In the middle of the night, Aleran was looking at the City Lord mansion, he was seated in one of the rooftops. If this was any other night, the flying patrols would have noticed something was wrong. But this night, the Crimson Claw had made sure there were fewer parols than usual.
The mansion in question was on top of a hill. It that was the highest place in the city without taking into account the giant monolith. The mansion being in the hill was the only reason why it could be higher than the monolith. The hill looked out of place in the middle of the city thanks to the copious amount of trees and the lack of buildings.
On the top of the hill, the big mansion stood tall above everything else, like a king looking at his subjects. It looked like a miniature castle but with a white exterior that gave the whole place a more pleasant look. The lack of walls also made it look less threatening. But for those who knew, the mansion did not need walls to intimidate. The defensive formation was more than enough to stop any unwanted visitor. And anyone who could cause trouble to the City Lord would not be stopped by a mere wall.
‘It's already this late, when are we going to move?' Aleran thought while looking at the castle, more precisely, at the tower in the middle. On the tower was a huge circle plate made of strange runes. With a few of these runes lit with a blue light and the rest completely dark. It was simply called the circle of runes, and this was what the people of this world used to measure time. The day started with the runes all lit up, and then, the runes would start to turn off one by one at a constant pace till the circle was all dark. Then, all would light once again and the process would repeat itself.
The first time Aleran saw that circle of shining runes he could not help but to recall the common clocks of Earth. Instead of having twelve numbers, this circle twenty-eight runes called Ru. And between each rune, there were smaller runes, called Mu, that followed the same pattern.
Kindrav had told him these artifacts were very old and mysterious. The artifact may look simple but it was one of the most, if not the most complex artifact in existence. These circles of runes were all found in ancient tombs, ruins or even lost in the middle of the woods. But nobody knew who made them or when. They were scattered throughout the world with no real pattern whatsoever. Most people believed they were crafted by an ancient civilization.
The only problem was that older civilizations had less knowledge about cultivation. All evidence showed that it was impossible for these civilizations to make these artifacts. For example, there was an old scroll stating how the highest level of cultivation was qi circulation, something that was clearly proved wrong later. So, Although there were some ancient civilizations that had useful and mystical techniques, in general, they were less knowledgeable than the current ones. That kind of artifact needed a deep and vast knowledge of cultivation and formations.
These circles of runes were much more complex than anything the cultivators of today could make. Every time someone tried to open the circles to see how they were made, the formations and complex runes that made it work would mysteriously disappear, leaving a simple plate made of extremely hard materials.
Only one person was successful in opening one of those plates to take a look at what was inside. And that person was the founder of the Astral Runes sect, also known as the formations guild. It was only thanks to that knowledge that the sect was founded and is also the reason why today they are one of the biggest powers in existence. Every formation currently in use was inspired by the knowledge this man had gathered from that circle.
The sect had a monopoly on the creation of formations and the use of runes. Every formation of the Empire, and even of the other powers, were installed by the Astral Runes sect. The ones that were installed by these powers were thanks to knowledge the sect sold to them in exchange for ridiculous sums of money or territories.
Still, the Astral Runes sect kept many secrets of their discoveries on the circle of runes. But even then, they had never claimed they knew every secret and formation hidden in these circles of runes. That's why many believed that using these circles to just measure time was a waste. But sadly, nobody could do anything about it except for the Astral Runes sect.
The one embedded on the tower was actually a replica and a very poor one at that. Unlike the originals, these replicas required a lot of maintenance. They needed spirit stones to keep them charged and from time to time someone had to check that the runes were still turning on and off at a constant speed. That was without mentioning the many malfunctions and that a replacement was needed every 5 years, which for a cultivator was a very short time.
