“That is so unfair,” Sylar said. “So, so unfair.”
Qiyu gave a sheepish smile, embarrassed. In her hand, she held what was once part of the frame of her chair, and now a mere scrap piece of wood.
“Again?” Jin shook his head, exasperated. “Sylar, what have you been teaching my daughter?”
“It’s not my fault,” he protested, waving a finger at him. “I’m the one who’s not had any progress!”
Over the past week, Sylar’s efforts had not yet borne any fruit. Even though he was now able to eternally feed in a single pair of Fate Essence and burn it as fast he could continue chaining Zeroth Level spells together, his body still remained as fragile as any mage that ever lived. He was now profoundly aware of the sensation that was the potential energy stored within Fate Essence when left to burn directly without manifestation into a spell, and was convinced that he was correctly infusing it into his body.
Unfortunately, nothing happened.
Meanwhile, Qiyu, who struggled to even draw in and activate a Fire-Fire pair every fifteen minutes, had evidence that her training was paying off. It was nothing impressive – were Sylar to try and pull hard enough with just his own physical strength, he could force apart the articles of furniture that had been the subjects of her accidental wrath. Still, there was no way that a ten-year-old girl, who had been bedbound for the past month, should have been able to achieve any of that.
It was not a consistent occurrence – this was only the third time it happened, even though Sylar had given her leave to continue the exercise on her own when out of his sight, after deeming her control over Essence manipulation to be decent enough that she wouldn’t accidentally rip her soul apart. As he had noticed with Guanzhong during their duel, these odd displays of strength only happened when she deliberately caused an Essence backlash, giving rise to a sudden boost in strength.
It did not happen all the time, though. For the most part, she was able to controllably temper her body with the power that lay within the Fire-Fire pair. It was only when she had lapses in concentration or was distracted by something else feeding that power in that she strengthened her body in a single burst.
“Please refrain from practicing at the table,” Jin rebuked. “Heavens, I’m starting to wonder if agreeing to your training was the right idea.”
“At least you know that she will be able to defend herself from anyone who isn’t a cultivator,” Sylar said. “Besides, her Spiritual Arts are nothing to scoff at either. She’s making quite good progress. Qiyu’s got good instincts, considering her lack of experience in the art.”
Dancing Flames was now a spell that she could cast reliably, albeit lacking in fine control. Though Sylar was now making her work on the other Primal-Primal pairs during his tutoring sessions, she had continued focusing on Fire-Fire as her basis in strengthening her body, claiming that she felt an affinity with that pair. Sylar could understand – even though he had tried working with the other Essence pairs in different combinations, it was always Fate-Fate that resonated with him, the released energy beckoning to him.
He just wished that the damned Essence would tell him what he was doing wrong. Where was all that power going? There were two possibilities here - either Fate-Fate had a completely different effect from Fire-Fire that Qiyu was burning, or that he was doing it completely wrongly, and the latent power was simply vanishing back into the Scribe's Sanctum. It was, unfortunately, something he couldn't conclude at the moment without continuing to work at it and hoping to eventually discover an effect.
“A father will always worry, Sylar. I’m certain you will feel the same, once you have children of your own.”
“If,” Sylar corrected. “With troubleshooting this body strengthening techniques, expanding my repertoire of Spiritual Arts, and practising with those I already know, I’ve got enough work to fill another five years of my life as it is.”
“You say that now.” Jin smirked. “Wait until you find the right one, and you’ll change your mind in a heartbeat.”
“Well, that will be a long time away.” He brushed Jin’s words aside. Back in his adventuring days, he had been the youngest one in the party, and had likewise been subject to plenty of such teasing by his, ah, more experienced friends. “Besides aren’t your cultivators supposed to rid themselves of their earthly desires or something, anyway?”
“No,” Jin said, tilting his head to one side. “What ever gave you that impression? Sure, most cultivators stay away from mundane affairs, but they still marry and have children within their Sects. Some even use it as a way to strengthen alliances.”
“Huh. Good to know.” He was basing his pre-assumptions off what he knew about the Monk cloisters of Resham, but it seemed that cultivators weren’t just monks who discovered the wonders of Essence after all. “Regardless, now isn’t the right time.”
