The council members of the Zearthorn sect had gathered for the daily meeting. Dozens of haughty cultivators sat in a round room and eyed the imposing figure of the sect master.
He was short, but he projected the force of a giant. His long crimson hair draped over his broad shoulders like a bloody waterfall. His eyes were a blue so vivid it gave the impression of rippling tides.
The only thing he wore, except his dimension rings and the bundle of keys, was the official Zearthorn sect robe.
The same robe as everyone on the council. But it felt different.
At first glance, his robes were chaotically messy and disheveled, yet from that mess emerged beauty. Some method to the madness of the folds of his robes highlighted his rippling muscles and physical perfection just right.
He held himself casually as he glanced down at the council members. An amused smile hung on his lips.
When meetings happened every day, even cultivators tended to loosen up. They brought tea to their stations and chatted amicably with other council members. Whatever documents they had on their person were messily strewn about on the table.
But today? The documents were tidy, the tea was absent, and the council members were quiet.
The sect master sighed in disappointment. Most council members were his wives and kids, an unusual sight for such a prominent sect. Usually, over the years, chaos shook leadership.
The old died, and the new was brought in. Eventually, a sect stopped being a large family and became an organization. This had yet to happen to the Zearthorn sect. The sect master of the Zearthorn sect, Marven Zearthorn, was also the sect's founder. This sect had been ruled over by him for many generations, in no small part due to his prominence as a cultivator.
And to his overwhelming disappointment, because nobody was qualified to take over.
But the stink of change was present in the air. Even your kids and wives got tired of you after hundreds of years. And he had gotten really tired of them. He couldn't help but feel he had failed whenever he witnessed conspiracies unfold before him. Sometimes, he’d even get a little giddy when the schemes were relatively harmless.
But other times, like today, were different. One of the council members got up, formally bowed with his fists pressed together, and greeted him.
“Greetings, Sect Master!” The man that greeted Marven was his son. A mortal would find that ridiculous, given that this geriatric looked centuries older than the handsome young man sitting on the throne, but to cultivators, this was a standard sight. Age only showed in one’s appearance if they were behind in their cultivation.
“Greetings, elder Kaphor. I presume you…” He painstakingly slowly glanced over the room “... And I am referring to you all now, have brought me a suggestion?” The sect elder fiddled with some papers on the desk and nervously read the contents of one.
“Yes, Sect Master. One of your sons has reached the age of eleven today.” Marven had to force himself not to roll his eyes openly.
“Yes, and what of it?
“Well… He is unlikely to reach the sect standards at this pace, and sect rules dictate he should be put up for arranged marriage.”
The sect’s rules. The rules that the sect master had created himself and could, with full justification, change as he wished. He could even make exceptions.
A sect’s master had absolute authority. This was mostly true, but not even overwhelming power was enough to escape politics. The rules were unfair, nonsensical, and complicated, but at least politics kept one’s mind sharp, even if the sharpening discarded some brain cells in the process.
“And may I ask exactly why you're bringing this to my attention a whole year before Neave falls behind those standards?” The Elder shuffled nervously and jumped to explain.
“You see, esteemed sect master, the boy has no interest in cultivation whatsoever. Considering this, there’s merit in starting early with the preparations. After all, we know you want the best for your children.”
As the years mercilessly marched onwards, there was less and less love between Marven and his family. To the mortal farmer of ages ago, how Marven viewed his family today would seem alien, monstrous even. However, witnessing your children and wives attempting to backstab you and each other countless times broke something in a person. Yet another such case was happening just now.
“I see… So how far along are you with these ‘preparations’?” The elder hurried to respond.
“Yes, dear Sect Master, we have been in contact with the Yvellsare family of the Startamer sect. They would be glad to marry off one of their daughters. We have had a few elders, including myself, visit them. I can truly say she will become a woman worthy of a king. She is an accomplished cultivator and quite the beauty. She does have a few… Issues… In regards to courtesy, but I think that would pair quite well with the young master.”
Marven’s mood dropped even further.
These heaven-forsaken assholes.
So they had finally noticed. It was true that Marven had been paying more attention than usual to Neave. He was still confident that they had no idea why. They probably thought it was because Neave was Brivia’s son.