Like that, most of the cities had a circle of runes that was just an imitation of the original. And just like the original, the runes would start to dim and turn off. After a few days, the color of the runes would change from red to orange, then from orange to purple, followed by blue and finally, a spectral green. Once they settled in green they would turn blue again completing the cycle. That was the reason why the people divided the year in cycles. Nobody knew the true reason for this change in colors, but the fact was that after four cycles there was a change in seasons. Despite not knowing the true meaning of the colors, people started to use this circle of runes to measure time. After all, the color was just a minor detail for the common people.
“It doesn't seem to be starting anytime soon. I imagine they have to prepare well, and thanks to their secrecy nobody really knows what to do except for Grujil and his bitch, Ibrak.” A voice took Aleran from his thoughts. Kindrav, who was standing by his side and also looking at the giant circle of runes.
“Have you memorized the layout of the building?” At first, Aleran was worried that he would not be able to use his Devine Perception with Rogdo watching them. But it turned out that he would come to them only after making more arrangements. That gave him the time to check the general layout and not enter completely blind.
“Yeah, I got it, it's not that big, anyway.” Kindrav said a little unfocused and clearly nervous.
Aleran looked at Kindrav that was touching the earrings with his fingers passing on the small cravings of its surface. Finally, he decided to tell him what he had been wanting to say for a while. In a low voice, Aleran said. “You know, those earrings… they will be a problem in the future. I thought we could say you were half barbarian or something. But from what I've been hearing, barbarians don't leave children behind. Every woman they rape ends up dead.” According to the rumors he heard, they did this to avoid being tracked through their own children by some obscure rituals. It was the same reasoning behind the actions of the Silver Moon nobles and their “failures”. They couldn't just send their children away and, because they could be traced back to their parents and have their shame exposed, the families preferred to hide them in the asylum or kill them. The barbarians just killed the women they raped to avoid this problem.
“Haaa” A long sigh escaped from Kindrav. “ I know. I know that better than anyone. At some point, I will have to do it, but I can't bring myself to take them off. It's just that…” Kindrav was in silence for a moment, he seemed to be trying to put his thoughts in order. “ My parents were chased from my tribe, I told you that much. And after that, I told you the chief’s wife and daughter found me. Well, that was the simplified version, Al.”
“I know you must have suffered. It must have been hell, being hunted and then having to watch your parents die. And all that at the age of ten, that kind of thing leaves a mark, I'm not stupid. ”
“Yes, it was a nightmare.” Nodded Kindrav. “I didn't watch them die, but I heard them die and as their assassin laughed with glee, I will never forget that laugh. At that moment I just ran as my parents told me, and for some reason, the killer didn't notice me. Maybe it was my parents’ doing, I don't really know. But after I ran from the place, I was alone, all alone in the wilderness. I spent five days on my own, but more importantly, I spent five nights on my own. You don't know true darkness until you spend a night completely alone in the wilderness. When you are with someone else is completely different after all. It's the difference between stabbing a practice dummy and an actual person. Few know how it feels, maybe you are one of those that actually know. But at that time I was only a child, so of course, I didn't know. During those five days, for some reason, the sky was cloudy and not a single light shined upon the marsh. I couldn't even see my own hands, and soon I realized that walking in the darkness was impossible, every step I gave required a leap of faith.”
Kindrav paused to swallow some saliva and continued. “ In the darkness, everything gets distorted and the sound of a branch falling becomes the movement of a massive beast waiting to eat you. And if you spend enough time in that darkness, you start hearing things too. It starts with every sound twisting and, slowly, they transform. It is never clear, it feels like a faraway echo of someone's voice, in my case, it was my mother's. But as you focus more on the sound, the voice disappears and it changes back into the howling of the wind. It's like the darkness is toying with your mind, taking pleasure in your agony.”
