On the Chasewind Plane, there exists a saying: Wind is freedom, blood is life, and lightning is a cage. Though he wasn’t sure about the last two parts, Cha Ming agreed with the first. Wind was freedom, and with a pair of wings, the possibilities were endless.

Cha Ming was currently flying on painted wings. His Azure Tempest Wings were a hundred meters from tip to tip, so every flap sent him flying several kilometers before he managed to straighten himself out. Even so, he much preferred it to travel on any class of flying ship.

He flew past lush forests and sprawling mountain chains. Most were unmarred and unscarred, but some bore telltale signs of war and spatial instability. Despite the fierce battles that had taken place two weeks prior, the sky was calm. A recent storm had scrubbed away any lingering blood, be it fiendish or human, leaving only freshly laundered air for residents of the Azure Tempest Region.

This was the Chasewind Plane. Unlike the Inkwell Plane, it was a spherical planet and had much less water and no oceans to speak of.

Cha Ming did not belong to this world, but he and thirty-two others from the Heartforge Realm had been sent here to serve as wardens. Their duties were simple: For the next forty-eight years, they were to destroy any high-level fiends that spontaneously appeared in their region and minimize the damage they caused. If they performed well, they would be awarded points that could be redeemed for cultivation resources and immortal-grade techniques.

The Azure Tempest Region of the Chasewind Plane had a surplus of mountains; they snaked across a good quarter of the region and provided much-needed refuge from the intense winds that periodically devastated the region. Except for lush valleys nestled between said mountains, the lands were parched and unproductive, though this did not seem to deter the region’s thriving mortal population.

Mortals mostly inhabited the empty plains, and they generally stayed far away from the mountains, for it was known that immortals lived in the mountains, and it was thanks to their efforts that the mortals lived in peace.

Cultivators and mortals did not mix on the Chasewind Plane. Or they hadn’t, until recently. Cha Ming’s company, the Clear Sky Conglomerate, had blurred the lines by fueling a resurgence in core-formation cultivators. The reception was mostly positive.

It took several hours for Cha Ming to arrive at the Azure Tempest Sect. Though he’d come as quickly as possible, his invitation had come late. The others had already arrived a few days ago and discussed many things without his input.

This was to be expected—the Azure Tempest Sect was the leader of all the sects and clans in the region and had to balance the interests of these many subordinate entities. Cha Ming might be influential, but he was, after all, an outsider.

An elder flew out to greet him as he landed on the floating island where the sect’s headquarters were located. “Warden Clear Sky,” the elder greeted. “Many thanks for journeying here so promptly despite the short notice.”

“Elder Crimson Tempest,” Cha Ming greeted. “It’s no problem at all. I expected everyone to meet earlier, but given the terrible nature of the recent fiend outbreak, delays are understandable.”

The elder led him to an amphitheater on the northern end of the floating island. The amphitheater could easily accommodate ten thousand cultivators, but it was currently empty save for a few hundred azure platforms that floated in a semicircular formation.

Each azure platform was a seat and could only accommodate a single cultivator. They floated on one of four levels depending on one’s status. Tier-three sect elders occupied the lowest level. Tier-three sect masters and tier-two sect elders occupied the next level up. Cha Ming was surprised to discover that his seat had been placed on the second-highest level, which was reserved for tier-two sect masters and elders of the Azure Tempest Sect.

Sect Master Azure Tempest eyed Cha Ming frostily as he took his seat, and Cha Ming couldn’t help but shiver as he recalled their last encounter. The sect master was several times stronger than he was and had a penchant for imposing her will on others. And judging by the fearful gazes everyone else on the second level shot her, this was the common consensus.

Cha Ming started by addressing Sect Master Azure Tempest directly. “I, Daoist Clear Sky, Warden of the Azure Tempest Region, have answered your summons as requested.” He did not address the baleful stares directed his way, nor did he bring up the fact that they’d all been meeting for days. They were right to be angry, even though their anger was misguided.

“I find your cheekiness most unsavory,” an old sword-wielding man on the second level said to Cha Ming. “Given the disaster you brought on our heads, I would have expected a bit of humility.”

“Come now, Sect Master Soaring Blade,” Sect Master Xuan Dao said. Her voice had a musical quality that dulled the sharp edge of Soaring Blade’s words. “The doings of others from the Heartforge Realm are obviously not Clear Sky’s fault. He personally participated in the defense of the region and saved a great many lives, without regard for his personal safety. He was practically half dead when one of our elders found him and brought him to safety. It’s a miracle that he still lives.”

Sect Master Soaring Blade sniffed. “I doubt his injuries were that serious, given that he has the energy to float his platform on the second level.”

Since Sect Master Azure Tempest had not yet returned his greeting, it was obvious that she wanted to see him fend for himself. “You’re overpraising me, Sect Leader Xuan Dao,” Cha Ming said. “I happen to be fortunate enough to possess a portable time-acceleration device, as well as top medicines. I was never in any real danger.

“As for Sect Master Soaring Blade’s insinuation, I would like to remind him that there are several elders of the Azure Tempest Sect present on the second level. If the implication is that those present did not exert themselves, what about them? And what about yourself?”

