“Ughh!” A blurry sight welcomed Aleran as he opened his eyes, a mix of black and grey started to distort in front of him until a room took form. But very quickly, he realized this was no room, but a big cell. It was a classic prison, with black bars, a small door, and grey dirty walls.
It took him a while to remember what had happened as he moved his head around to see his condition. But as he saw his legs and hands tied, he remembered how they had miserably lost at the hands of that man.
‘How much time have I been out?’ Aleran panicked for a moment before hearing the muffled sounds of battle. Although the sound was muffled, it was obvious that the battle was intense. ‘Those two are probably still fighting.’
He tried to move his body, but he could bearly balance himself on the beam he was hanging from. His hands were tied around the beam and he was hanging with his legs bound together. No matter how much strength he used, even as he circulated his qi, he could not break free. He decided to stop and not waste his qi, he had used some before, but he never had the chance to go all out so he was mostly full. But it was better to wait and see what was his real situation.
Failing to get free, Aleran looked at his right. Hanging in a similar fashion right next to him, were Kindrav and Rogdo respectively, and just like him, they also had their mouths covered by a piece of cloth. Strangely, neither of the three could destroy this piece of cloth or the things that were bounding their limbs. They seemed to be made of the same material. The three exchanged glances, recognizing the severity of the situation.
As they exchanged worried looks, the black-robed man who beat them in the hallways entered the cell. His right hand seemed to be wrapped in a bandage. Clearly, he hadn't recovered completely from the fight.
He was pushing a small table with wheels. On it, all kind of tools were placed, ranging from scissors to pincers and small knives. It was plainly obvious this was a torture kit.
The man didn't spare a glance at them as he left the small wooden table. He went out and came back again with a stool and a long sword with a hilt made of wood. Once he was back, he finally raised his head and waved the sword. With a plain face, he said to his prisoners. " Depending on how tough you are, I may have to go big. These smalls tools are not enough to cut big pieces." He explained without a change in his expression and looking the sword like a painter would at his brush.
He placed the sword next to the stool as he sat on it. He was seated right in front of Aleran, making the later curse in his head. He was obviously going to be the first.
Hadok crossed one leg over the other and just stayed seated for a few minutes, looking at the three in silence with that same plain look. Aleran guessed this was some sort of psychological torture. In a way, it was effective, even while knowing what the man wanted to achieve. The fact they were going to be tortured no matter what and helplessly waiting for that to come was in itself some kind of torture.
The room stayed silent, with only the sound of battle from outside. Rogdo was trying to say something through the piece of cloth while Kindrav was looking at Aleran with a strange look that he soon retracted. He knew Aleran could use images but he didn't know exactly how it worked.
After a while, the three prisoners' eyes followed the man as he raised from the stool ever so slowly and went towards the small table. He started to look at each tool like someone deciding what shoes to wear.
" Okay here is the deal.” The man started to speak. “I will torture you no matter what. You can answer every question right now and still, I will have some fun with you." He raised his head and his expressionless face turned perverse, he was looking at the three as if looking at mere pieces of meat. Those eyes confirmed the words he had just spoken.
" But...the amount of pain I will inflict on you and how long you will stay alive will depend on those answers. Believe me when I say this. You will want this to be over as soon as possible." He said as he returned his eyes at the table.
Finally, he decided to pick a thin dagger the size of a palm and came before Aleran. With a single wave of his hand, he took the piece of cloth out of Aleran's mouth. Aleran kept his mouth shut, he was not going to beg, not out of pride but because he deemed it useless. If begging could help, he wouldn't mind to kneel and plead, his life was worth that humiliation. But in this case, he only closed his eyes while frowning, mentally preparing himself. But he was not going to answer any question either.
Torture was one of the most inefficient ways to get information. Anything the prisoner said before the torture would probably be considered lies. And after the torture, it was just as likely that the prisoner lied just to make the torture stop. In Aleran's perspective, the most reliable way to get information from others was holding something or someone dear to the prisoner and use that as a threat.
The strategy of this man was to torture them until they couldn't take it anymore and wanted to die. In this case, the man would be holding something dear to them which was a way to get out of the pain. But the only thing he didn't know was that Aleran preferred to live through hours of pain and humiliation than actually dying. He preferred a thousand years of torture than his consciousness disappearing into nothingness once he died.
