Valor stood in the open field while staring at the direction the unfathomable youth disappeared to. His eyes flickered with complex emotions before he stuffed them all into a sigh, once again clearing his mind up. A few minutes later, he felt wind flicker next to him as he glanced cautiously toward his left; a blink later, a figure clad entirely in black with only yellowish eyes revealed appeared next to him, bringing with it a suffocating air. Valor immediately frowned but repressed it back.
“What are you doing here Sin?” Valor asked cautiously.
“Our dear Prince was worried as you’ve been gone for some time,” the man called Sin replied in a hoarse voice, his yellow eyes flickering faintly. “So he sent me to fetch you.”
“I don’t need you to fetch me.” Valor scoffed coldly as he bent over and picked up the two bodies on the floor, hurling them over his shoulders. “Let’s go.”
“… by the way, who killed them?” Sin asked as the two moved past the corpses.
“None of your business.” Valor replied, his tone still as cold as ice. Every time he’d look at the Second Knight – Prince Yox’s personal guard – he’d feel his heart grow cold. If possible, he’d very much like to never interact with him.
“Hoho, I see you’re still as cold as ever,” Sin chuckled hoarsely as he followed closely behind Valor. “Hmm, strange… I can sense a faint strands of Qi…” he mumbled under his breath.
“Qi?” Valor glanced back, frowning.
“Nothing,” Sin shook his head while his yellow eyes looked deeply at the corpses one last time. “I’ll send someone later to clean them up.”
“What’s the situation at Prince’s side?” Valor asked.
“Under control, of course.”
“Hm, that’s good.” Valor nodded. “We can probably retreat now and leave the rest to the Mercenaries.”
“Heh, you really do like giving opportunities to failed scum who—“ with a cold whizz of a wind, Valor drew out his gigantic, almost three meters long broadsword from his back and swiped it sideways, halting it only an inch from Sin’s throat. The latter sucked in a cold breath as he glanced at the frosty edge of the famous blade.
“This was second time.” Valor said coldly, his eyes denoting nothing but unhidden killing intent.
“Alright, alright, I see you’re still quick to pull the trigger,” Sin rolled his eyes and chuckled as he pushed the blade away gently, taking a step forward. “There won’t be third, I promise.”
“…” Valor merely glared at him and withdrew his sword before continuing forward.
Soon, the two left the boundaries of the lake and the forest surrounding it, entering stretchy, wavy plains. Hills rose up from time to time while mountains shimmered from east and west; cutting through the plains was a wide, churning river, a single, grand, stone bridge clearly visible from the distance crossing its bounds. Crossing the bridge slowly, Valor glanced at the river and sighed; despite his best attempts, many people have died, and he’s yet to even understand the source of it all. Did it really come from the Capital? His thoughts once again flashed back to that youth and his words before shaking his head. Greater part of him completely discarded such notion, while a small part didn’t dare believe it. After all, Umbra Capital was the centralized power of the entire Umbra Kingdom. While a greater part of army rested across the Umbra Mountain Range, nearly all Commanders and Generals lived within the Capital, to say nothing of countless nobles and royalty itself. If something so dangerous had actually found its way to the Capital, Valor didn’t dare imagine the consequences that would follow.
After crossing the bridge, they emerged on a main road leading downhill, surrounded by tall grass and scattered trees. At the bottom of the hill, Valor spotted a rather large encampment of over twenty tents and three campfires currently burning. Descending, he handed over the two men he was carrying before moving toward the centermost and largest tent of all. Inside, he spotted several figures; standing solitary on the furthest side of the large desk was a familiar, youthful face of Prince Yox whose brows were currently knitted tightly together as he stared at the map on the desk. On the right end side of the desk stood a twenty-something woman clad in silver, plate armor. Her hair was flame red, cut shortly, eyebrows perched up like swords. A pair of crystalline-clear crimson eyes glanced over the map with mysterious glee, while her thin lips were curled up in a smile. She was the only female Knight of the Order – Ymir. On the opposite side of the desk sat a silent man who’d hardly be noticed in the crowd; his hair was black, face ordinary and slightly pale, eyes staring without revealing the slightest bit of emotion. Unlike Prince Yox’s luxurious robes, Second Prince Relish wore a much humbler clothes pertaining mostly of leather with only his cloak being woven in silk. Even Second Prince is here? Valor was slightly surprised but said nothing as he instead immediately moved toward the desk and bowed deeply toward the two princes before speaking.
