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Forgotten DM
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Cosmic horror, fantasy, sci-fi, wuxia/xianxia
Stolen Peaches
During the Great Martial Arts Meet, Grand Elder Lufu of the Azure Blade Sect was murdered by a mysterious shadowy assassin. In the chaos of the murder, the assassin took the opportunity to steal the miraculous Peach of Immortality intended to be presented to the winner of the meet.

In the wake of the tragedy, the Azure Blade Sect has chosen to seal off their mountain with their grand array, preventing anyone or anything from entering or leaving. It has been over a week since, and no further victims of the assassin have appeared. Nobody has found so much as a lead, and the Azure Blade Sect is beginning to grow worried.

After much discussion, the Azure Blade Sect's council of elders has chosen to briefly open the mountain to invite great investigators and martial artists to aid them in their investigations.

Stolen Peaches is a followup to The Great Martial Arts Meet. It carries forwards the xianxia setting created for the setting and picks up where the previous charp ended. Stolen Peaches will be an episodic series of cascading events arising from the murder of Grand Elder Lufu. You are free to decide what role you want to play, whether that be an elder of a sect, a rogue cultivator, or just a simple investigator visiting to attempt to solve the mystery of an incredibly high-profile murder.

The first episode will focus on the investigation of Grand Elder Lufu's murder, with the result of the investigation carrying forward to influence subsequent episodes. The plots of further episodes will be announced both here and in the OOC thread on the discord following the conclusion of each episode. Focuses on each episode will vary. Some episodes will be almost solely focused on supernatural action similar to The Great Martial Arts Meet, while others will be more focused on investigation or intrigue.

Stolen Peaches is intended to run Saturdays from 1:00-4:00PM CST, starting February 3rd.

In the Iwaku Discord, under the Roleplaying - Fantasy section.

Characters do not need to be vetted, and people are free to jump in and out as availability and interest dictate. If you have questions and/or want to chat or share characters, feel free to do so either here or on the Iwaku discord! If you're not familiar with the Xianxia genre but think you may be interested anyways, please feel free to reach out to me! I'm always more than happy to help explain and/or help to put together characters! My username on discord is "kookyboy9".

The following post or two will contain a synopsis of the story so far.
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A week after the assassination of Grand Elder Lufu, the Azure Blade Sect Protecting Formation was temporarily lifted to allow outside talent to enter the sect to aid in the investigation. Attempting to take advantage of the chaos, the assassin slipped into the gathering, attempting to use a shadow movement technique to slip out under the eyes of the elders. Unfortunately for them, Elder Cheng spotted the suspicious shadow and moved swiftly, forcing the assassin to flee back into the sect, leaving behind a pair of sect tokens. One token belonged to an inner disciple of the Azure Blade Sect by the name of Xiao Lifeng, while nobody present could identify the other token.

After a swift examination of the tokens, Zi Dian, Yu Xuan, and Shen Jian chased after the lingering aura of the culprit while Xiao Dan stayed behind to inform the elders of the Azure Blade Sect of the group's findings.

In their chase, pursuit group came upon a clearing where Shen Jian used a blood dowsing technique to track the culprit to Xiao Lifang's abode, unfortunately finding that the disciple was long since dead, his essence drained through a demonic technique with the true culprit nowhere to be seen!

Shortly after, the investigators are briefed by the Azure Blade Sect Elders. As they split up to search for the disguised culprit, Shen Jian notices that the unidentified token was attempting to shadow travel somewhere. With the help of Yu Xuan, she is able to stop it, and they are able to use the token to travel directly to the culprit while the Azure Blade Sect Elders rally to provide support.

Now at the culprit's location, the group finds themselves before three other investigators. Yu Xuan is able to use his imperial training to determine which of the investigators is the thief, and he retaliates in a desperate bid to escape. Unfortunately for him, the group ties him up for long enough for the Azure Blade Sect Elders to close in on their flying swords. Realizing that he is in a dead end, the assassin uses a secret art to use the power of the Peach of Immortality to bring forth a black hole!
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Helpful Terms
Sect - A gathering of otherwise unrelated martial artists around a central ideal or set of teachings. Many schools qualify as sects, but are run more as an educational institution rather than an organization.

Clan - A family of blood-related martial artists. Generally less powerful than a sect, although great clans often have resources and techniques as good as or better than sects due to the sheer depth of their inheritance.

Elder - A martial artist of the previous generation belonging to a sect or clan. They're typically awarded positions of high standing in sects due to their great power.

Grand Elder - A martial artist of the generation prior to the current elders belonging to a sect or clan. They're the absolute peak of the martial arts world, and many have partially transcended mortality to live far longer than the average human.

Core Disciple - The direct disciple of an elder or grand elder of a sect.

Inner Disciple - A true member of a sect or school of a sect.

Outer Disciple - A member of a sect or school not important or skilled enough to be taught the true inheritances of the school or sect.

Rogue Martial Artist/Cultivator - A martial artist not belonging to a sect, clan, or school.

Hermit - A rogue martial artist who has reached a level of mastery similar to a grand elder.
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kookyboy9OPToday at 12:03 PM

A crowd had gathered at the Azure Blade Sect's gate at the base of Shattered Sword Mountain. The crowd was bisected in two by the gate, with a large dome of energy crackling around the mountain. Dozens of symbols floated across the barrier, spelling out wards and restrictions. Outside the gate, a throng of martial artists and investigators had gathered. On the inside of the gate, the elders of the Azure Blade Sect sat in meditation, waiting for the appointed moment.The moment was short to arrive, as all nine elders simultaneously stood, brandishing glowing tokens. The gate slowly swung open, creating a path through the formation guarding the rest of the mountain.

One of the elders stepped forward and addressed the crowd outside."Welcome, all of you. I am Elder Cheng of the Azure Blade Sect. While I would normally like to offer you our hospitality, I'm afraid that the reason for our request is far too urgent. Please, step inside before the culprit manages to slip out." (If your character would not have been present at the Great Martial Arts meet, they begin outside the gate. If they would have been present, they would already be present on the mountain, as nobody has been permitted to leave for the week that the mountain has been sealed.)

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:22 PM

Zi Dian watched the ceremony in silence along with the contestants and the other martial artists who had been inside the mountain when it was sealed. Her ire burned. Her Clan Elders had determined that her one win in the interrupted tournament was not sufficient to earn her a full Initiation into the Clan. Instead, they had instructed her to seek out and join the most promising-looking investigation into the theft of the Peach, and report to them on its progress. Her instructions offered no indication of any knowledge the Scarlet Spider Clan might have of the affair, or whether they might be involved.

The "most promising-looking investigation" had to be the one being conducted by the Azure Blade Elders themselves, and they had politely turned down her offers of assistance. That left her with the second-best choice: a group of warriors who would otherwise have been her competitors..

Yu Xuan hadn't had any better luck. He had, in fact, ended up in the same group. Which left him straining to avoid giving hostile glances toward the member he liked least, a woman named Shen Jian, and the one he trusted least, the Spider Clan Apprentice. Worst of all, he was nowhere closer to finding the Peach of Immortality. Did it even still exist? The thief could have simply eaten the evidence of their crime by now. And perhaps, if they'd actually planned their theft properly, they'd have had a way to escape the Mountain before Azure Blade could seal it, so they could be far away, living their best immortal life..

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:05 PM

The crowd began to slowly funnel in through the gate under the watch of the Elders. However, roughly halfway through, a shift occurred in the stances of the elders. Elder Cheng drew his blade, stabbing it deep into the shadow of the gate as a shadowy figure rocketed out. The remaining elders gathered inside the gate, blocking the path of the shadow, forcing them to come to a halt. Elder Chen's followup strike with his blade forced the figure to fall back, a pair of tokens falling from the now-severed cord that had been holding them.The figure exchanged a few more blows with Elder Chen before suddenly dissipating into shadows that surged backwards into the mountain, apparently giving up on escaping for now.

The Elder turned to face the rest of the crowd."As you can see, this is the reason for our calling you here today. We sincerely hope that one of you are able to unmask whoever this shadowy figure is. Any clues towards their identity will be rewarded. If you somehow manage to capture the culprit, you will receive a much greater reward."The rest of the crowd was able to move through the gate without issue, following which the elders once more sealed the sect. The two tokens were left on the ground, nobody allowed to touch them in fear that any lingering traces of the culprit would dissipate if disturbed. Investigators were, however, allowed to look and use clairvoyant abilities on the tokens. The first token was a token belonging to an inner disciple of the Azure Blade Sect's alchemy peak. The second was an unknown token depicting shadowy clouds overtaking the sun.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:30 PM

Shen Jian watched the Azure Blade ritual with interest. Their magic was powerful--not subtle at all, but not ostentatious and flashy either. She had not had good fortune in her quest either. For one thing, it was difficult to investigate when she had no trust for two of her "compatriots." Their dark auras alone made them the sort of fellow contestants she would have wanted to keep away from the Peach in the first place. Elder Xiao had reminded her that half of the Yin-Yang was dark, and the greatest extent of darkness held a point of light. Yet, they weren't exactly open and forthcoming with her either. On the other hand, they hadn't done anything to give her just reason to refuse cooperation. Find the Peach. Sail the river; face the rapids when I reach them, she thought.

Further contemplation was interrupted by an escape attempt by a shadowy figure, but thankfully it seemed that Elder Chen had been able to prevent their escape. Seeing the technique they used, she cast a glance toward the Prince, Yu Xuan. He was standing a little more stiffly than before. He knows something, she thought. "Would you like to join me in examining the Tokens?" she asked, casting her eyes to include the Prince, the young assassin, and the Elemental Cloud Elder. The others nodded, and walked with her toward the Tokens. "Please do not touch them," she said, then crouched and held her hand over each one, concentrating and letting her eyes go out of focus so she could concentrate on sensing their auras. The Prince and the Elder each took turns sensing the Tokens, while the Scarlet Spider assassin watched with arms folded..

Aside from taking an opportunity to sense the auras of the Tokens, Xiao Dan held his tongue. So long as there was no need to overshadow the young contestants, he would give them a free hand, and assist as needed.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:42 PM

Many of the investigators also joined the group in examining the tokens. The Azure Blade Sect token was clearly just a normal token of the sect. The second token, however, was much more of a mystery. It clearly did something, but what exactly was difficult to ascertain without thorough analysis of the item. When examined with clairvoyant abilities, however, the tokens revealed something new. The Azure Blade Token had two separate auras on it. One was much stronger, clearly the long-time owner of the token. The second was a much weaker aura that was clearly attempting to closely mimic the energy of the original. Furthermore, the weaker aura closely matched that of the aura on the second. This same aura could be vaguely felt in a thin stream where the assassin had escaped from the Azure Blade Sect elders.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:52 PM

"Can you sense the trace?" Xiao Dan asked Shen Jian. She nodded. "Good. You three, follow it. I will join you shortly," he said, then went to one of the other Azure Blade Elders, so that Elder Chen would not be distracted from being ready to stop another escape attempt should the Shadow Walker try again. "Excuse me," he said, then explained the Tokens' auras. "If I may ask, which of you has the most contact with other members of your Sect? Could you have them sense the aura of the Azure Blade Token, to see if they can identify its proper owner? Is anyone from your Sect missing?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:04 PM

Shen Jian hurried away with the other two, moving as quickly as she could while still being able to sense and follow the aural trace. "With respect, Your Highness," she said to Yu Xuan, "the power used by the killer seems similar to what you used in the Arena. Do you know of anyone who could have done what we have seen? Or anything about the Token with the shadow clouds?"

The Prince gave her a cross look and remained silent for a few moments, but finally he huffed, and spoke. "The Token can be used by anyone who wields Shadow. As for the power, it is called Shadow Walk. It too can be used by any Shadow wielder who knows it, and has sufficient training and mental discipline. It allows the user to step into a shadow and emerge from another. The more skilled the wielder, the farther they can Walk. It cannot bypass powerful Light wards, such as the ones Azure Blade is using to seal the Mountain, so as long as they are able to maintain them, the thief cannot escape."

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:12 PM

Zi Dian followed in silence. What should I do? she thought. Those two will probably fight over the Peach if we find it. Should I try to take it for myself? That thought felt more than a little dangerous. As tempting as the prospect of immortality was (especially if it came with everlasting youth and beauty!), it had a serious downside, given that the more advanced members of her Clan were well-known for the ability to administer fates worse than death. Her Elders had not told her to retrieve the Peach, only to assist the investigation and keep them apprised of events. Was that because one of them already had it, or simply because they did not consider her capable or worthy of the task?

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:19 PM

The elder turned to face Xiao Dan, eventually waving a disciple of the sect over. "Unfortunately, there're far too many disciples for us elders to be well-acquainted with many of them. However, this is Yu Ling, the manager of the alchemy peak."He turns to face Yu Ling. "Yu Ling, please answer the elder's questions."

Yu Ling paused for a moment to investigate the token before turning back to Xiao Dan. "This token appears to belong to Xiao Lifang. It's somewhat difficult to determine if someone from the peak has gone missing, however, given that they often leave on sect missions without informing me. Would you like me to look into that?"The group following the trace, on the other hand, found themselves in a clearing in the woods where the trail stopped. A few drops of blood had fallen to the ground, evidently some sort of injury sustained by the suspect during their exchange with Elder Cheng. A trail of footprints lead out of the clearing, but left little trail as they soon reached a cobblestone path.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:33 PM

"Please do, Elder Ling," Xiao Dan said. "While the thief may have simply stolen the Token from Xiao Lifang, I am concerned that worse may have befallen them. If Xiao Lifang is safe, and I pray that it is so, they may have seen the thief, or otherwise have clues to their identity."

Spotting the drops of blood, Shen Jian crouched beside it, clapped her hands together to show respect to the spirits of the land, then held her right hand over the blood, opening herself to sense the subtle currents that flowed in the present moment.

"What are we waiting for?" Zi Dian said. "They're getting away!"

