, huh?”
Ehh, fair enough. It had been Fate Essence, derived from the Scribe’s Sanctum of the Realms Beyond that empowered the Trace Sound and Projection spells that let him pinpoint Wenchai’s position in the first place.
Instead, Sylar turned to face Lu Jin. “A pleasure to meet you,” he said, giving a slight nod in acknowledgement. “I’m Sylar Spellsight.”
He furrowed his brows, likely at the odd name. Nonetheless, he was too polite to question him on it. “Thank you for saving Wenchai,” he said, bowing. “My name is Lu Jin, and I govern my family’s humble estate and the matters of Penshan.” He hesitated for a moment. “Forgive me for asking, but if you managed to fend off the Silver Guardians, could it be that you are…?”
He trailed off, intonation rising as a question. Sylar nodded, biting back any remarks he might have above his personal feelings on the topic of the local mages. “Yes, I am a cultivator.”
“He is the not-a-cultivator type of cultivator,” Wenchai added (un)helpfully, giving another wink at his confused friend. “Sylar here was lost in meditation for fifty days and fifty nights, when he heard my cries for help and arrived in the nick of time!”
Sylar groaned at the unnecessary embellishments. Back in his adventuring days, the Bards of his party had been much the same. Alas, Wenchai had been born into the wrong Plane of Existence, and missed his true calling.
“Don’t believe a word he says,” Sylar said. “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
“Regardless, thank you very much.” Lu Jin bowed once more. “If I may ask, what brings you to Penshan?”
He shrugged. “Nothing much, really. I just tagged along with him.” He gestured a thumb at Wenchai. “He told me a bit about your local cultivators, and I figured I might as well check them out while in the area.”
Jin’s eyes widened. “You are an independent?” Then, he restrained himself. “Forgive me for my lack of propriety. Please, feel free to rest in my estate for the time being. And I apologise that I even need to ask, but Wenchai…”
“Don’t worry.” Wenchai took off the odd square-shaped cap that he wore, and retrieved a small pouch from somewhere inside that he had kept on his head. An interesting storage place. “Didn’t want to risk your package being damaged with the rest of my inventory, so I kept it with me. How fortuitous that the great Suo Wenchai is so smart, yes?”
Jin sagged with relief, and some of the tension that he’d been displaying faded. “Thank the heavens,” he whispered. “May I…?”
He opened the offered pouch. Sylar craned his neck, curious as to what item was so important that Jin couldn’t obtain it within his own lands.
“…more herbs?” Sylar spoke out of turn, incredulous.
“Ah, these aren’t for the Righteous Heart Sect,” Wenchai said, wagging his finger. “More valuable than the daoshi, in fact! It is a rare ingredient, so powerful and so potent that few even know how to use it in brewing!”
“And that is?”
“My daughter,” Jin said, still staring at the pouch, holding its contents like a precious treasure. His voice wavered, and when he turned to Sylar, he could see the older man’s eyes watering. “She’s sick, and none of the doctors I summoned could help her. A wandering master cultivator from the Vital Sun Sect came and inspected her, and said that he would need the yangcao to make the cure.” He stepped over to the merchant, embracing him tightly. “Wenchai… thank you! Thank you so much!”
The merchant who’d been relaxed and affable in the entire time that Sylar knew him – including when he had been running for his life – now looked uncertain, half-heartedly patting his friend on the back. “Ah… it’s no problem?”
“I am deeply indebted to you, my friend.” Jin gave a final squeeze, before disentangling himself from Wenchai. “You came on such short notice, and braved such dangers to bring this to me. I cannot repay you enough.”
Wenchai grinned. “Money does help.”
“And you will have it,” Jin promised. “But for now… I apologise for the haste, but I have already summoned Master Zhu, after your latest correspondence. Would it be alright if we proceed at once?”
His voice was anxious, his expression filled with uncertain hope. Sylar couldn’t imagine being in his shoes, but he’d had his fair share of having to fret for his companions’ lives in his adventuring days, while Clerics worked their holy magics and Alchemists brewed potions that he could hardly hope to comprehend.
