His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the Great Song Dynasty, Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years, Ruler of the Central Kingdom, sits upon the Dragon Throne, ruling a land of ten thousand li in every direction, bearing the Mandate of Heaven and supported in his absolute and total rule by able and capable servants. Everything in harmony. Unlike the shirt of the under-minister for internal affairs, which had clearly not been adequately steamed, and did not quite match the flowers that had been selected for the month. It was going to be one of those days. He has not been on the throne very long, only a handful of years, and yet the acclimation to his subjects flying around on swords is something he is certain will never cease to unsettle him. As a child surviving in the harem, he had known the ultimate reward, that he would rule the court that all in ten thousand li owed obedience to. But the clans and sects of the cultivators seemed to treat that obedience as less of a divine mandate and more of a polite fiction. Thankfully they at least did not visit him at court. But the under-minister was approaching, so His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the Great Song Dynasty, Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years, Ruler of the Central Kingdom reflexively corrects his posture and beckons him closer.
The under-minister bows deeply and waits for permission to speak.
"Present Us with your report." The ceremony is important, he knows, but he does sometimes wish it could be faster.
"Your Imperial Majesty will surely recall the recent actions of the Wen clan of Qishan, whose sect leader is the current Chief Cultivator. To consolidate their power, the Wens have taken many young cultivators as hostages and have executed sect leaders who defy them."
"Yes. Harsh measures, but sometimes those are necessary."
"Your Imperial Majesty, the Nie clan, the Jiang clan, the Jin clan, the Lan clan, and several minor sects and clans have allied and declared war on the Wen clan."
"The Lan clan is not one for radical action without necessity. Defying rightful rulers being excessively punished is harsh, admittedly. But how could they declare war if hostages had already been taken? Did they sacrifice all of them?"
"Your Imperial Majesty, many of the hostages have managed to escape or were returned to their clans by the Wen clan. Regardless, the war was believed to be necessary. The Wen clan burned down the Cloud Recesses, the home of the Lan clan. Many lives were lost, as well as many irreplaceable books and artifacts."
"It is sad to see Our subjects in conflict like this. Yes, that would bring even the Lan to war. The Nie are not a surprise. The Jiang and the Jin alone would be a challenge, and even with their losses...you do not expect this to be a quick war, do you?"
"Your Imperial Majesty, the war may be resolved more quickly than one would otherwise suppose."
"Enlighten us. Four clans, and a number of the minor ones. The Chief Cultivator is almost always the strongest, but one against many should be a challenge even for cultivators, surely."
"Your Imperial Majesty, please forgive your humble servant, for I have in my foolishness left out an important part of the report. The Wen clan would likely have defeated the other clans, as they have killed many of the experienced cultivators. The sect leader of the Jiang clan is a boy of seventeen, the sect leader of the Nie clan a youth of twenty. Fortunately, sect leader Lan Qiren survived the fall of the Cloud Recesses, but even he has lost many of his strongest cultivators."
"Do not be concerned, there is nothing to forgive. Much has clearly happened. That also helps explain why they went to war so easily: youth are easily incited to anger. A great deal has happened, clearly. After this much death, will there be problems with a lack of cultivators?"
"It is... uncertain."
"We see. But you said 'would likely have defeated'. Did something...happen?"
"...One of the Jiang clan's cultivators has invented demonic cultivation." He catches himself and says, "Your Imperial Majesty."
It is not common for His Imperial Majesty to be visibly startled. But this sounds very very bad, and he is not at all prepared. "You said that the sect leader was a boy of 17. Was the person who invented this 'demonic cultivation' even younger?"
"Your Imperial Majesty, he is-- also seventeen. Reports say that he is the son of a servant but was adopted by sect leader Jiang Fengmian before his tragic passing."
"Previous reports had noted that cultivators tended to be extremely old, as part of their quest for immortality through their cultivation. 17 is extremely young for a scholar to invent anything. What is demonic cultivation, and is it necessarily opposed to the Mandate of Heaven?"
"Ordinarily, Your Imperial Majesty, a cultivator draws all his spiritual energy from within himself-- from his golden core. The cultivator Wei Wuxian has discovered a method of harnessing the resentful energy of spirits and fierce corpses, freeing himself from the limitations faced by normal cultivators."
"That, as described, seems positive. Harnessing the energy of fierce corpses and hostile spirits can only be good for our people. And this means that the conflict shall be over swiftly, yes?"
"I do not need to draw Your Imperial Majesty's attention to the opinions of His most experienced advisors in the field of cultivation, who state that harnessing resentful energy may lead the cultivator to cultivate resentment within himself, resulting in dangerous and unstable behavior. As You in Your wisdom have remarked, the young are already quick to anger."
"He discovered this method, though. While Our advisors are talented, it seems clear that this young man has done something new. In our observation of history, even the most learned scholars can make errors about things they have never faced. The Jiang clan has a good reputation: has the young man recommended the method to others?"
"Your Imperial Majesty, he has not."
"That concerns us moderately, but it may be a wise choice to see what impact it has on him before recommending it to others, or he decides that the choice was a poor one. With this increase in personal power, do you expect him to become Chief Cultivator?"
"The honor of the cultivators is unlikely to permit the the son of a servant to become Chief Cultivator, Your Imperial Majesty, no matter how many fierce corpses he can control. We currently expect that if the Wens lose the war Jin Guangshan of the Lanlingjin Sect will become Chief Cultivator."