As the radiance of the dawn slowly penetrated thick branches of the trees, its rays basking the life beneath, three figures clad in black were walking slowly, an elderly, bald man leading the other two. There were none other than the members of Dying Roses; its Patriarch, Shi Hao, First Elder Lu Hao and his direct disciple, Yan Hao. The latter had a slightly distorted expression as he kept glancing at the leading, bald man, but he dared not utter a sound despite the grievances in his heart.
“Are you angry because I let him go?” Shi Hao asked as he glanced back at Yan Hao, smiling faintly.
“…” Yan Hao simply lowered his head, not daring to voice out his thoughts.
“Why did you let him go, Master?” Lu Hao, on the other hand, asked casually. “Not only did he wreck our plans, he also killed a lot of our disciples. While the latter can be attributed to them being weak, the former…”
“Plans are dead but the people are living,” Shi Hao replied, looking up toward the sky. “How long has it been since I’ve seen a body refiner as strong as him? Besides, the plan isn’t destroyed, it’s simply changed.”
“You believe he’ll kill the Demon?” Lu Hao asked.
“… I’m not too sure myself,” Shi Hao said, narrowing his eyes slightly. “He’s not a muddleheaded kid. Even when he faced me, outside of caution, I couldn’t sense anything from his gaze; no fear, no respect, no awe… it felt as though I was merely a pebble in his view of the world.”
“He’s just an arrogant bastard!!” Yan Hao spat out, unable to hold it anymore.
“Perhaps,” Shi Hao said, sighing. “But, I’m more inclined to believe that his goals lie well beyond our grasp. I’m even quite certain that if I chose to kill him, he would probably have a way to either escape, or kill me in retaliation.”
“Eh?” while Yan Hao immediately froze on the spot, Lu Hao widened his eyes as he glanced at his Master; as someone who spent countless years alongside Shi Hao’s side, nobody knew him better. Not even when faced with that freak from Heavenbloom Sect would his Master say that he would be killed. “Surely, you’re exaggerating?”
“Intuition is a vague thing,” Shi Hao said, smiling. “Although it betrayed me on more than one occasion, I still choose to believe it.”
“… still, even if he chooses to kill the Demon, it won’t be that easy, especially since she’s now within the Clan’s grounds.” Lu Hao said, calming himself down quickly.
“That is why I can’t put all my apples into a basket I don’t even know that well,” Shi Hao said. “You and your two Junior Brothers will depart from the Sect in a week and seek grounds within the neighboring Kingdoms with potential. Scout the hidden forces and make sure we could at least survive.”
“Understood.” Lu Hao said, his expression solemn. “What will you do, Master?”
“I’ll remain here and observe…”
Lino suddenly snapped his eyes open and got up, dusting off his clothes. He had been remaining in the cave for nearly three days, and he had finally recovered from his injuries completely. Were it someone else on his exact same Level, even if they managed to survive that brutal attack, they would need months, if not even years of recovery, which is why he was even more astonished by the miracles of <Empyrean Writ>. In addition to that, he even managed to advance to Level 29, increasing his prowess further.
Without any hesitation, he immediately headed toward the forest beyond which lay the Endo Clan. During the recovery, he continuously deliberated on his actions and, in the end, chose to at least try his luck. Even if they questioned how he survived, there were hundreds of stories he could spin so he didn’t worry too much. What worried him, though, was what kind of treatment will he be given. Rather than be welcomed openly and celebrated, he’d much rather be neglected and just left to his own devices.
After entering the forest, he walked for nearly fifteen minutes before a shadow suddenly fell from the trees and landed in front of him. He was a young man, slightly older than Lino himself, donning white robes and a relatively arrogant expression on his face as he scrutinized Lino. After the youth saw Lino’s ravaged and trashed clothes and miserable state, he smiled coldly.
“Who are you?” the youth asked. Lino looked at him with a playful expression, but he quickly shifted it back to solemn in the end.
“Eh? What is this? Your Clan doesn’t even appreciate the savior of your Sacred Child?” upon hearing Lino’s words, youth’s expression jolted somewhat as he grew warier.
“Aren’t you dead?” the youth asked.
“Do I look dead to you?” Lino asked, rolling his eyes slightly. Youth’s lips twitched for a moment before he turned around and began walking.
“Aye, aye, big bro.”
