Kassandra Skyrend glanced around the main hall of the Skyrend family mansion in Darklight City. The room was sunlit by massive windows obscured from the outside by a tapestry of runic formations running along the walls. Ten-foot-tall marble sculptures of the Skyrend family's heads encircled the room, with their stone eyes pointing toward a single seat that Theron was currently occupying.
Meanwhile, Kassandra sat beside him and noticed that her brother seemed deeply troubled as he drummed his fingers on the ornate chair's armrest.
Other than Theron, there was one more person present who, despite his rough-looking demeanor, glanced between the two of them with a hint of fear.
"Roderick, you understand the plan for tomorrow?" Theron eyed the Terraforge cultivator from atop his throne.
"Yes, absolutely, and if all goes well..." Roderick replied with an awkward smile.
Theron waved the man off, "Yes, yes, your branch of the Terraforge family will win the contract for our palace in the new lands."
"Thank you," Roderick bowed slightly as he got up to leave, "Do you require anything else of this humble one?"
"Show Henry in," Theron demanded, "He should be waiting just outside with his goons."
Roderick nodded and swiftly left the room under their lingering gazes.
Kassandra felt the atmosphere in the room tense up as Theron turned to glare at her and hissed in a low voice, "You had one job, Kassandra. How did you mess it up this badly?"
"I still don't know how she did it," Kassandra insisted, "Everything was set up perfectly. The question should have been impossible, and the Qi Flowing Grass was the purist one on the market that I could find at such short notice."
"What was the question?" Theron asked.
"The question was regarding the Bodhi Heart Pill."
"The Bodhi Heart Pill?" Theron frowned, "I have never even heard of such a pill."
"Right? I deliberately went out of my way to find the most obscure pill possible, and while digging through the records, I found a single mention of this Bodhi Heart Pill and a vague description of it." Kassandra sighed, "Yet she somehow knew of a pill? From the Celestial Empire no less..."
Theron's drumming of the armrest paused, "Celestial Empire?"
"Yes, that's where the pill originates from," Kassandra answered absentmindedly.
"So she knows about a pill from the Celestial Empire and refuses to reveal her family name or origins..." Theron's glowing eyes widened, "Is this not evidence the Redclaws are working with the Celestial Empire?"
Kassandra mused for a moment before answering, "Potentially far-fetched, but the Redclaw Grand Elder did say he was more terrified of Roselyn's background than ours, which, now that you mention it... that would only make sense if she was from the Celestial Empire or a secret daughter of the Patriarch."
Theron leaned forward in his chair, his grin widening as his eyes glowed brighter, "This is getting interesting! I wonder what our dear Patriarch would do if he found out one of the noble families under him was conspiring with the Celestial Empire."
Kassandra snorted, "Obliterate them without leaving a trace."
"Exactly," Theron nodded, "If all doesn't go well tomorrow, I may need to make a trip to visit the Nightrose family."
Kassandra laughed but settled down when the doors to the room opened, and an absolutely terrified man with grey hair nervously walked in.
"Lord Theron," The man came to a stop a good distance away and bowed deeply, "I apologize for failing my duties."
Alongside Henry, there were two other middle-aged academy professors that they had bribed to fail Roselyn. Kassandra didn't even know their names, nor did she care.
"Henry, come take a seat," Theron pointed to the chair opposite him directly below an opening in the ceiling shrouded in an array formation to ensure anyone outside couldn't look in or hear what they were saying.
The grey-haired examiner glanced up at the hole in the ceiling and gulped, "M-my Lord... please give me another chance."
Theron smiled, "We are just going to have a chat. Why the hesitation? Come. Take a seat."
Henry's shoulders sagged as he trudged across the room and perched himself awkwardly on the edge of the chair. "My Lord, please let me explain!"
"By all means," Theron rested his chin on his fist as he lazily looked at the examiner with his glowing eyes, "You have one minute of my precious time."
Henry's eyes widened, and he didn't waste a moment and began to talk so fast he stumbled over his own words, "I-I had no idea how she passed the q-question nor handled the impurities. I ensured to p-provide her with the Qi Flowing Grass that Mistress Kassandra gave me this morning. I did everything as instructed, so it's not my fault—"
"None of that matters," Theron shook his head, "What matters is you failed. You have shown yourself incompetent and earned the suspicions of Elder Margret."
"But the Academy is an independent entity of Darklight City. So what if she is an Elder of the ruling family here, she has no right to have me sacked from my position in the Academy," Henry quickly retorted as he occasionally glanced up at the hole in the ceiling.
"Henry, you don't seem to understand your position here." Theron nodded at two silent cultivators wearing armor standing near the doorway to the room. They nodded back to Theron and slammed the doors shut, causing all three examiners to almost jump out of their skin.
