A sealed chamber was located close to the heart of the Zearthorn sect. Within this space, carefully placed shards of glass were arranged like grass on the floor, and thin iron needles hung on sharp wire from every inch of the ceiling. Weapons lined every wall. They weren’t meant for combat, not anymore, at least.
Swords, sabers, scimitars, spears, axes, hatchets, daggers, halberds, and so on lined every inch of the walls.
Some were rusted, others were bent, they were all chipped and battered, and some were even broken. None had a quasi-spirit within them any longer but were made of fine steel at the very least. Even retired from war, they had all been sharpened to the extreme.
Weapons used for combat didn’t have edges this sharp. After all, it was prohibitively difficult to maintain this level of sharpness, and it made the blade’s edge quite fragile. None of that mattered for these weapons. This room was not the armory of the sect.
These weapons were like the elders, their duty was to serve the younger generation.
A young disciple sat before a small pond, where a mesmerizing lotus floated on the surface. Its petals looked sharp and jagged, several were plucked, and among those that remained, several had withered. Shiny gems glittered, lining the bottom of the pond.
Ones that held spiritual powers related to sharpness, cutting, metal, and swords. They had been partially lined with a thin layer of unique substance. It was to prevent them from fully submerging in the liquid, so they wouldn’t melt into it and severely disrupt the pond's purpose. All the stones had been inscribed with a silver tap, a special inscription that let the spirit within the stones leak out slowly.
The disciple breathed in, then out. The gust from her lungs whistled as it cut through the air in front of it like a razor.
Her robes were dirty, covering the slim, skinny, yet toned frame of her body. The fruits of countless hours of training showed on every muscle. Her auburn hair had been cut short.
Harel was a thirteen-year-old Zearthorn sect cultivator that reached the silver path only a few months ago—a tremendous achievement even by the highest standards. The object before her was why she could do it.
A severed mountain lotus.
She relaxed her sitting pose and sighed, looking at the wilted lotus. The sect master had told her that when it came down to only seven petals, it would no longer be worth artificially maintaining it like this. The lotus would be processed into a special potion or a pill, and she would then consume it.
She had already had several of the lotuses petals, but only some of the ones that had wilted. Even that was a wonderful experience. She could easily understand why drug addicts couldn’t control themselves. She drooled at the mouth at the thought of consuming more.
Harel still felt rather sad. The lotus had been with her for roughly six years already. It had grown on her, like a small plant pet she had raised.
She quickly severed that train of thought.
Harel couldn’t help but groan. She had to marry one of the rats from the younger generation. What a pain. Worst of all was that Hunter seemed to be in the lead for being her marriage candidate.
Sadly he wasn’t even the worst one. At least he was hard-working and disciplined, even if he was a giant asshole.
Harel thought about the gathering today. A long time ago, she had hoped that Neave would have been the one to win that competition. His late mother had been a true monster, and his father was the sect master. He was an extremely bright child, too, so everyone believed he’d be the prodigy of the next generation.
Oh, how quickly that opinion flipped on its head.
Practically overnight, he had gone from a promising child to a petulant brat. His refusal to train and daily temper tantrums swiftly annihilated her admiration for him.
Harel had been among Neave’s biggest haters at first. After all, that damn kid had persistently ruined daily practice for months until they finally gave up and declared him a lost cause.
Over the years, however, her admiration had been rekindled, although for an entirely different reason.
When a weed grew in the wilderness, it was nothing but useless grass, but when it sprouted from a crack in solid stone, that was a damn persistent weed.
She felt terrible after what had happened today. It was hard to tell what was going on with so little information, but it was clear something had happened to Neave. She felt doubly bad as she thought about the politics surrounding him.
When the politics of a sect spun around you for so long, it was hard to avoid spinning along. Harel was privy to many of the sect's inner workings, as the bothersome elders kept trying to get on her good side.
She looked at the wilting lotus again and thought about the future. Soon she would be frequenting every tournament they could squeeze her into. As she built up her reputation, the sect's power would grow. The power of the younger generation was seen as a sign of a sect's future.