"While I cut you into pieces I want you to think your answer to these simple questions. I know you are from the Crimson Claw. But, how did you get the information about the new acquisition of the City Lord? And, who is your informant? Besides those, I have a few questions exclusively for you.” Once he said those questions Hadok pointed at his arm with the dagger and looked at Aleran. “I'm also interested in that weird power that left my arm like this, what was it? Was it some kind of bloodline power? Which bloodline does it belong?”
After the questions, he didn't even bother to wait for Aleran's answer, he came close to him with the dagger in hand. “Don't worry if you don't remember the questions, I will repeat them later. Now, let's start with a few general cuts, and then we will focus on your face." With that, he thrust the small dagger onto Aleran's tight and the started to move down, creating a long deep wound.
"Mm," But the scream he was hoping to get didn't come. A small, almost imperceptible growl could be heard through the sealed lips of the boy. But that was all, he had closed his eyes, and was unmoving before the pain.
Even Kindrav and Rogdo were surprised at the lack of response. It was not something impossible to achieve. There were trained special soldiers that could endure torture without even batting an eye. What's more, even Rogdo could take that stab without screaming. But Rogdo, as well as those trained soldiers, were old and experienced. They had developed a high tolerance for pain.
But Aleran was no more than a teenager, he certainly didn't have the training. That meant he must have suffered from prolonged periods of pain before, or that he was crazy enough to ignore the stab. Either way, this made Rogdo remember how wary was Ibrak of this kid, and made him think of some possibilities. ‘Could this kid be a spy? He is too young, but maybe that was exactly the point.’
What they didn't know is that there were two main reasons why Aleran didn't scream. The first was because he had felt much more pain when inside the forest and much more when he was a mere soul. That kind of pain was something beyond the pain of the flesh, something much scarier.
But even after going through those experiences, he could still feel pain. Maybe he was more used to it but not to the point of being indifferent, although he was close to that level. No, the reason was that he was focusing on his image. ‘Focus! Focus! Focus!.’ Was the only thought he had as he was being stabbed.
Seeing no response, the man frowned and ruthlessly stabbed again. But this time, he went for the right shoulder. He didn't want Aleran to die too quickly so he was trying to make non-lethal injuries.
Again, the only answer was silence and veins protruding from Aleran's neck. “Hehe! You don't look like it, but you can take some damage. No big deal, I will slowly remind you how to scream.”
Hadok turned around to pick pincer with a weird curved tip. “If there's something I learned while torturing is that even the toughest change their expression when you go for their eyeballs.” But when he turned around he was surprised to see that Aleran had his eyes wide opened. His eyes were not directed at Hadok, they looked directly in front, like someone who entered a trance.
Hadok became wary all of a sudden, those eyes were not the eyes of someone who had given up. ‘I'm pretty sure his ability can only work when touching someone. Bloodline abilities have that kind of restriction, they are not as flexible as images.’ Until now he didn't touch Aleran directly and he didn't punch him once, only using tools to touch him. That was how wary he was of that power.
For a moment he stood still looking at Aleran, deciding whether or not to just kill him. But the money he could make selling him to a formation master was truly tempting. Especially if his bloodline was as rare as he thought it was.
He took a deep breath and decided. He left the pincers and grabbed a knife then he started to move towards Aleran with decisiveness in his eyes. ‘ His attack had almost killed me. I don't want to die just for greed.’ Selling the blood alone would not be as profitable as selling the breathing specimen. But it was a lot safer and he didn't know the extent of this weird and unheard bloodline ability if it even was one. He picked the safest road. He stood before Aleran, who was still staring straight ahead.
He raised the small knife but before swing it, he felt a tug on it. ‘Swishh’ “Wha?..” Before he could even come close, Hadok felt a deep pain on his back and chest. He gazed down only to see the tip of a sword protruding from his chest. The tip was pointing upwards as if he had been stabbed from a low angle.
‘WHO!!?’ He roared in his mind. ‘Who could have sneaked up on me? I never let down my guard!!.’ With the remaining strength he had, he turned around to see his killer. Nobody was there. Only the stool he brought, but the sword that was leaning was no more there, instead, it was stabbed on his chest.