"The obvious path is not necessarily the right path. All things are connected, but the bond of blood and body is strong enough to stand out against lesser ties," Jian replied as she sought out the skein of connection between the thief's blood and their body, in hopes of being able to follow that aural trace to them.

  • kookyboy9OPToday at 2:36 PM

    Elder Ling nods and gestures for Yu Ling to go. Yu Ling rushes off down one of the paths as the elder focuses his attention back on Xia Dan.

  • "Very well. Is there anything else that you've noticed in your examination?"

  • Shen Jian's examination of the blood yields good results. Although it takes a few moments to establish the connection, she can feel the owner of the blood fleeing eastward towards the nearby peak at a swift pace. However, the footprints lead west.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:52 PM

"The aural trace leads east," Shian Jian said, casting a glance toward the footprints heading in the other direction. "Pfft. Follow the aura," Zi Dian said. "That's just Vanishing Steps. It creates footprints to throw off pursuit." An Assassin's move, but that was hardly a surprise. The thief was clearly an Assassin, and a good one at that, being able to bring down an Elder with such speed and ease.

"Thank you," Jian replied, and started leading them eastward along the aural trace. "Your Highness, you will be more attuned to Shadow than either of us. Could you please remain vigilant? You may be able to sense the enemy's presence before we can.

"You think I am doing otherwise?" Yu Xuan snapped.

"I meant no offense."

Yu Xuan rolled his eyes, but returned his focus to seeking out any trace of Shadow qi.

Xiao Dan
nodded, stroking his beard. I have sensed certain currents of emotion among the young contestants I have been working with. The Prince is tense, guarded. He may be concerned that some rival of his, perhaps a member of the Qin Royal Family, or a noble with similar training to his own, is responsible. His misgivings are diffuse, so he does not have a particular individual in mind. My intuition tells me that the Scarlet Spider Clan Apprentice suspects her own Clan, and is confused about what role she is expected to play, though she also has no certainty.

"If you have no further need of me, I should follow the others, so that I may assist them if they find the thief."

kookyboy9OPToday at 3:06 PM

The investigation group follows the aura of the blood to a residence on the Alchemy peak, just in time to find Yu Ling opening the door. A wave of stench rolls out of the now-opened door, revealing the desiccated corpse of a dead disciple of the Azure Blade Sect. He has quite obviously been dead for days at least, but the blood connection leads back to his corpse.

Yu Ling seems saddened by the revelation, and leaves to inform the elders of what had occurred. Although it is unclear exactly what technique may have been used to fool the blood dowsing performed by Shen Jian, it is clear that they had been outwitted, and the culprit had slipped their pursuit.

Meanwhile, Elder Cheng nods as Xiao Dan explains his suspicions. "I see. The young prince's worries are well-founded, although we've ascertained through our own investigation that none of the experts of the Qin Empire with sufficient skill to assassinate the Grand Elder are in attendance."

As he finishes speaking, Yu Ling runs back into the gate clearing. He skids to a stop and offers a bow to the elder.

"Elder Cheng, Xiao Lifang has been found dead in his residence. It appears that he has been dead for some time. His essence has been drained, and considering that I spoke to him just the morning, it appears likely that the assassin has been masquerading as him for some time."The elder's face darkens at the news as he speaks to Xiao Dan. "I do believe that would be all for now. I shall be engaging in a search of the surroundings. If you desire to investigate the disciple's corpse, Yu Ling will bring you to the residence."
This week's story will continue where last week's left off.

The assassin has managed to elude pursuit, but it has been revealed that they are using a demonic disguise technique to hide in plain sight. The Azure Blade Sect Elders have mandated that all disciples are to travel in pairs, and have begun searching the houses on the mountain for more dead disciples that the assassin could be disguising themself as. The investigators and martial artists have been briefed, and now the clock is ticking to be the first to locate the culprit!
Logs, courtesy of @Zarko Straadi
The Elders of the Azure Blade Sect called a short meeting with the investigators to share the information on the assassin's transformation ability, urging the investigators to double check the identity of anyone they come into contact with after a period of separation. They also begin a sect-wide tally of all disciples remaining within the barrier in an attempt to flush the imposter out of their hiding.As the sect elders conduct their search, the investigators slowly disperse to search for additional clues around the sect, many now focused on searching abodes for dead disciples that may now be the assassin's new identity.

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:20 PM

Just before the group was about to depart, Shen Jian had an idea. She hurried over to Elder Cheng and bowed. "Excuse me, Elder Cheng. "While we pursue the assassin, it would be wise to also wait in front of them. Are there any other items, besides the Peach, that they might wish to steal? Especially any that might help them escape the barrier? Also, are there any individuals who are important to maintaining the barrier, who are not doing so or presently under the best protection? Or anyone who could be used to breach it in one way or another, such as a scholar who teaches the skill of creating such a barrier, or someone who knows counter-sigils? If so, such people should be brought to a defensible location so that they can be protected."If there is anything I can do to assist, I am at your service."

kookyboy9OPToday at 12:24 PM

Elder Cheng pauses for a moment to think before nodding."The barrier formation is safe. For security reasons, I hope you can understand that I cannot explain our precautions. As for other items that the thief may desire..."He stops to think again. "They will likely desire to retrieve their token that they lost alongside Xiao Lifeng's Azure Blade Token. Also, and though I doubt this, they may be interested in the late Grand Elder's peach tree, although even we have yet to breach the formations he had on his personal abode."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:34 PM

"Of course Elder, your precautions must be kept secret," Shen Jian replied. Her expression turned thoughtful for a moment. "Is there anyone here who might know anything about the Grand Elder's formations that you do not, such as an old friend in another Sect, or an Elder who could have helped him create them?"

"What's taking her so long?!* Zi Dian said. "Maybe we should go without her and let her catch up if she can," she snapped.

kookyboy9OPToday at 12:36 PM

Elder Cheng shook his head."Unfortunately, the Grand Elder designed the formations himself, and they're entirely sustained by the spiritual vein beneath his abode. He did have a few friends outside the sect, but all are hermits living in danger zones, and as such virtually impossible to contact without advanced notice."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:38 PM

"Patience, child," Xiao Dan said. "In a hunt such as this, wisdom is more important than swiftness of foot."

."Is there any way to disrupt or destroy this spiritual vein? You would never think to do so, but the assassin might." Shen Jian said.

Zi Dian huffed, but said nothing more, leaving it to her tapping foot to express her ire.Yu Xuan remained silent through the drama. I wonder which of the women is going to be the more irritating? It is a close contest thus far, he thought.

kookyboy9OPToday at 12:43 PM

Elder Cheng shook his head."If the assassin had the capability of severing spiritual veins, then they would already be home free and the sect's defensive formation would have long since fallen."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:45 PM

"Ah. Thank you, Elder Cheng," Shen Jian said, then bowed. "Is there anything you wish of me?"

kookyboy9OPToday at 12:51 PM

Elder Cheng gave Shen Jian a small, tired smile."Go see if you can find the culprit."

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 12:52 PM

    "Yes, Elder Cheng, I will do my--oh, my apologies, one more question," Shen Jian said. "Is there anyone whom you send through the barrier, such as to procure supplies or relay messages?"

  • kookyboy9OPToday at 12:53 PM

    He shakes his head."No, the sect is self-sufficient, even with the formation active. If we need to transmit a message outside, we have contacts outside of the barrier to serve as go-betweens."

  • Off to the side of the pair, the mystery token begins to sink into its own shadow.

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 12:58 PM

    Sensing the current of magic, Shen Jian's head snapped to the token. She lunged to snatch it in a blur of motion.

  • kookyboy9OPToday at 12:59 PM

    Shen Jian attempts to grab at the token, but finds the shadow it is sinking into to be entirely impermeable to her hand. It sinks slightly further, now more than halfway submerged.

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 1:04 PM

    "Yu Xuan, help!" she cried. Yu Xuan turned toward her, considering the idea of being reluctant about it, until he saw what she needed help with. With a swirl of his hands, he sank into a deep dragon stance, whorls of shadow trailing from his hands. Thrusting a hand forcefully toward the token with his fingers bent into claws, he launched a stream of shadow that formed a reptilian claw, grasped the token, and sought to pull it free.

  • kookyboy9OPToday at 1:05 PM

    The stream of shadow mixed with the puddle below the token, allowing his shadowy claw to gain purchase on the token, jerking it free. The token sails into the air before landing on the ground once again.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:07 PM

Yu Xuan quickly made the same gesture with his other hand to send another shadow claw to grab the token from the ground.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:08 PM

The claw scoops up the token, delivering it to Yu Xuan's hand. At some point, the token appears to have activated some sort of built-in mechanism, and now is wreathed in an aura of shadow.

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 1:12 PM

    "Let's find out what this thing does, shall we?" Yu Xuan said, holding his other hand over the token and turning his focus toward sensing the shadow aura and the token beyond.Shen Jian hurried to his side. Zi Dian opened her mouth to offer a snide comment, but Shen Jian held up her hand to silence her, flicking her eyes toward the prince: do nothing to disrupt his concentration.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:14 PM

The shadow aura appears to be some sort of shadow travel technique embedded into the token. If Yu Xuan's mastery of shadow techniques is good enough, he may be able to either track the technique to its destination or even just simply hijack the technique to bring himself and anyone else he desires along for the ride.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:26 PM

Yu Xuan's lips curled into a cocky smirk. "I can trace the Shadow Path to the assassin...or carry us along it.""Let's go then!" Zi Dian said, bristling for a fight."It could be a trap," Shen Jian said. "They have deceived us before." "Very well, I shall trace it then. Go ask the Elder if he has any other means of instantaneous transport we can use that can get us there undetected.""I can get us there with great speed," Xiao Dan said. "Not instantaneously, but far faster than walking," he said with a twinkle in his eye.Jian nodded, and hurried back to Elder Cheng. "Please excuse me again, Elder," she said. "The prince is able to trace the direction of the 'Shadow Path' the assassin was using to try to take the token. Do you have a means of instantaneous transport?"

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:28 PM

"Instantaneous? No. I have my own movement technique for short distances, or we can use flying swords to send you somewhere quickly."

As Shen Jian spoke to Elder Cheng, however, the technique began to disperse, the shadows growing thinner and bits of the token beneath beginning to show through.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:40 PM

"We're running out of time!" Yu Xuan said. If he tried to sustain the connection with his own Shadow power, he would very likely alert the assassin.Shen Jian hastily bowed to the Elder and rushed back to the others."Let's gooooo," Zi Dian said before Jian or anyone else could try to offer any words of patience or wisdom."Better to act in battle than hesitate," Xiao Dan said. Jian tried to hide her surprise, but...he had a point. She nodded."Come close, quickly!" Yu Xuan said. The others gathered, and he formed the mudra to bring them along the Shadow Path to confront whatever awaited on the other side...

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:45 PM

As Shen Jian rushed away from Elder Chen, he threw a token with his name written on it to her."Carry this on you and I'll be able to track where you come out the other side and come to assist as long as it's within the Sect-Protecting Formation."Yu Xuan and the other sink into their shadows as though they are water. A current in the inky blackness seizes the group, dragging them along. After a few moment of travel, a light appears ahead of them as they are ejected from the shadows, landing in front of a group of three investigators. A panicked look briefly shot across one of the investigator's faces as the group shot out of the shadow, but was quickly replaced by a more neutral expression."Can we help all of you?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:48 PM

"We need to speak with you, alone," Yu Xuan said to the one who had given the brief flash of fear.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:50 PM

The investigator nods."Alright, then." He turns to the other two investigators before continuing, "Hopefully that should be enough for you to work off of. We can meet back up later to share our findings when I've finished speaking to these four."

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:00 PM

Once the others had left, Xuan turned to Shen and said, "I presume you have some kind of illumination mudra? Use it."Shen Jian sank into a cat stance and put her hands in front of her sternum, wrists touching, hands aimed up and down. Her fingers shaped into that created a warm globe of brilliant light, almost like a miniature sun, banishing shadows from around the group. Xuan tensed with discomfort, but kept his face a stoic mask. "We are taking you into custody as a suspect in the murder of the Grand Elder." Zi Dian's expression turned even more fierce than usual, a lopsided grin on her blood-red lips. Go ahead, fight us, I dare you! she thought.

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:01 PM

The investigator pauses as a flash of alarm passes through his eyes again, but attempts to play off the pause as being taken aback. "...I'm sorry? That's absolutely absurd."

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:07 PM

Yu Xuan turned to Dian. "You're from what is it, the Red Spider Clan?"Zi Dian's eyes narrowed. "Scarlet Spider Clan.""Good. Bind him." Dian bristled at the prince's commanding tone, but she shifted to a front stance and shaped her hands into the mudra of a spider Westerners would one day call the Darwin's Bark Spider. She thrust her hands toward the suspect and cast a stream of magically-infused webbing of immense tensile strength at the man.

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:10 PM

As Yu Xuan turned away, the investigator's hand was enveloped by shadow and shot forward as a spear, devouring anything the shadows came into contact with. As the webbing shot at him, the man sunk into the shadow beneath him before reappearing somehow both behind Shen Jian and Xiao Dan to strike them with roundhouse kicks delivered by shadow-encased legs.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:40 PM

With a grunt of annoyance, Xiao Dan shifted to a cloud form that allowed the assassin's leg to pass through. Then lighting flashed within him and struck toward his attacker.With her focus on her illumination mudra, Shen Jian did not sense the new attacker until it was almost too late. She leaned to fall away from the kick, swinging an arm to block. His leg struck with a twinge of pain, but she dispersed most of its force by rolling away from him and into a back stance, hand sweeping into a mudra that caused her hanfu to begin shimmering with blue-white light. Then she reached for the token Elder Cheng had given her, took it and thought, We've found him, please come quickly!"Aiiii't--HA!" Zi Dian shouted, striking toward Jian's attacker with a flat hand, fingers held slightly apart. Shafts of blood-red light shot from her fingers that would cut like the sharpest sword.Yu Xuan let the others have their fun for the moment. He was focused mainly on being ready to prevent the assassin from creating a new Shadow Path to escape, but he also extended his senses toward the two figures to sort out which was man and which was shadow.

