A few miles outside the city of Hilua, a small collection of rocks was standing peacefully in between some trees. The biggest of these rocs had a cave that was the home of a small wild cat. Being just a mortal beast it was unaffected by the power of the monolith. The wild cat resting inside the cave suddenly sniffed the air and ran away from its own home, as if something very bad was coming.
First, the cave started to fill with purple smoke, and after a few minutes, a loud rumbling sound could be heard as a figure smashed right through the locked hatch on the floor. But the figure didn't stop there, with unstoppable momentum it continued upward and also smashed the rock. In an instant, the whole place was filled with rubble and dust.
Above this messy scene, a pale man with short brown hair was hovering in the air. His figure was rising and falling unstably as if it took some effort for the man to stay in mid-air. Strapped to his hair, the feather that used to be white had become completely dark. The man was none other than Grujil.
His sight was directed towards the city and his face was twisted in fear and rage. ‘I barely made it before the totem ran out of power.’ Looking at the city engulfed by a purple cloud and then down below where he just came out, his heart dropped. The quantity was so much, that not even the monolith could be seen. ‘Who? Who did this?’ It was obvious just by seeing the dark smoke turning purple that the same situation happened with every other tunnel.
Whoever it was, must have used some kind of formation. But he couldn't think of someone who would have such an ability. “Well...except for the Astral Runes Sect.” But if the Astral Runes Sect had gotten wind that one of its weapons had been compromised they would have attacked directly and retrieved it. Or even openly pressured the Sidrin Empire to give them back that arm.
The empire knew better than provoking such a monster. They probably just wanted to study the arm before willingly giving it back to the Astral Runes sect. Only the gods knew how and where the City Lord found out that arm and why he had lost so many men retrieving it. But one thing was for sure, he didn't attack at the Astral Runes Sect directly.
The relation between the Empire and that sect was actually quite good and it wasn't worthy to antagonize them for a very small chance at figuring out some runes. Not to mention that in the case of an open conflict the Sidrin Empire would likely be destroyed if it didn't ally with other powers. Wich again, against the Astral Runes Sect that supplied formations, rallying allies against them was very hard to do. In fact, the Astral Runes Sect could probably gather external forces and fight the empire without having to lift a finger.
Besides that, Grujil also thought that maybe, the culprits were his own backers. He didn't know their faces but he was sure of their nature. If the upper echelons of the Crimson Claw ever found out that he had withheld information about that red arm, they would crucify him.
Even if he told them that he intended to use it as a bargaining chip to ascend inside the Crimson Claw, they would never believe him. And the truth was that Grujil, who had thought that what was inside the box was a fragment of an original circle of runes, wanted to first try and learn something from it. Only if he couldn't gain anything from it was he planning on giving it to the Crimson Claw.
But it didn't make much sense to believe it was them, they would not go to these lengths. While they did have the croquis of the tunnels, being the ones who build them, they would just kill him without making such a spectacle of it. Besides that, he couldn't think of anyone else. If an Envoy had already arrived he would just do everything by brute force and Grujil would have already been caught or worse.
Thinking about that, Grujil looked around, afraid of being ambushed. But after inspecting carefully he felt no one in the vicinity. Next, he looked at the city again. besides the gigantic cloud of purple smoke covering the city, there were hundreds of black dots surrounding it. These were the guards that had been patrolling outside and, after seeing something so out of the ordinary, decided to fly back. Besides these guards, other cultivators were trying to flee, some of them made it in time, some others were stopped by the guards.
And just as Grujil was watching, the giant formation guarding the city activated. Those who were still inside were unable to fly too high or too far from it. The formation wasn't even activated when they had attacked the City Lord. Granted, it wouldn't have been of much help at that time since what it happened was in an extremely small area inside the city. But seeing it activate now spoke volumes of the state of high alert the city had been put these past days. Grujil didn't doubt for a second that if the formation was easier and less expensive to maintain, the city guards would have it running 24/7.
Still afraid of being ambushed, Grujil landed on a tree and started to gather qi into his eyes. The black dots in the distance transformed into the easily recognizable figures of the guards and the cultivators flying. As he looked around, almost by pure accident, he caught the silhouette of two hooded silhouettes running in the opposite direction from the city.
From time to time, these two men would turn around vigilantly towards the city. In one of those turns, Grujil caught sight of the visage under one of the hoods. Seeing that face, Grujil's breathing started to accelerate as his chest went up and down with increasing speed. His eyes almost went red as anger spread through his face. “ Those two!!”
He had to be an idiot to not relate them to what was happening inside the tunnels. Even though he had no proof, he was sure now that he saw them fleeing from the city just at the right moment. He had to exert almost a supernatural amount of will power to not rush towards them to vent his anger.
