A man with a staggering gait entered the territory of the Supreme Silver Sect, but even during a time of high alert he wasn’t stopped by anyone. Unlike the previous visitor, he did not approach with stealth but instead walked quite openly with a massive pot strapped to his back. He passed through various layers of defenses, acknowledged by those along the way.
“Delivery from Delicate Spice Mountain,” the man grinned as he approached the sect master.
“Heath,” Taalay said. “I didn’t expect you to come here yourself.”
The man shrugged. “This is important. Soup?” He held out a bowl, sloshing some of the aforementioned soup into the bowl from the pot on his back without spilling a drop.
Taalay took the bowl and blew on it before taking a sip. “Still good. What’s the news?”
“You’re way too trusting, my friend.”
“Am I?” Taalay asked. “You’ve earned this trust. And I can’t think of anything that would convince you to give up your life to bring me down.”
“What if I told you I had a poison that would show no symptoms for a week?” Heath asked.
Taalay took a sip. “I think you already mentioned that one, actually. But if I have to die, I would rather die after having some good food. But you’re not here to talk about this. What’s the news?”
“I tested the techniques. You wouldn’t believe how many people lit up. About half of the big shots who don’t already know who I am.”
“I might indeed believe you,” Taalay answered. “Tell me, in your work… have you ever heard of an Elam? Or the Slithering Serpent Sect?”
Heath’s eyes widened. “Is he coming here? Because I can’t be in the same place as him. He’s still mad that I took the contract for Old Man Yamanu. How’d you hear about him anyway?”
Taalay gestured, “He’s here. Well, in our dungeons. Do you know the origins of the Slithering Serpent Sect?”
“I know it’s not the public facing name. People don’t like assassins living nearby,” Heath said. “But I’m guessing… same as the rest of those guys?”
“I don’t think we need to remain so shy about this,” Taalay said. “The Trigold Cluster. I won’t be in any more danger for calling them out than I’m going to be anyway. And they might as well have declared war already. They came for my guests.”
“Oof. Who died?”
“No one?” Heath raised an eyebrow.
“… Perhaps some outer disciples. Reports are still coming in. But not the target. Someone did lose an arm, though. Now then, as it doesn’t sound like you were on good terms with this Elam fellow, how about helping me confirm some connections? My guests have certain ideas, but I’d just like to verify things.”
“Sure, I don’t mind,” Heath said.
In dark and deep dungeons, Elam hung, restrained in every conceivable manner. He had already exhausted his methods for attempting to kill himself. He couldn’t even feed himself.
“Pepper on your gruel, sir?” asked the attendant.
Elam just puffed air. He didn’t really care.
“Can always use a pinch of pepper,” said the man, shaking a small container over the bowl. “Really rounds out the gruel. Say ‘aah’.”
Elam’s plan was to starve to death. At least, it was until he smelled the gruel. He intended to keep his teeth clenched, but instead his mouth opened automatically. It was… good. “What… what is that?” he asked with a dry voice.
“Just some gruel. A couple herbs spices. A little nutmeg, some cinnamon, some green thing. Oh, right. And the hellfire pepper, obviously.”
“It builds up real slow like,” said the man. “Just a little tingle at first. Some kick. But even if you don’t have more than a mouthful, it elevates to a bit of warmth pretty quickly.”
Elam began sweating. He didn’t remember the last time an autonomic response like sweating had happened to him without him being able to stop it. The inside of his mouth… the far corners, even. His throat. Even his stomach suddenly felt like it was on fire. And he’d been on fire, so he should know. “Why?” he wondered aloud.
The man in front of him grabbed his chin and tilted his eyes up. “Because you’re a sore loser. You weren’t even going to be able to make use of a moltencore emerald, and you kept this grudge for decades.”
The fire was intensifying. Soon, Elam was certain his body would begin to decay. “And yet… you do me this one favor.”
“A favor?” Heath raised an eyebrow.
“Oh. Yeah, the thing is… while you probably feel like you’re going to die, you won’t. Trust me.”