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:43 PM

The figure attacking Xiao Dan burst, releasing a cloud of shadow around the elder. The one that had struck Shen Jian, on the other hand, unleashed his shadow spear technique once more, clashing directly against Zi Dian's finger technique. He used the resulting recoil from the clash to launch himself into the sky, his eyes seizing on something in the distance.He glowered, beginning to form hand signs as he slowly floated towards the ground, his energy growing greater and greater as a jade box from within his robes floats out in front of him.

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:00 PM

Zi Dian formed the Trap Door Mudra just in time to vanish into the ground as shards of the assassin's spear hissed through the air where she'd been. One of them had managed to graze her cheekbone with a small cut, the sting of it only fueling her will. As with her opponent in the arena, she surged from under a trap door of earth, with two sets of extra arms reaching to grab him while she thrust at him with twin daggers in her natural hands.Yu Xuan thrust two Shadow Dragon Claws at him, one aiming to seize the box as he had the token, the other reaching for the man's face.Shen Jian swished her arms out to the side, rising into the air with a flying jump spinning kick aimed at the assassin, followed up with a backfist at his temple to use the rest of her angular momentum, and a straight punch toward his sternum.Xiao Dan's cloud form began to rain, but the downpour swirled into a thick ribbon of swirling water as he returned to human form, and with a smooth, sweeping movement sent the water flying toward the assassin.

kookyboy9OPToday at 3:06 PM

The assassin makes no effort to block or dodge any of the attacks, simply taking them as he completes his hand signs. Yu Xuan's attempt to seize the box with his dragon claws fails when the sheer energy surrounding the box causes the claw to destabilize and disintegrate. As the final hand sign is completed, the thief pauses for a moment, wheezing out a final few words."If I cannot escape, neither shall you!"His hands begin to glow an ominous purple-black as he slams them together, the box opening to reveal the Peach of Immortality. Before the group's eyes, the peach quickly rots, collapsing into a single droplet of black energy that phases through the jade box."Heaven-Shrouding Secret Art; First Movement: Devour the Eternal"As the droplet of energy strikes the ground below the culprit, his energy scatters and he falls towards the ground, a smile on his face. Just before he hits, however, a black sphere of nothingness expands, completely absorbing him. Gravity itself bends around the group, yanking them towards the hole in space itself as it grows, steadily absorbing the mountainside around it.

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The entirety of the Azure Blade Sect shook as a tremor erupted across the mountain. Each of the sect elders stopped what they were doing before jumping on various flying artifacts to investigate the source of the tremors. Meanwhile, in the woods of the sect, a small black hole had begun to form, sucking in nearby matter and people. Elder Chen alighted nearby from his flying sword, inspecting the abyss of darkness cautiously.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:03 PM

Shen Jian tried to jump and fly away from the new menace, but her flight slowed, then reversed as she was drawn inexorably back toward the hole in reality. She shifted direction and landed in the Wu Chi First Position stance, feet shoulder width apart, arms at her sides, but not touching. The tree is still. It stands alone and quiet... she thought, rooting herself to the ground with her chi. But the ground itself trembled as the hole gathered strength. "What is that thing? How do we stop it?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:15 PM

Having been closest to the assassin, Zi Dian was very nearly pulled in with him. Her daggers were torn from her hands, sinking through the hole's surface, from existence into non-existence. She tried to use her extra arms to hold herself against the pull, but the earth and rock beneath her began to slide into the maw. Her grip failed, and she was pulled through the air--to hit a curved wall of ice. Xiao Dan had conjured a massive sphere of ice around it with a Glacier Mudra. The ice began to crack and shift despite his best efforts to hold it in place. However, it muted the hole's effects long enough for Dian to shape a Darwin's Bark Mudra, cast a dragline to a spit of rock and, mustering all her strength, pull herself away.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:26 PM

Yu Xuan shifted to his Shadow Dragon form, its masslessness allowing him to float away to a safer distance."It is a violation of the Will of Heaven!" Xiao Dan said. "An abyss to devour the world itself! Immortality reversed into its opposite, an abyss of nothingness!" he said as the ice sphere cracked, crumbled, and sank into the hole.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:34 PM

Elder Chen's frown deepened."Yes. It truly is a terrifyingly heretical art."He drew his blade, its blade beginning to glow intensely as he unleashed a wave of blade energy across the clearing between the group and the black hole. The slash seemed to linger in the air where it passed as the hole's pull significantly decreased for the remaining three still caught up in its pull. The elder sheathes his blade once more, his skill pale as he pops a pill into his mouth."We'll need to combine our power to penetrate the annihilation protecting the core of the technique. All of you, prepare your most powerful techniques. I will weave them into a single attack." As he spoke, the remaining elders of the Azure Blade Sect began to arrive onboard their flying artifacts, each leaping off to join Elder Chen on the ground.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:58 PM

Shen Jian took advantage of the temporary weakening of the abyssal power to bound to a safer distance. She drew her dao and, eyes toward the heavens, entered a meditative state. She began to twirl the sword into a series of flourishes with graceful, dancelike footwork, punctuating her slashes with kiais. At the sound of each kiai, the sword's slash formed a calligraphic arc or line of light that remained in the air, glowing brightly. "Will of Heaven! Establishment of Justice! Restoration of Balance!" she said, completing her form as the shards of light formed into the characters for her words. The light swirled into her blade, causing it to glow brilliantly, like a shard cut from the Sun. She raised it to the sky and let it float above her. Ordinarily she could have wielded it or sent it to attack her enemies, but in this case she held it in place, making its power available to Elder Chen.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:16 PM

Zi Dian and Yu Xuan flinched at the power the sword was radiating, but each closed their eyes to gather their full focus. Dian began a dance of jerking motions, the hands of her conjured extra arms forming mudras or conjuring ceremonial items. With one of her natural hands, she drew a hairpin from her hair that turned out to be a slender stiletto blade. As her dance continued, she sliced the wrist of each natural and conjured hand.Blood flowed from the wounds in streams that wove themselves into a web. "Scarlet blood! Scarlet Spider! Clan Totem! I call upon you now!" As the echoes of her words faded, a jointed leg set itself upon the web, a carapace the color of dried blood. More legs appeared, forming joint by joint from the air until they connected at the thorax of a giant spider with a shiny black hourglass on the bottom of its abdomen.The spider crawled down from the web, which faded. Dian's wounds sealed, but her skin was as pale as spider's silk, and she wove unsteadily on her feet, her conjured arms fading away.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:29 PM

Yu Xuan sank into a deep dragon stance as black flames and smoke began to gather around him. He leaped into the air with a jump spinning kick that trailed billowing smoke from his kicking foot. He landed in another dragon stance, facing the opposite way, then jumped into another spinning kick in the other direction. He landed in a horse stance at the base of the helix of shadow smoke, taking a deep breath. His arms slowly swept up, outward, and down, gathering chi from his surroundings. It seemed that the area was shaded, then in deep shadow, then in an eerie localized night. Air hissed from his throat in a constricted out-breath as his fingers formed the Double Dragon Mudra with each hand. Raising his hands in front of his chest he formed a black pearl of energy, which he then thrust upward with a loud kiai. The pearl shot up through the helix, which became a pair of shadow dragons much larger than the one he'd used in the arena. Entwining their tails, they formed a circle with their jaws clutching the pearl, which surrounded itself in a black corona of shadow force, ready to lash out in a beam of destruction.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:36 PM

Xiao Dan began a slow twirl like a whirling deervish, hands out, sleeves billowing in the wind. Each footfall hit with a thud that grew progressively louder as he gradually sped up. Dark clouds began to gather on the horizon, spreading inward to darken the sky except for a circle of sunlight directly above him. Lightning flashed, and wind began to howl as the storm gathered force. The clouds churned and swirled into a mighty vortex. He stopped spinning suddenly, holding his right hand stretched to the sky. Rain, sleet, hail, and lightning poured down, gathering into a roaring funnel that ended at his palm, the force of a hurricane, thunderstorm, and tornado in one. He looked to Elder Chen and gave him a nod.

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:43 PM

The elders surrounding Elder Chen each draw out their own swords, manifesting spectral copies above themselves made of pure sword chi. Elder Chen, on the other hand, seats himself in a meditative position as a titanic blade forms above him. The blade continues to grow, drawing in all of the chi present in the clearing. As it reaches each prepared technique, the technique dissolves, weaving itself into the sword to create a fusion. As the final technique is absorbed by the spectral blade, Elder Chen claps his hands together. The spectral blade above his head slowly rotates to face the black hole, tip first, then rockets forwards. A blinding series of flashes and deafening roar fills the clearing as the blade clashes against the annihilating abyss. Elder Chen's face grows increasingly pale as the blade begins to shrink until suddenly something gives. The edge of the hole rips open, revealing a tiny world within. At the center of the world is the glowing pit of the Peach of Immortality, still radiating an aura of eternity. Elder Chen collapses as his blade finally dissipates just short of the pit, the other elders rushing over to check on him.

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:21 PM

As the chi was drawn from Shen Jian's blade. She grabbed its hilt and returned it to its scabbard with a flourish. Did we stop it? she thought, then saw to her horror that the broken edges of the sphere of blackness were slowly starting to grow back together, fed by the power of the pit."We must destroy it, or return it to this world!" Xiao Dan said."Help me!" Jian said, heading toward the shattered sphere. It contained another realm within it, an embryonic universe seeking to displace her own world with its birth. The pull if its gravity tugged and shifted as she got closer, causing her feet to skid on the ground.Zi Dian shook her head to fend off unconsciousness, then formed the Darwin's Bark Mudra and shot a dragline at Jian to wrap around her waist. She set her feet and tried to pull.The Peach! Yu Xuan thought. Unfortunately, there were far too many Elders and rivals around for him to have any hope of seizing the pit for himself. Resigning himself to...cooperation, he stepped over to Dian, then cast a pair of Dragon Claws to follow her dragline and wrap around Jian's waist so he too could join in the effort.Elder Dan settled into a back stance, making a sweeping circular gesture with his forward hand. A vortex of air swirled from the center of the motion, reaching out as a twisting tunnel of air that pulled at Jian as she reached in and grabbed the Pit with both hands, pulling with all her might.

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:34 PM

The four strained, groaning with effort, but the Pit refused to budge. "I can't move it!" Shen Jian said."So you will have to destroy it!" Elder Dan replied. "Everyone! Angle yourselves to attack the Pit without hitting her! Attack when I say!"Each of the four positioned themselves to have an angle to the Pit. Jian let go and drew her sword, charging it with chi. Zi Dian let go of her dragline so she could draw a pair of throwing spikes from concealment on her person.Yu Xuan moved closer to Jian so he could shift to his Shadow Dragon form, dispersing his Dragon Claws and wrapping his tail around her waist instead. He then opened his mouth, prepared to unleash his Shadow Breath on the pit.Elder Dan waited for each to signal their readiness, then shouted "Now!" as he hurled a lightning bolt at the Pit.Jian twirled her dao to gather speed, then slashed at the Pit with a two-handed downward strike. Dian charged her throwing spikes with the last of her available chi, then threw them at it. Xuan unleashed the necrotic breath weapon he'd used in the Arena in a long, hissing exhale.

kookyboy9OPToday at 3:43 PM

The groups attacks strike the peach pit. For a long moment, nothing happens. Then a crack appears in the pit, and a pulse of repulsive force ripples through the tiny world, launching the group out and away into the forest. Above the block hole, angry thunderclouds begin to form, massive rivers of lightning flowing between them. Once the clouds cover the entire sky, a draconic roar echoes from them as a stream of white, draconic lightning streams down to strike the black hole. Although it does little more than cause ripples to form in the black hole, the clouds don't let up, striking down with bolt after bolt of lightning until the pit lies exposed. With a final strike, the heavenly lightning obliterates the peach pit as the tiny world dissipates around it.As the group watches on in shock, the remaining rivulets of lightning dissolve into heavenly light that flows into each of the those who had aided in the destruction of the Immortal Peach Pit. Each of them feel the acknowledgement of the heavenly will as the light directly upgrades their powers by a whole step each. Those of the new generation found their internal power swelling to that of an elder, while the elders particularly close to stepping over to the grand elder stage found themselves skipping past their heavenly tribulation to directly have the power of a grand elder. Furthermore, those elders who did not find themselves directly taking the step up felt an assurance that they too would not be troubled by tribulation when the time came for them to cross that step.The light's ministrations also healed the newly-ascended Grand Elder Chen, allowing him to sit back up weakly and stagger to his feet. "Thank you, all of you. I'm afraid that I must rest for now, but following my recovery, I will see to it that each of you is well-rewarded. For now, please feel free to rest in the rooms provided for your stay thus far."
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Nearly half a year had passed since the events at the Azure Blade Sect, and nothing had come of the investigations into the mysterious faction responsible for the attack. However, Grand Elder Chen of the aforementioned sect had recently come across a promising new lead. Many of the greatest sects, clans, schools, and powers of the martial world had received a personal invitation in the last week, inviting them to join the Azure Blade Sect in their investigation of an unusual secret realm that the grand elder had uncovered in his search. Most secret realms were heralded by heavenly phenomenon weeks or even months in advance. However, this one had been the opposite. Grand Elder Chen wouldn't have even realized that it was there had he not stumbled upon the open gate into the hidden space. He had not written what he found inside, only sending out the invitation to join him on his expedition within. It was set to be an adventure rife with opportunity, as secret realms almost always had rare resources and inheritences contained within. The only question was as to who would come to join the Azure Blade Sect's quest.The secret realm was located within a cave hidden in a valley south of the Azure Blade Sect. Elder Chen had brought a dozen disciples of the Azure Blade Sect, and was currently waiting for late arrivals to come to arrive outside of the cave.