Sylar gave a polite cough. “Would you mind if I observe as well, Master Lu?”
“Please,” he said. “I am indebted to you as well, Sylar Spellsight. Without your assistance, Wenchai would never have made it to Penshan.”
He felt a mild tinge of guilt at that. If it hadn’t been for the unwanted interaction between his ritual casting of his theorised Divination spell and the artifact he had recovered from the lich’s tomb, the Spirit Wolves were unlikely to have gone into a frenzy.
“Follow me, please.”
Led by the governor, Wenchai and Sylar exited the stables, leaving behind the merchant’s partially ruined wagon. The architecture of the estate was an interesting one – they favoured different geometrical shapes in their construction compared to the style of Nimbria, with much greater emphasis on octagonal, pentagonal, and circular constructs. Polished wood, vibrant jade, and radiant gemstones featured heavily as embellishments, while the castles of Nimbria had been decorated with stone carved into designs of excruciatingly intricate detail by master stonemasons and artists.
The compound wasn’t quite as large as King Naraskar’s palace in Nimbria, but it was certainly nothing to scoff at. It took a good five minutes of walking through corridors filled with the governor’s servants, guards, and other staff in his estate before they finally reached the east wing of the estate.
“Through here, please.” Jin gestured toward a doorway, after they had passed an outdoor garden built within the estate’s grounds. Inside the building was a man, wearing a ceremonial white and black headdress. “Master Zhu! How is her condition now?”
Now that Sylar was inside, he could see a girl he assumed was the governor’s daughter. She looked to be but a child – no older than ten, probably. Her skin held a deathly pallor, covered by a sheen of cold sweat, and the sheets beneath her were thoroughly soaked. She was mumbling incoherently, shivering and flailing on the bed. Frail and fragile, she looked almost close to death.
No surprises as to why Jin had been so concerned.
“Your daughter continues to have an overabundance of yin energy,” the cultivator said. He spared a curious glance at Wenchai and Sylar as they entered after Jin, pausing for a moment, before returning to address Jin. “Did you manage to recover the yangcao as I have requested?”
“Yes. Wenchai rushed to Keqing as soon as I wrote to him.” He held out the bundle of unassuming herbs. “Are you able to make the cure now, Master Zhu?”
The cultivator ran his hands over the herbs, then leaned in closer to inspect them. Finally, he nodded. “This should be sufficient.” He looked at Wenchai, as he readied a few alchemical concoctions on the desk. “Was there any trouble obtaining them?”
“No, master cultivator. Your instructions were very precise.” Wenchai dragged a seat over from the corner of the room, and sat down while Zhu began his work. “Your contact was exactly where Jin’s letter said he would be. It cost Jin quite a sum of gold, but anything is worth it if it gets the little miss back on her feet.”
“Indeed.” Zhu held a pestle and mortar, and began to crush the herbs into a paste, adding a few other concoctions that Sylar couldn’t identify into the mix. He gave a sidelong glance at Sylar. “And you are?”
“Sylar Spellsight. Don’t mind me. Just a fellow practitioner of, uh, cultivation.”
“Is that so?” He narrowed his eyes, but continued with his work. “You know, it is rather inappropriate to observe the secrets of another Sect.”
“Please, Master Zhu,” Jin said, stepping up on his behalf. “I am indebted to Master Sylar as well. If not for him, Wenchai would never have made it back with the yangcao.”
Zhu deliberated for a moment, but acquiesced. “Fine, then,” he said. “Besides, the art is useless without the secret formulae of the Vital Sun Sect.”
And it was indeed the case. It was odd, watching this mage work. Though Essence overlapped with the fine craft of Alchemy, it was applied in an altogether different way compared to the casting of mage spells. Few people ever chose to divert their time to pursuing two separate arts. As far as Sylar could tell, Zhu was just randomly adding different substances to each other.
