When this mission had merely been him fulfilling a minor duty of the Sect, Lu Ri had been relatively frugal. In his mind, the only thing that had been taken up was his own time, and thus he kept resource costs relatively low, save for the one rallying of the disciples.
Now, however, things were important. Important enough to begin to use true techniques. With Elder Ge’s command, he immediately sought the use of a Divining Formation. The answers one got were murky at the best of times, and Lu Ri could confess limited talent. But his other Senior Disciples, the ones who had not been driven into a frenzy of activity by Elder Ge’s sudden and imposing presence as he began demanding more records, could aid him.
He would keep things discreet as commanded. His fellows knew he was looking for someone, but respected his silence on who. Or more likely, never thought to ask, too concerned with the clouds above their heads that boiled like a cauldron.
But for this divination to even have a chance of being successful, they needed more than a mere letter. The preliminary search had revealed nothing. Which was to be expected. It was also why so few embarked upon this path. Before mastery, uses were limited, and reagents expensive, in addition to needing personal affects, or even samples of Qi.
Luckily, they had plenty of such samples. Or so Senior Disciple Lu Ri thought.
“Ah, yes, the high quality Lowly Spiritual Herbs? The ones in this room have all been used.” An aged cracking voice commented. The Senior Disciple, and Lu Ri did mean Senior Disciple, the man looked his age, was stroking his beard. “When things are of such superlative quality, they are used up swiftly.”
“There are none left? Truly?” Lu Ri asked with dismay.
“While they were all used, or at least the ones in circulation, I did keep a sprig for myself.” The old man said. “Though it did come from another set of disciples. They claimed they grew them themselves, but… This old man has some suspicions that they did not.”
Lu Ri frowned. “They stole them?”
“One of the younger ones looked extremely guilty, when they were brought to me. When I asked another to investigate, he claimed it was… merely coincidence. They were merely Lowly Spiritual herbs, so he saw no point in pursuing further. And these bones are not what they used to be.”
Lu Ri sighed at the laxity one of his fellows had shown, irritation coursing through his veins, and bowed to his elder. “Thank you. I shall investigate further.” The old man nodded, wincing as he stood. He was obviously running out of time, and he had clearly given up on ascending past his current limitations. But the sect still kept him on, for his organisation was superb, even with his failing health.
The old man walked into his personal rooms, and retrieved the sprig of lowly spiritual herb. It was slightly dried out looking, but still vibrantly green and pliable.
“Thank you, Senior Brother--” Lu Ri began and was cut off with a booming roar.
The entire mountain shook, and Elder Ge’s Qi flooded outward. The black, boiling clouds dropped ominously, like the very sky itself was falling.
A black maw descending to devour them.
As soon as it came, it left. The clouds paused their executioner’s descent, and retreated. Merely churning angrily, rather than boiling.
Both Senior Disciples swallowed thickly.
“I shall find out the truth behind this matter, Senior Brother.” Lu Ri intoned.
“May the heavens be with you, Junior Brother. May they be with us all.”
The sprig was delivered to his fellows, the shock of Elder Ge’s intent having worn off swiftly. The formation would be ready a few hours after Elder Ge’s assembly call. Lu Ri turned his attention to the ones that had given his Senior Brother the Herbs.
To make certain that they were from Disciple Jin Rou.
The disciples were still a bit jumpy as they gathered before him, wondering what his summons were about.
“The sprigs of Lowly Spiritual herbs that you grew last year were of superlative quality, Disciples. Why have you not been able to repeat this feat?” He questioned.
The looks on their faces told Lu Ri all he needed to know. The shifty eyes, even with their bodies held serenely.
Lu Ri’s own intent filled the room.
“We took them as payment, after we helped him!” One of them broke immediately.
Lu Ri was very, very close to spitting blood at his point.
The courtyard was packed, with every single Disciple of the Sect, save for the Old Masters in Closed Door Cultvation. There was murmuring, and confusion. What could call them all out of their duties? Why had Elder Ge called them all here?
Many were staring up at the black sky. The nervous, uneasy energy filled the rarely used courtyard, that had cracks going up the pillars.
