At the time Chief Grandmaster Mura Dyn had seized control of the Green Wildness Sect, the sect had very much been on the back foot. Wracked by internal divisions and successive civil wars, the sect had become a juicy target for the other powers that surrounded it — including the Kharis branch of the Red Reaver Sect. And while the Green Wildness Sect had a Void Transcending patron as well, the Ancient Bellringer seldom chose to extend any favors to the sect he nominally protected. In his eyes, they were simply reaping the consequences of their choices, and he did not see fit to interfere with their internal politics — even if the result was complete destruction of the sect. The Ancient Bellringer had seen many sects come and go, in his many, many years.
Fortunately for the Green Wildness Sect, Mura Dyn had no intention of relying on their absent patron in the first place. The Dolgo clan had been arrogant and complacent; the Tynba, greedy and violent; but Mura Dyn, and by extension the Mura clan itself, was calculating and resolute. If Mura Dyn decided that something was worth protecting, whether it was territory, resources, or influence, he would throw everything into the effort; if it was not, he would let it go — after extracting exactly as much collateral as he could.
For instance, after the Mura deposed the Tynba there was a long period of political instability within the clans that made up the Green Wildness Sect. During this time, the Kharis branch of the Red Reaver Sect attempted to take over a certain castle town on the border of Green Wildness territory. The town was named Tayr’s Teeth, after a legendary champion who had purportedly defended the castle to his death, and died with a grin on his face so terrifying that the enemy army ran away in fear. Tayr’s Teeth had changed hands many times over the decades, and it was said that whoever held the town was blessed by the spirit of Tayr, and it would be impossible to break their defenses.
That was, naturally, nonsense; but the town had an outsized significance to the clans of the Green Wildness Sect, who had proudly held the town for over a century. And initially, when the Red Reaver Sect attempted to take the area by force, the elders of the Green Wildness Sect ordered it protected at all costs. But Mura Dyn overruled them, pointing out that the amount of troops and resources it would require to secure the town far outweighed its significance.
While strictly speaking he was correct, the elders were incensed, and dared to shout at Mura Dyn about the importance of the history and traditions of the sect. Mura Dyn listened to their angry rants patiently, and then completely ignored them. Instead of sending reinforcements to Tayr’s Teeth, he gave it away — but, not to the Red Reaver Sect. He gave control of the town to the other rival who desired it, the nearby Atsu Kingdom, in exchange for a few minor concessions. The King of Atsu was extremely pleased by the deal, as he gained a foothold within the contested Green Wildness territory, which he expected would result in even further gains if Mura Dyn could not hold the sect together.
The elders of the Green Wildness Sect were much less pleased, and some argued that Mura Dyn should be deposed as head of the clan; but cooler heads prevailed, especially when it became clear that Mura Dyn had given up on certain external matters in order to focus on internal matters — especially including those who would oppose him within the clan. The most outspoken elders soon found themselves ‘dispatched’ — banished in all but name — to far-flung territories, and tasked with defending the borders against those who would take advantage to rob a burning house, as the saying went. They went grudgingly, but they went; and in the fullness of time, Mura Dyn would call those who had done their work loyally back to their former positions.
Those elders who had chosen to defy Mura Dyn, and tried to take advantage of the weakened sect themselves, tended to suffer lethal ‘accidents.’ The Kahen clan was always watching…
Long before that time, however, the Red Reaver Sect moved in force to take Tayr’s Teeth. But instead of facing a disorganized Green Wildness Sect, they found the castle under the control of the well-organized soldiers of the Atsu Kingdom. The commander of the Red Reaver Sect’s force, himself a member of the Kharis family, chose to press the attack anyway; he knew of the Atsu Kingdom by reputation and rumor, but conflicts between the two powers had been relatively rare.
Being an arrogant sort, the Kharis commander completely underestimated the Atsu elites, and his forces were decimated by their superior arts. Not content with failing to secure his objective, the commander used the power of his family name to gather even more forces from the surrounding Red Reaver territories, and he marched on Tayr’s Teeth with ten times as many soldiers as before. But what he envisioned as a quick strike to crush his opponent’s opposition, soon turned into a slow, entropic decay of his own forces. The Kharis branch of the Red Reaver Sect was not experienced at conducting sieges; while the champion sent to lead the Atsu forces was a specialist in the art.
The conflict dragged on for months, as despite everything, the commander from the Red Reaver Sect refused to give up his ambitions. Eventually, the head of the Kharis family himself had to come and end the fighting personally, demoting the commander and dragging him back to face the judgement of the elders of the sect. The Red Reaver Sect had exhausted many resources trying to take Tayr’s Teeth, and Atsu Kingdom took the opportunity to wrest nearby territories away from them. The head of Kharis family had to grit his teeth and accept his losses, finding himself in much the same position as the Green Wildness Sect — albeit, with less internal division.
