As the carriage drew close to the mountain’s summit, Sylar was amazed by the cultivator community that had established themselves within such an exotic location, far-removed from the rest of society. Even within the magiocracy of Spellhold, where Archmage Thanadras reigned as the Prime Magus, the commonfolk of the City of Arcane Wonders had mostly been those untrained in Essence.
Here, however, everyone was a cultivator; a community unto themselves.
“Master Lu.” A well-spoken man of around Sylar’s own age was the first to greet their entourage as they exited the carriage at the Sect’s gates, a pair of other junior attendants directing the driver toward the stables. “It is a delight to welcome you to the humble home of our sect once again. May I ask what the purpose of your visit is?”
Sylar took a moment to study the man. His body was in the prime of health, with well-toned musculature that could rival many of the Fighters and Monks that Sylar had met in his time. He had a sword strapped by his waist, and long, black hair was neatly tied behind him in a long, flowing tail that reached the base of his neck.
Behind him were four more younger cultivators. In contrast to the blue robes with yellow trims that the one in the lead wore, these four were dressed in identical grey equivalents.
“You are… Disciple Wu, if I remember correctly?” The man nodded, and Jin continued. “Would it be possible to speak with Grandmaster Mu?”
He shook his head. “Regrettably, Grandmaster Mu and the two of our Elders are not currently in residence. Elder Yang is currently acting as temporary leader of our Sect. As one of the ranking disciples, I am taking charge of matters pertaining to the training of my juniors.” He narrowed his eyes, but didn’t lose his composure in the slightest. “Has there been trouble in the realm below, Master Lu?”
“You could say that.” He sighed. “There has been an attempt on my daughter’s life by an unknown Sect. Beyond that, the Guardians of the Silver Forest have been riled up, and had attacked Wenchai here while he was riding along the Silver Pass during his journey to Penshan.”
“An unknown Sect?” Wu frowned. “That is troubling, indeed.” He glanced over at Qiyu, who was shying behind her father, then bowed slightly. “It is a relief to know that she remains unharmed.”
“For that, I have Master Sylar to thank.” Jin turned slightly, and Sylar took the cue to step forward. “He rescued Wenchai from his predicament, and saw through the unknown cultivator’s schemes. Sylar fought him off, and then rid my daughter of the foul curse he had cast on her.”
“You are a follower of the dao?” For the first time, Wu seemed surprised. “But your qi… no, forgive my lack of propriety. I greet you, fellow cultivator, to our Sect. So long as you do not attempt to steal our cultivation secrets, or dishonour the name of the Righteous Heart Sect whether through words or deeds, you will be welcome to our humble home. I thank you for lending your assistance to Master Lu and Merchant Suo while we of the Penshan Alliance were shamefully unable to intervene.”
“No thanks are necessary,” Sylar said. “Anyone would have done the same in my shoes.”
Considering that Wenchai’s predicament had been his fault, that bit of thanks felt undeserved. Still, he accepted the sentiment, although he privately wondered how they could even be able to tell if he tore apart the secret spell formulae or training regiments of their private little cloister.
“Please, honoured guests,” Wu said, turning, gesturing his arm outward in a refined movement. “Follow me. I shall take you to Elder Yang at once.”
Now that he thought about it, though, something was strange with all the cultivators here that he could see. It wasn’t as obvious with the four juniors in the back, but with Wu, it was plain as day to his Diviner’s sight. Like Zhu, the Senior Disciple was constantly pushing Essence into his soul, but converting it into Soulburn without using any spell. Even as he spoke, he was continually performing that task at a steady rate, fitting Essence into their shells at the same rate as he was drawing them in, with equal Soulburn dissipation and Soulburn acquisition.
In technical terms, it was called the equivalence point in Essence Studies. It was a neat concept – if a little obsolete in modern Substantiology – that was meant to describe how Spellsongs and Archmages could throw around Third or Fourth Level spells as though they were mere cantrips, while Neophytes struggled to cast even two Dancing Flames in a row.
It wasn’t anything too impressive – Wu was doing it at approximately the rate of a spell of First Level every minute or so. Most were likely to be able to do the same between the Acolyte and Magus stages. Still, there was no telling if this was his limit, or if it was simply an idle task they enjoyed performing.
As far as he was aware, there was no benefit to doing so. It had once been theorised that it could lead to increased Soulburn capacity, but a study conducted by the Spellhold taking sample data from mages all across Resham concluded that any such association was more likely to be due to the confounding factor that mages who even bothered with the practice were more motivated or talented in the first place, and hence enjoyed greater growth in their Soulburn caches. It had since fallen out of favour, and became an archaic exercise by the time that Sylar began his training.
Did these cultivators see something beneficial in the practice, that even the Arcanists and Spellsongs of Spellhold had missed? Or were they doing so in the same erroneous line of thought as mages past?