With the Transcendentals freely up for the taking, Sylar had immersed himself into practising with the other schools of magic that he hadn’t paid particular focus to outside of combat applications in his adventuring days. It was bearing fruit – now, he was able to cast spells up to Fifth Level in all the non-Divination branches that were empowered by Transcendentals.
Sixth Level spells would be more tricky – he had memorised the matrices for a couple of the established Fifth Level ones, but had never seen the point of doing so for their higher equivalents back in Resham, since he was a poor little Arcanist without the funds to procure expensive reagents. If he wanted to cast, say, Titanic Transformation, he would need to reinvent the Enchantment-Transmutation hybrid.
That had been his schedule for the past week. With all that he had on his plate, he scarcely had the time to do much else.
“Best that you hurry,” Jin advised, nodding to himself sagely. “You won’t stay young forever.”
Bah. Master Rynwald had never started a family of his own, and he’d been perfectly content with his life. A mage’s true love should always be for Essence Studies! Everything else was but a distraction!
“What are you two talking about?” Qiyu finally asked, looking between them both blankly, all previous embarrassment forgotten.
Well, if she was going to offer a way out of Jin’s unsolicited advice, Sylar would freely seize upon it.
“Your father wants me to seduce a woman in order to procreate,” Sylar said, before Jin could open his mouth. “He’s a very devious man.”
She frowned. “What does ‘seduce’ mean? And what is ‘procreate’?”
Ah, children really were too innocent. So easy to manipulate.
“Yes, teacher!” she chirped innocently, then began pelting her father with questions. “Father, what do those words mean?”
Jin fixed him with a glare of betrayal, while Sylar innocently continue with his breakfast. He had probably never intended to discuss such subjects at Qiyu’s current age, but alas, he had forced Sylar’s hand.
Such was the Diviner’s way. Meet opposition with minimum force, until their weaknesses were laid bare, and opportunity presented itself. A philosophy not just for combat, but for all applications in life.
He finished his meal in peace, while a flustered Jin kept trying to skirt his way around the many new topics that Qiyu was probing into. Sylar raised his cup of tea in a silent toast at his harried friend, and was about to take his leave to begin his morning spellcasting practice, when one of the servants of the Lu Estate knocked loudly on the door to the dining room, and entered.
He bowed deeply. “Master Lu,” he said. “A master cultivator from the Righteous Heart Sect has arrived, and requests to have a word. Shall I send him in?”
Jin was alert at once. “Yes, please.”
Over the past week, they hadn’t had new word from the Sect. Even though some of their number had begun to stand guard over the towns and villages under their care, as per Elder Yang’s directives, they had uncovered no new information about those who had deceived Jin and almost killed Qiyu. Wenchai had left on another trading trip, and promised to send word at once if anything turned up.
The attendant bowed once more, and then left the room. Shortly thereafter, he returned, bringing with him a familiar face.
“Disciple Wu!” Jin greeted.
Guanzhong was the very figure of composure, poised and refined. There were no signs of any injuries that he had sustained during their duel. He gave a small smile, and bowed with respect.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Master Lu. Young mistress Lu, you look to have recovered greatly from your ordeal as well.” He turned to Sylar. “Fellow practitioner Sylar, it is good to see that you still remain in Penshan.”
“Has there been any news?”
“Not yet, I’m afraid. Rest assured, Master Lu, that we will not allow this evil to fester. My brothers and sisters remain ever vigilant for any sign of unrest. So long as we of the Righteous Heart Sect still draw breath, we will not allow the enemies of Jinxiang to bring harm to its people. The injustice done upon your family will not go unpunished.”
“And we are thankful for that,” Jin said. “But forgive me for asking – if it is not about news regarding our unknown Sect, why else have you come?”
“I have arrived on a different matter. A humble request, actually. It pertains to fellow practitioner Sylar.”
“Me?” he asked, surprised, having been perfectly content with quietly listening in.
