Lino looked down at his chest and smiled bitterly. Right side was blasted in, with a clear palm imprint visible on the surface. His chest bled profusely and even a few ribs were clearly sticking out. An immense wave of pain surged from the depths of his soul, but he stifled the cry inside his throat, trying to breathe as little as possible. Definitely a Soul Realm cultivator… he thought as information about the realm above his surfaced inside his mind.
When a cultivator steps into the Core Realm, his entire body is washed away from its core, shedding away its mortality and establishing resonance with the Worldly Energy. However, the resonance itself was extremely faint, and cultivators at Core Realm could merely absorb the energy and refine it within themselves before using it. On the other hand, when one steps into a Soul Realm, one draws his soul into a conscious mind – that is to say, he is able to infuse his own soul into elements of the world.
Cultivators are capable of directly using Worldly Energy without needing to refine it and absorb it, but it’s still in limited quantities. Nonetheless, it is far, far more frightening than what a Core Realm cultivator can do. In addition, the body undergoes its second metamorphosis because of the surfacing of soul; as the latter is extremely fragile, it requires strong body to protect it. Were Lino not a body refiner, he would have been blown to smithereens by that attack. In the same vein, the only reason he actually survived was because the attacker used his physical body rather than any martial art.
In addition, Soul Realm Cultivators are capable of using Divine Sense; with the birth – or rather, surfacing – of the soul, the latter becomes the conduit between the body and the Worldly Energy. Using it, cultivators are able to spread the latter outside their bodies as invisible energy, covering a specific area while perceiving anything within with their minds down to the very last detail, making it nearly impossible to hide from them.
Still, a Level 25 Early Core Realm cultivator like Lino could only stand and die before someone at Soul Realm. One could say it was a miracle he even survived the first attack. The most he could do now was stand still and circulate <Empyrean Writ> to recover his wounds. As a body refiner, his speed of self-healing far exceeded ordinary cultivators, but his wounds were simply too severe for quick recovery.
“Eh? Not bad, not bad,” a slightly hoarse voice entered his ear, causing Lino’s heart to start as he looked up. A slightly older gentleman appeared in front of him, donned in entirely black robes with golden threads and a white rose on his chest. The old man had his hands behind his back, looking at Lino with somewhat interested expression. He was entirely bald and well-shaved, but his wrinkled face gave off the feeling of aged wisdom. “Although you’re heavily injured, you still withstood my attack. Not bad indeed.”
“…” Lino simply stared at him, saying nothing for a moment as he analyzed his situation. He, naturally, still didn’t give up; he was a measly Soul Realm cultivator. At most, the old man was Level 89, barely comparable to a blacksmith like Eggor. If he was terrified of such existence, how could he ever hope to assist Ella and the egg-faced bearded guy with their troubles? “Shouldn’t you be chasing after those two?” Lino asked, forcing a smile on his face.
“Ha ha, I really should but, alas, even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to catch them,” the old man said with a hearty laugh. “You’ve really reacted quickly. Are you hoping they’ll reach the Clan and summon reinforcements before I kill you?”
“Hardly,” Lino shrugged his shoulders. “I’m at most hoping you’ll play the role of a kind, old grandpa and let me go.”
“Oh? Why would I let you go?” the old man said, putting on a shocked expression. “You’ve killed several of my disciples and ruined our well-crafted plans all by your lonesome. You’ve even insulted our manhood! That was, by the way, really low…”
“Aii, what can I say? You guys look like the type I like bullying.” Lino said, smiling lightly. “You can’t really blame me for killing your disciples, though.”
“Oh? I can’t?”
“Of course not,” Lino said, chuckling lightly. “You see, when I saw that perky little ass of that girl, I knew right then and there I couldn’t allow anything to happen to her. Don’t tell me I should have ignored my centermost instinct and watched you guys slaughter her silly?”
“… ha ha, interesting kid, ha ha,” the old man laughed lightly. “From your eyes, I can see that you still have something to back up your resilience, and it’s not those two farts that ran away. Do you know why we chose to kill that brat?”
“She rejected Young Master of your Sect and you guys went balls-to-the-walls about it?” Lino said randomly.
“Ah, if only,” the old man shook his head. “That kid… those of her clan call her Sacred Child, no? What a load of balls.”
“Isn’t it bullshit?”
“Are you in any position to question my wisdom?”
“Continue, oh great sage.”
“Good kid,” the old man smiled as he spoke. “Certainly, that brat is extremely talented. Even if you placed her in one of those Sacred Grounds she might be able to stand on her own. But, she’s just a brat. No matter how talented a kid is, I wouldn’t stoop so low to send a bunch of grown men after her just because of that. Although I look really cool and evil, I’m actually a pretty decent guy, you know?”