With his expression turning cold, he flew in their direction while trying to not get their attention. As he was speeding off, Grujil didn't notice that a figure was crouched behind another group of boulders. He was dressed in black robes and if one wasn't looking at him, one would simply ignore his presence.
The man took a small vial of silver liquid from under his robe and drank it. The moment he finished the vial, the man that seemed like a normal mortal suddenly showed the energy characteristics of a cultivator. To hide from the senses of a cultivator actively looking for someone, more so if the other party had a higher cultivation base, one needed to drink a special potion. Otherwise, Grujil would have found him immediately after a single swept of his senses.
The man could suppress his energy without the need of the potion, but to fool someone at Grujils level actively looking he needed extra help. The only downside was that if Grujil had spotted him, the man would have been as good as dead since the potion suppressed his cultivation. Even if a mortal beast were to try, it ould surely kill him.
But the man took the risk and now, with the counter potion, he was safe again. He looked at the way Grujil took off and started running towards another direction. “I have to tell the Young Mistress that Grujil came out of the western exit.”
Being three different emergency exits, his misteress could no be in every single one of them. She had to pick one exit and trust her subordinate with the other two.
Once Grujil got close enough, he started probing the surroundings with his divine sense. The only reason why he didn't give in to his urges was that he was sure these two kids couldn't have done so much damage on their own. Someone had to be backing them up.
When Ibrak said he was going to handle them after he found out that Aleran had snuck out last night, Grujil thought he was being paranoid. After all, he didn't have any real proof of them wanting to cause them any harm. Now, there was nothing he wanted more than to go back in time and slap his own face for doubting Ibrak.
He followed the boys as they went along one of the main roads. They didn't walk openly on them. They just followed it from the side, going at a moderate speed and using the trees as a cover.
After watching out for some time, Grujil was sure that no one else was following them. Which reassured him on his next course of action.
He landed on a tree branch and gathered his qi. He couldn't use everything he got or the infected blood inside him would start rampaging again. But using some of his energy will be enough.
´’Crack’ As Grujil gathered power the branch he was squatting over made a faint sound. But to Kindrav who was on edge since coming out of the city, it may as well had been the sound of an explosion. He turned around with incredible speed and saw Grujil stalking them as a tiger would to his prey. The moment he widened his eyes in surprise and fear, Grujil pounced on them.
Without even thinking it, Kindrav pushed Aleran out of the way and he himself jumped to the other.
Aleran only managed to see a blur pass right next to him as he fell to his left. Indistinctly he could see the figure of a snakehead on each side of it. The humanoid figure, with the head of a snake in each hand, landed with a loud thud sound. If he hadn't been pushed, the figure would have hit his back and with that force, he would have been crippled or worse.
The ground, cave in as two big and deep craters appeared on the ground.
Only after the dust somewhat settled, did Aleran recognized it was Grujil, who somehow was not dead.
“Ughh!” Grujil let out a muffled growl as he felt the strain of using his powers in such a condition. But although he failed, he didn't stop. He just got up and faced Kindrav, who was the one that had spotted him first.
Kindrav didn't stand still either, he stood up and threw two knives at Grujil, only to watch in shock as the man didn't even bother to dodge. He just let them bounce on a layer of inner qi that he had spread all over his body. In front of mortal weapons and those of lower cultivation, that thin layer of qi was so dense and impenetrable as a divine armor.
Grujil didn't let Kindrav think much on what to do next as he moved rapidly towards him with his fist up. Again, a snakehead could be seen enveloping his fist, and up close, Kindrav could vaguely hear a hissing sound coming from it.
That was one of the basic movements of the Sidrin Empire, simply named Dragon Fist. It was a powerful move that was taught to those of a certain rank in the Academy. Although it was a basic move it could not be underestimated. And Grujil had merged it with his own image of the desert leviathan, an almost mythical beast of the desert. The original dragon fist was forcefull, but this was more insidious and sneaky.
Kindrav could only raise his arms in a useless attempt at blocking such a fist. But the fist passed through his guard like a slippery snake. And although the heart, which was the intended target was not hit, the fist landed on the left chest. It had such force that sent Kindrav flying backward and into a tree.
“Cough cough cough!” Kindrav couldn't stop coughing after he crashed and toppled the tree with his body. He could feel some ribs broken.
“Hmm?” Grujil looked at his fist and then at Kindrav. Grujil hadn't use all his power. But, that blow should have at least caved half of the boy's chest inward. Instead, he only felt a few cracking noises, but besides that nothing more.
“Oh, I see what happened.” With a look of realization, Grujil looked at Kindrav’s cloak. “That cloak must be an artifact you picked up from the treasure vault of the City Lord. If you could activate it, maybe you would have a chance at fleeing. But with your level, it's only a slightly sturdier armor. It can’t block inner qi and what's more, it's probably not even a defensive artifact. But that doesn't matter now, just tell me who send you two into the Crimson Claw and I will let you die quickly.” Grujil started to come closer to Kindrav.
