TDL BK I, CH 34: The View from Under the Clouds

Chapter Thirty-four: The View from Under the Clouds 

Cauciel nursed his pint. Around his table, the many other patrons of Agareyue’s Refuge seemed drunk on something other than Yinfama’s famous ales. They screamed and argued and yelled about things they had no real knowledge of. Case in point…

“… I’m telling you!” some chap two tables over was yelling. “Clearly, the mystic realm originates from Old Nosire. It is a proven fact that undeath existed in the kingdom even before The Damned King turned to Lichdom. The ties in our region were much stronger Pre-cataclysm. The ancestors of the Vast Heaven Palace could have easily…”

It took a while for Cauciel to put a name to the face, but in the end, he recognised the boisterous man as Wankateh, a local bookseller. Ears pricked, he listened to what the man had to say. Sadly, it was nothing he hadn’t heard before. Practically every child in the dominion had heard some variation of that story growing up. The tale of how, during the Cataclysm, when heaven and earth tore each other part, Agansa’ar of Nosire damned himself and his kingdom with undeath in his cowardly attempt to survive the troubles no matter the cost.

In some versions, the King was a lamentable figure led astray by the whispers of an evil god. In others, he was a coward who cursed an entire kingdom simply to obtain an eternal albeit damned life or even a naive fool who had believed his actions would save his people. No matter which version one held to, all of them ended the same way, with King Agansa’ar the Damned cursed with undeath, and his kingdom transformed from one of joy and life into a place for the walking dead.

He survived the Age of Cataclysms, the Kingstrife that followed it as well as the many millennia that led to the present day. However, survive was perhaps too strong a word. The Damned King could not die, but neither could he live. His ambitions had reduced his kingdom into an opulent graveyard, his people into shambling corpses and himself into nothing but a jewelled skeleton on a Blackstone throne, his ribs a lantern cage that held a flickering cursed flame said to consume the souls of men.  

As Cauciel listened to the book seller’s crackpot theories about the Vast Heaven Palace, The Kingdom of Nosire and the Age of Cataclysms, he was forced to concede that the connection didn’t sound too farfetched. Most of Wankateh’s other claims were pure nonsense, but in contrast to those, the idea of a Nosirean tomb seemed almost too plausible. The Nosireans were their ancient enemies. Only the heavens knew how many wars had been fought between them. Even today, only a few scattered settlements exist south of the Vast Heaven Dominion, where they share a border. 

These days, the border and the Nosireans were quiet, but that wasn’t always the case. The dead hungered eternally for the flesh of the living. The Vast Heaven Palace were only the latest in a long line of defenders. It made sense that their predecessors came up with a way to train to fight their hated foes. Admittedly, having said training ground be a mystic realm stretched that theory a bit but not so much as to be out of bounds for the marvels of the ancients.

Marvels he was missing out on. The calabash in his hand cracked before he thought to reign his envy in. Moreso than the origins of the mystic realm, the fortunes it held were the talk of the bar. Having made contact with Guillaume and his fancy friend Howe, Cauciel had some idea of just what he had missed out on. He took a big gulp of ale to quench the envy that burned in his gut. Strange the difference a few hours can make.

‘I should have been there!’ He realised. Caution was good, safe, even smart, but at times like this, what difference was there between him and these mortal bystanders.

‘Two more years’

The goal. The only true goal for cultivators is Transcendence! He was already forty-three. Past forty-five, even cultivators started to decline. After sixty, Exultation became all but impossible. If he was to surpass the weakness of the flesh, he needed to stack the death in his favour. He had heard whispers. Someone — Nine Phantoms fronts, no doubt– was offering Heaven Climbing pills on the black market. A single of those would be all the assurance he required. However, the costs…

“Tomorrow!” His resolve unintentionally forcing the words out loud into reality. 

Karn, his lieutenant, looked up at him from across the table, but Cauciel, ever in control, simply rolled with it.

He rose from his seat, catching the attention of the rest of his men. “Tomorrow, we’ll climb the mountain!” 

The men cheered!

