Within an open field, edging toward the forest bordering the Fourth Mountain’s humble beginnings, seven corpses were strewn about as scent of blood pervaded the air, perverting it to its core. Besides the occasional howl of the wind, only silence remained, giving birth to strange, serene scenery. It has been nearly half an hour since Lino, the girl and the old man departed, when a black shadow suddenly emerged from the trees of the nearby forest. After it, ten more shadows followed, until eleven people were standing around the corpses, their expressions grim, especially that of the leading figure.
He appeared to be in his mid-forties, his jaw squared and firm, nose wide, and eyes narrow and sinister. Hair gelled back, he appeared like a strange form of an eagle in a human shape. His body was slender and slick, and he wore black garments with golden linens spread throughout, with the greatest and most noticeable factor of the garments being the blood-colored rose embroiled on the left side of his chest. His arms crossed behind his back, he stared at the corpses with furrowed brows and deep gleam in his eyes.
“… there is no way those two were able to do this,” the man standing next to him spoke; he was slightly younger and more muscular, yet exuded such murderous aura that very few were able to actually look at him directly without shivering. He followed the man’s style, with his hair gelled back and intentionally narrowed eyes. Even his garments were exactly the same save for the crimson rose; his was faint blue instead. “Did third expert from their clan hide and we didn’t notice him somehow?”
“Impossible.” the first man spoke firmly, his voice coarse and deep. “We’ve confirmed numerous times that only the girl and her protector left the Clan’s premises. Even if they cast their Divination technique in order to observe the proceedings, it would be impossible for them to reinforce the duo so quickly. And even if the reinforcements arrived they wouldn’t have fled from this place.” the leading man was called Lu Hao, and he was the First Elder of a Sect hidden from the contemporary world: Dying Roses. He was currently Level 65, the very peak of Core Realm, just an inch away from the Soul Realm which followed. His strength was second only to the very Patriarch of the Sect.
“… I refuse to believe they came across an expert willing to help them,” the second man spoke; he was the only Direct Disciple of Lu Hao, and also his nephew: Yan Hao. He was Level 43, in Mid Core Realm, but because of his age and talents, most within the Sect have great expectations of him. “Besides Endo Clan and us, there aren’t any other hidden forces nearby. Who helped them, then?”
“… look at these three corpses,” Lu Hao pointed beneath his feet. “They all died within very short period of time – perhaps less than three breaths. All cuts were precise and firm – the three were definitely killed from an ambush or something they didn’t expect. On the other hand, Regal died differently,” he then pointed at the corpse some ways off from the rest. “Meaning that whoever fought with him probably wasn’t much stronger. If he didn’t ambush or somehow surprise our group, even if he joined that duo, they would still be on the defensive. However, he not only killed three of them in a swift manner, he also killed Regal. As for the other three,” he then pointed toward the other side of the battlefield, at the remaining three corpses. “They were killed by that old man and the girl, and their fight took the longest. That would mean they were also exhausted. However, I can only discern about a kilometer of their trail. It would be impossible for them to run – while exhausted – without leaving any trails whatsoever. After that kilometer mark, it’s like they suddenly gained massive burst of speed and vanished.”
“… that still doesn’t tell us who did it,” Yan Hao said, furrowing his brows; although he wasn’t well-versed in analysis like his uncle, he was no fool either. With his uncle’s guidance, he could easily confirm everything to be truth with his own eyes. However, despite the perfect analysis, the identity of the ambusher was no less ambiguous. “Could it be that someone from the Heavenbloom Sect was adventuring here? No… if not for occasional, odd sightings, I’d think they’d gone extinct by how little they show...”
“From the battle,” Lu Hao said. “The ambusher was definitely within the Core Realm. He’s either at the very peak of Early Core Realm, or has already stepped into Mid Core Realm. So roughly Level 30 to 35. His attainment in sword is also rather high, but he’s no experienced killer.”