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:30 PM

"A new world?" the Anhei Emperor said. "It could be greatly advantageous for the Qin Empire if we could gain a foothold there before any of the usurper warlords. Choose whom you will send, and it will be so.""I can send none other than myself, Yu Xuan said."You are First Prince now. You would be a target for our enemies, and if you fell, it would be a blow to the Empire.""If I succeed, it will be glory for us. I am able to claim territory in the name of the Empire, and negotiate with any inhabitants of this new world if necessary. Besides, Grand Elder Chen sent the invitation to me. He may be insulted if I send someone else. Azure Blade could be valuable allies.""Very well," the Emperor replied. His face was unreadable. Xuan knew there would be scheming and jockeying for power among his royal siblings in his absence. But if he returned victorious, which of them could dare oppose him? Then there was the portentious nature of the new world's sudden appearance. Who else could Xuan trust with whatever secrets it might hold?

  • "Elder Shen!" an apprentice said, running up to her with a scroll in her hand. It still felt strange being an 'Elder,' the youngest in the Amitabha Order's history. What is, is, Shen Jian reminded herself. The apprentice bowed and held out the scroll. "A message for you from Grand Elder Chen of the Azure Blade Sect! It has a red seal!""Thank you," Jian said, taking it. The red color of the wax said it was of great importance. She broke the seal and read it. I must go tell the Abbess that I am leaving, she thought.

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 12:45 PM

    "Well well," Mother Lin said, fondling a scroll in her bony hands. "Fate calls upon the Chosen One again." Zi Dian narrowed her eyes and sent out a strand of web and snatched the scroll, yanking it into her own grasp. The Mothers and Fathers of the Scarlet Spider Clan had expected to be able to judge her worthiness to become a true Initiate, and judge harshly. Instead, they had been forced to welcome her as a Mother in her own right, under the blessing of Heaven Itself.Dian opened the scroll and read it. "So it does," she said, a malicious smile forming on her lips. "'Chosen One.' Hmm. Don't get in the habit of saying that, it might just come true," she said, then turned to glide out of the Lair of the Wise.

  • "Grand Elder...all of the students and even some of the Elders would gladly go in your place," Elder Jin said. "It is...not customary for a Grand Elder to go off on adventurous romps.""Hhmmf. Perhaps not," Xiao Dan said. "Those other 'Elders' may have great power, and the blessing of Heaven, but they are still young. They will still need guidance.""As you say, Sagacity," Jin replied.

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 12:54 PM

    As each arrived at the specified destination, memories of the Great Martial Arts Meet and its aftermath stirred their emotions. Together again. Xiao Dan could see in their auras that, like he himself," they had poured dedicated training into mastering their new level of chi, and techniques and forms Elders were expected to know."It is good to see you again, Grand Elder Chen," he said, bowing to his Azure Blade counterpart. The others bowed as well, ready, they hoped, for whatever lie ahead of them.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:02 PM

Grand Elder Chen bowed back to Xiao Dan. Behind him, a disciple from the Azure Blade Sect was briefing the disciples of the various powers on what to expect inside the small world."It is good to see all of you again as well. Please, step inside." He stepped into a pavilion tent nearby, waiting for the group to follow before continuing: "I know that my letters were sparse on details, but I suspect that this secret realm has something to do with the group that attacked the Azure Blade Sect six months ago. I found what appears to be an inheritance temple inside with energy that bears a striking resemblance to the techniques used by the assassin.""If you aren't interested in investigating, please feel free to explore the secret realm to your leisure. I would ask that you aid any of the newest generation that you may find in trouble while you wander, at the very least. Otherwise, I will lead the way to the temple once I've opened the portal."He paused for another moment before continuing. "Grand Elder Xiao, if you've had the fortune of uncovering any spatial techniques, I would appreciate aid in opening the entrance to the secret realm. While I can do it on my own, it is quite tiring."

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:36 PM

"Of course, Grand Elder Chen," Xiao Dan said. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, slipping into meditation and gathering chi. Settling into a deep horse stance, he put his fists together in front of his chest. Light began to shine from between his fists as mist gathered around him in a languorous swirl.He shifted to his right into a dragon stance, his right fist slowly sweeping down and around to a guard position behind his head, upper arm going out horizontally from his shoulder, forearm held vertical. Then, smoothly as an ocean wave, he shifted back to the horse stance, his left hand turning upward, open palm, holding a scintillating sphere of chi. His hands swept up and around in paired arcs that crossed paths over his head as he flowed to a left-facing bow stance. Light traced shimmering paths that followed his hands.Dan moved to a bear stance, coming back to center, bringing his hands palms together at his sternum. He then straightened to his full height and thrust his hands forward with a sudden movement and exhale of breath, palms parting like the covers of a book. He then pulled his hands apart as if opening a double-door, then swept his hands back in horizontal motion, pausing briefly in a T-pose before letting them settle to his sides.As he performed the Opening Ways Form, he could feel Grand Elder Chen using his own technique, so he allowed his energy to flow harmoniously with Chen's.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:42 PM

As Xiao Dan prepared his own technique, Grand Elder Chen draw his blade, imbuing it with energy until it shone a blinding white. As Grand Elder Xiao's technique reached completion, Grand Elder Chen swung his blade at a spot in the center of the tent, ripping a small hole in space. As Xiao Dan's technique flowed to match Grand Elder Chen's, the hole gradually widened, revealing a vast field beyond. In the far distance, a pyramid-like structure stood against the horizon.Grand Elder Chen sheathed his blade once more before gesturing for a disciple near the entrance to the tent to go get the others."The pyramid in the distance is the objective of our search. The disciples of the various powers have been warned to remain clear of it until we have finished. As for whatever spoils we find inside the pyramid, they will be divvied up equally between all of us when we've finished. Any technique or inheritance you've the fortune to gain during the expedition is yours to keep, although I ask that if any of you uncover information about the assassin in the inheritance, you share that information. If those terms are not acceptable, then feel free to split off and explore on your own."Grand Elder Chen waited a few moments for assent or denial before gesturing for the lead disciples now entering to pass through the now-open portal. Once all of the disciples had passed through, he proceeded to lead any of the group willing to cooperate towards the pyramid.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:53 PM

"I will go with you, Grand Elder," Shen Jian said. "Whatever force sent that assassin is a threat to us all, even to our whole world."As distasteful as he found Jian's ready heroics, Yu Xuan could not dispute her words. No one could know where, or at whom, they would strike next. "I am with you also."Zi Dian might have considered going off on her own, but...there was that bit about potential spoils, techniques, and inheritances... And besides, the events that mattered would be happening at the Pyramid. Better to be there than wandering through some random meadow. "The Scarlet Spider Clan stands with you," she said.

  • "And Elemental Cloud as well," Xiao Dan said.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:57 PM

Grand Elder Chen nodded gratefully. "My gratitude to all of you."As the group stepped through the portal, the sheer difference in the air was palpable. While the valley had already contained dense natural energy, this pocket dimension made it look absolutely sparse by comparison. Even just breathing in this place seemed sufficient to progress the power base of those within.As the group approached the pyramid in the distance, it towered further and further over them. What had originally appeared to be a moderately sized pyramid now was revealed to be a megastructure towering over the plains. A stele near the front of the immense structure marked it as the 'Heaven-Shrouding Venerable Tomb'.The doors to the pyramid were sealed shut, blocking the group from entry. A small formation was set between the two doors at roughly shoulder level, with no further instructions given.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:10 PM

"'Heaven Shrouding' sounds like the name of their Sect, " Shen Jian said. "Grand Elder Chen, have you ever heard of a 'Heaven Shrouding' sect? When the assassin created the rift, he named his form as 'Heaven Shrouding Secret Art.'"Zi Dian carefully moved closer to examine the carved sigil, mystic senses alert for any wards or enchantments."Grand Elder Chen, do you have the assassin's Token with you?" Yu Xuan asked.Xiao Dan watched over the young ones in silence, his own mystic senses reached out toward the Pyramid and the area around the entrance.

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:16 PM

Grand Elder Chen fished in his robes before pulling the token out."I have not ever heard of a 'Heaven Shrouding Sect', no. That said, I also don't know any practitioners who would dare to claim the title of 'Venerable' for themselves either. It's entirely possible that this is an inheritance from before history."The Grand Elder pressed the token to the formation, and the formation lit up in a multicolored glow before slowly fading. After a few moments, a spectral figure floated out of the door, yawning. "Hmm? You all look rather strong to be applicants. And I could've sworn that the gate wasn't meant to open for another 5 years. Has some sort of shift occurred in the outside world?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:44 PM

"Perhaps they see the tomb itself as ven..." Shen Jian said, her words traling off as the spectre emerged.Yu Xuan stepped forward and bowed to the spirit. "Honored Ancestor, we are not applicants. Yes, there has been a disturbance in the outside world. Were these things not supposed to happen for another five years?"Zi Dian watched, but kept her mouth shut. The Prince moved with purpose and confidence that implied he knew what he was doing. Dian did not count herself as any kind of wise sage, but she knew that one could avoid a great deal of trouble by speaking only when necessary. Xiao Dan held his peace as well. He was there to support the young ones' growth and keep them safe, not overrule them...without good reason.

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:49 PM

The specter seemed almost put out that they weren't applicants before suddenly brightening up."Oh... Well, I suppose I'm obligated to welcome you in for the Heaven-Shrouding Venerable's Inheritance Trial!" The specter floats back into the doors. After a moment, the cracks between the doors glow, and the doors swing wide open to reveal an antechamber beyond. The specter is waiting inside."Welcome to the Tomb of Venerable Heaven-Shrouding. My name is Ling Ling, and I am the artifact spirit of the tomb, as well as the trial proctor! Those who wish to undergo the trial, please step inside!"

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:14 PM

Zi Dian felt a bit of relief that the Prince had apparently done well enough at 'oh yes,we totally belong here, not intruders from the outside world, no sir' that the Heaven-Shrouding spirit accepted them for the trial. Whatever the others might think of the Heaven-Shrouding Sect--and yeah, one of them had tried to destroy the world--but there was no doubt that their art was powerful. No way she was passing that up! She bowed to the spirit and strode forward.Well, I certainly didn't expect that! Yu Xuan thought. Instead of a reply that provided any information at all, the spirit gave them...this. Spider-Girl was quick to volunteer. Impulsive...perhaps less than wise...but then, what better way to learn more about their enemy than to win an inheritance of their art? He gave a regal bow and stepped inside with Dian."Honorable Ling Ling," Shen Jian said, "Are we permitted to ask about previous applicants or successful trial participants?""Honorable Proctor," Xiao Dan said, "It is natural for young people to step forward bravely without question, but it is an Elders responsibility to guide them to paths of wisdom. What, if I may ask, are the stakes of this trial?"

kookyboy9OPToday at 3:21 PM

Ling Ling nodded enthusiastically. "Of course! The first successful participant should be the current sect master of the Heavenly Eclipse Cult. Unfortunately, we don't see enough outsiders who find their way here to have had a second successful participant!""As for the stakes of the trial... It depends on how far you make it in. The early trials are less dangerous and failure will likely see you simply ejected from the tomb and barred from attempting the trial again. The further you go in, the greater the risk, but also the greater the reward! You may retire after each trial for an increasingly generous prize, but the true reward for the trials is the complete immortal innheritance awaiting at the core of the tomb!"As Zi Dian and Yu Xuan entered the tomb, they felt a sudden weight around their necks as amulets materialized around them."If you desire to retire from the trials, simply channel your chi into these, and you will find yourselves outside. When you are ready, proceed through the door on the other side of the antechamber, and the first trial will begin."
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kookyboy9OPToday at 12:03 PM

Grand Elder Chen examined the amulet around his neck for a moment before nodding, apparently satisfied by what he found. "I don't see any contradiction in what the spirit has said. The amulets appear to contain a one-way teleportation formation. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough to tell where to."His part said, the Grand Elder lead the way into the first trial, disappearing through the door ahead.

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:23 PM

Shen Jian and Xiao Dan followed the others into the tomb to face what awaited within.

kookyboy9OPToday at 12:30 PM

The three stepped into the first chamber one after another, but each found themself alone in their own individual chamber. In the center of each room was a stone stele with an image of clouds striking down a man with lightning. As each entered the chamber, Ling Ling's voice resounded across the room. "The first trial is one of aptitude. The Heaven Shrouding Secret Art cannot be cultivated by those without the correct mindset and aptitude. Your first trial will be to prove that you possess both of these traits."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:52 PM

Shen Jian centered herself with a deep breath, then stepped forward to carefully examine the stela, searching for any writing, hidden symbols, or arcane energies.Zi Dian considered just smashing the stela to see what happened, but thought better of it. 'Heaven Shrouding Secret Art' sounds like subtlety and guile are more their 'mindset' than brute force, right? she thought. She could destroy the stela at any time. But with tests like these, at least among her own Clan, the obvious 'answer' was rarely the correct one. She moved carefully around the room and the stela, checking for traps, hidden levers, and the like.Yu Xuan looked the stela over, checking for anything in the imagery that might indicate why the man was being struck down, so as to avoid his fate.Xiao Dan gave a little grunt. It had been a long time since he had gone through one of these tests. These days, he was in charge of administering them. He too examined the stela and the room that contained it. Without knowing any of this Sect's lore or sutras, he could not know what sort of mindset they would be looking for.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:04 PM

The stele did contain a few pieces of hidden symbolisms to be found. The first, most obvious item upon coming closer was a nearly-transparent stairway below the man's feet, leading up into the clouds attempting to strike him down. On the bottom edge of the stele was a crowd of people watching. Those who scrutinized more closely may notice that some of the people had been burnt to death. Finally, the man appeared to be carrying something in his hand that was attracting the lightning to strike it. Several of the bolts appeared to nearly miss the man before curving back, with the lines of all the lightning striking the man clearly pointing towards the object. Zi Dian and Xiao Dan's examinations turned up little else. The only item of interest in the room was the stele, and there were no traps in the room that Zi Dian could locate.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:26 PM

Jian gave the object in the man's hands a closer look. Was it something that could be removed from the stela?Finding no traps, secret doors, or the like, Dian examined the stela more closely. Like Jian, she was curious if the object was removable, but she also moved to get a closer look at the crowd. Were they spectators? Prisoners? Were the dead ones people who had tried what the man was attempting, or just an audience for whom the show became all too real?Xuan scrutinized the stela as well, but then turned his attention to the ceiling above it. Was there any hidden door for an invisible staircase to lead to, or potential source for lightning strikes?Dan looked more closely at the object in the man's hands. What was it? A Token, or some kind of enchanted item?