Lino followed closely behind the youth; he felt many auras nearby, but no one else came out in front of the two. The youth before him appeared to be around Lino’s strength, perhaps slightly stronger. Lino put him at the peak of Early Core Realm. However, since Lino didn’t really know the standards of cultivation, he had no clue whether that was good, average, or trashy. He didn’t try to strike up the conversation with youth, so he just followed closely behind.
As they reached a small clearing, the youth paused for a moment and glanced backwards before taking a step forward. Space around him suddenly rippled outward and appeared to have swallowed him directly inside. Lino widened his eyes in shock, not because he was unaware of what happened, but because it was his first time seeing it. Taking a deep breath, he walked forward himself and soon crashed against a seemingly rejecting force. Yet, a moment later, he felt space around him engulf him whole, propelling him forward. It only took a moment, but Lino felt slightly dizzy as he landed on the ground. As he looked up and saw the world before him, he was slightly stunned.
Before him lay a massive valley, with hundreds of cliffs encroaching at its sides and a mountain at its very end. The valley was packed full with houses built from white limestone, with its roads being paved in gray cobblestone. Several gashes at the valley’s sides spat out waterfalls, which fell into the canals running around and through the mini-city in front of him, one built not only within the valley, but also around the cliffs. Some buildings were embedded directly into the sides of the valley, causing them to appear as though they would fall at any moment. At the very end, beneath the mountain’s peak, Lino saw a massive temple exuding ancient air; unlike the rest of the city, the temple was constructed from thick, gray stone, and it stood out within the sea of white.
It was truly a spectacular sight and it took Lino a long while to recover completely. The next thing he noticed was that the Qi here was at least ten times thicker than on the outside, and that many strange flowers and trees were blooming, surrounding the valley. The whole scenery somehow managed to encapsulate the meaning of ‘nature’ and ‘man’, with a handmade city sticking out at the very center, surrounded by the blossoming nature, as though valley was basked in eternal spring.
The man led him toward the valley’s entrance and slightly deeper before taking a turn uphill toward one of the houses embedded into the side of the valley. On their way, a heap of curious glances landed on Lino, but latter merely shrugged them off as he kept mapping out everything he could within his sight. No matter what, he was a prudent person and he’d rather not let his life be in someone’s hands; if things spiraled out of control, he’d much rather have a clean plan than be forced to wing it on the spot.
The house man led him to was two stories tall and windowless, while the entrance was supported by two human-shaped pillars. The youth quickly led him into a massive hallway before pulling him into one of the side rooms. It was a rather small and quaint room, lit up by blue crystals embedded on the walls, with one table and several chairs leaned against the wall and a bookshelf on the opposite side.
“Wait here.” the youth said before glancing at Lino one last time and leaving him alone in the room.
Waiting until the youth left, Lino immediately sprung onto his feet and walked over toward the bookshelf before randomly picking out books and giving them a curious glance. [War of Ravine], [History of Hell], [Sect Rankings]… most of the books dealt with general knowledge and history. While in a Sect this may be obsolete knowledge, to Lino it was as though someone threw an entire gold mine into his hands.
Without any politeness, he picked six books he deemed to be the most interesting and sat onto the chair before beginning to read. The first one he read through was [Sect Rankings], which broadened his horizons immensely. According to the book, all Sects and Clans are divided into three general strata – Lower, Upper and Holy. Within Lower Strata, Sects that are graded as Third, Second and First rate Sects are situated, while the Upper Strata included Sacred Grounds and Immortal Grounds. The Holy Strata included just a single type: Holy Grounds, of which there can only ever be seven in total, in correspondence with seven towers where all knowledge of mankind is stored.
What caught Lino off guard, though, were the requirements themselves; just a Third Rate Sect had to have at least two cultivators of Mystic Realm, meaning that both Endo Clan and Dying Roses didn’t even qualify to be graded. Following Third Rate Sects, Second Rate Sects had to have at least two Purity Realm cultivators, while First Rate Sects had to have at least a single Numinous Realm cultivator and two Illumine Realm cultivators. At this point, Lino pretty much blanked out as he realized just how many cultivator realms there were. In a hurry to actually understand what any of what he just read meant, Lino picked one of the five remaining books on the table – [Cultivator Realms] – and began reading.
Every person who doesn’t cultivate is technically in Mortal Realm, as they are all considered Mortals. Only when someone breaks through the Mortal Realm and enters Core Realm – refining their entire being in the process and being able to sense Qi – do they actually embark on the path of cultivation. Yet, according to the [Sect Rankings] book, minimum requirement for someone to enter a First Rate Sect was actually the realm above Core Realm – Soul Realm.
