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Shambala Sect 01

Helenia—despite being a relatively small town situated on uplands, on a rather lowly mountain part of a vast mountain range—had shops that could sell pretty much everything from food and household items to jewelry and weaponry. With the smooth and sustained flute sound coming from afar to soothe souls in the mornings, the tourists and even some locals delightedly strolled down the market streets early as shopkeepers of different belly and shoe sizes greeted them from left and right. Some vendors were courteous and couthy, but others exaggerated the worth of their merchandise through their adroit yelling.

“The finest silver knives that can slay beasts and shut up brutes, right here!”

“We’ve got snow-creams of winter and watermelons of summer. Take your pick! Buy anything, and you’ll get my fife for free!”

“It’s never too early for a mug of beer. Our inn has just the booze that brings life to the riders’ bottoms. We have fodder for the horses, too!”

“Come to our sweet shop, madam, and I’ll have you know how sweetness rolls!”

“Taste the twiggy[1], brother. Worth only ten faces, but your sunny face gets a ten percent discount. What do you say?”

On this auspicious morning of the year 4218 AD[2] when one of the young masters of the clan turned fourteen, tens of dozens of people—young boys and girls in flower hats, grown-ups in feather hats, and the elderly in leaf hats, with all the hats having their own quirks—passed through different streets only to eventually congregate at one of the open halls of the Faceless clan that owned Helenia.

The sound of the town’s flute barely reached the hall at this point.

Three men, each past fifty years in age, occupied respective seats while everybody else stood and gazed at the two youngbloods standing on the center stage with flooring reinforced by a well-wrought turtle shell. One was a seventeen-summers-old Sariyu of the Basuvu family, a redheaded maiden who grabbed the attention of many adventurous eyes, whereas the other was double-dozen winters old, purple-haired youngster, Burton of the Vesta family, who also got his share of attention from dreamy girls in the crowd, for the combination of warm, lucid purple hair and magnetic blue eyes made him hauntingly handsome.

"I wonder which sect granted permission for us to participate this time around..." Burton wore a cryptic smile on his face, allowing himself a few seconds to gather up his thoughts. "I think the time has come. I'm going to become a Martial Child this year and elevate our clan's status to a state better than it ever was." He passionately glanced at Sariyu, who was holding a folded white umbrella—enriched with intelligible floral designs—in one of her hands. The word 'Raqia' was inscribed on its wooden handle. "Then, you will be willing to become my better half, won’t you?"

"I failed for three straight years, but you failed for ten straight years, mister," Sariyu rested the umbrella against her leg and opened her ten fingers and flitted them at him, partially exposing a thin scar that ran across her left wrist. She was wearing loose clothes that hid her form from below the neck and above the shins. A white rose with red tips set in her hair prettified her profile. "Don't put too many hopes on yourself.” Her words took all the gas out of him. “That being said, at least this year, we must work together and pass. So I’m looking forward to working together."

"Sorry, but cooperation is not on my mind right now," Burton exposed his palms to the heavens. “Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against you. I just want to bring glory to our clan all by myself if possible. I’m the eldest among the young masters, you see. I’ve gotta set a great example, or… I’ll be mocked by many mouths that won’t hesitate to say I’m no different than a dog that depends on our town. So this time around, since the main three of us are probably going to participate, it’s the perfect time to shine, which is why I intend to lead the way. Teamwork is good and all,” he was looking at the three clan heads, “but I don’t want to be the next somebody. I’ll be the first myself.”

"If you keep thinking about only yourself, you might become a Martial Child, but you won’t become a good clan leader. So I suggest you change your ways while you can.”

“Thanks for the warning, but I know what I am doing,” Burton sweetly replied. “A tiger hunts best when it’s alone, not when it’s got clumsy feet following closely behind. The sect tests are the same as hunting grounds, so you are wrong to compare them to our clan’s livelihood.”

“Hmph, I’m not clumsy. Since you don’t want to team up," Sariyu coughed and then said in a teasing manner, "I will do it with Lirzod."

"Pfft, you want to work with that good-for-nothing Dumblord?" Burton didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

"I don't see much wrong with that." Her unswerving voice pierced Burton's heart like an arrow shot from a bow, "I know that you deem him as an incompetent fellow, but I don't think you are much better, either. Ten straight failed years will be a hard thing to beat even for that Dumblord."

"Humph, don't compare me to him," Burton replied in an irked tone, a dilute layer of distress screening his pupils.

As the two young ones prattled, the clansmen in the crowd engaged themselves in heated discussions, too.

"This time, all the three main families are participating,” Syam of the Yerram family adjusted his sleeves while seated in a seat sculpted out of a boulder. “Things will surely get heated this time, and we may finally get to decide whether it is good to stay in this clan or not in a few months." He was a stylish man every time except when he stood, thanks to his habit of sticking his belly out.

