It was a very spacious room, even if somewhat shabby. Simple furniture adorned it, waiting for guests that usually never came. This day, however, there were two people in the room, both refusing to take a seat and quietly waiting next to a wide wooden door. Even if the room was well lit, one could still see the bright light shining through the door cracks.
One of the people quietly waiting in the room was a red-haired boy. His face was somewhat pale, his hair was disheveled, his clothes were messy and clear hand marks could be seen on his neck, already turning blue. Even if he was bored, he showed nothing but respect on his face as he silently waited for his chance to cross the doors.
By his side was a stern man. He was covered in black from head to toe, and his sharp features showed no expression at all. He stood completely still, like a statue, as he patiently waited to be called. His hands were behind his back, hidden inside a black cape that draped over his shoulders.
His right hand slowly rubbed a silver chain on his wrist, where a single blood-red bead could be seen hanging from. As the man's fingers rubbed against the chain, his cold eyes glinted with a strange light for a moment. His thoughts were inscrutable, but his hands never stopped rubbing the chains. It was as if something was bothering him, or something was missing.
Beside him, a bright green sword glowed faintly as it lied next to the door. A red gem fitted on the hilt shone ominously with a flickering, almost hypnotic light.
"Hope this doesn't take too long..." The red-haired youth gave a sigh, turning somewhat agitated.
"I don't think it will. Master seemed to be quite mad with her." The man answered lightly.
"Well, from what I heard she did screw up big time." The youth commented. "I am actually feeling a bit of pity for her."
The man made no further comments, returning to his usual silence. Somehow, however, his gaze seemed to waver for a moment. His hand never left the silver chain on his wrist.
"A pair of fools." A charming, melodious voice echoed in the room. "You don't understand Master at all."
The sun shone brightly in the azure sky. The vibrant blades of green grass that grew on a small garden gently swayed as a comfortable breeze blew. A small table had been set in the garden in front of a crystalline pond. A few Koi Carps swam peacefully in the pond, rousing small ripples on the glistening water. Above the table, the steam rising from a green teapot billowed with the breeze, quickly dispersing in the air.
It was a very refreshing day, one that anyone could enjoy. A refined man quietly sat with his back turned to the table as he gazed at the pond with a serene expression. His green robes fluttered, and he closed his brown eyes to eye the cool feeling on his skin as it was gently caressed by the breeze.
Eventually, the breeze stopped, and the man gave a sigh. He ran his fingers through his brown hair, thinking as a tired expression showed on his face. He slowly turned his back to the pond, facing the other side of the table.
There, a young couple was sitting on the grass. One of them was a boy with blond hair and handsome features. He had a confused look on his face, and he didn't seem to know the situation. In truth, he didn't even know exactly where he was nor the identity of the man in front of him. He gave quick glances to his left side, but the girl he was trying to communicate with didn't seem to notice.
Her silky dark hair cascaded on her back, swaying nonstop as the girl trembled. Her beautiful face was tense, and her small hands were closed tightly on fists above her knees and hidden by the table. She was looking down with terrified eyes, trying hard not to make a sound.
"You know, the tea is quite good." The man in green robes said with an amicable smile. He took the green teapot with both hands and served the green tea inside it on three porcelain cups that were lying on the side.
The boy opened his mouth to say something, but the girl promptly sent him a warning glance, making him even more confused. As he hesitated, he felt a warm current blowing past him, and the smile of the man sitting on the other side of the table turned even gentler. The boy couldn't help but smile too.
He politely extended his hands, accepting a cup. He carefully blew on the tea, before taking a sip. His eyes immediately lit up and his expression eased. This was indeed quite a good tea.
Seeing this, the fear in the girl's eyes turned even clearer, but she found no choice other than to accept it. She slowly extended her trembling hands, carefully raising her eyes to look at the cup in front of her. The tea started churning as the cup shook in her hands, but she didn't dare spill a single drop. She slowly took a sip before putting the cup back on the table.
The boy continued enjoying the tea as the girl lowered her gaze again. The man watched it all with a calm expression, holding his cup with his right hand and closing his eyes as he carefully drank the tea. After some time, he finally broke the silence.
"You know why you are here, don't you, Emma?" He asked with a calm voice as he slowly put his cup down.
The girl's body jolted and her fists tightened even more, but she still hesitantly nodded her head, never looking at the man's eyes.
"Good, that saves me the trouble." The man said, closing his eyes and massaging his temple with his left hand as if trying to ease a headache.
"What is your name?" He asked, looking at the blond boy with a gentle expression. His voice was somehow very charming and very calming. Even so, the boy somehow couldn't look at the man in the eye.
