TDL BK I, CH 26: Shaky Confidence

Chapter Twenty-six: Shaky Confidence

The Dragon-Soaring Compact was an agreement between the Jade Dragon Row and the Vast Heaven Palace. Realising the importance of a vibrant local economy and wary of the outsider influence exerted by the Myriad Treasures Pavilion, Dunstan’s predecessors invested in the Jade Dragon Row, a budding alliance of several notable business-aligned families.

 In addition to money and resources, the Vast Heaven Palace provided securities and sureties, protected their patents and forcefully upheld their monopolies. In return, Dunstan’s sect held 20 per cent of the shares while each of the primary families held five. This allowed the Vast Heaven Palace to exert some control over the Jade Dragon Row, and the dividends it paid out were a reliable and increasingly important source of income. When brokering the compact, the Palace Master at the time made sure to put in some harsh conditions in case the Jade Dragons ever tried to break free or bite the hand that fed them. 

“What, then, is your alliance planning?” 

“Look! If it were up to us, nothing would change; however, the other families are nervous. Some of them have even switched sides. My brother is simply doing what he can to maintain control.” The other man explained.  

“So you came here to what? To stall? To assess us for your new masters?” Dunstan asked angrily.

“I was asked to come because you knew me. I was supposed to put up a front while we found a way to cool things between our sects for a while.”

Things slowly began to make sense. “Cool things off until the Phantoms wiped us out, you mean?”

“Be reasonable, Dunstan”, the man pleaded. “You’ve got an ancient mystic realm in your sect. If they wanted you gone before, what do you think they’re going to do now?”

“I see!” To his surprise, that was actually true. The Jade Dragon Row was powerful, but his predecessors had made sure that they only ever relied on the Vast Heaven Palace for fighters, and thus their own forces were severely lacking. They stood to lose a lot in a fight between the region’s two major powers. 

It didn’t mean he forgave them, not when they were planning on sitting the coming conflict out, hoping his sect got wiped out so their obligations disappeared.

“You may leave!” He said suddenly. 

At first, Fernus looked incredulous, but seeing the chance before him, he stood quickly. 

“Tell Lord Noswith this. He has a fortnight to prepare his affairs, after which My Vast Heaven Palace will visit to resolve the breach of The Compact”, Dunstan added.

“We haven’t Broken the Compact!” Fernus hissed.

Dunstan ignored him, speaking on. “There will be two choices before him that day, either take the out and surrender four-tenths of the Jade Dragon’s Assets or be destroyed.”

“You can’t do that!” the man argued. He spluttered for a bit, searching for something to say before lighting up. “You’ll be pushing us right into the hands of the Phantoms.”

Dunstan raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?” 

“Tell me, do you think the Phantoms will help you when they can sit back and use this opportunity to assess what remains of our strength? Even if they choose to help, when your only other choice is destruction, how much do you think they will charge to preserve you? I’m guessing half your worth or close to it.”   

“Goodbye, Fernus”, he said dismissing him. “Say hello to Enid for me!” 

“That was rash!” Elder Dorn said as he appeared next to him, ever the voice of reason.

His opposite, Elder Howatt, followed right after. “Rash would have been bashing his head in. You heard what he said. The Jade Dragons are going over to the phantoms.”

“I did”, the portly man said nonplused. “He said some of the families, not all of them. The Jade Dragon is wavering. They haven’t chosen a side yet.”

“That’s worse!. They’re fence-sitting, waiting on the sidelines so they can suck up to the winner.”

Dunstan facepalmed. He had no time for their bickering. There were more important things on the table. “Is what he said true? Will the Phantoms attack to seize the portal?”

He spun in his chair, so the portal came into sight. He intended to use his dungeon maker to revitalise his sect. He did not know what he would do if it turned out that his creations sounded their death knell instead.

“You’re asking if the phantoms will ever attack the sect?” Elder Dorn asked in confusion.

Dunstan nodded, only for the two old men to burst into laughter.

“Don’t worry about it”. Elder Howatt said, patting him on the back. “The Phantoms will never attack Vast Heaven Mount. Vanush would never be caught within a hundred leagues of Cloudy Sky City while Alshiram is alive.”

“The Sixth Preceptor? The Nine Phantoms Preceptor is afraid of him.”

“Afraid of him?” Elder Howatt repeated with a laugh before turning to his colleague. “Ha he he ha HA! He’s asking if Vanush is afraid of Alshiram?” 

The other elder was so busy laughing he had to hold his sides. 

“Boy, believe me when I say you have never seen a proper beating in your life until you’ve seen Vanush and Alshiram fight”, Elder Howatt said, blinking tears out of his eyes. “God, that last time, was it fifty years ago, Dorn?”

“Sixty-two!” the fat elder corrected. 

“Right!” Howatt acknowledged. “Vanush came rushing here because he’d broken to the Nascent tier only for Alshiram to beat him into the dirt until he-h-he…” Both men dissolved into fits of laughter. It was so strange to watch Dunstan found himself slightly terrified. 

“He literally had to bark for mercy!” Elder Howatt finished.

At this, the two old men began to reminisce about other fights between the two principal figures, all of them ending in the sixth preceptor’s overwhelming victory. All talk about the Jade Dragons was forgotten. Dunstan watched with growing horror as the situation became clear to him. The Vast Heaven Palace’s greatest deterrent against the Nine Phantoms was the fact their leader had been traumatised into abject fear by Dunstan’s predecessor. 

This didn’t fill him with the confidence the two elders thought it would. It told him that his sect was hanging on a thread finer than he had initially believed. The sixth preceptor, powerful though he may be, was a single point of failure, one who had already admitted to him that he was old and dying. Dunstan had to do something, anything. 

As a reincarnator, Dunstan understood the trope where a weaker person beat someone several levels above themselves. However, things had changed for the Phantoms. Sixty years ago, they only had one Nascent cultivator; today, they had five. Even if Old man Alshiram could still trash Preceptor Vanush nine ways from Sunday, he was still only an Aurous tier cultivator. He couldn’t possibly beat five Nascent cultivators on his own, could he? 

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