As for the Atsu Kingdom, having successfully bloodied the nose of the Red Reaver Sect, they turned their attention back to the Green Wildness lands that had been their original target. Here, however, Mura Dyn had made good use of the time he had gained by fomenting conflict between the Atsu and the Red Reaver Sect; and outside the immediate environs of Tayr’s Teeth, the Green Wildness had reinforced their forces in certain significant ways. It would not be enough to defeat the Atsu, should they make a concerted assault, but it would make victory costly to them.
At that time, Mura Dyn went personally to meet with the King of Atsu. He was quite respectful of the king, and the king’s dignity; but he outlined exactly how damaging Atsu would find it to try and take territory away from the Green Wildness Sect. He then pointed out that the Red Reaver Sect was an organization larger than the Green Wildness Sect and Atsu Kingdom put together. They were weakened right now; but eventually, they would be back to reclaim the territory that they had lost to the Kingdom. Wouldn’t it be better, he suggested, if Atsu Kingdom could count on the Green Wildness Sect to back them up at that time?
The King of Atsu did not agree immediately, and asked for an unreasonable number of concessions from the Green Wildness Sect in exchange for peace between them. But Mura Dyn was quietly relentless, and persuaded the King of Atsu of the many benefits of alliance between the two great powers; and eventually, the King of Atsu came to agree. In fact, he was so impressed by the intellect of Mura Dyn, he decided to give the young man an Atsu princess to be his wife. And so Mura Dyn went home with both the peace agreement that he sought, and a beautiful new wife; and with these achievements in hand, he had finally proved himself to the Green Wildness Sect as a whole, and became their leader in truth.
And in the fullness of time, that beautiful lady of the Atsu presented Mura Dyn with a son.
Mura Ryn was, in many ways, the diametric opposite of his father. Mura Dyn was naturally taciturn, when not engaged in diplomacy, and his body had a lean, underfed spareness to it. It was easy to imagine Mura Dyn as a simple scribe, pouring over books in a forgotten library; and thus, it sometimes surprised his political opponents that this bookish-looking man was actually a powerful expert at the seventh level of Core Reinforcing.
Mura Ryn, on the other hand, had a large, muscular body and a naturally sunny disposition. Even as a young boy, he had an unusual charisma, which allowed him to interact naturally with everyone around him without respect to position. He spoke to sect elders and disgraced servants as equals, and very few had the nerve to scold him about it.
And where Mura Dyn was a master of diplomacy and misdirection, his son eschewed all pretense of strategy. Mura Ryn believed in charging forward and achieving his ends through force of arms. He was the clenched fist of the Green Wildness Sect, and he gloried in it.
And today he had unexpectedly appeared in the backwater city of North Pine, at the wedding of its ruler’s son.
But Fan Bin was not surprised; instead, he smiled and said, “This humble prince, Fan Bin, greets the heir of the Green Wildness Sect, Mura Ryn.”
Mura Ryn eyed Fan Bin, then laughed slightly derisively. “So, you are Fan Bin,” he said, his voice cutting across the murmurs the Fan clan elders raised upon learning his identity. “I’ve heard a lot about you… and none of it has been good! But I’m not here for you, Fan.”
“Oh, my,” murmured Fan Bin. His gentle smile didn’t change as Mura Ryn switched his gaze from him to the woman sitting beside him.
“Sun Lan, I presume,” boomed Mura Ryn, looking her up and down. “Yes, you match the description. Well, I have good news for you, young lady!”
“…Good news?” Sun Lan spoke hesitantly, as though she were trying to remember the words.
“Indeed, good news! I have come to tell you — that you have been accepted as a novice of the Green Wildness Clan!”
“What!?” shouted Fan Gen, Sun Ba, and Sun Din all at the same time. The Fan elders all began shouting furiously, except for Fan Danal, who was still watching Fan Bin closely. The least disturbed of all was, in fact, that very same Fan Bin, whose placid smile seemed to widen for just a moment; but Fan Danal noted it nonetheless.
The most flustered of all was Sun Lan. “What… how… how could this be? I can’t… my cultivation…”
“Yes, yes,” said Mura Ryn impatiently, waving his hand as if to shoo away an annoying fly. “Your arts were sealed away to protect you from these Fan clan bastards, I know. After all… we, the Green Wildness Sect, provided Tzi the Shadowless with that very seal! We can remove such a thing at any time!”
One of the men who had accompanied Mura Ryn coughed slightly, and the other two openly rolled their eyes. Mura Ryn took note of their reactions, and then rubbed the top of his head in embarrassment. He said to Sun Lan, slightly abashed, “Well. I can’t. I’m not all that good with seals. But I make up for it in other ways,” he said proudly. Sun Lan couldn’t help but giggle slightly at his antics, despite her confusion.