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:30 PM

Shen Jian and Xiao Dan's investigation of the object was fruitless, as the one who had created this stele appeared to have deliberately obscured what the object was. Yu Xuan's investigation of the ceiling did not uncover any sort of hidden door or possible mechanism for lightning to strike. Zi Dian's investigation did, however, bear more fruit. There didn't appear to be a single denomination present in the crowd. Some of those in the crowd appeared depicted to be shocked, others horrified, and yet more appeared to be praying, although to what was somewhat unclear. Those that were burnt appeared, however, to be almost exclusively among those praying.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:08 PM

"Guess I won't be praying for help," Dian said to herself with a lopsided grin. Again she had to resist the temptation to smash the statue and see what happened. She crouched to look at the the base of the stela for any indication that it might be moveable, perhaps concealing a hidden door."Honorable Master Ling," Jian asked, "are we permitted to ask questions? Please forgive me, but we have not been introduced to the teachings or lore of your Sect."So they want to storm Heaven, is that it? Xuan thought. He shifted to his Shadow Dragon form and flew to the wall of the chamber, to see if he could phase through and find any hidden corridors or chambers.Dan frowned at the disrespect toward Heaven implied by the carvings. Perhaps the man with the artifact was the Sect's founding hero or mythic inspiration. That gave clues toward their mindset, but not yet about what sort of demonstration of 'aptitude' they were looking for...

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:16 PM

The stele was not, in fact, melded with the ground. It looked incredibly heavy, but could be moved. Unfortunately, it was much too thin to allow for a door to be hidden underneath.In Shen Jian's room, Ling Ling's voice once more resounded through the chamber. "You may ask, and I will answer what I can without giving you an unfair advantage in the trial."Yu Xuan's attempts to phase through the wall were not entirely unsuccessful. As he strikes the wall, he can feel an incredibly heavy sense of scrutiny and begrudging acknowledgement upon him before the wall simply spits him back out on the other side of the chamber. A door swings open on the opposing side of the room. Meanwhile, in all the remaining rooms, the stele begins to move. The item in the man's hand shatters, and the crowd below begins to scatter as lightning rains down on the praying figures below.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:45 PM

"Thank you," Jian said as she watched the carvings on the stela begin to move. "Is there a time limit for this exercise?" Was this an opportunity to learn more about the Sect and its lore, or an indication that she was almost out of time?'Just smash something' was rarely the right answer in tests like these, but 'rarely' was not 'never.' Dian settled into a back stance and formed her fingers into the Tarantula Mudra. As with the Trap Door Mudra, this conjured four 'extra' arms. But this time she was also encased in stylized black armor that resembled the namesake spider's jointed form. She paused, however, when the images started to move. She readied herself to strike, watching the stela's story play out, poised to act on any indication that her time to solve the puzzle might be almost up.Xuan reverted to human form with a hint of a satisfied smirk, and walked through the door.Dan watched the images on the stela in a meditative focus. Were they suggesting that Heaven cruelly punishes the devout? Or could it be a story in which Heaven itself had been corrupted somehow (or the clouds and lightning representing something other than Heaven), with the man as a savior out to restore balance?

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:51 PM

Ling Ling's voice came through to answer Shen Jian's question. "I cannot answer that question, unfortunately."As the remaining group continues to watch, the man reaches out and releases a vast shadow that envelops the clouds above. As the clouds are enveloped, however, the staircase below the man's feet fades, leaving him hanging in midair. The scene on the stele slowly fades away before being replaced with a single line.

What do you believe the scene to have shown?

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:19 PM

Jian bowed to show the Proctor respect, then turned her attention to the question she was faced with. "It appears to show a founding story for your Sect, in which Heaven has turned from justice to strike down the faithful, so that the man must 'shroud' Heaven in order to save the people."Aaaah, a mental test? Dian thought. Koans, parables, and enigmas wrapped in mysteries were always less fun than tests of strength. She chewed on the question for a moment. "It shows us that prayer won't save us, and magic artifacts won't either, but only action, and the powers we master. We are saved by what is inside us, not what is outside.""Hmmf." Dan muttered. "It shows many things, but conceals just as many. I hold no 'beliefs' as to what is shown, as it is foolish to become fixed in beliefs in the face of ambiguity. It may speak to a founding tale for your sect, or a portrayal of its philosophy, but as this is only a beginning, I remain open, waiting with an empty cup."

kookyboy9OPToday at 3:32 PM

The doors in Xiao Dan and Zi Dian's rooms swing open as their answers are spoken, while Shen Jian's does nothing for a few moments before eventually swinging open, allowing all members of the group through to another empty stone room. The group waits for a few minutes before Ling Ling speaks up once more."Congratulations to those of you who passed the first trial. We will now be beginning the second trial."The doors to the room that had been still open snap shut as the room fades to black. After a moment of darkness, a formation lit up, as each member of the group was enveloped by a thick fog.(End chapter 5)
  • As the fog cleared, the trial challengers found themselves at the foot of a long staircase with a door at the top. Surrounding the stairwell, the floor, walls, and ceiling appeared to be made of clouds. Every few seconds, a flash of lightning crackled between points on the clouds, passing dangerously close to the stairwell.A few seconds after the fog cleared, Ling Ling's voice spoke once more. "The second trial is to ascend the stairs before you. Please remember that the amulets you were granted at the beginning of the trial can be used to leave if the trial becomes too intense."

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 12:22 PM

    Shen Jian watched the lightning flashes for a moment, looking for any patterns to their activity before she began to carefully ascend the staircase.Zi Dian was content to let Miss Goody-Goody go first, but she wasn't going to be last either. Warily, she started up the stairs.Yu Xuan came after, walking with dignified strides.Xiao Dan followed last, attuning himself to both the clouds and the lightning, watching out for the young people as well as himself.

kookyboy9OPToday at 12:24 PM

As Shen Jian stepped onto the stairway, the lightning flashing around the stairs diverted to attempt to strike her. As Zi Dian and Yu Xuan joined her, the same occurred, bolts of white-hot plasma striking from the surrounding clouds. It was only as Xiao Dan stepped onto the stairway that something changed. Rather than a single lightning strike, thick bolts of lightning converged from both walls to strike him.

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:55 PM

Jian drew her dao in a smooth motion, using its blade to sweep up the lightning strikes headed her way, then crouched to tap its pommel to the stairs and allow the electrical energy to ground itself.Dian, still in her tarantula armored form, sprayed a skein of webbing between the lightning and herself, and more at her feet in order to electrically insulate herself Xuan swiftly drew his jian. Knowing that the light that came with lightning would penalize most of his Shadow Dragon moves, he replicated Shen Jian's maneuver with the sword.Literally in his element, Dan shifted to his cloud form, gathered the lightning, embraced it, flowed with it, and directed its energy to the ground away from the young people.

kookyboy9OPToday at 1:04 PM

Shen Jian's dao absorbed the lightning, but she found it incredibly difficult to contain the lightning in her sword. Although she was able to successfully redirect it into the ground this time, it was unlikely she'd be able to keep doing it all the way up the stairwell. Zi Dian's webbing was able to largely dissipate the energy of the lightning bolt as it burned away, although a small thread of lightning still made contact with her armor. Yu Xuan's attempt went about the same as the Shen Jian's, the lightning barely contained in his jian until he could dissipate it. It was Xiao Dan's attempt that went the worst, however. He found that it was more than easy to attract the lightning to his cloudy form, and even to embrace it. However, the lightning strangely refused to leave his form, instead arcing back up and around to strike him again each time he attempted to discharge it. As any of the group took a second step up the stairs, the lightning struck once more. Instead of a single (or two in Xiao Dan's case) bolt, the strikes had doubled in number, with ten more steps to go.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:15 PM

Jian took a deep breath and re-centered herself, sheathing her dao. The lightning seemed to have will of its own, so that she was only barely able to conduct it to the ground. "Valiant heart, shield of light!" she said, making a rapid series of mudra hand gestures. A dazzling globe of light enveloped her as she took her next step.Dian flinched at the hit on her armor. It had protected her this time, but if, as seemed likely, the lightning would grow more powerful with each step, she would not make it all the way to the top this way. She reverted to her normal form, then cast the Trap Door Mudra, hoping to vanish into the stairway and emerge at the top.With so much blinding light flashing all around, whatever shadows the stairs cast were brief and fleeting, constantly shifting when they existed at all. There would be no stable Shadow Path to the top of the stairs. Like Jian, he sheathed his blade, keeping his face neutral to hide rising irritation. I will not be stopped! he thought. Clapping his hands together in front of his chest, he shifted to his Shadow Dragon form and quickly flew up to the edges of Xiao Dan's cloud form, swerving to place it between him and as many of the lightning strikes as he could. If the Grand Elder's form was going to draw the lightning to itself, perhaps it could serve as a shield against both the lightning and its brightness, so long as he could duck behind it.In the Grand Elder's cloud form there was nothing for the lightning to strike but more cloud and lightning. However, the bolts refused to discharge, but continued to crackle back and forth across his billowing form, flowing under their own will. Gathering more chi, Dan shifted his cloud form into a thunderstorm, creating moisture to dispel the electrostatic energy while pouring out a torrent of rain to provide a conductive path to ground.

kookyboy9OPToday at 2:23 PM

Shen Jian's shield formed as the next pair of bolts struck, firmly rebuffed by the shield. Fortunately, rather than continuing the doubling with each step, it was a simple addition of a single bolt for each step. The shield continued to hold for several more steps before beginning to crack.Zi Dian's Trap Door Mudra worked! She vanished from the stairs and appeared at the last step, only to feel a vast anger from the clouds behind her. As she appeared on the step, she could hear crackling as a vast surge of power washed over her, the combined bolts of lightning she would have taken with each step surging forth to merge into a vast dragon made entirely of lightning. The dragon roared before charging her. Yu Xuan's plan was not nearly so successful. He was able to shift into his dragon form, but the bolts he attempted to draw to Xiao Dan inexplicably curved around him, instead striking at his dragon form, weakening the technique with each step that he progressed.Xiao Dan's thunderstorm was more successful at dissipating the thunder. The rain caused the lightning lingering in his thunderstorm form to strike down at the floor, although each strike dissipated a hefty chunk of his energy reserves. And, unfortunately for him, each step added two lightning bolts instead of the single one that each of the others were forced to face.

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:10 PM

Jian could feel her shield faltering under the assault. It would not hold for long if she continued as she was. She drew her dao with a flourish, twirling it through a series of cuts at superhuman speed. "Valiant heart, sword of light!" she said. As she finished her flourish, the sword transformed into a blade of pure light, growing to be as tall as Jian herself. Raising it above her head, she released it, so it could float and fight on its own, aiming to parry as many lightning strikes as possible. Gathering the remainder of her chi, she used some of it to reinforce her shield, and the rest to launch herself into a bound toward the top of the stairs that would carry her across the distance in a blur of speed.Dian's eyes went wide as the lightning-dragon came at her. She shaped her fingers into the Jumping Spider Mudra and tried to bound away toward the door, just as a massive eagle made of lightning and dark billowing cloud crashed into the dragon.Though the electricity did not hurt Yu Xuan in his Shadow Dragon form, the blinding light it produced burned, knocking him out of his form and causing him to fall to the stairs. He scrambled to his feet as more lightning came his way, gritting his teeth against the pain. Filling himself with rage, he hurled Shadow Orbs at the incoming bolts with punches and kicks delivered with loud kiais."Elemental Cloud Secret Art: Thunderbird!" Xiao Dan's voice boomed. His thunderstorm shaped into the form of a giant eagle that surged toward the lightning dragon with a beat of his powerful wings, with an increasing number of lightning bolts from the stairway's clouds sizzling after him in pursuit.

kookyboy9OPToday at 3:34 PM

Shen Jian's bounding leaps up the stairs attracted a veritable storm of lightning, but between the sword and shield, she found herself on the top step of the staircase, her techniques having stood firm against the thunderstorm. The lightning eagle struck the lightning dragon, dissipating it as the Ji Dian reached the door.Yu Xuan, as well, made it to the top of the stairs. His furious rampage had mostly dispersed the lightning before it reached him, although a few stray bolts had snuck through, leaving him with a few burns.Xiao Dan crashed into the lightning dragon pursuing Ji Dian, completely dispersing it. Moments later, the bolts following him crashed into the lightning bird. The lightning rampaged throughout it, the water within beginning to swiftly boil as the technique began to unravel.
The chamber was eerily silent as Xiao Dan's technique began to unravel, even the lightning flashing between the clouds stilling. Evidently, this was the last part of this particular trial. Xiao Dan had but mere moments before his technique would unravel under the thunderous force of the lightning surging through him. The platform at the top of the stairs was safe enough, and the door lay before the group gathered at the top.

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:33 PM

As he wrestled with the hostile lightning, it became clear to Xiao Dan that there was no wu-wei through this. He would have to meet it force for force. Steering away from the young people, he shifted to a whirlwind form and raced away from the lightning, fighting for concentration against the pain it had given him. The lighting pursued him relentlessly with a crackling roar.He swerved back to the platform at the top of the stairs and shifted back to his human form, then used the Glacier Mudra to raise a massive wall of ice against the oncoming army of thunderbolts.