“Your Majesty,” his voice was full of respect as he spoke to Prince Yox. “Another group of dozen or so invaders has been dealt with.”
“What took you so long?” Prince Yox asked calmly.
“… there was an interference.” Valor replied as he thought back to the mysterious youth once again.
“Oh? Interference?” Prince Yox’s eyebrows perched up slightly as even Relish and Ymir looked deeply at Valor.
“It was an unknown youth,” Valor spoke honestly. “He’s also the one who killed the group. I estimate that… he’s probably stronger than me.” these words immediately stirred everyone present, including Second Guard Sin whose yellow eyes flashed in dangerous glint.
“Are you certain?” Prince Yox asked, frowning.
“I can’t be certain unless I fight him,” Valor replied. “But the feeling he gave me is almost at the level of Grand Elder.”
“Impossible!!” it was Ymir who suddenly exclaimed, nearly smashing the desk beneath her fist apart. “How dare you?! Take those words back!!”
“Calm down Ymir,” Prince Relish spoke calmly. Of the entire group, only he remained quite indifferent to the whole affair. “You said youth? How old is he?”
“… around fifteen-sixteen years old.” Valor replied. Even he himself had a hard time believing his words, but his intuition hardly ever fooled him, and he trusted it more than his own eyes.
“…” the entire tent suddenly fell into eerie silence. Being almost as strong as Grand Elder of Umbra Kingdom is one thing, but not even being twenty years old was a completely different one. There was one thing that Valor absolutely didn’t dare mention: the youth’s warning about the source of the sudden invasion. It’s not that he didn’t trust those present in the tent, but he simply felt that if he spoke those words, he may be executed on the spot.
“… ah, it’s fine,” it was Prince Yox who broke the silence as he sighed, suddenly smiling faintly. “Everyone, keep in mind Valor’s words. Someone that strong is dangerous. As long as he’s loyal to our Kingdom, it only means we’ll grow another layer of strength; however, if he’s one of the spies sent over here, we’ll need to be wary. Disperse and rest for now. Convene in four hours on the outside perimeter and prepare to head back to the Capital.”
“Yes, Your Majesty!” Ymir and Valor exclaimed as they turned around and left. Prince Relish looked at Yox deeply for a moment before nodding his head faintly and disappearing, leaving only Sin and Prince Yox inside the tent.
“What do you think?” Prince Yox asked in a serious tone.
“There was a trace of Qi.” Sin replied with equally serious tone. “Valor is right. Although it’s just a remnant, it’s definitely dangerous.”
“… could it be one of the other two Sects? With the fall of Endo Clan, I don’t think they’ll be able to settle back.” Prince Yox said.
“I doubt it,” Sin said, sighing. “I’ve been tracking the members of Dying Roses; they were mostly cleaning up for the past few days, but haven’t made any major movements. As for those reclusive ones… I have absolutely no idea where they are.”
“… could it really be that there’s a spy?” Prince Yox frowned deeply.
“Don’t take it to heart,” Sin said, chuckling strangely. “Although he’s somewhat strong, he’s no threat. Just focus on plans at hand and leave the rest to us.”
“Hm.” Prince Yox nodded heavily as he glanced at Sin with complex expression before sighing. “Inform me if there are any changes to the plan.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just focus on the cultivation for the time being. The Annual Festival is fast approaching; extend the invitations to the nearby Kingdoms as well and try to pull in as many people as possible.”
Several thousands of miles away, at the edge of a steep cliff overlooking hilly plains, Lino stood straight like a sword, his eyes focused on the rows of buildings in the distance. After an entire week of travel, he had finally come back. On his way over, he’d run into another group of demonized people totaling in six. They were all rather weak, and he once again didn’t need to use his spear to deal with them. Sighing faintly with complex expression in his gaze, he rounded the cliff and went down the carved path, slowly walking back toward the village. His original plan was to remain outside for at least half a year, yet not even half of that time had passed, and he was back once again. Still, even just three months was enough for him to feel a trace of change being born inside his heart. His horizons were widened, and he’d come across many things he never dreamed of experiencing. It would be a complete lie to say that he was the same youth who departed from the Bridge Village with a reluctant smile on his face.