Lu Ri stood with the rest of the Senior Disciples, who were all outwardly calm, but he could detect fear and unease in all of them as well. This had not happened for centuries, at least. The Call of the Disciples was something that was only undertaken in emergencies, and very, very rarely were there any emergencies in the Cloudy Sword Sect.
A hush fell out over the crowd, as two elders arrived. Elder Ge, his face calm and Serene, and Elder Chen, who looked as ill at ease as he had ever seen the arrogant and boastful Elder.
Elder Ge’s eyes slid over the disciples, and where they passed, men and women stood straighter.
“You may wonder why This Elder has gathered you all here today. It is due to something that has been brought to this one’s attention. Come Down here, Chen Li. This old man would have words with you.”
There was a murmur in the crowd, and Chen Li stood straighter as he was called. His smile came across his face, and he stepped arrogantly towards the powerful Elder. His father was there, so what worry should he have?
“This Chen Li pays his respects to the Honoured Elder.” The boy declared politely.
Elder Ge took him in, staring at the boy silently. He stroked his goatee once, having disdained long facial hair.
“I hear you have been trading pointers with the Outer Sect Disciples.” Elder Ge mused idly, still staring at the boy.
Chen Li bowed his head. “Yes, Elder Ge, I have aided their training greatly, and exchange my knowledge with them frequently.” He said with a smirk. Lu Ri felt his gut twist at the words.
“Indeed. It is a blessing to receive a pointer from one more powerful than yourself. To witness their technique first hand, and use that knowledge to better oneself.” Elder Ge lectured as he paced from side to side, addressing the crowd. The storm above them was still and silent, mirroring the Disciples of the Cloudy Sword Sect. Several of the Outer Disciples clenched their fists, and held their tongues.
Chen Li smirked, nodding along. He stood proudly under the Elder’s gaze. He was obviously wondering if he was about to be rewarded, and Lu Ri felt a single spot of pity for the boy, before it was wiped away.
“So, you should have no problems trading pointers with this Elder.” Elder Ge declared with a serene smile.
Lu Ri noted well the exact moment the statement finished imprinting itself on the young man’s mind. The cracking of his facade. The sudden trembling in his qi. The smug look of superiority faded, replaced with the pale white of abject terror.
“Are you not honoured? Fear not, I, Your Grandfather, shall treat you exactly as you have treated your juniors.”
Not a soul in the courtyard dared to take a breath, even Elder Chen, who was biting his lips so hard they bled. His son sought him out, his eyes jumping desperately to the man to defend him.
The Elder remained silent, staring forward blankly.
“Come. Take your stance.” Elder Ge demanded.
The courtyard had realised that they were about to watch an execution. The boy was shaky. His eyes were full of terror. Yet he formed his stance, raising his hands.
He knew that he would not be allowed anything else. Best to preserve some dignity.
“Now. Your Honoured Elder shall trade pointers with you.” An open hand rose, raised leisurely backwards.
Chen Li’s head jerked to the side. None had even caught the Elder’s movement. There was no notice of his motion, not even a displacement of air. But there was a single sharp crack, and Chen Li staggered.
He seemed confused as to what had happened. Blood dripped out of his mouth.
“What did you learn from that blow?” Elder Ge asked him, tiling his head to the side.
“I--I-- Your Supreme Skill, Elder--” the boy stammered out. He tried to compose himself.
“So you have learned nothing. Very well, I shall show you again.”
Chen Li jerked to the other side, blood spraying out of his mouth.
“What did you learn?” Elder Ge asked again. “The whole point of trading pointers is to learn, is it not?”
“You are correct, Elder Ge.” The boy managed to cough out.
Elder Ge nodded, seeming to ponder something.
“Ah, You could not even perceive it. Here, I shall slow it down for you.”
Chen Li barely had time to wince. There was another ugly crack. But this time, Lu Ri could see it. The hand that slammed directly into the boy’s face.
“Better, I think. I have to restrain my strength, but such is life.” Elder Ge sounded as if he was discussing the weather.
“What.” Crack. “Are.” Crack. “You.” Crack. “Learning?” Each word was punctuated with a blow. Chen Li’s head jerked form side to side, as each perfectly controlled motion kept him standing, and ready to receive another.
“What have you learned? I shall answer. Nothing.”
The Elder struck, and this time he was not so kind.
