The Measuring of Souls 8
The class scheduled for the next morning was math, and it ended up being quite a disappointment after cultivation theory and theology.
“I will not tolerate any slacking or absent-mindedness in my class,” the lecturer explained. He was an older man whose face seemed permanently bunched up into a disapproving grimace.
“My time is not to be wasted. What I teach is valuable. If you fail to meet my standards, you will be penalized shards or even banished from the sect. As cultivators of the empire, your responsibilities are great and will require far more than brute strength. Immortals staff much of the imperial bureaucracy, military, and religious organizations. You will not embarrass the sect by failing to become proficient in these matters. Besides, math is the key to enlightenment. It is the ultimate language and it’s simply impossible to understand the endless heavens without mastering it. Understanding by definition requires measuring something according to objective standards.”
As the lecturer spoke, many disciples exchanged doubtful or amused glances when they thought he wasn’t looking. Verus was also skeptical. If math was really the key to enlightenment, someone would have probably mentioned it before. More likely, this elder was simply eccentric. Still, Verus kept his head down and focused on the lessons. Luckily, he’d never had any problems with math and the subject matter wasn’t too hard. Some of the other students looked frustrated, especially the more martial ones, but Verus doubted any would fail. Being at the Foundation Realm increased not only a cultivator’s strength but their concentration and memory as well.
When the class was over, Verus got up and left the classroom. However, three disciples intercepted him as soon as he stepped outside. Surprised, Verus looked up and studied them. At their head was a young man that stood out from the crowd. He wasn’t from Verus’ class, but he’d seen him before. The approaching group’s leader was tall and wearing a dark blue silk robe that looked quite expensive. As he walked, he seemed to glide effortlessly across the ground, almost as if he was floating. He had a handsome face, well-groomed light blond hair, and his glowing sky-blue eyes were staring right at Verus. The eyes made his identity unmistakable. This was Highcloud. The number one ranked disciple in the outer sect. Even Verus had heard of him.
Deciding to play it safe, Verus gave the young man a polite bow. “Greetings. How may I help you?”
“You can tell me what you discussed with the Praestigiae,” Highcloud responded coldly. He made no move to return the greeting, but at least he didn’t seem outright hostile.
Ah, so this was about the creepy pale kid. “Nothing of significance. He remarked upon the nature of my soul, and much of it escaped my understanding. That was all.”
Highcloud frowned and Verus felt him scan his spirit. It tickled, but he didn’t resist.
It wasn’t until a few tense moments had passed that Highcloud stopped. “I see. I shouldn’t have expected anything. This was a waste of my time,” he announced as he turned and left without another word, taking his two followers with him.
Verus stared after him. What a pompous ass. Also, why did his eyes glow like that?
Now that Verus was alone, Fang wandered over with a grin on his face. Verus hadn’t known the scruffy disciple was nearby, but he’d apparently watched the entire scene.
“Still attracting trouble, I see, Verus.”
All Verus could do was shrug and sigh. “It’s nothing I did. He wanted to know what Inanis talked to me about. Why are all of the cultivators from established families so arrogant and disrespectful?”
“It is the nature of immortals to compete for resources and only respect the strong. You’re weak so they look down on you. In fact, you seem to be among the weakest of all of us here in the outer sect.”
“That’s not how anyone is supposed to behave according to the teachings of the Archon and the Lightbringers. The strong are supposed to protect the weak.”
Fang snorted rudely. “There’s the teachings of the church and there’s reality. They don’t usually mix much, especially not for cultivators. In the empire, the powerful make the rules, and the weak obey them. All that nonsense Lightbringers preach is simply to keep the mortals in line.”
Verus was shocked at Fang’s bluntness, especially in public where disciples and elders might overhear. Back at the mountain temple, any initiate who said something like that would earn a stiff punishment from an elder. He didn’t agree with Fang’s position either. He wasn’t exactly a devout follower of the Archon, but he recognized the wisdom in the Lightbringer’s teachings.
“There’s more to the teachings of the Lightbringers than that,” he replied. “Not only do they lead people to enlightenment, but they are what allows the empire to prosper and grow.”
This earned him a look from Fang. “You’ve seen quite a few sect elders, how many of them were emphatic defenders of the common folk? If anything, the enlightened become detached from the world and the other people in it as they begin thinking of nothing but their own advancement. They only pretend to care about the common folk because they’re a useful resource.”
Now Fang was questioning enlightenment itself! How could it be anything but the ultimate good? Anything else made no sense. “Enlightenment is oneness with the endless heavens and God; striving for it brings all of humanity together.”
“Believe what you want, but if you’re expecting anyone else to believe that nonsense, you’ve got some unpleasant surprises headed your way. I’d grow up fast if I were you,” Fang remarked before walking away.