"These coming months might just decide if this clan still deserves my merchant skills to be used for its well being," Allda of the Pudota family lit a cigar using the end of a burning rope. His turned-up nose and humpbacked body made him look decades older than his actual age.

More than anyone, the three clan leaders could guess the weight of the event at hand without lending an ear to the words that winds wafted off the crowds.

"This term will decide our clan's very future," the one sitting in the middle, Picazo Basha—a gaunt grown man with little white shades to his copper hair—had a determined look as he made eye contact with the crowd. The unceremonious garb on him befitted neither his stature nor the current situation.

"Looks like it, but it's rare to see your son get positive attention from this many people," Sinario Vesta, a dark green-haired man, curled up the corners of his lips. His sinewy physique gave away most of his physical capabilities, but those watching him for the first time, especially the children, got astonished when their eyes witnessed him sipping various wines with saucers in both hands. The cone-shaped, crystalline earring dangling down his right ear seemed more like ice as it subtly shone and took whoever set their eyes on it to snowy lands.

"I beg to differ, as it seems to me that the end of our clan is possibly nearing," Kwame Basuvu's lips lightly curled down as he glanced at those in the crowd he thought were not all that trustworthy. "My concocting business will, for sure, take an unrecoverable dent if the clan weakens further. I must place all my trust in our children." He stroked his long red beard. Despite his seemingly old-looking wrinkled skin, his muscle definition wouldn't lose to any young man in an exhibition.

The trilateral stage had three pillars with three intimidating sculptures of masked dragons curling up about the supports from the bottom to the top, and three sculpted figures of men with fractured lion-masks were at the top of the pillars as though they were crushing the dragons’ heads. These sculptures attracted attention quite like the three humans gracing the stage.

"Where is he? Where is Young Master Lirzod? How long will he take to show up?"

"Someone, go and check his place, please. I fear that he might doze this morning off.”

“How can Young Master be this irresponsible? Even on an important day like this…”

As murmurs sprang to life, more and more members in the crowds got aggravated by the second. Some didn’t want to stand under the incandescent entity for too long, but all they could do was bide their time as the luminary climbed the skies and cast a brighter light.

Sariyu glanced at one of the maids blended in the crowd, and the blonde maid nodded and left to Lirzod's room without a wait. It took her a few minutes of crossing some river-bridges and streets, climbing some stairs and ladders, and greeting some elderly populace to eventually get to the destination, a spacious balcony purely sculpted out of existing mountain rock. Just after climbing her way up there using a ladder, for it was the shortest route from the direction she had come from, she reached the cave-like room that was facing North. She hastily pushed the door, only to become aware that the door, which had the capital letters 'LOL' painted on it, was locked from the inside. She peered through the gaps of the window while pressing her cheeks against the frigid, rocky rods blocking that opening, and the nerves in her eyes thickened and reddened, and they almost popped out from what she saw. Someone was still sleeping on the bed, cozily tucked up under a sheet that was colored red for one-third of it, green in the middle, and white for the last one-third of it. Furthermore, the snoring gained on her ears and made her brows twitch like a cat that had a few licks off a lemon.

"When did he lock it from the inside? If anyone sees this, it will bring shame to the main families and will result in a loss of some more face!" Quick tapping sounds spread out from her rhythmic walk. Her mouth opened up for a quick shout but, straight away, shut itself even faster. If the newsy and nosier neighbors were to catch the drift of her efforts, they wouldn't just guess what happened but would also try to anticipate quite many inappreciable things. Standing like a pole for a couple of long-lasting moments, she let her thoughts hover about in an attempt to come up with a solution.

A few seconds later, her face glowed. She quickly pulled out a tiny scent bottle from under her sleeves. Her hand slipped through the gap between the rods of the window and sprayed the scent, and then she waited as the fragrance scattered throughout the place as swiftly as the charm of a stunner’s smile. "Please, get up. Please..."

The redolence long filled the room. A few more zippy seconds passed, but nothing changed. When a neighbor yawned in the distance, she almost jumped off her feet. She didn’t want someone to see him still sleeping, so she was also ready to chase off anyone daring enough to show up. Even so, standing outside the window, she grew so tense that her heartbeat could probably be heard in heaven.

As seconds went by, her feet grew cold from tensity. When under the impression of failing in her mission, a couple of whiffs softly ripped apart the silence within the room.

A young lad with a medium-length shaggy and layered hairstyle lifted the sheet and jumped out of the bed while keeping his eyes shut. "This fragrance, it's definitely Primera..." His nose sniffed out the source of the scent, and his footsteps traced all the way to the window.

Primera squinted her eyes as her fingers pinched his nose and pulled him closer. "Wake up, Young Master!" Her voice was quick, yet so light that it was almost not audible.

Lirzod opened his eyes at his own dreamy pace and saw her face through his blurry vision. After scant rubbing of his eyes, his lips curled up before moving forward, looking to glue to her creamy cheek, but eventually failed in reaching up to the target. "Who put these bars between us? I shall break them with my nine hearts and fall in your embrace right away."