"You are now an eyesore, and the Skyrend family doesn't tolerate such loose ends." Theron raised his finger to the ceiling, and Kassandra felt lightning Qi surge up his arm toward the sky through the opening in the ceiling.
All three examiner's eyes widened, and Henry jumped from the chair, "Wait!"
"This is the end—"
However, before Theron could finish his sentence, the ceiling exploded in a shower of rubble. Kassandra and Theron's Qi surged, and lighting arced out from their fingers to obliterate the large chunks of stone falling on them.
The three examiners turned tail and tried to run toward the door under the chaos, but before they could even be intercepted by the two guards, a giant claw of void Qi swooped down from the massive hole in the ceiling and slammed down on top of them.
"What in the gods!" Theron roared as his eyes were ablaze with power—lightning arched down his chiseled arms and coiled around his fingers as if waiting for their master to show them where to strike.
Kassandra was equally confused as she saw the void claw withdraw, leaving nothing but large gashes on the stone floor. The three examiners were either dead or had been taken off somewhere, as their bodies were missing. But why? How?
Theron seemed not to care for the reason as he blasted the retreating void Qi claw with all the lightning he could, filling the room with thunderclaps and light. "Dante, is that you?!?" Theron roared again as the void claw vanished out of sight.
Other than the sound of stone shards falling from the ceiling and smashing onto the destroyed floor below, the place was silent. The guards eventually walked over and hovered nearby, clearly concerned about another attack, but they also weren't brave enough to speak up to the enraged Theron, who continued to glare at the now wholly exposed sky.
Eventually, he calmed down enough to look at Kassandra with his wrathful countenance, "First, the Redclaws dare defy us, and now the Voidmind family?"
"Calm down, brother," Kassandra said cautiously, "We can spit on the Redclaws with one arm behind our backs, but the Voidmind family is beyond us. Regain your composure and approach this carefully."
Theron's eye twitched, and he looked like he was going to say something but then sighed. "Your right. I'll go talk to him. We used to be sworn brothers, so this may be a misunderstanding. Although I can't see how we offended him."
Elaine opened her eyes as the door to the Void Chamber opened, and in walked Dante, who seemed to be holding back some anger.
Oh no, did the test go bad? Elaine began to panic. There wasn't much time left before the supposed invasion tomorrow, and she had yet to find an opportune time to acquire more information from Dante.
The reason behind the invasion made no sense to her. Dante claimed he wanted to conquer the city but never gave a good reason. Darklight City has few resources worth conquering for a family of the Voidmind's caliber, so there had to be a deeper explanation.
Dante ignored her and summoned a chair of liquid void. Only once seated did he meet her gaze with a deep frown.
Elaine felt her skin crawl under his gaze, so she asked to break the weird silence, "How did the test go?"
"Simple—a complete waste of time," Dante replied.
"So, what is bothering you?"
Dante narrowed his eyes at her, "Tell me, are you working for anyone?"
"No." Elaine effortlessly replied. Her oath of secrecy to the Ashlfallen sect would never allow her to suggest otherwise.
Dante leaned back in his liquid void chair and stared at her with a scrutinizing gaze for a moment.
Did I mess up somewhere? How did he find out? Elaine tried to remember every little thing she had done since Dante's arrival. However, other than the meeting with Douglas in the dining room and writing out a note in ancient runes, she had avoided all forms of communication with the Ashfallen Sect until she acquired more information to share.
Not enjoying Dante's gaze, Elaine hesitantly said, "Why do you ask? Is it because of the invasion tomorrow? Is that what's bothering you?"
"The invasion is of little concern..." Dante waved it off as he continued brooding, shifting his gaze to the void surrounding them.
"Say, Brother, I don't understand the purpose of the invasion." Elaine said as nonchalantly as possible, though her heart was pounding, "Of course, I don't doubt Brother or Father's vision, but I just wondered what its purpose was? I have lived here for many years, and I know of nothing here that the Voidmind family doesn't already have access to."
"Sister, my time is precious. In fact, the mere seconds I spend gracing you with my words is a waste of time. Do you truly believe I would be here in this backwater city for such shallow purposes? To conquer weaklings for fun?" Dante snapped at her, "These Redclaw pigs will surrender to me within moments, and the mortals get no say in who rules over them. So tell me, are there really no other conclusions in that ever-so-intelligent brain of yours."
He then leaned in closer, seemingly enjoying speaking down to her despite his claims of not wanting to waste his breath, "Why am I here, Elaine? Tell me."
Elaine held back her anger and replied as sweetly as possible, "You and Father's intellect far surpasses mine. How could I possibly hope to understand the depths of your plans?"