After all, why else would they think Marven was paying attention to him? Now, they had decided to cut the branch off before it toppled the tree. And they chose to do it in the most pathetic way possible.
Marriage into the Yvellsare family must have been an ordeal to arrange, even if Marven was confident it was only a minor branch. And now they believed they had cornered him. Either he let the marriage go through and lost Neave or vetoed the marriage and lost power.
Two hundred years ago, Marven would have cackled merrily at the idea that doing what he wanted could cost him power. He was both the sect master as well as the single most powerful cultivator in his sect by a massive margin. How could his council possibly take power away from him? Who would even dare try?
Everyone, it seemed.
The only solution Marven could think of was executing anyone who ever dreamed of disobeying him. That, as evident by the relatively short life spans of demonic sects and especially their sect masters, didn’t always work out.
While the ordeal most certainly put him in an unpleasant situation, Marven smiled calmly.
He wanted to cackle and howl and point and yell and tell them all to shove their marriage arrangement up their ass.
Because, this time, he just happened to have the perfect hand to play.
“I hadn’t expected the council to arrange such a prominent marriage partner for Neave. I apologize, however, but I have to veto this decision.”
The pleasant expressions remained plastered onto their faces, but there was a subtle hint of glee, barely restrained by their fake smiles.
“Well, sect master, that will be highly problematic. It would not do to go back on our word and cause conflict with the Startamer sect. Is there any reason you’d deny such a boon to the young master?”
Marven put on a distressed expression and grabbed his head as if he had a headache.
“The issue is that I have already betrothed Neave to someone.”
The council members, rather than despairing, only got more gleeful.
“Sect master! Have you arranged a marriage partner for Neave and failed to inform the council? We do not question your authority, but as you may see, this decision has resulted in dire consequences! How will we possibly explain this to the Startamer sect!? They will have our heads for the disrespectful act! Moreover, it will look like our leadership is in disrepair! What if our enemies use this as a pretense to start a war with us!?”
“Dear elder, it was you who failed to inform me of your plans.”
The elder hesitated a bit at that one but continued.
“Nevertheless, the damage had been done. As a representative of the council, I formally request that you inform us of the identity of Neave’s betrothed. Perhaps we may yet rectify this blunder.”
“Hmm, I suppose I have no choice. Very well. Neave’s betrothed is general Ilkivir the Beheader.”
The council froze. The elder addressing Marven dropped some papers and rushed to regain his composure.
“How in… Why would you permit something like this, Sect Master!? How could you be so cruel toward the young master!?”
“Do you remember the severed mountain lotus our sect acquired six years ago?”
The council members glanced around the room in distress.
“Indeed, it was acquired through a deal with Ilkivir. The only thing he wanted in return was my son’s hand in marriage—disgusting swine. But the severed mountain lotus was of immense value to us, so I offered him a deal. I told him that I would grant him my son's hand, but only if he failed to reach our sect's standard. The General happily agreed. However, he made me swear a spirit oath that I shan’t grant Neave any cultivation-improving treasures before our deal expires. I had thought the general was a fool for accepting the deal. After all, he must have been unaware of who Neave’s mother was. His gamble would normally have a roughly half-half chance of paying off, but I could never have imagined Neave would act like this…”
And now, look, what a tragedy! He had to train Neave personally to make it on time. Marven was sure that none of the council members cared about Neave. But they would be damned before they let the sect establish a connection to a man like Ilkivir.
Marven would have lost power had he made this deal for any other reason. However, the treasure had granted their sect a bright future and a generation-defining prodigy.
“Sect Master, we will have to assign one of the elders to train Neave to our standards…”
“I am afraid I have to take responsibility for this ordeal myself. The meeting is finished. You may go about your duties.” Marven declared, bowed to the council, and walked out of the council chambers. Now all he had to do was what he planned to do anyway.
Train his son.
She was so beautiful. Her striking silver hair, streaked with blood, rippled in the wind like a majestic waterfall. Her flowing purple robes, torn, ragged, and bloody, adorned her slender frame.
She was shaking.
She was exhausted.
But she lifted her sword anyway.
Her opponents were exhausted as well. If she ran, she would certainly get away. But she knew what would happen to the rest of the village. She gazed at the score of wretched scum standing in front of her. They were wounded, bloody, and charred, but they were grinning. Some of them would die, and they knew, but they still cackled maliciously.