"Young Master, today is your meek day[3], remember?" she spoke in an urgent and somewhat exacting tone. "It's also the day when you'll know of your participation in the sect tests."

Lirzod's eyes slightly enlarged, and his breath paused, but then his eyes closed.

"Stop dozing like that,” she pulled his nose again, forcing his eyes open, “and get to the central hall already! Everyone's waiting for you. If you don’t get there soon, many uppity feet will find their way here, possibly with fruits and vegetables in their hands."

“They don’t have to come all this way to make sure I’m fed,” replied the boy, yawning.

“This isn’t the time for joking,” she pulled his nose harder this time. “If you don’t hurry, you’ll give a foothold for those looking to make a joke out of you.”

“Aw, sorry! I get what you’re saying. They want me to have breakfast on time, but..." When she let go of his nose, he stepped back and rubbed his nose before turning his head a little, thereby exposing his cheek. "Give me a kiss if you want me to come out."

"W-What?" Her head involuntarily moved back a bit. "You are..." she didn't have to think much before replying with a stomp on the ground, "I won't."

"There's no one around, and I won't tell anybody."

“No,” her reply flew as fast as a jab. “You’re not a kid anymore.”

He furrowed his brows and puffed up his chest. “Are you trying to break our bond by bringing this battle between us? I don’t think Duera is behind this, but some dense chick probably spoiled your mind! If that’s the case, then I shall win this and every other battle that comes in the future.”

“Haha,” her cheeks gained a bit of pink. “I’d like to see you try.”

His chest shrank, and shoulders slumped as he took a step forward, and his hands came out through the gaps in the bars of the window, then caressed her chin. "Please, Primera. It’s been too long since you let me kiss you. If you don’t want that, then at least you can kiss me,” he pleaded like a patient little child. “You can do this much on a special morning like this.

"That's..." the outer side of her curled-in fingers rubbed against each other as conflicting thoughts whelmed her mind.

“Please, please,” Lirzod overwhelmed her with this word. He was always like this, very child-like at finding ways to get things done. On top of that, he was an awfully likable lad, for his expressions were ebbs and flows of love. His fervorous eyes were always full of unspoken candor. His pretty pure smile—untaught enough to be a symbol of liberty—would cut right through your precious little ego, and his sweet and honest voice would shepherd your heart to the heavenish heights so long as you hadn’t shut yourself from him. Simply stated, he was just one of those young ones you can’t find enough cute words to express, so you just cuddle your way through.

And when such an adorable youth was begging for an inexpensive kiss, she couldn’t help but struggle with her unyielding mind.

Her eyes glanced all around and found no traces of peeping shadows. Her heart pounded profoundly at an increasing pace as her body leaned ahead half-heartedly. Her subtle movement prepared her pinkish lips for a swift kiss. Her shapely chest pressed to the bars on the windows as her lips went between the gaps of the bars straight toward Lirzod’s cheek. “No. I can’t do this.” She abruptly stopped. “You do it.”

“Okay,” Lirzod shut his eyes and moved his head ahead before sticking his lips out and maneuvered them like a madly-jerking snake's head. “Mm? Where’s the cheek?” a couple of seconds passed as his lips moved in every possible direction and covered all corners of the space they could, yet they touched nothing but the cold bars of the window, thereby forcing his eyes to open apace.

The figure that now stood outside the window made his eyes almost pop out of their sockets like a cat caught in the act. However, his lips were still stuck out like a snake’s tongue. Primera was now standing behind this newly-arrived figure as she contained herself from making an amused expression. This third individual forthwith pulled Lirzod’s lips and stretched them out as far as they could be before letting them go.

His lips turned pinker than they already were, and redness clustered on and around them. "S-Sariyu!” he barked, even though his heart dropped like a stone, and struggled to stay afloat in the juices thriving in his stomach. “W-What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in the central hall right now?"

“Stop spilling your saliva on me!” she stepped back and put the umbrella away before cleaning her face with a handkerchief.

Lizard's stare darted at her cheeks, “Whoa, you’re shining. Did you apply some cream?” he started sniffing. “Nah, I just smell my own saliva.”

"Do you want a month of pain?" she narrowed her eyes as her knuckles gained white from clenching.

"No thanks," he replied right away and also moved his mouth away from the bars.

"Come out in five seconds, or..." Sariyu glanced at Lirzod's pants, and the bulge was as evident as day. "I'll chop someone’s morning wood."

Lirzod's heart skipped a beat as his instinct made his hands cover his private region. "You Sawshin... You are the one girl I don't think I can ever dare to marry."

"Hmph, I've never asked you to marry me. Besides, I’ve seen you in full enough times that I have no interest in pledging my troth with you either," Sariyu picked up the umbrella again to guard herself against the sun and then glanced away as Lirzod stepped out of his room.

