TDL BK I, CH 35: Roiling Beneath the Sky

Chapter Thirty-five: Roiling Beneath the Sky

They call their leader Palace Lord, but what they really mean is King.

With the words of his father ringing in his ears, Adiyiah Bugumtahe tossed a small artefact onto the table in the room he had been given. Only after the formation within had fully deployed and established itself did he relax. Pulling out a chair that likely cost as much as all the furniture in his home combined, he took a seat in his expansive ‘guest quarters’. 

Unable to help himself, the Master of The True Fire Sect chuckled with self-derision. He had allowed himself to forget, he realised, clenching his fists. To think it had been so long, he had actually deluded himself into treating those past years like a half-forgotten dream. 

‘Well, I’m aware now!’ he said quietly to himself, fists clenched so tight, his nails dug painfully into his palm. In his mind, he could see the Palace Lord loom over him, the promise of pain and violence clear in his eyes. Adiyiah took a long, shuddering breath, taking solace in the fact that he was stronger.

‘If not for his protectors, I’d have beaten that child black and blue!’ he snarled.

However, they were there. Before today, Adiyiah had never been the target of a furious Aurous cultivator. Today, he earned the ire of three. The sheer crushing weight of their mana nearly knocked him to his knees. He had long prided himself on his lofty cultivation. As Lord of the True Fire Sect, when he spoke, people rushed to obey, fearful of the power held by a late-stage Exultant. Technically, he was only one stage before the Aurous tier and yet… the gulf between them had never been more evident. 

‘And yet that boy commands six…’ 

The impression left on him was so strong that he could still feel the boy’s angry gaze, that assurance that practically spelt out how insignificant he was in the grand scheme of things. The furtive eyes of his fellows as they tried to distance themselves from him. 

‘I could have you killed where you stand’, those eyes said. 

They reminded him of a similar gaze from his youth. His first official visit to this very sect in the waning years of Alshiram the Invincible. The True Fire Sect were still vassals then, and his father had almost fallen over himself to introduce himself and his heir to his liege. The Palace Lord’s eyes were as glinty steel, his bearing so self-assured in his superiority and might that it wrapped around him in an almost palpable cloak of authority. Those piercing grey eyes had gone over and through Adiyiah like he was an open book. He felt, even if he could not finger the moment, where they dismissed him as someone of no consequence.

  Today, nearly two centuries on, Adiyiah could not quite decide which was worse, Alshiram’s cold disregard or the Kaguri’s cold fury. However, he could recall his father’s response when his much younger self angrily questioned why everyone allowed The Vast Heaven Palace to do whatever they wanted without challenge. They were all sect leaders. Alshiram had no right to treat them like servants.

They call their leader Palace Lord, but what they really mean is King. We live under their rule in a land they call their Dominion, abiding by their laws. Never forget that while they might act with casual forbearance, they expect complete obedience. That is the tyranny of strength! They hold their rights in abeyance because they see no reason to enforce them for none can oppose them.

Today had been a good reminder, albeit a costly one. A private mystic realm, freely giving away artefacts that even he would treasure, ‘guest quarters’ that rivalled his estate back home, the oppressive might of several aurous tier cultivators… Adiyiah could list them all day, though his hands shook when he recalled that last one. The Vast Heaven Palace put their prestige and accumulation on display today, and he would be lying if he claimed he was unshaken. 

‘However, the days where they went unopposed are no more’, he mused as he drew a special communicator he had stored away. Muttering an incantation under his breath, he slowly undid the seal he put on it earlier.

The device was simple but precious, an oblong metallic artefact inscribed inside and out with magical glyphs. It boasted a range of nearly two thousand kilometres, vast projection capabilities and had more security features than he cared to name and yet Adiyiah made to never use it for more than it was intended fearful of what its true owners had hidden from him.

Sect Master Sacest answered after a short ring, no doubt waiting for his call, confirming what he had already suspected. Usually, his calls were directed to one of the Elders. Despite not showing at the event, the Nine Phantoms were taking this very seriously. 

Being watched by Sacest was like being stared at by a hungry beast. Dark, almost jet-coloured slit pupils stared you down from yellowed sclera and large canines —tusks almost— peeked out from his lips. His hair looked like dense fur, almost woollen, and his flesh bulged on his frame like an overly muscly steer. 

As one of the few to meet him in person before his latest ascension, Adiyiah knew Guildmaster Sacest had not always been this way. That predatory gaze was true to form, but he was once lean, almost sullen and cagey. Something about his breakthrough to the Soul Transformation Tier and rise to Nascence had brought these bestial features on. Then again, the primary cultivation method of the Nine Phantoms Sect was anything but orthodox. Fostering the spirits of magical beasts within themselves was always bound to cause some trouble. 

For his part, Adiyiah knew better than to speculate. He was more concerned with the changes in personality he had noticed, like his lord’s much shorter temper. When Sacest ascended to Nascence two years ago, many feared that the ceasefire would be broken and the Heaven-Phantom War would spring to life again. It didn’t. 

