TDL, BK I CH 6: The Border Town

Chapter Six: The Border Town

“Divine Beast Suanni. Son of the Dragon God. Ruler of all beasts. 

Your mane is the sun. Your roar is the thunder. Your strength keeps the beasts of the stars at bay.

Divine Beast Suanni. Son of the Dragon God. God of fire. Ruler of all beasts. 

With your eyes, you judge the guilty. The wicked have no place to hide.

“Divine Beast Suanni. Greatest among daemons. Ruler of the wilderness.

All fire is yours. All riches. All honour. All glory. 

God Beast Suanni. Greatest among daemons. Ruler of the wilderness.

To your favoured you bestow your blessings. Let none slight you lest you bring them to ruin.

“Divine Beast Suanni. Bringer of desolation. Ruler of the world.

May all things be given up to you. May the…”

The acolytes chanted the litany under the watchful eyes of the priest. Before the procession danced a chosen acolyte. He was dressed in a ceremonial lion costume and wore strings of bells around his shins and ankles. He danced furiously to the beat of the drums and the rhythm of the praises. With extreme precision and liberal use of his essence, he would stamp the ground with his feet so his bells would ring gloriously. His movements resembled those of a lion on the prowl and he made sure to punctuate them with beast-like roars and breaths of fire. 

A large crowd accompanied the procession as it danced up and down the town’s main routes. Many watched the display quietly. A few held sticks of burning incense whilst others handed gifts and coins of various denominations to a few acolytes who walked the fringes of the crowd to collect them. These would go towards preparing a sacrifice to appease their daemonic overlords.

The entire spectacle was a ritual to pacify the suanni daemon that allegedly ruled over the desolate fields and invoke his protection over the town and its people. The town’s folk performed it at every festival but they also did so when they felt there was a need for it. Others might scoff at their ‘superstition’ but for the people who lived around the Suanni Desolate Fields, rituals like this one were part of their culture and faith. They better than anyone knew what dwelt within the wilderness. These people depended on the Desolate Fields for their livelihood. They had nowhere else to go. This was their home. Glorifying the Ruler of the Daemons and offering sacrifices to him was a lot better than being overrun by his armies.

A week and a half before this, a party of cultivators from one of the major sects went into the wilderness. The place they went to should have been safe and yet, they were attacked by a powerful daemon. Four people were believed dead including the heir to the sect. The wild people knew the signs. Daemon Kings where there should be none. Attacks on persons from prominent sects. Trouble was brewing in the Eastern Provinces and it had come to the Desolate Fields. If publicly reaffirming their allegiance to the Bringer of Desolation could remind the daemons that they were on their side and spare their homes from their wrath, why not do it?

Dunstan frowned as he watched this. He was not certain how he felt about humans worshipping daemons. He understood their reasons but it did not sit right with him. Hell, having experienced the Desolate Fields for himself, he saw their actions in a completely different light. Had he been born here, there was a chance he would have turned out the same especially if he was born weak. Perhaps, that was where the difference lay. He was not weak. Daemons, Daemon Lords, he could crush them underfoot. When he reached the third tier, he would be able to crush the Daemon Kings as well. 

This world gave everyone a chance, however slight, to seize power and fate. Hence the unease. He could not understand surrendering yourself to the mercies of others. It had never turned out well for him or the people he had faced. Was it not better to strive for power of your own? Without intending to, watching them enlightened Dunstan to his own heart. He had fought his way out of the Desolate Fields and soon he would array himself against mighty foes in a bid to save his sect. He was someone who would always fight for the chance to seize his own fate. He was someone ambitious enough to face off against incredible odds and still think he stood a chance.

A small limb pawed at his chest, interrupting his self-realisation. Looking down, he saw that one of his charges was awake. Wetting two fingers in his mouth, he rubbed its head a bit to mollify it. It was only a temporary measure and he knew it. The other would wake soon and together, they would start clamouring for food. He needed to get to safety before then. 

Unlike the people in the procession, he knew that the daemon that attacked the trial site was not the instigator of the attack. It was merely the distraction Elder Anthony and his conspirators needed to assassinate him. Having tried once, he was certain that they would dance a jig if he willingly walked into their clutches. Not knowing who to trust, he could not simply go up to any party. He had to either wait until he found someone he could trust. Someone whose loyalty was unquestionable. Or, he could raise such a stink that he would be untouchable in the interim. 