‘Thud’ His legs and arms lost strength. With that, he lost his grip on the knife that, as if by art of magic, went flying away from his hand. He followed with much effort the knife and saw how it embedded itself on Aleran together with some of the tools that he brought.
“Fuck!”This time the boy showed his pain and cursed loudly as he was stabbed by two knives and a pincer hit his head.
Hadok opened his mouth, but no sound came out of it. His last breath came out from a face filled with shock as he comprehended what had happened. ‘He is using images!!!’ He felt the boy circulating his qi, but he thought it was only to heal his wounds faster. He had allowed it to make the interrogation last longer. After all, he was below the qi circulation stage, he thought there was no real risk, how wrong he was. If that was a bloodline power there was no way the power could harm with a single touch and also control blades from a distance. They weren't images that could be changed and take myriad forms, bloodlines were more simple and rigid in their use. The only answer Hadok could think as he plunged into darkness was ‘images’.
“Haaa haaa” Aleran struggled to breathe. He had used all his remaining qi to transform himself into a giant magnet. He was hurt, with one knife on his chest and another one on his leg, but all in all, everything went out relatively good. It was more like a gamble, he was gambling that no knife would stab him on a vital part as he activated the image.
He was also gambling that the magnetic power was strong enough to attract the sword that was a few feet away with enough force to pierce the man. There were too many ifs for his liking. But when he saw the decisive gaze of the man he knew he was wary of his abilities and was going to kill him. So he decided that he couldn't wait to find a better moment and activated the magnetic field risking being stabbed by the flying tools.
Luckily, the power of images was stronger than the natural phenomenon. Otherwise, it would need too much energy to attract such a heavy object with that force.
The piercing pain on his leg woke him from his inner thoughts. A small scalpel-like knife was stabbed into his right leg. ‘Well, maybe it wasn't that bad to attract those small knives.’ Seeing no other way out, he curled his body, and with much effort, grabbed the knife sticking on his leg with his mouth.
“Aggg” The knife was deeply buried in his flesh making it harder to take out using just his mouth,
It took him a few minutes to cut the ropes on his hands with the knife in his mouth. Surprisingly, it was just like a rubber band, it could resist high tension but not sharp cuts.
He fell and landed on his rear, his legs were more injured than he had thought. But with some breathing, he managed to cut the ropes tying his legs and stood up very slowly. He picked the knife and look at Kindrav and Rogdo.
The last one had a face filled with shock, regarding Aleran with wariness and suspicion. While Kindrav showed clear relief on his eyes.
Aleran took his tired and injured body and started to cut the ropes binding Kindrav. He had used magnetism precisely because Kinrdav was right next to him. The lightning bolts were extremely hard to control and there was a high chance of hitting Kindrav them.
Once Kindrav was untied, he and Aleran glanced at Rogdo who was still hanging like a piece of meat and exchanged a look.
“Mmmmh!!” Rogdo's eyes were red. He was screaming under the cloth on his mouth but he could do nothing but sway with all his remaining strength.
“It is a shame.” Said Kindrav after he grabbed the sword that was on Hadok and came to stand before Rogdo. Rogdo started to kick with his two legs, he could feel the coldness in the voice of the barbarian. But no matter how he moved he could not hit Kindrav.
“Rogdo was killed by the enemy, despite our efforts we couldn't save him. But thanks to him, we could complete the mission and return safely.” Kindrav stabbed and the sword went through Rogdo's heart coming from the other side. Rogdo twitched for a few seconds, his eyes red and filled with anger. He couldn't even curse or plead to his assassin, there was an unresolved grievance on his face as he died.
Aleran was slightly surprised at the coldness KInrdav showed. ‘There really is some darkness inside him.’ Aleran thought as he sighed. Even as he thought that, he didn't say anything. If Kindrav didn't kill Rogdo he sure as hell would. If it was just for the constant insults and bad blood between them Aleran couldn't care less. But Rogdo had seen the extent of his abilities of and Aleran had just now seen how important was to keep his abilities hidden.