Strangely enough, the composition of it was born of Essence Pairs between a Primal Essence and whichever Core Essence was unique to each cultivator. Was there some meaning there as well?
It was a puzzle, and Sylar never left one unsolved. He had already dedicated the last five years of his life to solving one, that had ultimately led him here.
Distracted, he pored over the mystery while Wu led them through the Sect’s grounds. Occasionally, cultivators in various stages of training paused in their affairs when they crossed paths, greeting Wu and their entourage of guests with respect. It was a different world from the mage academies run by Archmages back in Resham – there, mages were wholly dedicated to their studies, leaving more mundane matters to the academies’ mundane staff. Here, however, juniors performed all the necessary chores required for upkeep of the grounds, whether it was cleaning, tidying, tending to the gardens, or any of a dozen other tasks.
And, indeed, they were muscle-brained addicts. During the walk to where the Elder resided, there were scattered groups of cultivators engaging in training, whether through sets of prescribed exercises, or in direct spars between one another. It was clear that the colour of their robes denoted a form of rank – there was little mixing of groups with different colours, save for when a senior provided instruction to their juniors. In agreement with what Jin had said, there had been a few children who looked even younger than Qiyu, hurrying about mundane tasks or engaging in senior-led exercises.
All in all, the Righteous Heart Sect was large. Sylar doubted he had glimpsed even a quarter of all their numbers, but already he had crossed paths with well over forty of them.
Their journey took them from the gates that led into a central terrace, that was divided up into smaller sections by little streams and bridges, through to a large multi-tiered building straight ahead, ignoring the four smaller buildings that bordered the two sides. From there, Wu brought them upstairs, pausing before a set of rooms on the fourth floor.
“Please wait here for a moment,” he said, then rapped on the door once. “This disciple apologises for the interruption, Elder Yang. Master Lu of Penshan has arrived on urgent business that he wishes to discuss regarding matters of the mortal world below.”
… did he just say the mortal world?
Unless he had become extremely terrible at spotting Necromancy in action – unlikely, after how much trouble the Demilich Renashan had stirred up in Nimbria – Sylar liked to think that he was misinterpreting the semantics of the word.
“Please send them in,” a voice called out from the other end. “I was just about finished with my meditation.”
Wu slid the door open, bidding them to enter. Once inside, Sylar came face to face with Elder Yang.
The Elder was a wizened-looking man, who despite bordering on the cusp of being elderly, possessed a certain presence about him. His hair and beard were greyed, and from his orange-yellow robes, it was clear that he was of a different rank entirely from Wu. As he and Sylar made eye contact, he gave Sylar a piercing look, studying him carefully.
Abruptly, Sylar was uncannily reminded of his days as an apprentice under Master Rynwald. His Master, who had enjoyed decades of retirement from his days as an adventurer, had much the same effect on people. As an apprentice, Sylar felt as though Master Rynwald had been able to dissect his every casting, and see through to his very soul itself, beyond what even Divination was capable of. Not quite strict, not quite intimidating – but sharp.
And unlike the other cultivators, he was not performing that exercise of Soulburn generation. Why was that?
“Thank you, Wu Guanzhong,” Elder Yang said, nodding. Wu and the four juniors that had been silently following him bowed, and were about to take their leave, but the Elder shook his head. “Please remain in the room, Senior Disciple. As a candidate for future leadership of the sect, this is a matter that will concern you as well.”
Wu Guanzhong hesitated for a moment, but then closed the door behind his juniors. “Yes, Elder,” he said, then drew the chairs from a table within the room. “Please, honoured guests.”
Sylar gave a quick muttered word of thanks. Jin took care of introductions on their behalf. “I apologise for my unannounced arrival, Elder. These are Suo Wenchai, my daughter Qiyu, and Sylar Spellsight.”
“I am familiar with Merchant Suo. His supply of daoshi is a great boon to the Sect. And of course, no one can surely forget one as lively as Qiyu.” Yang gave a friendly smile at them, then gave Sylar a quizzical look. “I’m afraid I do not believe we have ever met, though.”
“We haven’t, no,” he said. “I… well, Master Lu can probably explain it better than me.”
“I could just be jumping at shadows, Elder, but I fear that there may be trouble brewing in Penshan, if not for the entirety of Jinxiang Province.”
“Truly?” Seriousness took over, and Elder Yang now focused sharply on Jin. “Please, explain.”
“A month ago, my daughter fell gravely ill. She couldn’t be roused from sleep, and was suffering while she lay unconscious in bed.” Jin clenched his fists tightly as he recounted the events. “The physicians in Penshan could not treat her ailment, and so I sought for any help I could. I heard word of a passing travelling cultivator from the Vital Sun Sect, and begged him for his assistance. He told me that the only way to cure her was by brewing a potion with a rare herb known as the yangcao, and gave me instructions of how I might procure it from someone in the Xuanya Province.