Dante grinned, "A good answer, my dear Sister. You see... I gave you a weak reason for the invasion a few days ago and had my spies check for any sign of the Redclaws or anyone else suddenly preparing to fight an imminent invasion. But there have been no such signs, so it appears my paranoia was unwarranted, and for that, I apologize. I should have never doubted the loyalty of one with the same blood as me."
Elaine smiled and wanted to stab herself in the throat as she flattered him, "I am honored to be trusted by you, Brother."
"Well, with a day left to go, there's not much they could do even if they knew now, so I suppose there's no harm in letting you know the plan," Dante leaned in a little, and Elaine held her breath in anticipation, "The reason for the invasion is actually very simple—we need more airships."
"Airships?" Elaine was puzzled, "What does Darklight City have to do with airships?"
"Tsk sister, you are so short-sighted," Dante shook his head, "Have you not heard? The Patriarch has demanded an increase in airships from the Azurecrest family in anticipation of the move to the new land when the beast tide arrives."
"Okay..." Elaine frowned, "I still don't see the correlation between airships and Darklight City..."
"It's only known to the top families right now, but the new land that the Patriarch picked out is apparently already occupied by a smaller demonic sect."
Elaine's eyes widened, "Which sect?"
"Lord Nightrose won't tell anyone to avoid any family getting a head start," Dante clicked his tongue, "But what he did disclose before entering closed-door cultivation to a few families is that there will only be one trip to the new land."
"One trip?" Elaine couldn't believe it, "But there are millions of people to be moved! Even with a drastic increase in the number of airships, there would only be enough room for most of the noble families and a small group of mortals with a single trip."
Dante nodded with a serious expression, "Exactly. And those airships will be split between each of the 9 cities. Therefore, if we control both Slymere and Darklight City, we will have twice the number of airships at our disposal."
"But our family is rather small compared to the others, and so is Slymere." Elaine protested, "So what do you need more airships for?"
"If we bring an entire airship of mortal slaves, we can set up our industries and rebuild Slymere at the new location faster," Dante sighed, "But getting more airships was only one of the reasons I am here."
Elaine had been about to ask what Dante planned for the Redclaws if he were to seize control of Darklight Cities airships, but she held back because, as a Voidmind, she shouldn't care for what happens to them.
"What was the other reason for you being here, Brother?" Elaine asked innocently but shrunk back a little under Dante's intense gaze.
"Do you know about the curse on our family?" Dante asked, "The shackles that bind our blood to this lower plane?"
Elaine nodded. It was known that nobody from the Voidmind family had managed to create a nascent soul.
Dante summoned the perfect pebble that Ashlock had given Elaine to help sell her lie about being cursed, "There's no way something like this could exist except in a higher realm. It now makes sense why Uncle holed himself up in this place. He knew how to ascend all along and wanted to perfect the technique away from the prying eyes of our family."
"How do you know he ascended?" Elaine knew what had really happened to her Uncle if the words of the Ashfallen sect were to be believed. He had initially died but was then taken away to a higher realm. So in a way, her Uncle had found a way to ascend.
"Father has an artifact that can detect the presence of a person's soul," Dante explained, "There was a period where it was barely showing a reading, but that was during the time you said uncle had gone in a rift, so that made sense."
"What does the reading say now?" Elaine inquired.
Dante held up the perfectly round but dull pebble, "Nothing. The artifact suggests that either Uncle perished and his soul has moved on, or he managed to find a way to ascend. Both options are terrible news for us."
"So he really found a way..." Elaine pretended to be amazed.
"We believe so, and if Uncle returns after forming his nascent soul or whatever realm of cultivation he is in now, he can come back down here and remove Father from his seat as the head of the family and put his branch in charge."
Elaine attempted to mirror Dante's grave expression. In truth, she didn't care what happened to her Father or Brother, nor did she care if Uncle somehow returned. Her life was pledged to the Ashfallen Sect, which would remain here.
The doors to the Void Chamber suddenly opened, and Clive, the butler of this mansion, had a severe expression, "Excuse my interruption, but we have visitors."
"Visitors?" Dante frowned, "Who are they?"
"Theron Skyrend is here. He wishes to speak with you."
"Did he say what about?" Dante asked as he stood up from his liquid void chair and reabsorbed the void Qi into his Star Core.
Clive nodded, "He wanted to ask if you were the one who just attacked their mansion with a giant void Qi attack in the shape of a claw?"
Dante's eyes widened, and all the color drained from his ghoulish face, "That was not me, and Father should still be back in Slymere. Is Uncle back?"
Clive lowered his head, "It hasn't been confirmed, but if Theron Skyrend's description of the attack is to be believed, I fear even your father could not produce such an attack."
Without delay, Dante strode out of the void chamber and followed Clive down the corridor.
Elaine watched her brothers departing back and wondered how she could get the information she just learned back to the Ashfallen Sect.