For a while, Kindrav just stared into the distance. Only a while later he shook his head and his eyes gained some focus. “ It was in that situation that the only thing I could cling into was my earring. Every time night fell, I would curl up into a corner of a cave or under a tall tree, touching my earrings. Those earrings took me back to when everything was okay. I focused so hard in every single pattern, in what my mother told me when she gave it to me. I was only five when she poke the holes into my ears and gave me this. At that moment I hated the tradition, I cried like a little girl at the pain.” He started rubbing the earring, but this time he had a soft smile, and his gaze wasn't that lost anymore. “But I remember it as if it was yesterday. She told me that with these earrings she will always find me, they were bonded to her earrings. They connected our souls for this life and the next. In that deep darkness, the only thing I could think was in those words she said. That even if they were dead, my parents would always be watching me, thanks to these earrings.”
‘ I wouldn't be so sure about those words.' Thought Aleran, remembering for an instant that feeling of being a soul and having his consciousness washed away. But he didn't say that out loud. “ I knew it was something important but I didn't know it was like that, sorry Kin.” Aleran still thought that it was an irrational thing, maybe even a childish stubbornness, but he could respect those feelings.
“These earrings are what took me through the worst moment of my life. They are solace and a promise that I will never forget. A promise that someday I will find their killer and make him pay for what he did.” Kindrav's demeanor changed, and his face showed a grimace of hatred that startled Aleran. But just as fast as the face appeared it went back to normal, or as normal as a tired and sad face was. “ I used to think the only way I would take these earrings off would be if someone cut both my ears. But if I want to someday avenge my parents and make everyone involved pay for that. If I want to make that a reality, I will have to cast aside those thoughts for now. At least until I am strong enough to do and wear whatever the hell I want.”
He raised his hand and, with a movement that seemed to last forever, he took them off. Soon after, this time with a fast movement, he extended his hand towards Aleran. “ You keep them, they are my treasures but also shackles. And for now, I'm not strong enough to keep those shackles on me.”
“Sure, I will keep them safe. And if anyone asks me I will just say they are my trophies from a fight with a barbarian, that would make me look cool.” Aleran took the earrings and slowly put them on a small inner pocket of his robes.
“Hahaha! Yeah, tell them it was the most handsome barbarian.” Kindrav laughed, and at the same time his eyes seemed more clear, he had really taken a weight off his shoulders.
As the conversation reached to an end, a voice traveled to their ears. “Are you prepared you little shits?” Rogdo's reached the rooftop with a single jump.
Aleran and Kindrav watched him with traces of coldness in their eyes for a moment. This guy was only here to put them in place and keep an eye on them, not that he could. If he ever tried to use force on them, they had decided to just kill him and invent an excuse later.
“ When do we start?” Aleran broke the awkward silence the entrance of Rogdo generated.
“Soon, we have to wait until the place is chaotic enough,” Rogdo answered while positioning himself to look at the mansion. “It's beginning”
Aleran and Kindrav looked again at the mansion and saw a few shadows flying above it. The moment those shadows appeared, a translucent hemisphere of golden light encircled the mansion and the surrounding hill.
Circulating his cultivation to have a better view, Aleran caught sight of a man standing on top of an old flying compass. On the back of the man, a bone spear could be seen, it was apparently made out of the spine of some beast. And the spearhead looked to be the fangs of the same beast. On the hands of the man was a golden plate the size of a head filled with runes and strange patterns. The man was Grujil and was currently pouring an enormous amount of his cultivation into the disk on his hand.
The shadows Aleran had seen before were actually smaller plates that positioned themselves around the hill. These plates were all formations breakers and were a special product made by formation masters. Only the Astral Runes sect could make something like this and it was an expensive artifact. Every formation breaker had to be tailor-made for the specific formation it was meant to destroy. And for that, one had to know the details of the formation, something Grujil's backer got quite easily.
Aleran just sat there and waited. 'This reminds me of the asylum.' He thought. The situation was completely different, but Aleran remembered how he had taken advantage of the chaos made by Fedrin to escape. He also remembered the waiting when Fedrin gathered the prisoners. All that was happening and what was going to happen today reminded him of that time.
