Ren frowned slightly.
“Young Master, I’m terribly sorry. I have a problem with my nerves. My facial muscles jerk out of control. Old age… Ha…” The old man wiped a tear from the corner of his eyes. He exuded an aura of suffering and pain.
“…Is my sister in?” Ren could only avoid the topic.
“Yes? Ah! Yes! She’s in!” The old man’s expressions constantly changed, almost like a chameleon changing color.
“I wish to speak to her… alone.” Ren entered the door.
A blue-haired girl stood before a painting, frowning in deep thought. From her behavior, he understood that she hadn’t noticed him.
Gripping the sword on his waist, he closed his eyes.
Tsuiin! The sword flashed.
Ren wiped the red on the edge of his sword. He looked at the painting. Blood had ruined the masterpiece.
A sea of killing intent stormed into his heart. It clouded his senses, overflowing his mind with murderous intent.
‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ An archaic chant rang in his mind. Ghastly apparitions floated around him, whispering curses of death.
“Congeal!” The apparitions collapsed onto each other, forming a red claw.
Tzaaa! It charged towards him.
Ren defended with his left arm. The claw drew a deep wound on the back of his palm before disappearing.
Ren touched the wound before leaving. The clueless old man guarded the door. Ren ignored him and spoke to the black-robed figure.
“Give her a Zelong’s burial.” Saying this, he left.
Tara's eyebrows rose in shock. He pushed Ren and rushed into the room.
“No… no… No… NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” An ear-piercing shriek rang through the corridors.
Ren frowned slightly before his expression reverted to normal.
Suddenly, his footsteps halted. He touched his sword before turning around.
A pair of red eyes gleamed in the corridor. Lit by just torches, it revealed the silhouette of a disheveled old man. The crazy grin on his face revealed his proximity to madness.
“Ren Zarstorm… Today, you will die!” He thrust his palm onto the walls. A brown ethereal wave spread through the corridor.
It spat out spikes of stone. From all directions, they surrounded Ren.
[“Void Arts: Slaughter Aura!”] Ren’s body shone in red light. The light faded, revealing a red field of aura that surrounded Ren.
Tuk! Tuk! Tuk! Like needles hitting a metal wall, the spikes lost all their momentum after touching the shield.
BOOM! Immediately, the ceiling collapsed. It drowned Ren in a sea of rubble.
“Haha! How does it feel now? You love killing, right? How does it feel to be on the receiving side!?” Tara laughed manically, but his laughter was mixed with an agonized cry.
Shoo! The smoke settled to reveal the silhouetted of Ren. He was surrounded by debris, none of which could dent his shield.
The old man’s face contorted in fury. He charged, brandishing a spear of stone.
“Tara, are you going to betray me?”
Tara paused. Stretching his arms, he shouted.
“Betrayal? I served this household since the days of my birth. The Old Master took me under his wing, taught me Earth Magic. I was the disciple of the Legendary Earth Mage… How many can boast of this privilege? In return, all I had to do was pledge my loyalty.” Tears rolled down his eyes.
“Generation after generation, I loyally served the branch. From the Old Master to the Second Master and… the Young Miss. But now, I am no longer obliged to do anything! I will NEVER… ever… work for a demon that killed his own sister. As far as I’m concerned… The last Zarstorm is dead and YOU KILLED HER!” With bloodshot eyes, he stabbed the spear at Ren’s shield.
Ting! The spearhead broke.
“Tara, I shall give you one last chance. Pledge your allegiance… or perish!” A hint of killing intent escaped Ren’s eyes.
“AHAHA! That shield can’t protect you forever!” Tara retreated and touched the ground. A huge arm of stone grabbed Ren. It squeezed the aura shield.
“DIE! MONSTER!” Tara's face had turned red with the exertion.
Kra! KRAK! The shield of aura cracked.
However, Ren smiled.
“Tara, you’re already a corpse.”