Other than that, he had a rage inside him, probably the same rage Kindrav had. They were angry at the Crimson Claw and angry at themselves for causing the death of the two villagers that were now their parents on paper. For now, they could only take their anger out on Rogdo.
Kindrav tuned around and his expression was back to normal as if he hadn't just killed a man. “What now? How much time do you think we have?”
“I don't know how much time we had been unconscious. They are obviously still fighting but I don't know how much time will this keep going.” Aleran sat crossed legged and closed his eyes. “Let me gather some qi first.”
Kindrav nodded and also sat down. Although he couldn't compare to the speed at which Aleran gathered qi, as the one who was knocked out first, he was the one who spent less qi in the fight. By the time Aleran finished Kindrav was still halfway through, but he forced himself to stop since he was mostly full from the start.
“ Alright, let's go and give it a shot and see if we are still close to the vault. But if we see anyone slightly more powerful we retreat and run from the city.” Aleran said this knowing that if they retreated they couldn't come back to the Crimson Claw empty-handed.
“Don't you feel like a coward saying something like that out loud?” Although he said that, Kindrav didn't object and started to move. Their most recent defeat showed them how much they had overestimated their strength.
As they came out of their cell, they saw another prisoner lying unconscious on the adjoining cell. Together with the man was a white rabbit, but neither Kindrav nor Aleran moved to help him. They recognized the white rabbit but it was not the time to stop and guess what had happened or who the man was.
They climbed some stairs and breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the familiar hallways. This meant they were still on the same building. “I guess we now know what the underground chamber was.” Said Kindrav.
Knowing they were next to the underground chamber it made it easy for the two to locate themselves. Slowly making their way to the room that most likely the vault they soon realized there were no guards. This was actually a good sign. The doors and walls were so sturdy that anyone who could open the vault would be able to kill any guard without trouble. Making no difference if there was a guard or not by its doors. On normal days there would be one or two men, probably new recruits, guarding the door. But right now there was they needed every man fighting outside. In fact, the guards from before were probably guarding the documents and the somewhat more important papers instead of guarding the vault.
Kindrav and Aleran both stood in front of a metallic door. It had a brown color and was completely plain. It was as if someone had stuck a chunk of metal on the wall. It had a small hole on it to place a key. This was one of the main differences between this door made of alchemical metal and the ones Aleran and Kindrav have found before.
The doors used by wealthy store owners usually had a single metal bar on the inside to serve as a lock. This was possible because they normally lived on the upper floors of the house with the store on the bottom floor. But the vault could only be locked from the outside so he was prepared to face a more complex lock.
Aleran extended his hand and used his image to try and ‘feel’ the metal. Depending on how it was made, the alchemical metal could repel qi. But it could not repel the qi once it was transformed into an image. So Aleran could use his image to try and have a rough sense of the complex door.
The first thing he noticed was the thickness of the door and the walls surrounding it. It had the width of two men standing shoulder to shoulder.
“ The lock is not that complex, I was expecting something harder.” Muttered Aleran. The lock consisted of a simple gear that would turn with the key. As it turned each tooth would fit into spaces on a metal bar thus unlocking the vault.
“Well according to rumors it is not only hard to make the metal but it is also difficult to mold it and work with it. It is no surprise that whoever designed this sacrificed complexity for toughness.” Kindrav said shrugging his shoulders and looking around.
Aleran closed his eyes and concentrated on the image. It took a while but finally, he opened his eyes. Aleran knew he needed more practice with his images, it was taking him too much time to use his abilities. But that was something he would need some time to fix.
“Creeeek” The sound of metal could be heard as Alerans face turned red and his nose, ears, and eyes started to bleed. with his body trembling he started to move the gear and with it the bar.
“Click!” With that sound, Aleran fell on his knees. “Cough cough!”
“Are you okay?” Kindrav came closer and help him before he hit the floor.
“Yeah, I lost all my qi and forgot I was injured.” Aleran whipped the blood from his face. “Let's get inside first and close the vault. We can't be sure no one will pass through here.”
With much effort, Kindrav opened the door, and with a limping Aleran, he went inside the vault.