“But the poison…”
“It’s just pepper. Which is technically a poison, but the only thing it’s doing is screwing up your senses. You might get a little indigestion later. It’s not actually burning your insides. That’s a different pepper. Now then,” Heath held up a different bowl. “Cottage cheese with northern ice mint. The perfect complement to hellfire pepper. Smell this.” Elam lunged forward- as far as the chains would let him, which was barely anything. “Nice try. But you can’t have any.” Heath took a spoonful of the porridge. “It’s a good spice,” he said as sweat began to run down his face. “But even I can only endure so much of it.” He spooned some of the cottage cheese, instantly cooling his tongue. “So, you’re gonna talk.”
“What was that last thing you did?” Taalay asked.
“I numbed his tongue and sense of smell. Had to do that before feeding him the mint or he might have actually enjoyed it. And he would have eventually dehydrated if I just left him like that,” Heath shrugged. “But we want him to show to the council, yeah?”
“Indeed,” Taalay nodded. “I’ll first contact some of the others, however.”
“They’ll know,” Heath warned him. “The mirror crystals have been tampered with.”
“Couldn’t you have led with that?”
Heath shrugged. “I just assumed that you would assume you’re always overheard.”
Taalay sighed. “It doesn’t matter. They won’t have much time to prepare a defense.”
Aerona and Devon stood outside a pair of ostentatious doors- or rather a bit down the hallway. There were seats as well, but they preferred to stand for the moment. “What’s in the room?” Aerona asked.
“Don’t know,” Devon said. Aerona raised an eyebrow. “These are the secured rooms I mentioned, remember? They’re harder to see into than half the vaults on this planet.”
“Should you really say that so… straightforwardly?” she gestured to guards ahead.
“Taalay would probably be disappointed if we hadn’t tried to spy on them.”
Aerona shrugged. “I wish I knew what was happening in there. I could prepare my words better.”
“He doesn’t want you to, I suppose,” Devon said. “Genuine reactions and all that.”
“I don’t have the feeling I’m going to get to say much of anything.”
“Good thing you set the groundwork, then,” Devon said. “You and the team came up with the plan.”
“Is it even a plan? I feel like it’s an overreaction.”
“No you don’t. Or you wouldn’t accept it.”
“Fine. It would be if things weren’t… like this. But I might be biased…” she looked at Devon’s lack of arm.
“That’s why we have people who don’t like me along as well.”
“I didn’t say they hated me. Just that there are people who are decidedly neutral in relation to myself. This delegation was put together intentionally, after all.”
At that point, the doors opened. “Enter,” gestured the guards.
Straight away, they could see into the room… and feel it. It was every Anchoring cultivator on the whole planet, all right there. No, not quite. Most of them were mere echoes of themselves… and there were a few missing, even of those Devon had spotted before.
It was a circular room with a crystal the height of a man in the middle- though the room sloped to allow all of those projected around it to see each other, one end higher than the other and the crystal in its own pit to make it only reach up to people’s waist for the most part.
Taalay gestured them to the empty spot, which also happened to be on the low end of the slope. “This woman is the one who was nearly killed. And this is the cultivator who was damaged. Both are not only my guests, but envoys we agreed to have on Vrelt.”
“No, we did not,” said a woman Devon recognized from their approach.
“We did,” Taalay said. “Just because your faction attempted to speak for the rest of us, Sovann, doesn’t mean they weren’t properly accepted. Which is doubly so considering who you are. You have no authority to speak for Vrelt in the slightest, minion of the Poisonous Gold Sect.” Devon avoided raising an eyebrow, but he wondered where the man had found that name. Seems they had managed to keep a good amount of records on this planet. Several individuals began to object, but Taalay cut them off. “Don’t get me started on you, Aissattou of the Twin Soul Sect. You were one of the others to pay for the assassin.”
Devon just stood awkwardly as voices were raised. He kind of wanted to see if he could pick anything out with the World Encompassing Chains, but he very much doubted he could be so subtle with everyone on alert.
