CITY OF MERCENARIES
Atop a natural, earthly plateau surrounded by flatlands and rolling hills, a city of stone brimmed underneath the red sun. A gaping, winding road led upward from the frontal valley to the city walls, situated half a mile above the ground. Plateau burned in reddish-brown, curious rocks and stones protruding at the sides like spikes and tree’s roots, its body’s shape squared, flattened into a circle at the very top. The plateau itself was massive; otherwise, how could it house an entire city? Legends say that it was dug up by an Immortal’s Hand and that the Immortal used it as a temporary abode, but no one could verify such stories. After all, the plateau was here long before the entirety of the Umbra Kingdom was formed, and long before those tribes lived here. Due to its natural color, it was named Red Plateau, and it was one of the iconic landmarks of Umbra Kingdom. Such reputation only soared when the city atop its bones was taken into consideration.
Walls ran rampart wholly around the city, made entirely of chiseled, rough stone lain atop a sturdy foundation of the plateau itself. The walls were nearly five meters tall, and were once upon a time silver in color; however, greyish and brownish colors slowly began to overwhelm the silver’s purity, and the wall itself began exuding somewhat of an ancient aura, though it wasn’t older than five hundred years. Encapsulated within was a lively and bustling city – the most popular city of Umbra Kingdom if Capital Umbra is excluded – City of Mercenaries. As the name suggests, the backside of the city is supported entirely by a massive force unbound by the country’s borders – Mercenary Union. A group of rogue, unruly kind who would do any odd job for a coin made up majority of the city’s populace, but as the trade thrived in the city, it wasn’t void of merchants, blacksmiths, cooks, and any and all sort of craftsmen looking to put their name out into the world.
Due to the shape of plateau itself, the city was built in a ring-like fashion; outermost parts appeared relatively poor, overwhelmed by wooden houses, empty, plowed fields and dirt pavements. The further toward the center one walked, the more prosperous the city appeared, all the way until the center itself where an enormous, twenty-meters-tall building stood like an erect sword, looming over all else. Due to its sheer size, it was impossible not to notice the moment one entered the city. For that reason, atop the stone-laden building, engraved in majestic letters of gold and silver, the name ‘Mercenary Union’ stood all day and night long.
May it be day or night, the city was eternally busy; there was a constant stream of people going in and out, walking down or up the winding road. Beside people, there were horses, carriages, cages, and all sorts of odd vehicles transporting any and all goods. Among the stream of people climbing up, Lino and Aeala mingled in silence. While the road was fairly wide, it was hardly enough to properly accommodate the huge mass of people. The scene where someone would fall off the side of the road and plummet to their deaths wasn’t all that rare; actually, during the one-hour climb, Lino had witnessed two such scenes. Luckily, even if the entire road was to crumble entirely, Lino was confident in being able to save Aeala and himself from the predicament. It took the two nearly two hours to reach the city gates; it wasn’t because the road itself was long per se, but because the sheer number of people slowed down the speed considerably, even if wagons and carriages were to be taken out of the account.
While not everyone and their mother could enter the city, the security was rather lax nonetheless. After all, only idiots would try to do something unruly within the City of Mercenaries. So, guards scarcely cared to truly inspect the newcomers. There was a one silver-coin entrance payment which was almost nothing; however, considering the constant stream, Lino theorized that the city earned hundreds of gold daily – on bad days. Even he felt slightly envious.
Although entrance to the city was rather easy, that only applied to its outermost parts. If one wanted to enter the more prosperous, inner area, it was much more difficult. One either had to have sufficient strength, backing, or coin. However, for the time being, Lino didn’t care about the inner parts of the city. Alongside Aeala, he quickly departed from the city gates and the elongated line of people and entered the outskirts of the city. Wooden houses lined up in a half-circle way, going from one end of the city to the other. Some appeared newer, some older, but they all had one thing in common: they were barely large enough to house a single family. As though stacked atop of one another like a house of cards, houses seemed like a swarm of locust when looked from above, with only a dozen or so curved lines – which were the streets – cutting in-between the rows of them. Lino asked around and quickly found a temporary lodging; it was a small inn, roughly half an hour away from the city gates. It was slightly taller – but not much wider – than the houses surrounding it. Behind a desk was a youth roughly Lino’s age, currently reading a thick book. He had rather scrawny disposition and messy, black hair, while half of his face was covered with thick glasses. As the youth heard the footsteps, he hurriedly put the book down and looked up at the newcomers.
