"An end to illusion, eh." Ebon Dirge shook his head as he gazed down at the boy's corpse. "To the very end, he was a thoroughly annoying bastard, wasn't he."
He almost wished he could have prolonged the boy's death or made it more painful, but there was little point in such petty displays, and his means of outright killing someone in his current state were limited. Strong River's life had always been in his hands only because he had directed a seed of the Sanguine-thread Lotus into his heart when they concocted his Blood Devouring Palm.
Ebon Dirge's soul in the past decade had considerably stabilized and grown in strength; the boy's penchant for killing, starting with the grand massacre at the Dragon's Den, had given him a bountiful supply of souls to integrate. He had fooled the boy in order to have the uninterrupted time necessary to finish his consolidation in preparation for this final step.
Reaching out with a spectral hand, he seized Strong River's soul. It wasn't necessarily impressive as souls went, but it was special. Even the small accumulation of destiny that the boy had made for some astonishing coincidences to occur. Accumulating more should make for a potent arsenal against the Northern Light God Emperor's own powerful destiny.
The soul transferred to him smoothly, transforming into a spiritual membrane that surrounded and strengthened his now-complete soul. Ebon Dirge skimmed his consciousness, checking it for any remaining cracks or flaws. He found none, but he did find something else.
In his inner mental world, a single red flame hovered and sputtered. Had this been what the boy had been talking about as he died? He reached out and probed the small flame.
Upon touching the tongue of red flame with his consciousness, he found himself sucked into an entirely new world.
He was back at the very first time he saw Strong River, a feeble whining mess that crawled along the ground after a few knocks from some thugs that weren't even putting effort into it. This time, Ebon Dirge could do nothing to interfere, locked in the vision as an observer only.
The bandit thugs left the boy behind, and the boy crawled to the pond to wash his face. There he spotted the Sanguine-thread Lotus and grasped it. The plant wrapped itself around his arm as though it was made for him, and wholly integrated itself into his flesh.
What kind of dogshit luck was this? So this was a vision then of course Strong River faced Brave Dragon had he not interfered? Ebon Dirge tried to leave the vision but found himself unable to do so, locked into his observation.
Time blurred for a moment, cutting ahead to the return of the bandits. Strong River got into fisticuffs with the men, being surprisingly stronger than they had recalled. The men yielded, and one quickly explained that they were concerned that they had hit him too hard and, after finishing their business in town, they have gone to the apothecary and gotten him some healing salve.
Although Strong River was still resentful of the Dragon's Den, there was comedic value in the situation in which the fresh bottle of salve the men had procured to help him with was, in turn, something they needed for themselves. The two men, couriers who only dropped by on a monthly basis, made fast friends with the kid and gave him some pointers on his technique while also vowing that their boss wasn't really that bad of a guy.
Strong River didn't swallow their story, but he decided he'd give the men a chance to prove themselves. The men then regretfully had to go, heading off to deliver messages to another station to the south, but they promised to return and make good on their claims. Strong River then returned to the village.
Back at the clan, Strong River decided to apply himself better, practicing the moves he had learned from the bandit men. Elder Cloud spotted him at this and made an on-the-spot determination to groom the young man as a replacement, as he was in his declining years and the Cloud family hadn't produced a suitable heir.
Strong River made fast friends among the warriors, although tensions remained high with Soaring Wave. His friendship with Blue Ripple maintained much the same course, however, with Blue Ripple being a good influence in helping Strong River feel like he was part of the clan.
Everything went well as Strong River trained and went to the Primeval Forest, until one day Blue Ripple was kidnapped. Distraught and a little wary of getting help inside the clan, he turned to the only source of outside help he could think of: the bandit men he had befriended before. Luckily, they were in town on their rotation on that very day.
The two men, hearing about the incident, had a vague notion to check something. Carefully, the trio of Strong River and the men checked out the nearby outpost, where the pair only dropped off packages and messages and never bothered going inside before. They discovered Blue Ripple was held captive there, and Strong River rescued him before Elder Wave's arrival, the bandit duo distracting their renegade compatriots.
Not knowing who all in the clan might be involved, the four of them fled together north to the Dragon's Den and laid the case in front of Brave Dragon: the Flowing Water outpost was illicitly engaging in trafficking of men and boys, procuring them for Elder Wave's sick tastes in exchange for payment on the side.
Brave Dragon, sensing some hostility from the young man and acting on an impulse, challenged Strong River to an arm-wrestling match. Strong River surprisingly won, much to the bandit chief's amusement, and the bandit chief made clear the situation with Sweet Nectar: yes, she had a unique constitution, but all he did was refer her to his sect as a talent to be nurtured and developed. The sect had moved her and her parents out with haste.
Strong River had then admitted to himself that his overactive imagination had gotten away from him. Besides an occasional kind smile and wave, there was nothing between him and Sweet Nectar; it was only a daydream he indulged in to escape from the reality of the drudgery in which he wallowed.
