Patriarch Varick and the Six Prime Elders were currently standing at the topmost perch of the valley, overlooking the entire town below. Their expressions were rather grim, eyes dimmed in shade, full of reluctance. Behind them were other senior figures of the Clan, alongside Vyeala who appeared to be the most confused one of all those present. She was currently wearing rather tight, leather clothes, her hair tied up neatly behind her back. Although the clothes appeared rather irregular, they were actually specially-crafted items that could prevent a deadly blow from anyone below Soul Realm.
Patriarch Varick’s eyes scanned the entire valley for a moment before he sighed and spread Divine Sense – something only those at Soul Realm are capable of doing. Whatever was hidden behind the roofed houses and tall walls and crevices of the valley was quickly revealed to his mind. At the far edge of the city, inside the abandoned house, he recognized two figures sitting next to each other. His sense held onto Lino for a few moments before he sighed gently, shaking his head. Naturally, he’d rather have someone as talented as the boy as a friend rather than a foe, but it was too late now. Patriarch was certain that the information about Vyeala was most-likely already out in the open, but even if so, the boy still remained a hindrance.
“He’s at the old smithy,” Patriarch Varick spoke in a soft voice so only the Prime Elders could hear him. “Gather thirty or so people and surround him. We’ll proceed with the plan and wait you at the end.”
“Thirty? Isn’t that an overkill? Just send one of us.” First Elder Rayel said.
“… it’s better to be certain than sorry,” Patriarch Varick spoke in a contemplative voice. “Should he break free and run rampart through the Clan, even if we killed him in the end, the damage would be too severe, especially now. Besides, the six of you must be there to deter the noisy ones.”
“… very well,” Second Elder Xyvel said, bowing his head slightly. “I shall have it arranged immediately.”
“Hm,” the Patriarch nodded. “Good.”
He cast another, swift glance toward the abandoned smithy before turning around and leading everyone off the high point toward the town’s exit. It was time to leave.
Despite being completely surrounded, Lino didn’t feel afraid. Even he himself couldn’t put it into words; he was neither scared of dying or deterred over having to soon kill so many people and fight his way out of this hellhole. Perhaps, deep down, he was always averse to life, or perhaps he was fascinated by death, or his blood was simply cold. Whatever the case may be, he figured, now wasn’t the time to search for the answers. He flung Aeala over his shoulder – causing a rather timid while also seductive scream – while using his other hand to draw out a sword.
His eyes scanned over the people in the back, and through blessing of Glog, he was easily able to discern their levels – the highest was Level 31, similar to his own. Putting a whiff of Qi into his calves and feet, his muscles bulged for a moment before he bolted sideways, directly bursting the wall apart while leaving a small pit where he stood. He whizzed past the scattered wood into the backyard, startling the ten odd people waiting for him there. Without hesitation, his wrist flicked and the one-thirty centimeters long sword was flung sideways, piercing a heart of the nearby youth who didn’t even realize how he died. While the sword itself was still in the air, Lino drew another one from his necklace as he landed onto the ground, spinning sideways to garner momentum before leaping forward, crossing nearly four meters of distance within a flash.
His hand slashed upward, splitting a bearded man’s jaw and directly killing him, before kicking off of the man’s chest and leaping into the air. He spun sideways and threw his sword in a beautiful downward arc, crashing it directly into another man’s chest. Not even a few breaths had passed since he burst out of the house, and three had already died without the rest even reacting a bit. Only after the first body finally hit the floor did the light of realization light up inside others’ eyes.
“Fuck!! Surround him!! Tighter the circle!! Cover each other’s blind spots!” someone shouted as Lino landed gracefully.
He drew out another sword from his necklace and welcomed the tight encirclement with a grin. He felt wind behind his back grow colder as he lurched his body sideways, evading a sword strike; he replied in kind immediately, thrusting directly through the attacker’s heart. As another strike was coming at him from the side, he twirled his blade so that it stood upright, dull edges facing sides, before pulling the sword and the body with it and drawing a half-circle, using the corpse to defend against the strike. Veins on his muscles popped as his grip tightened. As the strike meant for him hit the corpse, blood spurted out across Lino’s face and clothes, causing bitter sweetness to invade back of his mouth. He licked his lips with an evil grin before suddenly shoving the sword forward, cruising through the corpse and accurately piercing an eye of the person in front.