They would die so they could kill her. Once she was out of the way, they would assault the village. The villagers would resist, and even more would die in the process. It made no sense. They were…
They were idiots.
If one looked closer one could see their distant gazes, lazy eyes, and drooling mouths. The beautiful silver-haired woman, too, was stupid. The dead were all stupid. They weren’t just stupid. They were dangerously stupid too, and uncivilized and… Oh no, he had to get away. He felt drool dripping down his mouth and the world splitting apart as his left eye casually drifted apart from the…
…And then he woke up. He looked around, and, yes, indeed, he was in his room. Exactly where one would expect to wake up.
But it felt strange. The books, all curated from the most intelligent and worldly topics, didn't belong on the shelves of a stupid man's room.
Ah, of course.
It made sense.
This was no stupid man’s room, after all.
Neave got out of the soft, comfortable covers of his bed. The air in his room was stale, smelling of sloth, and refusal to open the window. The fresh spring breeze pushed the blinds to the window, knocking, begging to be let inside, but it was futile. The inviting glow of the noon sun peeked through the slits in the shades but to no avail.
Neave got up and stretched, a fruitless attempt to ease his back pain. He stepped past the mirror in his room and smiled smugly at his reflection.
The striking crimson-red color of his father's hair had meshed with the silver of his late mother and created a gentle, sunset-pink mane streaked with a few red locks here and there. His face was pleasant, even compared to the beauty of a woman. And his eyes… Striking blue, vast as the sky, and more profound than the ocean, carried countless secrets of the universe.
He picked up one of the books and stood against an empty wall. He placed the book on his head and marked its position with one of the pencils. He stepped away from the wall excitedly but shrunk upon seeing the mark right on top of the one he had placed yesterday.
“That can’t be right!”
He stepped against the wall again, straightening his back and just slightly pushing his toes up. The mark showed just barely above the last one. He nodded and smiled.
Neave walked up to a chair sitting in the corner of his room. He grabbed the robe half-assedly draped over it and put it on. It was a bit too large for him. He grabbed the flat clogs, placed them on the soles of his feet, and started tying them with cloth ribbons. The result was messy and rushed, but he just tightened the sloppy knots and hurried to get up.
Neave walked up to a stand next to his bed. He grabbed a small food pill from a bottle and crunched his face until the bitter taste disappeared.
Neave put the bottle of pills in his robes. He scurried to his window and pulled the blinds back briefly, wincing at the brightness. He peeked upwards to check the position of the sun. He nodded to himself.
Neave anxiously walked over to his door and took a peek outside. The hallways were empty. He sighed in relief. Neave stepped out of his room, cautiously examining the hallways. Once he stepped out, he locked the door and stepped back.
Above his door was a piece of yellowed paper with faded ink on it. The ink had his name on it, far to the right side of the sign, leaving space behind his name. He smiled proudly at the golden shade his paper had gained over the years and patted himself on the back.
He trod down the adorned hallways of the sect. Not every door had paper above it. Almost none of them did. The name plates above the rooms were fashioned out of fancy polished wood, iron, bronze, and, in one case, silver. The place that remained empty behind Neave’s name had also been filled with numerous ridiculous titles.
‘Golden flash Uldhore Zearthorn.’
Written on a wooden plate. Neave snorted and kept walking.
Some of the doors had no plates above them at all. It was clear to see they had been removed just recently. Neave didn’t even spare the empty spots a second glance.
He thought he heard voices down the hallway at one point. He paused and backtracked, taking a completely different route. There he heard footsteps and turned to the left. He had to walk around the mess hall to avoid running into anyone.
He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth as his feet ached.
“Who the fuck is even allowed to walk around during the daily training?”
Neave slowed his walking and took a careful turn in the hallway. Just a bit before him was the path leading to the courtyard. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.
“Third form, sixth strike.”
“Third form, sixth parry.”
Roughly ten thousand disciples were doing the daily training. Although such a mass of bodies made a considerable crowd, they only comprised around a twentieth of the enormous courtyard.
Neave’s heartbeat sped up at the noise. Not only was such a mass of people guaranteed to be loud, but these juvenile muscleheads also ensured they were as loud and obnoxious as possible.
