DC/RH Special
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TDL BK I, CH 16: Howe

Chapter Sixteen: Howe

Howe thanked the barmaid with a slap on the arse before reaching for his ale. She scowled before schooling her expression into one of fawning delight. That hint of displeasure only lasted for a split second but he caught it. Howe absentmindedly tossed a few extra gold her way and noted how that fake smile grew into a real grin. He wasn’t even surprised when she reached towards him under the pretence of cleaning a few spilt drops on the table, leaning over so her low-cut blouse revealed tantalising glimpses of her bosom.

‘Bah!’ he scoffed mentally, waving her away before she could finish. 

He had business to attend to. Maybe later if he remembered her and if he hadn’t found something better. They were all the same anyway, cowed by power and drawn by gold. Across the table, Howe caught the poorly disguised lust of Charles, the perverted git, staring enviously as the barmaid fawned over him. He continued as if he hadn’t, pleased. It was hard work building a sense of envy and awe of him in those around him.

“Tell it to me again”, he demanded.

The tavern was crowded though you wouldn’t know from their closed-off end. Heady smells of wood smoke, soup and roasted meats tried hard to suppress the sweat and oils of the tavern’s patrons. Howe loved it. Largely because the owner, being a former adventurer himself, understood their needs perfectly. There were no overly fancy trimmings, none of the pretentious finery some cultivators loved to surround themselves with, just convenience and comfort. Privacy too if you could afford it.

Howe had no qualms about what he was. He called himself an adventurer. The orthodox forces called him a loose cultivator. Same difference really. In fact, he liked the term somewhat. Loose cultivator, a person unattached to any power as they roamed the rivers and lakes. That was the life. Who on earth wanted to serve others when they could be free? He did not deny that there were some drawbacks to this, however, the trappings of sect life did not appeal to him and not even the security and power it promised could sway him. He was a loose cultivator, free to live his life unattached or held down. That made the current offer annoyingly problematic.

“…then he says to me…” Charles was explaining.

Of course, he understood everything the first time around, he was simply delaying for time, not that the chattering goon across him knew it. Guillaume, Charles’ boss kept him around for many reasons, his smarts were never one of them. Howe used this time to think, to consider his actions carefully. As a personal rule, he kept clear of affairs involving the major powers and he was loathed to break it. 

The Vast Heaven Palace was opening its ancestral mystic realm to the public. This was a major event. There was a saying, “Those who live beneath the sky should keep an eye on the clouds.” Howe was not unaware of the tensions between the major sects. Something like this was going to be on everyone’s noticeboard. His own common sense told him to stay away but…

“Guillaume is certain that it is a tier one mystic realm?” he asked.

“Yes, Boss Howe!” Charles answered. “The palace boys say that it’s a very small, tier-one mystic realm. They say it is a weak one. Exultants cannot even enter it.” 

Grimacing at the terrible nickname, Howe tried to convince himself that maybe this was not that big a deal. Mystic realms were ranked in terms of their size and essence capacity. A tier-one mystic realm only had enough essence to support first tiered creatures. This one was also small. Such a realm would surely be beneath the notice of the big powers, right? Maybe it was not as bad as he thought.

“…”

Despite his fierce claims of detachment, Howe found himself conflicted. Guillaume was a friend. The rivers and lakes were not infinite. Spend enough time in the life and you would find the same names and faces cropping up. Guillaume was one of them. They had fought side by side, meeting inadvertently on missions until Guillaume decided to quit the solo life and form his own force. He asked Howe to join him and even though he refused, the two of them kept ties. It was embarrassing to admit but Guillaume was probably his only true friend. For that reason alone, he helped out from time to time, using his knowledge and experience of the upper class to smooth things in Guillaume’s way. This was probably why he was being called on now.

The Vast Heaven Palace was on its last legs. Worse even, if they had to open up their private mystic realm to others. Anyone with eyes could see that. However, it was still a powerful establishment. For generations, they had fought for and held the top spot in the Eastern Regions. Howe knew that the other major powers would watch this event closely. Most would even participate, eager for any chance to finally topple the behemoth and feast on its carcass. At best, people like Guillaume and himself could only hope for scraps when they were done. However, the Vast Heaven Palace was a huge piece of meat. Surely there would be enough that even they could come off with a profit, right? 

Yet, try as he may, Howe could not shake the feeling that something was not right. Years as an adventurer had taught him to trust his instincts and right now they were telling him that he was missing something crucial. 

“You said that this news came from the Vast Heaven Palace itself?” he asked Charles.

“Yes!” The man nodded enthusiastically They’re telling everyone!”

There had to be something. They weren’t stupid. They had to be planning something to counter their foes or postpone their demise.

Something clicked in his head. “Where is this mystic realm?”

“It is inside the sect. They said to come to their mountain in three days.”

Howe’s brow creased with worry. Inside the sect? Inside the wards and formations of the region’s once famous overlord. Could it be that this was a trap for the other powers? No! They wouldn’t be so stupid. Trapping and slaughtering guests they themselves had invited would see the entire region rise up against them. Some other ploy perhaps? They had to be planning something but what, how? Howe failed to see what role a small, tier-one mystic realm played in this. The sheer uncertainty nearly made him wash his hands off the entire thing however, he thought back to all the times Guillaume had come through for him.

Howe sighed. ‘So much for being unattached.’

“Tell your boss I need to talk to him!” He ended up saying. 

Perhaps together they could come up with better ideas.

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