The attendants had long since been sent out, leaving only Pavina and Kator within the necropolis. Their unmoving postures were a stark contrast to the chaotic scene playing in front of them. The Abyssal Pond had just exploded, threatening to drown the whole cave. The events moved at an accelerated pace, but not a single detail escaped visual bones.
“No wonder they fought so hard to keep this information contained,” Kator muttered as the recording neared its end. “I can’t believe he blew up the Abyssal Pond. His reputation as a troublemaker isn’t for nothing. Yet he actually had to use one of those lowly treasures to evolve his Dao Branch. I guess he really is a mortal—I was sure he was messing with the measurements somehow.”
“He’s a weird one all around,” Pavina agreed, a thoughtful frown on her face. “Why would his Bloodline awakening create such a stir? He seemed fine when we sparred.”
“Who knows?” Kator shrugged, but he suddenly felt a slight vibration in his bones. “Oh, I think we’re about to find out.”
Kator stopped the recording and turned toward the center of the room. Toss stepped through a slit in space, a starry sky barely visible behind him.
“Commander,” Pavina said with a bow.
“Welcome back. Any luck?” Kator asked.
“I managed to reach them,” Toss nodded. “Replay that for me.”
Kator felt his sinews tighten with annoyance, but he complied after rolling his shoulder to indicate his displeasure at having the order subverted. Toss was in his right to be curious, but the chain of command couldn’t be forgotten. Especially considering the extent to which his mission had been micromanaged from the command crypts in the depths of the White Sky Gorge. Rank trumps fate, they said. The irony was palpable, considering his mission.
A deep rumble from within the commander indicated his answer depended on the recorded scene, and Kator chose to drop the matter. It ultimately wasn’t a worthwhile battle, and Kator was too curious about the findings to delay the meeting further. He was tired of hearing the same excuses from that decrepit half-blood Draugr, that outside influence had damaged or blocked the connection to the Heartlands.
Since when was it so easy to damage the imperial channels? Not even the Heavenly Seal on the sector had put any restrictions beyond limiting the transportation of people and equipment.
Finally, the captured scenes had played a second time, at which point Kator nodded for his guardian to share his findings.
“Our suspicions were correct. The events in the pond and the communication blockade were related. But the implications are even greater than we thought,” Toss said.
Kator’s frontalis muscles shuddered with annoyance. This old bastard savored every moment he was in command, like the attention was the marrow broth of a True Dragon. He couldn’t be more clear he felt his babysitting task beneath him. If not for his mission, he’d likely have run headlong into the Million Gates Territory to wreak havoc and become a blazing star of the war. Kator controlled his body to not give any hints of his inner thoughts. He was getting ample practice in that regard lately.
“Almost a week ago, a phenomenon covering the whole Abyssal Lake appeared,” Toss continued after the pregnant pause. “The Abyssal Shores immediately sealed itself off to contain the rumors, but how can something like that go unnoticed?”
“A phenomenon?” Pavina exclaimed. “Arcaz managed to make the Lake stir all the way from the Frontier?”
“Perhaps,” Toss grunted. “But it’s not as simple as that. The phenomenon wasn’t something naturally generated by the Lake. Both the Abyssal Lords sacrificed some of their territories to aid the brat’s awakening. The Azol guardian, in particular, unleashed immense power.”
“What?!” Kator exclaimed. “The Azol can draw longevity from the Lake, so he should be able to live for a few million more years. But aren’t our strategists saying his Dao Heart is on the verge of collapse? He’s lived too long and has lost his purpose. If he damages an already unstable territory…”
“On the surface, it looks like the shores sacrificed millions of years of protection to save a D-grade cultivator a few years of progress,” Toss nodded. “If there wasn’t something else at play, who’d make such a gamble? Even if the boy returns, it’s a long shot he’ll be able to restore the line of Eoz. The other two branches have always teetered on the brink of extinction, but they at least have a few thousand members.”
“So there’s something else at play,” Kator muttered, his gaze shifting to the frozen image of Arcaz Umbri’Zi. “What other secrets are you hiding?”
“He might not be aware of the situation,” Pavina offered.
“It’s possible only the Abyssal Lords know the true value of this boy,” Toss agreed. “They’ve always been guarding the secrets of the depths with their lives. I doubt even the Primo knows the full story of what’s hiding down there. Rather than restoring a branch, the child’s blood might be the key to restoring something they’ve lost.”