Screams, commands and shouts had already invaded the previously peaceful backyard, even those upfront heard the commotion. Lino sensed that nearly ten were moving around the house to join the party at the back, causing him to quicken his pace. Abandoning the sword lodged into two corpses, he drew out another before flickering it backwards without even looking, killing yet another; he did so for the remaining four, until the whole backyard was doused in scarlet red, with stench of blood invading the air. Corpses laid strewn like dolls, while Aeala’s screams finally numbed; her eyes were as round as eggs, lips slightly agape, whole body trembling. Only a single thought circulated her mind: I actually teased this kid!
Ignorant of Aeala’s thoughts, Lino ran in a circle swiftly, gathering up five swords before the first wave of newcomers approached him. Most of them suddenly stiffened when they saw the scene of ten corpses surrounding a single, bloodied kid, which gave Lino enough time to take a breather before commencing another assault. He jolted his wrist, slashing his sword downward at the earth. The slash split apart the ground in a straight gash, causing a massive amount of fist-sized rocks to explode into a straight cone, hitting eight people, and even killing two. While the dust still raged and screams echoed out into the sky, he broke through the brown fog, searching for the elusive shadows within. The moment he’d notice one, he’d leapt toward it and pierce without a hint of hesitation. Merely ten seconds later, over twenty corpses were piled into the backyard, causing stench to become nigh unbearable. Lino looked around, searching to see whether there was anyone observing him from the higher ground. The moment he realized it was clean, he ducked into the alley on the side of the abandoned smithy, slithering like a thief around without being spotted while slowly moving toward the town’s exit.
“Hey. Hey. Hey.” Lino called out to the befuddled woman looped over his shoulder, but there was no response. He was currently halfway toward the exit, but he ran out of the shady alleys to run through, and was currently hidden behind a stack of wooden boxes. “Oi, wake up already!” he slapped her gently over the head, finally jolting her back to reality.
“Y-you…” Aeala looked at him in absolute terror, unconsciously attempting to pull away from him. However, as her eyes looked into his – which were as still and as calm as water – her stirred heart calmed somewhat. A breath escaped her – one she felt she held ever since the beginning – causing the stifled feeling within her chest to disappear.
“Me, me what? Come on, wake up already. Where now?” Lino asked, frowning slightly.
“… where are we?” Aeala mumbled as she looked around. “Oh, the Merchant’s house.” she exclaimed before turning her eyes at him, an odd glee in them. “How the fuck did we end up here?”
“… uh, don’t ask me. You’re the guide here.” Lino shrugged his shoulders as he ignored the subtle critique.
“You seem plenty strong,” Aeala said. “Why not just fight your way through?”
“I seem strong only because those guys were weak,” Lino said, sighing. “If any of the Elders were to show up, we’d be toast.”
“Hmm… is that so?” Aeala mumbled as she thought for a moment. “Well, if we backtrack a bit, we can take a roundabout route through the underground tunnels that lead toward the exit.”
“Eh? There’s such thing?”
“Yeah, but it’s not as though it’s hidden. There’s probably someone watching it.”
“Leave that to me,” Lino said as he picked her up again and threw her over his shoulder. “You just lead the way.”
“… alright.” Aeala mumbled as she gripped the back of his shirt tightly.
Lino encountered several patrols on their way back but evaded fighting as much as possible, preserving his strength. He’s yet to fulfill the reason he even came here, and he didn’t exactly want to trade his life for Vyeala’s. The two reached a small, one-story wooden house in about ten minutes of sneaking around and entered. Much like with the floor in the tavern, there was a small door embedded here as well. Opening the hatch, Lino first signaled Aeala to go inside before following her. The tunnel was extremely dark, forcing Lino to perk his fingers up and summon the Tri-Spirit Flame to light up the way forward. The path itself was narrow and low, as they had to bend halfway while walking forward.
“They moved a lot quicker than you anticipated.” Aeala said.
“Yeah, I guess I underestimated them a bit,” Lino mumbled. “But, then again, it’s not as though I had a lot of time to observe them.”
“Even if we get to the exit, though, didn’t you say that even a single Elder would be enough to kill you? How will you fight all of them, alongside the Patriarch?” Aeala asked worriedly.
“Of course I won’t fight them,” he scoffed. “What do you think I am? Insane?”
“We’ll run away, of course,” Lino said, puffing his chest out. “If it’s running away, none of them stand a chance against me.”
“… I thought cultivators were supposed to be the headstrong kind, ones who never bow their head.”
“Eh, fuck my head if I’m a corpse,” Lino shrugged his shoulders casually. “I’d rather live to fight another day than die fighting for something as dumb as pride. How long till we get there?”
“We’re here.” Aeala said as she suddenly stopped and pointed up. “The hatch leads to the last row of the houses before the uphill climb toward the town’s exit.”
