A hellish gloom faintly lit up the spacious room. The red walls seemed to be squirming strangely, as if a viscous, seething substance was seeping down through the wall's length. This made the lighting in the room be uneven, making distorted shadows dance on the floor as the walls changed constantly.
Such shadows masked the expression of a small and frail boy that was kneeling on the floor. His brown hair was a mess, and his clothes were in disarray. The moving shadows covering his face almost hid his swollen right cheek and the bluish-green color that covered them, but in the end, even the shadows weren't enough to hide his injuries. Nor could the shadows hide the glint in the boy's clear eyes. A deep fear and uneasiness could be seen in them, but far deeper, in the midst of those scared eyes, a spark of rebellion flickered.
In the middle of the room, a row of sparkling golden steps led to an incredibly ugly seat. It was a tall, wide wooden throne. Legend says that it had been white once, and incredibly appealing, but what the boy saw was a seat charred beyond recognition, twisted into a dark and deformed mess full of cracks. The little white that might have survived the ordeal of fire had been greyed out long ago by the rivers of time, or maybe its own ashes had tainted the throne.
The boy didn't know, and he didn't care. He dared not look up to the man seating on the throne, lightly tapping on the armrest with his index finger in a rhythmic, but absent-minded manner. Every tap reverberated through the room, making the boy's heart skip a beat in fright.
Lying against the throne, a sword silently slept in its glossy blood-red sheath. The jet-black hilt in the shape of a cross seemed far too simple, far too unadorned for its wielder. The only thing that seemed luxurious at all about the sword, besides the color of the sheath, was a bright-red jewel embedded in the guard, glowing with a faint light.
"Why do you always do such things?" The man finally asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence. His tone was surprisingly gentle, his voice mild.
"I…" The boy cut himself short just as he was about to answer the question. He greeted his teeth and took a deep breath, before speaking again in a forced voice. "I find Nolan Skoller annoying."
"Heh." The man in the throne scoffed lightly. The boy didn't need to look up to know what kind of expression he was making. He suddenly felt constricted, and moving was difficult. There was nothing at all pressing down on him, but the boy couldn't help but feel oppressed. The sheer thought of unpleasing that man made him instinctively paralyzed in fear.
"Why lie to me?" The man asked, his voice still mild and gentle.
The boy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He had been given a second chance. He could not lie again.
"Nolan said I was too small, and he said that since I don't have any affinity to fire I didn't deserve my position." The boy said, trying to hide the nervousness in his voice. The result was rather strange, as his tone came out uneven, as if he was holding back his tears as he spoke.
"What does an affinity to fire have to do with anything? We are not the Southern Flame Sect. The Abyss Sect does not have a ruling lineage, nor do we have any Guardian Beast to teach us the secrets of the elements." The man said. The Abyss Sect was a very young sect, much younger than the other Sacred Sects. It stood in the Central Continent, and didn't have any direct relation to a Godbeast or the Guardian Clans. The methods in the Abyss Sect were completely different from those of the other Sacred Sects.
"What we have here is freedom." The man added. His tone was light, but his meaning certain was not.
"But sir Sect Master has an affinity with fire, and even has close relations to the Vermillion Queen of the Southern Continent…" The boy spoke in a hurried voice as he exposed his own doubts.
"So what?" The man asked in a dismissive tone, clearly displeased. "The one that will decide the next Sect Master of the Abyss Sect is me, and I don't care about affinities. My successor will be chosen according to his capacity and commitment in ruling the sect, not his mastery of the same element I have."
The boy didn't speak, and his body shuddered lightly. The man gave a sigh watching this, shaking his head slightly.
"I don't care if Nolan has a good affinity with fire. His case is completely different." The man added, but his words didn't seem to affect the boy at all.
"Look up." The man suddenly ordered in a grave voice. The boy almost jumped in fright, but slowly raised his head, looking with those big, teary eyes at the man sitting on the throne.
The first thing the boy saw was his boots. They were simple, black boots made of leather. They covered a pair of long legs that were hidden behind a deep blood-red robe filled with golden embroideries. The man's chest was wide, and even the loose robe could not hide the muscles that covered it and the man's arms.
His features were sharp, giving his handsome face a heroic bearing. His eyes were of a bizarre bright red color, glowing like a pair of burning charcoals. The swept back hair that reached his shoulders was of the same color as his eyes, but the few streaks of gold amidst the red gave the man an even more exotic air.
The boy couldn't help but shudder once again when he met the man's gaze. Every part of his tiny body seemed to scream at him to run away, but the boy could barely move.
"It was a pity what happened to your grandparents. Geralt and Lara were close friends of mine, and I promised them that I would take care of their descendants and properly raise them into worthy cultivators." The man said, not hiding the sadness in his voice. "I did the same for Nolan's grandfather."
"Even if your parents won't reach far in the path of cultivation, they will enjoy the best resources we have and I will guarantee they will live a fulfilling life until the end." The man said, having some difficulty to choose words that would not upset the boy too much. "You are different from them. You have the talent, and I will do my best to make sure you tread this path as far as possible. It is my responsibility, even if I am not your master."