“So, what instructions do the generals have?” Kator said, his head tilting. “What about our approach?”
Toss didn’t immediately answer but first turned to Pavina. The Revenant hesitated before shaking her head. “I guess I should check the status on the battlefronts.”
“She likes the kid, but she’s a soldier,” Kator commented after Pavina had left. “She won’t jeopardize her mission over personal sentiments.”
“True, but what I’m about to say is too sensitive. It cannot be allowed to reach any ears,” Toss said, using the ancestral language of bones and sinew instead of his conventional voice.
“For now, the orders are to maintain the course,” Toss said. “But the leaders are worried. This is an unwelcome variable in an already chaotic time. An informal meeting has been called between the Phalanxes, the Hiveminds, and the Eternal Court.”
“So my acting might become reality after all?” Kator laughed, but fury burned in his heart.
“It’s possible,” Kator acceded. “The Karma might need to be harvested early.”
Years of observation and data collection had led to a simple conclusion, one that kept being reinforced as time progressed—Zachary Atwood, or Arcaz Umbri’Zi, was the fulcrum of providence for the upcoming trial. Piggybacking on his fate was bound to be one of the most effective methods to achieve something within the Left Imperial Palace.
Another inevitable conclusion was that forming such a bridge of fate the conventional way was doomed to fail. Whether it was analyzing Arcaz’s personality and actions or the Karmic between him and Commander Kaldor, the conclusions were the same. While Arcaz remembered favors, it wasn’t enough to form strong Karmic bonds.
There were multiple layers of isolation between him and his surroundings, both brought by his paranoia and yet unidentified means. Arcaz was undoubtedly holding onto so many secrets that he’d never be able to form a true bond of brotherhood, at least not with an outsider like him. Arcaz’s connection with the Undead Empire was strictly utilitarian, and not even the Draugr could get more than a foot through the door. And what was that kind of shallow fate worth in the grand scheme of things?
That was fine with Kator—he had no interest in bonding with the brat. He didn’t actually mind the boy’s greedy nature and unfettered ambition. If anything, it was almost like looking in a mirror, except Arcaz wasn’t fettered by the chains of command. But that realization only reinforced the futility of camaraderie. The same mountain couldn’t contain two tigers.
So Kator hadn’t minded overly much when the strategists had devised another method to forcibly form a bridge of fate. If building a bridge of friendship was out of the question, why not animosity? Destiny would draw them together for a clash at the finish line. It forced him to act like a two-bit villain, but it was clearly effective.
Kator almost laughed upon remembering those blaring eyes, and his bones itched for the upcoming match. The duel wasn’t something planned by the strategists. Smacking the kid around would be a fun bonus for all his hard work. His motto had always been that if you couldn’t find a way to enjoy the orders you’ve been given, you might as well go off on your own.
Who knew? If Kator knocked the little Draugr ancestor around enough, he might spit out some good luck.
Yet Kator knew the situation wasn’t good. The Phalanx had their thoughts and schemes; he was just a tool to further their positions. Heaven’s providence wasn’t so easily seized. Setting himself up as a foil to that walking calamity was bound to lead to cosmic retribution. But what did the generals care if he was sacrificed so long as the Phalanx accomplished their goal?
Wasn’t that why they’d sent over that Revenant woman and why Toss spoke softly like a courtesan when that Draugr was around? They were focusing all the resentment on him, turning him into a sacrificial pawn. There was even a scenario in place where he’d kill the brat to seize his providence. The backlash would drown him in the river of fate, but the faction would benefit from the fallout.
Too bad for them, he was an excellent swimmer, and he was determined to come out ahead.
The Phalanx, the brat, the Heavens themselves—they could all burn so long as he could reach the peak. Ultom’s glory would wash away any foul Karma left from this affair. But for now, he needed to play the role of the good soldier. No point in jumping ship before you had somewhere to land.
“The leaders better forge a Writ of Exemption if they want me to dip my hands in this mess,” Kator said. “I’m not taking on the combined wrath of the Abyssal Shores and the Primo alone. And I’m still needed inside the trial.”
“I have already put forth your demand. But the Emperor might have his hands too full to bother with you,” Toss responded, his hunched shoulders ripe with meaning.
