Five days after their conversation, Aleran and Kindrav were waiting at the border of the village. Kindrav had asked the only merchant that lived there to take them to Hilua. Being a small village, everyone knew Kindrav, so the merchant accepted without much thought. Once in the city, they would be on their own.
As they waited for the man, the chief called them for a final goodbye. They had to walk a little since a lot of people were here to say goodbye to Kindrav. As for Aleran, he didn't know them all that well.
After getting out of ear range from others, Faul started. “Look, I know you are going to risk yourselves on this journey, and I know I can't change your minds. You are both good kids that get along well. That's why I'm going to ask you to take care of each other out there.” His eyes were serious, Aleran didn't know that the chief was aware of their plan. And judging by Kindrav's face, he was also surprised. Kindrav told everybody they were going to look for jobs and opportunities in the city. A lousy lie, but from knowing it was a lie to actually figure out what they were planning, there was a large difference.
Seeing their faces the chief laughed and said. “I may be old but I recognize the passion of those of your age. You are both fairly talented to reach the heaven opening, third stage at your age. You are wasted in this little village. I also know of your special circumstances, so when I realized you spoke to my brother I got the gist of your plan. I don't agree with this plan of yours but I can't stop you, the only thing I ask of you, is to be careful.” Both Aleran and Kindrav nodded.
“ Al, little Kin may seem a little unreliable, but when it comes to his friends and family he will always be there, take care of him. Kin, the same goes for you, it hasn't been long since we met Al but we both know his personality. He is smart and hardworking but tends to shut himself up inside his mind, and often he grows detached from those around him. He had barely talked in the village, except for you, Caidel and me. It's up to you to keep his feet on the ground and make sure he doesn't spend too much time daydreaming.” Neither of them moved, they just looked around embarrassed at how accurate chief Faul's assessment of the two was. For Kindrav this was nothing new, but to Aleran it was surprising. It wasn't at the point of seeing inside the heart of people as the old fart. But it was something impressive when you take into account they had met Aleran just two months ago.
“We understand, thanks, Faul.” Aleran was the one who broke the awkward silence. For some reason, Kindrav stood still with his head down.
“I'm glad you do.” Chief Faul continued without paying attention to Kindrav's odd behavior. “ I only have two things left to tell you. They are bits of advice or warnings if you like. The first is, don't trust my brother completely. I know little Kin gets along with him, but don't put all your faith in him. Don't get me wrong, he is my brother and I love him, but he tends to make bad decisions. So, don't rely much on his help.” Aleran agreed and Kindrav, with his head still down, also acknowledged.
“The other thing I have to tell you is more for the future. If you don't make it and something goes wrong with your plan, come back immediately. This village will always have its doors open for you two. “
And if you do make it, as I hope you do, when you get into the academy you will find for the first time how vast this world truly is. There, you will find kids way younger than you with much more power than the two of you combined. Don't get discouraged by that, master Vast Sky said to our ancestors that age means nothing in cultivation. Spirit-veins never grow old. Those who have better spirit veins and start at a young age have some advantage, but as you increase in cultivation your life span also increases. Giving you more than enough time to reach high levels. If you are willing to put the necessary effort and run the risks, of course.”
The speech came to a conclusion when the merchant of the village, the one who provided the villagers with things from the city and vice-versa, came closer. Behind the man, two strange and short creature followed. These creatures were as tall as mules, but they had thick legs with for long fingers. They had the trunk of an elephant but the ears of a dog and big round black eyes. These two short creatures were called ariats.
Each ariat was pulling a cart that looked like a carriage but without the comfort of one. Both carts were filled almost to the brim with vegetables, leather, and furs. These were the main products of the village. The merchant, named Duin, was a skinny man with bags under his eyes. His skin was pale and one may think he was sick, but that was only until the man smiled. It was a radiant smile typical of a merchant.
It was then and there that Kindrav launched himself to the chief with a low sobbing. He clung onto him for some good five minutes. It was understandable, the man was almost like a father to him. And then, the same happened with Caidel.
After an emotional goodbye with the whole village, Kindrav was ready to board the cart together with an impatient Aleran and their new travel companions, the vegetables. This was going to be a 6-day journey. Although they could probably make it in four if they ran at their full speed, they would reach the city all tired and dirty from the journey. They were press for time, but two days won't make much of a difference.
It was the sixth day and they were closing into Hilua. The journey was uneventful and Aleran was sitting uncomfortably inside the cart playing with an onion-like vegetable. It was round and white but had a sweet smell, tempting him several times to try a bite. But the other vegetables had some spicy and bitter smell that took that feeling away.