The boy did not speak. In truth, he could not fathom the thought of living longer than his parents. He was far too young to truly understand what the man's words meant.
The man then took a deep breath, before letting out a long sigh. "It is the same for Nolan, although, unfortunately, his parents are gone."
"So do not be too upset by what he says. This sect is all he has." The man continued. He did not mention, however, that Nolan was possibly trying to establish his dominance. He was already taking the competition for the Sect Master's seat very seriously. In that regard, he was already far above the competitors.
"But sir…" The boy started saying, clearly unsure of how to proceed.
"I also don't care if you are too small." The man said with a sigh, trying hard not to roll his eyes. In truth, he found it hard dealing with children. To his surprise, however, the boy didn't seem convinced.
"Who cares about height?" The man asked, giving the boy a sharp look. Unconsciously, his expression slowly turned ferocious, making the boy pale. "The smaller you are, the more humiliating it will be for your opponent to lay at your feet after you are done with them."
"Remember this, Lars. It doesn't matter how tall you are if everyone has to kneel before you."
The floor was smashed apart as two swords violently collided. The green and the scarlet sword released a rain of sparks that were blown away by a violent gust of wind and wisps of black fire. Both Borgin and Lloyd took a single step back to disperse the force of the collision before advancing again.
Lloyd's sword seemed blurry as a fierce wind swirled around the green blade covered in light. His strikes were incredibly fast and precise, trying to slowly force Borgin's guard open with an unending torrent of attacks at different angles. His hair was whipping about and he had a savage look on his face as he swung his sword mercilessly.
Every strike he unleashed sent a blast of air in Borgin's direction, and the speed of the attacks was slowly increasing, as well as the strength behind them.
Borgin, on the other hand, seemed surprisingly calm. His brows were slightly furrowed, and an unprecedented focus could be seen in his expression. His movements were firm and stable, and he expertly parried each one of Lloyd's attacks with Crimsonroar. Even if his movements were slower, the distance his sword had to cover was shorter, so Borgin managed to maintain the fight in a delicate balance.
A faint yellow aura covered Borgin, almost invisible amidst the flames coming from the sword in his hands. The blast of wind didn't affect his balance or his concentration at all, being promptly dispersed by the yellow aura around him.
He and Lloyd were slowly sinking into the floor, as it couldn't hold their weight after being damaged repeatedly by their clash. The cracks on the floor were slowly spreading outwards, and tiles started to sink in by themselves as if their weight had suddenly multiplied.
To those looking from the outside, however, the figures of Borgin and Lloyd were almost indistinct. Colorless ripples were turning the air and space chaotic, as if the Qi itself was struggling with something. It seemed to clash against itself around Lloyd and Borgin, raising the debris on the floor and launching them at dangerous speeds throughout the crumbling hall.
This was because, even if people could not see it, Nemeus and Oura were engaged in their own fight, trying to wrestle away the control of the Qi in the area from one another and use it to attack the enemy.
As such, both Borgin and Lloyd couldn't make use of the Qi in the hall, having to rely on their own reserves. They were stuck in a battle of attrition. It was at that moment that cultivation and experience would count the most, because if either side showed the slightest of weaknesses, the fight would be as good as lost. In a high-level fight, a single opening was all it took to decide its outcome.
"Borgin, we have to take the competitors out of here." Nemeus' voice echoed directly in Borgin's ears, his tone grave.
"I know about that already!" Borgin answered without patience, trying to not take focus away from his fight with Lloyd.
He could not go all out since the aftermath would most likely be deadly to more than a few of the competitors. He had to create an opening and buy enough time to remove the competitors from the hall.
Lloyd's glowing sword came whistling at Lar's head, rousing a gale in its wake. Borgin quickly parried, deflecting Lloyd's sword to the side. It was a small opening, just enough for Borgin to barely be able to counter, stabbing Crimsonroar toward Lloyd's chest.
The scarlet sword let out a sizzling sound as the dark flames covering it billowed toward Lloyd's chest. Lloyd grunted, taking a step back and swiping his free hand at the flames, dispersing them with a blast of wind.
Nevertheless, it was enough. In that fraction of a second where Lloyd had only one foot on the ground, Borgin acted.
The yellow aura surrounding Borgin flashed with a blinding light, and the floor in a radius of a dozen meters around him and Lloyd suddenly caved in, as if a gigantic hand had pressed it down. As such, Lloyd stumbled.
His step back had cost him his balance, even if only for a moment. A violent gale swept at his back, holding his weight in the split-second he would need to recover, but Crimsonroar was already falling down over his head, splitting the air with sundering flames.
"Lloyd!" Oura shouted, diverting her attention for but a moment, just long enough to deflect Borgin's strike with a blast of condensed Qi.
Just long enough for Nemeus to act.