“Young adventurer? That’s even more impossible,” Yan Hao shook his head firmly. Cultivators were already rare within Umbra Kingdom so much that you’d have better luck finding phoenix’s feather, and there are only three secret, hidden powers harboring them, all of whom rarely appear in the open, if ever. Nobody within the Kingdom – not even the High Nobility itself – knows of any cultivation methods, and hasn’t known since its foundation. That means that there aren’t any legacies within Umbra Kingdom that could be stumbled upon randomly. So, the idea of the young adventurer – who’s also a cultivator – randomly appearing is perhaps more insane than saying that an old man suddenly ascended to Soul Realm in the spur of enlightenment. “Aii, this complicates matters.”
“Never-mind,” Lu Hao snorted coldly as he swept across the remaining nine figures, who all had their faces completely hidden by black scarfs. “Relay the information to the Sect: the ambush has failed. Targets are currently missing. Set up relay points from every mountain leading back to Endo Clan’s headquarters and coordinate the search. If you spot them, report either to me or the Second Elder. Even if they survived here, they won’t be going back to their Clan.” the black-clad figures quickly departed, some carrying away corpses, and some going off on the given assignment. Only the uncle-nephew duo lingered on for a brief moment before also departing, beginning their search toward the direction where the trail was cut off.
Meanwhile, roughly twenty kilometers away from where the corpses were found, inside a small cave carved out roughly a thousand meters up the mountain path, three people were currently sitting around the campfire. Two of them had extremely ugly expressions and their eyes revealed cold glint as they thought back to everything that transpired today. On the other hand, the third person – a very simple youth – had a relaxed expression as he processed his very first battle of life and death.
Lino was very satisfied; that old man he killed by throwing swords at him was definitely at least ten levels higher than him, so 35 and up. What surprised him the most was his countenance when dealing with murder. He had definitely never killed another person in his life before, nor was he some form of a psychopath. Although he couldn’t pinpoint the reason, he did faintly recall a strange, almost primal urge rising from the depths of his soul when the battle commenced, urge which pushed him to his limits as to prevent his own death. Relegated to the thought without an answer, he could only shake his head and put it toward the back of his mind.
“Oi, you two have been silent all the way here,” Lino suddenly spoke, breaking the silence. “Do you two need to take a shit or something? If so, I can just step out, no problem.”
“….” the old-young duo glanced at him for a moment before sighing; the bastard had barely shut up on their way to this cave and, when he finally seemed to have calmed down, out his tongue came yet again.
“Who were those guys? Why were they chasing you? Oi, did I just provoke someone really strong? Aii, if that’s the case, you better not mention me! I’ll have you know, both my Masters are Immortals that can easily sweep you off your feet!” naturally, neither Vyeala nor her Protector took Lino’s words to heart, regarding them as youth’s boasting.
“Who are you?” Vyeala asked; she was truly curious. To randomly run into a cultivator that was clearly not part of any of the three active powers within the Umbra Kingdom was more shocking than randomly seeing Dragon’s cub bathing in a lake by your house.
“Eh? Didn’t I already tell you? I’m Lino – your destined, fated, preordained Savior!” Lino exclaimed proudly, puffing his chest out.
“… how did you learn to cultivate?” the old man asked, feeling his head slightly hurt. The youth before him truly was… unique.
“Eh? Are both of you senile or something? I mean, I’d expect it from the old man, but even the young girl… aah, how unfair, poor little girl… aai, I have no heart to not repeat it yet again: both my Masters are Immortals, and they obviously imparted all their celestial knowledge upon me!” although both Ella and Eggor told him repeatedly not to reveal the fact that he was being taught by two Immortals, Lino simply shrugged his shoulders: after all, who the hell would actually believe him?
“… khm, thank you for saving us,” the girl realized that there are no benefits of trying to properly talk with the youth in front of her, so she simply disregarded it all and moved on. “You really made it in the nick of time.” seeing the expectant gaze in Lino’s eyes, the girl bit her lip for a moment before continuing. “… like… like a true hero…”
“He he, you flatter me…” Lino mumbled, blushing slightly, causing both the old man and the girl to gnash their teeth in anger. Yet, they could do nothing about it. After all, this odd youth really was their savior, regardless of his personality. They weren’t the type to disregard favors; rather, they were the type to uphold them even if heavens were to fall. “Khm, anyway, seriously now. Did I provoke someone I shouldn’t have?”