“You have a sharp tongue, boy,” said Sect Master Soaring Blade. “If only you’d used it to warn us that one your companions was so treacherous.”

“I suppose it’s all my fault that we were stabbed in the back in the middle of a fiend outbreak,” Cha Ming replied. “How could I make such a basic mistake, not knowing what my enemies are up to at all times?”

“Enough, both of you,” said Sect Master Azure Tempest. “And everyone else, stop glaring daggers at each other. I gave you all three days to work out your grievances, but some of you just won’t get over the fact that we were all outplayed.

“I didn’t call Clear Sky to hang him out to dry. We were blown off course because we underestimated our opponents. What we must do now is find our bearings and plot a new path forward. Elder Verdant Tempest, if you please?”

Elder Verdant Tempest was a bookish middle-aged man with dark-green hair and a pale complexion. His cultivation wasn’t strong for a tier-one elder—only at the initial-law-stitching realm—but his soul was unusually powerful and fused with his qi. Strength-wise, he was qualified for the position.

“As you all know, the recent fiend outbreak was far more severe than projected,” Elder Verdant Tempest said. “Many grave warriors died in battle, and their sacrifice will always be remembered. If it weren’t for the Blood God Sect’s interference, I’m certain that our losses would be significantly lessened. But we can’t turn back time. We can only observe and learn from our mistakes.

“For those who don’t know, the Blood God Sect has recently risen to prominence in the neighboring True Blood Region. They began growing in strength roughly six years ago but mostly kept to themselves. The recent fiend outbreak has changed all that.”

“You’re saying they’re famous for stabbing us in the back?” Elder Soaring Blade cut in. “That’s hardly worthy of praise.”

“If you’d wait a few minutes longer, you’d understand that their activities are not confined to sabotage,” Elder Verdant Tempest said. “Their activities within our borders are only a smaller part of a concerted effort to subvert the rule of the True Blood Region. Three days ago, they announced that the region should now be called the Blood God Region. And the incumbent leader of the region, the True Blood Monastery, has said nothing to the contrary.”

Tier-one sects were powerful entities. Cha Ming found it difficult to believe that they could be replaced overnight. “Did the other tier-two sects revolt against the True Blood Monastery and force the issue? I can’t see how else this would be possible.”

“That is correct,” Verdant Tempest said. “The ten most loyal tier-two sects to the True Blood Sect were attacked by twenty tier-three sects. Like the Blood God Sect’s sect master, the leaders and elders of these tier-three sects are much stronger than records would otherwise indicate. We don’t know much more than this, and we are unclear about the capabilities of those from the Heartforge Realm. Clear Sky, would you be able to fill in the gaps?”

There were many things that Cha Ming was forbidden from sharing with them, but he told them what he could. “According to what I know, the warden of the Blood God Region is known as Dao God Blood Seal. Dao God Blood Seal is an early-law-stitching and early-shell-marking cultivator.

“His Dao name stems from his divine ability, Seal of Primordial Blood, which allows him to use his blood to seal cultivators, form binding contracts, and track down individuals. His combat prowess is far from outstanding relative to the other wardens, but in terms of sealing abilities, he is unmatched.”

“What can you tell us about the rapid increase in strength shown by Sect Master Blood God and the tier-three elders in their region?” Sect Master Azure Tempest asked.

“There are many ways to forcefully increase one’s cultivation, but I would wager that their quick increase in strength has nothing to do with Dao God Blood Seal,” Cha Ming said. “Devilish blood techniques are not difficult to find. Such methods are brutal and incur great sin, but by using them, it wouldn’t be difficult to increase an entire sect’s cultivation base—assuming enough blood sacrifices could be secured.”

“So you’re saying that their growth has nothing to do with Dao God Blood Seal?” Sect Master Azure Tempest asked.

“I’m ninety percent certain,” Cha Ming confirmed.

“So you say,” Sect Master Soaring Blade cut in. “I find it far more likely that this Dao God Blood Seal supplemented them with something from the Heartforge Realm. Something that you haven’t provided.”

“Silence, Soaring Blade,” Sect Master Azure Tempest said. “Clear Sky, please proceed.”

“Firstly, I’m not obligated to provide you all anything, and your sect least of all,” Cha Ming said to Sect Master Soaring Blade. “Your sect has refused my offer of resources countless times and continues to bar my Clear Sky Conglomerate.”

“That is hardly relevant to the—”

Sect Master Azure Tempest silenced them both with her aura. “Enough! Continue, Clear Sky.”

“I can only speak according to my experience,” Cha Ming said, changing the topic. “Would I be correct in stating that the Blood God Region favors blood cultivation, much like the Azure Tempest Region favors wind cultivation?”

“That is the case,” Verdant Tempest confirmed. “Likewise, the Puppet Lightning Region located opposite the Blood God Region favors lightning cultivation.”

“Thank you for clarifying, Elder Verdant Tempest,” Cha Ming said. “Could you also confirm that the True Blood Sect cultivates orthodox blood-cultivation techniques rather than devilish-blood-cultivation techniques?”