“HAHAHA, What ga- Hu…” Tara’s gaze dropped to his chest. A black-clad arm emerged out his chest. Seeing what it held, his laughter stopped.
The arm gripped a beating heart.
“Sh*t… Rou…” His eyes flashed with realization. Ren's apathetic gaze fell upon as he uttered his final words.
“Ren… Zarstorm… Arh… I… curse you… Gah… to…” Blood spilled out of his mouth. It clogged his throat. Unable to complete his last curse, the light in Tara's eyes dimmed.
The stone arm holding Ren weakened. Shrugging, he broke through its binding.
“Good work, Rou.”
The black-robed figure dropped the corpse and kneeled.
“Young Lord, I am undeserving of your praise. I’m sure Young Lord could have managed this senile traitor.”
“Wrong. Rou, the number of times I can use Void Arts is limited. I must preserve them until the final confrontation.”
“Understood, Young Lord.”
“I'm no longer your Young Lord. I am the Young Master of the Zarstorm branch..." Ren stared at the rubble around him and continued.
"The treacherous deeds of the Zelong clan must not fall unnoticed. They used Tara, a spy to kill Nell Zarstorm. Then, they attempted to assassinate. Fortunately, the spy was promptly killed before succeeding. Spread the news.”
“Understood… Young Master.” The black-robed figure disappeared into the darkness.
Before Ren could rest, a bald man approached him. He offered a towel.
“Young Master, how was the result?”
Ren smiled and accepted the towel. Wiping the blood off his arm, he said.
“I succeeded, but I lost the bet.” Ren glanced at the corpse of Tara.
The bald man’s face was flushed as he asked, “Does that mean…”
“Indeed, I have mastered Void Energy.”
“Splendid! Congratulations, Young Master! We can finally face the Zelongs head-on.” The bald man laughed.
“No, it’s not enough. Write an open letter to the other branches. Tell them of the injustice we suffered. While you’re at it, pin the previous assassinations on the Zelongs as well.”
“Splendid, Young Master! After all, which other mysterious force is capable of killing the entire Zarstorm family? And the timing of our feud will only further implicate the Zelongs."
"Yeah. Give Nell a Zelong's burial." Ren nodded. His head ached as he struggled to find his balance.
"Young Master, I have a suggestion!” The bald man smiled, ignorant of Ren's condition.
“What is it?” Ren hid in annoyance.
“Since we're inviting allies, can I reframe our war goal? Instead of seeking independence for the Zarstorm branch, how about I say that we’re fighting for the independence of all the branches? Even better, our goal is to liberate every person under Zelong rule! How does that sound?”
Ren hesitated before nodding, “I prefer the first proposition, but I’m no expert. Consult with the elders. I’ll leave it to you and Rou. For now, I must focus on my training.”
The bald man bowed and departed.
Gaining freedom from his retainers, Ren relaxed. Before he could leave, something caught his leg. Looking down, he saw a palm. It belonged to Tara.
"Die!" Tara grinned. A stone spear pierced through Ren's leg. Tearing through his abdomen it skewed his torso before emerging out through his skull.
Ren punched his face.
'An illusion?' He noticed that Tara was long dead. Sighing, he wobbled to the courtyard.
He sat and stared at the star-filled sky. The moon had turned red. It bled into the stars, imparting its color to the sky.
Ren’s head blared. Many eerie voices whispered into his ears.
“DIE!” “Kill!” “Join us!”
Staring into the bleeding sky, he spoke, “I’ve met all the conditions. I stole the talent, and I bathed my soul in killing intent. I... have sacrificed everything.”
A fog surrounded Ren. The smell of rotting corpses assaulted his nose. The temperature of his body rose and he suffered from a feverish heat. It filled him with nausea and dizziness.
An archaic, disembodied voice spread through the fog.
“Golem of human blood, will you surrender your humanity and descend?”
“Yes.” Ren's reply was weak.
