The Balkiri Continent was truly a prodigiously large area of land. Within its long shorelines, it held uncountable numbers of forests, plains, mountains, swamps, rivers, and every other sort of natural environment. Beneath the surface, leylines of spiritual energy twisted everywhere like the veins of an enormous dragon, crossing and flaring up seemingly at random. And wherever the spiritual energy became particularly strong, humans would gather like bees to honey.
It wasn’t that humans could directly interact with spiritual energy — only a few esoteric monstrous beasts could manage such a feat — but high concentrations could greatly affect the efficiency of a human’s cultivation, literally bringing twice the results for half the effort. And so over the course of time humans would seek out the leyline nexi, and build their homes and palaces, towns and cities, where the benefits to them would be the strongest.
Of course, not every area with great spiritual energy would be fit for human habitation. For every mighty forest citadel raised by human hands, there was a deep black jungle that would devour any mortal foolish enough to step within; for every grand mountain aerie where ancient experts meditated in peace, there would be a frozen highland of ice and death; for every verdant plain nurturing ten or even a hundred villages, there would be a vast, endless swamp filled with monstrous beasts and poison.
But even those deadly locations held great attraction to human cultivators, for the abundant spiritual energy would give rise to rare herbs, mysterious beasts, and unusual phenomena, all of which could be harnessed to raise an expert above his fellows. And so they came, in groups or alone, to challenge these areas for these hidden rewards, and to test the limits of the fate they were born with. Thousands fell — hundreds of thousands — but the few who survived would have the chance to become legendary figures, known far and wide.
Of course, not every cultivator was brave enough, or foolish enough, to chase after the highest levels of power. After all, each higher level of cultivation brought with it its own danger; especially after crossing the barrier to the Core Reinforcement stage, a single mistake when breaking through levels could destroy one’s own dantian, and possibly instantly kill the cultivator. And so, humans fearful of death would lose the will to continue forward, and instead turn to other methods to increase their influence.
The Balkiri Continent was truly vast, and no single mortal power had ever controlled the entire continent. Emperors came, emperors went, but no matter how ambitious, no matter how strong, they could not subdue every possible rival; there were simply too many powerful nations. But human greed is eternal, and many a great empire had fallen after stretching their resources too far, trying to swallow up everything around them. And then, as regular as clockwork, warlords and tyrants would arise to claim the locations of high spiritual energy that the fallen empire had left behind. They would vie for power and resources, pulling each other down with unmatched viciousness, until the seed of a new empire would form around the survivors, beginning the cycle again.
And behind the rise and fall of empires, the rise and fall of cultivators; behind the eternity of conflict, the endless wars; behind every event in the mortal realm, there was unchanging, immutable fate. The life and death of individuals, became the life and death of armies, and further became the life and death of nations: everything was fate. There was no need for a mortal ruler, for fate ruled over all.
In a certain unremarkable location on this vast Balkiri Continent, there stood a certain unremarkable city. The city was named North Pine City, after its vast and ancient pine forests. This city, like several in the vicinity, had once been part of a great empire — but that had been over five hundred years ago, and in these days no one even remembered the emperor’s name. The cities had therefore fallen into the control of a small number of cultivator clans; and North Pine City was split between two particular families, the Fan clan and the Sun clan.
In truth, neither clan could be considered particularly strong. Neither had a single practitioner in the Void Transcending stage, and their few Core Reinforcement cultivators were all in the early levels. In actuality, the clans were slightly too weak to rule a city the size of North Pine City, which was a dangerous situation on this continent where martial strength was held to be paramount. But for the last five hundred years, no stronger power had turned its eyes toward North Pine, or its sister cities, and the clans had grown complacent in the absence of an outside threat.
Although there was plenty of spiritual energy in North Pine City, and the nearby resources were plentiful enough to support both clans, there is no limit to human greed. And so the Fan and the Sun vied for power, feuding over the smallest of insults, until it reached the point that neither clan could allow the other to continue to exist.
And so it stood, at a time not long after a certain young man who had once died emerged unharmed from the Cerulean Abyss, that one clan seemed poised to wipe out the other once and for all. But fate, and karma, had surprises in store for both sides, and for North Pine City itself…
Sun Tzi slipped quietly into his father’s study. He looked at the figure sitting at the desk in front of him, and sighed quietly to himself. Sun Ba seemed to have aged twenty years in the past twelve months. Ever since Elder Sun Din had disappeared, the Sun clan had seen its power and influence shaved off piece by piece: soldiers and family killed in bandit raids, farms and plantations razed to the ground, and former friends and allies now avoiding any contact with the stricken clan.