“You dare euphemize this. You dare call it a pointer?!” The Elder roared. “Is it enjoyable, to crush other members of our Cloudy Sword Sect!?”
More blood arced through the air, and the boy’s Qi shuddered like a dying heartbeat as he was broken.
“Two were crippled permanently. Three had to restart their cultivation. Two just left, and many more simply received the blows without comment, because what could they do to an Inner Disciple?” Elder Ge’s eyes darkened further. “Some even tell me that a Disciple was killed.”
Blood sprayed. Chen Li’s body could take no more.
Elder Ge caught the boy by the arm, as he started to fall, raising him up, so that all could witness his beaten and broken form. He turned to the Inner Disciples, the Core Disciples, and The Senior Disciples.
“And none of you intervened.”
Qi Shuddered, and the wind, for a brief moment, roared with fury.
The words forced some to their knees, as Elder Ge’s carefully restrained intent boiled out of him. The cloud above shuddered, and descended like an executioner’s sword. They could all feel the the sharpness of the intent, as if the very air was trying to cut them.
The black clouds were death.
Lu Ri barely remained standing.
“To suppress a member of another sect is one thing. To beat your juniors is another.” His voice was a whisper, but everyone in the courtyard could hear it. “The reason this Cloudy Sword Sect was formed was to teach. Teach the wisdom of our Honoured Founders, and to live the way they envisioned. To forge bonds between cultivators, so that they may stand together against the darkness that now seems so far away.”
Elder Ge’s eyes pierced their very souls.
“We have grown fat and lazy. We have grown cruel and arrogant. We have let our high perch blind us to the earth.”
He threw Chen Li’s twitching body to the side. “Keep him isolated, his fate is for another to decide.” He commanded, and two of the Senior Disciples hastened to obey.
“This stops now. Our righteous sect will be tainted by such acts no longer.” Elder Ge intoned, the weight of his conviction pressing into all who witnessed him.
“Yang Linlin.” His eyes pierced a female disciple. A female Disciple that had been growing increasingly worried looking as the strikes continued, and whose fellows had turned glares upon her. “Come and receive pointers from your Elder.”
The beautiful Inner Disciple trembled like a leaf in a storm.
But she had at least some teachings of the Cloudy Sword, and went to face judgement with dignity.
“This Humble Disciple thanks her Elder for showing her the path.” She bowed respectfully with a dead voice.
Elder Ge raised his hand.
The Disciples watched, transfixed, at the Elder’s justice.
Five more were called. Some Inner Disciples. Some Outer Disciples. One Senior Disciple. The Core Disciples managed to remain untouched, to an approving look from the Elder.
“Some of this lays upon my inattention. Upon our inattention.” Elder Ge stated once he was finished. There was not a drop upon him, not a piece of clothing out of place. “So I shall be taking a personal hand in matters going forward.”
His weight was all encompassing.
“I will correct our lapses. I will return us to the Righteous Path of the Cloudy Sword.”
“I swear this, in the name of our Honoured Founders.”
Not a soul dared to breathe.
“I command you, meditate upon the meaning of righteousness. All shall provide this Elder with their answer of “what is righteousness” after their morning meditations, in this courtyard, and stand ready for work details.”
“You are dismissed.”
The formation was complete, drawing the small bits of Jin Rou’s Qi from the Lowly Spiritual Herb.
A full eight Senior Disciples were in attendance. Their faces were a mask of concentration, as they manipulated the subtle energies of fate, the orb of water high in the air cascading with prismatic colours.
Lu Ri hoped this would work.
Qi surged, and was guided, the formation searching for the one whose Qi this was.
The ritual was nearly complete, solidifying into an image…. When the image suddenly froze, golden cracks running through it.
The formation trembled, shook, and broke along the golden lines.
The orb of water fell, splashing into its basin.
He knew that an important person might have some defence against scrying, given to them by their master, but it was worth attempting anyway. Or their concentration was not what it should be. The sect had been greatly disturbed by Elder Ge’s… appearance.
Lu Ri sighed.
Manually it was.
He left the sect that morning, after giving Elder Ge his views on Righteousness. They were spoken near verbatim from the Honoured Founder’s own scroll “Meditations Upon the Nature of Righteousness”, but they were good thoughts and good words. Superior to his own comprehension.
Elder Ge was very pleased by his answer.