"My name is Robert, sir." The blond boy said respectfully and giving a light bow.
"That is a nice name." The man said, nodding slightly. "What do you think of Emma, Robert?"
"I think she is a wonderful girl." Robert answered immediately. "She is beautiful, smart and very gentle."
"I have to agree. I think she would make for a wonderful wife." The man said as a small smile crept up his face.
Hearing his words, Emma's body jolted again and her body started shaking even more. She closed her eyes tightly and pursed his lips.
"Well, Robert, you might not know this, but Emma already had a marriage arranged for her." The man said slowly as his expression turned serious.
Hearing his words, Robert shuddered, before taking a deep breath. He opened his mouth to say something, but the taste of the tea suddenly turned stronger, and his mind grew muddier.
"I didn't know of this, sir." He answered honestly.
"Even if you didn't know, you have to take responsibility, don't you?" The man asked, slowly standing up.
"Sir, I…" Robert's face paled as looked over at Emma, and the taste of the tea resurfaced on his mouth. "There is no way I could have known."
"Ignorance is a sin, you know?" The man said, turning his back to the couple and looking at the pond again. "A very grave offense was made, and someone must be punished for it."
Robert's face paled even further, and he slowly started to back away. Something about the man seemed to change, and Robert's senses started screaming at him to run away as fast as he could.
Emma bit her lips before finally standing up and raising her head. Her body was still shaking, and her eyes were still full of fear, but her hesitation seemed to vanish completely.
"If someone must be punished it should be me!" She said with no hesitation. "Robert didn't know, so he can't be blamed."
The man slowly turned around, facing Emma with a dark expression.
"Do you agree with that, Robert?" He asked with a complex look on his face.
Robert stopped in place as he heard the question. He was already scared out of his mind. As he was about to answer, however, his mind turned muddy again.
"I… I think that is fair." He finally spoke.
The man gave a sigh, and sat down again, pouring more tea into his cup.
"Punishment will be dealt, then." He said, looking very tired.
Emma lowered her head and closed her eyes. Shiny tears started streaming down her delicate face as she waited for the inevitable. Emma turned her head away while closing her eyes with all of her might. She hastily covered her ears, but she knew it wouldn't be enough.
The man lightly tapped with a finger on the table. A swift wind brushed past Emma. Something fell loudly on the ground. Emma sobbed silently, and the man gave another sigh before drinking the tea in his cup.
He didn't bother Emma, quietly drinking his tea as he waited for her to calm down. When her tears finally dried out, he gave her a gaze filled with pity and empathy. He extended his hands, taking her cup and discarding the tea that had already cooled down.
"I'm sorry." He said, pouring another serving of tea into her cup and offering it to her. "I did give him a chance. Unfortunately, no one outside our Fallen Sword Sect might know of this place."
Emma didn't answer him, but her lips trembled. The man wanted to sigh again, but instead, his expression steeled and his gaze turned fierce.
"To be clear, I have no problems with it. You can marry whoever you want, it is your right." The man said, clearly disappointed. "The crux of the matter here is that you had already accepted the marriage I arranged on your own will, and then you threw it out the window without telling me first. You have no idea how much trouble this caused me, and the consequences that could have ensued."
"That was a betrayal, Emma." He said as his expression turned stone cold. He leaned forward, slowly approaching his face to the girls as he glared at her like a beast glaring at prey. "You know that, don't you?"
The girl felt her knees giving in, and she fell to the ground as her face became deathly pale.
"Even so, I still gave him a chance, because I understand what went through your mind." The man continued, looking very disappointed. "All I can do is to hope for you to choose better next time. I mean, look at him. He didn't step forward even once to defend you."
"You didn't give him the chance!" Emma cried out.
"I made sure he would speak what was truly in his mind and that is all. The last thing I want is for you to be betrayed by someone you love." He said as his aura suddenly rose. His refined appearance gave way to overwhelming power, and he suddenly looked more like a primordial beast than a human.
"There is no sadder thing than that, and I will never let those I care about to suffer such a fate, even if I have to break their hearts again and again." He said with decisiveness, never taking his eyes away from the girl.
The ground started rumbling and a violent gale swept by the garden, throwing the cups on the grass that swayed madly. The water on the pond started to churn wildly as if it was trying to bust out. The Koi Carps were nowhere to be found, having hidden in fear long ago.
"I am sorry, master." Emma finally said, breaking down in tears again.
The aura suddenly disappeared. The water in the pond calmed down, the gale quickly dispersed and the ground stopped rumbling. The man waved his hand, and the fallen cups and teapots promptly returned to the table.
"It is fine as long you understand." He said after calming himself. "Go on and tell Lloyd to come in."