Once a cultivator breaks away from Core Realm into Soul Realm, he stirs his soul out of slumber, granting him greater sensitivity to Qi energy as well as ability to spread his ‘sense’ in outward direction to see things without actually seeing them. In addition, they are able to use the Qi in their surroundings to a small extent when they’re attacking, and after entering the realm, their bodies are refined once again to become better vassals for the soul.
After the Soul Realm comes Mystic Realm – the realm Ella is in. Mystic Realm cultivators are generally considered very important figures, even within First Rate Sects, as majority tend to cross the threshold of Level 100. Mystic Realm is defined solely by the fact that cultivators are now able to give attributes to their pure Qi – that is to say, even their most basic attacks turn deadly with the attribute Qi. They also gain ability of long-term flight and are one step away from being a true powerhouse in the world of cultivators: Purity Realm.
Purity Realm, as its name suggests, washes the body completely of all impurities, and one becomes a part of the world itself. Without even doing anything, Qi flies toward them naturally, and they are capable of causing seas to dry with a single flick of their fingers. Even if they are killed, as long as a single drop of blood of theirs remains intact, they would be able to come back to life given enough time. In addition, their lifespans explode, and they are considered quasi-Immortals at this point.
This is also where Lino learned the distinction between Mortal Cultivators and Immortal Cultivators; the latter were either born with immensely pure bloodline which already grants them nigh-infinite lifespan and talents that no Mortal Cultivator could ever compare with, or those who have refined blood essence of Immortal Beast that is at least at Purity Stage.
Unfortunately, the book didn’t go further than Purity Stage, so Lino was unable to learn what the Illumine Realm and Numinous Realm entailed, but he realized just how long the journey is. For instance, just to become a Mystic Realm cultivator, he had to reach Level 90, to say nothing of a Purity Realm cultivator where he had to reach Level 141, one higher than Ella herself.
Meanwhile, as Lino was reading through the books and pondering on how to deal with Endo Clan, the higher ups of the Clan itself were also trying to figure out how to deal with Lino. Within a dimly lit room, a stone, round table was placed, surrounded by six chairs atop of which sat six elderly men. At the highest seat was a man donned in lavish robes with sharp-looking eyes. He was leaning against the table, his expression indifferent and cold. Just a few minutes ago, Vyeala’s Sacred Protector informed them of everything that had transpired. Vyeala’s identity was leaked – Patriarch Varick had no doubt about it. He was also aware that the reason Dying Roses decided to try and attack was because it was impossible to prove the girl’s a Demon before she matures or if she isn’t killed.
“Everyone,” Patriarch Varick spoke in a solemn tone. “What do you think we should do?”
“… it’s lucky Lady Vyeala returned safely,” the Clan’s First Elder Rayel spoke in a calm tone. “However, we can’t take this sitting back. That old fart is probably planning on relocating. Should we intercept him?”
“We can’t afford to get into open confrontation,” Second Elder Xyvel said. “It’s beneficial for us if they relocate.”
“What about the boy?” Patriarch suddenly asked, causing the entire room to enter deep silence.
“… shouldn’t he have died by now?” First Elder asked.
“From what Vyeala told me, it looks like he’s a body refiner,” Patriarch said. “There’s a chance he might have survived. If that’s the case, he’ll probably come here.”
“… he’s already here.” Second Elder’s expression grew somber as he said, causing everyone else to look at him. “My son just informed me of his arrival. He’s in the second wing, in the guest room.”
“… even if he survived, isn’t this too quick?” First Elder said, frowning. “It hasn’t even been two days. From what Sacred Protector said, that old fart definitely landed a square hit on him. Even if he somehow managed to survive, it would take at least a month for full recovery.”
“We need to deal with him carefully,” one of the Elders spoke. “We can’t be certain that he wasn’t let go, or even told the secret.”
“Sacred Protector described him as playful and dangerous type,” First Elder said. “Should we probe?”
“We must probe,” Patriarch said, sighing. “We’ll calculate his reactions. If he’s feeble-minded, we’ll just kill him. On the other hand, if he seems smart, then there’s probably a reason he confidently walked into our grounds. We need to proceed with caution in that case.”
“Even if he’s cunning, what can he do? He’s just a brat at Early Core Realm,” Third Elder Tyrel said with a smirk. “Forget the Patriarch, the rest of us can kill him with barely any effort.”
“Caution.” Patriarch Varick reminded. “Invite him.”