“That’s wonderful, but why do I feel some pain in your voice?” he said, with a bit of exaggeration. Under the sunlight, with his back facing the sun, his copper to yellow ombre hair gave off a soft silky glow and seamlessly complemented his fair skin, and his gorgeous green eyes still gleamed like garden-fresh mangoes. His naturally falling forward hairstyle covered his ears, and since he combed to the right, whenever a bit of wind blew, a few strands of hair fell on his eyes, but that didn’t fully block his vision or hide the scar on his face. In the morning light, the round copper bracelet on his right wrist glittered with an ethereal sheen. His loose white cotton shirt and dark green baggy pants waved in the wind blowing at high altitude, though not as much as the fluttering dresses of the two females giving him company.

Sariyu gritted her teeth a bit. "Quickly get to the central hall, or I’ll transfer all that pain to you." She commanded him like he was a small child, but he vehemently shook his head.

“Sorry, but I just woke up.” Lirzod tried to fake out a yawn, but it didn't come off well since a mosquito flew into his mouth. He spat it to the side. “These things tour wherever they can.” He looked around to see if there were more mosquitoes. “Even though there’s enough wind up here, these little fellas don’t give up, do they? Mornings are when these bloodsuckers move the slowest, so even right after getting up from bed, my hands can catch them and put them to sleep!" he caught sight of a mosquito fly off of Primera’s arm, and he swiftly clapped and put down that vile little beast successfully. "But I need some time to get my legs going,” he then sympathetically blew the mosquito off his palm. “You’ve had your fun, buddy. Go bite Death from now on.”

“Stop fooling around and get going!” Sariyu felt a flash of annoyance. “You can stretch your legs on your way.”

“That’d be against my routine,” Lirzod folded his hands and calmly said. “I like to sit and soak up the sun.”

“But this isn't even winter,” her voice grew more intense. “Stop making stupid excuses.”

“How can it be an excuse?” Lirzod shrugged his shoulders. “Doesn't your God-given common sense tell you that he gave us one sun for all seasons for a reason.”

"Young Master," Primera said, "there are many continents in the world where the sun doesn't shine for months. If you go far up north or down south, then you'll know, though you'll come across troublesome beings."

"You think I don't know that?" Lirzod casually replied. "Though I didn't explore the outside world yet, I have read about it in books. I believe I know more about the sun than Sariyu."

His attitude and temper were testing Sariyu's patience. “Why are you bringing the sun into this? I know you’re doing all this because I don’t like sunlight.”

“You are overthinking. I just woke up,” he sounded even calmer, though his eyes were like that of a duck teasing a swan. “My brain is running so slow I can barely catch mosquitoes when they’re at their slowest. Just give me three to five minutes, and I’ll be there in no time.”

She narrowed her eyes, “But people are waiting in the hall.”

“Cut me some slack. They can wait another few minutes, right?” Lirzod turned his head to look at Primera, as though asking her to give her support. “I’ll apologize when I get there.”

Sariyu came in between and blocked his view. “You think your half-assed apology will cover their lost time?”

“Then, there is only one way. I’ll stand right here,” Lirzod fingered his nose a bit. “Beg the earth to take me there somehow.”

Sariyu’s brows drew together, portraying a subduing look. “I don’t know how to make the earth move, but I know how to move a fool who lives on it!” With a quick couple of steps, she appeared behind him and spanked him once, and while at it, her fingers went in for a pinch—all of which made him bolt ahead, squealing like a skittish cat.

“I’m going! That hurts and burns!” he continued running away while rubbing his butt. “Morning pinches are the worst!”

“Rub your crusty eyes, and see the light. The earth under our feet doesn’t move, which is why we have to,” Sariyu said and smiled. “Also, I’m not as skilled as Duera to go easy on my pinches, so it’s your fault for forcing me.”

“Whatever you say, Sawshin!” Lirzod stopped and barked from afar. Then he continued with his run.

“He doesn’t learn easily, does he?” Sariyu tiredly inhaled and exhaled through the mouth.

Primera somewhat chuckled. “He likes to loaf around a bit right after waking up, so he was up in arms for breaking his routine, that’s all, Young Mistress.”

“Then it’s up to us to reshape all the silly bones in his body, starting from today,” she said, while her eyes were watching Lirzod comfortably wind his way through the labyrinthine routes of the town.

“Mm,” Primera nodded. “His meek day has come after all. It’s not good for him to continue being inane and imprudent, but I’m sure he’ll change for the better sooner or later.”

Meanwhile, as everyone waited in the central hall, a grape seller was strolling along a neighboring street. A tanned brunette from the masses called out for him. He expertly found his way to her through the cacophonic crowd.

"How much is a kilo?" she expectantly asked.

"Three copper pieces." His voice was weak in volume but not temper. After all, he was yet to successfully sell anything on that day even though it hadn't been long since he hit the roads of Helenia.

