The moon that hung on the night sky of the realm was an ominous one. A moon of cold, pale gray rock, shrouded in thin clouds of mist and dust. And in the furthest corners of the dark side of this moon, sat three demons in a circle.
The first was an extremely muscular and tall demon with a wide open mouth full of sharp teeth. It had dozens of eyes all over its forehead and its hair was a large collection of long white spikes.
The demon to its right was a skinny one, wrapped in brownish-red bandages, the only part of its body peeking behind them were its two beady eyes.
The last demon was covered underneath a pitch-black hood, wearing a blank white mask, two perfectly round eye holes the only features on it. There was no light behind those eyeholes.
The skinny demon wrapped in brown bandages growled in a deep, bestial voice. Its voice sounded deeper than that of any human and had a gurgling undertone.
“We... Have... A problem.”
The hooded demon responded with a voice that sounded like a sinister whisper.
The demon with spiked hair raised its head and talked in a distinctly male voice, but one that had an uncanny undertone that made it feel fake and deceitful.
“What’s the deal? Did you feel something?”
The hooded demon nodded.
“Someone had broken one of the Master's curses.”
The demon with spiked hair groaned and asked.
“That is problematic, but it happens once in a while, anything special this time?.”
Then the bandaged demon spoke up.
“You… Do not… Get it. It… Wasn’t… Shattered… Or… Annulled. It was… Broken.”
The demon with spiky hair slowly blinked its dozens of eyes.
“Oh, that’s a big problem.”
The hooded demon added.
“But it wasn’t one of the gods’ servants.”
“And how can you tell?”
“Because of the location. It was broken on the continent of Xinkummar.”
The bandaged demon nodded.
“A place… That… Even… The gods…”
The sun was shining high in the sky above the location of the former Zearthorn sect. It was the day after its disbanding and annihilation. Few among the many members of the former sect had dared to step foot into the rubble, but not none. Among the few that scoured the debris was Hunter. He looked disheveled and distressed. He had been digging through the debris since dawn and it was already well past noon. He was tired. Not from the labor, of course, the endurance of a bronze path cultivator wasn’t something to scoff at.
He was tired from all the crying he’d done.
Hunter’s mother was dead. The person that was supposed to be his future wife defended his mother’s killer with her life.
And his father had lost his mind and destroyed the entire damn sect.
However, the times of crying have passed for Hunter. It was time to move on.
He removed a bit of debris and found a corner of a red object poking out from beneath the rubble. He pulled it out. It was the hardcover of the death tome, perfectly intact even after the technique his father had used.
It was time to get his revenge.
Kaphor opened his eyes. He was buried beneath the rubble and in a horrible state. His left leg was completely and utterly gone, as well as half his jaw and three fingers on his left hand. Every inch of his skin was lined with shallow cuts.
And he looked a lot older than he did last night.
When he noticed that he had not made it to the afterlife, he chuckled. It was a lethargic and humorless laugh.
His damned spirit power saved him.
Nobody at all knew that Kaphor had a third spirit power. It was his greatest secret. If any attack threatened his life, his spirit power burned through his life force to create a barrier. He was thrilled to have this power once.
After all, better alive than dead, no matter the cost, right?
It was moments like this where the reality of how stupid that thinking was truly set in. He wanted to kill himself.
His chances of survival were moderate, but his odds of ever regaining his former glory were slim. And why bother anyway?
The sect was gone. He had planned for so long to one day take the sect over and become the next sect master. And now it was all gone. Crumbled to literal debris. And he was buried in it.
He remembered Neave. That horrid child. The one that had ruined absolutely everything. He felt deep embarrassment at the thought of Neave. After all, that child made him feel deeply afraid. Without any hesitation, he sacrificed an arm to win the fight.
Without any hesitation at all.
Who did that? Who could even among the greatest of experts have such determination? Losing a limb was no joke. Recovering a limb after it had been lost is a tremendous challenge.
And that skill… He fought like an expert with hundreds of years of experience. Or even thousands. Kaphor didn’t know exactly what the hell that death tome was. Could it have truly been some sacred lost treasure of the gods?
Neave manipulated life force, used true strikes, and used movement techniques that could teleport him around, but it was clear he was nowhere close to the golden path. Kaphor was wondering if he was even on the iron path. The most concerning thing was that he couldn’t tell.
Neave had somehow completely and utterly hidden his cultivation from the outside. The secret behind that alone was worth torturing out of someone.
If he had known what that book was before he would have risked his life to try touching it even if it killed him.
Could it be possible to somehow steal the benefits of that treasure from Neave?
He chortled at that one. And this time he truly found the thought funny. It was an utterly desperate idea that crept into his mind. But there was another that wasn’t quite as desperate.
Was that really what was possible in the foundation realm? Could a mortal child truly gain so much power in a single day?
If so, Kaphor had been truly narrow-minded. About cultivation. About potential. If that was possible at the foundation realm, then what was possible on the silver path? Kaphor had made a decision. His arm broke out of the rubble and he crawled out from beneath the debris.
Rather than die as a decrepit cripple, he would at least try to find out.
