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There was a certain mountaintop near the Cloudy Sword Sect. A locus of power, and a meeting place.

Every twelve years, a certain set of sworn brothers met here, high above the earth in a place that would kill a mortal from mere exposure. The wind, the cold, the howling Qi.

Forms shimmered into existence.

Xiao Ge was one, his projection shimmering into existence on the mountain top. It was rough around the edges, because of the distance. He was very far away, but this is why he had arrived early. He concentrated, smoothing out the edges in his projection, and making everything as crisp and clean as possible. Like it was himself standing there, instead of a mere ghost of his Qi.

Next to arrive was Brother Ran. His fellow Elder was gone in one instant, and there the next, stretching his astral body, and smiling at his fellow.

They waited a while together, after exchanging greetings.

“Is this it?” Elder Ge asked. “Our numbers dwindle every year.”

Ran shook his head. “I can guarantee one more. The rest... Closed Door Cultivation or dead.”

Elder Ge sighed. Really, so deeply in cultivation they couldn’t even spare a moment for their meeting? How rude.

A final form snapped and crackled, bursting into existence.

Shen Yu formed out of the aether, a massive grin on his face.

It was an odd, and terrifying sight, on a man whose face was normally a mask of serenity or stern judgement.

“Brothers!” He boomed fondly. There was a spark. There was excitement. It had been a very long time since he had last seen Shen Yu lively.

“See? The bastard was in Crimson Crucible City for years, and only now came to visit me!” Ran complained, and Shen Yu laughed again.

“I found something much more interesting than you!” He shot back.

“Another woman?” Ge asked rolling his eyes.

“No, a grandson!” He shouted, like a man beholding his firstborn.

“This one thinks that esteemed Shen Yu would have a great many grandsons.” Ge mused, and Ran snorted.

Shen Yu scoffed. “I am careful about siring sons, after the first disappointment. Though if I did not know better, I would say this one is of my blood! Ah, my friends, it is like looking into the past.” He declared, “I can see only a reflection of myself! He even shoveled the way I once did. The twist of his hips, so you can get a bit more distance to the cart!”

He was clearly thinking of a time that he disliked immensely, and rarely spoke of to all but his closest confidants. Shen Yu was a Master cultivator, a true expert. Shen Yu was not an orphan street rat.

He was giddy. Shen Yu, giddy.

“So you have an apprentice?” Ge asked again, interested.

“Indeed. His drive-- the way he constructs his foundation--!” His grin was wide and wild.

“Ah, so we have another monster to look forward to seeing then.” Ran sighed. “What have you given the boy? I know you have a dozen scriptures, and resources that would put some Sects to shame.”

Shen Yu looked insulted that Ran was asking. “Nothing.” He said bluntly. “A man’s foundation should be pure. He is constructing himself. So he must use himself as a base.”

Ge and Ran both nodded their heads, unwilling to argue. Shen Yu was living proof of this philosophy, after all.

“When he does receive resources, it will be through his own hand and work. When he decided what he wants. Anything else would spoil his potential!” He declared.

“So you’ll be in Crimson Crucible city for a while, then?”

“We’ll see. If he needs to move, I shall move him. But he needs guidance right now. Something to keep him hungry, and on the right path.”

Ge nodded. He could see some benefits. Ambition and drive may be spoiled by coddling… but in most cases the increased resources served men better. Though after the last disaster, he supposed Shen Yu would go back to his roots.

“Your teaching has too much of the fist. Even metal could shatter, if too much force is applied.” Ran warned.

Shen Yu nodded. “I am watching carefully for that limit. For now, the petty insults just drive him to greater heights. The knowledge that he is still weak just makes him work harder, his eyes so pure and full of intent.”

His smile was fierce and proud as he said that. Absolutely convinced that this was the right way.

“If you’re recreating yourself, will our sect host him?” Ge asked. He would like to see the fruits of Shen Yu’s labour.

“When hes ready, maybe I’ll send him to trade pointers with your little clouds, if only to honour Senior Brother’s memory.” He bowed his head… and then a lecherous grin spread across his face. “Or I'll send him to train with the fairies of the Soaring Heavens Isle.”