It had been laughably easy to leave undetected. With so many people making their way up the mountain and into the sect, no one would notice a single person missing from the True Fire Sect’s obnoxiously large retinue. Still, Dane made sure to change his glamour twice as he made his way through the throng. He didn’t dare send his message while on the mountain. Who knew how far or wide, the Vast Heaven Palace’s wards and formations extended?

Making his way through the city to a place he knew he would be safe, he locked the doors and, after clearing a small space, he knelt on the floor. Briefly, he wondered if he would be the first. Even before the day’s revelations, with the attention they had drawn… surely he was not the only spy. No matter. Pulling out an ornate communicator, he made the call.

“My lord!” 

“Kaguri has gone too far this time! That is supposed to be ours!” came the grumbling at his side.

Melqart said nothing in response, unwilling to vocally agree with the treasonous prick at his side. After only a few days in his company, he struggled to see how no one had already fingered Reinhold as a traitor. All he did was complain about the sect and whine about how no one took him seriously, forgetting that he was a sixty-year-old man who flunked out of the inner sect and whose only real job was to run errands for more important elders. On this, though, he might have a point. A small one, but a point nonetheless.

As he watched yet another team of loose cultivators walk out of the mystic realm with armfuls of loot, Melqart struggled to understand what Dunny and the Preceptor were thinking. He thought the plan was to strengthen the sect, not their enemies. All those items should go to them, right? 

He felt a rumbling in his flesh stir as a lightning attribute cultivator — the second so far— tried to charge through a mass of skeletons with a sparkling spear. She succeeded but was forced to stop and let her teammates shield her, her mana already spent. Pitiful! They hadn’t even opened the secret door yet. The only real reward for their trouble was a couple of ominous-looking bones and a small collection of coins. 

Another group exited the portal. This one did much better, returning with one of the staves that allowed anyone with a modicum of mana to fire magical blasts.

“Look at them! Cowards!” spat the man next to him. “Not one group dares to travel further!”

Again, he ignored Reinhold. It was frustrating. He understood. While they had yet to see a complete rout, one group lost all but three of their members attacking the slavering monsters when their tactics failed. They weren’t stupid. No one wanted to be first to suffer whatever dangers lay beyond that point. 

Melqart wanted to charge down there and show them how it was done. His skin itched, the thunder rumbling in his veins at the sight of blood and battle. In his mind’s eye, he could see himself marching through the mausoleum, smiting all those abominations with crackling thunder. 

Sadly, he wasn’t the only one whose blood stirred at these bloodsports. Although, his spirit was roused by the challenge and the need to prove himself, there were others who seemed to have seized this event to indulge in more ghastly appetites. 

“LOOK! LOOK THERE!” Someone yelled. “That team is about to break!”

Melqart craned his neck over. The great big suspended cube above the arena was oriented such that only one side faced their way. A couple of enterprising disciples had already figured a way around that by rigging a couple of communicator talismans to record and relay the action closer to their seats.

Melqart watched as a group of mercenaries splintered. Those supposed to defend with raised shields abandoned their positions when confronted with the beasts from beyond the secret door. With nothing to delay them, the monsters charged right into their midst, biting and slashing. The man who stood at the fore of the defenders had already cast aside his shield, running full tilt past his screaming colleagues.

“FALL! FALL! FALL!” a couple of disciples chanted, and fall he did, stumbling over a broken pew and crashing face-first into the ground.

“HA HA!” One inner disciple yelled triumphantly. He turned to his friend, eyes wild with excitement. “Didn’t I say it? I fucking told you! The fearful ones always fall! It’s the weak legs. You can’t run well when you’re trembling.”

As he watched the monster rip into the screaming– now begging man, Melqart absently noted money change hands among the disciples. The strength it took to hold his tongue and not barge over, knocking heads… He took a deep breath and struggled to keep calm. Operating a gambling operation out in the open right next to a junior elder. Even fools would connect the dots.

‘Dunny!’ he said in his head. Between the traitors, the useless ones and the corruption… ‘I don’t know if we can do it.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.