“ This is… somewhat disappointing.” Kindrav looked at the big room illuminated by crystals. It was filled with all kind of objects. Some were statuses, others were paintings and vases with some chests dispersed around the room. There were small mountains of glistening spirit stones from time to time. But Kindrav was hoping to see a room filled with secret technique manuals and mythical weapons. “ Well… he is a new City Lord after all.” Despite his comments, his eyes were shining. He was a country bumpkin and had never seen so much wealth in front of him.
After recharging his qi for the second time, Aleran also started to look around. He felt that unless one knew what to look for, it was hard to concentrate on a single thing. The different objects dazzled the eyes making one to not know where to look at.
But as he focused he could see some objects that stood out from the rest. For example, there was one painting that was placed next to a statue. The statue was made out of some smooth rock similar to jade. It depicted a bald man standing with a smile on his face and his eyes closed. He had a decrepit wooden staff on his hand. He was clothed in what looked like monk robes and besides the staff and these robes he had nothing more on him, not even shoes. On the painting was the same man, this time seated crossed legged but had his eyes opened, they were completely white clearly, he was a blind man.
The more Aleran looked at the picture and the statue the more he got the feeling that he was entering a strange state. It was the same state one enters when is about to gather qi and meditate. He was entering that state without even trying. He was not even seated, but as he saw the smile, the eyes and the disposition of the man he couldn't help but be dragged into that state.
“Wow!” Kindrav's voice woke Aleran up. “ That painting just made me enter into the state of meditation!! You know what that means?”
“Yes, it can help you enter into that state without wasting time, it's not that useful though.”
Aleran nodded casually. It would help you save some minutes, but in a fight, it was still useless.
Kindrav shook his head. “No, you are wrong, it is very useful. More so for those who want to start to cultivate. One of the hardest steps is to learn how to enter into the state of cultivation. Many people with great potential would be stuck at the very beginning of cultivation because they cannot enter that state of mind. Even among those who manage to cultivate there are many who can only enter that state once every cycle or more. In my village, most of those who can cultivate are like that. there are some with good spirit veins who cannot advance because they can't enter into the state of cultivation regularly like you and me. Imagine if I could bring that painting to them. This is a fricking legacy Al! As long as you have enough people you will get some with functional spirit veins, and with this painting and this statue, you can start a Clan or a Sect. Of course, is not that simple, but it would help a lot.”
“I really didn't know it was that hard to get into that state of mind.” Aleran was surprised by what he heard. He didn't remember it to be that troublesome though.
“ You clearly forget fast. Even those with aptitude struggle for entire cycles to get into that state of mind. There are drugs that can help but they don't always work and have many side effects, some end up crippled by those drugs. Unless you have a supreme expert who can help you achieve it in less than a day, you have to get on your ass for entire days and nights trying. But who has the luxury to ask someone at the level of the emperor to help them in such trivial matters? I reckon not even the princes have that luxury. I'm almost sure the Dragon Claw academy has a place which can create the same effect.”
‘Oh, it was like that.’ Thought Aleran remembering how Zarasen's voice had turned somewhat hypnotic when he was attempting to cultivate. ‘Who the hell are you, old fart?’
Kindrav sighed. “If only we had a way to actually rob all this.” But that was wishful thinking. Not mentioning the problem of carrying a huge statue through the battlefield outside, anything they took from here would be a hot potato. They didn't have the connection to sell the items and even if they had, they lack the strength to keep them.
“Let's just focus on the mission.” Aleran was thinking the same, but nothing could be done.
It wasn't long before they found the long wooden box resting on a pedestal. It was actually placed at the back of the room. Unlike the statue or the painting, there was nothing about the box that caught the eye. Especially in a place filled with much more stunning things. But for some reason, it was placed in a way that made it look like it was the most important Item here.
Hesitating a little, Aleran grabbed the box quickly in fear that some hidden mechanism would activate. Clearly, he had seen too many movies as nothing happened even as he waited in caution.
With some lingering caution, Aleran opened the box. Inside there were two arms that were clearly not human. They were red and had some fur on them. But the more eye-catching thing was the golden and dark runes that covered both arms. They were shining and pulsating with energy. The energy contained in those runes made Alran and Kindrav take a deep breath, it felt overwhelming.
“What the hell is this thing?” The same question came from both of the youths' lips.