TDL BK I, CH 12: The Elder Council

Chapter Twelve: The Elder Council

“…as we mourn and prepare for Elder Anthony Midian’s funeral, let us take comfort in the fact that he would want us to…” 

Unable to listen to this nonsense with a straight face, Dunstan tuned the Sixth Preceptor out. That they had to cover up the traitor’s deeds did not sit right with him but he agreed with the old man that the sect needed to put up a strong united front. The two of them knew the truth and so did Anthony’s co-conspirators but the vast majority of the sect did not. It would not do to let the rank and file learn just how dire the sect’s circumstances had become. If that meant he had to be tearful and grateful for the traitor’s “sacrifice and timely rescue” then so be it.

Allowing the Sixth Preceptor’s droning to fade into the background, Dunstan focused instead on the people gathered in the council chamber. Eleven despondent faces surrounded the aged tengen wood table. Some actually managed to look sad. It made it even more difficult to tell where their loyalties lay. 

‘No one said it had to be easy but it shouldn’t have to hurt’, Dunstan told himself. 

Sitting at the head of the table, Dunstan found that he was the only one below fifty and it showed. Ordinarily, cultivators lived much longer than normal. The essence surging through their bodies granted them extraordinary power and vitality. Even when bent and decrepit they could burst forth with surprising power. Exultants took this even further. They possessed three times the longevity of a normal person. Living to two hundred was not completely out of the realm of possibility. Aurous cultivator pushed the envelope again at three times the lifespan of an exultant. By all accounts, the elders of the council should not look so…

Dunstan frowned. ‘This isn’t an issue of vitality’, he realised. They looked drained and beaten down. How was he going to revive the sect when its leaders possessed less spirit than the skeletons in his dungeon? 

Their appearance made for an interesting sight, contrasting as it did with the council chambers with its bright atmosphere and vaulted ceilings. That the drab elders only occupied a small centre of the room added to the effect. Protected by clever construction and spells, the council chamber, despite harkening to an age long past had a joyful and hopeful character to it whereas the elders within it were lost in the past and possessed little hope for the future. 

“…thankfully, today we do not have to end on a sour note. Sect Master Kaguri has some good news for us!”

Pulled out of his thoughts at the mention of his name, Dunstan took his cue. “Our Lord Preceptor is right! Following my return from the Desolate Fields, I discovered a very welcome change. One of the sect’s legacy artefacts has finally been activated.

The elders leaned in at the news. 

“Legacy artefact?” Great Elder Homatt, one of the sect’s six remaining Aurous cultivators, asked incredulously. “I wasn’t aware we had another one.”

“You wouldn’t know this one!” Dunstan informed him. Slowly, with the aid of the Sixth Preceptor, he weaved a tall tale. 

In the years before the Vast Heaven Ancestor founded the sect, he, like many adventurers, scoured the land for opportunities. Once, during a very dangerous adventure, he discovered a special artefact. Sadly, the artefact was damaged and no longer capable of showing its power. Despite recognising its value, the Vast Heaven Ancestor was unable to awaken or repair it and so carried it with him. After countless years without success, this artefact was left in the sect’s special vault and forgotten. A few sect masters tried getting it to work. All of them failed, that is, until Dunstan came along. 

The way Dunstan told the story, it all happened before his master, the Seventh Sect Master left. Fearing the worst, he tried to orient Dunstan so he would be prepared for his future responsibilities. What he hadn’t expected was that the artefact would react to Dunstan when they toured the secret vault. After conferring with the Sixth Preceptor and confirming that the artefact had indeed forged a connection with Dunstan, it was decided that the matter would be kept secret. One of the reasons for this was that the artefact still displayed no abilities or peculiarities besides randomly draining Dunstan of his essence. Reasoning that the artefact was trying to repair or unseal itself, it was left in Dunstan’s care. He, in turn, kept it in his room.

Feeling the horror directed his way by his council, Dunstan found himself needing to defend his actions during this fictional event. He claimed that the artefact when inactive was incredibly nondescript. All he had to do was keep it in his personal safe and even if anyone saw it they would think it a personal keepsake. Thankfully, the Sixth Preceptor tossed his gold in and assured the council that the artefact was always protected. This allowed Dunstan to get back to his story. 

In his fictional account, it was only when he returned from his latest adventure that he noticed a change in the artefact. This time when he poured in his essence, he received a response. The magical device even unlocked some of its abilities for his use. 

Perhaps Dunstan’s storytelling abilities were too good but more likely, the elders were simply curious about an artefact that even the Vast Heaven Ancestor had prized because they were all at the edges of their seats. The council chamber was positively buzzing with excitement as curious elders and great elders talked among themselves.

“What does it do?” one ventured.

Dunstan shot the Sixth Preceptor a meaningful and pre-arranged look. Hopefully, his acting was enough to convince the watching elders. “As far as we can determine, it is a spatial artefact of some sort. The artefact spirit is too damaged to be woken and be of use but from our initial explorations. It either contains a collection of mystic realms or makes portals that connect to them.”

More murmuring filled the chamber.

“Mystic realms?” repeated the elder in disbelief.

