There are no coincidences in the three realms. Everything has a history, and a purpose.
What is a city? A place where humans gather. They work, cultivate, and die, in an unending cycle, and thus the city lives.
But the places where humans gather are not random. There will always be a reason why one location gathers humans together. On the Balkiri Continent, this location will almost always be atop a leyline nexus, where the spiritual energy is at its strongest, and cultivation at its easiest.
But the location of nexi are not coincidental, either. There are laws and principles that govern the paths of the leylines as well. Those of a certain strength, with sufficient background, can trace the leylines; those stronger, can measure them.
Those whose strength had exceeded the limits of mortality could, perhaps, direct them.
In the place where humans built North Pine City, several leylines came together to form a nexus. This was not surprising, and in fact it was considered natural. But should anyone research the strength of the leylines connected to North Pine City, and compare it to the strength of the nexus it rested upon, they would soon note that the nexus was considerably weaker than it should have been.
Should such a researcher become curious and investigate further, and indeed many had over the centuries, they would soon find a strong leyline leading away from the city; and following the road that leyline drew would lead them directly to a place of danger and mystery: the Cerulean Abyss.
Naturally, this led those investigating to the obvious conclusion, that something in the Abyss was drawing energy away from North Pine City, quite possibly to imprison something within; and that was why the nexus beneath the city was weaker than expected. Those who remained curious could try to investigate the Abyss; few who chose to do so, ever emerged. Such was the nature of the Cerulean Abyss.
And so, very, very few realized the truth: that deep beneath the leyline leading to the Abyss was another, stronger leyline leading back to the city. That the Abyss was not a simple prison, but a power source as well. A power source for the massive, subtle formation known as the Underworks by the mortals who lived above it, and the monsters that lived within. A formation that exceeded the knowledge of the mortal realm, and was even beyond the immortal realm. A deity-level formation, set in the surface of the mortal realm like a carpenter’s blueprint drawn on stone.
But there was one clan, one race, that knew a bit of the truth. They knew a bit of the history of North Pine City, and the empire that once ruled it, because it was their empire, and their city.
They knew that every 10,000 years, the formation would activate, and drag down the city above to form another layer of itself. That those within at the time would be killed; and those that did not die, would be changed. Another layer of mystery, another realm of monsters, would form atop those that already existed beneath.
And they had discovered how to start that process early.
And yet. And yet.
They did not know the purpose of the formation. They didn’t realize what it was built to contain. They had no idea of the horror that existed at its core.
They had no idea what their actions, based on vengeance, soaked in hatred, would achieve.
Everything happens for a reason.
In North Pine City, in a certain burnt-out district, several men in dark cloaks had gathered. Standing in a circle, they raised their arms and chanted in unison, in an ugly, guttural language that caused the very air to shudder in revulsion. There were a number of looters in the district, now that the Fan clan were no longer watching so assiduously; but any who caught sight of the suspicious men were quickly killed. And so, word did not reach the Fan clan of their activities; which was their goal from the start.
Yes, the reason that Fan Bin incited his father to raze this random market district, was all to cover the actions of this group of men, at this time!
Two men calmly stood watching as the chant continued. One wore a black robe and a white mask, and he watched stoically as years of planning came to fruition. The other man wore a white robe; but he had removed his black mask and pulled back his hood, revealing his true features. His skin was ash grey, and his ears were slightly pointed, emphasizing the distance between his race and that of the ordinary humans living in North Pine City. His steel grey eyes were fixated with grim excitement on the chanting men, until a stone clenched in his hand vibrated suddenly, startling him. He raised the stone to his ear as if listening to it; and his eyes narrowed.
“Insvurial, I’ve just received a report,” he announced urgently, turning to his companion. “Kharis Vahn has indeed brought the Blood-red Cord; but Mura Ryn has just arrived, and the Green-sworn Crown is not with him.”
The black robed man named Insvurial did not react to his words, causing him to reach out a hand anxiously. “Insvurial…? What’s wrong?”
“…Nothing, Itsveriul,” Insvurial eventually responded. He didn’t turn to look at his brother, but continued to watch the cloaked men chant. “Fan Bin has failed at least one of his tasks, then.”
“So it would seem,” answered Itsveriul, slightly relieved. “I expect our Ladyship will be quite displeased with him.”
“I expect so…” murmured Insvurial. “It seems disingenuous to complain about our former master being unreliable, though, since that is exactly why he was useful to us.”
“Nonsense,” said Itsveriul, slightly irritated. “We only ever called him ‘Master’ because our Ladyship insisted that it was necessary. He was never anything but our pawn.”
“…Do you think that is really the case, brother?” said Insvurial, turning suddenly to face Itsveriul. “Do you really think that Fan Bin only cooperated because the princess forced him to? That he had no options left?
“I thought so too, at first. But I have watched him, Itsveriul, as you apparently have not. Fan Bin is never forced to do anything. He does what people ask of him; he gives them what they think they want. But it is not because he is a loyal son, or a willing follower, or because he is coerced. At all times, it is because Fan Bin wants to know what will happen next. Time after time, I have seen him give those around him what they think they want; but the situation has changed around them, and they are damned by their own ambition.
“And thus I am worried, Itsveriul. Fan Bin has arranged things to our Ladyship’s satisfaction, and allowed us to take our revenge on these lesser humans while regaining what should have been ours by right. But I worry, brother, about what he might have arranged in a place we haven’t seen yet, at the behest of someone we do not know. I am worried… that the situation might change.”