Merchant groups would open franchises in nearby towns and cities. Other enterprising citizens would start entirely new towns under the sect's protection. Buildings would sprout, the settlements would flourish, and all of this would bring countless treasures to the sect and her personally. So she refocused and went back to cultivating.
“Oh, hi, Harel.”
She jumped up to her feet in fright and looked behind her.
“Neave? What are you doing here? No, wait, how did you get in1?”
Neave pointed at the wall behind him.
“There's a leak there, so I slipped in.”
Leak? Slipped in? What the hell is he talking about?
“How are you standing on the glass like that!?” Harel half screamed the words as she pointed at Neave’s feet in anxiety.
“Ah, one of my movement techniques. It’s a handy one.”
“Wait, don’t tell me you’re a cultivator!? How long have you been hiding this!? No, how are you hiding this even now? I am looking at you, and you just feel… Like you're not even there!”
Neave lit up and cheerfully bragged.
“I know, impressive, isn’t it? I’m very proud of that one! Either way, this room looks crazy from the outside, so I just had to check it out. I didn’t know this was your chamber. Hell, I didn’t know this existed!”
“What do you mean by that?”
“What do I mean by what?”
“You said this room looks crazy from the outside.”
“Oh yeah, the qi in this room is nuts.”
The what now here is what now?
Harel looked at Neave with pure incredulity seared into her face. This room was sealed. There was no way any qi should be leaking out, let alone enough to be sensed” A strange sense of dread crept up her back. She felt like there was way too much off with this situation. He appeared out of thin air, and that was only one of the things that seemed utterly impossible.
Neave walked on the glass shards and disappeared. Harel couldn’t believe her eyes. Where did he go?
“Whoaaa, what is this thing? It’s so freakin cool!”
Oh no. Harel slowly turned around as she watched Neave observe the severed mountain lotus up close.
“Neave, what are you doing…?”
Harel winced as Neave picked the lotus up and lifted it into the air.
“Whohoa, this thing is bursting with qi! Can I have it?”
“Absolutely not. Please put it down!”
“What?” Harel bit her fist in anxiety.
“How about this? I will trade you for one of the weapons on the wall!”
“Okay, alright, fine, that’s cool. Take whatever you want as long as you put that back where you found it!”
Neave’s face lit up.
“Thank you, Harel, you’re the best!” Neave disappeared again and reappeared next to one of the walls.
“Either way, these weapons are all kind of shitty, no? Ah, whatever, most of the higher rank ones are too heavy for my spirit anyway.” Neave picked up a large, slightly rusty steel scimitar off the wall and swung it. It looked too heavy for him, but Harel could tell those weren’t amateur swings.
Neave changed his stance a bit.
He swung the blade again. The qi inside the entire room echoed, and every weapon on the walls began buzzing in resonance. With every swing he took, she saw a head be chopped off, a hardened warrior bisected, and a giant felled. Her spirit shivered at the sensation. The severed mountain lotus looked just a little bit less withered.
Amateur swings? Those weren’t even expert swings. Those were the moves of a master.
Harel stood frozen as Neave waved and ran toward the wall.
“Either way, Harel, I’d love to keep talking, but I gotta go kill someone now. See you later!” Neave disappeared through the wall.
Hunter was sitting curled up in the corner of his room, still shaking and whimpering. He looked around the room, his heart beating out of his chest.
Some form of vile monstrosity had just tortured him.
At first, he had fallen for its ruse. It was disguised as Neave or perhaps possessing his body and spoke of Hunter's greatest nightmares and fears. And then it started its wretched game. It had shown him, time after time, that it held his life in its hands. Poking at every one of his openings and weaknesses as it danced the waltz of death. He screamed and wailed, but nobody could hear him.
After all, the disciples' rooms were soundproofed. Cultivation should never be interrupted by distractions, and Hunter was especially loud. So he screamed, but nobody responded. Hunter was still afraid it would pop back up any time and finish him off.
When he finally calmed down a bit, he remembered.
“The book…” He breathed the words with utter terror.
It was the book. It must have possessed Neave’s body directly. Those fools chased the tome around like a loose dog while it did as it pleased.