Neave took a deep breath, turned left, and started walking along the courtyard's northern wall. He was barely a few meters away from the disciples. Neave ignored the baleful glares and kept walking with his head high.
Well, not that high, but he wouldn’t let himself be intimidated. As he walked past forty or so rows of disciples, his stomach dropped. One of his half-brothers was along the outer edge of the forty-somethingth row. He seriously contemplated returning to his room, but it was too late. He was spotted almost immediately, and running was futile. The stocky disciple immediately dropped his sword and ran to Neave.
“Come here, you rat!”
And then it started.
Neave was grabbed by his hair and lifted off the ground. He was repeatedly punched in his torso. The punches were very restrained but still nearly cracked ribs and ruptured organs. Neave resorted to the usual strategy of dealing with a situation like this. He screamed. Within seconds the instructor, one of the sect's elders, grabbed ahold of the assailant and berated him.
“Hunter! How dare you interrupt practice! You noisy little crap! Do that again, and I swear on my name I will have you lashed and put into solitary confinement! Have I made myself clear!?” The elder kicked Hunter in the ass and forced him back into the formation. Then he turned around and slapped Neave.
“What the fuck was that for!?”
The elder slapped him again.
“Watch your language around me, brat! You know damn well you’re disrupting the practice again!"
“How? By existing!? He was the one who started beating me completely unprovoked!”
That earned him a kick in the shin.
“Silence! I swear your father will hear of this, and you will not be avoiding the punishment this time!”
Neave gritted his teeth and spat in the instructor's face. Everybody around them went deathly silent. The instructor hadn't screamed or said anything. He just stepped forward and slapped Neave so hard that the disciples on the other side of the courtyard heard the echoes. This was enough to knock Neave out cold.
The practice continued as everybody tried to ignore Neave’s hopefully-just-unconscious body. After finally regaining consciousness, he got up to his feet and shakily stumbled forward. Eventually, he made it to the library.
He barely managed to push the door open. He walked into the first floor of the library. The Zearthorn sect library was deathly silent. Well, the fourth, third, and first floors usually were.
However, the second floor was where the basic cultivation manuals were kept and information about many treasures, sacred beasts, sacred flora, monsters, and so on. It was thus usually populated by boisterous and smelly disciples. Neave had no passion for the second floor of the library.
Walking down the library, he walked past the endless rows of books. He glanced at some of the titles.
‘Applications of Spirit in Golem Joint Construction.’
‘Western Keyishin Farming Techniques.’
‘The History of the Bonmiele Church Saints.”
Truly captivating reading material.
Neave went down the endless maze of bookshelves and sat in a dark corner. He sat on a creaky old chair and opened a book on the decaying table. A candle was sitting unlit as he squinted at the faint letters in the book.
He didn’t cry. His robes were bloody around his shin, and his face was swollen. He massaged his neck every few moments and sat uncomfortably as his stomach ached.
Sometime later, his reading was interrupted when a small, green pill landed on the book. He sighed dramatically and popped the pill in his mouth. It rapidly made his aching neck, stomach, shin, and face feel better, but not quite like new. He turned left and bowed to the even darker shadows further down the most forgotten section of the library.
“Greetings, sect master! Have you come to administer my lashings and detain me into solitary confinement?” He asked, every syllable dripping with overt drama and sarcasm.
However, nobody walked out of the shadows. Just as Neave was about to call again, a hand grabbed his shoulder. He nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Greetings, oh disciple of the Zearthorn sect.”
Neave groaned and looked over his shoulder. His father playfully smiled at him.
“I need not administer any punishments, for my loyal servant Hunter had administered them for me.”
Neave knew what his father was doing but let himself get caught in the trap anyway.
“And why the hell do you let him get away with doing this to me?”
“Doing what to you?”
Neave swallowed bile and continued.
“Why are you letting him, no, why are you letting everyone get away with seriously injuring me with little to no reason?”
“For the same reason I am letting you remain a mortal for now. It’s best that one naturally learns the consequences of their mistakes.”
Neave ignored the ‘for now’ in his statement and looked at his father skeptically.
“Natural consequences? Ah, I suppose you expect me to catch up with everyone and return the favor?” Neave scoffed. “I know you aren’t here just to preach and give me a healing pill.” Neave smiled and continued, “Unless you’re here to congratulate me on my birthday?”