“That is indeed the case,” Verdant Tempest confirmed once again.

“Then to me, the answer is clear,” said Cha Ming. “I once had a disciple who cultivated orthodox blood arts, and her cultivation speed was much slower than that of others. This is because the supply of blood in one’s body is limited.

“Devilish techniques do not have such limitations. They rely on the blood of others for cultivation. There are many disadvantages to such an approach, but on the Chasewind Plane, is an unstable foundation really a disadvantage? The highest cultivation realm anyone will ever reach is the middle of the law-stitching realm.

“The main problem with such techniques is that practicing them invites persecution. To grow an entire tier-three sect in secrecy would be difficult. To do so with a tier-two sect, would require a tremendous amount of effort.

“But if one had access to a reliable sealing technique that would trigger if anyone tried to divulge this secret…”

“I think I understand what you’re saying,” Elder Verdant Tempest said. “Dao God True Blood didn’t directly strengthen anyone but facilitated the process via his sealing arts. Only in this way could they conceal their strength and violently usurp power during the outbreak.”

A wave of disappointment swept through the audience, and it was only then that Cha Ming understood the purpose of this line of questioning. They weren’t accusing him of holding back—they were asking if these same advanced methods could be used by them as well!

“Every warden from the Heartforge Realm has brought with them a set of skills and a different approach to protecting their assigned region,” Cha Ming said. “I have spared no effort in bringing much-needed resources to the Chasewind Plane and have done everything I can to spur the development of core-formation cultivators. With luck, many of those will manage to carve their cores and become transcendent cultivators.”

At the mention of rewards and core-formation cultivators, many of the hostile gazes pointed Cha Ming’s way softened. This naturally did not include Sect Master Soaring Blade, who’d fought both of these initiatives tooth and nail.

Unfortunately, Sect Master Azure Tempest did not seem keen on letting him off easy. “Tell me honestly, Clear Sky—are the wardens of the Heartforge Realm truly here to protect the Chasewind Plane, or is another game afoot? We’ve avoided the issue until now, as times were peaceful, but we need to be aware of the greater picture.”

Cha Ming did not want to deceive his allies, but it was difficult to bring up the topic after skirting around it for six years. “I confess that there is a greater game involved,” he said carefully. “The wardens have technically been assigned to defend their regions, but there is room for competition between regions, should the wardens feel so inclined.”

These words provoked gasps from the audience. “There! You see?” Sect Master Soaring Blade shouted. “I told you all that these youngsters from the Heartforge Realm would bring us trouble!”

Sect Master Azure Tempest once again made liberal use of her aura. This time, it came crashing down on Cha Ming until he could barely breathe. “Explain,” the sect master said. “As for the rest, be silent, or I will personally eject you from this meeting hall!”

Cha Ming struggled for a few seconds before the pressure loosened. “As you all know, thirty-two wardens were sent from the Heartforge Realm, each with their own region to defend. The better we perform in defending our regions from fiendish incursions, whether by direct means or by indirect means like mobilizing local sects and clans, the more points we earn that can be redeemed for rewards. It is by redeeming these points that I have been able to supply appropriate rewards for the sects and clans to hunt down fiends in a timely matter. In essence, I am sharing my own rewards with you all, both to reduce any potential damage to the plane and also to arm you all for what I expect to be a prolonged conflict.

“In theory, there are no conflicts,” Cha Ming continued. “Each warden receives rewards for defending the territory under their protection. But what if a territory were to fall? What if a warden were to fail to protect their territory? Then it would fall to another warden to protect that territory from fiendish incursions and be rewarded for their efforts.”

“I believe Dao God Blood Seal is abusing the system by working with the Blood God Sect to annex portions of the Azure Tempest Region. By doing so, he is diminishing my area of influence and claiming rewards which would otherwise have belonged to me.”

“You make it sound like a game,” Sect Master Soaring Blade accused. “A game with sects and clans as pieces and our lives as disposable things that you can throw around as you see fit!”

“You’re being melodramatic, Sect Master,” Cha Ming said. “My arrival changed nothing. This has always been a game. The regions have ever fought over territory, and the Three Sects, Four Clans, and Five Desolates have seldom interfered. By not saying anything, they are giving this competition their tacit approval.”

You…” said Sect Master Soaring Blade, shaking. “You’re inverting black and white!”

“Am I?” Cha Ming asked. “You seem convinced, but the others don’t look so certain.”

Sect Master Soaring Blade looked around and saw that Cha Ming was correct. In fact, the moment Cha Ming mentioned inter-regional wars, they’d started mentioning past conflicts and blood feuds.

“Your words… make a certain amount of sense,” Sect Master Soaring Blade reluctantly agreed. “But I’ve never liked your tone. You sit on a platform meant for tier-two sect masters, but you have neither the power nor the bearing nor the legitimacy to sit there.”

He then did something that Cha Ming did not expect. He flew off his platform and into an open area just above the amphitheater stage. “Your words mean nothing to me, or to anyone, unless you have the power to back them up. Fight me if you dare.”

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