“If I’m not wrong,” Vyeala replied slowly. “Those men were from the Dying Roses Sect, sent to ambush us and kill us in secret.” noticing Lino’s oblivious expression, the girl rolled her eyes in frustration but still continued. “Although you probably think there aren’t any – or at least many – cultivators within Umbra Kingdom, there are actually three major, hidden powers: the Clan from which I hail, Endo Clan. Then there were our pursuers, members of the Dying Roses Sect. And, lastly, the most secretive – and definitely the most powerful – of the three, Heavenbloom Sect. Unlike the latter, my Clan and that bastard Sect have been coming up on surface more recently, which led to constant clashes.”
“….” Lino simply stared blankly, clearly not truly understanding the crux of the whole story.
“The point that the Young Lady is trying to convey,” the old man interjected when he noticed the fumes of anger within Vyeala’s eyes. “Is that yes, you have provoked someone you shouldn’t have.”
“… eh, whatever,” Lino casually shrugged his shoulders, leaning back onto the cave’s wall; he wasn’t pretending, he truly didn’t care. After all, he came here to further his strength for a goal much greater than random hidden powers within backwater Umbra Kingdom. If his life wasn’t on the line, he would never be truly refined afterwards. “I’ve already killed four of their people. Even if I kneeled and sucked their toes for ten fortnights, they still wouldn’t forgive me so screw it. Let bygones be bygones.”
“…” seeing the youth’s casual attitude, the two were stumped for a moment but quickly recovered. “Judging from your fluctuations, you’re Early Core Realm, right?” Lino merely nodded. After brief analysis, he realized what Early, Mid and Late meant. It was simply a way to distinguish the strength of the people within the same Realm. It also made it easier to assess their Levels. For instance, Level 21 to 34 could be considered Early Core Realm, Level 35 to 49 could be considered Mid Core Realm, and Level 50 to 65 would be Late Core Realm. Stepping into Level 66 would also mean stepping into the next realm entirely, Soul Realm!
“You’re rather young, so your talent is above average,” Vyeala stepped in. “Why don’t you come back to our Clan and cultivate there? It’s definitely better than doing it without any knowledge.” while Lino’s expression remained even, he scoffed inside. Not only because their clan’s ‘knowledge’ held no water to him, but also because the girl was basically asking him to act as her bodyguard for the rest of the journey.
“Oh, no need,” Lino shook his head lightly. “After all, my primary job isn’t being a cultivator – it’s being a blacksmith!”
“Oi, what’s with the weird stares? Can’t a man like hammering steel and metal and shaping them into magnificent creations unrivaled beneath the heavens?! Aii, you two would never understand – after all, you’re not blacksmiths! We of such occupation are lofty, unrestrained, free creatures who roam the world like nomads, improving our knowledge and our craft wherever we go, leaving behind only legends and legacies… how can a mere cultivator understand such aspirations? Such dreams? Aah, how flickering the reality truly is…”
“…” the duo stared at him oddly; it was rare to come across such boastful youth, even within the Clans and Sects of cultivators. However, after closer examination, the old man determined that Lino was probably speaking truth; after all, despite his face betraying his youth, Lino’s body was rather robust, as though he was an adult working in a mine. Most cultivators usually had rather slender and sleek bodies, and only few with specific cultivation methods deviated from that norm. “You’ve come to the mountain range to temper?” the old man asked; unlike Vyeala, he didn’t underestimate the youth – despite the foolish façade. He could discern that Lino understood girl’s underlying plea, and his resulting answer was basically a flat-out rejection.
“Indeed,” Lino nodded lightly. “Oh, and to find rare resources, herbs, ores and such, of course! How can I be a blacksmith without those?”
“If you accompany us back to the Clan – defending us along the way, of course – I can promise you won’t be lacking those.” the old man’s words startled Vyeala who immediately glanced at him; however, the old man immediately signaled for her to remain silent. Despite her talent and somewhat broader vision, Vyeala was still just a twelve-year-old girl, and one raised under love and care of many.