“W-welcome, travelers! M-my name is Ahmed, and-and I am in your service!” the youth exclaimed somewhat awkwardly.
“Two rooms. How much?” Lino asked calmly. As he spoke, Aeala’s heart skipped a beat, but she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t even begin to guess Lino’s mindset at the moment; perhaps he truly needed some time alone.
“Ah, two rooms… two rooms will be ten silver coins a night, five per room.” Ahmed said, somewhat surprised. He was certain these two were lovers looking for a place to do stuff. After all, he’d seen many couples similar to these two come here almost daily.
“Hm,” Lino nodded as he threw over thirty pieces of silver, booking the two rooms for three nights. “Are there any restaurants nearby?”
“Y-yes!” Ahmed exclaimed, still somewhat awkward; even though he was speaking to a boy his age, he felt strange, almost suffocating pressure whenever he’d look at the boy’s eyes. “There’s the Livestock Diner just a few houses down the road. They’re pretty cheap and their food is fresh.”
“Hm, here,” Ahmed handed them two keys with wooden key chains, numbers 8 and 9 carved atop their surface. “The rooms are on second floor. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Thanks.” Lino said plainly as he headed upstairs, followed shortly by Aeala.
The inn was rather simple; there were hardly any decorations, and most of the light either came through the window, or a few [Luminous Stones], Level 0 gems that are rather abundant in the Umbra Kingdom. A few of them were enough to light up an entire room for over a year.
“Let’s meet tomorrow morning and go eat breakfast together.” Lino said as the two located their rooms.
“Hm.” Aeala simply nodded and watched as the youth before her walked in and closed the door behind him. Sighing lightly, she followed his steps and soon found herself in a rather simple and quaint room.
Lino was currently lying motionlessly on the bed, staring at the dull-looking ceiling. A faint ray of fading sun in the sky perched through the side-window and landed on his chest. As his face was draped in shadow, only his lips were clearly visible. The pair were currently trembling, as though cold inside out. While the room wasn’t spacious, it was still large enough to house an entire bed, a small night desk and a body-sized mirror.
One word to describe Lino’s current state of mind would be ‘chaotic’. Because of his sharp senses, on his way over, he was able to pick up a lot of new information. The strange, hundred-something strong group appeared a day after he’d killed Patriarch Varick and fell into coma. At first, they simply went around isolated villages and slaughtered wantonly, but about twenty days into their campaign, they split up into three groups. The largest one continued the killing spree through the isolated villages, while the remaining two spread out and began ambushing merchants, mercenaries and even Kingdom’s nobility. Although the Legions of Knights were sent out – and even Crown Prince Yox himself took to arms – the two groups were rather elusive, and they never stayed too long at any single place. It is estimated that over two thousand people have been killed so far, and that number keeps increasing every day.
Lino suddenly sat up and stuffed his chin into his bosom, wrapping his arms around his raised knees. A ray of light piercing through the half-closed window was like a blade slicing the world into two stratospheres; on one side was sharp brightness, highlighted in white edges, while the other side was cast in deep shade of black. Lino began rocking back and forth slowly, taking one deep breath after another, trying to stifle his rampaging emotions as much as possible. When he realized that it wasn’t working, he turned his head toward the Patriarch Varick’s void ring to distract himself, as he still hadn’t looked over clearly through it.
He picked out a thick book at random and flipped open the first page which only had the title <Flying Swords Art>. Right beneath it said that it was High-Mortal Grade Art. Lino smiled bitterly for a moment and shook his head, once again realizing how lucky – or unlucky – he was to obtain <Empyrean Writ>. After a quick overview, he realized that this was the art Vyeala used to make her swords fly when he first met her. However, it didn’t matter much to Lino; not only would he be unable to use this art as he can’t externalize his Qi, he can’t learn it to begin with as <Empyrean Writ> doesn’t allow him to learn any other Martial Arts besides the ones grated by the former itself.
Skipping over the martial arts themselves, he looked for some books which describe general knowledge as he lacked that the most. Shortly after he came across a book titled <Qi Through Stages>. As the title piqued his interest, he took it out and began flipping the 300 odd pages. It didn’t take long for his head to start aching somewhat, as he once again realized that there’s something wrong with <Empyrean Writ>.
