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HoGW BK V, CH 8: Worrying Implications

Sorry for the delay guys! Had some stuff I needed to deal with.

Chapter Eight: Worrying Implications

Theoren sat at the table, letting the tantalising aromas fill his nostrils and kindle his hunger. He could practically taste the spread already. She glanced away from the table, watching as Lilian laid out more food. The old array master smiled, already preparing to eat until his stomach threatened to burst. She was handling everything herself as her butler wasn’t with her. A quick scan showed that they were the only two around. 

‘A private conversation then’, he realised. That was good. It meant she made this feast herself. 

That was always a delight, even if the entire thing was simply a pretext to wheedle something out of him. As if to confirm his suspicions, she came around to his side of the table and helped him with his plate, only sitting after serving him some bittur soup; roasted groundnuts ground into paste and used as a base for a soup of leafy green vegetables. It was his favourite and went incredibly well with his sahbor. 

“You know that thing the boy was hiding…?” She said suddenly. “He finally fessed up!”

Theoren, caught in the middle of washing his hands, paused. Usually, they’d chat inanely for a bit before delving into more consequential matters. His lips twisted into a small frown. Her tone… he finished washing. Suddenly, he wasn’t looking forward to his meal.

“What was it?”

“A spiritual legacy!” Lilian revealed. 

That was interesting and even put some things into perspective. However, his mind thought back to the boy’s O’be lineage. ‘They wouldn’t,’ he told himself. ‘Not after what happened the last time.’ Theoren looked down into his meal and realised his appetite was nowhere to be found. This could prove troublesome. 

“Sacred Family, Second Congregation or New Blood?” he asked her before making an attempt at digging in.

However, even as he spoke, his mind veered to the latter two. If you discounted the O’be, he doubted the Steelborns had the contacts necessary to run in the circles of the former, let alone marry one of their children or bear their bastards. The Gavriels and the Hallowtides were okay, but many of the others on this side of the Grand Boundary had territories bigger than entire kingdoms.

“You tell me!” she said. With a wave of her hand, two large decorative golden feathers appeared on the table.

Theoren sighed and pushed away his bowl with great reluctance. With a scowl that had Lilian chuckling softly in embarrassment, he picked up one of the feathers and realised they were definitely not decorative. Each feather held traces of its owner’s essence, and with his supernatural senses, he could make out small traces of blood on the calamus. Despite all their seemingly organic origins, the feathers were made of imperial gold, a rare essence imbued metal so valuable that a few tons of it were likely worth more than the Steelborn estate. Yet, Theoren didn’t even pay the material any attention, completely absorbed by the symbols embossed on them, much like an art fanatic would care little for the canvas beneath the work he was appreciating. Looking closer, his eyes traced the strange law patterns. He touched it with a tentative finger sending a pulse of essence through the room. In the hands of a torchbearer of the array arts, the symbols glowed, revealing their secrets without becoming truly active.

“Theoren?” Lilian called softly.

He looked up, returning to the present. “You got these from Valerian?”

She pursed her lips and nodded. “The boy carries a powerful daemonic bloodline. It is greatly degraded at present, but all signs point to it having come from a divine creature known as the KunPeng or, at the very least, a cadet bloodline. His spiritual legacy springs from this bloodline.” 

“Tell me,” she said slowly. “Do you know of any clans or societies with…”

“NO!” Theoren interrupted. “Lilian, the KunPeng is a creature of myth whose existence has never been confirmed. Are you certain, Valerian’s bloodline is descended from it?”

The old battlemage nodded. “The bloodline inheritance might be degraded, but Valerian has inherited enough of its will to have access to some bloodline memories. His ancestor was the KunPeng.”

Theoren accepted this news with a grave face. “That is what I was afraid of. This is bad. We’re talking pre-Verre myths here, Lilian, the kind we only know about due to tales passed to us from off-world transcendents. Degraded or not, any spiritual legacy related to it cannot possibly be native. Do you know what this means?”

“You’re sure?” she asked again. “Are there truly no groups you know of that he could be traced to.”

The old man was lost in thought for a moment. “There were once Skyspanning Goldbirds in the North of the empire, but they have been hunted to near extinction. Now, the only place you are liable to find creatures with strong peng lineages is the Wildlands beyond the boundary. I do not know of any major clans that carry their daemonic bloodline, and certainly not that of a golden-winged peng.” 

I could have told you that”, Lilian snapped. “I was hoping you’d have news of things outside the empire.”

“That’s…” Theoren stopped and went through his extensive mind palace. A minute later, he stopped and shook his head. “I’m sorry. The closest mention I can find is a mention of a suspected Kun terrorising the dragons of the Thisan Seas a thousand years ago. There are a few more records also in the same area and even a confirmed report from 7400 years ago where the dragons in the area gathered together to exterminate a pod of Kuns. I have nothing that so much as mentions descendants of the true KunPeng or any peng for that matter.”

“And there’s no O’be connection?” she inquired.

“No!” he stated. “For all their faults, the O’be will never secretly consort with interlopers. I was worried for a second when you began that we were dealing with the second coming of Winegane the Blasphemer but no. This is something the O’be would never condone, privately or publicly. They have as much invested in Verre’s defence as the Gavriels, maybe more if you can believe that.”  