Through it all, Sun Ba had maintained a strong will; but that had ended with the murder of his eldest son and heir, followed within days by his second son. Now, the head of the Sun sat in his study all day, staring at a few pieces of paper from the few spies he still trusted, stone-faced and silent.
Sun Tzi cleared his throat, trying to attract his father’s attention. When Sun Ba failed to respond, he said aloud, “Father, I have returned.”
Sun Ba slowly raised his eyes, but it took a few moments before they focused on the man in front of him. “Ah, Little Tzi. Have you news for me?”
“Yes, sir,” Sun Tzi answered clearly. “The evacuation of our clan is almost complete. Only those who refused to leave are still within North Pine City. All others, whether main or branch, have hidden in nearby cities, or other, further, locations.” He hesitated, then added, “Of course, not everyone made it.”
Sun Ba’s face paled. He forced a question out from between his clenched teeth. “…My wives?”
Sun Tzi looked gravely at his father, and told him, “The caravan escorting Lady Mi, along with younger brother Khu, was attacked by forces unknown and wiped out to the last man.”
“No!” shouted Sun Ba, despair filling his eyes. “Not Little Khu! My little boy…”
“Father, there is no need to panic,” said Sun Tzi calmly. “Neither Lady Bin Mi nor Little Khu were with the caravan at the time.”
“You mean–” Sun Ba lunged forward, a sudden, painful hope visible on his face.
“Yes,” replied Sun Tzi with a smile. “They have reached a place of safety.”
“Thank the gods,” his father said, slumping back. “I regret that I will never see them again, but as long as they are safe, that is all that matters.”
“Did you wish to know where they are?” asked Sun Tzi, carefully.
“No.” His father’s response was immediate and firm. “What I do not know, I can’t betray. I’m certain Fan Gen won’t let me off, no matter what else happens, and I want my wife and youngest son to survive my failures. But tell me, what of your mother, Lang Chiai?”
“Mother, too, has reached a safe place,” responded Sun Tzi.
“Her caravan suffered no attacks?” asked Sun Ba, a slightly skeptical look showing in his eyes.
“I never sent her in a caravan in the first place,” answered his son with a slight smile. “I had a person I trust escort her personally.”
“Hmph. Do you actually know such a powerful expert?” Sun Ba asked angrily. “If only you had put as much effort into protecting your older brothers.”
Sun Tzi didn’t point out the incongruity of asking a fourth level Qi Gathering cultivator to protect those of much higher cultivation; he merely bowed his head in apparent repentance. “Please forgive this incompetent son,” he murmured.
“Hmph,” snorted Sun Ba. “And if you are incompetent, what does that make the rest of us? I am well aware that your schemes are the only reason the Sun clan still exists. Although, we are essentially a clan no longer…”
He sighed. “I apologize, Little Tzi. I know that you had to sacrifice some to save a few, and I am truly amazed at how many of our people managed to escape the Fan clan’s purge. You have worked miracles, and I have no right to take my anger out on you.”
“You did everything you could, and worked yourself to the bone for the clan,” answered Sun Tzi quietly. “It was the rest of us that let you down.”
Sun Ba sighed and shook his head, but didn’t answer.
Sun Tzi looked carefully at his father and hesitated, but eventually asked, “You are not going to ask after Lady Fan Chia?”
Sun Ba shut his eyes for a moment, then looked steadily at his fourth son. “Dead, missing, or captured?”
“Captured,” said Sun Tzi reluctantly. “Though according to the Fan clan, she was ‘rescued’ from bandits. I’m not certain what her fate will be. Fan Gen has no residual fondness for his cousin, who became your wife, of course. But… as you know, Third Brother has attached himself to Fan Bin’s retainers, and he might try to intervene on his mother’s behalf. The one person Fan Gen does not dare offend is his son, Fan Bin — but conversely, there is no way of knowing what Fan Bin will do. I cannot predict his actions even slightly; he is either insane, or the most effective actor I have ever met. Or possibly, both.”
Sun Ba sighed. “I am… quite fond, of my second wife. Despite everything. It pains me to think of her in the hands of Fan Gen, and Fan Bin. But perhaps she will be safe, there. Setting aside my unfilial third son, her great-uncle is Fan Danal. Even Fan Gen would not risk upsetting a Core Reinforcement practitioner.”