For every other cultivator – regardless of which cultivation method they were practicing – Qi during the Mortal Realm remained hidden inside their body and they were unable to use it. This applied even to those god-level geniuses, and no cultivation method could change this truth. However, to break from Mortal Realm into Core Realm, one was forced to sense the Qi hidden inside their bodies, and even guide it through their meridians into their ‘Soul Palace’, where they’d culminate it until they would form an entire, spinning core – hence breaking into the Core Realm. All of this was completely new to Lino; although he was unable to sense Qi before reaching Core Realm, he didn’t have to guide his Qi through anything to form anything when he was breaking through. Unlike others, his Qi was stored throughout his entire body – his muscles, nerves, veins, blood vessels, bones, organs… while Qi of others was always stored inside the ‘Soul Palace’ – it was only the matter of which shape it had. Core Realm cultivators had a spherical mass of Qi. Soul Realm cultivators would shatter that core and form a small replica of themselves in a soul form. Mystic Realm cultivators would spill the soul-mimic into an ocean. Purity Realm cultivators would completely purify their Qi until only a singular drop remained. However, that singular drop contained hundreds times more Qi than the entire ocean of Mystic Realm cultivators, and so on.
As he read through the book, Lino realized that cultivating is complicated – much, much, much more complicated than he was led to believe. Not only did every stage have different ways of breaking through, he needn’t look further than cultivation methods and martial arts; others, even if they get powerful Martial Art, would have to spend years to understand it until they were able to use it perfectly. As for Lino himself, he didn’t have to do anything but complete the test set by the <Empyrean Writ>. Just like the <Empyrean Will> initially, <Peerless Empyrean Spear Scripture> was simply stuffed inside his head, and he understood it to the absolute perfection all the way until the second layer, which required him to reach the Mystic Realm to unlock. Even though Lino never held a spear in his life, he was confident that there was no one within the entire Umbra Kingdom more knowledgeable than him. Of course, even though his knowledge and understanding was perfected, he’d still have to attain practical experience to really push it to the peak. He slowly submerged himself in the read, expanding his knowledge of the world bit by bit as the dark thoughts slowly began being weeded out.
Roughly sixty miles away from the Mercenary City, near a natural-spanning, stone bridge which hung over a wide, waterless chasm, two figures stood while looking at four corpses at their feet. The skin of corpses appeared unnatural dark, as though charred inside out, while black veins protruded out, still and motionless like dead serpents. Each of the four corpses had a massive, fist-sized hole at the left side of their chests, with their hearts having been directly shattered. The two figures standing above the corpses were the Patriarch of the Dying Roses Sect, Shi Hao, and the First Elder Lu Hao. Both had deep frowns compressing her brows as heavy silence hung between them. This was the third Demonic group they had come across in the past ten days, and it was getting harder and harder to locate them, as they tended to pop out at one place for only a few hours before disappearing completely.
“This… is not good.” Lu Hao said, sighing softly. Had the two known this would have transpired, they would have spared nothing to not only kill Vyeala, but ensure that Demonic Qi wouldn’t have spread to the rest of the clansmen. The two had concluded that the Vyeala was indeed High-tier Demon.
Although Demons were ranked as the lowest creatures in the Devil World, that was only by comparison. After all, even the lowest-ranked Devils – Crucible Devils – were at minimum equivalent to Mid Mystic Realm cultivators. Outside the Devil World, Demons – even low-tiered ones – were extreme pests, and if they weren’t contained at the first sight of the outbreak, they could easily topple over an entire Kingdom within a month.
As for the High-tiered Demons, not only would the spread be faster, but even the quantity of Demonically-possessed people would grow exponentially. Lu Hao already theorized that the number of the Demonic Beings – which were ordinary humans or cultivators who have been consumed by Devil Qi or were controlled by Demonic Seed – had grown into thousands. However, that was not what worried the two. In the end, even if there were thousands of Demonic Beings, most of them were around Level 20. Lu Hao alone could eliminate all of them with a bit of effort. No, what truly worried them was the fact that they couldn’t locate Demonic Beings. The largest group they encountered was merely ten people strong. Demonic Beings usually lost three quarters of the intelligence they possessed before the conversion, and it would be a miracle if they were even capable of setting up an ambush. They mostly relied on their instincts to function, and their basic instinct was to go out and try to corrupt others. Yet, they were nowhere to be found.
“… indeed,” Shi Hao nodded faintly, sighing as well. “I’m afraid… I may have done something terrible to that boy.”
“… you think he broke down?” Lu Hao asked.
“Although it isn’t his fault,” Shi Hao said, looking up at the sky. “Nobody will be able to prove that to him… nobody except himself. Although I was surprised he was able to kill Varick, this was a completely different type of a crucible. I’m afraid even if he doesn’t go mad, this is where his cultivation will stop.”