KookyOPToday at 12:40 PM

The lightning stopped as Xiao Dan raced away from it. For a moment, it almost appeared as though it had given up before it began to merge into an immense, iridescent dragon of lightning, similar to what had pursued Ji Dian. As the glacier rose from the floor to face the dragon, it hurled itself at Xiao Dan. For a moment, it appeared as though the glacier would hold. Then cracks began to form. Mere moments later, the glacier exploded into a burst of thick steam as the dragon burst through it, still pursuing Xiao Dan.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:03 PM

"We have to help him!" Shen Jian said, throwing a shield of light into the lightning-dragon's path. Reluctantly, Zi Dian inwardly conceded that she did owe the guy. She shaped her fingers into the Endless Cobwebs Mudra, which created a blizzard of cobwebs, a swirling greyish-whiteout of sticky streamers meant to blind and enmesh a stronger opponent and allow for an escape.Yu Xuan ran for the door and pulled it open. "Come on!" he said, then threw a Shadow Fist at the attacking dragon. It would not be enough to stop such a powerful force, but any delay might be the thing that won the day.

  • KookyOPToday at 1:11 PM

    The dragon burst through the shield of light, hardly slowing down. The storm of cobwebs had slightly more effect, as the dragon was briefly slowed as it was forced to burn through the cobwebs. In the end, however, it only bought but a moment before the dragon would crash into Xiao Dan. The shadow fist impacted the dragon, but was swallowed up by the sheer intensity of the light emitted by the beast. The dragon continued for Xiao Dan, undeterred.

  • Zarko StraadiToday at 1:16 PM

    Xiao Dan staggered from the force when the lightning-dragon shattered his ice wall. "Go!" he shouted to the youngsters, then shifted back to his whirlwind form and darted up and away from them."But--" Jian protested."Come on!" Dian said, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her toward the door. "He's got a plan!" At least, she hoped he had a plan...

KookyOPToday at 1:18 PM

The dragon arced up, following Xiao Dan. However, as it passed the younger group, three smaller wyrm-like dragons split off, launching themselves at one member of the group each.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:24 PM

When the lightning-dragon had appeared almost about to give up, Dan had thought that, perhaps it could not see him. But as it pursued, it became clear that was not the case. "Go on without me!" With that, he gathered the rest of his qi and changed into a thunderstorm form. When the lightning-dragon hit him, he snared it in arcs of his own lightning...and then concentrated on the teleportation amulet and let qi flow to it.With new dragons coming at them, the others had no choice but to run through the door and slam it behind them.

KookyOPToday at 1:28 PM

Xiao Dan was enveloped by a powerful spatial barrier as the talisman activated before finding himself standing back in the first room of the tomb, where the group had began the trial. Ling Ling floated out from one wall."Truly unfortunate. Either way, for passing the first trial, you've earned some small reward. Would you like to see the rewards available, or would you prefer to watch the remainder of your party?"Back in the second trial room, the group attempted to rush through the door, but found themselves blocked from passing through the doorway. The large dragon that had been chasing Xiao Dan had vanished alongside him, but the smaller ones that had split off were still thundering towards the group.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:41 PM

"I prefer to watch," Xiao Dan said. He had not come here for rewards."'We have to help him,' she said." Dian snarled, thrusting all six of her hands at the dragon coming for her, flat, palm down, and laser-sharp strands of blood-red energy-webbing shot from her fingers.Xuan had just about enough of these lightning-dragons. With a bellow of rage, he lunged into the air right at the dragon coming for him, drawing his sword to strike it in a hissing arc.Jian bounded away in a high, graceful flight, buying time to re-conjure her sword of light to smite her attacker.

KookyOPToday at 1:45 PM

Zi Dian's energy webbing entangled the dragon. Unlike the grand-elder level dragon from just moments before, this one lacked the power to instantly burn through the webbing and was entrapped. The webs sizzled as they held, but they held nonetheless. Yu Xuan's sword, on the other hand, cleanly bisected his dragon, causing it to burst into multiple lightning bolts that re-entered the clouds around the group. Shen Jian's bounding flight brought her into the air above the platform as the dragon streaked past, curving back around to return for another pass.

Back in the entry room, Ling Ling gestured with one hand, one floating image appearing for each of the three remaining members of the group. "Very well. If there is nothing else, I will return to adjucating the trials."

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:57 PM

At the top of her arc, Jian slashed at the attacking dragon with her sword of light.Dian growled through gritted teeth. Her Webs of Wounding had been meant to slice the damn thing into pieces, but at least she was able to immobilize it.Xuan landed into a somsersault, grunting from the pain of his burns, then rolled to his feet. His fury not sated, he turned and ran toward Dian's dragon, leaned forward with his arms angled back like the flanges of an arrowhead, gathering qi as he charged. With a slowly-building battle-cry, he brought his sword around and down to bisect the wyrmling.---"'It is not customary for a Grand Elder to go off on adventurous romps,'" Dan muttered, quoting Elder Jin from the Elemental Cloud Temple. "Are you alright, Grand Elder Chen?"

KookyOPToday at 2:01 PM

Shen Jian's sword of light cleaved through the dragon, pinning it to the floor as it slowly dispersed. Yu Xuan's sword also managed to bisect Zi Dian's wyrmling, allowing it too to rejoing the clouds around them. ---Grand Elder Chen nodded to Xiao Dan."Yes. Fortunately - or perhaps not - the spirit did not like my answer to the first trial, so I was returned here unharmed."

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:16 PM

"There is nothing else," Dan said to the spirit, giving it a respectful bow. When it left, he settled into a lotus position with a pained grunt, to watch the youngsters.---"Is anyone in need of healing?" Jian asked. Xuan glared at her for a moment, then, with a tone of disgruntled resignation, said "Yes.."
"I'm fine," Dian said, the turned to Xuan. "Thanks," she said, then started toward the door."Wait--we should restore our qi first," Jian said. Dian gave her a scowl, but couldn't deny the wisdom of it. She settled uncomfortably into a lotus position in her tarantula armor while Jian played healing light over Xuan's wounds.The light was uncomfortable to his spirit, but it healed his body. Fortunately, this world was bathed in qi energy, so they were able to restore themselves quickly."Come on, let's go!" Dian said, waiting for the others at the door. They joined her, and tried to go through.

KookyOPToday at 2:26 PM

This time, the door let them through without issue, allowing them into another room. Once again, each of them found themselves alone in a room. The room, however, was different for each of them. Yu Xuan found himself in a pitch black room of shadows. Zi Dian found herself standing upon an ocean of blood, with no walls in sight. Shen Jian found herself standing on a marble floor, thousands of orbs of iridescent light whirling around her.---Ling Ling bowed back to Xiao Dan before sinking back into the wall, allowing the two Grand Elders to watch in peace.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:35 PM

"Alright, now what? Dian said, looking warily around herself at the sea of blood. It didn't exactly look like there was anywhere to go.I'm in my element, Xuan thought. But that didn't work out so well for the Grand Elder now, did it? Sheathing his sword, he pulled its ebony scabbard from his belt, and used it to start tapping along the ground like a blind person and started walking slowly rather than use any of his Shadow powers."It's beautiful!" Jian said, giving herself a moment to admire the prismatic spheres before looking around the room for a door or any other indication of a trial goal.

KookyOPToday at 2:46 PM

Zi Dian's examination of the blood sea turned up very little. At first, the only thing that was of note was that the room felt eerily still. The sea of blood was entirely still, with nary a ripple marring its surface until she moved. However, as she spent time examining the room, she began to feel a faint malevolence pushing down upon her.In Yu Xuan's room, he continued to tap forward for quite some time as the darkness around him seemed to be pushing in. At first, the darkness had simply been there. However, as he walked, it slowly closed in. After walking for some time, he could also hear it beginning to whisper, although exactly what he could not determine. Shen Jian found nothing within the room. The prismatic spheres seemed to be quite fine with allowing her to move around, but were solid to the touch, their whirling about forming impenetrable walls around her. Almost imperceptibly slowly, each of the rooms had begun to fill with evil intent, a further will descending upon each of the trial takers, watching them. Not yet ready to strike, this malevolent entity continued to simply watch each of them.
  • Zarko StraadiToday at 12:00 PM

    Zi Dian looked up toward muttered "Ooooh, ooky spookyyy" under her breath while making twiddly gestures with her fingers.
  • Yu Xuan took a ready stance and made sure his sword was loose in its scabbard. Then, he listened to the whispers. He didn't expect them to say anything good, but it would still be information, and information is a weapon sharper than any blade.
  • Shen Jian looked around and up for any sign of a way out. Was she supposed to try to escape?

  • KookyOPToday at 12:08 PM

    As Zi Dian spoke, something finally happened, albeit not to the sea itself. Instead, her feet began to slowly sink into the blood beneath her.
  • Yu Xuan attempted to listen in to the whispers around him. At first, they were too quiet to hear clearly. However, as time went on, he began to recognize them. Voices of people from the Qin Empire, whispering to each other about his unworthiness to the throne. How his brothers were much worthier. How all that Yu Xuan had was a lucky break.
  • In Shen Jian's room, the orbs continued to whirl around her, the orbs slowly growing more transparent until she could see scenes in each. In each orb was a freeze frame of men and women, each injured in their own unique way, many of them apparently stranded in various out of the way places.
  • Zarko StraadiToday at 12:28 PM

    "Ewwww, I knew iiiiiiiiit!" Dian hissed. "This 'Secret Art' of yours better be the greatest thing ever!" She stopped in her tracks and started sending out webs in a criscrossed pattern in front of her, to create a raft of spider silk.
  • "You'll have to do better than that, Xuan snapped. "I know they're all conniving against me. For you it may be great drama, but for me it is just the cock crowing at dawn."
  • Jian searched the pictures for any commonalities, such as location or the cut of their clothes.

KookyOPToday at 12:39 PM

The raft of spider silk was formed as the blood reached Zi Dian's knees. Around her, however, the blood of the blood sea was beginning to bubble violently.

The whispers ignored Yu Xuan, growing steadily louder and louder until they were more shouts than whispers, each round of voices sending forth shockwaves that threatened to throw Yu Xuan from his feet.In her dome,

Shen Jian's search turned up few similarities between the many scenes. Many of those depicted within seemed to be simple commonfolk, but there were also martial artists and even nobles present in the images.
  • Zarko StraadiToday at 1:00 PM

    Dian climbed up onto her raft, scowling at the knowlede that the shelter it offered would only be temporary. "What is this, moral critique?" she shouted out. 'Oooooh, you're drowning in blooooood!' Well, one of your boys tried to use your 'Secret Art' to destroy our whole damn universe, so you can just climb down offa that high horse, whoever you are!"
  • Xuan clapped his hands over his ears to no avail. Groaning with effort, he struggled to gather focus. Finally, he managed it, shifting to his Shadow Dragon form so he could, if necessary, become one with the shadows around him or tap into their power.What if I grab one of the spheres? Jian thought. If I could rotate it, perhaps I could get a better view of the person's surroundings. She settled into a front stance, then reached out and grabbed a sphere.

KookyOPToday at 1:11 PM

Around Zi Dian, skeletons began to float to the surface of the sea, each at the center of one of the groups of bubbles. The skeletons assemble themselves and begin to shamble towards her raft.
As Yu Xuan shifted into his Shadow Dragon, the voices abruptly ceased. A mere moment later, the shadows cleared, and he found himself in the Qin Empire's ceremonial chamber. At the head of the chamber, his eighth brother, Yu Shenjin, was kneeling before a minister holding the crown of the empire, clearly in the middle of his own coronation as the new emperor.
Shen Jian reached forth to grab a sphere and found herself suddenly standing before an old man with one leg trapped beneath a rock on the side of a mountain. As she appeared in the scene, the man's head whipped up"Is someone there? Please help me!"

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:31 PM

Dian groaned, and started spraying webs to entangle the skeletons. They'd make annoying, squirming additions to her raft, but... "So is there a point to all this other than 'drowning in an ocean of blood in the middle of nowhere?'" she snapped. "Alright, alright, maybe it's 'what you think is reality is only a dream, maya, illusion'" she said, then decided that maybe thinking alould wasn't the best idea.

So if I just go into a lotus position,
she thought, chant mantras and ignore all the blood and the groping skelly fingers because 'it's all an illuuuuuusion,' then I get out? ...Actually, I guess 'it's an illusion' makes more sense than 'pyramid in the desert created an infinite ocean of blood.'

And so, she perched herself upon the highest remaining redoubt of her raft and curled her legs into a lotus position. "Om mane padme hummm..."

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:43 PM

Xuan gave a lopsided grin, then clapped slowly. "A phantasm of jealousy! What dream will you weave next, an insult to my mother?"

"Wha--?" Jian stammered, shocked to find herself, apparently, somewhere in the outside world. "Yes, I'll help you!" She checked the terrain to find a place she could aim the rock where it wouldn't cause any harm.

KookyOPToday at 1:53 PM

Zi Dian's cocoons wrapped around the skeletons, but failed to capture them, the bones simply melting away to blood and returning to the ocean below. Moments later, new skeletons emerged from below. Furthermore, meditating on the highest point of the raft wasn't doing anything, and she could feel the raft beginning to rock as further skeletons climbed aboard.

The ceremony halted as Yu Xuan clapped and spoke, every eye in the venue turning to face him. Yu Shenjin turned to face him, his chubby face growing red with irritation. "Throw him out!" Guards approached from each side, attempting to grab Yu Xuan.