“Are they finally really pulling the trigger?” Kator said, his surprise not feigned. “I can’t believe it. Did that brat actually trigger a civil war?”
So it turned out the meeting between the three factions wasn’t just about the fifth pillar and the rise of the Draugr. It was about the very direction of the Empire.
Most thought the Imperial Commandments and the Eternal Crusade a safeguard to avoid repeating the tragedy of the Dark Ages. However, the upper echelons all knew the truth. The Primo had gathered the undead races and led them to the Heart of the Empire, promising salvation and fertile cultivation grounds. However, the blessed environment from the Eternal Heritage came at a price.
The Primo had clearly known about the heritage before the Dark Ages, but why hadn’t he taken it for himself in that ancient era? Because it fed on Death. And without helpers to fight and bleed in every direction, stacking up casualties among their ranks and enemies, the Heart of the Darkness would have fed on the Death of the Primo’s own territory.
They called themselves the Divine Races but were essentially forced labor for the Cultivation Paradise of the Eternal 108. In return, the Primo returned some of the Death they accumulated, creating the Empire Heartlands. But the moment a race dared slack off, they’d find their quadrant gradually declining.
Only the Draugr were different, having the Abyssal Lake to drastically lessen the quota. The Lake and Heart had formed a symbiotic relationship, each providing for the other. It was no wonder the two Progenitors of their race decided to sacrifice themselves to forcibly push the primordial gateway through all of reality, causing such widespread damage the Heavens almost went insane.
“Fate is gathering, and the Heavens are rising,” Toss said. “The Pillar’s ascent is flipping over the carefully arranged board. All the lofty existences are eyeing the Grand Dao, hoping to use the chaos to claim a piece of the Heavens. Ambitions that have been brewing in the shadows for eons are forced into the light. Not even the factions outside the struggle for the pillar will be able to avoid the winds.”
“I thought the reclamation was only a fanciful dream the leaders told themselves to stabilize their Dao Hearts,” Kator snickered, his fingers indicating his thoughts on the status quo.
“What do you know?” Toss scoffed. “You better be damn well prepared when you target the Emperor. The Primo has been looking the other way for so long, and we still don’t know whether it’s a sign of weakness or a trap. We don’t even know whether the Prime Eternal is in a weakened state or not.”
“But if our guesses are true about the item in the Left Imperial Palace…” Kator commented.
“We’d be forcing his hand,” Toss nodded. “Before, that was fine. The Draugr race would either help us or take a neutral stance. But the appearance of this child has muddied the waters. We don’t know what they’re up to now that the Abyssal Lords are going to such lengths. If the boy dies and the Shores go mad, they might align with the Eternal 108. Azol might even sacrifice his territory to ruin our plans.”
“A troublesome variable,” Kator nodded, but he was inwardly delighted.
Bring it on, you crazy brat! The more chaos Arcaz stirred up, the more opportunities he’d have to break free and seize the opportunities for himself.
“It’s good that you understand,” Toss nodded. “For now, act as if nothing has changed. The negotiations back home won’t be finalized in a month or two. But prepare yourselves. We’ll have to go all out when we make our move.”
“This is your chance to rise,” Toss commented. “If all goes well, you’ll be remembered as the liberator of the Izh’Rak Reavers.”
Kator pushed out his chest to feign excitement, but he inwardly sneered. Liberator? More like martyr. He had no interest in being the banner child of the insurrection if it meant he’d be dead. There was only one role he was interested in: Grand Marshal of the Izh’Rak.
Thankfully he had some time. Depending on how the winds blew, it might be for the best to have the fulcrum fall during the war. He didn’t even have to make a move himself; a few people even he was wary of were starting to appear on the battlefronts. There were even rumors of Technocrat Transcenders hiding among the Kan’Tanu.
If nothing else, the Seventh Heaven would surely be interested in the information they’d learned in the meeting.
“By the way, Scholar Semmel gained acceptance by the seal just as I was about to leave,” Toss added after a moment.
“Oh?” Kator said. “Is she ready?”
“She’s been preparing since she got your message,” Toss said. “She’s quite excited by the experiment and should have everything ready within the day.”
“Interesting, interesting,” Kator snickered. “I wonder how that brat will react.”