The Throne Room of the Abyss Sect was uncharacteristically silent. A man dressed in loose red robes filled with golden embroideries was sitting on the charred throne, and a man was kneeling respectfully in the middle of the room, yet there was no tapping echoing through the room, and there was nothing being said.
The faint light that glowed from the walls was dancing without rhythm or form as the walls seemed to churn. A few decades had passed, but Lars Borgin never stopped feeling incredibly nervous every time he had to stand on this room and speak with the man sitting on the throne. No matter how much stronger Lars got, that overwhelming pressure he felt never ceased or weakened.
He could never grasp the strength of the Abyss's Sect Founder and Sect Master when he was a kid, and he still couldn't do it now. It was as if the man sitting on the throne was an ocean of energy and power. The deeper Lars dived into it, the stronger the pressure wrapping around him became. No matter how much Lars probed, all he could find was unending power and increasingly horrifying darkness that hid the depths of the man in front of him.
"I honestly can't believe it." A gentle, sorrowful voice broke the silence. The man sitting in the throne gave a sight, and Lars, kneeling on the floor lowered his head even more.
"Explain to me what happened." The Set Master asked, gripping tightly the armrest of the throne. His voice was still as gentle as ever, but there an uncharacteristic uneasiness in it as he spoke.
"I am not too sure myself, sir Sect Master." Lars answered. His brown hair was covered in sweat due to his nervousness, and confusion could be seen in his clear eyes. "When I arrived it was already too late."
"The conditions of the body?" The Sect Master moved a bit in his throne, somewhat restless.
"A single strike. Nolan died instantly." Lars reported with a bitter taste in his mouth. He still couldn't believe the news he received. "Considering the direction he was facing, the fact that he had a sword in hand and that the trees behind him were destroyed, I don't think it was a sneak attack."
"Nolan knew someone was going to attack him and he even had the chance to draw his weapon. Not only that, he was clearly facing the attacker. It is just… even with all that he couldn't even react when the attacker made his move." The kneeling Lars concluded with a calm voice. Nevertheless, he couldn't help shaking somewhat.
"Tell me something, Lars." The Abyss Sect's Sect Master calmly asked as he coldly gazed at Lars Borgin from above. "In such conditions, could you have done something similar?"
"Sir, I would never-" Lars hurriedly started to say, turning visibly more nervous.
"This is not what I am asking." The Sect Master interrupted him with mild annoyance in his voice.
"No, sir. Even if Nolan gave me the chance, I would never have been able to take him down in a single strike." Lars said honestly. He couldn't help but tremble as he remembered the scene he saw in the Western Continent.
Lars Borgin knew Nolan Skoller too well, and he also knew how much inferior he was compared to Nolan. That absurdly strong body of his, and his even more ridiculous control over fire… if Nolan was taken down like that, he couldn't even imagine the strength of the murderer.
"How was the state of the trees behind him? You mentioned the after-effects of the attack destroying them." The Sect Master asked in an increasingly cold voice, giving Lars a shiver.
"All of the trees affected seemed to have been cut in two. This phenomenon manifested from Nolan's location to about one hundred meters behind him." Lars answered with a frown. It was an utterly absurd scene.
"What is your take on that?" The Sect Master asked, his tone still gentle, but now the coldness hidden in his voice gave Lars shivers.
"It is very confusing, sir." He answered honestly. "I can't believe that the after-effect of an attack that could take down a fully prepared Nolan Skoller would spread through only a few hundred meters."
"Indeed." The Sect Master quietly nodded. "What would be the explanations for that, Lars?"
"Either it was a different attack that hit the trees… or the murderer's ability and control over the elements is on a level I can't begin to grasp." Lars answered of thinking a bit. This was the best theory he managed to develop after analyzing the facts. In truth, he had no idea how such a scene came to be.
"Control over the elements, eh…" The Sect Master repeated his words in a low voice, almost as if he was scoffing at himself.
"Sigh, such a pity. His child wasn't even born yet." The Sect Master sighed, shaking his head. His red hear spilled over his shoulders and the golden streaks in it gleamed for a split second. For a moment, it seemed as if his hair was made of fire.
"Sir, can I ask you something?" Lars finally gathered the courage he needed to question the Sect Master.
"Yes." Came an uninterested answer.
"What was Nolan Skoller doing in the Western Continent?" Lars finally asked the question that had been bothering him ever since he heard the news. Given the condition of his family and his position, leaving alone for another continent was a choice Lars couldn't understand.
"He was investigating something on my orders." The Sect Master answered in a dismissive tone.
"I see." Lars said in an emotionless voice. His disappointment, however, didn't go unnoticed.
"Raise your head, Lars." The Sect Master commanded with a sigh. He was truly very tired, and he was starting to turn tense.
"Tell me, if you were sent on a mission that you knew might end up with your death, would you have done it for the sake of the sect?" The Sect Master asked, looking at Lars Borgin with his bright red eyes as if trying to peer into his very soul.
"Yes, sir." Lars answered without hesitation. "The Abyss Sect is all I have."
"Even if you had a family that relied on you? Even if you were about to have a daughter?" The Sect Master asked, his eyes turning even sharper as he leaned forward.