Verus didn’t try to stop him. He’d already said enough to put Verus in a bad mood. How could you question enlightenment itself? A lot of what the Lightbringers preached was probably not strictly true, but enlightenment had to be the ultimate good…
After grabbing a quick lunch, Verus went back to his room to try channeling again. Even with the channeling orb full poison ki clutched in his hand, he still had no luck trying to grasp the ki within it. Logically, Verus knew that a few days was nothing, but he also knew that he was falling further and further behind everyone else. He had to do more than succeed. To get into the inner sect he had to stand out from the crowd. That wouldn’t be easy even if he immediately successfully performed the channeling technique and learned he had a strong poison attunement. As it was, he could struggle for weeks or even months and never gain a real attunement.
It soon grew dark, but Verus kept pushing himself. Sleeping hadn’t helped him grasp the ki yesterday, so this time he’d go without it if need be. Despite the frustration and despair that grew stronger as the hours went by, Verus stifled his feelings and focused on keeping his mind clear. At least he had a lot of practice with that thanks to his mood swings and nervous outbreaks.
The next morning, Verus stumbled out of his room and dragged himself to his next class. Now, he was seriously beginning to despair about finding a rare attunement, but stopping now would be pointless. If he started training the Way of Imperial Might, he’d still never get into the inner sect. He could do nothing but double down on his channeling strategy.
Today’s class was writing. Verus some difficulty focusing on the boring subject thanks to his lack of sleep, but he managed to get through the class without a problem and then return to his room. Surely, today would be the day he finally figured out if he had a poison attunement, right?
However, once inside the dormitory, Verus saw Warin waiting for him outside his door. Hiding an irritated frown behind a polite smile, Verus greeted his friend and sect brother. “Brother, what brings you here?”
Warin gave him an annoyed look. “I’ve barely seen you since we got here. You’re almost always training in your room. You only leave to eat and go to lectures, and even then you run back to your room right away. It’s almost like you’ve been avoiding me, your sect brother and closest friend!”
“Ah, I’ve simply been trying to learn my cultivation technique as quickly as possible. It has turned to out to be significantly more difficult than I’d thought it would be and has been taking up all of my time.”
His chubby friend did not look satisfied by this answer. “That’s everyone’s focus, including mine, but you’re the only one that looks like you’re going without sleep and about to fall apart. You’re pushing yourself too hard, brother. I know you want to get into the inner sect and become an elder, but that won’t happen if you work yourself to death in one of your moods and let yourself get obsessed. Remember, peace of mind is required to reach enlightenment and obsession blinds you.”
“Not everyone’s content as long as they get to stuff their face,” Verus mumbled darkly. The words slipped out of his mouth.
Rather than being insulted, Warin simply gave Verus a dry and unamused look, like his point had just been proven.
How could his friend understand his failures? Verus’s first instinct was to respond with another insult and to tell Warin to leave, but he held his tongue. As soon as he recognized the seething frustration within himself, they began to die down, and it became obvious that he was the one being unreasonable. More than that, Warin was giving him very good advice. It wasn’t his fault that Verus hadn’t told him about his lack of attunements.
“Sorry, you’re right. I’m in a bad mood. Please forget my ill-considered words,” he mumbled a moment later, feeling ashamed.
“They’re already forgotten!” Warin exclaimed with a smile as he stepped over and put on hand on Verus’s shoulder. “How could I hold anything against you?”
Verus smiled back through his exhaustion. “Thank you for your concern and wisdom. I will keep your advice in mind, and it will be very helpful, but I really do need to keep training. I don’t have much choice if I want to stay in the sect.”
“I didn’t see you at physical training yesterday,” Warin said as he studied his friend. “I understand your need to excel, you’ve always been that way, but you can’t stay cooped up in your room all the time. You should at least get some exercise and train your body. That will help your cultivation as much as meditation, so you should join me in going to the training now.”
Verus sighed and reluctantly turned away from his door. “That’s a good idea. Let’s go.”
Some physical training would definitely help clear his mind and even help with some of the aches that he was experiencing from being in the meditation position so much. Warin was right, he really had become way to obsessed with channeling to the detriment of his cultivation as a whole.
The pair managed to get to the training ground just as the training session began. The hour-long workout strained his muscles and ki circulation exhausted his core, so he was feeling weak and huffing and puffing by the time they were finished. However, it was a good pain. He felt much more awake and his mind was definitely clearer. Even his mood was quite improved.
Verus gave Warin his thanks again as they walked away from the training grounds together. It was nice to have a friend who looked out for him.
His friend simply dismissed his concerns. “It was no problem. We temple wards need to stick together. Do you want to go to the cafeteria with me now? I’m feeling hungry after that work out.”
Verus laughed. “No, I need to get back to training.”
“Your loss. Personally, I find a full stomach helps me concentrate.”
“Maybe, but you won’t get much done if you need to constantly snack to keep it full,” Verus laughed as he waved goodbye to his friend.
“Good luck,” Warin told him. “And if you need anything, don’t be afraid to simply ask, brother.”