“… yeah, your bald head is really shining in pure holiness.” Lino said, finding the old man to be rather pleasant to talk with, a complete contrast to the murderous aura he released when the two first clashed.
“Ha ha, you really know how to flatter, little kid. Khm, but it’s true, you know? It’s just talent, isn’t it? Look at you. You’re also extremely talented. Yet, what worth is that talent when I can simply blow at you right now and kill you? Will that talent save you? Even if, let’s say, she truly did survive her growing years, those within her Clan would rarely let her go out. What can a milk-bred girl really do? Merely become a stepping stone for someone who’s truly seen hell.”
“Aii, you beat around the bush more than a virgin guy in a brothel,” Lino said, rolling his eyes. “So, why are you hunting her? Don’t tell me the source of her talent is some demon sucking on her soul. That would be really, really unpredictable.”
“Oh fuck you.”
“Well… you’re wrong, actually… well, technically…” the old man said, smiling oddly. “She doesn’t have a demon in her soul… she’s, uh, the demon.”
“… yep, that’s the expression. Ha ha, it’s like I’m looking myself in the mirror from back when I first realized it. Ha ha, good kid.”
“… I didn’t sense anything out of the ordinary from her.” Lino said, furrowing his brows. Is this old fart trying to swindle me? There’s no way, right?
“Of course you didn’t. Even I wouldn’t be able to even if she stood stark naked in front of me.”
“… aii, there goes that holy light from your bald head…”
“Oi, brat, don’t besmirch my perfect image, I’ll splatter your brains!” the old man said. “Khm, as you may have guessed, I do have some spies in that Clan of theirs. One of them is on a rather high position, and he informed me of this. Apparently, their Patriarch went to the Umbra Capital twelve years ago and, on his way back, he stumbled across a rather large egg-like thing. Lo and behold, the egg-like thing hatched and boom, human-shaped baby, right there, in front of their eyes. Tell me, isn’t that freaking weird? Even I got goosebumps when I first heard it.”
“… look man, if you’re gonna kill me, just do it. Don’t torture me beforehand!”
“Aii, I already said I’m an upright, honest man, right? Why do you doubt me so much? If it’s because of that attack, I had to show some authority in front of my babies, right? If I just let you guys swagger across the field and leave without doing anything, where would my face be?”
“… on your bald head?”
“Haah… you don’t trust me?”
“… I do,” Lino said, sighing randomly. Perhaps he truly was being too naïve, but, for some reason, he did – at least partially – trust the old guy. “Which is why I’m starting to doubt my own sanity. But, if it’s so important, why didn’t you or any of the bigwigs show up immediately and just killed her off instead of playing games?”
“Tell me,” the old man said, his expression turning serious. “What do you think would happen to this Kingdom if a war broke out between a Clan and a Sect of cultivators?”
“… I imagine it would perish from the map.”
“Exactly,” the old man nodded. “I don’t want a war, kid. I’ve seen plenty bloodshed in my life, and it is never pleasant, whether I won or lost. If you hadn’t intercepted us, we’d have actually led the duo to one of the peaks where a Queen Spirit resides and let her take care of the duo. I imagine she’d be more than happy to feast upon that brat. In addition… ah, I have a bad feeling about this. How can one simply stumble on a Demon Egg right in the heart of the Kingdom? Alas, alas… oh, right, how did you guys evade all of our scouts?” Lino flickered his sleeve and simply threw the plate over to the old man. When the old man looked at the stats, the corners of his lips twitched before he gazed at Lino with somewhat odd expression.
“… you crafted this?”
“So that’s why you beat that Yan brat silly over a shitty [Spring Bloom], eh? Not bad, not bad. Although this thing is on the lower spectrum of levels, it can really work wonders for some people.” the old man praised before throwing the plate back toward Lino.
“So, what now?” Lino asked casually. Although his chest still looked horrendous, he was already able to actually breathe normally and his pain subsided greatly. <Empyrean Writ> is really something else… I wonder if I’ll be able to snatch some Primal Spirits that will be linked to regeneration? Aii, I want to level up so badly right now…
“Aii, you’re really giving me a headache,” the old man said, his expression somewhat conflicted. “On one hand, I want to spank your butt for killing my disciples and ruining our plans, but on the other hand, I really like you.”
“What’s with the weird gaze? Oh, spank, like… screw you, perverted brat! Humph, you’re really seeking death, it seems!”
“Why not just let me go?” Lino said, smiling widely. “I’m just an ant to your lordly existence! Look at me! I’m barely able to stand—“
“Yeah, barely able to stand. If you’re going to play the humble card, at least don’t survive when someone who’s at least fifty levels above you attacks you.”
“… yeah, my ghostly form would really hold more water in our debate.”