"Yes, sir." Lars answered again, not even blinking.
"How can you say that if you have never even married? What if your mind changes once you become a father?" The Sect Master pressed on, still not satisfied.
"That will hardly happen, sir. After my parents died, I decided that nothing would stand between my cultivation and me. A family would only hold me back." Lars admitted.
"That was sixty years ago, Lars. Do you still feel that way?" The Sect Master insisted, slightly cocking his head, like a hawk staring with interest at the prey.
"Yes." Lars nodded his head, his expression serious. "The Abyss Sect is my everything, sir. My climb to the peak lies here and nowhere else. My grandparents died so this place could exist, and my parents died happily here. There is no way I would feel any other way."
"I see." The Sect Master nodded, making his hair gleam again.
"This sense of belonging, this unwavering loyalty… a Sect Master's duty is to guarantee every single disciple has it." He said in an emotionless voice. "A Sect Master must know the disciples of his sect, and he must give them reasons to die without a doubt in the name of their sect."
"Cultivators value their lives more than anything, so achieving such a thing is quite hard. You need intelligence. You need to understand others. You need to be able to feel empathy." He said in a serious voice, leaning even more forward and never taking his eyes out of Lars, carefully reading his reactions.
"At least that is what people believe, and as such you must convince others that you have such qualities." He added as a very discrete smile full of disdain made its way into his lips.
"What is truly important is the strength to maintain your position and charisma to enthrall those around you." He continued, still using the same serious tone. His eyes shone with a strange light, and a hint of scorn appeared on his expression. "If you make good use of charisma, you can gather allies, and they can make up for the things you lack."
"A Sect Master is nothing but an illusion, Lars. What exists, in reality, is just a single man strong enough to protect his ideals. A man willing to make use of anyone and make any and all sacrifices in the name of such ideals."
"This is what a sect truly is. A figure bearing the ideals and illusions of others as they help him accomplish his." He concluded, and his expression turned blank. "Do you understand?"
"I do, sir." Lars answered softly. He already knew that. He had lived enough to understand how the world was.
"Very well. From this moment forward, you are the inheriting disciple of the Abyss Sect, and I will teach everything you must know in order to become a proper Sect Master after I retire." The Sect Master said simply as if it was nothing much.
Lars lowered his head again, giving the Sect Master a deep bow and hiding the expression he was making. He felt both happy and conflicted. He knew that he had not been the first choice for the position, and now he would never be able to truly prove himself worthy. The blow that had taken Nolan Skoller's life had also taken away his chance of proving his value.
"Know this, Lars." The Sect Master said, slowly rising from the throne and descending the golden steps as he walked towards Lars. "Loyalty is absolutely necessary. Without it, the sect will fall apart, because the illusion will be broken."
"If there ever comes a day when a disciple of your sect betrays you, then you failed." Arthur Royce said as his eyes shone with a surprisingly cold light
Lars Borgin gasped for breath loudly as he supported his body with the blood-red Crimsonroar. The ground below his feet had been so compacted and turned so dense that the sword's tip couldn't pierce it even after Borgin supported his full weight with it.
Even so, the sword trembled nonstop as the ground quaked. The shadows squirming in the walls turned even more agitated, and a loud rumbled echoed. Without the Guardian linked to the core array of the Hellblaze Secret World, the artificial dimension was starting to fall apart. The only thing holding it together was the Ashen Heart Tree, the anchor, but even so, it wouldn't hold out for long.
Deep gashes covered Lars' body, and white bones could be seen between the gaps in his flesh. His blood flowed nonstop from the wounds on his body, turning his clothes sticky and making him feel increasingly colder.
In front of him, Lloyd Kressler cocked his head, looking at Borgin with a dark interest in his cold eyes. He waved the green sword in his hand around, sending blasts of light with each strike and causing increasingly deeper gashes to appear on the ground below his feet.
Surrounding his body, threads of flowing light floated freely, mixing with the dust and the gales that wrapped around his body.
"I expected more, Lars." Lloyd said with disdain in his voice.
Borgin didn't answer. He couldn't answer. His vision was slowly fading away, and he knew he was about to lose consciousness. He made an effort to maintain his expressionless face, but deep down he was shaken. He could not understand how Lloyd Kressler had attained such power in that short of a time.
"Oura!" A loud shout that sounded more like a roar echoed in the crumbling hall. The enraged Nemeus was still facing the strange entity he called Oura, but Lars Borgin couldn't keep up with their fight anymore. Hati had long been defeated, and his Soulstone was shining brightly in Lloyd's left hand.
"Just give up already." A bewitching voice answered Nemeus, but Borgin couldn't say from where it came. "Even if you have a piece of Arthur's soul, you are a few millennia short of being able to hold your own against me."
As the voice finished speaking, the air in the hall suddenly turned completely still, as if time had frozen. Borgin couldn't even move anymore, nor could he spread his divine sense. A powerful force had overtaken control of the whole hall.
"Enough of this." Lloyd said as he slowly approached Borgin. His dark hair fluttered as he walked, and he was clearly unaffected by the power that was binding the hall.