“Ah, yes, birthdays.” Marven scoffed, and Neave rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“So, why are you here then?”
“I am here to inform you that you are becoming a cultivator.”
“No, I am not.”
“Pity. I suppose you will have to get married then.” Neave's eyebrows shot up.
“You are aware of the sect rules, yes? Everyone who fails to meet a certain standard is considered a candidate for an arranged marriage. For the foundation realm, that age is a relatively generous age of twelve. You have just turned eleven, and the council has made a decision. You will be married off unless you make it to the foundation realm within a year..”
He thought himself quite adept at handling whatever his father could throw at him, but this caught even him by surprise. Arranged marriage? True, it was standard practice. By all means, everything his father had said was correct. But they were marrying him off?
That didn’t feel right. If one was such a failure that they failed to reach the foundation realm by twelve, there was no political capital in marrying them off. This was significantly more true for men than for women, too, which was doubly unusual.
Neave frowned when he realized what the likely catch was. Whoever he was marrying must be hideous. Yes, that must be it. It would make sense, too, given that his stepmothers, most of whom were council members, absolutely hated his guts. However, the joke was on them, for they had slightly miscalculated in their hubris. Neave was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, no matter how messed up her teeth were. This was his chance to finally leave the sect.
“I am beyond shocked! I couldn’t have in my wildest dreams expected that the council would grant me such an exquisite birthday present. Pray tell father, when shall I be meeting the bride?” Neave looked at his father with stars in his eyes, but those stars extinguished a little as his father replied with a smug grin.
His father merely looked at him quizzically. This must be some sort of misunderstanding since Neave couldn’t think of anything wrong with what he said… Unless.
“You’re marrying me off to a man!?”
“Ah, indeed, have I not mentioned that small detail?” His father leaned in, saying every word in an increasingly exaggerated tone.
“Veto the decision.”
“No, I won’t veto the decision.”
“So you would just sell your son like that!?”
“Strange, you seemed enthusiastic to be sold off just a few moments ago. I wonder what changed?”
“The sex of my marriage partner!?”
“Worry not about that.” His father waved his hand and chuckled. “I own a treasure that can change one's sex, and it works great on mortals. I think you’d make quite the fine young lady.”
Neave was quite confident that he'd kill his father immediately if he had the strength to do so.
“Do you seriously expect me to cooperate with this!?”
“Well, then… What are you going to do about it?” His father gave him an exaggeratedly villainous smile, “At dawn tomorrow, we begin your training.” He winked at Neave, and then he vanished.
Neave screamed and called for his father, but the only response he received was his own voice, echoing down the hallways of the library.
“He must be out of his heavens-forsaken mind if he thinks this is alright.” Thus Neave made a decision.
He would escape the sect tonight.
There wasn’t all that much to pack in his room besides heavy books that would weigh him down, so he hadn't even bothered going there. He had luckily already taken the bottle of food pills with him. Breaking into the headquarters of a sect was deadly and dangerous. The same went for breaking out of it. He didn’t have to break out of the sect, however, he just had to walk out.
Neave expected his father would alert the guard in case he tried leaving the sect. Unfortunately, Neave had accidentally gotten his hands on either poorly hidden or misplaced texts detailing certain sect secrets. The sect had several secret underground paths. And most of those paths were warded against entering but not against leaving. Their primary purpose was to allow for flanks if the sect got attacked. Neave instead just used them to escape.
He had set off during the late afternoon with the sun still high in the sky. The Zearthorn sect was located in the middle of a dangerous forest next to a large mountain. Neave knew that making it out alive and reaching a town would be challenging. However, compared to allowing his father to corner him, it was a risk he was willing to take.
He knew right about everything there was to know about the woods surrounding his sect, courtesy of his extensive reading.
He dove into the forest, carefully navigating his way between the trees. He hadn't planned on sleeping in the woods and was ready to stay awake for days. So far, he got rather lucky, as he hadn’t encountered any monsters. Not a big surprise, given that his sect exterminated any monsters within their radius of influence.
He felt confident that he had made it out, but not even an hour of running through the woods later, he felt his consciousness slip away as he fell face-first to the ground.
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