Sun Tzi frowned, but said nothing. Privately, he doubted that Fan Danal would raise a single finger to help his great-niece, especially if the rising star of the Fan clan, Fan Bin, decided that she should die. The entire Fan clan had a reputation for ruthlessness, especially towards their female members; Fan Bin was simply the most extreme example.
“Enough of this,” Sun Ba said. “The fall of our clan is set in stone. Thanks to you, Little Tzi, our bloodline will continue, and that will have to be this old man’s only comfort.”
“Sir…” began Sun Tzi, but he realized that he didn’t know what he could say to his father, that wouldn’t sound trite and meaningless.
Sun Ba rubbed his brow, then looked up at his son once more. “One more thing, Sun Tzi,” he said, suddenly stern.
Sun Tzi stiffened at the change in tone. “What is it, father?”
“The Fan clan has set the date for your cousin’s wedding to Fan Bin. The ceremony will be… three days from today.”
The young man’s eyes widened. “So soon? What has happened?”
“Nothing has happened,” replied Sun Ba with a snort. “Fan Bin simply decided that the time had come. And what Fan Bin calls for, Fan Bin receives.”
“Indeed…” agreed Sun Tzi, absently. His eyes stared off into the middle distance, obviously lost in thought. “The timing is… strange. I believe Fan Bin to be insane, but he always has reasons for what he does. Always.”
“Hmph,” said Sun Ba. “Who cares about a madman’s reasons? We are in no position to resist, and so it will be so. In three days, I will personally take Sun Lan to the Fan clan to wed.”
Sun Tzi started, and looked carefully at his father. He had heard a strange tone in Sun Ba’s voice, and he said with concern, “Father, won’t you escape this trap? Fan Gen and Fan Bin might want you dead, but I’m certain I could still–”
“No.” Sun Ba’s voice was grim and certain. “The history of the Sun clan that stretched back over 400 years is now ending, due to my mistakes. The only way I can atone to our ancestors is to fall with it. I will not run away, while I am still alive!”
“Father… There is no need,” Sun Tzi said insistently. “I will take Sun Lan to the Fan clan myself. You can start again elsewhere, with Lady Mi and Little Khu. You don’t need to…” He trailed off in the face of his father’s glare.
“No, Sun Tzi. I will do this. It is my duty. Besides,” Sun Ba said, raising an eyebrow at his son, “you have always been unreasonably close to your younger cousin. I don’t dare risk you causing her to ‘disappear’ right before Fan Bin comes to claim her.”
“Why would I do that, Father?” Sun Tzi replied coldly. “Was it not I who acquired that forbidden sealing art? Was it not I who drugged my cousin’s drink, and personally sealed away her martial cultivation, so that she is currently no stronger than a common peasant? I doubt there is anyone she hates more than me…”
Sun Ba looked levelly at him. “It was necessary, Little Tzi. Sun Din had taught her too much. So many secret arts… in no way can we allow Fan Bin to benefit from such a windfall.”
“It would have been fine, if great-uncle Sun Din hadn’t disappeared,” sighed Sun Tzi. “If the clan hadn’t lost the protection of our only Core Reinforcement cultivator, the Fan would not have been able to move so ruthlessly.”
“Perhaps. But this is the reality, Little Tzi, and no amount of regret will change it. And so,” Sun Ba declared, “it is time for you to leave.”
“…What do you mean, father?” asked Sun Tzi, a small amount of trepidation in his voice.
“Get out of this city,” ordered Sun Ba. “You are the only one who knows where the rest of the family dispersed to, and I don’t dare allow you to be captured by the Fan. If it’s you, I have no doubt you will be able to conceal yourself. You’ve been avoiding my spies for years, after all.”
Sun Tzi hesitated again, then smoothly bowed his head. “Of course, father. I shall leave immediately.”
“Good,” intoned Sun Ba. He turned his attention to the papers on his desk, and pretended to shuffle through them. Sun Tzi bowed once more to his father, and quietly left the room. He turned back one last time at the door, and looked for a long moment at his father, as though he wished to preserve his father’s form in his memory. With a sigh, he turned away and left without saying anything further.
Behind him, Sun Ba stopped pretending to read, and dropped the papers back on his desk. The reports were essentially meaningless, and even if he read them, he did not have enough subordinates left to carry out his will. His influence in North Pine City was gone; the Fan clan had won. He no longer had the strength, political or personal, to prevent them from becoming the sole rulers of North Pine City.