He was walking not because he wanted, but because he had to. If he spent too much energy his wounds would open and the contaminated blood inside him would flare again. He needed to kill one of these two fast and then make the other spit everything out. But before he got too close he could sense a disturbance of qi behind him. When he turned he saw the other kid with his eyes closed and his hands extended.
Next, Grujil only saw white flashes and felt an incredible heat in his right chest. It happened too quickly, and in a mare blink, half of his qi barrier was broken. He blacked out for an instant and when he came back to himself he was falling to the ground. With a major effort, he got to kneel before hitting the floor.
His eyes were still half-blinded and the sound of thunder had yet to vanished from his eardrums. But he still managed to see the boy who was responsible for his current situation.
Aleran was also kneeling on the floor as he had used almost all his power. But although the one who was hurt was Grujil, the eyes of the boy were the ones filled with despair. He had launched everything he got left in him and still, he only managed to hurt his already wounded enemy.
On the other side, Grujil was in an extremely pitiful state, he had the right side of his body and neck painted in a mix of black and red. His robes were also burnt and his breathing was ragged. On his eyes were a shocked look and a slight trace of fear as he regarded the boy in front of him. Although Grujil was using less power when attacking, his qi barrier was as strong as ever. His cautious nature forced him to maintain it at the peak, even when facing two weaker cultivators. And still, he had gotten injured by that mysterious power. He didn't even know what was that hit him.
If he had been uninjured previous to the fight, this attack would have left some gruesome wounds but nothing more. It would not be life-threatening. But in his current state, it had almost sent him on his way to the other world.
‘Now I know what happened to Ibrak who was going to deal with these two. He was probably dead even before that poisonous smoke.’ Many thoughts raced through his mind but he didn't have the time to duel in them. He stood up and his gaze regained its calmness. He could tell despite how powerful the attack was that Aleran was a spent force.
A cold killing intent surged from Grujil as he moved up without tearing his eyes away from Aleran. He was about to vent all his repressed rage. Grujil's eyes were watching Aleran with vigilance as if he was in front of a dangerous beast. He now realized he had targeted the wrong one with his first attacks, he should have started by killing the boy in front of him.
Even now, Grujil could see the eyes of the boys moving about as if thinking of other solutions to his situation. But he was not going to give him the chance. Using the last of his qi, other than the part he needed to stop the contaminated blood, he reforged his qi barrier. A light blue glow emanated from the thin layer over his skin.
He stood in position and was about to run towards his target when a yelling Kindrav jumped on his back. Still sore and with his ears not functioning well, Grujil couldn't detect him until it he was hanging off his shoulders.
“Dieeee!! ahhhh!!” The barbarian put his left arm around Grujil's neck as his other hand stabbed towards Grujil's chest.
Grujil would not have cared about it, but he realized too late that what Kindrav was using as a weapon was not a knife or any other blade, but a small red finger.
“Agg!!” The black nail of the finger pierced through the qi barrier that, strangely, didn't pose the slightest resistance against the severed finger. With the qi barrier gone, his flesh was pierced just as easily as any mortal flesh would be. And, like a crazed animal, Kindrav kept stabbing and screaming wildly. The yell was more to forget his own pain than to actually vent any anger he had.
Grujil only managed to grab Kindrav by the hair and throw him off after the third stab. By then, his qi barrier, which was more unstable than the first one, was completely gone.
‘Huf, Huf.’ Grabbing his wounded chest Grujil thought of retreating. But now, he found that Aleran had appeared before him. The weird thing was that instead of actually attacking him, the boy hugged him.
That movement was so unexpected that fGrujil froze for a second. And before he could do anything, a piercing pain came from behind at the same time that he felt the same numbing feeling as before. Only that this time, it was coming from the hands of Aleran that were touching his back. Again, Grujil blacked out.
Panting, Aleran let the body of Grujil fall to the ground. He had not only electrocuted him, but he had also used what little was left on him to attract the two knives that Kindrav had previously used. Unlike Kindrav, he couldn't use the finger to attack because he had left with the rest of his luggage in the bag that was now on the floor.
“Is he?... Cough cough!” Kindrav had not finished the sentence when another fit of coughing was heard, together with a mouthful of blood. That last throw was not that hard, but it had worsened the pain he felt in his ribs.
“I think so...” Said Aleran as he grabbed the two bags and then went to help Kindrav. “We have to go, the fight created too much noise. I bet the electric arcs could be seen even through the cover of the trees.”
“Yes, that technique of yours kicks ass, but it's too showy… Ouch, walk slower! You are not only a show-off now you are also a terrible crutch!” Kindrav ranted as he used Aleran shoulder as a support, not making much sense with his words but feeling better now that he could vent his anxiety.