Grujil poured almost a quarter of his cultivation reserves onto the disk before it started to activate. A quarter may seem a little, but for someone his level, it was a huge waste. But he had predicted that, and between having to use almost all his energy to destroy the formation by himself and this, the formation breaker was a good deal.
He had also learned the seals he had to make with his hands. The hand seals helped the cultivator to move the qi outside the body. If one was very proficient in a technique, the seals could be skipped. Sadly, Grujil was a total beginner when it came to formations and the formation master would charge extra for activating it. They already charged a fortune for making the formation. If you asked them to activate the formation it would usually be very expensive when it involved danger like today.
After a moment of pouring his qi into what seemed like a black hole, Grujil felt a sense of rejection from the disk and knew the process was over. The disk on his hand went flying towards the formation joining the other small disks.
A brilliant light took over the night firmament for a few seconds and a giant circle made of runes and complex patterns materialized above the hill. As soon as this formation appeared in the sky, the golden shield surrounding the hill started to vibrate. And with the shield, the whole hill started trembling.
Many citizens woke up due to the tremors and looked at the sky, where a formation had appeared, in fear. This made many believe the city was under attack. Many citizens hide while many other rouge cultivators stood at a safe distance to enjoy the show.
“YOU THINK I WILL JUST SIT AND WATCH WHILE YOU DO WHATEVER YOU PLEASE!?” While the normal citizens woke up in a panic, a powerful yell came from the hill. And with it, a golden figure jumped from the mansion and towards Grujil on his flying compass. It looked like a shooting star was trying to come back to the heavens.
Grujil looked indifferently at the golden figure speeding his way. Before it even reached him, a blade of wind cut towards the man together with a powerful blast of raw inner qi. A golden chain transformed into a shield in front of the golden figure, successfully stopping the two attacks. But at the same time, the figure lost all his momentum.
Once it stopped, Grujil looked coldly at this figure from the corner of his eyes. He was clad in golden armor and had a metallic mask with the face of a demon. He was the captain of the personal guard in charge of protecting the City Lord and was a powerful cultivator at the third phase of qi circulation, just like Grujil.
Even if the Crimson Claw could drive away many guards with the rumors about a big heist, this man would never leave the City Lord alone. His propose was precisely to defend the Lord when he was injured or couldn't fight.
Grujil looked behind him, where the attacks that had stopped the man came from. There, Ibrak. his right hand, together with Jiun, his left hand, were standing guard. Their mission was to stop anyone from interfering with the destruction of the formation. Both were in the qi circulation second phase, and Jiun didn't even mastered an image yet, but Grujil believed they could handle the captain for a while.
The captain floated in the air and looked at Grujil for a long moment. At his level, he could fly for short periods of time, but it would waste too much qi. Ibrak and Jiun couldn't fly without a tool but the captain would not want to waste his qi trying to stay afloat either. What's more, Grujil had a flying tool designed for combat. And unlike the ones used by the patrols, this flying tool could make rapid movements. The captain would not be able to catch up to Grujil if Ibrak and Jiun interfered with long-range attacks every time.
But the captain was not going to give up just because two henchmen were trying to stop him. He sped up towards Grujil and launched his spiked chain at the same time. Before the tip of the chain got to close, Ibrak had already jumped and put himself before his path. On his hand was a giant white feather with the length of two arms, a gift Grujil had given to him a long time ago.
With a firm grip on the feather, he swung it towards the oncoming chain. Surprisingly, the feather parried the chain without any trouble, it was actually harder than the chain.
Surprised at the sturdiness of the feather, the captain poured more qi into the chain and activated a formation in it. Small holes opened all over the tip of the chain that Ibrak had just parried. From the holes, thinner and smaller versions of the chain started to come out and were trying to wrap themselves around Ibrak. This was a real artifact with real formations that gave it higher flexibility and myriad uses.
Before the chains touch Ibrak, though, Juin also jumped while making seals with his hands. Once the seals were finished he threw a palm strike which let out a blast of inner qi. This stopped the chains long enough for Ibrak to impulse himself backward in the air.