Both men rolled their eyes at the name of the all female sect. Shen Yu knew all of their elders… intimately.

“He will always be welcome in our Cloudy Sword Sect, whatever you decide. Though I would assume by your methods, the Outer Sect might be the best place?”

Shen Yu nodded. “Keep an eye on him, but don’t ruin him. I need him this way. He needs himself this way. A man must face heaven alone.” His declaration was heralded with a burst of Qi, his conviction as solid as his own foundations.

“His name is Jin Rou. I may allow him to take the name Shen Rou, in a few years. Tall, freckles, hardworking lad.” Shen Yu said fondly.

“But enough about me! How goes your adventures in the southlands, Brother Ge!”

They talked well into the night. And with the dawn, their ethereal bodies faded away.

===========================

Xiao Ge stewed in his room as he reminisced. The memories were helpful and hurtful in equal measure. His gut roiled, and the clouds above churned ominously. Something had happened, to make Shen Yu send his boy here early. Likely some emergency with the Demonic invasion, something that necessitated speed. Elder Ran was here, so he had followed Shen Yu’s request, and put him in the Outer Sect.

He picked up a ledger on his desk, and consulted it. A list of what the Cloudy Sword Sect Elders were engaged in.

Closed Door Cultivation.

Closed Door Cultivation.

On personal leave.

Closed Door Cultivation.

He frowned heavily. Most of the elders were indisposed, in closed door cultivation or out in the world, the Sect running without their presence.

Elder Ran: Called by emergency dispatch.

And of course, he had went, because what true harm would befall Jin Rou? Jin Rou Should not have needed a minder. It was the Cloudy Sword Sect! Who would dare assault it’s students? Who would dare have the guts?

Apparently their own students.

Forget Brother Shen Yu, Xiao Ge was livid.

There was always some damage, some wounds. They were cultivators! Such things were common, and The Honoured Founders had praised martial discourse as a high virtue. There had been many bouts, of the Inner Disciples trading pointers with the Outer Disciples.

Beating a junior to death on purpose? Xiao Ge’s own Master, or any of the Masters from that Generation would have slain the student on the spot, no matter who they were, or who their father, or their grandfather was!

Even this, this near death, and near crippling, would have been harshly punished. Yet the boy had apparently suffered nothing for it. Because he was Elder Chen’s son? The youngest Elder?

He scoffed. An attendant was called in, the man barely managing to stay standing as he turned his Intent upon him. His face was a mask of terror.

“Call an assembly in two day’s time.” He commanded, his voice booming. “The Sect. All of it.”

The man shakily saluted. Elder Ge frowned at his passing, mentally raising Lu Ri’s worth up several points in his mind. The boy had impressive composure. He had barely been sweating, and Elder Ge’s intent was much greater then than it had been now.

He would have to think of taking another apprentice, after so long. Or introducing him to his granddaughter, if all went well.

If all went well. He concentrated, as he tried to calm his churning Qi. The gathering clouds outside were not his concern, but rather his inner formation was boiling like a cauldron after the youngster’s story.

How could things have gotten like this?

His master, ruffling his hair. ‘We live so high up in the clouds, little one, it can be easy to forget to look at the ground. But one must always remember, to look back and reflect.’

Xiao Ge frowned heavily, internally chastising himself. How long had it been, since he visited the outer disciples? Not since his own boyhood, when Brother Shen Yu used to drag him out for their games.

He stood, his inner world calm enough to move, even if the clouds outside still reflected his black mood.

He strode out of his pavilion, and into his Sect. his eyes flashed around like his own swords, as he descended the levels, to the areas of the Outer Disciples.

His eyes took in the slight decay. The missing roof tiles. The cracks in the buildings that should be pristine. Minor things. Some were so small that even other cultivators would not notice.

But it was all an indication of something… off.

He whirled away, ignoring the nervous disciples staring at the sky.

There was a rot here. And he would have it out by the roots.

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