Lloyd slowly raised the sword in his hand, never taking his eyes away from Borgin, as if expecting to see his expression change.
"I always hated the way you went about doing things." Borgin said in a weary voice. His expression was still completely blank, but he couldn't hide his exhaustion.
"Hah!" Lloyd scoffed. "Do you really have the right to say that?"
"Oh?" He suddenly stopped, turning his head away and looking at the flickering curtain of red light that shone in one of the walls of the hall.
The light started to churn and revolve, and soon enough a small figure appeared from it, crashing loudly on the ground and rolling for a few meters before stopping.
"Urgh, damn Leonard. That bastard really took his acting seriously." The newcomer said, standing up with difficulty. His clothes were in tatters, and his red hair was a mess. A deep mark could be seen around his neck as if someone had squeezed it tightly. He was in a really sorry state.
"What are you doing here?" Lloyd asked, raising a brow as he faced the youth.
"A slight change of plans. The First Protector appeared and Jake Meyer is still alive." The youth said, cracking his neck with a clearly annoyed expression.
"Hoh, Reynard failed?" Lloyd asked in a surprisingly light tone as if he was really satisfied.
"Joshua!?" Borgin asked in shock as he realized who the youth was.
Joshua raised his head, looking at Borgin with surprise on his face as if he had just realized he was there. Then, he frowned.
"Why is he not dead?" Joshua asked, turning to face Lloyd. "I didn't think it would take that long."
"We were about to work on that, dear." The female voice answered in a charming tone.
Borgin couldn't find the words he wanted to say. No, he didn't want to say anything. There was not really anything to be said.
He gripped Crimsonroar tightly, and his body started trembling as he forced himself to move. Nemeus roared from somewhere, and Borgin could finally move. As if he was trying to walk on a swamp, he slowly forced his forward, raising Crimsonroar.
All of the Qi in his body slowly started gathering in his dantian. He would condense all of the energy he could and then detonate his Elemental Core, taking them all out with him.
"As if I would let you." A sweet, but poisonous voice made its way to Borgin's mind.
Suddenly, he was frozen in place again. A foreign energy made its way into his body, slowly slithering through his meridian and reaching his dantian. To Borgin's horror, he felt his dantian being sealed away, and he could only watch in shock as the Qi slowly dispersed from his body.
"Oura!" Nemeus roared again but was ultimately helpless in front of her.
"This is ridiculous." Lloyd voice woke Borgin from his stupor. He raised his head, and saw Lloyd brandishing the green sword in his hand.
Time slowed down as Borgin faced the incoming blade. He watched helplessly as the sharp tip prickled the skin of his chest, slowly sinking into his muscles. He felt his flesh tearing as the sword sunk deeper hitting his ribs. He felt it grinding at his bones, finally carving its way through them and hitting his right lung. He felt is making its way out, in a process that seemed to be as slow as it was painful.
The green tip made its way out of Lars Borgin though his back, and he coughed. Dark blood seeped down his lips, through his chin and falling on his already bloodied clothes. A strange roaring blocked his hearing, and he could barely make out Nemeus roaring somewhere far away.
Before he realized it, he was facing the ceiling. He didn't even remember when he fell down. Nevertheless, he still wanted to fight. He raised his head with difficulty as the roaring in his ears turned deafening. He realized his hands were empty. Crimsonroar was nowhere to be seen.
He moved his head, and saw the silver curtain of light on the other side of the room slowly decreasing in size, as if it was folding unto itself. It didn't take long for it to completely disappear.
The shadows that had covered the walls faded away, exposing the mix of red and gold that were their original colors. Borgin couldn't feel the quaking of the ground anymore, he could only faintly feel the world around him crumbling. The roaring in his ears was also starting to fade away.
Borgin finally realized he was hearing his own blood flowing through his body. Not that it mattered anyway.
As the world collapse around him, he remembered his master's words. The words of the man whose shoes he never managed to fill. The words of the man he had strived to be, but failed.
He had utterly failed.
In the major plaza, the tremors turned increasingly stronger.
The First Protector and the newly arrived staff from the Medical Pavilion watched in shock as the Ashen Heart Tree started to tremble, and the curtain of light between its trunks started to fade away.
They hurriedly moved the Abyss Sect's disciple away as the silvery leaves that had hundreds of years old started to lose their luster and fall from the tree. They gently swayed as they fell, and the whole tree started to sway with them as huge cracks started to spread through it.
Branches that were dozens of meters long started to fall into the buildings they once covered, and the tree stopped to sway. It leaned to one side, and the curtain of red light completely faded. With a loud crack, a trunk snapped, and the tree started to break apart.
The First Protector watched in horror as the gigantic tree slowly approached the ground, crushing the buildings beneath it as its humongous crown smashed against the floor.
White splinters flew in the air, reflecting the starlight that shone from above. They spread through the air, covering the heart of the city and gleaming brightly amidst the cloud of dust that rose.
A last terrifying tremor almost sent the First Protector to her knees. A sepucral silence took over Hell's Keeper City as the white splinters fell to the ground, making it seem to be covered in cinders.
The Ashen Heart Tree had fallen.