Gao Nuofu is no longer sure of anything. He had such a perfect plan. On the long travel back home, he imagined it many times, playing it out in his mind's eye during the mind-numbing journey. He couldn't even cultivate during the long trek, as the outside world lacks the proper shadows and atmosphere needed to advance his martial techniques.
After leaving the bewildering, confusing, and confounding water goddess - her admission of being involved with the Scheming Fox Demon constantly in the back of his mind - he’d used up the few remaining precious items he had to gain access to the Cultivator highway. Made out of a series of wind manipulation formations, the highway allowed him to travel in peace and quiet, at five times the usual speed.
Although he’d loathed to part ways with the last of his emergency funds, he really hadn’t fancied dying in the deadlands. The trip around that massive patch of dead wilderness might be three times as long, but that was compensated by the cultivator highway. Only fools or desperate people travel through those wastelands. If the masses of spirit birds don’t kill you, then the myriad of horrors lurking underground will get you. And those are just some of the ordinary physical threats that lurk there.
He had comforted himself many times by imagining how things would work out when he returned to the sect. He saw himself hurry to his grand-uncle, reporting on the success of the mission, handing over the spirit sword, and then be rewarded greatly.
He would just need to find a good time to report the demise of the young master. Having that mission report heard by the wrong ears could have disastrous consequences. Healthy competition for sect leadership positions is good, but outright assassinating rivals is frowned upon. Especially if that rival is the precious, coddled, once-in-a-million patriarch candidate that a lot of people had their hopes riding on.
But when he had finally arrived back at the sect after a few months of being absent, what he saw worried him greatly. The stream of mortals entering the sect had always been there, of course. Everyone down on their luck could come and work in the sect. There were always more hands needed to tend to the shadow rice farms, chop down shadow trees, or cultivate shadow mushrooms. Any mortal can apply, their previous affiliations no longer being of any consequence. Any sect servant could be a wanted criminal in a dozen mortal kingdoms, and it wouldn’t matter one bit.
But when Nuofu saw that the usual trickle of servant applicants had swollen to a massive stream, that's when he knew something was wrong. So many mortals seeking to join up - getting safety in return for a life of servitude with virtually no chance of advancement - meant one of two things.
Either the majority of the mortal kingdoms surrounding the Dark Moon sect were in severe unrest, or it was general knowledge that there were great opportunities to be gained by joining up. And the reason for these great opportunities was that the sect was collapsing, so there would be a lot of secrets and treasures to snatch up. Nuofu quickly learned that both of these were true.
Joining up with a sect in trouble might sound counterintuitive, even to Nuofu, but there’s always the chance of finding some treasure in the ruins. And the calculation of weighing a mundane mortal life as opposed to one filled with danger and the chance of immortality is one some people don’t even need to think about.
After flying through the dangerous shadow caves and canyons surrounding his sect, he’d landed in the Inner Court district. Members of his clan and family had explained to him that the elders had sent word to the kingdoms to send more people over, as there would be great rewards. News of surrounding kingdoms being invaded by righteous sects also reached his ears as he chatted and greeted old friends and enemies. He learned that several sects are establishing forward positions in the lands surrounding the Dark Moon territories, causing much strife.
His mood had darkened upon hearing so much bad news. He already learned that the Dark Moon’s fortunes were dwindling on many fronts, but hearing the bad news so directly made him furious.
The sentient sword still safely tucked inside his ring must have sensed his mood, as it stopped doing what it had done for the past days. At all times, the infernal artifact had been emitting either fire or ice. Not dangerous per se, but enough to become highly painful over time. He had been switching the cursed treasure between his only two remaining spatial items, one of them being a small compartment on the flying tool he got from the water goddess.
Then, just when he was about to remember the link between that gorgeous heaven-defying beauty and the Scheming Fox Demon, a messenger found him, telling him that he was summoned.
And now here he stands, in front of the very elders and people he suffered for. The Gao family in the Dark Moon sect might only be the second strongest faction, yet it’s still his family. These people birthed and raised him. Their glory is his glory, and his actions are all for these people. Then why - he wonders in silent fury - is he being treated like this?
“The only one? We send a full expedition to guard the young master, and the only one that returns is a branch family failure?” His grand-uncle, the single person that he trusted implicitly, the single person with whom he could scheme and plot to his heart's content, is now shouting at him.
Head Gao, the current family leader, continues the tirade. “Gao Nuofu. Explain yourself again. A simple scavenging expedition should not have been this dangerous. It is unacceptable that you got anyone killed at all, let alone my… Let alone the young patriarch!”
Murmurs start at this statement. The name of the young disciple with the title of Dao Child - also known as the young patriarch - is only known by a select few. Only the most powerful decision-makers in the sect even knew who was being groomed for the position of patriarch. Having this title be retroactively revealed causes quite the ruckus.
The interrogation is soon brought back to its real purpose, which seems to be the humiliation of Nuofu. The elders, sitting in their ceremonial chairs, take their turns heaping insult upon insult on Nuofu’s head. The benches of the Gao ancestral hall are filled with spectators that jeer and curse at him in turn.
He is forced to recount every detail of the entire expedition. From the many brothels and pleasure-houses the young master had visited, to the few minor victories their expedition had made. The conquering of a minor tomb is glossed over quickly, Nuofu’s own significant contribution to that feat quickly swept under the rug.