Silently, he cast a series of quick Level 0 Identify spells. At such a low rank, all it did was allow the caster to see whether there was Essence imbued into an object at all, but no information on the quantity or quality of the Essence.
Strangely enough, there was no Essence to be found within the vast array of alchemical substances that Zhu had laid out on the table. The setup was also vastly different from the apothecaries he had been to in Resham. There, flasks, tubes, and other forms of equipment were meticulously set up, and the workspace had always only contained the bare essentials required for brewing of potions. As with ritual casting, any stray Essence contained within nearby objects could contaminate and lead to ruinous results in the final product.
Zhu, however, had no such qualms. His workspace contained bowls and jars of different powders, herbs, and liquids, and he seemed to be adding them randomly to one another.
Of the eight objects he had Identified, none of them contained Essence. Back in Nimbria, items in alchemical labs were annoyingly hard to discern from one another, and it took great experience in Divination like Sylar had in order to even begin to tease apart one object’s Essence signature from another.
Just how different was this land’s alchemy from Resham’s?
On the bed, Jin’s daughter gave another quiet groan, her entire body writhing in pain. Immediately, the governor rushed over, kneeling by her bedside, dabbing at her forehead with a piece of cloth.
“Do not worry. The cure is almost done now,” Zhu said.
Sylar frowned. He cast another quick and dirty Identify. The mixture in his hands was still lacking any Essence or magical property.
“May I have a look at your daughter’s condition as well, Master Lu?”
Jin waved him over distractedly. “Please,” he said. “Master Zhu said that Qiyu’s yin energy was overpowering her yang, but…”
He trailed off. Sylar pretended as though he understood, giving a curt nod. He placed his hand against her pale, cold skin, and concentrated. Calling up a sizeable amount of his remaining Fate Essence, he cast a spell that had seen copious use during his adventuring days.
A series of rotating magical glyphs hovered above her body. He brushed against them, pulling in meaning from its constituent Fate Essences, as though reading from the Endless Book within the Scribe’s Sanctum where Fate Essence spilled into the material world.
And he knew the source of the affliction. He hadn’t personally seen its effects before, but since his apprenticeship days under Master Rynwald, he had a healthy respect for its potency.
Horrid Nightmare. A Fourth Level spell based around Necromancy. The art was forbidden in Nimbria, and though the Demilich that he and his adventuring friends had put down was an ancient Necromancer, he had never seen its effects first-hand, and so didn’t recognise it.
Even so, he should have known from the moment he first saw the girl. He and his party had spent weeks of preparation before even venturing into that tomb.
But if this was truly Horrid Nightmare, then that meant –
Warning bells were ringing in his head. He turned to Wenchai. “How much did these herbs cost exactly?”
“Oh, the yangcao? The man wanted to sell it for three thousand gold pieces, but I haggled it down to twenty-five hundred.” He flashed a victorious grin. “Suo Wenchai is truly great, no?”
“And the daoshi?” Sylar pressed. If his suspicions were right…
“About two hundred per bundle,” he said, shrugging. “The Righteous Heart buys them for three hundred, though, so I still make a decent profit.”
An herb that did not contain Essence, going for well over ten times one that did?
He was a stranger to these lands, and he knew nothing about cultivation. But magic was something that Sylar knew plenty about. Whether the cure came from the divine spells of Clerics, called from the energies of their patrons in Planes Unknown, or by the potions brewed by Alchemists, or spells of Restoration from mages specialising in the elusive Essence, the panacea always had a magical element to it.
Petty deception, he could take. Something like this, however, he could not accept. Master Rynwald had always drilled it into him that the mage’s gift was to be used with great discretion.
He leapt to his feet, a spell already on his mind. Zhu, however, seemed to realise that his devious scheme was now unravelled. He swept his supplies off the table, rushing toward Sylar with speed far faster than any unhasted mage.
Still, Sylar struck first. Lightning Lash joined the cultivator to a nearby tree from outside the window. They were tugged to each other, but the solid trunk stood firmly in place, causing Zhu to be sent hurtling to the garden outside.