He had to warn someone. He had to find his father. Hunter slowly got up off the ground, looking at the walls like any of them would open up and release the demon back inside. When he finally gathered the bravery, he bolted down the hallways of the sect.
Looking for the sect master.
Elder Jukann was among the lowest-ranked elders of the sect. He was and had been for decades on the precipice of reaching the second step of the silver path. He looked middle-aged as he wasn’t even that old, but he had cracked a hundred.
He was rather lazy and didn’t care enough to fake being productive. Cultivation and training were demanding work, and he had better things to do. However, the allure of the extra time and youth that advancement brought was enticing enough to get him to do… Certain things. For cultivation resources, that was.
Eating pills and drinking potions was hardly enough to substitute training. Qi acquired purely through those means didn’t make for a proper warrior. He wasn't sure whether he could win a fight against someone who had trained up to the bronze path.
But the other benefits still stood.
Youth. Health. The beautiful song of eternity. Like all other cultivators, he wanted a piece of that pie. He just wasn’t willing to work for it.
He was tasked, just like all the other elders, to run around searching for a damn book. Jukann didn’t believe half the crap they had said. And he most certainly didn’t think that Neave had stolen it. He had agreed with the sect master's initial reaction. This whole thing smelled like sect politics.
And he knew sect politics.
Jukann was a rather low-ranking elder of the sect. As such, he had been tasked with the undesirable and unrewarding task of distributing food pills to the disciples. At first, he loathed the responsibility, but the job grew on him.
The sect practiced fair, or rather, merit-based distribution of resources. But certain doting mothers and older brothers wanted the best for their young. So he’d accept their gift and return their kindness by giving better food pills to their children. Or perhaps they’d want somebody to get lower-quality pills.
One never knew.
It was not his job to judge the higher-ranking elders. Short were the lives of those who didn’t keep their heads down.
He lazily strode down the hallways, throwing a token glance at anything unusual he passed by.
That’s when he spotted him. Neave strode down the hallway right toward the elder. But something was odd. He held himself higher. He didn’t look quite as fragile as he usually did, and…
He carried a massive scimitar over his shoulder.
“Elder Jukann! I finally found you! You have three seconds to answer my question. Why did you poison me?”
Jukann stood frozen as he stared at Neave.
“I… I didn’t. What are you spouting, child? What kind of behavior is this!?”
“Ding! Time’s up!” Suddenly, Neave flashed forward at impossible speed and sank his fist into the elder's stomach. The blow threw the elder back several meters, and he tumbled as he smashed into the ground. He recognized the golden glow surrounding Neave.
He had just used a true strike.
Elder Jukann’s mind raced to explain what was happening. He then remembered the book, the cursed object they were chasing, and he panicked hard.
“Wait, wait, spare me! I will tell you what you want to know. Just spare me my life! I was just following orders. I’ve never had any personal grudges against you!”
“Okay, okay, just tell me who ordered you to poison me, and I will let you go.”
“Alright… Alright, I was told to do it by lady Sollaria. And… And also lady Kamella.”
“Is that all?”
“No, no, it was also… Marrah, Marrah, lady Marrah, she paid me to–I mean, she ordered me to do it. I wasn’t thinking straight. I should have… I should have reported it—the threat to my life be damned!”
“Okay, stop spluttering. Is that everyone?”
Jukann froze and hesitated.
“And also… Elder… Elder Kaphor. He told me to.”
“And that is…?”
“That is everyone, I swear on my soul!”
“Okay, thank you very much!”
Just as Jukann was about to breathe out in relief, golden runes flashed around Neave. And Jukann’s head rolled down the hallway. Neave cheered.
“Wooo, a destroyer had been removed! Good job, me!” He patted himself on the shoulder.
“Now then, I think I will start with Kamella first. I’d like to save elder Kaphor for last!”
Neave strode down the hallway, leaving the beheaded corpse behind.
As Neave hunted for more heads, Hunter desperately searched for the sect master. Harel hesitated. A senior disciple located the beheaded corpse of Elder Jukann. Elder Rashia returned to the sealed room.
While Marven stubbornly waited for someone to find the book.
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