“Stay behind me.” Lino said as he began climbing the ladder without hesitation, quickly reaching the top. He pushed the hatch open slowly and perked his head outside, glancing around. The room was empty and silent, with floorboards piling up excessive amounts of dust, one of the many clues that no one has entered here in a very, very long time. “It’s clear. Come up.” he called out to Aeala before climbing out and quickly skittering over to the window, glancing outside.
The road leading up the hill was currently full of people being led by cultivators of all levels. He sensed several powerful auras alongside the hill as well as several more at the very top of the hill. Aeala soon approached him from behind and looked out the window herself.
“What do you think?” she asked as she noticed a deep frown on his face.
“There are several ways out, but none of them are optimal.” Lino said after short silence, sighing. “If only your tits were large enough to hide me…”
“Is this really a right time to be flirting?”
“There’s never a wrong time to be flirting.”
“Say that after you’ve at least popped your cherry.”
“Popped my cherry?” Lino glanced back, looking at her with confusion in his eyes.
“… goddammit, are you innocent or are you perverted?! Pick one!” Aeala rolled her eyes in frustration before changing the subject. “Don’t tell me we’ll have to stay here until we’re found?”
“… oh fuck your Divine Sense.” Lino mumbled as he rolled his eyes in frustration, suddenly grabbing Aeala by her waist and taking out a sword, bolting through the sidewall like a cannonball. A mere moment later, the entire house blew up in flames, causing screams of confusion to erupt. Meanwhile, Lino landed a few dozen meters outside the house, looking up at the hill where the three of the six Prime Elders and Patriarch Varick himself were standing, looking back at him. “Hello fellas,” Lino spoke, smiling bitterly. “You’ve welcomed me with quite a bang, I see.”
“Did you kill them?” Patriarch Varick asked with emotionless voice.
“… ah, what can I say? They were trying to steal my woman. That’s a no-go.”
“Hm,” the Patriarch nodded. “That’s all I need to know.”
“Eh? Dad, who are you talking to?” a twelve-year-old girl suddenly appeared next to the Patriarch, her expression sunken. “Eh! Lino?!! Where have you been?! No, wait, when did you arrive?!! No, wait, you survived?!!” Vyeala began screaming as she noticed Lino at the bottom of the hill.
Patriarch Varick’s heart suddenly turned cold for a moment as a strange sense of foreboding washed over his back. Lino’s eyes, meanwhile, widened to their maximum output as a heaven-sent chance was presented to him. Without hesitating even for a moment, he reached into his pocket and took out the [Celestial Rod], gripping it firmly into his grasp while hiding it from everyone’s eyes. He carefully calculated the angle and aimed, knowing that this was the only chance he’ll have to kill her.
“Aaah, you should have looked for me when you came here!! Didn’t you say—“ halfway through the sentence, Vyeala felt something gently pierce her throat, like a mosquito bite. She scratched it gently before tilting her head in confusion for a moment, shaking her head afterwards. “As I was saying, cough, you should have visited me!! What about, cough, cough, your rewards? Cough, cough…”
“Vyeala!!” seeing the girl’s strange behavior, the Patriarch immediately walked over and grasped her tightly, sending Qi through her body to inspect her. “You bastard, what did you do?!!” he roared toward Lino as he realized that his Qi was blocked by something.
“D-dad, cough, cough,” Vyeala mumbled as she suddenly fell on her knees, coughing out a mouthful of pitch-black blood while her nose, eyes and ears began bleeding profusely. “Cough, aaaaaah, it h-hurts, d-dad, it h-hurts!! H-help, cough, help me!!”
“Vyeala, Vyeala!” the Patriarch fervently tried to send his Qi inside her meridians to purify them, but to no avail. Thick tears began streaming down his cheeks; whatever must be said about her origins, he who had never married in his life or had children of his own always treated her as a daughter. He loved her more than the rest of the Clan combined, and seeing her current state caused his heart to stir and bleed. The little girl’s body suddenly began twitching as veins surfaced on her skin, pulsating like mad. Her eyes rounded like eggs for a moment, full of reluctance, disbelief, fear and dread and deep-rooted unwillingness before bursting in a moment of gore, causing a shrill scream to escape her throat.
“AAAAAGGGHHH!!! NOO!!!!!” she cried out as she fell sideways. Her skin quickly gave out as her naturally pale complexion slowly turned ink-black. Everyone was already alarmed as some approached her while others immediately locked their gazes onto Lino, ensuring he didn’t go anywhere due to the commotion.
“… was this your grand plan?” Aeala asked, rolling her eyes. “You figured they didn’t want to kill you hard enough, so you went and killed their Sacred Child to provoke them, eh?”