Emma gave him a deep bow, with her face still covered in tears before turning away. She avoided looking at a specific direction, as if afraid of what lied there. The man waved his hands, and a raging flame crept up in a corner of the garden, on the place the girl refused to look at.
"Emma." The man called before the girl walked out of his view.
Emma stopped in place and slowly turned to face him.
"Never betray me again." The man said in a voice that made her soul tremble in fear.
She quickly gave him another bow, before running away. The flames died down, and with another wave of the man's hand, a sudden wind threw the remaining ashes away from his view.
He sat down again, pouring another cup of tea for himself. Yet, he didn't drink it. His mood had been spoilt, and his brows slowly started to furrow.
He heard light steps approaching and, without looking up, signaled for the newcomer to sit by the table.
"Master." Lloyd Kressler gave a deep bow before sitting on the ground. The green sword in his hands suddenly floated up before flying into the green-robed man's direction.
The man skillfully grabbed the sword with his left hand, and gently put its tip on the ground, letting the table support the hilt. A beautiful green-haired woman appeared out of thin air, also greeting the man with a deep bow.
"Master." She said respectfully without raising her head.
"Report." The man commanded.
"Our primary mission was a success. Well, more than that, to be honest." The woman said in her bewitching voice as she slowly met the man's gaze. "Still, most of the secondary objectives were a failure."
"Oh?" The man raised a brow, getting interested.
"We successfully infiltrated the Hellblaze Secret World and stole the treasure vault. We also managed to capture the Moonchaser Wolf. The Hellblaze Secret World is no more." Oura explained.
"Nevertheless, we failed to secure the Vermillion Token. It was confirmed that one of the competitors has it, but we couldn't identify who. Not only that, Reynard failed in his mission of killing Jake Meyer and we can't say for sure how well we actually managed to rile up the Sacred Sects against the Abyss Sect." She said with a regretful tone.
"What happened?" The man asked lightly.
"Lars Borgin and Nemeus managed to breach the spatial seal sooner than expected. We had to send the competitors away so Reynard and Joshua could continue the plan without being put at risk by the fight. We thought that letting the competitors see Lars Borgin being defeated would not fare well to the plan, so we could only let them go." Lloyd gave a second bow as he answered. There was no trace of scorn or disdain on his face, only respect.
"I assume that Reynard failed because he was interrupted, then?" The man muttered to himself, pondering deeply. "Why, did Lars Borgin breach the seal before the expected time?"
"The Moonchaser Wolf had… help." Oura hesitated somewhat before answering. She knew how sensitive this topic was, even if Lloyd had no idea. "You were right. The sword reported being in Amon Kressler's possession was indeed Brightmoon."
"Furthermore, we had no choice but to let the boy escape with the sword. The Moonchaser Wolf decided that he escaping was a priority, so we had to let them go in order to give Reynard and Joshua a chance." She concluded, showing uncertainty in her eyes.
"I understand." The man said, his expression unchanging. "It doesn't matter. It was only personal interest, it is not related to the plan in any way."
Lloyd didn't seem to notice anything wrong at all, but the man's words made Oura give a sigh in relief.
"Still… I find it very likely that the Vermillion Token is in Amon Kressler's possession." The man said after thinking for a while. If Lya was involved, then the Moonchaser Wolf would have most likely given the Vermillion Token to her.
"I think so too. Joshua managed to get his hands into Jake Meyer's Bottomless Pouch, but the Vermillion Token was not there. Reynard too thinks that the boy would be the second most likely to have received it after Jake, although I have no idea how he would reach such a conclusion." Oura nodded her head in agreement.
"Reynard is indeed very impressive. He can guess so much with so little information..." The man gave a satisfied smile. "Maybe this failure will help him grow. He is not very familiar with defeat, no matter how small it might be."
The man's eyes glinted with a fierce light. Sometimes, defeat was the best teacher one could have. It was a lesson he had been taught the hard way.
"Well, I assume you managed to get your hands on Crimsonroar?" The man asked as a cold smile appeared on his face.
Lloyd reached inside his clothes, retrieving a metallic bracelet. He carefully put it on the table in front of the man.
"Good. Very good indeed." The man said as a strange expression appeared on his face. "You did well, Lloyd."
"I'll be leaving Emma in your care. I believe she needs to learn a thing or two about loyalty. Plus, her talent is quite good, even if her mindset isn't quite satisfactory yet. I hope you can help her with that." The man said as he looked back to the pond. "Tell Joshua that I will speak with him tomorrow."
The man stopped speaking, as if he suddenly remembered something.
"My condolences." He said in a soft tone.
"There is no need to worry, master." Lloyd said. "I just feel it is a pity."