“We can’t know for certain,” Lu Hao said, smiling faintly. “He’s a Body Refiner. Usually, folk like him don’t pay much heed to things like this. They just charge like mad bulls at whatever is thrown at them.”
“… I certainly hope so.” Shi Hao said. “There isn’t much we can do here any longer. The rest of the surface groups can be cleaned up with the Mercenaries and the Knights. That Prince Yox really is a character. Who would have thought that he was a cultivator as well.”
“There’s a storm brewing here,” Lu Hao said. “Should we contact the Headquarters?”
“Hm,” Shi Hao nodded. “Take Yan Hao and depart in a week’s time. I’ll move the rest of the Disciples elsewhere. Tell them to send someone at least of Purity Realm.”
“… aren’t you being too cautious?” even Lu Hao was slightly shocked. Although their Main Sect wouldn’t lack Purity Realm cultivators, and even those of higher cultivation, few were willing to depart to the Kingdom like Umbra, where the density of Qi was beyond depressing to the point that people above Mystic Realm would even feel slightly suffocated being here for too long.
“It’s just a hunch,” Shi Hao said, shaking his head. “Think about it. When did you ever hear that just a single, random High-tiered Demon popped out in a backwater place like this? No, there’s certainly something much larger than us going on here. It’s just that I’m far too blind to see through it.”
“… very well,” Lu Hao said, his expression turning serious. Although his Master was far from the strongest person he knew, Lu Hao trusted the man more than anyone else. “I’ll try to get my Uncle to pull a few strings. If one isn’t enough, even if I have to bleed, I’ll get two of them to come.”
“I know you won’t fail me. Let’s go.”
Shi Hao and Lu Hao turned around as space around them vibrated for a moment before the two disappeared into nothingness, as though they were never there. A mere moment later, the four corpses on the ground burst up in flames, being burnt down to ash which was then scattered into the wind, destined to travel to places far beyond the reaches of the eyes.
Not too far away from where the two were just at, deep below the ground – nearly two miles – a ginormous underground cave system existed, like a massive maze running underneath the entire Umbra Kingdom. At the intersection of all the cave-paths, an enormous Palace rested, made entirely of black, dead-looking stone. Currently, in front of the massive Palace, on an open field stretching for miles on end, over twenty thousand men and women were kneeling with their heads bowed down. One thing all of them had in common were the veins atop the surface of their skin, which pulsated wildly. The atmosphere they exuded was heavy, suffocating and oppressive, and if any ordinary man were to walk in here by accident, he’d immediately drop dead.
The Palace’s massive gate was like a maw of an ancient beast while the plateau atop which it was built was filled with sculptures of gargoyles and half-devils, some two-horned, some one-horned. Among them, there was a single one that stood out massively, having reached nearly five meters in height. His body was clad in tight, metallic armor, and eyes were without pupils. Atop his head, two horns grew at the side as they spiraled outwardly, while one stuck out from his forehead straight up like an erect sword. Currently, beneath the statue, a man shrouded entirely in black smoke was kneeling, only his piercing, emerald-green eyes visible within the darkness. After kowtowing three times, the man got up and walked over to the stairs which led from the plateau down to the open field where the twenty-thousand strong army was kneeling. Although invisible to others, the man grinned faintly as his eyes flashed in a cold gleam.
“Soon,” a voice broke out, hoarse and deep, causing the space around the black shadow to vibrate. “And we won’t have to hide in this damned place any longer.”
If Shi Hao or Lu Hao were to see this man, they’d no doubt be left frozen stiff. Although the man possessed a Devil Qi similar to Vyeala, it was much thicker and far more condensed, almost ten times more. The man was a Great Demon – just a single tier below the Devil itself. And, even more, the man was Level 150 Great Demon – equivalent to a Purity Realm Cultivator. Although High-tiered Demons and Great Demons are separated only by a single tier, the level of destruction they could bring cannot even be compared. If a single High-tiered Demon can collapse an entire Kingdom, then a Great Demon can collapse ten Empires and a hundred Dynasties… without ever showing its face in the public. The smoke-shrouded man laughed coarsely for a moment before dispersing into the air, disappearing as though he was never there. Even though he left, none of the twenty thousand people stood up from their kneeling position. It was as though they had completely lost their minds and, without someone’s command, they couldn’t even fulfill the simplest of motor functions. The world surrounding them submerged in the eerie silence as the Devil Qi began eating up and corrupting the natural Qi surrounding it, expanding bit by bit until it was almost visible to the naked eye.