“Well, we have to go faster. And remember this crutch can ditch you and run away with the loot.” Aleran said as he slowed down somewhat and adjusted his position.
“Ditching me? You have as much grace as a rock, without me your life would be a grey mass of depression…. Cough cough!”
“Ahahaha. Well, you have gotten me into some interesting mess.” Aleran said while looking behind them in fear someone was still following. They had already left behind Grujil's body, and it didn't seem like someone had noticed anything. “ Now stop talking, you are gonna talk yourself to your death…”
Like that, the two went on their way, following the road towards the next city which will, in turn, led them closer to the Dragon Heart.
“Ahhgg” Gurjil grunted at the pain. He had to wait until the two boys were far enough to try moving. The humiliation he felt at having to play dead in front of two weaker cultivators was almost worse than the pain he was currently experiencing.
“Damn it!” It didn't take him long to realize he couldn't move. He was too injured and could only sit against the tree that had fallen during the fight. What was worse was that the pain didn't let him concentrate to gather qi. He could only take the two knives stabbed on his back after struggling for a while.
“Oh, when I got the information, I didn't expect to find you in this state. He clearly said you were relatively uninjured.” Grujil heard a pleasant female voice at the same time that a shadow covered him. When he raised his head, he found that this new interlocutor was a beautiful woman in an elegant dress and a veil on her face.
“Who...Ha, Ha… who are you?...” Grujil answered at the blurry figure that was slowly taking form in his eyes.
Adra regarded the injured man before her with curiosity. When his subordinate went to her to tell her that Gurjil had come out of another gate she had expected to find him running away. Instead, she came across a half-dead man.
But that didn't really matter now, she had come only to make sure to tie all the loose ends. “Right now, I do the questions,” Adra answered with coldness in her voice. “You only have two options, Big Boss,” Adra said this last words with some sarcasm. “You have proven to have some abilities when you fought the City Lord, even though he was injured. And we could use someone like you. So, you could pledge allegiance to us, to serve my master. Or you can say no and die right here.” Adra made a small pause to let her words sink in.
After looking at the indecisive gaze of Grujil, Adra continued, “I'm not gonna lie to you, it will basically be a slave contract. Except for having freedom in minor matters, you won't be allowed to decide on your own in anything that can affect directly or indirectly to our organization. Your speech will also be restricted and only after we are sure of your attitude we may give you more freedom in this regard. As I said, you will be basically a glorified slave to my master.”
Adra wasn't fond of Grujil and the Crimson Claw. She had done some despicable things, but her bottom line was way above the one of the Crimson Claw. Yet, if she could gain a new asset out of this, she will take it no matter how despicable that asset was. What's more, she knew that the MO of the Crimson Claw was already stablished way before Grujil joined. And unlike his underlings that mostly enjoyed that lifestyle, to Grujil, the Crimson Claw was just a means to an end.
In the end, though, the decision was Grijil´s. The contract she was talking about could not be done without the consent of the other party. Grujil had to give his consent on the kind of relationship he will be part of.
Grujil´s mind was in chaos right now. He had barely had the time to process how and why he was defeated. How could Aleran possess such strange abilities? And who was the mastermind behind all this. To all that, he now had to add a decision that will mark the rest of his life, well, depending on what he chooses.
But Adra gave him plenty of time to make his mind. ‘If his master can make such a contract, then that means he is extremely powerful. Or at least, resourceful enough to have the means to make such a contract. But something tells me it is the first.’ Ultimately he sighed.
“I want to live no matter what. I accept.” He said solemnly. He was aware that this meant his future was almost surely done. It was basically selling his soul to a third party. Any dream he had, and any aspiration was over. But as long as he was alive something could change. For example, it was common knowledge that most of the slave contracts would stop working once the master died. As long as he was alive, there was hope.
“Good, very good. Take these two potions then.” Adra took two small vials, one had a lavender color and the other was colorless. “This one will stop your bleeding and heal you a little. While the other, after a moment of drinking it, it will make you go into slumber.” She gingerly put the vials in Grujils hands and then continued. “Once my men take those runic arms we will leave.”
Grujil heart ached at the mention of the arms, even as he swallows the two liquids. If Adra wanted him dead, she could have done so already, so he drank the vials without reservation.
In the end, this woman and her organization were the ones who had profited at his and the City Lord's expenses. Suddenly, a thought popped up in Grujil's mind as he connected several dots on his head. ‘It can't be…can it?’ But soon, he felt a cool sensation running through his body at the same time that his eyes grew heavy. In a few seconds, he was asleep.
In front of him, Adra looked at the distance and a faint smile emerged on his face. A man dressed in black was flying towards her, on his arms, he was carrying a wooden box. It was Inya, her most trusted subordinate.