His mind drifted slightly, and he had to rapidly review the words in his mind when a question was directed at him. “Tell me, Devon of the Lower Realms Alliance. What is the proper response to invaders from the upper realms?”
Devon might have tempered his words… but the delegation had agreed to no half measures. War was coming. Their reinforcements were sent for. “Extermination. Death for all… except the Twin Soul Sect.”
Taalay looked quite surprised at that. “You intend to show them mercy?”
“Of course not. Simple death isn’t sufficient for them. The whole goal of their cultivation is to die and hopefully be showered in gifts upon reincarnating to the upper realms. So more extreme steps are necessary. Though I wonder if you ever had that chance, Aissattou. Do you know the consequences of Anchoring?”
“I thought not,” said Devon.
“Enough!” Declared another woman- Olgica of the Shimmering Spears. “Do you intend to allow this guest to provoke our sects, Taalay?”
“Of course not. I’ll do it myself, you damn traitor.”
“Indeed,” another voice spoke strongly. Ainhoa of the Flaming Shore, another one of the strong contenders for the visit. “We will not stand for your filth living on our planet.”
“You understand, of course…” Olgica said slowly, “That you have called out more than half of the Anchoring cultivators and great sects upon Vrelt with your baseless accusations? Aren’t you concerned about the consequences if you start a war?”
“We’ve given you very clear reasons,” Taalay said. “Elam even told us about that mole you have. You’ve certainly seen each other up close. And we’re not going to start a war. You have already, and you will continue it now that we’ve called you out. And I simply needed the rest of us to be prepared when it happens. All of you would have found excuses to work together regardless, we don’t want any innocents falling into your clutches.”
Aissatou shook her head. “If we make any preparations for war, it is only because of your madness. The consequences are upon your own head.” She turned and stepped away, cutting the connection with the crystal.
Devon had to admit, they really stuck to the act. But he could feel her connection to the Twin Soul Sect even through the projection of the crystal, and he could pick up signs of other upper realms influence from the rest, not that he wasn’t already clear on their status.
Others began to break away one by one, until it was only the ‘innocent’ sects- and not all of them. “I’m not fully convinced,” admitted an older man. “Do you have more to say?”
“The crystals are corrupted,” Taalay declared. “They might even now overhear us. I’ll be sending a message to each of you… and those who might be swayed to our side.” Then he gestured, leading Devon and Aerona out of the room with him. Only once they had a few hallways between them did Taalay speak. “It is done. I’m not happy to believe you, but I do. I hope your alliance will support us, as you said.”
“Reinforcements are underway as quickly as possible.” A few Assimilation cultivators had actually been hovering at the edge of the system the entire time the delegation was present, but they didn’t have many forces with them. Now they were ready to enter the atmosphere at any time. “If you’ll give me a moment, I might be able to learn a few things,” Devon said.
“What kind of…” Taalay began to ask as Devon began to activate the World Encompassing Chains, a thin and nearly imperceptible chain rising from him into the sky- but not one that a cultivator would miss when it was directly in front of him. Taalay followed it up, to his limits. “I’ve felt this before, I think.”
“Good,” Devon said. “Not that you noticed, but that you only think you did.” He looked to Aerona. “Be prepared to type quickly. You’re going to need… let’s say thirty documents open.” He wasn’t going to be able to process any of the speech, instead only rattling off names of speakers and their words as quickly as he was physically capable. Some were in protected areas… but most seemed to find being away from the crystals sufficient. After all, anyone who might spy on them was a significant distance around the planet.
But that was their mistake, thinking too small a scale. Those here should mainly be descendents of invaders, their whole lives spent in relation to a single planet. They might have greater ambitions… but ambitions weren’t enough unless acted upon. And while Devon’s sensory technique was imperfect, he still learned more than a few things that they would prefer not to be known. Like that they planned to attack through the mines. Devon didn’t know why that would be possible, or where ‘the mines’ were, but he hoped Taalay or the others would.