Truth be told, Nuofu had been the reason that the entire expedition hadn’t failed the moment they stepped out of the gate. Nuofu had been the one paying off all the pissed off people in the expedition's wake, smoothing things over with the powerful brothel owners and mortal nobles, and quietly eliminating all witnesses in other cases. Each time he recounts his own part in the small string of adventures they had undergone, he is told to hurry up with the story and to stop embellishing things.
Then he gets to tell of the scavenging trip out of Outpost Long Reach, and while the peanut gallery keeps yelling insults, the row of elders quiets down. From the moment he speaks of the young masters' decision, of the much-debated order to scavenge in the ruins of the Great Scheming Fox Demon battle, things wrap up quickly. Even though the many spectators are loving the show of Nuofu being shat upon, the elders have a quick chat amongst themselves before swiftly bringing the entire farce to a close.
“Your judgment shall be postponed after the veracity of your lies has been… researched. In the meantime, you will be demoted from provisional Inner Court disciple to provisional Outer Court disciple. You are dismissed.”
The Gao Head slams his fist on the arm of his chair, and the deafening crash of rock-hard fist upon wood shut everyone up at once. The people start trickling out of the ornamental hall now that the show is over, and Nuofu is left alone.
Just when the sheer amount of confusion, anger, disgust at the obvious attempt to shift blame, and other roiling emotions become too much for him, the bundle of cloth housing his ring bursts into flames, making him scream once more.
When his grand-uncle walks back into the room a few minutes later, a stern expression on the old man’s wrinkled face, Nuofu is kicking the shit out of a glowing ring, a new burn wound on his back.
“This doesn’t seem like nothing,” replies Gao Nuofu’s grand-uncle as he points to the rather painful-looking burn wound on Nuofu's back.
“It’s nothing, honored elder,” Nuofu replies respectfully. There had been a sliver of hope in his heart. He had been holding out, hoping that his grand-uncle had only put on a show, a mere farce in order to accomplish some grand plan.
When the first words out of the elder's mouth had been “explain yourself,” that last spark had died, and Nuofu’s heart had grown cold. He picked up the glowing ring, ignored the smoldering heat scorching his fingertips, and made a respectful bow.
The ring had stopped glowing shortly after, but not before his grand-uncle started barraging him with questions. Not a single one was about his wounds, his state of mind, or his well-being in general. No, the old man just started demanding answers about the dead patriarch candidate.
“I have been wounded before, grand uncle. I recovered then, and I will recover now. As far as the report goes, there is nothing I can add. We were not informed by anyone that the place we scavenged was the place of the Scheming Fox Demon subjugation. Knowing this information would have been invaluable, but none of our sect contacts supplied us it.”
Nuofu keeps staring at the ground, not willing to look the man in the eyes. The old man continues berating him for a long while, picking at every single part of his report. Nuofu holds his tongue, knowing better than to contradict the powerful figure. He doesn’t dare - or bother - to correct the several wrong statements heaped upon him, silently bearing the tirade of the elder.
“I see that I have many faults, still. I shall work hard to regain your favor and trust,” he finally replies. It takes Nuofu a lot of concentration and effort to make those words sound genuine.
The old man snorts. “It’s a good thing you are no longer qualified for the tournament. There is no way you would be able to muster the support to win that one. Ah, nephew. You did well, but the current situation prevents me from rewarding you as you deserve.”
“There is no need to reward me unjustly, grand-uncle.”
Here, the old man smirks knowingly at Nuofu. “If I had my way, you would be the sect patriarch candidate tomorrow. Giving you that title would have you killed the following morning, however. I do not wish such a fate upon you, dear nephew. Maybe, just maybe, your own children will be able to steer this sect back into the correct direction.”
Nuofu’s world is suddenly filled with a rather painful amount of wry fatalism as he listens to the idol of his youth spell out the future.
“This sect has been able to flourish thanks to two things. Our isolation, and the power of our location. I fear that only one of the two will not be able to keep us safe. Merely relying upon defensive formations will not let us survive if our leaders seek to integrate themselves into the rest of the world. Alas, the time for our Path, our Dao to shine is not here yet. Maybe next generation, yes, Nuofu?”
Gao Nuofu nearly falls for the old man’s bleating. He can only barely manage to harden his heart in time to reject whatever nonsense his uncle is spouting. The sect is in trouble, the old fool says. The sect will surely rise again in a generation or two, the mad codger proclaims. Nuofu clutches the smoldering ring tighter as he firms his will.
“At least, you can join the tournament. That much, I still managed to do for you. Now that the next heir has gone, a new Dao Child needs to be chosen. Here are the materials needed to pay off those scavengers at the Ascension Rings. Just play nice with the Outer Court elder, and you should gain a whole Outer Court status in no time.”
It takes all Gao Nuofu has to keep his calm. The amount of pain he has suffered for the sect is unbearable. The work he has put in, the shame he has had to endure, the scorn he had had to suffer, unimaginable. And now his so-called grand-uncle dismissed all that work. Instead of rewarding Nuofu what he is owed, he is being told to try again.
Gao Nuofu grasps the now freezing ring in his burned hand and bows deeply. “Yes, grand-uncle. I shall work hard.”
He then turns around and strides out, tightly clutching the sentient sword artifact more precious than ten Dark Moon sects.Previous Chapter Next Chapter