His delusions thus dispelled, Strong River made his apologies to Brave Dragon, and the two swore brotherhood on the spot, to the astonishment of the bandits. Together with Blue Ripple and a whole battalion of bandits, they descended upon the Flowing Water outpost and dealt with the villains running the operation there.
The bandit force then turned to the village of Flowing Water itself. Specs, an astute fellow who often examined things to the point of overanalysis, was able to deduce the source of the corruption inside the clan: Elders Wave and Pearl, who collaborated and shared benefits. Both elders were executed, and their families were thrown into disgrace, but Strong River took pity on Soaring Wave.
It turned out that following their escape from the outpost, Elder Wave had pursued "grooming" Soaring Wave in earnest, and the trauma of that experience coupled with the destruction of his family's status had torn down his arrogance and driven him into a suicidal depression. In the care of more healthy influences now, he quickly recovered and became Strong River's number one supporter.
Strong River approached his strange brother Brave Dragon and made a proposal: drop the label of bandits, go legitimate, and found a warrior's school to benefit all in the region. Given the alternative to the petty despotry of the clan villages, talents could emerge for them to develop, and with the resources of the Primeval Forest to share, they could all become stronger together.
Ebon Dirge had to take a moment to recombobulate himself as the timescale of events spread out mentally. This was what the boy was meant to do? The story was almost saccharine, although the implications fascinated the immortal assassin. Did everything always just conveniently arrange itself for those with destiny like this?
The scenes continued, showing the foundation of the Dragon River School. Strong River and Brave Dragon led it together and their personalities made for an odd combination. Brave Dragon had explained to Strong River that he was once a cultivator in a school outside the region, but that during some time he spent out tempering he was severely injured and then picked up by the bandits as a mascot of sorts. His path of cultivation was basically near its end since his meridians were damaged, but his referral of Sweet Nectar had netted him the resources to advance into initial Foundation Building, his limit.
With Brave Dragon's old connections and with the bandits turning over a new leaf, everything more or less went according to plan in the founding of the Dragon River School. The two founders were surpassed by many others in the school as time went on, but they were always revered as the ones who made everything possible.
Eventually, both of the men passed away in their old age, and a new generation arose and faced the most severe threat the region had ever encountered: the awakening of the Primeval Forest. Expending much in resources and manpower, the school eventually tamed the forest, and it became their school's guardian demon. With that kind of foundation, the school expanded to other regions and eventually even managed to produce some immortals.
The images that whirled through time ended here, and the world surrounding Ebon Dirge burst into flames and transformed into ashes that spun around him, flowing off into other directions. He could see a couple of figures out there at the ends of the trails:
The Swordsman Blue, off in the distant West, about to step into Foundation Building and fulfill his vow to return home and cleanse the clan and region of tyranny and vice. The halo of his destiny was much larger than something like that, though.
A nine year old boy named Sorrow, who lived far to the north with his frail and sickly mother. His eyes were violet and his hair a strange and unnatural looking mixture of strands of crimson and blond, but he had a sweet innocence about him almost as strong as the glow of destiny he possessed.
Ebon Dirge then returned to the physical world, apparently at the same moment he had begun his journey of visions. That had been unexpected, and yet he had learned much from the experience.
First of all, the Eye of Heaven's Fortune had a gaping flaw: its judgment of a target's circumstances was subject to the target's own perception of their circumstances.
Strong River was a weak boy with a persecution complex and an overactive imagination. From a couple of smiles, he had concocted an entire fantasy that the girl Sweet Nectar was his beloved, an escapist charade that he indulged in private until it felt very real.
When the news came that Brave Dragon had discovered her unique constitution and that she had helped him in his advancement, coupled with her disappearance, his wild imaginings turned it into a tragedy demanding repayment in blood.
And a tragedy it became once Ebon Dirge himself stepped in to assist the boy on his destined path. A sect that would produce immortals was erased, an impending calamity from the Primeval Forest would almost certainly occur, and two even more powerful destinies were floating around with the Blue boy and also with this child Sorrow.
More than ever, Ebon Dirge felt he had much to learn about destiny. With a healed and complete soul, he was now able to take a more direct approach, depending on the circumstances.
The immortal specter looked around at the scene, with Strong River's dead body rigid on the ground and the seven women tied to the trees. He shrugged, activating the Eye of Heaven's Fortune and flying above the forest, seeking out a new bounty. He was not yet prepared to handle the intensely bright halos of destiny around Blue and Sorrow, but someday...
As for the bound women, he did nothing for them. It would be bothersome to find a way to release them with zero benefits, and the beasts this deep in the forest rarely got to sample a delicacy like human flesh anyway. Let them have their meal, and if any of the girls were meant to make it out, well, good for her.
He didn't hold out much hope of that, though. After all, none of them had destiny.
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