Assassinations were a troublesome business. The trouble Elder Anthony went through to kill him made it obvious that his faction hoped to handle things quietly. That was why they only attacked in the wilderness, far from the sect, under the cover of the sect trial, using the attack of a daemon king as a distraction and only after conning him off his life-saving treasures. Dunstan’s brow furrowed. He had not realised how complicated the assassination plot was until he laid it out. Thankfully, that only reinforced his point. If he could deny them an opportunity of such a great cover they would reconsider before attacking. 

That was all he needed: to keep them at bay until he returned to the sect or received reinforcement from one or more of the trustworthy elders.

Hidden in the crowd, he bid his time. Eventually, the procession made its way to the lord’s keep. There the Lord of the town came out and met the priest in the courtyard. To Dunstan’s surprise, the man was also an Exultant tier cultivator. He did not let that stop him from making the approach. Swiftly discarding his shirt, he tightened the sash that held his charges and made sure his sword was readily accessible. Forcefully radiating his essence, he charted a course to the centre of the gathering. The crowd parted instantly. Many were too weak to be in proximity and quickly succumbed to the pressure of his essence. 

As he had hoped, he caught the attention of everyone present. The town’s lord was even readying himself for a fight. However, Dunstan raised his arms placatingly and turned around as if showing he had the one weapon. The real reason for this was the same as the reason for losing the shirt. He needed everyone to see that he was healthy and unwounded. That way if he happened to die mysteriously, the right questions would be asked. The sort of questions the traitors would not want circulating. 

“Who are you stranger?” the lord of the citadel asked impatiently. “Why do you interrupt our sacred ritual?”

“I mean no ill will towards you or your people”, Dunstan answered with a shout. “My name is Dunstan Kaguri of the Vast Heaven Palace! I was lost in Desolate Fields for nearly a week. All I wish for is some shelter and some help contacting my sect.”

 The ploy worked. The priest, a late-phase first tier may have shot him a lot of mean looks for his stunt but it worked just like planned. He was given a bath, some new clothes and real food. Messages were sent to his sect. There was even a search party operating from a town two towns over. Apparently, they had picked a place in a more direct line to the trial site for their base. He had missed them because he had drifted a bit southward during his journey. Dunstan shrugged when he heard this. It could not be helped. His focus at the time was more on getting out and avoiding the territories of the more powerful daemons.

A complement of three elders arrived in the town in a matter of hours and soon enough, Dunstan found himself sitting with them, telling his story. He narrated his tale quickly, making sure to keep Elder Anthony, and anything related to the system out of his story. As far as they were concerned, he survived the daemon’s attack by the skin of his teeth. He then spent a few days convalescing in a hole somewhere before slowly making his way out battling daemons throughout the journey.

“And the puppies?” Elder Gage asked with a smile. He accompanied his question with a jab towards the town girl struggling to feed his little charges.

“It was a mistake”, Dunstan confessed. “I stumbled across their mother a day ago. She did not survive the encounter. I only realised they were there after the battle was concluded.”

“So you decided to take them with you?” Elder Westfall asked incredulously. 

Dunstan shrugged. “I felt responsible. The only other option was to leave them there to starve or worse.”

“How did you get them out?” Elder Gage asked. He had walked up to the serving girl and was checking out the tiger cubs as he spoke.

“I make a simple bag using the skin of a foetooth I killed earlier. As for the cubs themselves, they were no trouble. I kept them unconscious with a technique”, he answered. The first was true but the last was a straight lie. He still had the flasks of milk he was forced to buy from the system in his inventory.

True to his big soft heart, Elder Gage snatched up one of the pups to check on it. “That’s dangerous! I understand the need but you could have caused serious harm to them. Don’t use that method in the future!”

Dunstan nodded before turning to the other elders to ask the question that lay heavy on his mind, “I heard from the townsfolk that four people were missing. Who were the other three?” He hoped to the Heavens that it was no one he was close to.

“Besides you, two other disciples went missing that day”, Elder Reinhold informed him.” One has been confirmed dead. The second has a bound life jade in his family’s custody. From them, we know that he is very weak but still very much alive. The last person, Elder Anthony, has also been confirmed dead. It looks like the daemon got the better of him.”

A strange atmosphere sprang up when he was finished. Dunstan couldn’t speak for the others but he doubted they were all on the same page. They might be sad their colleague was dead. He, for his part, was certainly not sad the bastard was gone. The person who nearly gave him a permanent dirt nap was dead, killed by his own hands. Yet, Dunstan found that he could not bring himself to be happy. Elder Anthony was only one of the however many traitors who lurked in the sect. The same sect he was headed back to. Unlike Elder Anthony, he did not know who the others were. One of these very elders he was speaking to could be part of the conspiracy and he wouldn’t know. What was he going to do? Wait for them to try to kill him like Anthony did?

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