“I immediately wrote to Wenchai, who I knew was trading in the vicinity of the area. He managed to find the one the cultivator said would be selling it, and paid twenty-five hundred gold pieces for it. From there, he rushed back through Jinxiang Province, and back to Penshan.
“Along the way, however, as he was passing by the outskirts of the Silver Forest, he was attacked and chased by an enraged group of Silver Guardians. Master Sylar was in the area, and intervened in time, defeating the Silver Guardians. He helped to bring Wenchai back to Penshan, after his wagon was damaged in the attack.”
Yang raised a brow at that, giving Sylar a quick glance, but did not otherwise comment. Jin hesitated momentarily, emotion rising in his voice. “Once they arrived, I brought the yangcao to Master Zhu. By that point, Qiyu’s condition was worsening terribly. He began to make what he promised was a cure, but Sylar saw through his schemes. He had been the one who subjected my daughter to what he called the Abyssal Plague Curse, and had never intended to cure her in the first place. Sylar fought him off, but he committed suicide in his master’s name before we could gleam any more information. In the end, it was only by a miracle that Sylar managed to cure Qiyu.”
He let his words hang in the air for a moment, while the Elder contemplated what he had been told. His brows were furrowed, deep in thought.
“I see,” he finally said. “I… am glad to hear that your daughter remains well, Master Lu. You are right to come to our Sect at once. Rest assured that we will take this matter seriously, if there are those who would seek to destabilise the peace of Jinxiang.”
“Thank you, Elder.”
“Unfortunately, I do not recognise the name of the Spiritual Art that was used on your daughter, nor does it match any Sect’s description. It could be that we are dealing with a Sect that has kept themselves hidden, or one from a distant state seeking to encroach into ours.” The Elder sighed heavily, then looked at Qiyu with sorrowful eyes. “It pains me to have to ask you this, Qiyu, but… would you be able to describe anything you remember about what happened?”
She tensed, then looked pleadingly at her father, Wenchai, and Sylar. Her father gripped tightly on her shoulder. “I… I –“
She was tongue-tied, panicked, her breath hitching, her body trembling. He had never been exposed to Horrid Nightmare, but he had braved the horrors of Renashan’s tomb. Sylar’s heart wrenched, and he intervened.
“I am familiar with the Spiritual Art that was used on her.”
To the side, there was a jolt of movement from the Senior Disciple, who had been quietly observing thus far. Yang gave a much more controlled reaction, appraising him. “You are, Master Sylar?”
He nodded. “As you may have guessed from my name, I’m not a local cultivator,” he said. “The effects of the Spiritual Art that was used matches what my people term the Horrid Nightmare. It is… unpleasant. The texts say that the victims are subjected to their worst memories, distorted tenfold, and the Spiritual Art evolves as the despair of the victim deepens, feeding upon itself. It can be resisted, and occasionally broken free of, but if left uncured, they inevitably die.”
Qiyu nodded shakily. Jin took her into his arms, anger and pain evident in his expression.
“I see,” Yang said. “And – feel free not to answer if this intrudes upon your Sect’s secrets, but is this how you knew the way in which to cure her of their foul Arts?”
He hesitated. Tell the truth, refuse to answer, or lie?
In the end, though, it felt wrong to mislead them. It was clear that something was afoot in Penshan, and any help could shed light on what this mystery Sect that dabbled in Necromancy spells was hoping to achieve. During his adventuring days, the more charismatic members of his party had never been able to stand idly by whenever their travels brought them to towns and villages plagued by problems, and some of their good nature had rubbed off on him. He could just tell them the basics of what he had done, without going into the specifics.
“Not exactly,” he said. “I… well, for lack of a better description, I tried to understand how his Spiritual Art functioned, and reconstituted a new one that had the potential to counteract it. Even then, it was only a miracle that it even succeeded.”
Sixty-three percent, he remembered. He would never take those odds in any other situation. Though his Divination spell to ascertain the Lich’s artifact had been constructed within a month, it had begun at fifty percent odds of success. Raising it to ninety had taken a full year.
“What?” Senior Disciple Wu broke decorum. “You made a completely new formula within the same day?”
“Disciple Guanzhong,” Yang said sternly, and he hung his head, abashed. “That is quite a feat, Master Sylar.”
“Trust me, it was more luck than anything else. I only just barely made it in time.”
It had been a miracle that he had known of the spell’s existence when he had searched banned Necromancy texts in preparation for the horrors of Renashan’s tomb, and that Wenchai just happened to have the necessary reagents with him to draw Life Essence from. If the unknown Sect was any more skilful, and used a spell of higher level, there was no way that Qiyu could have been saved.