He would seek the true potential of the path.
Harel was searching around in her spiritual senses for qi strands. She had received incredible inspiration from witnessing the sect master annihilate the sect. In a single session of cultivation, it pushed her growth forward faster than she had ever managed even after days of work in front of the lotus.
But it was a drop in the bucket compared to the inspiration Neave had granted her. She still remembered him grabbing the saber. At first, it was clear that it was far too heavy for him. But when he started swinging it… It almost felt like he’d turned the imbalance into an advantage rather than a weakness.
The way he swayed and swung, pierced and thrust. All the while maintaining perfect posture on the points of glass shards.
The more she remembered his movements, the more she felt like she had witnessed something beyond.
The swords lining the walls felt like a crowd of passionate monks praising their god, begging to be used as tools of war and destruction. It gave her chills just thinking about it.
She grabbed another qi strand and placed it into her core. Then she opened her eyes.
The sect master, or rather, the former sect master was sitting next to a tree. He now lacked a lot of the… Civility he once had. He was sitting like a drunkard, which was appropriate given the pile of empty bottles next to him.
After he had destroyed the sect, they didn’t discuss what they were going to do. He had offered to take her to a big sect, but she didn’t feel like bringing that up. After all, she’d feel awful leaving him alone like this.
He was an absolute mess. His emotions were like a swinging pendulum as he went from melancholy to manic laughter every few minutes. She tried her best to chat with him if anything to distract him from what had happened. She racked her mind and came up with a question.
“Sec- I mean, Marven…?”
“You can call me Marv, Harel.”
“Uh, alright. I just wanted to ask you something… Marv.” She felt like she was swallowing worms as she referred to the great sect master as ‘Marv’, but she pushed through it for his sake. “What do you think Neave’s cultivation was?”
“I can tell judging by his physical abilities that it must have been the foundation realm. But would you believe me if I told you that even I couldn't sense his spirit?”
Harel was shocked. Not just shocked, but bewildered. Neave could hide his cultivation from someone on the platinum path. And the foundation realm? That level of power should have been impossible in the foundation realm.
“How is that even possible!?”
Marven laughed so hard he almost cried.
“He did something… Hahaha, he did… He did something so crazy I’m not even sure I believe what I saw. He’d wrapped his spirit in a thin layer of life force, how is that even possible!?”
“What does that mean?” She had no idea what the implications of that were. At all. After all, she wasn’t a scholar on the matters of cultivation. She was still only thirteen years old.
“Well, for starters, he can manipulate life force. Better than it should be even theoretically possible. Better than I can at least. And he’d used his life force manipulation to wrap it around his spirit.”
“But how does that hide his cultivation rank?”
“Think of it like this, you can’t see through a wall, can you? It’s kind of like that but for spiritual senses.”
Harel still didn’t know exactly how impressive that was, but it must be an incredible feat.
“What made you so sure that Neave wasn’t possessed by a demonic spirit?”
“Nothing. I still have no clue what happened to him.”
“Then why did you let him go?”
“Well, if he is possessed by a demonic spirit, it didn’t hijack his personality. That’s the most I can tell for certain.”
Harel pondered that and nodded. She felt like she had warmed him up enough through small talk to drop a more serious question.
“So, what do we do now?”
Marven again started laughing at that one, but this time he did start crying.
“I don’t know… I just don’t know, Harel. I just don’t. I feel so lost and I have no idea what to do.”
Harel carefully thought out what she was about to say next. She felt somewhere deep inside that she may be making a mistake but pushed through that feeling. She owed far too much to this man to abandon him. So she got on her knees and prostrated herself in front of him.
“What are you doing?”
“Disciple Harel greets Master Marven!”
“No, don’t do that, get up.”
“Please, please just get off the ground. I would never let you ruin your future by doing that.”
“You’ve told me you’d ask a selfish request of me when we were on the mountain.” She lifted her head and looked him in the eyes. “I want to ask a selfish request of you in return. Teach me the true swordsmanship of the Zearthorn… No, teach me the ways of your sword…” She paused, then she added.
The aftermath of a large battle had one defining quality few soldiers ever forgot. It stank.
It was hard to answer the question of whether there was much glory in death from battle when one knew that the dead crap themselves. And urinate sometimes as well. Not everyone did. Seasoned soldiers joked about whether someone was a crapper or a pisser while they were alive. Or both. And when they found out they were right they laughed.
It was easier that way, once they inevitably lost someone.
Such were the lives of those who fought in wars against their will. But this coin had a flip side. A very dark flip side indeed.
Those who were born and raised in demonic sects did not need such coping mechanisms. Demonic cultivators weren’t known for their compassion. Whether it be for the lives of their enemies or the lives of their sect members.
And nobody did war quite as… Passionately as the Crimson Ember sect. They wore their demonic sect status as if it were a badge. Over their relatively very long lifespan as a demonic sect, they had become masters at skirting what was acceptable behavior for a sect of the empire. Just because a sect was demonic didn’t mean they were immediately annihilated by the Empire.