“… you overestimate my capabilities,” Lino said, smiling faintly; he rather liked the old man, who got straight to the point. “This is my first time in these mountains, meaning that I’m a complete novice in terms of terrain. Of those seven, at least four would be able to defeat me if I had clashed with them directly, without ambush or throwing swords at them. If you’re after my speed, it’s not as though I can maintain it for a long time; I’ve yet to fully recover my stamina. So, even if you promise me heavens, what worth is it when I can’t fulfill the condition?” a profound gleam flashed through the old man’s eyes as he scrutinized Lino. He perfectly explained the very same concerns the old man had himself. While he was definitely stronger than Vyeala, it accounted for little considering how well planned the actions of Dying Roses’ were; there was a high chance that one of their Prime Elders – all of whom were at least Late Core Realm cultivators – was overseeing the entire operation.
“Yet you don’t seem concerned with having made someone powerful your enemy?” the old man probed further, smiling faintly.
“Alas,” Lino shrugged his shoulders casually. “They don’t know it was me. And, even if they did, do you really think I’d have trouble escaping if I was on my own? If all of them are stamina-depraved like the two of you, I could eat, drink and piss and still manage to run away before they even see my face. How far away is your Clan anyway?” Lino asked.
“We’re situated near the Second Mountain.” the old man replied honestly.
“… we’re too far away,” Lino replied after short thought. “If my guess is correct, you didn’t come across those guys at random.”
“Indeed,” the old man replied; although Vyeala felt rather vexed over being ignored, there’s nothing she could say; from a certain perspective, she had no say in what was currently transpiring. “They will have definitely closed off all roads back to our Clan. Even if they didn’t close off every single one of them, there’d at least be a scouting party that would inform the main force immediately upon spotting us. It is definitely impossible for us to return without being seen, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Aii, old man, can’t you sweeten your tongue a bit?” Lino said, sighing. “Aren’t you trying to get me to help you? The more you tell me, the more I feel like you two are already walking corpses.”
“It is because we’re in need of your help that I’m being honest,” the old man’s smile vanished, his expression serious. “This little girl here is the Sacred Child of our Clan, and a direct descendant of our current Patriarch. Perhaps you don’t know what that means, but, in essence, she’s like a Queen-in-waiting for our Clan. If anything were to happen to her, it would be decades, if not centuries, before our Clan would be able to come out in the open again. In the same vein, if you ensure our – no, her – safety, you will be equally rewarded.”
“…” Lino looked at the man thoughtfully; in reality, he had already decided to help them. Even if things go awry, he can always run on his own, or even pick up the girl and run away with her. From the get-go, he didn’t plan on this trip being anything less than a torturous experience, a hellish struggle. “I need to make some preparations first,” Lino said as he leapt onto his feet. “We’ll depart in three days’ time. You two keep hiding here.”
“Where are you going?” Vyeala asked before the old man had the chance to.
“…” Lino merely glanced at her and quickly left the cave, disappearing off into the horizon. Seeing this, Vyeala’s face grew red as she snorted coldly, pouting.
“Humph, what an arrogant bastard! If we get back to the Clan safely, forget reward, I’ll throw him into the Freezing Jail immediately!”
“…” the old man glanced at her lovingly for a moment before sighing. “Stay your tongue, Vy. That boy isn’t as simple as he seems.”
“Uncle?” the girl looked up, a hint of confusion in her eyes.
“Didn’t you notice it?” the old man said, his eyes staring through the cave’s exit with strange gleam. “He didn’t put either our Clan or the Dying Roses in his eyes at all. From the looks of it, he even disregarded the Heavenbloom Sect itself.”
“Isn’t that just because he’s a country bumpkin? A frog at the bottom of the well?” the little girl immediately said.
“No,” the old man shook his head lightly. “I have a feeling…his horizon is much, much broader than ours… at the very least, he’s no country bumpkin. Perhaps you can’t see it, but judging from the fluctuations of his body, he’s been cultivating for half a year at most.”
“Impossible!!” the little girl exclaimed immediately.
“Aah… time will surely tell… get some rest, the journey ahead will not be easy by any means.”