It didn’t take long for the doors of the room to open. A moment later, a brazen-looking youth walked in casually as he looked around with somewhat playful and interested expression. He wore leisurely loose clothes, with black pants tied into leather boots, and simple, white shirt atop. Pyramid-shaped necklace hung around his neck, and his hair was tied up into a crane. His black eyes seemed simple, yet carried a sense of shrewdness unfound in others his age.
“Saw enough?” Third Elder asked with a frown as Lino had barely even looked at them.
“…” Lino glanced casually at the table and six people surrounding it, noticing their expression. Eh? So you guys wanna play the hardcore style? Don’t mind if I do, then. “Sure.” he said, smiling faintly. “Where’s my chair?” his question stunned the six for a moment before their expressions grew grim.
“You think you have the right to sit with the six of us?” the man at the topmost position – Patriarch, by Lino’s calculations – said in a heavy tone.
“Why not?” Lino said, his lips still curled up in a smile. “From what I know, I saved your daughter’s life. The least you can do is offer me a chair to rest my ass on, right?” hundreds of thoughts began formulating across the six minds as they analyzed the youth’s casual demeanor.
“Sure.” Patriarch Varick smiled weakly before a chair suddenly appeared next to Lino, who immediately sat down as though the place was his own house.
“Aah, much better,” Lino said. “So, how can I help the honorable elders?”
“How did you survive?” First Elder immediately got straight to the point.
“I was saved.” Lino said.
“Saved? By whom?” the Elder asked.
“By a weird-looking boy. He said he was peak lord or something, I don’t know.” Lino replied as though it was none of his business, yet his casual words echoed like thunder inside the minds of six. They all had the single thought: Peak Lord knows! As Lino had spent considerable time in Vyeala’s proximity, there’s no way that a Peak Lord would miss her scent on him.
“Did he help you heal as well?” Patriarch Varick took a deep breath before asking; it didn’t matter if the boy knew or not, the key point is that the Peak Lord knew. It looked like they wouldn’t be able to stay here any longer.
“Yeah,” Lino said, smiling faintly; Geez, can you guys at least try and pretend you don’t care about my words? I’m reading you easier than those orphanage kids… Even if Lino was uncertain as to whether Vyeala was a Demon up until this point, that fact was just confirmed by their reaction. ” So, did you guys prepare my reward yet or should I wait some?”
“Reward?” First Elder mumbled, frowning deeply.
“Of course. Why do you think I saved that kid otherwise?” Lino said. “I may look like a dashing hero, but she’s definitely not a hot damsel in distress worth risking my life for. So, I was promised a reward.”
“… how do we know you’re not colluding with the assassins?” Second Elder asked, and now it was Lino’s time to frown; Looks like these bastards are really planning to kill me, eh? Should I just take my chance? They’re definitely not taking me seriously, and there’s no way they’ll let me get even a whiff of Vyeala from today onward.
“Then kill me.” Lino said, grinning. “If you can, that is.”
“Nonsense!!” Second Elder slapped the table as he roared. “Didn’t your mother teach you to respect your elderly?!”
“… elderly? How are you my elderly?” Lino asked. “I met you five minutes ago, and all of you have been staring at me as though you were starving wolves seeing a sheep for the first time in a year. Instead of being given a reward for saving that worthless brat, you’re making up excuses to get rid of me instead. However, I hate these games, which is why I was just giving you guys a helping hand. Go on. Kill me. If you can, that is.” Lino said as he clutched [Celestial Rod] in his pocket. That was his source of confidence alongside the three-attack-immunity provided by his necklace; whether they were Peak Core Realm or even Soul Realm cultivators, the poisoned darts could kill them. He had already practiced shooting them like mad before he departed for the mountain range, and he was confident in being able to kill at least four of them before they even knew what hit them, and that was only because he had to shoot two darts at the Patriarch for precaution. The atmosphere stiffened as Lino waited, still carrying a casual and indifferent expression.
“You may leave,” Patriarch Varick said in a heavy tone. “You’ll be escorted to the temporary room, and you’ll be given rewards and official thanks tomorrow. Satisfied?”
“I’ll be waiting.” Lino said as he smiled and got up, leaving the room. Eh, I did not expect that. Hmm… what now? Should I wait until they begin the preparations to move? He always knew that killing Vyeala would be anything but easy, but he realized that the difficulty increased exponentially just now. Should I have played it soft instead? Eh, no way, those bastards would have killed me on the spot…