Bored Aleran looked at Kindrav who was sleeping. The guy could sleep the whole day without a care for the bumps they hit on the road or the vegetables rolling to your face from time to time. " Hey, Kin. If we are going with these gang for the fake ids, then, where are we going to get the money we need to take the entrance examination."
Seeing no answer from Kindrav, Aleran squinted his eyes. He flickered his wrist and the white vegetable flew with a shocking force.
"Pack!" "Ouch, Man! That's not cool, you can't wake me in the middle of a nap. It's what keeps me young, my immortality secret. See this perfect skin? Do you think it is thanks to my cultivation? “
"Answer the damn question." Said Aleran rolling his eyes. He knew that something was wrong because Kindrav already avoided the issue a few times before.
Scratching his head and looking like a kid caught red handed on mischief, Kindravhe said. "To tell you the truth, we cant use gold nor any mortal money. We will need this." He took something from a small pouch. It was a blue crystal, the size of a pinky finger that shined brightly. The moment it was out in the open Aleran felt the source qi inside the rock. Without waiting for Aleran to ask Kindrav continued. " This is only a small piece of a source crystal, known as spirit stone. These crystals are the currency used by cultivators to buy cultivation related stuff. It's not like cultivators don't use gold, but it's only used to buy houses, food, slaves and other stuff."
Not surprised by the existence of slavery in this world, Aleran said. " It's like a different currency for different markets, okay. Is this rock useful in cultivation?"
Kindrav nodded and then shook his head. " Not exactly. I mean, yes it is useful. But only if your spirit veins are of the lowest quality. You have to be a very rich loser to waste spirit stones in cultivation. The main uses for these spirit stones are alchemy, weapon crafting, pill making and powering or creating formations."
"What a stupid choice of currency. Money is supposed to flow, not to be a consumable object. Gold is already not ideal, but this thing is idiotic." Aleran blurted unconsciously.
Sure, as long as there was a steady supply everything will be fine, but if you consumed more than you could mine of these rocks it will end up with a lack of circulating money. And if there is something an earthling knows, is that no matter how limitless the resources seem to be, there will be a time when they run out. 'Well, I don't know how they get these things, I guess there must be some way to create a steady supply and fix most of its many flaws in a way that is useful.' Aleran arrived at this conclusion.
Watching him like a strange creature, Kindrav continued. "Is it stupid? I don't know, it worked just fine for thousands of years. You always worry for the most insignificant of things, huh? Well, the thing is that I have no idea how to get our hands on more of this. But we have five cycles to figure it out." He finished with a confident but lazy grin.
With a resigned sigh, Aleran shook his head "Yeah, I guess you are right.” But he quickly recovered. “Then, tell me more about alchemy and formations.” These were the two subject that picked his attention.
To his immediate disappointment, Kindrav just shrugged. “Why would I know anything more.”
“Oh, right! I forgot you are just a country bumpkin” Aleran just raised his hands as if saying ‘my fault.’
With a snort, Kindrav shot back. “And you are one to talk? You know nothing about anything. You are like those deities in the stories, those that fall accidentally from the heavens. They have no interest in the matters of mortals so they know nothing about us.”
“Maybe I really am a deity.” Aleran said with a mysterious tone. He remembered the myths about gods he heard from Zarasen. They were completely unreal, even for this world standards. Just myths.
“Ha, if you were one, you would certainly not be lying in a dilapidated cart, surrounded by stinky vegetables and-
“Watch it!” The warning of the merchant came from outside the cart with a humorous tone. He was used to Kindrav's personality.
“ I was going to say ‘a handsome driver.’ Hahahaa.” The discussion ended with a laugh from the three.
The city of Hilua was surrounded by walls of almost ten meters high. These walls were packed with guards coming and going while doing their patrols. Inside, the houses were arranged in a disorderly manner. And the roads were filled with twists and turns, very much like a labyrinth. From afar, and thanks to a few tall buildings, the city looked like a porcupine that only had a few spikes left. But there was one structure that left the rest in shame when it came to size. It was a huge white tower in the middle of the city, almost 30 meters high.
It was completely white with no other decoration but, for some reason, it felt imposing. But it wasn't an oppressive feeling, it gave a sensation of security that Aleran could not explain. Only after asking Kindrav, he was told this was a monolith. A structure built to repel the beasts from the surrounding wilderness. Its effects reached even the Vast Sky village, although the further away from the monolith the effects are smaller. That's why under special circumstances, the beasts at the edge of the area would be able to cross the invisible border. That's all he got from the country bumpkin that was Kindrav, who had no clue as to how it was built or by whom. What he did knew was that there was a monolith in every city, and they protected the surrounding villages and towns.