Nobody else was around, and the rock could be thrown wherever Shen Jian desired. Removing the rock revealed that the man's leg was completely smashed beneath. Showing little of the pain that the injury must undoubtedly be causing him, the man spoke up again. "Thank you!" He attempted to get to his feet, but collapsed again as he put weight on the leg, his face going white. After a moment of pained hissing, the man spoke up again. "I- I'm sorry to impose further, but could you aid me in reaching the monastery atop the mountain?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:15 PM

I hate this teeeeeeeeeest! Dian thought. Can an illusion kill me? ...Yeaaah, of course! If I think I'm drowining in an ocean and I'm actually just choking on my tongue, I still bloody drown! Alright, so maybe I can create my own illusions... She stretched out her hands in front of her and visualised an impenetrable, rigid sphere of translucent webbing forming around her.

"Don't trouble yourselves gentlemen, I'll show myself out," Xuan said. "I see through this ridiculous charade: no one was surprised to see me appear out of thin air."

Jian pinwheeled her arms, gathering qi as she settled into a front stance. She brought her hands together in front of her chest, curling her fingers into the Sunburst Mudra. Then, with a loud kiai, she thrust her hands forward, palms out, unleashing a shaft of brilliant light that launched the rock away from the pinned man. As she gathered and used qi, she felt for its level: was it normal for her world, or at the elevated levels of the pyramid's world?

KookyOPToday at 2:21 PM

Zi Dian reaches out. No impenetrable, rigid sphere of translucent webbing appears. Instead, the skeletons begin to grab her, dragging her towards the ocean of blood. As the near the ocean, blood slowly flows up the skeletons, forming familiar faces. People from her training in the Scarlet Spider clan, who she'd killed to prove herself.

As Yu Xuan stepped out of the coronation chamber, he found himself standing in the entrance room of the tomb, Ling Ling floating in front of him. "Unfortunate. Since you've passed two trials, that at least earned you some reward. Would you like to see what rewards are available, or would you prefer to watch the others?"

The qi of this world was at the elevated levels of the pyramid's world. The rock flew away as the man watched on in awe. It drew a nice arc before landing a ways away, shattering into large shards.

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:07 PM

"Ewww, I get it, punishment for my sins," she said, thrashing at the flailing arms, struggling to stay out of their grasp. "Heaven sentences me to drown, while a fat old king who launched massacre across a continent dies asleep in his bed, surrounded by harem girls and bedecked in gold! Well, Heaven can just--bugger itself--with a--broomstick!" she sputtered as her own flailings became more desperate.

"So the test was, what? To play along with some fantasy?" Xuan said. "To what end? I would not do in a fantasy what I would do in reality, so you would learn nothing of me, only illusion. I will watch with the others."

Jian gathered a blue sphere of healing energy, taking full advantage of the higher qi levels, then immersed the sphere into the man's injured leg. Even if it could not heal him entirely, it could at least make it safe to move him, and reduce his pain. She looked up the mountain to the distant monastery.

Getting him there would be an entire journey in itself! ...And this is only one sphere, there are countless othes! she thought. The qi levels are unchanged, so this has to be an illusion. But what is the lesson? That I cannot save everyone? I already know that. In the real world, I can save what I can. But how can that apply here, if the people I'm 'saving' are illusions?

KookyOPToday at 3:13 PM

Zi Dian's struggles were effective, the skeletons thrown off. However, as she struggled, the sea around her rose up to form the figures of the matriarchs of the clan, towering over her and completely made of blood. Together, they looked down at her before intoning together, "Unworthy." As they finished speaking, they dispersed into waves of blood, completely washing over the raft and submerging Zi Dian.

In Shen Jian's trial, the man's injury was swiftly healed by her energy. Although not all better, at the very least he'd be able to walk on it now. He bowed in gratitude as he made his way to his feet. "Thank you! I don't know how I can repay you!"

As Yu Xuan spoke, the room around him melted, as he awoke in an unmarked room. Zi Dian and Shen Jian each sat on one side of him. Shen Jian appeared unchanged, but Zi Dian's body gave off constant wisps of dark energy. At the other end of the chamber, a figure made of shadows watched the trio, giving Yu Xuan an annoyed look as he awoke.
The waves of blood washed over Zi Dian's raft, dragging both it and her below the sanguine surface of the ocean of blood. As if to make things worse, below the waves were thousands of skeletons, each reaching out to grasp her and drag her further below.

In Shen Jian's trial, the old man seemed waiting for a response. "The way up is treacherous, and I fear I will not make it alone."

Finally, in the chamber of the third trial, the shadowy figure spoke. "Congratulations. Do you want to wait for your companions, or would you prefer to move on alone?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:32 PM

Zi Dian sucked in a breath before the inundation crashed down upon her. As the whorls end eddies batted her around, she caught glimpses of the endless army of skeletons that was coming for her. She shaped her hands into the Water Spider Mudra, creating a bubble of air around her head and shoulders that would allow her to breathe.

Why is an Art that has to hide itself from Heaven doing this to me?! she thought. Is this the Art punishing me, or am I punishing myself? Those thoughts were about to drown in a storm of emotion as fear and fury fought for primacy. In a fleeting moment of clarity, a teaching from her Sifu came back to her:

As children, every one of us rails against injustice with the heartfelt cry, 'It's not fair!' And yet, injustice continues unabated. Those who struggle for that childhood ideal perish, while ancient hierarchies of power and privilege pass their empires from generation to generation. The only way out is to become the spider that weaves the web, rather than the hapless creature trapped in it.

Skeletons came at Dian from all directions, the only thing slowing them down being that there were so many of them trying to reach her that they got in each other's way. With no time for contemplation or puzzle-solving, she grasped for one last strand of hope.

"Fine, you're right, I'm not worthy! I haven't studied your Art's sutras or basic techniques. I don't even know the names of its Masters, much less their lives and lineage. How am I supposed to pass your test if I don't understand the questions? When I came here, Ling Ling mentioned 'Applicants.' Can I become an Applicant and learn your Art from the beginning?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:48 PM

Shen Jian looked up the mountainside to the distant monastery. It is forcing me to choose, she thought. If I help him, I could be stuck in this Trial for who knows how long, and my body could die of thirst in the mean time, if I am lying on the floor of some chamber lost in illusion. But what if this is somehow real, and I have been sent to one of many situations where a person is in distress? Even if it isn't, will I fail the Trial by abandoning him, or by not doing so?

"How did you come to be in this situation, sir? Did someone do this to you?" she asked.

Yu Xuan glanced about himself in confusion, but when he saw the shadowy figure, he kept his face a stoic mask. 'Congratulations?' Then...I must have passed the test instead of failing it! He felt a momentary temptation to slap the others awake, but decided against it. "I will wait," he said.

KookyOPToday at 12:58 PM

Zi Dian's words went unanswered as the skeletons grabbed hold of her, dragging her further below the surface of the ocean of blood. As they descended further, the light surrounding her became darker and darker, leaving her in an abyss of darkness, the skeletons still dragging her deeper. No response came to her questions as a deep malevolence became clearer and clearer from below.

The old man shook his head to Shen Jian's question. "No, there was a rockslide and I became trapped underneath that stone when it landed upon my leg."

The shadowy man shrugged, ignoring Yu Xuan once more as the shadows wisping off of Zi Dian grew more intense. "When you're ready to proceed, you may enter the door behind me."

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:55 PM

It seems the answer is 'no,' Dian thought. She loathed the clammy, sticky feel of the blood-ocean that soaked through her clothes, and the bony hands that held her fast. But if they're dragging me somewhere instead of just trying to kill me, that gives me time to think. Fighting them is pointless. It's an infinite ocean of illusion. So it's either give up, or go where they're taking me, she thought. She took slow, deep breaths, ragged at first as she sought to release her emotions and seek inner calm, the patience of a spider waiting for its prey.

Xuan gave a nod of acknowledgement, but said nothing. The shadow figure was clearly not there to be his friend.

Shen took a moment to contemplate her situation. While all of this was very likely to be an illusion, one question remained: did the man truly think and feel, or was he simply a figment with no inner consciousness? Of course there were entire philosophical treatises that sought to wrestle with questions of truth and illusion, and all manner of meditative disciplines, schemes of contemplation, and esoteric paths that sought to navigate them. And beyond that lay whatever answers this 'Heaven-Shrouding' Art had found for itself, and whatever response its spirits wanted from her."What do you know of the concept of Maya?" she asked the man.
  • KookyOPToday at 2:20 PM

    As Zi Dian calmed herself, the skeletal hands began to fade, leaving her adrift in the sea of blood. The malevolent force below also began to fade away, and she found herself peacefully adrift as the blood began to turn to water, and then drain. The water drained away as she found herself suddenly stuck to an immense web, a shadowy spider poised above her.

  • The old man seemed confused by Shen Jian's question, but thought about it for a few moments before responding. "Maya? I think I heard a travelling monk speaking about it a few years ago."

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:51 PM

Dian smiled, but otherwise remained absolutely still. She could try to cut the web with technique, but why bother? She would merely be batting at illusions, and they would only get worse. Instead, she continued with slow, deep breaths, and opened her senses to feel for the malevolent presence. Was it centered on the spider, or further down, deeper within?

"Do you have a meditative practice?" Shen asked.

KookyOPToday at 2:54 PM

The malevolent presence indeed centered on the spider, which was now moving to bite down on Zi Dian.

The old man shook his head. "No. I'm just a farmer."
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The shadow spider bit down at Zi Dian, jaws attempting to snap shut into her body.

In Shen Jian's trial, the old man upon the abandoned mountain seemed confused by her questions, leaning on a cane for support.

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:50 PM

By reflex, Dian shot bright red cutting strands from her fingers, slicing around herself to cut herself free and drop to the cave floor. "So am I supposed to fight you now? I'm not going to be afraid of my own Shadow. I embrace it, because that's how I get to decide what it does. But I don't know if you're supposed to be my Shadow, or just something I need to crush." she snapped.

Jian sighed. I don't have time... she thought. "I'm sorry. There are truths about you, and about your world that I cannot explain to you in words, and I do not have time to walk either path with you, toward the monastery, or to Enlightenment. But I can show you, through a technique that will allow our minds to commune directly. Will you permit this?"

OPToday at 12:56 PM

The webbing around Zi Dian resisted the strands, but ultimately was no match, falling away as she dropped to the floor below. The spider's jaws closed on empty air, leaving it puzzled for a moment before it turned and hissed at Zi Dian, launching a spiraling web of shadows at her from its position on its web.

In Shen Jian's trial, the old man seemed disappointed, but shook his head. "That will be alright. I'll make my own way up if you cannot." As he spoke, the mountain around her dissolved, leaving her standing in front of the orb she had originally touched. The light within it faded as it cracked and fell to the ground, shattering. Around her were still hundreds more orbs.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:13 PM

Dian dove into a front flip to dodge the shadow webs, landed, and made the Tarantula Mudra to restore her heavy armor. "Fight it is, I guess," she said with a predatory smile. Her six arms whirred in a blur of motion, spraying a fusillade of flechettes at the spider from her armor's stylized thorax.

Jian bowed to the man, and felt relief as his illusion faded and she found herself back in the room with the spheres. I hope that means he did not have a true Self, she thought. "I know that I cannot save everyone in all of these spheres," she said. "I do not even know if there is anyone in them to save." Instead of touching any of the spheres, she checked her surroundings again for anything besides the spheres.

OPToday at 1:21 PM

Zi Dian's flechettes struck the spider and sunk deep as the spider's thorax, although it seemed remarkably unharmed by them as it leapt from its web, striking down at Zi Dian with its forelegs. A thin trail of shadow flowed out of the spider where the flechettes had struck, dispersing into the cave.

Shen Jian was still surrounded by the spheres. However, now that one of the spheres had been broken, she could see brief glimpses beyond the dome surrounding her. She appeared to be in a cathedral-like building, although it was difficult to see details due to the momentary nature of the gaps she could catch glimpses beyond through.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:32 PM

Dian rolled onto her back so she could block the enemy spider's forelegs while punching and kicking at its body with her other limbs. She snapped her teeth at it, and large, sharp fanged chelicerae appeared beside her head, lashing out at the joint between its head and thorax. With a successful bite, she would inject deadly venom into its body.

Jian looked up to the ceiling. If she could fly up there through the surrounding wall of spheres, could she get past them?

OPToday at 1:36 PM

Zi Dian's attempt to block the spider's foreleg were unfortunately only half-successful. The spider's foreleg smashed through the limbs she used to block it, but was diverted enough to barely miss her. The punches and kicks struck its exoskeleton, but failed to pierce through it. The chelicerae were the only avenue of attack that worked, piercing into the beast as a spray of venom was ejected into it. The spider backed away, screeching, but seemed unaffected by the poison as it launched yet another web of shadows at Zi Dian.

The prismatic orbs did present a small gap every so often, but the gap was only for a moment. She could try to fly through the gap when it next presented itself, but the chances of success were tiny. It was far more likely that she'd come into contact with the orbs as they moved to close the gap.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:52 PM

Dian grimaced from a flash of agony; though the limbs she'd lost were only conjurations, they were still part of her on the qi level. But the pain only made her even more eager and determined to dish some out to her enemy. She rolled out of the way of the shadow web, taking a glancing blow to her tarantula armor, which she allowed to break up and disperse.

Rolling to a crouch, she formed a new mudra with her fingers. The conjured limbs she received this time were more slender, and covered with gray fuzz, built for speed rather than raw strength. In her jumping spider form, she bounded out of the way of the other spider's next attack, landed on the ceiling, and drew her dao. She bounded again, aiming for a passing slash attack against the enemy.

Jian took slow, meditative breaths, carefully timing the appearances of the gap. She made several quick gestures with her hands, tracing characters made of light into the air. "Amitabha sacred techinique: Body of Light!" she said, finishing just as the gap started to reappear. Her form dissolved into a beam of light that aimed to shoot through the gap and allow her to rematerialize on the other side..

Yu Xuan began to tire of waiting for the others. "Who are you?" he said to the shadowy figure. "Are you Ling Ling in his true form, or someone else?"

