Chapter Forty: Obscured Faces
Carefully, a young man tiptoed into his master’s chambers. He entered into a world of ice. The room was more frozen cavern than stately hall. Massive crystals of ice littered the place. The floor was a frozen sheet, and everything else in it was covered in frost. In the centre of it all was a pool. Even amid all this soul-freezing cold, it remained liquid. Rising from its heart was a giant lotus that looked like a large flower made of snowflakes. Cold gases rose from the pool, collecting in the lotus flower and the figure within it.
The young man tiptoed closer to this figure. Even with his caution, his foot nearly slipped on the ice, forcing him to stand still for a few seconds to make sure he had not disturbed anything. Further checks revealed that his master was still in meditation. Thankful for small mercies, the man let out a small sigh of relief. These human feet were all but useless.
“If you have business here, Xxelf get to it quick!” the figure in the lotus snarked.
“Yes, master!” Xxelf answered nervously.
“I was given the information you requested”, he added, reptilian eyes shifting in the low light. He hated coming in here. “I’ll just leave it…”
“Show it to me!” his master demanded.
“Right”, Xxelf acknowledged, his hopes of a quick exit dashed on the ice.
Taking a few talismans from his ring, he began to display the matches for his master’s perusal.
Even through the ice, Xxelf could feel his master’s eyes follow three figures in particular. The Steelborn, the Gavriel and the Langston. Soon, he ignored the Langston and focused on the remaining two. He had seen all he needed from her. She was a skilled honour guard, nothing more.
“This one has the chops to be more powerful than Lilian”, he declared. “The other one is interesting. Dual forces… I never thought I would meet one again. He has two elements, though. A pity! There is power in purity. How is he going to consolidate his path when he’s spread so thin. Hmph! Lilian will force him to reprioritise.”
“I assume you investigated them thoroughly?” he asked to his pet.
Xxelf was perceptive enough to know that his master was not actually asking. Quickly, he projected everything known about each disciple into the air above the pool.
“The Steelborn is a bigger mystery than I thought. Information about his clan does not line up with the facts”, the young man revealed.
The frozen figure stared at the projected information. “Interesting! Strange legacies, a powerful guardian spirit, well-developed combat and crafting skill and a past as nomads from the beyond The Grand Boundary. They could be an exiled clan or better still, refugees. Message our contacts on the other side. See what they can find out about them!”
Xxelf nodded. “What about the other stuff? The trials went as you predicted. Pekinini is asking for our aid.”
The figure in the ice shifted sharply. “You better not have answered him!”
“Of course not, master”, the snake-eyed youth asserted. “I followed your commands to the letter. No plays. No contact with the Wherries. No funny business whatsoever.”
“Did you keep tabs on the aftermath like I asked?” came the voice in the lotus.
“With wide eyes, master!” Xxelf said with a snigger. “Like I said, it went exactly as you predicted. So many arrests. Fourteen foreign agents. Lots of spies backtracked to their masters’ abodes. Fifth Guardian Augustus was on top of his game. The capital is going to be an exciting place in the next few weeks.”
Xxelf did not need to see through the lotus to know his master was pleased.
“Did the royal family take our bait?” the man asked.
“They nearly did so. Very nearly. I thought it was a done thing myself until the first guardian stepped in and forbade them from making any moves for Bloodworth’s legacy.”
“Damn that old bastard!” his master said in annoyance. “And Bloodworth’s, which parties turned up.”
“There’s a general who might face a court-martial. He tried to force his way into the proceeds and call a stop to the whole thing. Several people tried to transfer into Marrbissi, but their applications were placed on hold until after the event. In the meantime, several nobles bankrolled candidates. Most did not make it through the Steelborn’s tests”, Xxelf revealed.
“The Soldo heir managed to pull some of the principal parties together”, he said, pulling up a video of the final fights. “The first disciple of the Rudra, one of the Mosa heirs and the Strong princess. Even the Smyths took a crack at it. Regrettably, their fates were probably worse than all the other challengers. The Smyths lost their newest in-law.”
“Strange, I thought Duke Ossit would be one of the eager parties”, the figure in ice mused.
Xxelf burst into laughter “His son ascended to the Lord tier not two days before the trials were announced. It is the first time I heard of a father unhappy about his son’s cultivation progress.”
“That would explain it”, replied his master’s voice, a smile in his tone.
Running some true essence through his body to combat the cold, Xxelf looked to his master and asked. “What about us? Are we really not going to make a move? Pekinini’s calls are getting hard to ignore. There’s already an initiative to crash the Acceptance Ceremony to demand a retrial.”
“Fools! The lot of them”, the figure in the ice snorted.
“Believe me when I say that Bloodworth is not done. There are eyes on every interested party, all suspicious activity will be monitored. Pekinini is a known Wherry agent. Anyone in contact with him especially now is suspect. Do not so much as breathe in his direction until all of this blows over. As for the others, ignore them. They are only going to embarrass themselves.”
“While the overly eager push for a chance to put their heirs in line for the legacy, we will sit back and wait. There’s a youth meet coming up soon. Bloodworth will never miss that. However, she will need seven more students if she wants hers to compete. That’s our in! We will slip someone inside to spy up close. No overt moves until we see our chance.”
Xxelf said nothing, nodding in response to his master’s plan. However, in his head, he could not help but sneer. ‘There’s no need to make it sound so smart. They can send their heirs. You can’t. All your hatchlings are fuck-ups?’
As you will, master. I’ll have our agents keep their eyes open.
“Wait!” his master called out. “Keep eyes on the Steelborn! He intrigues me.”
“Is it the dual forces?” Xxelf asked.
His master chose to remain silent. However, Xxelf knew he was right. Humans were so dumb sometimes. So much subterfuge and circling about when they stood a better chance if they went about it direct. In that sense, Bloodworth was better than his master.
‘Magocrats’, he sighed mentally. ‘Whiners and plotters who act like the world is theirs!’
Sadly, that is probably why they will win.
Author’s Note: This chapter was surprisingly difficult to write. It needed a mysterious villain vibe whilst being recognisable. Unfortunately, there just didn’t seem to be much to say. So many times, I caught myself using filler words and just repeating stuff to pad the word count but in the end, I cut that out.
I’ll leave it as is. Thumbs up if you figure out who this villain is and what his motives are beside the obvious. Hint: Honour Guard… no that’s wrong. Magocrat is better!