For as long as they keep their behavior within the set rules, nobody would go out of their way against them. There were quite a few sects that would very much like to annihilate them all anyway, but it wasn't just a moral question.
It was also a matter of power.
And demonic sects tended to wage war against one another very frequently anyway. Best let them take each other out. Besides, there were quite a few positives to living in settlements under the protection of demonic sects.
One was very low crime rates.
Mostly because demonic sects have entire platoons of cultivators dedicated to, let’s say, fighting crime. The younger generations had to practice killing somehow, after all. And demonic sects were quite strict with their criteria of what constituted a crime. For supply reasons.
Another excellent source of killable people was war! After all, it was hard to say war prisoners were people anyway.
Such was the opinion of one man.
After a rather gruesome battle, he swaggered back to his command tent as if he was returning from a walk. And judging by the layers of gore and blood on his armor, it was an exciting stroll indeed. He was a handsome blonde man with sharp green eyes. He wore gigantic golden armor with a red cape fluttering behind him. He had an executioner's blade sheathed on his hip. It wasn't made of gold, it was a platinum-rank metal called horginium. And it was extremely expensive. Especially in the amounts this individual was carrying on his person.
He stepped into the command tent. There was a heated discussion about the tactics of the following battle and the logistics of looting the enemy bodies, as well as imprisoning and enslaving those that surrendered or were captured. The moment this man took a single step into the command tent everyone shut up and got up to their feet to salute him.
He raised his hand and dismissed them as he walked over to his table in the corner. He had a report to write. He didn’t even really bother cleaning his armor. There would be another fight in just a few hours so he would get it dirty anyway. After a mere couple of minutes of writing, a messenger walked into the tent. It was a rather young lad. The general smiled in satisfaction as the boy was exactly his type.
The messenger shook like a leaf in the wind as he saluted the general.
“Tell me, boy, have you come bearing news about the enemy?”
“No, sir, I… I have some news for you specifically.”
The general raised an eyebrow at that one.
“And exactly what may the news be, pray tell?”
“The… The Zearthorn sect has been annihilated and all of its members have been scattered.”
The general dropped his pen. It was the only sound in the room as everybody had gone deathly silent upon hearing the news.
A dignified man sat on a wooden throne in a medium-sized room. The room was built out of beautifully polished and well-worked wood, but the wood was nothing special. He nodded along as a man in armor stood in front of him and read off parchment. It was a report on recent happenings within the empire.
The man sitting on the throne looked to be perhaps middle-aged, but extremely well-maintained. His hair had speckles of white scattered around the ears and his bushy beard also shared a few gray hairs. His face was manly and magnificent, while his body looked to be chiseled in pure muscle. His gray hairs weren't a sign of his age, however. He had gray hairs ever since he was a teenager. It made sense that they weren’t a sign of old age. After all…
Diamond rank cultivators did not show signs of old age.
The armored man put his hand over his fist, bowed, and exclaimed.
“That is all, Emperor!”
The man sitting on the throne, or rather the Emperor of the Yixine Empire, Jeevian Lloude Dust waved at the man.
“You are dismissed.”
The armored man walked out of the room at a brisk pace.
“...What the fuck?”
The moment the armored man left the room, the emperor got up and scratched his head while pacing around the room. He usually tried to keep his dignity even when alone, but he made an exception this one time. After all, he had just received one of the most unusual reports he’d ever heard in his life.
The report about the destruction of the Zearthorn sect made no sense whatsoever. Worst yet, was that the witness reports were most consistent on the most confounding details.
A child that had been a mortal touched some cursed book and then killed several elders on the silver path. And the child might as well be omnipotent judging by what the witnesses have said.
Teleportation, master swordsmanship, at least four different true strikes, hell, some even claimed he could manipulate life force! And apparently, the witnesses were adamant that the child couldn’t have been further than the first step of the iron path. But they also couldn’t tell since he had somehow completely hidden his cultivation from everyone.
The child had killed an elder on the upper end of the third step of the silver path. That would make it an eight-step difference in power. Nobody had ever defeated someone eight steps above them in direct combat. While this was unbelievably strange, the witness reports were at least somewhat consistent.
But no two people agreed on the details of how the sect was destroyed.
Some said the sect master was possessed, others say he went crazy and declared their sect a demonic one, yet others claim he had always been an evil bastard.
A few even claimed that the destruction was a conspiracy by several elders and that the sect master was, in truth, dead, and this was just a cover-up.
“I guess I will have to go take a look myself.”
The news of the Zearthorn sect’s annihilation was spreading through the empire like wildfire. As the news traveled further and further, the distortion of truth got more and more drastic. Some claimed there was a ‘God Child’ that had descended from the heavens and punished an evil sect. Others claim that the child was a reincarnated devil. Some even claimed it wasn’t a young boy, but a young girl. Some claimed that it was a humanoid monster or a spirit beast. And many others simply didn’t believe any of the rumors they’d heard.
As the consequences of the destruction of the Zearthorn sect rippled through the empire and even outside it, to the person who had started all of this, it didn’t matter much.
After all, he was on the brink of death.