When they reached the gates, Aleran and Kindrav said goodbye to Duin, who had to go through the proper checkings for merchants. And, after waiting in a long line and paying with a few copper coins from Kindrav's savings, they were finally allowed to enter by the guards.
Once inside, a shower of colors assaulted them. Being a city near the border of the empire, the city of Hilua had a lot of commercial activity. So, the buildings next to the gates were mainly shops and stand that traded all kind of products. “They go by the principle of making themselves visible, at all cost. “ Said Aleran as he thought. ‘It must be their version of the advertisements.’
The streets were filled with people even though it was still early in the morning. They clustered around the shops to buy whatever they needed. Most people dressed in common clothes. Some simple pants, and boots. The woman wore long tight dresses. But some people that wore more luxurious clothes could be seen passing by or riding some carriages. In general, all these people were dressed better than the two of them. What made Aleran and Kindrav stand out was the color of their clothing. They had white and grey clothing while all the people in the city had clothes of different colors. This made them stand out as people from the countryside.
But what caught both Aleran and Kindravs attention were not the structures, nor the colorful facades, or clothes. What was really eye-catching was that, from time to time, streaks of light flew above the city. These were the few cultivators that had the clearing to fly above the cities, and they were part of the city guards. Some traveled with strange discs filled with patterns that made them fly. But others flew using their own powers, without any external help. Aleran followed the cultivators flying with his eyes and noticed there was a clear pattern. “Its aerial surveillance.” He muttered under his breath. This sight of people flying without any help only made him want to increase his powers even more.
After waiting a few minutes near the gate, they were received by Oldre, Faul's younger brother. He was short, a bit shorter than Aleran who was only 15. But he was a brawny person, so much that his shirt seemed to be about to explode from the muscles under it. His eyes were blue, his mouth thin and, as he approached, he smiled at Kindrav as one would to a younger brother. “ Hehe, little rascal, you finally arrived!” He opened his muscular arms and gave Kindrav a big hug.
“Long time no see, uncle Oldre.” After he got free from the hug, Kindrav pointed at towards Aleran. “Remember you told me not to do this alone? This is Aleran. Like me, he doesn't have the necessary documentation and we share the same objective.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you, sir.” Aleran clasped his hands and gave him a slight bow, this was a formal greeting.
“No need to be so stiff around me, any friend of this rascal is a friend of mine.” Said Oldre with a smile and waving his hands. But immediately he turned more serious. “ But when we are before the gang members remember to be very respectful. Especially to those who are above the chain of command. These people may look like they don't care about rules and order, but in fact, is the complete opposite. They have a strict chain of command that is very strict, way stricter than the army. At least in the army, they won't kill you for a slight disrespect to your commanding officer.”
“I'm going to introduce you right now. You don't have a place in the city and you can't stay in the barracks with me. Since you want to save money is better to stay in one of their houses.” Oldre said as he walked the streets of Hilua with familiarity. The man's back was intimidating. Now that his smiling face was not in sight, Aleran could feel the power of this short silhouette. He was at least at the third phase of the heaven opening level. But unlike Aleran he had the confidence only achieved by years of martial training. Although Oldre was a city guard, they where a unit of the Sidrin army, the dragon scales unit. They were specialized in defensive tactics fighting in the walls and inside the city
They kept walking and the colorful shop fronts were left behind as they went in what Aleran could only call the slums of the city. The houses here were barely standing. And the streets, that a few blocks before were paved, were now all broken and with some made of mud.
With people sleeping on the streets, the ambiance was clearly one of poverty. But Oldre wasn't fazed by any of this as he kept talking, although in a much lower voice. “ The name of the gang is the crimson claws. They are not only rooted in this city but in all the important cities around the empire. They do pretty much anything you can imagine, theft, drugs, human and slave traffic, extortions, assassination and a whole other bunch of things. They obviously have political backing and their numbers are unknown, but the total is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.”
“Since you want to get out after five months, you will get in as external members. Normally, they would make you do minor jobs related to stealing or selling drugs. But making a fake identity is something pricey, so be prepared to be asked to do something… more extreme.” He said this with some hesitation.
Aleran looked at Kindrav who was looking with the same look of doubt. They clearly didn't want to do something that would harm innocent people. But they were already here, they would not back down now.
After a long walk, they arrived at a run-down building that had an illegible sign above the door. Even from here, Aleran could hear the sound of music and the clamor of people drinking and laughing. Oldre knocked the wooden door, and someone inside opened after hearing him saying the phrase ‘The dragon claws turn crimson with the blood of our enemies.’