It took him nearly half an hour of casual stroll before he reached the village’s edge. It didn’t seem to have changed much since he had left; smoke still billowed out in droves, noise and chatter and horses’ neighs still drove out silence like swords. Streets were still all the same, and simple buildings still hosted the same people. From the looks of things, demonized groups hadn’t come across this place. Yet, Lino knew that wasn’t the case; on the far outskirts of the village, he had clearly sensed a faint trace of demonized Qi that had almost dispersed. They, too, had come here, but were barred from entering. He could only think of Ella and Eggor, and he knew that long questioning session was in order once he gets back. However, he didn’t hesitate, immediately heading over to the familiar street and stopping in front of a shabby-looking, old building. There were still the same holes on it and the same, half-crushed sign still hung meekly over the porch. He could faintly hear voices coming from inside and, while taking a deep breath, he slowly entered.
Ella and Eggor were currently in the kitchen, eating lunch; at the moment, Eggor was bragging about something he’d done in the past while Ella gazed at him with eyes full of warmth and unconditional love. A tender smile hung on her face and her lips would from time to time part into an enchanting smile. As the two heard the echoing footsteps, the conversation ended and they glanced sideways. Ella’s eyes gleamed strangely while Eggor’s brows immediately furrowed. Without even giving him a chance to say hi, he bellowed out “What did you do, brat?!” Lino rolled his eyes as he ignored him, sitting on the free chair and casually swiping a few pieces of bread and chicken before wolfing them down.
“…” Eggor’s anger quickly sated; not because he’d grown resilient to Lino’s behavior, but because of the latter’s eyes. Within them, he saw insufferable pain and guilt, causing even his old heart to stir silently.
“… what happened, Lino?” Ella asked after a few minutes of silence. “Where did those demonized groups come from?”
“… aah,” Lino sighed as he finally turned toward the two. “You bastards lied to me!! You clearly told me there were no cultivators in this Kingdom!!” he bellowed out in anger, something he held inside ever since he came across Vyeala and her Sacred Protector. “My ass!! Then what about three fucking groups full of them, huh?! What about the fact that I had to fight a freaking Soul Realm cultivator, huh?! Ugh, I hate you!”
“…” Eggor’s brows knitted tightly together while Ella’s loosened as her lips curled up in a gentle smile.
“It was quite a surprise, no?” she asked.
“Surprise my ass! I nearly died!”
“But you didn’t.”
“… egg-faced bastard, punch your wife for me!”
“Punch your mother! I’ll skewer your brain you little brat!”
“Humph, skewer your ass!” Lino growled as the two butted their heads against each other once again. “Are those big muscles just for the show, huh?! Are you that terrified of her, huh?!”
“Alright, alright, calm down you two,” Ella said as she sighed, shaking her head helplessly. “Tell us what happened first.”
“… what happened? Isn’t it obvious?” Lino scoffed. “Endo Clan was hosting a Demon. I killed it. Then it somehow infected the others.”
“… what?!” Lino was slightly shocked that it wasn’t Eggor who exclaimed in panicked tone, but rather that it was Ella. Her thin eyebrows perched up into arcs and her eyes shimmered in odd light. “Are you certain?”
“Of course I’m certain!! Why the hell do you think it took me this long to come back?!” Lino growled.
“… a High-tiered Demon? Here?” Eggor mumbled, his expression darkening. “What are they doing here?”
“Did you uncover anything else?” Ella asked.
“I found out that the Endo’s Patriarch brought the Demon from the capital while it was still incubated in an egg, if that helps.” Ella remained silent for a few moments before a sigh escaped her lips.
“It’s not an egg.” she said, looking out the window toward the sky.
“Not an egg? What is it then?” Lino asked, slightly surprised.
“It’s a cocoon of sorts,” Ella explained. “Demon fetuses cannot withstand direct invasion of Qi,” she looked deeply at Lino before continuing. “So, their bodies are wrapped in a shell of Devil Qi while they’re in their developing phase.”
“… so that’s it.” Lino mumbled, furrowing his brows.
“This is bad, Ella,” Eggor mumbled, ignoring Lino. “If there’s one High-tiered Demon, there’s bound to be more. To say nothing of a Low-tiered one. There might even be a Great Demon.”
“… perhaps,” Ella said, her usually smiling face now appearing rather grave. “In the Capital… the Annual Festival is fast approaching,” she added. “You take Lino and head to the Capital under the guise of competition. I’ll investigate independently.”
“… it’s not something the three of us can handle alone,” Eggor furrowed his brows. “If there’s a Great Demon, perhaps even you won’t be its opponent.”
