“What is your name?”
At the eighth level of Profound Entry and she still hasn’t been scouted? She recalled her meeting with Great Elder Marcus and barely suppressed a greedy smirk as she regarded the group with an unreadable gaze. “You all will answer to Renay until I say otherwise.”
Most of the disciples in attendance cohesively responded with deep bows, a handful lagging behind in their respectful acknowledgements due to the severity of their hunger for the rush brought on by refining inner essence from freshly harvested blood.
“You lot are to head out into the countryside and round up as many lesser peoples as possible.”
When she paused to take a breath the eyes of one of the inner court disciples rolled into the back of his head and he unceremoniously stabbed a heated hand into the slender back of one of his junior sisters. He forced his hand through flesh with a sickening exclamation that was somewhere between a feral snarl and moan of pleasure. Several of the outer court disciples around him flinched with unease but other than that there was no detectable reaction from the group.
The outer court disciple died screaming as she was taken down from the heights of euphoria to the farthest reaches of agony. The moment that the girl’s tear-stained face grew slack with deathly indifference, her assailant was snatched out of the air by a bed-sized hand composed of scarlet energy. Veins stood out on the young man’s neck, temples and forehead as he thrashed around with a foaming mouth. Had she been rendered to such a state while lost in the mindlessness of excessive resource consumption?
The disciple lost consciousness as his body was tightly squeezed by the hand, Sersa’s impatience resulting in a chorus of sharp cracks. The ethereal appendage dissipated as quickly as it had taken shape, the male disciple’s left arm broken beneath a dislocated shoulder blade.
“Anyone who doesn’t bring back at least ten of the lesser peoples will receive a direct blow from a member of the Core.” She noted the brief glimpses of irritation that she spied upon the faces of most people present, with the exception of the long-haired Renay who stood quietly at attention just a few paces away. “Go now and be quick about your business.”
The group splintered into small squads as the disciples sprinted for the gate, all save for Renay who Sersa had discreetly signaled to remain back.
“In two days’ time, report to the rooftop of the tallest building within the city. I expect you to await my arrival at sun-up.” She dismissed her with a curt wave.
The sharp-eyed girl bowed with an elegant flourish and then hurried after the others, her lean frame swallowed from view as she vaulted over the blood spattered battlements of the western wall.
Once she could no longer sense anyone in her immediate vicinity, Sersa took a revitalizing breath and then combed through her long hair—which was frayed now that the dampness had been evaporated by her core cultivation method—with long, sharp fingernails.
Once she’d adapted to the vigorous strength that filled every fibre of her being, she calmly sorted through her thoughts and then reinforced her nerves before plotting out a course to the large blue tower where she had erected the sect’s sigil.
After a minute or so of house hopping and several courtyard-covering leaps, she arrived at the base of the tower and was surprised to find over fifty capable disciples occupying the white tiled square. The future hegemons of several domains were gathered in a silent circle around a large wooden table that was black in colour and round in shape, the atmosphere one of reluctant patience as they waited for their commander to arrive.
She spotted Havel standing to the right of the only open space around the otherwise cluttered table, his disoriented, fidgeting brother on the opposite side. She became the focus of attention the moment that she appeared in front of the tattered assembly of excessively twitching disciples, each visibly coming down from an unprecedented battle-high.
She didn’t miss Kane’s lingering stare as his brother arrived at her side with an urgent whisper.
“His Excellency awaits your presence atop the tower.”
She nodded and then launched herself high up into the air, and so unexpected was her surge in strength that she would have overshot the building entirely had a firm cloud of menacing energy not locked her in place with the unnerving sensation of mid-air suspension. She kept completely still as she was lowered to the rooftop a mere three paces away from where the great elder stood in the exact same spot that he’d occupied at their last meeting. There was the same passive secrecy to his penetrating gaze as he stared out at the quieted cityscape in abject silence. Sersa was certain that he beheld a scene invisible to all but himself.
After the usual pause, he eventually said, “Three days. Apparently that’s all the time it takes to refine over four hundred thousand of the lesser peoples.”
Sersa dropped to her knees and immediately kotowed to the man, her forehead smacking into blue stone with enough force to imprint a small web of cracks directly beneath her brow. “A thousand apologies, Your Excellency. I have failed you in my first assignment as your deacon of this new domain, and for that I beg that you dole out a deserving punishment.”
Once again she was enveloped by the same dominating energy that uncannily escaped her spiritual senses as if it didn’t exist. Her body arranged itself in an upright position at the behest of Lord Marcus’s fiendish inner essence projection.