“Indeed. As you know, Elder Yang has ordered that my brothers and sisters mobilise against our unknown enemies. Elder Hua and a few of my fellow Seniors have been tracking down a group of Demonic Beasts in the Demon’s Pass that have been becoming more active, and their latest reply mentioned that they have finally located the creatures. Elder Yang has asked that I join them on their mission, in order to facilitate their swift return,” he said. “The Elder has also suggested that I stop by, and approach to ask if you would be willing to accompany me in this endeavour.”
Elder Yang did? Sylar frowned. The Elder seemed to know what he was doing, but…
“You do remember that I’m exceedingly fragile, right? One trick pony and all?”
“Do not disparage yourself, Sylar Spellsight. Your mastery of the Spiritual Arts far exceeds my own. I am certain that you will be a great boon to our efforts, should you choose to accept our humble request.” He paused, then looked at him quizzically. “Besides, it appears that you are taking steps to correct yourself of that deficiency, are you not?”
There was a pregnant pause, as the sentence registered.
“I apologise for my lack of decorum,” Guanzhong said, reading the room. “That was very rude of me.”
“No, that’s not it,” Sylar denied. “But… you’re sure that I’m actually tempering my body?”
“Your qi is still unrefined, but a foundation has been laid. Elder Yang did say that I might be surprised when next we met, and though I was sceptical, it seems that I have much to learn from his wisdom.” He furrowed his brows. “Are you unaware of your own growth, Sylar?”
“As far as I can tell, Qiyu is enjoying more success than myself.” He tried his best to hide his annoyance at that fact, but it was hard not to feel at least some humiliation when outdone by his own student after a mere week of exposure to Essence. Perhaps the effect of Fate-Fate was simply more subtle.
“That is odd.” Guanzhong looked at Qiyu, holding his gaze for a few moments. She shied away quickly. “The young mistress has indeed begun her journey of bodily cultivation, but her progress is not as advanced as yours. Until you mentioned it, I could scarcely sense it at all.” He glanced at Sylar. “I was unaware that she was your disciple, Sylar Spellsight."
“Oh, no. I’m just teaching her the basics and a few tricks in my spare time,” Sylar said distractedly. “How do you know that I’m trying out this Body Tempering business, anyway?”
“Those who have taken the first of a thousand steps to bodily enlightenment can see the path tread by others,” Guanzhong recited, speaking in a practised tone. “You will eventually be able to do the same, so long as you continue down the Path. Frankly speaking, the rate of your progress is astounding, and had I not battled against you just a week before, I would never have imagined it possible.”
Bizarre saying aside, Sylar thought he got the gist of what Guanzhong was saying. At an advanced stage of refining their qi, cultivators eventually gained the ability to sense that of others. It was no different from how mages eventually gained an ability to freely perceive Essence once their proficiency grew. With his Diviner’s sight, earned through repeated exposure and dedication to spells of Divination, Sylar had exceeded even that.
At least that meant he was doing something correctly. Encouraged, he continued burning pairs of Fate Essence, just as he had been throughout the meal.
Returning to his proposal, though… Sylar had to admit that he was interested in taking up the offer. He had already come across Spirit Wolves on his first day in the Immortal Lands, something that he had once considered to be the subject of bestiary pages that he would never get to see with his own eyes. Just what were these Demonic Beasts, and how did they differ from what the locals called Spiritual Creatures like their Silver Guardians?
And, well – after five years of inactivity, finally getting some action in the week before had reawakened some primal need in him from his adventuring days. Taking up endless quests that ranged from retrieving precious gemstones from basilisk-infested mines, tracking down a bandit’s hideout, or putting down a rampaging manticore – those had been the days. He could already hear the more enthusiastic members of his former party egging him on to accept.
“Fine,” he acquiesced. “I’ll tag along. How long will this trip take?”
“Excellent. I am glad to be able to count on your assistance. If all goes well, we will return to Penshan within a matter of days, now that their pack has already been located.”
Sylar looked at Qiyu. “Will you be alright practising on your own?”
She nodded firmly. “Yes, teacher!”
Well, she was enthusiastic. Hopefully, her track record of success for the past few days would continue to hold on.