OPToday at 2:08 PM

Zi Dian's newfound speed allowed her to avoid the next smashing strike and get close to the spider before it had the opportunity to strike again. Her dao flashed as the spider caught it on one foreleg. Unfortunately for it, the sharp blade of the dao cut clean through the foreleg, which melted into shadow on the ground, leaving the spider down one limp as it began to fire webs wildly around the room.

Shen Jian's gamble paid off as she narrowly passed through the gap in the orbs. She rematerialized in the air above the dome of orbs, now able to clearly see the room around her. She was in an ornate, empty cathedral. An altar laid at one side of the room, and a grand door at the other. However, before she could investigate, she would have to avoid falling back onto the dome of still-active orbs below her.

In Yu Xuan's room, Zi Dian's shadows had calmed, losing strength to the shadowy man's obvious annoyance. His eyes snapped back to Yu Xuan as he snorted in amusement. "Ling Ling? That stupid spirit is too scared to enter the room while I'm in here now that his master is dead." He paused, then began to expand many times his size until he filled the room as his voice gained a booming quality. "I am the inner demon king of the Heaven-Shrouding Immortal." He shrunk back down to his original size before continuing, "However, as of now, I am simply the proctor of the third trial. You may call me Grandfather Demon if you must have a name."

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:22 PM

Dian shot from wall to floor to ceiling like a moth in a jar, struggling to dodge the spray of shadow webs, while seeking an opening to slash at another of the spider's legs.

Jian pressed her arms to her sides, then raised them up in a T-pose, making herself light as a leaf in hopes of gliding past the spheres to reach the floor.

"Mmm," Xuan acknowleded. "This Master, did you kill him then?"

OPToday at 2:29 PM

The spider continued to spray webs around the room, but Zi Dian's speed with her jumping spider limbs allowed her to continue evading until the spider began to tire, giving her the opportunity to remove one of its legs.

In Shen Jian's trial, she was able to lighten herself enough to slowly glide down just outside the dome of glowing orbs. As she touched the ground beyond, the orbs slowly dimmed before crumbling to dust.

Outside of the trial, Grandfather Demon seemed almost affronted by Yu Xuan's question. "Of course not. He died of wounds incurred in his attempt at ascension."

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:04 PM

Zi Dian was beginning to tire herself, but a combination of bloodlust, and rage stoked by the ordeal of blood and skeletons fueled her efforts to continue with her tactic until the enemy spider could be slowed enough for her to jump onto its back and deliver a beheading coup de grace.

Shen Jian turned toward the altar. She flowed smoothly to her knees, then clapped her hands in front of her chest into a 'prayer' pose to show respect, bowed, then rose to her feet and started backing toward the door. Though she was curious about the altar and wanted a closer look, she was not a hierophant of this Temple, and did not even know who was meant to be venerated here.

I hope this Art is as deadly in use as it is in its trials, Yu Xuan thought. Glancing over at the women, it seemed that Zi Dian was faring better. Should I go on withou them? he thought. As mighty as this Art seems to be, it might be wise to be the first to access its power. Or...

The two females were helpless. Two quick swipes of his sword, which would happen almost as fast as he could draw it, and he could eliminate them as rivals. The Grand Elders would never know, unless the Demon chose to tattle. Even if he did, they would need Xuan's knowledge of the Heaven-Shrouding Art too much to stand on principle, and would they even take the Demon's word over his?

Unless this 'opportunity' is a trap. His reaction seems to say that assassination of rivals is not acceptable in this Art. ...And besides, I may need them, he admitted to himself reluctantly. It had taken all of them together, and Grand Elder Xiao sacrificing his own chance in order to get past the first Trial, and who knew what yet awaited?

OPToday at 3:19 PM

Grandfather Demon seemed indifferent to Yu Xuan's contemplation of murder, but spoke up anyways. "While I care not about what you do with your companions, I will not permit you to disturb my meal."

Zi Dian was able to continue to weave around the attacks of the spider until it paused for just a moment too long, allowing her to leap atop the spider and behead it. The spider collapsed moments later, its body melting away into the cave as the entire cavern began to shake and crumble. Moments later, however, she awoke in the chamber, Grandfather Demon looking at her in disappointment. "A pity. That looked like a particularly tasty one."

As Shen Jian stepped towards the door, the ashes of the orbs behind her began to swirl around her, crowding into her as hundreds of visions passed across her mind. In the first, the old man she'd met at the mountain arrived at the temple. He'd apparently found someone else on his way up the mountain. As he crossed the threshold of the temple, however, he discarded his cane, shoving his hand through the sternum of his helper. The unfortunate man shriveled up in an instant as the old man's face grew less wizened and he unleashed a torrent of attacks, obliterating the temple in an instant.

As that vision faded, however, visions of hundreds more who had gone unaided flashed across her mind, many of them dying alone and helpless. Still worse, however, were the dozen who, on the verge of death, committed unspeakable atrocities to save themselves. As the visions faded, a voice spoke next to her ear. "You could have stopped this."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:17 PM

Though the demon's power of telepathy was disturbing, Yu Xuan kept his face an impassive mask, noting its reaction and what that said about the Art it guarded."I heard that," Zi Dian snapped, scowling at Grandfather Demon. She tensed to scramble to her feet and lunge at him, but Xuan held out a hand to stop her.

"You do not know how powerful this creature is," he said. Dian settled back into her lotus position with a huff, then flicked her eyes toward Shen Jian."At least I beat Goodie Girl out of there," she muttered.

Shen Jian spun toward the voice, staggered by the vision. No one there. She took a ragged breath to center herself. " are nothing but a beast of illusion and lies," she said in a shaking voice, willing herself to let go of the visions as she turned and resumed her walk toward the door at a brisk pace.

OPToday at 12:22 PM

Grandfather Demon did not so much as react to Zi Dian's lunge, but nodded approvingly at Yu Xuan's action in stopping her. "A very good choice. Either way, you have passed your trial. You are free to continue on through the door behind me or to wait with your compatriot here for the third to conclude her trial."

In Shen Jian's trial, the voice spoke again, visions continuing to flash across her vision. "Lies? Preposterous. Had you simply exercised diligence in your actions instead of acting on momentary assumptions, these many could have been saved."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:28 PM

Xuan and Dian shared a look. Dian gave a little shrug and settled in to wait. Xuan nodded and did likewise. This is an evil presence, Jian reminded herself. It would not have offered true opportunities to save, any more than it offers wisdom now, she thought, continuing toward the doorway.

OPToday at 12:31 PM

The voice continued to speak. The door was getting no closer, either. Almost as though it receded with every step she took towards it. "Have you closed your ears to the truth, then? That is one way to reassure yourself."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:33 PM

Seeing the door stretch away from her, Shen halted. "Even the distance from me to this door is a lie. What 'truth' do you have to offer?"

OPToday at 12:35 PM

"What does the door have to do with me? This place is within you, not me. Perhaps your inability to reach the door stems from your lack of ability to reject what I've said."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:47 PM

"If this place is within me, then what is within it is also within me," she said, glancing back to where the orbs had fallen. "If it is not, then it springs from within you. Either way, it is only a panoply of dreams and nightmares, shattered and burned to ash. Neti, neti." Jian said.

OPToday at 12:52 PM

"This place is within you, but those orbs? An entirely different story. Those were a way to many worlds. They were unfortunately all too real."

Zarko StraadiToday at 12:56 PM

"So you say," Jian said. She turned and tried to walk back toward the altar.

OPToday at 12:58 PM

Walking towards the altar worked perfectly fine, delivering her to it in just a few steps. It was just towards the door that didn't work. "So I do, indeed! But if you are so intent on disbelieving me, there is little I can do to convince you otherwise."

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:04 PM

Reaching the altar, she knelt again and clapped her hands in front of her, then lit some joss sticks from the candle, then started into meditative breaths as she watched the smoke curl up from them.

OPToday at 1:05 PM

The joss sticks light up and she's able to begin to meditate. The voice does not speak for quite some time before finally apparently losing to curiosity. "What are you doing?"

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:26 PM

Jian let her meditative state go deeper and deeper as she watched the joss sticks burn down. When the creature finally spoke, she gave a slight smile. "There is no doing, only being."

"How long is this gonna taaake," Dian said under her breath.

"Until the creature feeds upon her, or she prevails as we did," Xuan said. "We do not know what lies ahead. We may need her," he said, as much to himself as to the Scarlet Spider Clan girl. As much as waiting for Jian wore on his patience, she was the one with the healing techniques.

OPToday at 1:44 PM

Shen Jian sinks deeper and deeper into her meditative trance. She can vaguely hear the voice speaking, but it just buzzes off the corner of her mind. Time begins to lose meaning, and she continues to meditate.

Zarko StraadiToday at 1:51 PM

Dian huffed. "Can we just smack her?"

"This is 'Grandfather Demon,'" Xuan said, gesturing toward the being. "I do not think he would appreciate the interruption. Unless he also tires of this exercise..."

Jian continued with her meditation.

OPToday at 1:54 PM

As Jian continued her meditation, she began to feel a prickling feeling across her entire body, almost as though someone were stabbing into her with thousands and thousands of needles. The voice had gone silent and was no longer speaking.Back in the main room, Grandfather Demon spoke up. "Indeed. I am waiting to see if I will get to eat today. I have no intention of allowing either of you to interfere."

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:01 PM

Jian came out of her meditation. She clapped again and rose to her feet, then backed a few steps away from the altar. She shook herself loose and flowed through some qigong Forms to restore her blood flow, then tried walking toward the door again.

OPToday at 2:05 PM

As Shen Jian attempted to step back, her body felt oddly leaden. As she attempted to start flowing through the qigong forms, she could feel something actively resisting her as the voice spoke again, this time booming from all the surrounding.

"Oh? Pity. I was almost there too."

Now that Shen Jian was no longer meditating, the cathedral had taken on a much more sinister slant. While the room hadn't changed, the shadows all around her had deepened to pools of inky darkness.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:11 PM

"Is that so?" Jian said. She drew her dao and poured qi into it, so that its blade began to glow brightly, then started into her sword Forms.

OPToday at 2:13 PM

Shen Jian's sword forms were awkward, that same resistive force pressing down on her more and more. The shadows of the cathedral continued to deepen, transforming from mere pools to almost liquid flows of shadow across the cathedral.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:21 PM

"Are you sure we can't smack her?" Dian whispered to Xuan. "Even if it doesn't wake her up, it might at least be fun."

"There's no point in whispering. He's telepathic," Xuan replied.

"Oh. Yeah. Sooooooooooo," Dian said, turning to the demon. "How long has it been since you got to eat somebody?"

Jian gathered more qi and let it flow through her, until the glow spread across her body, and her sword blazed like the Sun. Then, as quickly as the resistant force would allow, she thrust its blade into one of the shadows.

OPToday at 2:24 PM

Grandfather Demon's eyes remained fixed on Shen Jian as he responded. "A very, very long time. Challengers rarely make it this far."

Shen Jian's sword plunged into one of the shadows, pushing it back a tiny amount. However, all that it did was push the shadows back a moment before they began to push up her sword, slowly extinguishing the light.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:28 PM

"Wow. Can't be too fun to be you," Dian said. Xuan raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.Jian tried to pull her sword free and twirl it to shake off the shadows.

OPToday at 2:29 PM

Grandfather Demon shrugs. "I don't need to eat, I simply like to."

As Shen Jian pulls the sword free, the shadows stick to it, the rest of the shadows of the cathedral continuing to grow in size. As the flows of shadow continue to grow, it becomes clear that they are streaming towards her, the light emanating from her body holding them off for now.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:38 PM

Jian gently set her sword down, then sank into a cat stance and put her hands in front of her sternum, wrists touching, hands aimed up and down. Her fingers shaped into a mudra that created a warm globe of brilliant light, a miniature sun. She spread her arms and raised them over her head in a sweeping gesture, lifting the sun over her head and pouring more qi into it to make it shine brighter and brighter.

OPToday at 2:42 PM

The sun above Shen Jian's head pushes the shadows back, but the remaining shadows around the cathedral begin to flood out. The pool of shadow continues to grow as the sun pours of light, beginning to form a tiny dome around her.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:46 PM

Jian started into a Form of graceful dancelike movements, her arms moving in flowing arcs that swung the sun around her like a ball on a chain. She placed her feet to move in seemingly random directions, but slightly, gradually in the general direction of the door.

OPToday at 2:47 PM

Shen Jian is able to continue to swing the sun around her, carving out a path of receeding shadows until she reaches the doors. When she arrives at the doors, however, they're locked.

Zarko StraadiToday at 2:55 PM

Unable to open the doors, Jian resumed her dance around the room, feeling for anything that might be a center or edge to the shadows and the restraining force that clung to her.

OPToday at 2:57 PM

Shen Jian continued to dance around the room, but the restraining force continued to grow. The shadows continued to creep ever closer, now a pool reaching up to her ankles. There didn't seem to be an obvious edge or center to them, although the altar seemed strangely untouched.

Zarko StraadiToday at 3:03 PM

Using the swirling sun to fend off the shadows, Jian hurried back to the altar. Keeping the sun whirling around her with one hand, she reached out the other to sense the altar's qi currents.

OPToday at 3:07 PM

Shen Jian made her way back to the altar, the shadows still cowed by the sun. It was when she attempted to examine the altar's qi currents, however, that she realized she had been deceived. As she reached out to the altar, she found it utterly mundane. At that moment, the suppressive force redoubled upon her as the shadows flooded towards the door, ramming into it. The doors bulged almost comically as the liquid shadow rammed into them before slamming open, allowing the shadows to flow out.

On the other side, they recollected into a shadowy version of Shen Jian that slammed the doors back shut. Back in the real world, Shen Jian's body suddenly stood up. Grandfather demon squinted at her skeptically before his jaw completely unlatched and he inhaled strongly, swallowing her whole. He chewed a few times before nodding in satisfaction.

"Sneaky bastard thought it could get past me."