“Blegh” Aleran watched as Kindrav vomited blood for the second time. They had been walking by the cover of the trees but always following the road from a safe distance. By now, they had long left behind the search perimeter of the guards and could start walking on the road. Not that the guards would have been distracted by the two of them while the city was being inundated by a strange fog. Nevertheless, the worry of catching the interest of someone passing by had remained until now.
Turning around, partially to give Kindrav some privacy, Aleran could no longer see the city nor the huge column of smoke that had taken over it. “I think we are far enough, why don't we rest?. ” They had been walking nonstop for the last day, and Kindrav's body was constantly reminding them of that fact. Slowly but surely, he was getting worse. Kindrav insisted, and Aleran believed him, that once he managed to meditate and replenish his qi he would be able to recover more quickly.
“Yes, whatever, I can't keep going either way.” Kindrav nodded after wiping his mouth clean. The idea of resting sounded like heaven now, moreover, he could also tell the sun was going to set soon.
Aleran helped Kindrav as both started moving towards the road. At this distance from Hilua, they could safely say they were travelers who crossed paths with some bandits. It wasn't an uncommon sight according to Kindrav.
As they got closer they saw a small bonfire right next to the road, sitting at the side was a slightly chubby middle-aged man. The man was dressed in some simple grey robes. He was sitting on a folding chair while stirring something that was inside a metal pot and was brewing over the fire. Behind the man was a big wooden cart that was almost three meters tall and two meters long and wide. It was covered by a huge veil and it was not possible to see anything but one of the weels thanks to the wind.
When he heard the rustling of some shrubs, the man slowly turned his head and watched the boys get closer. He only stayed seated with a simple smile.
Seeing the old man unfazed by their sudden appearance and their unkempt state surprised Aleran. He was expecting any reaction other than that simple smile.
For a moment, Aleran, who was going to start talking according to the reaction of the man, froze in place without knowing what to say. The strangely calm man sat looking at them while Aleran stood in place with Kindrav reclining on his shoulder.
“Ahem.” After an awkward cough, he started. “Hello, Sr. My name is Aleran and this is my brother Kindrav. Sorry to bother you but, as you can see, my brother and I ran into some trouble,” Aleran said signaling with his head to Kindav who was panting. “We are not asking for anything other than staying close to the fire so my brother and I can rest and recover.” He told the story that Kindrav believed it would be the most believable and since they had the papers, he decided to go along with the brother’s story.
The chubby man smiled and his forehead became full of wrinkles, making Aleran re-asses his first impression about the man’s age. His chubby face stretched his skin, making him look younger than what he actually was. With a voice that was slightly more high pitched of what one would expect, the man nodded and said. “Oh, your brother looks quite injured, my young friend. Did you run into some bandits?” He made a pause to stir the liquid in the pot and Aleran nodded while thinking that it was a good thing the man had already created an excuse for their pitiful state.
“By all means, sit and rest. When I was young and hit the road I had to rely on the goodwill of strangers on many occasions. I won’t turn my back on two youngsters who are out trying to spread their wings. Be assured that the world it’s not as grim as it first looks, hehe.” The man said as he went back to look at his pot.
“Thank you very much, sir.” With his permission, both of them sat by the fire while facing the man. As they got close, Aleran could see a white milk-like liquid inside the pot, it didn’t smell nice, but he was so hungry that he would have eaten it without complaining. Of course, he didn’t have the face to ask for the man’s food, it was enough with the warmth of the fire. Meanwhile, at his side, Kindrav sat crossed legged and started to meditate.
Seeing Kindrav sit in that position and closing his eyes the man raised his eyebrows and exclaimed. “Oh, Cultivators! If you are alive, it means the bandits paid the price for getting in your way.” Although he was exclaiming the old man had the same relaxed attitude he had all this time.
“Emm... may I ask something?” Aleran waited for a signal of the man who nodded with the same simple smile. “Aren't you afraid or at least wary of us? More so now that you know we are cultivators. You know, we could be bad guys or even bandits making ourselves look like victims. You are all alone here, yet, you let us get closer just like that without getting flustered, not that I’m complaining.” He was aware the question was out of place, but he was really curious. The calm demeanor of the man in this strange situation made him feel like something was not quite right.
“Mm? Hahahaha!” The man started to laugh out loud grabbing his protruding belly. After a while, he stopped and raised four fingers. “First, I have seen a lot of things during my years of life, this is not the strangest one, not even by a long shot. On the contrary, it’s quite common. Secondly, how do you know I’m not a bandit posing as a merchant, attracting victims with my bonfire while also fooling any passing soldier?” This question made Aleran a little tense. He realized that the man was right, and he had been too hasty in approaching judging the man just by its amicable appearance.
But the man still had two fingers raised. “Thirdly, being just a simple mortal, how could I resist if you were bandits. It would not matter if you approached me with sweet words or by force, I could do nothing. But the last and real reason is that I’m not actually alone.” The man was still looking right at the front, but his eyes were no longer on Aleran, they were looking past him.
It was right then that Aleran felt a hot breeze on his back, too hot for that time of the day.
“Grrr” The low growl of a beast made Aleran and Kindrav jump to their feet and turn around.
“What the fuck!?” Screamed Aleran in English without realizing it. Standing on four legs, with the size of an elephant and white scales all over its body, but with a black horn on its head, the thing approached them noiselessly. It was a familiar figure for both of them, an Earthly level beast with a base strength of mid-stage qi circulation, it was a White Hunter.
“Hahahahaah. Don’t panic, it’s alright.” As many ideas of how to escape from the beast turned inside their minds, the man’s sudden laugh made them pause.