“Yes!” Dunstan affirmed. “Going by the scant impressions I have uncovered, it is a legacy artefact of an ancient sect. The mystic realms it contains are undoubtedly intended to be training spaces and resource farms. There is no telling how many of them still remain but the condition of the artefact in question does not make us too hopeful.

“Do we know what sect it belonged to?” Asked great Elder Dorn.

Dunstan shook his head as he answered. “Sadly, we do not. Nothing I have found has proved useful in determining its provenance. It is incredibly ancient, that much is obvious but beyond that… It might not even come from this region. Nevertheless, I have noticed that whichever ancient sect left this behind shares some iconography in common with our own sect but I’ll leave the speculation of what that could mean to elders that are more versed in ancient history and how it might relate to ours.”

Dunstan watched several elders especially the truly old ones glance the Sixth Preceptor’s way seeking some validation. To the man’s credit, he stuck with the plan. Then again, this was largely his idea. Dunstan would have been happy to leave this part to him. Thinking on this caused the man’s words to ring in his mind.

“You’re sect master now, Dunstan. I will always be here to support you but you need to take the first steps. The sect needs to know you lead it. If I keep speaking for you they will never respect your authority”, the sixth preceptor placed a hand on his shoulder. “This is the first project you’re going to propose before the council. Use this to teach them to follow.”

He knew that the elders will likely seek the man out privately after this but that was out of his hands. In fact, he wasn’t sure what the preceptor was doing now to prevent the old farts from speaking over him but he was grateful.  

Elder Tevu shot the preceptor before carefully asking, “You mentioned an artefact spirit? Is it a fourth-tier artefact?”

Dunstan shot the man a look of his own. “We’re not sure. However, given the scope of its abilities, it is likely, perhaps most certainly even higher.”

“And you’re sure there’s nothing we can do to repair it?” asked Elder Homatt.

“I… ” Dunstan hesitated here not sure how to play it. He was going to be making as many dungeons as possible. He did want to shoot himself in the foot. “…maybe in the future if we understand more but right now I don’t even know how it works really.”

Perhaps Dunstan hesitated a second too long or maybe he showed more weakness than he intended because the next he was fielding questions from nearly every seat on the table.

“How many mystic realms are there?”

“How long have you kept the artefact hidden from us?”

“Wouldn’t it be better to have the artefact studied?”

“Elder Sentrue is right, we can’t know until we have tried every possible avenue…”  

Thankfully, the Sixth Preceptor was there to set things right. 

“Quiet!” he spoke reproachfully. “As of this moment, we have no true way to control or monitor the artefact. Our only connection is the one it has with Sect Master Kaguri, tenuous as it is. Our hope is that the connection and Sect Master Kaguri’s control will strengthen over time but even that is mere guesswork. In the meantime, you are forbidden to do anything that might jeopardise that. Neither speculations of its former state nor half-baked ideas on how to fix an artefact that might well date back to the Cataclysm are of help. We need to temper our expectations and focus instead on making the best use of the relic while we have access.”

“You want us to use a damaged spatial artefact?” asked Elder Homatt in shock.

The preceptor motioned Dunstan to continue. “Sect Master Kaguri will explain.”

Dunstan nodded and launched into another prepared spiel. “While my control is tenuous as the Sixth Preceptor put it, I have spent the last few days communing with it and I can safely say that it currently recognises me as its owner.”

More murmuring filled the room but Elder Dorn, cut through it with a tense question. “What happened?”

“The artefact and I are now life bound!” Dunstan confessed. That much was not a lie. The dungeon interface was bound to his soul.

“Oh, you fool!” the kindly old man began before turning on the Sixth Preceptor. “You knew about this, didn’t you? You of all people should know how dangerous that is.”

The former sect master grimaced but did not deny the accusation. “Enough! What’s done is done! Let the boy explain to you what he’s discovered.”

“Thank you!” Dunstan said eager to move on. “To start with, the artefact is not fully awake. I believe this is because of the damage sustained by its artefact spirit which is likely comatose. This has caused many of its functions to be confused. For example, while it recognises me as its master, I do not yet have permission to access its higher functions. Because of the disparity between my cultivation and what it believes its master should be, it treats me more like the dao child of the sect than its master. 

“Despite this, I have been able to unlock one of its mystic realms. Regrettably, the realm I have access to is not only small but also filled with undead monsters. The objective is simple. Defeat the monsters and obtain rewards. There is one catch though, the monsters within revive every time the realm is closed so every group that enters will be facing a fresh crop of enemies.”

Tossing out some health and mana potions purchased from the dungeon shop to the assembled elders, Dunstan continued. “These are but some of the rewards from the mystic realm; Potions that heal and replenish mana respectively. There are also a few weak weapons and some special materials.”

Elder Vugurre examined the vial in his hands before asking, “Should we organise an expedition?”

“No!” Dunstan stated emphatically. “Entrance to the realm is restricted to initiate tier cultivators. Besides, our disciples could never sustain the attrition rates necessary to properly exploit the mystic realm, nor do I want them to.” 

“What are you saying?” Elder Sentrue asked.

Dunstan grinned. “I am saying gentlemen, why send our disciples into danger when we can make others do so for us?”

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