The captain didn't care about those two. With his free hand, he threw a palm strike that materialized into a golden hand going for the man he considered a real threat.
Grujil was still concentrated on the formation and had one hand forming a seal. Without effort, he raised the other hand towards the incoming golden palm. The image of a turtle, with two snake heads, appeared around Grujil, taking the hit for him. With a loud booming sound, the turtle and the palm shattered at the same time. The Captain was sent flying over ten meters and into the ground from the collision, while the flying artifact helped Grujil to stay in his original position.
Just as the captain was sent flying, a huge explosive sound could be heard. And at the same time, the whole city started to tremble. Grujil made a few more seals and the light surrounding the hill imploded, and at the same time, the formation he had just activated was also destroyed.
‘He's stronger than I thought.’ The captain on the ground had a grim face. He had underestimated Grujil. Usually, the captain could take someone of his level with ease. But today he had been pushed back by a peer that wasn't even paying attention to him. And for that mistake, the formation was now broken.
But the captain didn't have much time to think, another blade made of wind came from Ibrak as he swung his feather. And behind him, Juin was also closing in. The captain was confident in killing these two, but it would take some time. And by now, it was obvious that the city guards had either been paid to delay their response or were being kept busy by other small forces.
“It is time, brothers!!” The voice of Grujil could be heard like thunder in the area. And with that sound, dozens of men rushed from different dark alleys as if summoned from the shadows by Grujil.
Some of the men ran towards the hill while others made a perimeter. The latter group wanted to stop the personal guars of the City Lord that went to reinforce other areas and were rushing back. As for the city guards, not only had the Crimson Claw paid most of them, they had also created a fake attempt of stealing the city's armory, where the guards kept their fighting and flying artifacts. They made a huge scene in order to give the city guards an excuse to not show. Of course, nobody would believe such an excuse but it was better than nothing. And with the backing of the Crimson Claw behind all this, the issue would be dropped after making some scapegoats take the blame.
In a short moment, the men were already making siege over the personal guards of the City Lord waiting on the hill. It had to be said, that even though the attack was too sudden, the personal guards were already waiting in a neat formation for the charging men.
Grujil, who was on top of the flying compass, didn't bother anymore with the weaklings. They were meant to create chaos and give the other two kids an opportunity to steal the treasure. With serious eyes and with his gaze glued to the mansion, he grabbed the bone spear behind his back with a slow movement.
Grujil was deciding whether he should kill off the captain before attacking the mansion when he caught a glance of a man standing on top of the tower. Even though he hadn't taken his eyes off the mansion he couldn't say when the man had arrived. Perhaps he was there from the start, but the idea of having missed him from the beginning raised a red flag on Grujil's mind.
The man was wearing a red luxurious rob with golden patterns of lotuses on it. He had short hair that was of deep dark color, and eyes that matched his hair. The face also had a long straight nose and thin lips with an angular chin. He had a clearly recent scar that started on his forehead, passed through his left eye and ended on his cheek. It also altered his features the missing ear he had, it was another scar of his latest expedition. Besides that, he was clearly pale and looked weak. His internal injuries were obviously much worse than the ones on the outside.
But what struck Grujil the most was how young this City Lord was. He was appointed earlier this year and rarely made public appearances. The only information that transcended about him was his cultivation level and nothing else. No matter how much he looked for information he didn't get any more personal information. One could say that the expedition and this occasion were his first public appearances. But despite that, Grujil thought that the only thing that mattered was that he had formed his core embryo and was at the Qi Manifestation realm but was heavily injured, the rest were details that didn't really matter. But now...
The man on the tower looked to be no more than thirty, that alone changed the view Grujil had of the City Lord. There was a world of difference between saying he was the weakest and saying he was the youngest City Lord. What does it mean to reach the position of City Lord at the age of thirty? Only an extreme genius could manage to do that.