"Three? That’s too high." Her pleasant expression turned into an objectionable one as she pronto inspected the grapeshots. "These grapes don't even look fresh. Sell a kilo for one copper, and I'll take two.”

"You don't look fresh either," whetted words whirled out of his mouth like a whirlwind, "but I'm still selling to you, am I not?"

Right away, her face turned short on looks. "You vermin!" she hurled the whole bunch of grapes at his face, startling him, but by God's grace, his head moved on its own and dodged his cherished fruits. Furthermore, his eyes glanced back out of worry that the grapes would get covered in dirt, much less spoiled if they crashed into the ground with such force.

But before the grapes smashed into the ground, someone who just happened to be coming from that direction jumped to the side and mindfully caught the fruits, though, in that process, he hit the dirt. However, the grapes stayed safely in his hands. The seller joyously hastened over to his savior.

"You've got good reflexes, young hero... whoever you are, may God bless you a good life and a good wife unlike that lousy aunt over there," the seller’s words made his savior awkwardly smile, but the sharp-eared lady was livid with rage, for she was only in her early 30s and so was too young to be called an aunt by a street seller. When that person handed the grapes over, the seller gave back half of that bunch. "Take that as thanks, please." Afterward, the seller was full of smiles as he went from there while also teasing the woman with his weird eye movements and cocking of the head. After all, he had traveled many miles and reached Helenia as early as he could, and the first woman who called him said his raw, refreshing fruits weren’t so fresh, so he couldn’t hold his tongue back. Even now, as he left, he didn’t feel bad about what he did.

The brunette, however, was utterly pissed off, and since the seller had smartly made himself scarce, her unkind glare now directed toward the person who had helped the grapes seller, but when that fellow took just a single grape and handed her the rest, the anger on her face faded away faster than water spilled on desert sand, and she soon showered a summer-blooming smile at full tilt. "Thank you, Young Master. That crook demanded three ‘darned’ copper pieces for a measly bunch of second-rate grapes. Taking this Mani for a fool… he was asking to get disgraced,” she chewed on a couple of grapes and then smiled some more. “But you are gracious enough to help that stingy outsider who didn’t show gratitude even though we sell goods at relatively low prices for them. Although your age isn’t even half of mine, your heart is..." she was about to hold his hand and give a handshake, but after seeing the big black mole in his palm, she swiftly and subtly withdrew her hand to the back of her head and moved a step away while smiling and bowed, though not by much, but then her eyes slightly enlarged after her gaze met his crotch. Though the bulge wasn’t too pronounced, her gaze was too spot-on to miss. She immediately stood and hurried back, but her heel hit the inch-tall raised platform, and she fell back. She cried out, attracting the attention of the nearby crowd, but before she completely collapsed, the boy caught her by the arm, then slid his second arm behind her back and lifted her with all the delicateness in the world.

“Are you okay, ma’am?” he asked—in a voice as gentle and soft as a silken thread blowing on a summer breeze.

For an unceasing second, as she looked into his eyes, she forgot where she was. When she was only a second or two away from hearing her own heartbeat, “Ah, my foot!” she suddenly cringed from the pain in the back of her foot shooting all the way up to her head, but lucky for her, that nasty feeling didn’t last for long. “Curse this damned road!” she started stomping on the raised edge of the platform that had almost made her fall. “I don’t mind if the one who designed this falls here and gets a bone or two broken.”

Seeing how she was all energetic, he just smiled.

This person was a five-and-half feet tall youth, dressed in sleeping attire, who walked past the brunette, Mani, with a beaming face, then picked up his pace as he boyishly swaggered through the crowd while waving at everyone who shared some looks with him. His hair was a lovely copper blending into a yellow ombre shade, with the latter being the less dominant. The aged and well-fused brownish scar across his face extended onto his right collar and forearm. At first glance, it would look like a burn mark to the common eye, but different people chewed the fat about it at variance. And this individual was the youngest young master of the Faceless clan, Lirzod Basha. At the moment, it was painted all over his face that he had just woken up from sleep, thanks to the dry crusting of liquids near his eyes and mouth.

"Today is the day the clan heads decide on who gets to participate in the sect tests,” an adult man in the crowd remarked, smirking, “but it looks like he slept a bit too well.”

“How can he have such wet dreams on the night before such a significant day?" a person from the crowd murmured.

Some younger girls covered their eyes but still watched through the gaps in their fingers. "Kya, what's hiding in his pants?" If not for the adults hinting out, they probably wouldn't have noticed anything.

"Someone’s hiding bananas in their pants, that’s all," Mani sniggered. "Young Master sure knows how to trick people."

"It's sure nice to be young," an old woman from the crowd mused to herself. “My helpmate long lost his ability to mushroom morning wood.”

"Why is he hiding such a thing in there?” a little girl, too young to decipher the jargon of the adults, innocently glanced at the old woman that had just spoken. “Don’t his pants have pockets? I can't tell from here."

The old one choked on her own words. "Guh, don't mind these things, little one. Forget them."