“Death has embraced your sacrifice, and the fate of a demon awaits you. Your wish shall be granted.” Laughing, the voice faded. Along with it, the eerie whisperings stopped, and the fever subsided.
Rumble! The clouds thundered. The night rain was just as sudden as the death of Nell Zarstorm.
However, in Ren’s eyes, it was a downpour of blood… a reminder that he was no longer human.
As the skies thundered, Ren sighed.
“I was never human in the first place.” He departed. His war with the Zelongs was just beginning.
BOOOM! A red bolt of lightning struck the center of the courtyard, setting a banyan tree into flames. It was the lone witness to Ren’s transformation.
Ren opened his eyes. He had returned to the mirror room!
Trk! A metallic sheen spread throughout the mirror. It shattered, and the shards dropped into the black water.
However, it wasn’t just the mirror that broke.
Memories, foreign, yet familiar poured into Ren's mind.
He collapsed, his eyes wet. A plethora of emotions flashed past his face as he relived his past. Burying his head into his legs, he cried in silence.
An hour passed before Ren moved.
He wiped his face. Upon reopening his eyes, clarity had returned to them. He strode towards the door.
The black orb had faded. He had completed the trial. However, an unexpected guest awaited him.
“Welcome, Ren Zarstorm.” A smooth, silvery voice said. The owner of the voice was a purple fox.
“Are you the representative of the wheel?” Ren’s brows furrowed.
“Yes. You look brighter than expected. I half expected you to fall into despair before committing suicide! You’ve surpassed my expectations! Bravo.” The fox winked.
“The dead should remain dead. Why did you bring me back?”
“Uuuu… You just had to turn pessimistic! And that too the moment after I praised you. Are you trying to embarrass me?” The fox pouted.
“I’m not interested in your nonsense. Just answer the question.”
“Of course. But first… Congratulations! You completed the trial, earning your second gift. I present…” Rui whipped out a ball of fire. Its presence brightened the trial world.
“…The Fire Source. It wasn’t easy to obtain, and keeping it out of Stupid Face’s greedy paws was difficult. I hope you’ll like it.” Rui tossed the burning ball. It levitated to Ren.
“This is not a gift.” Ren didn’t accept it.
The fox paused. It flashed a knowing smile as it replied.
“Indeed. This is a pledge of loyalty to the wheel. It’s the least you could commit for an Elemental Conversion Technique.”
The burning ball morphed into a burning lotus. It brightened, showcasing its awe-inspiring potential.
“What if I refuse?” Ren asked.
The fox frowned. A cold smile crept onto its face.
“Is this how you repay me? I saved your soul from the Netherworld, but you’re not willing to pledge your loyalty?”
“What… if… I… refuse?” Ren asked again, this time slowly enunciating each word.
The fox’s smile faded. It looked around and spoke.
“Then I’ll have to kill you.”
Along with the sounds of cracking, the gargoyles awakened. They left their doors and surrounded Ren, their blood-filled eyes focused on him.
Ren’s heart skipped a beat but he maintained a straight face.
“I paid a huge price to bring you from the Netherworld. It was because I saw great potential in you. The Fire Source combined with your Void Arts… I can’t even fathom the result. And if that wasn’t enough, you’re also the first Void Arts Practitioner to cheat death! The whole world will shudder at your presence.”
“But if you wish to trounce on that opportunity, it is regrettable. Even incredibly foolish. This foolishness will forfeit your life. Thus, you will declare your loyalty to the wheel. Otherwise,”
“I will kill you… until you die! I just hope you’re ready to suffer a hundred deaths.” Just as Rui finished speaking, Ren felt a sudden dip in temperature. An oppressive killing intent overwhelmed him. He looked around. The six gargoyles surrounded him. They were the source of the killing intent.
“So, what is it, Ren? Will you pledge your loyalty or perish?”
Ren smiled faintly. The fox's words filled him with a sense of deja vu.