The next few hours were hectic.
The guards were regular men, farmers by day, most of them, who took turns volunteering to keep the sect safe. However, since the Zhou sect was so isolated, they had never feared an invasion or attack of any kind. This showed in how the guards bumbled about as they tried to set up a tight perimeter around the village. There were quite a few of the men, almost fifty, but they scrambled around every which way without any communication or discipline.
It took Li to gather them up at the village square and re-direct them until his voice went hoarse from shouting to efficiently comb through the village grounds. Renard helped a little, circling about with them and discovering the village as he went along. He had never truly stepped into its bounds until now, and it felt eerie seeing it under the cover of panic and darkness. The only light came from the flashes of torches the guards carried as they sprinted about.
It gave the village a distinct sense of uneasiness. And with all the villagers holed into their mudbrick houses out of fear, it almost felt like some impending disaster was upon them, as if at any given moment god himself would smidge out the little place with his thumb.
Eventually, some calm did settle back. When the wee hours of dawn broke and thin rays of amber sunlight streamed through the wispy clouds above, Li finally determined that there was nothing after extensively interrogating the villagers after Lady Zhou gathered them en masse to the square.
Darius was nowhere to be seen: there wasn't even a trace of his existence, not a single eyewitness account of him wandering about.
"Pathetic," said Li. "If only these men were trained. Properly drilled. Maybe we would have caught even a glimpse of that foreigner."
He stood with his back to the village well, where the square centered. He slouched a little, his normally upright posture breaking down from a combination of losing sleep and leading the villagers. By now, though, he had sent them all home so that they could get some semblance of rest.
Lady Zhou also used the well's cobblestone walls to support herself. She leaned back further than Li, more tired and more drained. She rested opposite of Li so that they faced away from each other, the well's open maw separating them. Her eyes flitted closed every so often, resisting a need to sleep, but always managing to stay open and alert in the end.
Renard sat on the dirt a little way aside from them, mulling over the events of the hectic night.
"I thought I told you to train them," she said. "What have you been doing this whole time?"
"I'm deeply sorry, my lady."
Lady Zhou sighed. "I get a little irritable when I am tired. Pay me no heed. But it is true that you must train them better."
"None of them have any talent," muttered Li. "No matter how much I push them, how hard I make them fear for their lives, they cannot Awaken."
"Then do not try. It has merely been a few months since I have told you to teach, but if you consider them unteachable, then do not try to change what is written in stone. Train them in something useful. Drill them. Let them become soldiers. They need not be formidable warriors."
Li shifted uncomfortably. "But my lady, you said we needed a fighting force for the dark times to come. Well-disciplined soldiers can be a powerful force, but only if they number in the hundreds or thousands. There are barely fifty here, and not a single one of them can be described as well trained."
"Dark times, huh?" chimed in Renard. "I feel like I've been out of the loop this whole time. Care to fill me in, either of you?"
"I thought it best to not let you worry until you were stronger," said Lady Zhou.
"But he must," Li declared. "Renard is already strong. An Awakened warrior of his caliber would lead many, many men in the Imperial Forces. And with strength comes duty. Duty to the people that have sheltered him so."
Renard nodded. "I agree."
Lady Zhou closed her eyes and stood still, and for a second, Renard thought she had fallen asleep. Yet when she spoke, her eyes still closed, it was apparent that she was merely reminiscing.
"You understand that we are at war with the West, but not to what extent," she said. "Know that our empire, the Xia, is divided into four territories corresponding with the heavenly cardinal deities.
There is the Fierce Bull of the North, where the empire's largest fighting force lies, the Silver Dragon of the East, where the emperor himself resides, the Wise Tortoise of the West, and the Burnt Phoenix of the South, where this sect stands."
Lady Zhou raised a single finger. It shook a little. "To date, only the territory of the Wise Tortoise has seen combat with the Dominion, as they are closest to the Western lands."