“Aii, whatever,” the old man suddenly flicked his sleeve upon which a thumb-sized pill flew over toward Lino and landed in the palm of his hand. “Go hide somewhere and heal your wounds. Ponder over what we discussed. Although that girl just seems like an innocent brat at the moment, once she matures, she’ll hardly care for who fed her and bathed her when she grows hungry. You’re a bright kid. You’ll know what to do.”
Before the old man completely vanished, he threw another item toward Lino; it was a simple jade talisman, and Lino immediately recognized it as a communication talisman. He could probably contact the old man through this. Rolling his eyes, he popped the pill into his mouth before he turned around and left, scurrying over through the forest before reaching a valley nearby. He carved out a cave and entered, starting fire with some dry wood he gathered on his way over. He sat in a meditative position and circulated the medicinal remnants of the pill through his body. Before he swallowed it, he saw that the pill was called [Homespring Remedy]. While it was not a top-notch healing pill, it was still in the upper realm. It mainly focused on fixing internal injuries which is exactly what Lino needed the most at the moment.
“… Demon, eh?” he pondered as he leaned back against the cave’s wall, allowing his body to slowly regenerate surface damage. “Who would have thought? Why would the Clan harbor a Demon knowingly, though? From what I’ve read in those books Eggor gave me, Demon’s main food are actually human souls. Or, could it be that they have a way to control it after it reaches maturity? There are, after all, several ways to control a Demon… haah, in the end, though, no method is permanent. One way or another, unless killed, Demon will eventually regain freedom. What to do… what to do…”
The current situation couldn’t really classify as a predicament, as it had very little to do with Lino on a personal level. Whether a war between the Clan and the Sect broke out or a mature Demon was unleashed upon the world, even forgetting those two monsters he calls his Masters, there was still that third sect which remained in the shadows, and was supposedly the most powerful one. Still, Lino knew that he couldn’t just sit by the side and let the events unfold on their own. It’s true that, this time, it has nothing to do with him, but who’s to say that will be the case in the future? What he lacks the most is direct, practical experience. Just like how he miscalculated enemy’s movement today and ran into a brick wall – or rather a bald head.
“That old man is pretty clear in his intentions,” Lino mumbled, closing his eyes slowly. “He will no longer act, and neither will his Sect. If the worst happens and demon matures and gets free, they’ll probably just move rather than engage with it directly. So, the ball’s in my court now, eh? It’s too risky, though… I know next to nothing about internal dealings of the Clan, and much less how they look upon the outsiders. Even if they treated me somewhat favorably, I’d still remain on the far outside of all essential happenings.”
“Are you saying I should just drive to the root of the problem?” Lino’s lips twitched slightly as he mumbled out loud. “Befriend that little girl, gain her trust, and then twist a knife in her back on the face of your words? Why give me the talisman then? Are you hoping I can lure her away from the Clan? Ah, nonsense. After today, that little brat isn’t leaving Clan’s compound for the rest of her life. The situation will turn into equilibrium between two sides… each are aware of the crux of the matter, but they’ll both take passive stances about it. Most conflicts will also cease for the time being…”
As he spun his thoughts around, Lino realized that there were more things amiss than what he initially thought. The entire matter began with Vyeala leaving the Clan’s grounds: but, why did she leave? Even if, for some weird reason she had to leave, a single, Mid Core Realm cultivator was sent as her guardian. If the Clan values her so much, isn’t that just waiting for things to turn awry?
“… could it be that the bigwigs of Endo Clan were suspecting something, which is why they used Vyeala as a bait? Still, shouldn’t they have protected her better? Now that I think about it, she was never truly in danger of losing her life. So, even if someone was watching, they wouldn’t have stepped outside because, well, I was there… aii, these political shenanigans really don’t suit me. Why can’t you guys just battle it out?” as words left his lips, he suddenly felt his immediate surroundings grow cold. His eyes jolted open and he found himself slightly shocked because right in front of his eyes was a boy who looked to be no more than ten years of age, quietly staring at him.
“… are you waiting for me to guess who you are, or do you just enjoy that cool pose of yours?” Lino asked after the boy remained silent for a whole minute.
“You’re not a Demon.” the boy said quaintly.
“Why do I sense Demon’s aura on you, then?” the boy asked curiously.
“What? You have a problem with my taste?” Lino asked casually. The boy finally reacted as his lips twitched lightly. He was no taller than a small boulder, and had black, neat hair and big, black eyes. He wore purple robes which exuded air of lofty ambitions and nobility.
“Ravage all you wish,” the boy replied. “None of my business.”
“If not, then why are you here?”
“You’re really disrespectful, aren’t you?” the boy mumbled.