“Try your best not to burn your house down or damn your soul to eternal torment while I’m gone,” Sylar said. “Jin will never let that one slide.”
He gave a final nod and waved goodbye to Jin, while Guanzhong stood by the door. Just before exiting, Sylar turned around, offering a final parting message.
“Remember to ask your father about those words you were curious about! I’ll quiz you about them when I return!”
Then, before Jin could react, Sylar made a swift retreat. Together, he and Guanzhong made their way out of the Lu Manor.
“Where is this Demon’s Pass, anyway?” he asked as they walked.
“It lies just to the north of Penshan,” Guanzhong answered. “It is a vast stretch of steep cliffs, canyons, and valleys that divides the state of Wu from Qing to the north.”
“I see.” He paused, then realised a more pertinent matter. “How are we going to get there, anyway? You remember that I can’t travel as fast as you, right?”
Guanzhong paused mid-step for an instant, before continuing. “I… had forgotten that. I could carry you along, if that –”
“No,” he shut that idea down flatly. “I’ll ride.”
“If that is your wish,” Guanzhong said, glancing around, now that they had exited the Lu Manor proper. “We could stop at the stables to charter a horse for yourself.”
“No need.” Sylar grinned, a spell matrix already on his mind. “I’ve got my own ride.”
With that, he summoned a Phantom Steed, the shifting motes of black Shadow Essence arising from the Hollow Reality expanding from a spherical core, that then twisted and writhed into an equine form. The darkness faded a moment later, acquiring colour, and within another second it was undistinguishable from its living counterpart.
Sylar relished in the moments when he could earn reactions like the one that Guanzhong was now showing, particularly since it seemed like he was the type to always maintain poise and decorum. Now that he knew that the local cultivators knew things about Essence that mages had never before discovered, he had to show off a little of what they could do. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“Unbelievable,” Guanzhong breathed, placing a hand on its flesh. “It even feels warm to the touch. This is another Spiritual Art from your Sect, Sylar?”
“Indeed.” He slid atop the steed. One of the benefits of the spell was that it was completely subservient to the caster, which meant that he didn’t actually need skill in riding. “Shall we be off?”
“You continue to find ways to amaze.” Guanzhong continued inspecting the mount for moment longer, then shook his head. “Very well. Follow me.”
With that, they made their way to the city’s gates, and from there, headed north to the Demon’s Pass.
The Phantom Steeds never tired, continuing at a gallop, and yet they were still keeping pace with Guanzhong. It had been hours, and he had never once required a break. In fact, Sylar had the impression that he could still travel even faster if he so wished.
It was astounding. Was this what lay in store for him, once he finally earned some results with his reverse-engineered form of Body Tempering?
“So,” he said, breaking the silence that they had settled into. “Is there anything that you can tell me about your Sect?”
Guanzhong didn’t even sound winded as he replied. “That depends. What would you like to know?”
“How does your Sect work, anyway? What’s the difference between a Junior, Senior, and Elder?” he asked, a topic that he had been curious about for the past week.
“I suppose it is an open secret of our Sect, among those of the cultivation world,” Guanzhong answered, after a moment of consideration. “It is no big mystery. New initiates are assigned the rank of Juniors, that are further subdivided into the inner and outer circles. Successful laying of the foundation for bodily cultivation allows one entry into the inner group, and completion of the Purification of Body results in promotion to the title of Senior.”
Interesting. It seemed that this pathway of progression in tempering the body was such common knowledge in their world, a core concept so fundamental that it did not break his vows of secrecy to his Sect. Common knowledge, and yet no mage in living history had ever grasped it before.
“From there, Seniors embark on the path of spiritual cultivation, while endlessly continuing to reforge and strengthen our bodies,” he said. “Those who achieve Spiritual Awakening are brought to the inner circle of Senior Disciples, and are entrusted the responsibility of training our junior siblings.”
“And the Elders?” Sylar probed.
“They are our leaders, with the Grandmaster presiding over us all. Right now, there are Elder Yang, Elder Hua, and Elder Shang, as well as Grandmaster Mu. They alone are privy to the innermost secrets of our Sect. Only they can be entrusted with the knowledge of our predecessors, should those with evil intent seek to take them from us.”
