Chapter 21 Disguises
From the center of a vast, sprawling city rose a single colossal tower. Like the buildings that surrounded it, the tower was as white as untouched snow, and it stood so tall that it looked as if it were on the verge of touching the clouds.
On the top floor of the tower was a large circular chamber, thirty feet high and a hundred wide. It was empty but for a single man. The man was tall and gaunt, with long hair as white as that of the marble from which the tower was wrought.
He stood silently, looking out over the city from one of the chamber's windows.
A knock sounded on the door.
"Enter," the man said.
The door opened, and another man entered the chamber. This man was short, with sharp features and jet-black hair.
"Lord Magistrate," the short man said. "I bring troublesome news."
"Oh?" the white-haired man said.
"The party we sent to the Windsong monastery," the other man continued. "All of them have died."
"The Windsong monastery…" The white-haired man knitted his brows in thought. "That's the one with the upstart Grandmaster, correct? The one who sent word of an initiate with a forbidden Realm?"
"Yes, Lord Magistrate," the short man said. "We think it may have been a trap, laid by the agents of Chaos."
"Then find the culprits," the Magistrate said. "And eliminate them."
The short man nodded, then asked, "What of the initiate, Lord Magistrate?"
"If there is, in fact, such an initiate…" The white-haired man shrugged. "Capture him if you happen to find him. Do not waste any resources in tracking him."
"But Lord Magistrate," the other man said, a hint of shock in his voice. "He has a forbidden Realm. Surely we cannot—"
"Do you know how many youths with forbidden Realms escape our hands every year?" The Magistrate's voice was forceful, and the short man went silent.
The Magistrate waved his hand toward the wall, and a map appeared on it. On the map could be seen a single region, shaped like a rough square, bordered by seas to the south and east, mountains to the west, and a desert to the north.
"This is our Empire," the white-haired man said. "It spans ten thousand miles from the northern desert to the southern seas, and another ten thousand from the eastern seas to the western mountains."
The short man nodded, although a confused expression had appeared on his face.
The Magistrate continued to speak. "Just this past year, there were two in the capital, one near the Three Peaks, one in Fulai City, one on the Redstone Peninsula…"
As the white-haired man went on, small dots of white light appeared on the map with each location he named. After several minutes, the entire map was filled with numerous bright dots.
"So," the white-haired man finally said, "you think we should pour our resources into snuffing out each and every one of these embers?"
The short man looked uncertain, but he still nodded. "If left unchecked, any of them could rise up and become a threat to the Empire."
"A threat to the Empire?" The white-haired man smiled. "You would worry about ants in the cupboard, while we have wolves baying at the door?"
"Wolves?" The short man's expression grew uncomfortable. "The Empire is more stable than it has been in centuries. The forces of Chaos have yet to gain a foothold here."
The Magistrate shook his head. "You have been so busy looking at your own backyard that you failed to notice what was happening beyond the fence."
He waved his hand, and instantly the map expanded outward, growing larger and larger until it covered the entire wall of the circular chamber, all the way up to the ceiling. The entire map was vast, filled with endless lands, mountains, seas, and deserts, with the Empire taking up only a tiny sliver of it.
With another wave of his hand, most of the map darkened to a dark charcoal gray. Only the Empire and a few other regions remained as bright spots within the sea of charcoal.
The short man looked on in shock, his face turning pale. "Is this…" He did not finish the words.
"This world has already fallen to Chaos," the white-haired man said, his expression grave. "Fewer than a dozen regions still hold, including the Empire."
"Then what do we do?" The short man's voice trembled with anxiety.
"Our task has not changed," the white-haired man said. "We fight the forces of Chaos."
"But how can we win?" the short man asked.
"We cannot," the white-haired man said plainly. "All we can do is delay the end."
"Is it gone?" Jiang Fei asked, voice filled with anxiety.
Master Zhao handed her a small mirror, which she accepted with trembling hands. She spent several moments inspecting herself carefully, then finally breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that she had returned to her old appearance.
"That was horrible," she said, visibly shuddering at the memory.
It had been nearly two weeks since they had left the monastery, and Jiang Fei had complained daily about the appearance Master Zhao had given her. Several times, she had begged him to at least make her look like a woman or, failing that, a handsome young man.
Master Zhao had not budged, and when Jiang Fei understood that the man would not be persuaded, she had instead spent much of her time complaining to Arran.
The coldness she had shown when they first met was now all but gone, but Arran wasn't sure if he liked the change. The new Jiang Fei was awfully talkative, he thought.
"Your turn," Master Zhao said, turning toward Arran.
Master Zhao made some strange gestures, and Arran could see the air grow blurry around himself. He thought he could sense a hint of Essence as the man performed his magic, though he could not tell what kind of Essence it was.
When the air grew clear again a moment later, Arran found Jiang Fei staring at him, looking puzzled.
"Master Fireheart," — she had stopped calling Master Zhao 'Archmage' at his urging — "that disguise is no good at all."
"Why is that?" Master Zhao asked. Arran could see a trace of amusement on his face.
"You made Brother Wei An look like an Easterner," Jiang Fei said. "Blond hair, blue eyes… it looks ridiculous! An Easterner in this part of the Empire? Nobody would believe that." She shook her head in disapproval. "And he doesn't even look handsome…"
Arran's face fell as realization set in. "Call me Arran," he said gruffly. "Not Wei An."
"Arran?" She said the name several times, sounding out the syllables. Finally, she shook her head again. "That doesn't even sound like a name. Why not find something better? Maybe something like—"
"Because," Arran interrupted her, trying his best to stay calm, "my name is Arran."
Jiang Fei's eyes instantly went wide with understanding. "You— You're an Easterner?! That's what you really look like?! But— But…"
Arran sighed deeply, deciding that he much preferred the earlier, colder Jiang Fei.
"Enough of that," Master Zhao said. He pulled a scroll from his robe, then handed it to Jiang Fei. "Study this. I expect you to be done in an hour."
Arran instantly forgotten, her eyes turned bright. "Is that a Realm Scroll?" she asked eagerly.
Master Zhao nodded. "The scroll will give you a Shadow Realm. Tonight, you will open it."
"Tonight?" she asked. "I'm supposed to open a Realm in a single night?"
"I will help you open it," Master Zhao said, cutting off any further questions she had with a wave of his hand.
Remembering the black pill Master Zhao had used to help him open his first Realms, Arran immediately realized what Master Zhao was planning to do.
Recalling the experience, he could not help but shudder. He did not envy Jiang Fei.