“Well, you’re about ten times stronger than me,” Lino said, his expression as still and calm as water. “So, what else am I supposed to do? Grovel?” it is indeed as Lino said; whoever the boy before him was, Lino felt at least twice as much pressure coming from him than he did coming from the bald guy. That is to say, the boy was at least Mystic Realm cultivator. Lino wanted to curse both Ella and Eggor for completely lying to him, but he’d have to wait until coming back to do it properly.
“That would do it.”
“Who are you?” Lino asked casually.
“My name’s Tin.”
“I didn’t ask for your name.”
“I’m one of the Peak Lords of the Umbra Mountain Range,” the boy said calmly. “Satisfied?”
“Oh? Why did a mighty Peak Lord descend down to the same plane as us mortals?”
“From your nonsensical babble,” the boy called Tin said, ignoring Lino’s probing. “You seem torn about something. Does it have to do with that Demon aura on you?”
“… you could say so.” Lino said, sighing faintly.
“Although the aura is faint,” the boy continued causally. “It’s clear that the Demon’s yet to reach maturity, so I presume the aura got on you by interacting with another human. Are you torn between a choice of killing it and sparing it?”
“… why are you so interested in it?” Lino asked.
“… do you believe in evil?”
“… no.” Lino replied faintly after short deliberation.
“Yet, it exists.” Tin said, smiling lightly before he sat down suddenly, cross-legged. “Not the abstract notion, but the corporal form.”
“There is only one world in the universe – which is ours,” Tin said. “But, it is packed full of dimensional pockets. One of those pockets is rather large, inhabited by foulness beyond comprehension. Some people call it Hell, some call it Devil’s Domain, some call it Final Boundary… whatever the case may be, that isolated dimension is the root of evil. The Qi of our world is of pure, elemental affinity; it nourishes life, and propels us forth. However, within Devil’s Domain, Qi is subverted into its backward state; rather than to nourish, it destroys; rather than to propel forth, it pulls back. It corrodes life. That is evil.”
“Interesting…” Lino said, squinting his eyes lightly. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Demons aren’t born of this world, but from that dimension,” Tin explained further. “And they are just one of the manifestations of subverted Qi – the weakest kind, actually.”
“Eh?” Lino exclaimed, somewhat shocked. Then, what of those legends that spoke of demons wreaking havoc all by their lonesome?
“That’s just from the overall perspective,” Tin chuckled, as though he understood Lino’s shocked expression. “They are, as the matter of fact, rather strong, but they’re also the only corporal form that can actually survive within our world for prolonged periods of time. All other forms of evil cannot sustain themselves within the pure Qi of our world. Think of Demons as envoys, who are sent here to try and devolve and subvert our world’s Qi to make it hospitable for other corporal forms of evil. In the end, they stand against us not because they hate us, or because we hate them, but because we’re two diametrically opposite species.”
“… that was an interesting lesson,” Lino said after short deliberation. “Still have no clue why you taught me, though.”
“Kill it.” Tin said casually as he slowly got up. “It is no more human than a chicken is, despite its shape.”
“Why don’t you do it? You seem rather powerful.”
“Ha ha,” Tin suddenly laughed, throwing his head back, as though he was gazing up to the sky even though there was an entire mountain blocking his view. “If old folk like me always cleaned shit up, how would younger generations ever manage to grow up properly? Forget killing one demon, back in my heyday, I once entered the Devil’s Domain directly with several of my friends as we slaughtered our way toward one of the cities.”
“Then what happened?” Lino asked, his curiosity peaked.
“Then… we came across a Devil variant,” Tin said, his expression somewhat solemn and somber. “Fourth strongest lineage of the evil’s corporal form – Godfiend, equivalent to a human Deus Imperium… but that is something beyond what you can comprehend. It was still technically a child, yet it wiped the floor with us. Only three out of two hundred survived back then. Their world is full of treasures which we covet, and our world is the treasure they covet. You’re an interesting lad,” Tin continued, smiling faintly. “You’re able to maintain not just calm expression but even calm heart even when faced with someone much, much stronger than you. That shows how heavy your determination is. If you continue to grow, I have no doubt that, one day, you’ll also join a campaign to enter Devil’s Domain. Should that day ever come, you’ll perhaps truly understand why Demons in our world are killed mercilessly. Well then, until next time.” the sleeve of the boy’s robe flickered for a moment as light flashed and landed onto Lino’s palm. When he raised his head to look at the boy, he was nowhere to be found. Only a faint voice trickled into Lino’s ears, as though the boy mumbled to himself as he vanished “Could it be a high tier? No… impossible…” Lino looked back down and saw that it was a jade talisman – communication one. His lips twitched as he smiled in a weird way. Why are weird, old dudes giving me ways to contact them all of a sudden? They… they just appreciate my talent… right?