It should have. The heavens knew Adiyiah had the True Fire Sect waiting with bated breath for the call to arms, but it never came. Today’s events had him rethinking just why that was the case. With his ascension, the Nine Phantoms Sect had three Nascent powerhouses. The Vast Heaven Palace had none, allegedly. Even ignoring Preceptor Vanush’s embarrassing loss decades earlier, they should have the upper hand.

Clearly, there was something he was missing. 

“Well…” Sectmaster Sacest barked impatiently. “Speak!”

“Forgive my lateness, milord!” Adiyiah pleaded with a deep bow. “The Vast Heaven Palace held us for longer than I estimated.” 

Grovelling, he made sure to report everything that had happened to his liege and even took the chance to report the offence against him to the man. 

“The Vast Palace Lord is supremely arrogant. He singled me out, attacking me because of my allegiance to the Nine Phantoms Sect!” 

Sectmaster Sacest did not even bother to pretend interest in the matter. “Tell me more about the mystic realm!”

Adiyiah frowned, letting some of his true thoughts surface. “It is strange. I… I find it… If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, milord, I would doubt such a thing was possible.”

“Some of the other masters believe it Nosirean in origin, but I am not so sure. I have adventured in the Southern Wastes, and the undead there are different in style”, he admitted.

“A lot can change with time”, The Nine Phantoms master said ominously. 

Adiyiah wasn’t sure he agreed. The shambling horrors he had seen in his youth weren’t ones for change. His mind went back through the years to that forgotten battleground and ghosts that wandered through it, going through the motions even though it had been centuries since they lived. That had been a waste of time if he recalled clearly. There had been little of worth there besides rusted articles and bleached bones. Even the undead were few and far between. Everything else had long since been eroded by time picked up by those who came before. Today, those who went there only did so in the hopes of foraging for the strange death-touched herbs that sometimes grew there.

“Did you see anything that could be the key?” Lord Sacest asked him.

“Key?” he asked in confusion. “What key?”

The Nascent Lord gave him a look that asked if he was stupid. “The artefact that controls the mystic realm. The Kaguri would have needed it to modify the entrance as he did, so it should be on his person.”

Adiyiah shook his head. “I am sorry, master. I saw nothing. The Palace Lord conducted the act behind closed doors.”

The bestial man nodded in acknowledgement. “Keep your eyes open. It would be ancient beyond compare and maybe damaged on the surface.”

“Of course, milord!” he said with a bow.

They continued to discuss the mystic realm, with Adiyiah expressing his amazement many times.

“It is nothing that impressive”, the man told him. “…merely uncommon. Many powers in the Principalities employ similar mystic realms for tournaments and other contests. The Sublime Mountain Painting of the Cairn Clan is one such artefact. My father could tell many tales about it.

“It is a clever working, but the mechanism behind it becomes simple once you understand it”, the man explained. “The world within is an illusion. To walk within is to walk in the creator’s vision. The creatures within are as dreams. The reason they come back to life is because the dream is fixed and cannot change. Everything is already laid out.”

‘If everything is an illusion, why are the treasures real?’ Adiyiah wondered. Those who died within would surely be comforted to know it was merely a clever illusion. 

He thought back to that moment when the world shuddered and looked down so his doubt didn’t show. It had happened before. Sacest might be belligerent, but the animalistic nature of the higher-level phantoms tended to make them even more perceptive. 

The man’s hologram hmmed before adding, “Have your disciples enter tomorrow! Catalogue everything you can about the mystic realm, and should it prove useful, you’ll have your reward.”

The True Fire Lord knew what was on the line. A tier 3 ascension pill! With it, he could begin Core Formation, his rise to the Aurous tier all but guaranteed. Adiyiah would have achieved something no other True Fire in history ever had. His father’s words echoed in his head.

 ‘…the tyranny of strength…’

To preserve the gulf of power between themselves and their erstwhile vassals, the Vast Heaven Sect had always made sure to restrict the number of Aurous Lords in the lesser powers. This may have worked to prevent the rise of challengers, but they couldn’t do so forever. Eventually, some broke free, starting with the Lost God Temple and then the Nine Phantoms.

Today, the Nine Phantoms stood head and shoulders above their former masters, with the Vast Heaven Palace only keeping up due to the dint of the accumulation they had built up over centuries of tyrannical monopoly. However, today proved they were beginning to see the bottom of the barrel. The Nine Phantoms were also slowly stirring to action. Each side would need allies for the battles ahead. 

Above all else, Adiyiah hoped beyond hope to see both powers crumble, spent after their clash. In this way, embers like his sect would be free to expand into the roaring flames they were always meant to be.

Author’s Note: 

Clever readers among you may have noticed an inconsistency in this chapter. No! That is not a plot hole. Adiyiah and the True Fire Sect think the number is 3. The Vast Heaven Palace think it’s 5. One of them is more accurate, but both of them are wrong.

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