"Mhm..." the little girl, though puzzled, nodded positively. Since Lirzod was waving at her, she, too, waved back.

"Is he so careless or so courageous?" another person knitted his brows. "Does he not fear the sect tests?"

"What the heck are you waving at the kid for?" one member of the crowd yelled at the top of his lungs. "Make haste! Get your butt onto the stage this instant!"

Lirzod could hear their words, but he kept on smiling all the same. I wish this thing in my pants would go down, but no amount of squeezing has helped it in the past. What else can I do, huh? As he pure-heartedly pondered, he glanced over his shoulder at the man who just spoke. "Oh, groundnut-store geezer, you came here as well?"

"Use my name, you cheeky brat!" an old gentleman named Fidelis stood from his seat like a spring and made a fist out of his—to all appearances—what was a smaller hand. "Today is your meek day, so at least start giving some respect for the elders from now on. Start by giving ‘me’ some respect, or I won't sell you anything from my store anymore."

"Haha, got it, sir, but I will be leaving this place soon. What would I visit your store for?" Lirzod replied, albeit with a cheeky tone. “Besides, your humble day[4] has long passed, yet you call me a brat and many other things. Maybe I should start calling you as the humbug-store geezer?” Lirzod covered his mouth and began to giggle, whereas Fidelis looked so angry that he felt like he could walk through a brick wall. Upon seeing the old man’s frustrated face, Lirzod’s laughter intensified as his feet moved and stepped on the stage, and the waving of his arms continued while the smile that could light up a room took shape on his visage. After having enough of it, his stare set on Burton, who now stood right beside him. "Big Brother Burton, I didn’t want to be your nightmare, but I had no other choice, so don't be scared. Got it?"

"All you have is that big mouth. What's there to be scared of?" Burton turned his head away. "And, don't call me Brother on purpose. No one likes getting called like that just once in a while. Either call me full-time or not at all."

"But where's the fun in that?" Lirzod giggled.

"If you want fun...” Burton flashed a cutting smile at the boy. “Why don't you try and be on the receiving end of my punches for once in public?"

Lirzod raised his hands to his chest and exposed his palms while a thin smile tugged his lips. "I don't think this is an appropriate time for that."

Sariyu just reached the place and stood in between them, making them go silent. She glanced at Burton first before turning to Lirzod, who leaked out a short-lived yawn.

"What are you looking at me for?" Lirzod spoke while his yawn neared its end. "You should look ahead."

"I will look wherever I want to look," she stepped a bit closer, her eyes looking straight into his eyes as she delicately voiced her mind with a whisper that beat fresh-smelling wind against his face,  “but first, you should calm down the little thunder snake in your pants. There are some children gathered here."

"Thunder snake?" Burton snorted. "It's more like a thunderless snake. Pfft," though he covered his mouth with his hand, he still broke into laughter, and blood rushed to his ears.

"Someone's jealous here..." Fidelis covered his mouth as his shoulders jerked. Though he couldn’t hear Sariyu’s words, he could pretty much guess what happened from Burton’s words and actions.

Burton’s ear jerked upon catching Fidelis’ words. "That's the last thing I'd be jealous of,” he shoved aside Fidelis’ words and spoke in a barely audible tone, “especially against someone who can’t even control what’s in their pants. Someone like him is a hundred years too early to compare anything with me!"

“Yeah, right, stone-face included,” Lirzod squeezed out a couple of words in a jiffy.

Burton clenched his fist and raised it into the air and acted but then managed to control his urge to rap his knuckles on Lirzod's crown and purposely missed by a whisker. “Never mind. Giving you any amount of attention is useless.”

"Says someone who has interrupted our conversation," Lirzod said, but Burton didn't look irked anymore. "Who's—"

"Enough chattering, every mother's son and daughter," Kwame, one of the three clan leaders, stood and spread his arms out, addressing everybody, and his simple action made all eyes pay attention straight away. "To all of our clan members and everyone else gathered here, be it out of respect or out of curiosity, we are thankful for gracing us with your presence." After staring down at his golden-bracelet worn wrists, his eyes then scanned the ones in the crowd who also had similar wear. "Some of us here are rich enough to make sure our children and even grandchildren get to fill their bellies without a worry in the world for as long as they live, assuming they use bits of their brains, of course,” his words garnered some fleeting laughs from the crowd, “but... the world we live in isn't so predictable, isn’t it?”

Only silence arose as a response.

Kwame continued, "Wealth gives strength which can both build or destroy wealth. There are myriad creatures in this world that are far too crooked than all of us. If we stay like our current selves, as the hollows that we are, we won't last longer than a couple of generations, unless we make at least one, someone from one of us—a Martial Child, an extraordinary one at that." His attention shifted to the other two leaders beside him before he gestured with his hands, "We three took a big decision today."