With a thundering roar, he threw all of his focus at the bright Soulstone floating near Lloyd, savagely ripping apart the divine sense that was restraining it.
A terrifying surge of power erupted from the Soulstone as Hati finally freed himself, throwing the already chaotic Qi of the hall into even more disarray.
To the powerless Amon thrown to the side, the world was turning upside down. His surrounding would sometimes become completely white, sometimes covered with a variety of colors. The earth never stopped rumbling and quaking, and the air itself seemed to be falling down alongside the badly damaged ceiling of the hall, as if the sky was crashing down from above.
Clouds of dust rose and fell as gusts of wind randomly swept through the place, throwing gravel at the competitors that were recovering from their daze since Oura had lost the absolute control over the hall. All they could do was desperately try to protect themselves from the chaos that the fight brought upon them. What they were experiencing was too much for them to process or understand.
Their despair, however, did not last long. They all felt an invisible force wrapping around them, as if a rope they couldn't see had been tied around their waists.
Hati focused with all he had, not holding back in his use of strength at all. The breach on the wall surrounded by squirming shadows, broken space and emptiness shook. The spatial fragments froze in place, as if time had stopped.
They then started to circle around the breach, slowly rearranging themselves. As they floated around the breach, a bright red color slowly dyed them like blood before they finally gathered and formed a red curtain of light.
Hati was utterly exhausted, but didn't dare lose focus. With a violent sweep of his divine sense, he dragged Brightmoon and Amon towards him, severing Oura's faint control over them. She was far too busy trying to regain the grounds she lost to Nemeus in the fight.
"Run away, Lya! Take the boy and run away!" Hait shouted to the red jewel embedded in the iron sword.
"Wait!" Amon tried to say, but Hati did not pay him any mind.
The Moonchaser Wolf took a look at the boy that had Skoll's blessing with mixed emotions. He was far too young, far too inexperienced, far too naïve. He was not ready for what was to come.
"Kid, I already said to you all I needed to. Now I can only wish you good luck." Hati transmitted his voice to Amon in a melancholic tone. "Hopefully, you will do right by your lineage."
Without ceremony, he threw the boy and the sword through the spatial passageway. Only when they were gone he bothered with the remaining cultivators.
Hati didn't bother being gentle or careful. He was not in a situation that allowed him such luxury. He was rather forceful and abrupt and, one by one, the cultivators were sent away. When he was about to send Reynard Stark away, he hesitated. He was sure Reynard was involved, but he had no proof. If he didn't send Reynard away and he ended up hurt, things would only worsen for the Abyss Sect. He ultimately decided to send Reynard away. Now was not the time to worry about such things, after all.
When they were all gone, Hati faltered. He had expended all of the little strength he had left forcefully redirecting the spatial passageway Nemeus used back into the Ashen Heart Tree. Still, he had managed to do it.
He managed to salvage the little bit he could.
He was completely exhausted, his power almost spent. It would take months of slumbering to recover his full strength, but it was worth it.
"Finally." Borgin said with a ferocious smile. His aura abruptly surged, and the little that remained of the floor tiles sunk down. He looked at Lloyd with cold eyes, and his aura surged yet again.
The already deep crater they were standing on caved in even more, and the ground in the hall actually leveled as an unbearable pressure compacted it to the limits. Any normal human would have long been turned into nothing more than a bloody mess of torn flesh under the pressure, but Lloyd Kressler was completely unphased.
Rather, he was smiling.
"Indeed. Took you long enough." He said with a mocking smile.
Borgin furrowed his brows, feeling something wrong.
"It was only a pity that Hati was smart enough to send the kid and the sword away first. We could only allow it to make sure he wouldn't take too long to send the others away too." Oura's bewitching voice made its way from the green sword in Lloyd's hand, surprisingly calm, even if a bit regretful.
Borgin felt a light crack coming from something on his right wrist. His eyes widened in surprise as blood-red fragments slowly fell down from his sleeves. They hit the ground with a resonating boom, as if they weighted tons instead of grams.
"You…" Borgin's face paled ever so slightly, and for the first time, he showed a hint of confusion.
More cracking sounds echoed from Borgin's sleeve, and his face slowly distorted in an unrecognizable mask of rage and bloodlust.
"It is too late now." Lloyd said in a scornful voice, still smiling as he waved his left hand. A green light glowed from him, gently enveloping his body.
Borgin's aura was swept away as a raging wind blasted through the remains of the hall. Strands of light flickered through the wind, being swept away and hiding in the air. The viscous shadows in the wall sent out an ear-piercing shrill as deep gashes started appearing on them as the wind blew.
Borgin's face darkened. He could feel an inherent sharpness from the strands of light. It was as if the wind itself had turned into a weapon. His hair stood on end as an unprecedented sense of danger assaulted him.
"Lars, be careful!" Nemeus was alarmed as he recognized the strands of light. He was at the same time amazed and horrified.
Lloyd's smile widened, and the winds converged to him, bringing with them the strands of light.
"Time to end this farce."