Not too surprising. Mages were much the same, with Spellsongs and Archmages jealously guarding many of their own creations. Sadly for them, Diviners tended to recreate and plagiarise their spells after observing them in action.
“But you’re a Senior Disciple, correct? Does that mean that you’ve achieved this Spiritual Awakening already?”
“Indeed.” He gave an embarrassed smile. “Well… truth be told, I have surpassed that stage as well. Those of us who have completed Core Condensation are granted a separate distinction as ranking disciples.”
Core Condensation. Elder Yang had mentioned that Sylar was already well past that stage. Now he just needed to figure out what that actually meant in the established framework of Reshamin Essence Studies.
“What happens then?”
“One of the Elders chooses us for direct instruction,” he said. “I am afraid I cannot tell you much of what this tutelage entails, other than that Elder Yang is my direct master.” He paused. “Likewise, among my fellow siblings that we will soon be meeting, one of them has been chosen by Elder Hua.”
“Interesting,” Sylar mused. “Thanks.”
“What about yourself, Sylar?” he asked. “What was your Sect like?”
He shrugged – well, as much as he could, while gripping his Phantom Steed’s reins. “I don’t have a Sect, actually. Where I come from, our cultivators are mostly just apprentices and masters. Some of the more learned ones set up their own institutes of learning, but something like what your Sect has achieved where an entire community of cultivators have isolated themselves is unheard of.”
“Truly?” he piqued. “That is hard to imagine.”
“Mmhmm.” Sylar considered what he had been told. “Is this what your fellow Seniors are doing in the Demon’s Pass, then? A training exercise with Elder Hua?”
He nodded. “Yes. When the Sect first heard news that a band of Demonic Beasts were drawing dangerously close to Penshan, Elder Hua decided to seize the opportunity, and took a few of my fellow Seniors to put down the foul creatures.”
“Huh.” In some ways, that sounded just like the quests he used to undertake as an adventurer. “Are all your sect siblings just like you?”
Guanzhong gave a sideward glance at him. “What do you mean?”
“Refined, poised, postured, calm, and a hundred other synonyms I can’t even think of?” Sylar shot dryly. “Gods, after our duel, I’m starting to wonder if anything can even make you unnerved, never mind angry.”
He chuckled. “That is Elder Yang’s influence on me, I believe. Many of my peers will tell you that I was much more hot-headed, prior to receiving his instruction. There was a time when I would challenge my brothers and sisters to spars and bouts incessantly.”
Now that Sylar would never believe. “You’re lying.”
“Believe as you wish,” Guanzhong said. “As for your question, however… no, that is not the case.” He hesitated. “I do not wish to speak ill of my precious comrades, but you should prepare yourself to meet some of my siblings with more, ah, temperamental personalities than myself.”
“Trust me, I think I can handle myself.” Dealing with a raging Barbarian as part of his adventuring group after years spent under Master Rynwald’s sanctuary of learning had been eye-opening. “How many people are we talking about, anyway?”
“Elder Hua has taken with her Sister Yang, Sister Qin, Brother Liu and Brother Song with her,” he said. “Of them, Sister Yang is a ranking disciple like myself, while the others are Seniors of the inner circle close to achieving Core Condensation.”
“Any rivalry going on there?”
“Each person treads their own Path, and comparison for comparison’s sake is pointless,” he recited once more. Then, reluctantly, he added. “But yes, of the three Elders, Elder Hua is known for pushing her personal disciples as far as possible. And as for Sister Yang… she has her disagreements with her father.”
“Wait,” Sylar said. “By father, do you mean Elder Yang?”
“Indeed,” he said. “She… believes him to be too passive and timid. It was why she jumped at the opportunity when Elder Hua sought her out.”
“Guess this is your chance to show off what Elder Yang’s teachings has taught you,” he teased. Then, seeing Guanzhong’s amusement at his words, he followed up. “What?”