"Big decision?" the hearts of the crowd were now hooked to the clan heads. "We've already managed to send our children to the sect tests for most of the years. As if that's not big enough, just what did they prepare for us this time?"

"As befits my meek day." Lirzod grinned from ear to ear.

Picazo and Sinario stood from their seats. "We’ve spent a great deal of effort to procure these three entry cards," Sinario pulled out three cards from his sleeves and looked at the names written on the covers of each of the cards.

"What sect did they manage to get cards for this time?" the entire crowd eyed at those cards, but the distance was too far away, and the cards themselves were small, so most of them wished they had the eyes of an eagle. Like excited apes, they strained their eyes and pulled each other’s collars, trying to get a closer look at those cards.

"Judging by their words, it shouldn't be any lower than three thousand in the whole of the continent!" Syam felt rather excited.

"Haha, that thought in itself makes me proud," Allda blew out smoke through his nostrils, which then ended up being a noseful of a whiff for the ones around him. He later groomed the coats of the two red squirrels that were on both of his thighs and were munching on hazelnuts. "Whether they fail in the first round or not, we can advertise and sell many goods by then."

"Your father seemed to have prepared a nice gift for you," Sariyu sort of flashed her teeth as she glanced sideways at Lirzod.

"Yeah, it seems he’s gonna exceed my expectations today," Lirzod placed his arms on his waist, and his eyes sparkled out a tinge of pride.

"Gift or... Curse?" Burton's words reached only his own ears as he glanced at Lirzod. "The higher the rank of the sect we participate in, the more terrifying the experience will be. Given it's your first time, you are at a great disadvantage, but you are too thick-skinned to even understand that."

"What's wrong, Burton?" Lirzod raised his eyebrows as his lips stretched out. “Are you perhaps envying my father's love for me?”

"Never in a million years!" Burton secretly pointed his thumb at Sinario. "Our bond is far stronger."

"The sect we managed to get the cards for this year is..." Picazo's hands were on his back as he spoke. The moment his mouth opened, the entire crowd fell silent and paid utmost attention to him. As the pulses of everyone quickened, Picazo's gaze swept over them for a nerve-wracking few seconds, further inflaming their hearts. A corner of Picazo's lips curled up before two words birthed out of his mouth, "Shambala Sect."

Silence inundated the entire hall that very instant and took over everyone's personal space like it always did with graveyards—places where silence ruled, and to further back it up, the crowd wore frozen faces as well as the corpses. The clouds above the hall stopped drifting, also turning the skies ever so silent.  People grasped that it wasn't a regular silence; it was everywhere, yet no one could get accustomed to it, for it offered them both despair and hope.

As the unsettling instance slothfully progressed, Lirzod's lips straight away fell flat, followed by his mouth, which opened in some measure.

His stare locked on to the clan heads, “Shambala Sect? Maybe I’ve heard of it, or maybe I haven’t. Is it good?”

“Huh?” Almost everyone in the vicinity staggered at his response. Even Burton and Sariyu, who knew him better than those in the crowd, were amply surprised. The duo of squirrels on Allda’s thighs also chirped in a metallic-sounding foreign tongue.

“We think it is good, son,” replied Picazo, simply and straightforwardly, and in doing so amazed the crowd some more as most of them got reminded of the saying: Like father, like son.

Other than Lirzod, the wonder still dwelling in everyone's eyes was as palpable as the sun in the skies. For a moment, the revelation took everyone out of the conscious world and drifted their souls into daydreams. It was so unexpected because a declaration of such magnitude was not something they were used to hear, not even in their dreams. Still feeling surreal, they drifted back to the conscious world, all of which happened in the span short enough a buffalo would struggle to quench its thirst.

The cigar in Allda’s hand neared its end and burnt his finger for a split second before it fell out of his hand, and he rubbed his fingers at the burnt spot followed by the rubbing of the eyes. "Did I catch it on the money?" Allda checked his ears, only to find some wax.

"Am I seeing things?" After a couple of glances in every direction, Syam nodded to himself and ended up biting his finger, thinking it was another one of those carrots he often pleasured in chewing every morning. "Ah, no, this isn't one of those morning dreams." Disbelief danced in his eyes as he frowned from the stinging pain in his finger and much more.

"I repeat..." a smile, breaking through its restraints, leaked out of the corners of Picazo's lips, and the two other clan heads had similar guises. "We got the entry cards for the sect test of the Shambala Sect."

"S-Shambala Sect... It’s the sect unofficially considered as the number one sect on many continents!" Most people still lived in the past moment when everybody had received a bolt from the blue, but now, after the clan head confirmed it again, everyone's jaw dropped down lower than what an ape could yawn, and words hardly flowed out of the mouths of many. Even the town-adopted crows flying in the vicinity of the hall hit houses and crashed down. The squirrels on Allda's thighs ran down his leg before blitzing to the nearby tree and climbed in an instant. Seeing the reactions of their people, the clan heads themselves were out of words. After all, when one made the impossible happen, it was sure to shock everyone, including oneself.