"The same territory that Darius said had already fallen," said Renard. "Then I guess now that the west's gone, there's not much stopping the Dominion from coming here."
Li slammed his fist into the well, his superhuman strength shattering a big chunk of it into bits and pieces of crumbling rock.
"Were it not for our fool of an emperor, we would not even have lost the west." Li clenched his fist.
"The bastard sits in his tower of silver, lording over the commonfolk on a bejeweled throne while calling himself the god of gods. Yet he does not even lift a finger to help us, all because of his greed."
"Our emperor is not a kind one," explained Lady Zhou, noting Renard's confusion.
"An understatement," spat Li. "He actively thwarts our war efforts. Withholds his fancy Winged Guard and prevents the Horned Legions of the North from helping us. Not to mention the Burning - all the friends I knew that were hunted down and executed."
"The emperor, now that his mortality is reaching him, seeks immortality above all," said Lady Zhou. "The territory of the Wise Tortoise has always been blessed with knowledge. It is a land full of temples, sages, and scholars. In there, the emperor may have found a few secrets to immortality were it not for his destructive policies."
Lady Zhou shook her head. "The emperor has instituted what is known as the Burning for the past forty years. Power that he could not control terrified him, and knowledge is power. He has burned all cultivation manuals and texts that he could not put under his authority. The sages and scholars that opposed him were also burned. Of course, with the Wise Tortoise territory possessing the bulk of these intellectuals, they were the ones to suffer the most."
Li snorted. "And now that the emperor's feeling all weak and old in his bones, all of a sudden he wants our secrets. The secrets he'd burned when he was feeling all young and spry."
"However, there are a group of men and women, sages of great renown known as the Immortals, that reside in the Wise Tortoise territory," continued Lady Zhou. "They alone hold true longevity, and the emperor longed to capture them. Yet they evaded him until the war with the Dominion began."
She grimaced. "Which is when the emperor saw an opportunity. The Immortals protect over the Wise Tortoise territory, but they alone could not hold off the Dominion. Thus the emperor gave them a heavy ultimatum: surrender themselves to him or he would let the territory burn without any support. The Immortals refused him, refusing to give up sacred knowledge."
"Cowards, all of them." Li started to pace about, his weariness wiped clean with anger. "The emperor and his greed. The Immortals and their pride that would rather let our homeland burn than to give away some old teachings."
"This is ridiculous," said Renard. "What point is immortality if there isn't going to be an empire to rule over? If one territory's already gone, isn't the emperor already losing?"
"No." Li said, resolution in his voice. "The Wise Tortoise territory from the start was a land of philosophers, scholars, and sages. Our military barely stood taller than that of the Burnt Phoenix's. On top of that, the Burning neutered our fighting sages and elemental cultivators. The North and the East hold no such weaknesses. They are formidable, and together, they may very well drive the Dominion away."
"And the South?" said Renard. "Where do we fit in the grand scheme of things?"
Lady Zhou frowned. "We do not. We are…a special case. You see, before the Felling, when the gods were alive, they blessed and guided the people of Xia. The Fierce Bull gave the people of the North great fighting prowess. The Silver Dragon granted the people of the East bountiful fields and mountains filled with precious, magical metals and ores. The Wise Tortoise blessed the people of the West with beautiful areas to meditate and knowledge."
She motioned around her, towards the village in general. "The Burnt Phoenix, however, never stood with us. She sacrificed herself to entrap all the remaining demons of Xia in the South in the form of a seal. The land in the South is not fertile. Its land does not hold precious metals. Its weather is harsh. We hold no inherent power of our own. But the Southern sects do hold the one thing preventing an ocean of demons from swarming over the empire."
A pause. Lady Zhou closed her eyes again, taking in a deep breath. With a delicate movement, she placed her hand over her heart.
"And that is me. As the last survivor of the Zhou clan, I am the sole carrier of the Firebrand, the seal that holds this entire empire from collapsing."