Lilian clasped her hands, her thumb and middle finger rubbing the index between them. “Could you reach out to some of your contacts?” she asked, continuing with her nervous tick.

Theoren fought the urge to say yes. She knew his order, the information he had had access to and the libraries he’d memorised. The chances of him having missed something were very small, especially something involving a clan with a suspected transcendent bloodline. If such a group did exist, there would be records of them somewhere. At the same time, he could not boast of being infallible. If it were just that, he would agree on principle, but in this case, he suspected Lilian’s motives were not as pure as they seemed on the surface.

“Lilian,” he began softly. “The boy? You know what needs to be done, don’t you?”

She sat back in her chair, crossing her arms with a cute frown.

Theoren wasn’t having it. “Don’t give me that. I looked into the boy, and I know you did too.”

From the moment she came to him with the story of her apprentice being an O’be, he made sure to dig through Valerian’s family history. At the time, nothing too out of the ordinary stood out. A paternal clan from the wildlands, with possible roots in the Crystalspur Empire. O’be connections from his great-grandmother. As for his parents, a young diplomat and a woman about whom nothing was known both missing. At the time, he thought little of it. Verre was dangerous, and people disappeared all the time. The Steelborns had also made the unfortunate habit of pissing off their neighbours. 

Knowing what he did now, the story changed greatly. “You know full well how it looks, Lilian”, he told her. “The boy’s father was a diplomatic attache. He met the mother when he was part of a convoy returning from an imperial summit. A woman with a blank story and no background that you’re telling me possessed a transcendent spiritual legacy from an interloper deity. I shouldn’t need to spell it out.”

This was looking more and more like the woman was a spy. He wasn’t sure how her mission had involved marrying and abandoning an insignificant staff member of a minor diplomat, but if he assumed that she needed a hasty and secure egress from imperial lands, then the story started to make more sense. Whatever the case, the idea of unknown planar intruders skulking through imperial lands was alarming. 

“You need to inform your old colleagues”, he told Lilian. 

“I would prefer to wait a bit until I have further confirmation that the golden-winged peng truly has no native connections to this world before I do so. If I bring this news to the Guardians as is, they will simply escalate this.”

“Exactly!” Theoren exclaimed. “That is precisely what they are supposed to do.”

He wrung his hands in frustration. “You know as well as I do that the system is in place as an early warning system in case of Planar Invasions. We have an unknown party with ties to interloper transcendent entities roaming the empire. You fought in the Devil Incursions, Lilian! You know how vital the reporting system is!”  

“The boy is clean”, he said, going over every interaction, every scrap of info he had learned about the boy or from watching him. “I’m sure any investigators will see that too. Once they clear him, they will move on to the important things.” ‘Like tracking down and figuring out the intentions of his as yet unknown relations’, his mind supplied. 

Valerian was sixteen. Assuming the mother was already active when she met his father, then she and her people had a seventeen-year head start, at the very least. Seventeen years! That was more than enough time to have left at least some record if they were operating aboveboard. 

“Even assuming we’re dealing with some ultra-secret group from another continent and not a planar interloper, we would still need to clear them of suspicion of being spies.”

“You need to report this, or I will!” he pronounced, making his stand. 

Lilian sighed. “I will report it. Just… sit on the news for a bit until you hear back from your contacts.”

Theoren stared at her. “You’re still planning on keeping him as your apprentice?” he realised. 

She gave him a bitter smile. “How could I not? You’ve seen his potential. Even ignoring his secret bloodlines, that boy could go far. I can hardly resist the temptation to be the one responsible.”

The old man ruminated on this new info before asking, “Can you even help him? With his bloodline being what it is, I doubt he will fit into that formation of yours. Plus, fire and metal laws don’t mix peacefully. The Gavriel methods might cause more harm than good.”

“Oh, I know”, she admitted with a bitter smile. “I have already left the choice to him. If he is cleared and chooses to leave, I will have him sent to the Rodore or the Salma.” 

Theoren frowned at the mention of his birth clan. “And I suppose you were going to rely on me for that.”

She shrugged. “It should be enough if the request came from my brother. I was going to hand him directly to you if you still wanted him.”

He raised his eyebrow. She nodded. Theoren sat back, asking himself if it would be worth it. He sighed. “I will keep your secret for now. In the meantime, I will reach out to others in my order. However, once my colleagues get back to me, you must report this to yours no matter the results.”

She nodded.

Theoren sighed. How was the life of one boy so complicated? Grabbing his bowl, he resolved to at least eat his fill before leaving. 

“How is it?”

“It’s incredible!” Theoren praised, reaching for some of the roast meats on the table. “Somehow, you’ve gotten even better.” She smiled happily. 

It really wasn’t. The veggies were overcooked to the point of falling apart. She’d clearly misjudged something during the cooking process. However, it did taste incredible, but that was only because Lilian pumped enough essence into it that she was effectively enchanting her meals. The discrepancy between the incredible taste and terrible texture threatened to ruin the already shaky dining experience, but Theoren soldiered on. 


Author’s Note:

Some interesting things in this chapter. Do you think Theoren is right to be suspicious about Valerian’s mother? Speaking of, what choice should Valerian make?

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