"I see." The man nodded. "You may go."
Lloyd gave the man a third bow and promptly turned to leave. His dark clothes swayed behind him like a pair of dark wings as he made his way out of the garden.
The woman looked at the man with a slightly unsatisfied expression, and her amber eyes shone with disappointment.
Seeing this, the man gave a small laugh, before extending an arm to the woman.
"You did very well, Oura." He said with a smile.
An elated hissing sound was heard, and the woman's figure distorted, transforming into a small snake.
Its green scales glowed with a strange light, and its amber eyes hid unmeasurable power, but the small snake happily coiled around the green-robed man's arm and rubbed its head against his shoulder as if it was just a pet. The man naturally felt no real weight on his arm or shoulder, it was as if an air current had wrapped around his arm rather than a snake.
"Now then, what to do…" The man muttered to himself, looking at the pond.
"Are you thinking about the Storm Peak Sect?" Oura asked, tilting her triangular head.
"Indeed." The man admitted as a savage smile appeared on his face.
"You seem to be having fun." Oura pointed out, elated.
"I am surprised. I would never guess that the baby dragon would already have grown claws." The man said as his smile widened.
"I still can't believe that he managed to kill Thomas and Helen by himself." Oura lamented, looking genuinely sad.
"That was just the result. What impressed me was that he actually managed to get information from us." The man said as a fierce fire started burning in his eyes. "To think that Drace would betray us like that…"
"He had what was coming for him. I can't imagine what went through his mind at his last moments... he had no that idea Joshua was one of us." Oura said as if trying to comfort the man. "Having their death further our plans is how a traitor should be dealt with."
"It doesn't matter." The man said as the fire in his eyes flickered with madness. "Traitors will be crushed, the Sacred Sects will fall into our hands and the Abyss Sect will be burnt to the ground."
"We are about to take control of the Noan River Sect. The Storm Peak Sect will eventually fall too, even if that kid managed to cause some trouble." The man continued as the fire in his eyes grew brighter and brighter. "After that… all that will be left is the Southern Flame Sect."
"If there is someone that can make things interesting I will welcome it with open arms." His smile widened even more. "Derek Tyrell, was it… He will make a wonderful stepping stone for Reynard."
He closed his eyes for a moment, and his expression turned blank. He completely emptied his mind as he started thinking. After a while, he opened his eyes again, and the fire in them was almost unbearable to look at.
"Oura, have Fafnir seize control of the Crystal Mines of the Southern Continent. It is about time we opened a rift between the Guardian Clans of the South and the East. Even if the Vermillion Queen and the Azure Monarch don't bite the bait, having doubts creeping up in their clans will be enough."
"What about the Vermillion Token?" Oura asked.
"Although it is not essential, it will speed things up in the Southern Flame Sect considerably. Even though I hate to admit that, that annoying bird is tough to deal with…" The man pondered for a moment. "Have our people in the Southern Continent keep an eye for the Vermillion Token. Reynard will return the detection amulet we gave him, make as many copies as necessary."
Oura gently nodded, but suddenly seemed to hesitate. She gave the man a gaze filled with uncertainty, unsure on how to proceed.
"You can ask me, Oura, even if I can guess what is on your mind." The man said, holding his hands behind his back. Even so, his expression darkened considerably.
"Why didn't you ask Lloyd about his son?" Oura finally asked. "I mean, if his son was talented enough to enter the Hellblaze Trials we could certainly make use of him…"
The man didn't answer immediately. Instead, he drank some of his tea.
"I didn't ask because I already know the answer, and so does he." He finally said as his expression darkened even more. "I allowed it then, so I can't really bring it up now. If this turns out to be a mistake, then I can only do my best to fix it at a later time."
"So you won't go to the Southern Continent after them?" Oura asked in a somewhat hesitant voice.
"No." The man answered simply, seemingly very calm. His hands trembled slightly as he exerted more force into them. After a moment, however, the trembling stopped.
"All in due time, Oura." He said after a while. "I already waited for four hundred years; I can wait for a few more."
"I can't let my emotions ruin my plans." Hell was set loose, and the man's face slowly distorted into a bizarre smile. "When the time is ripe, I will naturally go after them."
"And then… well, you said yourself how traitors should be dealt with." Dale Loray said, raising his eyes to the sky.
Far above him, way beyond reach, a river made of stars silent flowed. No one could tell where it began, nor where it ended. The old Soul Cultivators used to say that it was a river as old as time, and that, as long as there was life being created and death ending it, the river would continue to flow on.
For most, it would be forever impossible to do more than to quietly observe it from below.
For a few others, it was simply a matter of taking a leap.