At the other side of the door, the sound was deafening, and the sight Aleran expected came to his view. It was a very rustic and dirty tavern. Nobody paid attention to their arrival, and Oldre guided them to the back.
As they walked all kind of conversations and arguments could be heard. One, in particular, caught Alerans attention. “ Hey did you hear? That famous genius from the Silver Moon kingdom, the one that went missing a few years ago, reappeared. how did they call him? Oh yeah, Fedrin the titan. And apparently, he came back as a traitor of the kingdom. Hehehe, it's what those moon fanatics deserve. They are searching for him everywhere. They last saw him causing a big commotion in-”
It was a pity that Oldre didn't stop, and soon, the conversation was drowned by the sounds of music and laughter. They passed the bar and entered a small room where a skinny man, dressed in a black robe with red patterns on it, was sitting in front of a desk and reading some papers. The whole room had a different vibe from the rest of the tavern. It was clean, and although it didn't have much furniture, the small table near the desk and the chairs in the room where all tidy. except for them and the skinny man only two other men, some kind of guards, stood next to the door.
They waited until the skinny man stopped reading and looked up. His right eye was black and the other had a milky white color. Clearly, he couldn't see with his left one. He had a long hawk nose and thick eyebrows.
With his only good eye, The skinny man regarded the new arrivals. “ Oldre, are these the young ones you told me about?”
“Yes, sir Ibrak. As I had informed you earlier these two youngsters are willing to do anything for two forged IDs. They are young but they are already in the heavenly opening third stage."
Ibrak looked at Aleran and Kindrav. Somehow his right eye, the good one, was even more disturbing than the white one. With his eye fixed on Kindrav, he frowned. “ You didn't tell me that one of them is a barbarian.” With those words, the atmosphere in the room started to feel more oppressive. Being in front of this man was like being caged with a wild tiger.
“ I thought the big boss didn't care where they are from as long as they do their job.” Said Oldre with a poker face. Although he couldn't help his tone of voice to show some nervousness.
Besides that, Aleran could also see Kindrav sweating like crazy. But to him, this wasn't such a desperate situation. Maybe it was his multiple close calls when he was in the forest, but this he was calm. Aleran was confident that if the three worked together they could escape this place, even if this Ibrak guy was a qi circulation mid phase. Sure, a human with weapons could be way more terrifying than a beast that knows no martial arts nor techniques. But Aleran wasn't thinking about defeating the man, just escaping was enough.
Frowning and with his gaze stilled glued to Kindrav, Ibrak nodded. “ You are right, he doesn't care. Okay.” With those words, the tension dropped. But then, he signaled with his head at one of his henchmen that were standing next to the door. “ Take them to the test area. They will be a little late, but that is not a problem.” Ibrak gave them a creepy smile.
Again, Oldre suddenly became nervous. “ What?! No, I thought they could be accepted without the test. If someone vouches for them they can get in as external members. I take responsibility for them.” Now his face couldn't hide the anxiety he was feeling.
But Ibrak just shook his head with the same creepy and confident smile. “ That is something only the members of the Crimson Claws can do. You are the subordinate of an external ally. Maybe, if your captain was the one doing the recommendation I could think about it, but I don't have to do that for you.” He pointed to Aleran and Kindrav who were both frowning. “They do the test, just like everyone else.”
One of the guards approached them. “Follow me.” And with those words, he turned around and left the room. Meanwhile, Oldre urged the two boys to follow the man, while in a low voice he explained. “ Sorry kids, I screw it up. I don't know what this test is about, but everyone says it is very rough. I can't go with you so I will have to wait here, follow the man”
Kindrav shook his head “ I am the one who's sorry uncle Oldre. It was my barbarian origins that put us in this-”
But his apologies were cut short by Aleran. “Stop lamenting, there's nothing we can do now. Let's go.” He nodded towards Oldre and followed the guard while dragging Kindrav with him.
‘This must be what Faul was talking about. Oldre is a good guy but he does make bad decisions.’ To Aleran the blame rested clearly in Oldre. There was no doubt that Kindrav being a barbarian was the reason for them taking this test. But Oldre should have known this was going to happen before bringing them here. Kindrav was 17 years old and for all that he was mature, he could still be tricked. Even though Aeran with his 24-25 years wasn't in a much better position, he had seen more things than Kindrav. And the most important part was that he wasn't emotionally attached to Oldre, so he could think without bias. Still, Aleran showed no anger to the man and just followed the guard.
They went through a door that led to a complex system of dark and damp tunnels. With a torch in hand, the man guided them for minutes until they reached a passage with a door at the end. As they approached the door, Aleran could hear again the uproar of people. But unlike the one in the tavern, this clamor was filled with excitement, emotion, and bloodthirst.