“It is rare for a foreign cultivator to enter the Six States, much less Penshan. I will pry no more into the secrets of your Sect,” the Elder said. “I thank you for your timely assistance. Penshan and Jinxiang Province remains stable because of Master Lu’s efforts, and I dread to think what might happen were he to lose his daughter. For all of our supposed strength, we know precious little about governance. It is why unlike the cultivators in some of the other states, we rarely directly intervene in mundane affairs, save for defending against Demonic Beasts and those of the Evil Path.
“As for our unknown enemies, though, I cannot help but worry. From your account, it is clear that he was not working alone. We will need to attend to this matter at once.” He turned toward Wu Guanzhong. “Senior Disciple, please make the arrangements to increase patrols in Penshan, in case they return to Master Lu’s estate. Update the Seniors out on missions with this news. Have our brothers and sisters keep watch over the nearby towns under the guidance of the Seniors. Regrettably, Grandmaster Mu and Elder Shang are deep in a cycle of meditation, and will not immediately be able to offer their assistance. Arrange for someone to deliver this information to Elder Hua in the Demon’s Pass. Write to the Radiant Star and Crystal Path Sects, and see to it that they are aware of this development.”
“As for the Silver Guardians, it is troubling to hear of their behaviour.” Elder Yang frowned. “If this mysterious enemy has somehow agitated them, it is possible that they may be able to involve other Mythical Creatures or Demonic Beasts in their plans.”
Sylar hesitated, then sighed. “It’s probably a coincidence,” he spoke up, abashed, as though he’d been caught by Master Rynwald making a foolish mistake in his casting. “The change in their behaviour was likely triggered by my mistake in using a Spiritual Art. Uh… sorry?”
There was a pause. Then, Wenchai grinned, clapping his hands loudly. “Hah! So it was fate that made our paths cross! I knew it!”
“You’re not angry?”
“Bah! Who cares about that rickety old cart, anyway? You’re going to bring me plenty of good fortune, I can sense it!”
“It must have been a potent Spiritual Art, to be able to influence the Silver Guardians so such a level.” Elder Yang gave no inclination as to whether he approved or disapproved. “You are lucky to even be alive right now, Master Sylar.”
He grimaced. He didn’t need reminding that if not for the power of the artifact, interplanar travel through a spell alone was likely to generate enough Soulburn to instantly disintegrate the very substance of his soul. “Trust me, I know.”
“Very well, then. Senior Disciple, you know your duties.” Elder Yang stood from his seat. “I thank you all for informing me these dire news, honoured guests. Please, feel free to rest in our Sect’s guestrooms for the night, before returning to Penshan in the morning.”
“Thank you, Elder Yang.” Jin bowed. “Jinxiang will be counting on the aid of the Penshan Alliance.”
They stood up, about to leave the room. Wu had already exited, sliding the door, and holding it open for them.
“Before you leave, Master Sylar, would you humour my curiosity?”
He turned back to face the Elder. “Hmm?”
“Pardon my rudeness, but there is no easy way to put it. Your qi is almost fully undeveloped, and yet… you have already long since passed the Core Condensation stage of spiritual cultivation,” the Elder said, a curious look in his eye. “I must admit, I was rather shocked when I first laid eyes upon you.”
The Senior Disciple reacted with surprise at that statement, but its semantics meant nothing to Sylar. Qi? Core Condensation? Spiritual cultivation? He had some suspicions about their meaning through context alone, but there wasn’t anything solid to which he could base a firm understanding.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Elder Yang.”
The Elder gave a teasing smile. “I did suspect that might be the case,” he said. “If I may be so impudent as to ask, would you be willing to engage in a bout with Disciple Wu?”
Wu Guanzhong seemed surprised, but didn’t argue with his Sect Elder, bowing respectfully.
“I’m afraid I have no background in martial combat,” Sylar said, hoping that he didn’t let his thoughts on the punching-obsessed cultivators show. “It will not be a very good spectacle, I imagine.”
“Please,” he insisted. “There is no need to be humble, if you bested a member of our unknown enemy Sect. If my suspicions are right, I believe that you will find this experience to be most enlightening.”
Mages did not fare particularly well in close quarter combat. For the most part, most of his adventuring career had been spent hiding behind the more armoured of his companions, or taking care of his enemies from the get-go. Continually stick to a mage, and a Monk or Fighter would eventually beat down their Soulburn-addled opponent.
However… he did have a point. Sylar was curious as to just why these cultivators were so different from Reshamin mages. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t been in his fair share of dangers in the past. Hopefully, he would be able to react fast enough to throw Earthen Shells around.
“Fine. Just know that I’m insanely fragile,” he stressed. “One good punch, and you’ll probably have to scrape me in bits and pieces off the mountainside.”
Elder Yang’s face brightened, a mysterious gleam in his eye. “Excellent,” he said, moving to join them. “Disciple Wu, I believe that this will be a great learning experience for you as well.”