“Do we even have a hair-width's chance at stepping foot in a popular sect, let alone such a legendary sect?” a person hesitantly threw a question that had been bugging his mind. “I mean, we’ve almost always tried to join the sects of hollows, but this time it’s entirely different. Joining such a powerful sect seems like a far-off dream.” His words made many heads turn and look at each other.

“There are millions of moms in this world, but only one of them can withstand the world for you,” Picazo stepped forward and spoke in a heartwarming tone. “There are thousands of clans in this world, but only one of them you can call home… Don’t you want to protect your home as you would your mother?”

Picazo’s question went unanswered.

“I think we’ve cocooned ourselves long enough, and it’s about time we break out of the shell and spread our wings so we can fly like we can,” Picazo continued talking while eyeing the kids and the old folks in the crowd. “While the children are in a hurry to grow up, the adults dream to live their younger selves again. What a strangely wonderful life he has created for us, our living God. Suffice to say, we owe him and our forefathers adequate lives. In light of the Meek Day of my son, the youngest among the young masters, time begs for a change—now more so than ever. Wherefore, from this day forth, we shall stop wasting this invaluable life by axing all of our inadequacies. Our only desire shall be to live our lives to the fullest with hearts rich enough to resist hate and faces bright enough to lighten our bottoms. What say my clan’s folk?”

Aye! Aye! Aye!

Many mouths yelled in unison.

“Got any more doubts?”

Nay! Nay! Nay!

"As they say, a real martial grows through all grounding, but I’d say, a real man is made the same way," Picazo's words not only were heard all across the central hall but also managed to soak the hearts of everyone with sentiment and further made it so that their heartbeats grew heavier. While the uplifting—nameless yet quaintly familiar—emotion gratifyingly gripped all the souls in the locale, Picazo raised his fist into the air.

All the locals in the crowd were momentarily taken aback by his gesture. The two other clan heads also rose their fists high into the air, as though they were also communicating skyward. As most people still splendidly stared in stupefaction, the three young ones on the stage also raised their fists. Now, the sight of the six people in the central hall who spoke with their fists, more than they did with their faces, made the hairs on the skin of every local in the crowd stand straight, little ones included, and even most of the bemused tourists, except maybe the fellow camouflaged in a distant tree with a blowgun in his mouth, ready to spoil the show at the drop of one of those attention-seeking hats that pretty much stole his view of the hall.

Ultimately, for any clan to tower above the rest, it first required to commence. In the eyes of martials, one could always find the end of anything in its beginning, and this day perhaps marked a humble beginning for the coming of great things to the Faceless Clan—a clan of hollows, seemingly, for the time being.

----------- [1] Twiggy: Grilled fish sold on twigs. [2] AD: After Domainer. [3] Meek Day: The day when a child turns into a fourteen-year-old soul and from thereon is allowed to explore the world without parental guidance to achieve their goals and dreams but are also expected to respect the will and desires of others while being gentle, kind, and sensible, and through keeping oneself under control in every affair of life. This is a custom predominantly followed in the East. [4] Humble Day: The day when an adult turns into a fifty-six-year-old soul and from thereon is expected to not get lost in the glory of his own accomplishments but instead learn to acknowledge his flaws without degrading himself and be unstinting and unassuming until the end. This is a custom predominantly followed in the East.

CHAPTER LENGTH: 7700+ words
(All the chapters won’t be this long; however, I guess, they will be at least 2000 words long.)
Daily Dose:  Some say that the first of anything is special, that the first step is the hardest to take, that the first love is the hardest to forget, that the first fart unleashed in the bathroom is the hardest to suppress, and the list goes on. If you ask me, I'd say they couldn't be truer. Writing this first chapter was... anything but easy. Now, I know that you, too, have taken one of those firsts by reading this chapter; so it shouldn't be all that hard to take another step or two and candidly comment on this chapter and kindly share the love, hence making this moment a bit more special, fellow mortals.
['Daily Dose' is actually the name of a newspaper company in the world of Shambala Sect, but I've decided to use the phrase at the end of each chapter to give some gags or nuggets of life. Hopefully, you guys will appreciate them.]
Author’s Note: Hope you’ve enjoyed the chapter. For now, I may or may not release a chapter every week, but with support, I can release up to 30K+ words/month. Getting a faster release of chapters is in your hands. Also, English isn’t my first language, so please point out any flaws you may find in the vocabulary and grammar, and I’ll be more than happy to correct them.

“The Earth below me may crack, the sky above me may collapse, but every chapter of mine shall still release in time and hopefully be good enough to live long enough in readers’ minds. To boot, the sun in the skies may no longer shine, the water in the oceans may no longer well up, yet every reader of mine shall still show perpetual support and be my greatest strength.”
— Yours fictionally real,

SS1: What's the name of the protagonist?
Lizard Basha
Lirzod Basha
Lizord Basha

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