Kharis Vahn was the only one who noticed when his sister, Kharis Veni, clenched her fists and glared angrily at Sun Lan. He sighed, then quickly interrupted Mura Ryn before he could continue. “And what is your real purpose here, Mura? You don’t expect me to believe that the great Green Wildness Sect,” his voice dripped with sarcasm as he said the words, “is that interested in a single small town girl, do you? Or have you been rejected by so many women that you’ve dropped to stealing other people’s wives now?”
Even more shocking to the onlookers than Kharis Vahn’s sudden insult, was the reaction of the party from the Green Wildness Sect. To a man, they all started laughing — and the man who laughed the loudest was Mura Ryn himself. “Ha! Good one, Kharis,” he chortled. “No, I have no interest in whether the girl marries this waste of space or not.”
“Such a painful judgement,” said Fan Bin, with an incongruously amused expression on his face. But even Fan Danal had stopped paying attention to him, caught up in the byplay between the Green Wildness champion and the Kharis heir; and so no one noticed when something caught his eye on the perimeter of the great hall, and his expression changed to one of shock.
“But whether she marries him or not,” continued Mura Ryn, becoming more serious as he spoke, “she will be leaving here with me. That is not open to negotiation.”
“How coincidental. I had no intention of negotiating with you,” returned Kharis Vahn coldly.
“Oh?” said Mura Ryn, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Does this girl have anything to do with you, Kharis?”
“She is the wife of a subordinate of the Red Reaver Sect,” answered Kharis Vahn firmly. “If the girl is of any value, then the Red Reaver Sect will take her in.”
“Ah, well, then there is no problem!” boomed Mura Ryn in a cheerful tone. “Since she is of no value to the Red Reaver Sect, you won’t have any problem giving her over to us.”
“I will be the judge of that,” growled Kharis Vahn. The bracer of the Blood-red Cord around his wrist started to glow ominously, and Mura Ryn’s smile grew wider as he saw it.
“Elder Brother…” said Kharis Veni worriedly. However, her words seem to draw Mura Ryn’s attention.
“Well, if it isn’t Little Veni,” he said, sounding surprised and pleased. “I certainly didn’t expect to see you all the way out here. How’s the arm doing?”
“Um… fine…” she replied, looking at the ground and nervously blushing. Kharis Vahn sighed again and glared sharply at Mura Ryn, who shrugged. Rather awkwardly, the two began arguing over Sun Lan again, with the slightly hurried air of men who were trying to avoid a difficult topic.
Oddly, despite it being his own wife that was at stake, Fan Bin seemed to have stopped paying attention. Instead, he had taken advantage of the spectacle of the arguing Core Reinforcers to make his way over to the gap created by the dynamic entrance of Sun Din just a little bit earlier. A middle-aged man leaded casually against the broken wall, watching the interaction between Kharis Vahn and Mura Ryn with an amused expression. Oddly, no one seemed to notice the man, except for Fan Bin; but his omnipresent smile that hadn’t even flinched in the face of Kharis Vahn’s anger, and Mura Ryn’s arrogant demands, had finally faded. Uncharacteristically solemn, he walked over to where the man stood, carefully detouring around the Green Wildness party. Fan Bin made a low, respectful bow towards the older man.
“This humble one greets Chief Grandmaster Mura Dyn, of the Green Wildness Sect,” Fan Bin said quietly; and for once, he did indeed sound humble.
The seventh level Core Reinforcer nodded amiably at the younger man. “Fan Bin of North Pine City. I am given to understand that all of this,” he gestured at the scene in front of them, “is your doing?”
Fan Bin gazed at the gathered parties. The elders of the Fan were trying to calm down Fan Gen, who had started foaming at the mouth trying to attack Kharis Vahn and Sun Din whenever his eyes fell on one or the other, despite being restrained by the Blood-red Cord. Sun Din was also restrained, but he had crossed his legs beneath him and closed his eyes, as though meditating. Sun Ruan had at some point made his way over to his mother and father, where he watched with mixed feelings as Fan Chia tried to bind up Sun Ba’s wounds. Fan Mitsu lurked nearby, glancing between members of the Red Reaver Sect, the Green Wildness sect, and Fan Bin himself, as though he wasn’t sure where the true threat lay.
And Sun Lan sat alone, pensively watching the scene in front of her, unsure of what her reaction should be.
Fan Bin nodded and said, “Yes, most everything that has happened here was my doing. I attempted to write out a play, and dedicated it to my young and talented bride. What do you think?”
“Hmmm,” said Mura Dyn speculatively, tapping his lips as he thought. “I will give you high marks for including those nominally stronger than you in your script, and playing one off against another; but the plot itself seems disjointed and uninspired. In addition, I suspect that my own… participation… was unanticipated?”