“I am afraid that you will find yourself sorely disappointed,” he said. “We might have been equals, once, but Sister Yang has surpassed my own abilities. Already, she has begun training in the Sect’s Nine Processes Unification Scriptures under Elder Hua’s guidance, while Elder Yang is still having me continue with preparation of the body and spirit. Of the ranking disciples, she is most likely among us all to become an Elder.”
Again with the fancy names. Why couldn’t these cultivators use simpler and less cryptic descriptions for their spells, arts, techniques, and scriptures, so that Sylar could more easily hope to tease out their meaning?
“Look ahead, now.” Guanzhong pointed in the distance. “That is the Demon’s Pass.”
Sylar did as he was told. For a few moments, he couldn’t see anything that matched the description Guanzhong had given back at the Lu Manor. As far as he could tell, it was just a stretch of barren flatland, the same as the ones they had been riding across for the past hour or so.
Then, across the brown, craggy stones, he saw them. Thin, spiderweb-like cracks that spread across the terrain, so faint from this distance that it was nearly hidden by the dark stones. It stretched on as far as the eye could see, innumerable ridges interspersed with deep fissures.
He had been envisioning a series of mountainous terrain, interrupted by sharp peaks and troughs. But this – this looked more like something had shattered what once was a piece of complete flatland continuous with the path that they were now on, splintering it into hundreds of individual plateaus. At this distance, they blended together, but Sylar imagined that from up close, the gap between each individual plateau would be far wider.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” Guanzhong said, a knowing smile on his face. “There is a legend as to how this place came to be, you know.”
Sylar glanced at him. “A legend?”
“It is said that long ago, when the Immortal Lands were young, there existed the Eight Immortals,” he said. “They alone knew the secrets of cultivation, far more than anyone alive today. They were the best of friends, and together, they uncovered secrets beyond the mortal realm, journeying to places beyond human understanding, before vanquishing the concepts of life and death themselves.”
Sylar raised a brow, but did not interrupt. “But one day, two of them had an argument,” Guanzhong continued. “The exact cause varies by the legend – some say that it was a disagreement over whose cultivation method was superior, some claim that one wanted dominion over the mortal realm, while others argue that it was over far more mundane matters. Regardless, for fifty days and fifty nights, they fought against each other. Their blows shook the heavens and ruptured the earth. Fire rained from the skies, and thunder tore the ground asunder. This was their battlefield.”
He waved into the distance. It was… fanciful imagination, but Sylar thought he could see what he was driving at. It was unlike anything he had seen in Resham. He privately doubted that even Meteor Swarm, a Ninth Level spell few Archmages had ever been able to cast, could have ravaged the earth to this extent.
“In the end, they were both equal, and neither could triumph over the other. Still, too prideful to admit defeat, they continued fighting to the death. In the end, both Immortals passed into the realm of death that they had once conquered hand in hand. The commonfolk, terrified of what they had witnessed, would claim that Demons had entered the mortal world, giving rise to this place’s name.”
He paused momentarily. “The remaining Six, stricken by grief, saw that for all they had achieved, they had never overcome their inherent mortality. By unanimous agreement, they secluded themselves into six corners of the Immortal Lands, lest they tear it asunder even further. There, they taught the commonfolk the basics of cultivation that they had uncovered together, but never went too far, out of fear that history would repeat once more. Then, they vanished without a trace, and the world never again beheld a True Immortal.
“Later, over the eons, the lands where each of them exiled themselves to would become the Six States, and the Sects of each region would be founded by the teachings that each of the Immortals had taught to the first of the mundane cultivators.”
Sylar let the silence hold for a second before speaking. “And you believe this legend?”
“I do, yes.” He smiled wistfully. “Though no Sect has ever come close to filling the shoes of the Lost Immortals, there is evidence to support the legend. For example, the Sects of each state’s cultivation methods are vastly different from one another, while those within the same region are more similar in foundation, but divergent in advanced principles.”
“I see.” Privately, Sylar wondered whether he was just retroactively ascribing meaning to the legend, but he made no comment.
“Regardless, here we are.” Guanzhong slowed down, and Sylar mentally ordered his Phantom Steed into a trot. “The reply that Elder Hua sent via messenger kite said that their group set up camp in that direction. Let us join them.”