Itsveriul looked at his brother with concern. “Is that why you haven’t removed that mask yet, Insvurial?”
“…No. I just find it surprisingly comfortable, after all this time.” Insvurial’s expression couldn’t be seen, of course, but his voice was slightly sheepish.
Encouraged by his changing mood, Itsveriul added, “I think you worry overmuch, brother. We have watched Fan Bin at all times, and he has never made contact with anyone we didn’t know about in advance. Our ladyship has read the threads of Fate, and predicted that we would have a great victory today. Nothing Fan Bin can do will change that.”
“I know, Itsveriul, I know,” agreed Insvurial with a sigh. “But I can’t help but worry. Everything… is going too well.”
Itsveriul frowned, but before he could continue trying to persuade his brother, the stone in his hand vibrated once again. Raising it to his ear, the grey-skinned man listened carefully, before his mouth dropped open in shock.
“W-what!?” he said, stuttering slightly.
“What is it, brother?” asked Insvurial urgently, his heart suddenly dropping.
“Mura Dyn!” choked out Itsveriul, half-disbelieving and half-panicked. “Mura Dyn is here!”
“What!?” shouted Insvurial. “Why would the Chief Grandmaster of the Green Wildness clan be here? We must…”
He whirled towards the chanting men, but realized that they had just completed the ritual. As each cloaked man dropped to his knees in sudden exhaustion, the ground cracked open and a black sigil pulsing with a living darkness arose from beneath the street, which formed a complicated three-dimensional shape that twisted in the air. Additional cloaked men leapt from hidden shadows to grab the men who had conducted the ritual, and assisted them in escaping from the dangerous area. Insvurial could hear the distant sounds of buildings collapsing in the distance, as other parts of the city started to fall in on itself.
He cursed in his native tongue, then spoke urgently to his brother. “Itsveriul, if Mura Dyn is here, then the Green Wildness Sect is present in force. You must get to our Ladyship, and escort her away from the city. We can’t afford to risk her over the Bracer of Lords alone.”
“But brother!” shouted Itsveriul. “We are so close to complete victory–”
“No, Itsveriul!” yelled Insvurial, ripping off his mask. Beneath lay identical features to those of his brother, except for his eyes, which were a shocking gold that did not seem to match his face. “I have seen this too many times before — greed will be our undoing! If the princess is lost, everything is lost!
“So go! Protect the princess! I will salvage what I can, but you, you must protect our Ladyship from the humans — and especially, you must protect her from Fan Bin. We do not know what he wants.”
The two brothers stared at each other. Finally and abruptly, Itsveriul nodded. “I will return to our Ladyship, brother, and give her your warning,” he said, obviously reluctant. “Stay safe, brother.”
“I will, brother,” Insvurial agreed. The two clasped arms in farewell, and then Itsveriul sped away on his mission, taking half the cloaked men with him. Insvurial turned to his remaining subordinates, narrowed his eyes, and gave the order:
“Light the black flame.”
One subordinate drew a torch made of black wood from beneath his cloak. He lit the torch with a striking tool, and carefully threw it into the black sigil that hovered ominously nearby. The sigil exploded, sending a pillar of black flame into the air. As if in reaction, a similar pillar arose in a different part of the city, and then two more, and then four; propagating outward at an incredible speed, until there were pillars of black flame piercing the city in a hundred places, each accompanied by screams of fear and pain from those caught within.
And then, the Underworks began to rise, and Insvurial of the Faded Ash clan nodded as the true transformation began. For the first time in millenia, the monsters beneath the city were free to come out, and prey upon the weak humans above. Just as her Ladyship, the Princess of Ash, had foretold, and as Fan Bin had arranged on her behalf.
But unknown to Insvurial, or the Princess of Ash, or even Fan Bin, an even greater horror was stirring even deeper below.
The pale girl, who was not human at all, laughed bitterly. “You stupid fool. You have doomed everything. Everything I did, everything I sacrificed… was for nothing, because of you.
“But don’t expect to get away without paying for your crime! This shall be my revenge, demon!” The pale girl violently stabbed into her own chest with her hand, and ripped out her own heart. The heart immediately ignited in her hand, and even as she died, the girl directed all the overflowing fire and energy into a straight line of pure death, one that might have even tested the defensive of a Void Transcending practitioner.
Gan Zhu was almost embarrassed at how easily he sidestepped it.
As the terrible energy faded away, and the girl collapsed lifelessly to the floor, Gan Zhu realized that the Breath around him had changed once more. Where it once circled endlessly and torrentially, it was now sluggishly drifting outwards, instead of inwards. The grand formation that Gan Zhu only barely comprehended, had been broken at its very center.
Almost against his will, his eyes moved toward the massive, grotesque stone gate standing unsupported in the near distance. Cracks appeared on the surface of the gate as he watched, and pebbles and debris fell away as it was slowly, slowly pushed open from the other side. He peered into the darkness beyond the gate —
— and at the thing, in the darkness, that peered back at him. Hungrily.
Gan Zhu did not hesitate further. He ran.
And the Infernal Worm pushed its way back into the mortal world, and all its children took off in pursuit of the Anubai Hero that had accidentally released them.
Yeah, it’s shorter than usual, but I think it’s as long as it needs to be. I actually have quite a few things to say, but I’ll wait till Sunday, if you don’t mind. Thanks for reading! 😀