“I do not intend to punish you. While you did fail me in acquiring a substantial supply of resources to be sent back to the domains—and in a glorious manner, I might add—it has unexpectedly resulted in a fair measure of convenience for me.”
After a full minute of quiet, she cautiously asked, “Do you have orders for me, Your Excellency?”
“We mustn’t give the Haussians an opportunity to recover. We might have dealt them a serious blow during the opening phases of this Acquisition, but our task is far from complete. The fact remains that its southern territory was by far their smallest. Though the chances are low, if the people of The Split manage to muster a force to meet us in the field, it may give rise to some unwanted complications.”
“Forgive my disrespect, Your Excellency, but surely there is no one among these lower peoples that can hope to face you in battle. Is there really a need to worry over their lower ranks when you alone are capable of taking their capital city?”
“Strength does not equate to invincibility. Take your diseased martial siblings from the Core for instance. Rare is it that one of the lessers can evenly match them in direct combat, and yet it is you who raised our standard. It is you who has become the first deacon of this domain.”
Sersa paralyzed her expression as she caught the subtle emphasis within his words. She threw her arms out at chest-level and connected fist to palm in a smart salute. “I understand, and am grateful for your instruction.” Sersa was reluctantly forced to conclude that there was at least one person in this backwater kingdom that could instill wariness in a great elder of the sect. What else haven’t they told us?
“As for your next assignment, you will lead a force into Hauss’s central territory. Our members from the Ash Forest domains have already claimed the Northern Pass, and they will begin their southward march come sundown.”
“Isn’t the population of the central territory at least ten million? At the very least there will be fifty thousand well-trained soldiers among them, not to mention any local resistances that might sprout up.”
“By invading The Split, we have given them the perfect prompt to a unified cause. Are you suggesting that we allow them to rally together for a counteroffensive?”
“Forgive my crassness, Your Excellency—”
“You will refer to me as Lord Marcus or some acceptable variation during your tenure as my deacon. Now, speak freely. Your opinion is worth nothing if it’s altered to pander to my own.”
“Yes, Milord.” Sersa dipped her head in acquiescence before continuing on with care. “I agree that it would be unwise to pause our advance for even a single day, however, there are many things that need immediate attention now that we’ve taken the city, such as the matter of securing resources for the domains within our borders. Most importantly, our numbers have been effectively halved during the opening days of the operation. If we continue on into the central territory without the members of the second wave to supplement our ranks, then more likely than not all of the disciples from Blackrock and the Marshide will…”
Sersa caught a chilling glimpse behind the purpose of this poorly organized Acquisition.
“Their sacrifices will bring wealth and glory to the sect in this heroic conquest of The Split.”
“The capital aside, I doubt that we are capable of taking the Archduke’s city. These two objectives are vital to our success in this region, and I feel that it would be dangerous to rush into such an important confrontation without a proper plan of action and a substantial force with which to implement it.”
Marcus paid her no mind. “You are to herd as many of the lesser peoples into the larger cities and townships as can be managed, taking any settlement of the less-than-significant size along the way. Likewise, a detachment of disciples from the Ash Forest domains will move south from the Northern Pass following the same prerogative. Before the week is out, I expect both forces converge on the capital.”
Seeing uncertainty shake Sersa’s usually collected disposition, he said, “The metropolis has already been surrounded by a war party from one of my domains, as well as one from your master’s holdings. Their success is imminent, though they will require reinforcements to completely crush the resistance.”
“As you wish,” was all she could respond with. If she led a war party deep into the central Haussian territory then there was a high chance that they would be encircled and cut off by the many local armies interspersed throughout the kingdom’s densely populated interior.
“Since there is hardly a need to arrange transport to the domains for the scant stock of resources that you’ve so gallantly obtained, you are to set off tomorrow at dawn. Your subordinates may have dropped in number but the overall strength of the disciples has improved tremendously.”
The great elder vanished as if he’d been nothing more than an illusion, his calm and powerful voice tickling her ear as she stood quietly in place during the following moments.
“Do not idle. Your war council awaits your instruction.”
She would have to recall Renay’s group as well as the rest of the forces scattered in the surrounding lowlands. She took a deep breath and leapt from the rooftop, the great elder’s commanding tone revisiting her before she touched down upon the fractured tile below.
“Return to the flagpole once the moon reaches its full height. If you are to serve as my representative among the disciples, we must increase your cultivation without delay.”
His final words rattled around within her skull as she landed with perfect grace in the only space available at the crowded table. The prejudiced eyes of her disgruntled, blood-lusting subordinates settled on her as the powerful voice gradually faded into her self-conscious.
“Do not fail me again.”