“My Master always taught me that angry, pissed off opponents are easy opponents,” Lino said, chuckling bitterly. “Although, to be honest, I didn’t think the poison would act up that quickly. Is it too potent? Or is her immune system just that weak?”
“… she’s a Demon.” Aeala commented. “I very much doubt that ordinary poisons would be able to kill her.”
“… oh, right!”
“You even forgot that?!! Khm, anyway, what now?”
“Now? Now we fucking run.”
By this point, Vyeala was lying dead-cold on the floor while Patriarch shook her body and called out her name helplessly, over and over again. His thick, coarse voice bounded the hills and cliffs of the valley and even shook the earth beneath. Even air itself seemed to be entombed in his grief as it swayed gently, almost humming a low, deathly lullaby. The moment the last breath escaped her, her body stopped twitching as a strange, deadly aura enwrapped it. Lino’s senses screamed of danger and terror as he glanced at her, causing his heart to pause for a moment. A mere second later, twenty-meters tall black shadow sprang out of her body as a maniacal laughter echoed out through the valley. Although the edgeless shadow didn’t have eyes, Lino felt it watching him for a moment. His entire body froze up – not because of pressure, but because of the primal fear.
“W-what the fuck is that?!!!” Aeala cried out in terror as she hid behind Lino’s back.
Before having a chance to reply to her question, the shadow suddenly burst apart into a shower of black rain. However, as though linked by a thread, each droplet traveled toward a person from Endo Clan, falling directly in-between their brows. The strange part, though, was that it didn’t affect everyone. For instance, none of the ordinary mortals were touched, and most of the weaker cultivators were also exempt from it, causing confusion to arise inside Lino’s heart. The world froze for a moment as all sounds dulled and time seemed to have stopped. Yet, a mere blink later, one terrifying roar after another bellowed out, as though the small valley had turned into a bowel of hell.
Everyone who had a droplet enter them suddenly had their skin turn ashen gray while their eyes – regardless of color – grew bloodshot red. Patriarch and six Prime Elders were the most affected ones; their bodies actually grew forcibly, fingernails at the tip of their fingers growing out by nearly thirty centimeters, while their muscles bulged, tearing their clothes apart.
“… better question is,” Lino mumbled. “What the fuck is this?!”
However, realizing that he had seen more than enough, he forced his mind and heart to calm down before suddenly beginning to run uphill, gathering momentum. As he was nearing the top, Patriarch Varick seemed to have regained his senses as his dulled eyes recovered somewhat, immediately locking onto him. All alarms rang out inside Lino’s mind as he suddenly leapt high into the air, nearly ten meters, leaping over the people at the top of the hill. Patriarch Varick suddenly took out three shimmering swords and, stuffing them full with strange, black Qi, shot them toward Lino. The speed of the swords wasn’t something someone of Lino’s level could keep up with. Almost by instinct, he took out the [Vanguard Shield] and immediately activated its second option, expanding it considerably. Less than a breath later, three swords crashed directly into the shield.
It felt as though it wasn’t the swords that crashed against it, but three cannonballs. A massive explosion ensued, causing several cracks to spread throughout the shield, but they didn’t manage to break it. However, the shield was pushed backwards, crashing directly into Lino and cracking several of his ribs and even the wrist of his right hand, alongside blowing him backward through the air, directly out of the concealment formation and into the forest outside the Endo Clan’s grounds.
Aeala’s scream was stifled under the sounds of the explosion as the duo flew for nearly half a mile over the treetops before losing speed and falling in a downward trajectory. While Lino had already activated Empyrean Writ even before the swords crashed against his shield, it did little against the wounds he received. So, instead of covering his entire body, he focused the entirety of his Qi onto his right wrist, realizing that simply running away now would be impossible. Whatever happened to everyone – even if he didn’t know the exact cause and effect – boosted their physical capabilities to almost his own level. What the hell happened?!
He hugged Aeala tightly, pushing her against his bosom as he turned his back toward the ground, crashing through several dozen branches and trees before plummeting directly into the ground and rolling backward for nearly fifty meters before finally stopping. He felt his entire body ache from head to toe, but didn’t dare to pause even for a second before getting up and flinging Aeala over his shoulder, immediately entering full-sprint-mode. He randomly chose direction without paying it much heed as he didn’t have even a second of time to think. He had already felt seven powerful auras catching up to him and, without even needing to confirm it with his own eyes, he realized they belonged to the six Prime Elders and the Patriarch. At that moment, he also realized that he hadn’t felt such powerful threat of death since the day he was born. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t calm his crazily beating heart and no matter how much he tried to push his mind to think of an idea, only a single thought remained: Run!