“… don’t worry, I’ve already stepped in the Purity Realm,” Ella said, smiling faintly. “Even if we can’t prevent it, I can still make sure we escape.”
“Eh?! Was the Seal lifted?!” Eggor asked, incredulous expression on his face. Lino stared at the two with blank expression as he found himself completely lost.
“It was lifted a long time ago,” Ella said, sighing. “I just stopped cultivating. However, when I spotted that demonized group, I had a bad premonition which is why I started again. It looks like it was the right thing to do.”
“Are you angry that I hid it from you?” Ella asked, smiling faintly.
“Alright, we were supposed to be having a serious discussion!” Lino finally interjected, feeling uncomfortable over being ignored. “Are you done with the flirting?”
“But look at how adorable he is.” Ella smiled as she suddenly extended her arm and pinched Eggor’s cheeks.
“… pfft.” Lino quickly stifled his laughter as he noticed Eggor’s deathly glare. “Alright, we’ll do as Ella said I suppose. I’ve reaped quite a few benefits this time around. Old fart, you won’t bar me from using your promised land, right?”
“Humph, could it hurt you to ask nicely?” Eggor snorted coldly as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“Oh the grand, great, marvelous smith of legends, would you be so kind as to bequeath your treasured, grand land to me?” Lino asked with solemn expression.
“Your glib tongue is still there, I see.” Eggor said, sighing. “Fine, just don’t ruin the damn thing.”
“Of course, of course, I would never dare!!” Lino exclaimed happily as he immediately bolted out of the room and into the house’s backside, leaving Ella and Eggor to stare at his back with odd expressions.
“Make sure you protect him properly,” Ella said as she suddenly pinched Eggor’s muscular shoulder. “I know you’re stingy with your treasures, but not this time.”
“… this isn’t fair! You know I can’t say no to you! But… but to use my treasured babies on that brat…” Eggor bawled dejectedly.
“Humph, what do you mean treasured babies?! If you worked half as hard on me as you did on those treasured babies of yours, maybe we’d have a treasured baby of our own by now!” Ella snorted coldly, looking away.
“… khm.” Eggor coughed awkwardly as his thoughts frantically spun to figure out how to change the topic. “What should we do if things spiral out of control?” he asked after a few moments of silence.
“Retreat,” Ella sighed lightly as she replied. “What else? Neither you nor I care much for this place, and Lino perhaps cares even less.”
“… hah, it’s been awhile since the two of us braved a storm.” Eggor chuckled lightly. “I’m getting kind of excited. Don’t.” he immediately added as he saw Ella’s peculiar expression. The latter suddenly smiled warmly as she wrapped her two slender, seemingly fragile arms around his, leaning her head softly against his shoulder.
“Perhaps you’ll finally see the woman you fell in love with yet again after so many years.” she mumbled.
“… you’re still hung up on that?” Eggor rolled his eyes at her as he stretched his free arm and gently caressed her cheek. “I fell in love with your grace, your smile, your heart, soul and incomparable, matchless presence, not that brutish demon you used to be.”
“What do you mean brutish demon?! I always paid extra attention to look as graceful as a swan when I fought!” Ella exclaimed in protest.
“… wow, I did not know that.” Eggor mumbled as he suddenly stroked his beard. “That makes it even more depressing.”
“Humph, hulking mass of muscles!”
“Heh, try saying that while not wrapping your fingers around them with a strange gleam in your eyes!”
Meanwhile, in the forge at the back side of the house, Lino was currently shifting through all the materials he gathered. Besides them, on the table, were several dozen sheets of paper as well as ink and pen; slowly contemplating, he began drawing various designs and jotting down various ideas that came to his mind as he inspected the materials. There were still a few months until the competition, and he decided to dedicate the free time to crafting a whole new set of gear for himself as well as various tools like [Celestial Rod] that could be used handily during dangerous situations. He also decided to set apart a few piles of materials to craft something and officially begin selling his own items out in the open. Inspired by the cultivation method, he’d also figured out his ‘pen name’ and sign that he’d carve onto each one of his creations; the latter would be a six-lined spiral, with each tangible, outer end spilling into a representation of the six so-called Divine Truths of the World: Light and Darkness; Life and Death; Order and Chaos. As for the former, on a small parchment, in the very corner, scribbled in a rather messy handwriting, rested yet-to-dry letters denoting a simple name: Empyrean Blacksmith.
END OF ARC I