“That is correct,” admitted Fan Bin easily. “I knew that Sun Tzi would have to go to the Green Wildness Sect for aid, once he knew I was conspiring with the Red Reaver Sect. But the bait I laid out was designed to entice your son; I am quite surprised that you, personally, have chosen to attend such a small event as my wedding.”
Mura Dyn eyed Fan Bin closely. “You must have some confidence, to admit that you deliberately set out to entrap my son, directly to my face. Might I ask… who, exactly, is your mysterious backer?”
“I think you may already know,” replied Fan Bin. “Tell me — your son is well known for carrying the Green-sworn Jeweled Crown, one of the more powerful artifacts attributed to the Green Wildness Sect, and one that he alone can use. Yet, despite him confronting his opposite number in the Red Reaver Sect, he does not seem to be wearing it. Why is that, do you think? It is almost as if someone warned him not to wear it…”
Mura Dyn gave the younger man a long, hard look. “So.”
“Indeed.” Fan Bin’s peaceful smile was back in place.
“I had thought that clan had died out,” Mura Dyn said pensively. Fan Bin didn’t respond; instead, he turned to the argument behind him, which seemed to have reached its conclusion. Swords had been drawn, and the soldiers of the Red Reaver Sect had surrounded the Green Wildness champions. Mura Ryn had drawn two daggers which he held crossed in front of him; Kharis Vahn had set the Bloodred Cord spinning about, looking for an opportunity to restrain his foe; Kharis Veni had her crossbow out again, although she was now pointing it at Sun Lan for some reason. Mura Dyn shook his head, and said one word:
The word was not particularly loud, but no person present failed to hear it. It was delivered to their ears by the power of Mura Dyn’s martial aura, the aura of a Core Reinforcer over halfway to the peak, and it fell like a gigantic hammer on every person present, with no exceptions. The weakest present, Fan Chia, fainted immediately, and was gathered up by her husband.
Kharis Vahn and Mura Ryn looked over with equal parts shock. “Father,” gasped Mura Ryn. “Why are you…?”
“For the moment, I am taking command of this gathering,” Mura Dyn continued, ignoring their surprise. “Kharis Vahn, use that toy of yours to restrain Fan Bin.”
Kharis Vahn snapped back, half-angry and half-perturbed, “I will not take orders from the Green Wildn–”
“No, you should listen to him,” interrupted Fan Bin, to everyone’s surprise. “Well, but I already took steps, of course. I must ask all of you to look after my wife — I’m afraid there are matters this prince must attend to.”
Mura Dyn’s eyes widened. With a sudden explosive movement, he closed his hand around Fan Bin’s throat. Fan Bin didn’t even try to dodge, but winked at the Chief Grandmaster with a happy smile on his face. Then — he dissolved, his body falling to the floor and exploding into a colorless dust, followed in short order by his head which Mura Dyn dropped in disgust.
“Father, what is going on?” Mura Ryn asked urgently. Kharis Vahn had stepped forward to stand beside Mura Ryn, and Kharis Veni quickly positioned herself behind them both. Mura Dyn looked at them pensively, then passed his gaze across the rest of the people gathered.
He sighed, and shook his head. “You should prepare yourselves,” he said. He took a small step, and was suddenly, unnaturally, by Sun Lan’s side. She cried out in shock as he placed a hand on her head, and the seal that had been placed on her martial cultivation immediately began to unlock itself. “It will take awhile before your strength is fully released,” the Chief Grandmaster told the girl quietly, “so try to avoid fighting if you can help it.
“The rest of you, get ready,” he said harshly, “especially you, Ryn, and young Vahn. I suspect this will be a great test for you.
“Fan Bin has betrayed you all.”
Behind him, in the city, screams and black flames had started to arise.
Gan Zhu gazed pensively at the young woman in front of him. He had never seen a woman with her coloration before, completely pale, with veins visible beneath her skin. Her hair was similarly pale and colorless, and her features seemed unusual and foreign. It was difficult to tell, however, because the girl was writhing in pain. The Breath in her body, nearly visible to his eyes, was being drawn out by the chains attached to her wrists and ankles.
He couldn’t imagine who had put her here, and for what purpose. But he felt uncomfortable simply leaving the girl, and so he reached out and — made a very bad decision.
- It’s hooooooooooot… 😦
- Incidentally, I’ve been playing the hell out of Dark Souls 3, in preparation for the remaster of Dark Souls, which releases today. So if I disappear for a couple weeks, blame From Software. (I’m going to keep releasing chapters, no matter what, though. Forward!)
- Just stopped myself from explaining things that will be explained in the next chapter. Hope the chapter twists come across as planned, rather than completely random, though. (I swear, I have been planning ahead…)
- Thanks for reading! Hope you can stay cool, wherever you are… 😉