His only hope, if ‘hope’ it could be called, lay in the machinations of his strange fourth son. He had always been suspicious of Sun Tzi: although the boy claimed to be merely at the fourth level of Qi Gathering, he could avoid the eyes of much stronger cultivators with certain ease. Even Sun Din had once had difficulties keeping track of the boy, and both he and Sun Ba had privately speculated that Sun Tzi was hiding a great deal of his true abilities. But there had never been any proof.
But now, Sun Ba was thankful for his second youngest son’s secrets. Without Sun Tzi’s subtle efforts, the Sun clan would certainly have ceased to exist. His only fear currently was that Fan Gen and Fan Bin would capture the young man, and torture the locations of his remaining family out of him.
But Sun Ba had done everything he could now. Having lost everything, he only had a single remaining desire left. A desire… for revenge!
And Sun Ba, last head of the Sun clan, had a plan. A plan that would come to fruition in three days time…
Meanwhile, in another corner of the largely empty Sun mansion, a young maid quietly knocked on a certain door. Two guards stood to either side, but they completely ignored the young girl as she opened the door and entered, despite not receiving an answer to her knock.
The young maid was named Sun Mia, and she had been adopted into the Sun clan as a servant when she was just a child. Before that time, she had been in the care of an orphanage, run by a grim-looking woman who had treated all her charges coldly, but fairly. Naturally, there was not many uses for parentless children in North Pine City, so most of the youths passing through that orphanage were fated to be sold into servitude, of one sort or another. It had been Sun Mia’s good fortune that she had caught the eye of the wife of the Sun clan’s second young master, who had decided the child was comely enough to be worth keeping.
Sun Mia had therefore been taken in, and being a clever child, she quickly learned the duties and manners necessary for a maid serving the second greatest clan in the city. Not long after, she was officially assigned to be the personal maid of the young genius of the Sun clan, a girl named Sun Lan. That had been seven years ago, and since that time, Sun Mia had always served her young mistress with gratitude.
But now, the Sun clan had fallen into a dire state. Many servants had fled in fear, and most of the remainder had been smuggled out of the city and set at liberty. The fourth young master, Sun Tzi himself, had encouraged Sun Mia to leave the city with the rest; but Sun Mia had refused to leave the side of her mistress.
She sighed bitterly to herself as she entered Lady Sun Lan’s chamber. Once, an entire suite of rooms had been assigned to the rising hope of the Sun clan; now, she had a single room to her name, with no windows and a single door. Clan head Sun Ba was obviously concerned that Sun Lan would try to escape, and he had imprisoned her in all but name. Sun Mia was aware that her mistress could no longer cultivate, although she did not know the details, and she resented the ruthlessness of the master in sacrificing a girl he had once treated as his own daughter. But of course, there was nothing a single maid with zero cultivation could do to change the course of events.
Sun Lan was seated in a formal pose at a low table in the center of the room. She made no reaction to the entrance of Sun Mia, and continued to stare straight ahead with empty eyes. In front of her on the table, a tray covered in a sumptuous meal sat untouched.
Sun Mia bit her lip, and quietly spoke to her mistress. “Lady Lan… you have to eat. You need to keep your strength up…” Sun Lan did not reply, and the empty look in her eyes nearly broke Sun Mia’s heart. “I’m sorry, Lady. I wish… I wish there was something I could do.”
Sun Lan continued to say nothing. Sun Mia could not repress another sigh, and reached for the tray of food. “This has grown cold, my Lady. I will take it to the kitchens and have Cook warm the food again–”
“Don’t bother,” Sun Lan said coldly, causing Sun Mia to jump in startlement. “Just take it away.”
Sun Mia hesitated, then nodded. “As you wish, my Lady.”
She picked up the tray, and turned to leave. As she reached the door, Sun Lan’s voice came once more. “Mia. You should have left.”
Sun Mia trembled for a moment, and shook her head without turning around. “I’m not going to leave you alone, big sister Lan.”
She hurriedly pulled open the door and left, blinking tears out of corners of her eyes. Because she didn’t turn around, she failed to see the single tear that trickled down Sun Lan’s cheek.
- Actually, most of this was ready on Monday, but I was hesitating about adding the scene with Sun Mia. As you can see, I eventually decided it belonged here, and it was only slightly longer than expected, so it worked out well. 😉
- I introduced more about the world, this time, but I didn’t go into a lot of detail, so if you don’t understand parts, feel free to ask in the comments. It’ll help me figure out what else I need to explain, you see… 😀
- Next chapter: The Fan clan. Naturally, Fan Bin. Be warned…