It was then that Aleran noticed the beast was not looking at them, but at the liquid in the pot. It was making a face that reminded Aleran of a dog asking for a reward.
Inwardly sighing with relief, Kindrav moved to the side to stand together with Aleran, making way for the beast. “ I was lucky to have just stopped with my meditation for a while to listen to the conversation. Otherwise, I would have had serious trouble with the scare this thing gave me.” Interrupting someone while cultivating was very dangerous and could cause a deviation. Although gathering qi was less complex and carried less risk than actual cultivation it still posed some level of danger.
“Is... is this your pet?” Asked Aleran. Just like with the previous question, once his curiosity was piked he could not help himself. He now realized that the beast had been resting behind the huge wooden cart. The fabric that covered the cart also made it impossible to spot the beast behind it. Now that he thought about it, it made sense the old man had some beast to pull such a massive thing.
“Hehe, say hi to Avalanche. Yes, you could say it is my pet.” The old man patted the beast that had now crouched net to him looking at the smelly pot as if it contained the world’s finest delicacy. “ Don’t take offense for its behavior, he just smelled his favorite dish and noticed that is ready. He isn’t supposed to eat this, but I like to spoil him a little.”
Aleran nodded, noticing that the beast was way fatter than the one they slew at the edge of the Forest of Eternal Nightmares. Even then, it could not be underestimated. Back then, they had killed a White Hunter that was already injured. He was sure that the only reason why they were able to dodge the attacks of that White Hunter was that the injury had slow it down. What’s more, to kill it, he had dropped on it with a surprise attack while Kindrav distracted it.
In Aleran’s mind, he was sure that Kindrav may be able to dodge and fight such creature for a while before dying from a few blows of the thing. But he himself would not be able to last that long without using his images. He knew his strengths and weaknesses better than anyone and knew that Kindrav had better instincts when it came to fighting than him. In such a short distance, this pet White Hunter, even with its big belly, would undoubtedly overwhelm them before they could defend themselves. ‘No wonder he seemed so calm, not only is he not alone, he has such a bodyguard!’ Thought Aleran in wonder.
“Does it bite?” Asked Kindrav who could no longer stay calm and meditate. He had only gathered a little qi. Although he was already feeling better, it was still far from ideal. His wound was still there but his inner qi allowed him to resist the pain and made his injuries heal faster. However, it was not nearly enough to face such a dangerous creature. He had already assessed the chances they had against this beast just as Aleran did and reached the same conclusion.
“Dude, you must have damaged your brain in our last fight. Of course it bites! Look at those teeth, do you even remember the one we encounter before?” Before the fat man replied Aleran said while rolling his eyes. He was still a little afraid of being surprised by that White Hunter, and now that he remembered, the other White Hunter was just as stealthy as this one. He just wanted to vent some of his fright berating Kindrav, hoping the later would say something to distract him more.
“ I mean to ask if it’s domesticated. It is you who must have your brain fried by your own attacks” Answered Kindrav with a sneer.
“Hehe, well it does bite...if I tell him so.” Said the pudgy man without getting offended by their questions or their tone. In fact, he looked at them with a warm and much softer smile when he saw them bickering.
“Wow! So, it’s true. I didn’t know you could buy Earthly Beasts as pets.” Said Kindrav in wonder.
“Oh! No no.” The pudgy man’s cheeks swayed from side to side, denying what Kindrav said. “ You most definitely cannot buy such a powerful beast as a pet. I’m a special case.” The man said with undisguised pride.
Sticking his chest out and seeing that both of the youths had a confused look, he continued. “You must be from a small village and you must be venturing out for the first time if you don’t know this.” The man smiled. “ There’s only one place in the world where you will see such a creature treated as a pet, and that is the Spirit Beast Sect. ”
“Oh! So you are from a sect?” Aleran was about to explode with a million questions about the difference between the Sidrin Empire and a Sect. However, before he could do so, he was stopped.
The chubby man denied with his hands raised. “I’m just a simple mortal, how could I belong to any sect? No, this beast was acquired by my son. Those who can trade with the Spirit Beast sect and get powerful beasts as pets are only a few influential people. However, my son won this beast in a bet with a disciple from the Spirit Beast Sect.” It was evident by his speech that the source of his pride was that son of his. “ My son was on a mission helping the Empire establish some trading routes with the Spirit Beast Sect. Our relationship with them is quite...complex to say the least, there is lots of friction. Before returning, he got into a “friendly fight” with a cultivator there and Avalanche was part of the stakes. After winning, my son thought this big fellow could help, and he was not wrong, hehe.”
After that short story, the man showed them a small amulet that hanged on his neck. It was the thing he used to command the White Hunter. It looked to be made of wood and had the simple drawing of a hand on it. With it, he could order the White Hunter to attack or defend but only by giving simple commands and nothing too complex. The amulet was specially made to help control beasts for those who didn't cultivate inside the Spirit Beast sect. The man also explained that if someone else who wasn’t related by blood with him took the amulet, the beast would attack the one holding the amulet.
‘It even has safety measures! That thing is truly magical!’ Aleran would have loved to see how it was made and on what principles that thing worked. Of course, he wouldn’t steal the thing. He wasn’t so corrupted by the Crimson Claw to go and rob innocent people. He was only entertaining the thought of borrowing it to have a better look at it before returning the amulet without the man noticing. Nevertheless, the fact that the beast could attack him, whether it was true or a lie to dissuade them from doing anything stupid, made him drop the idea.
“Well, now that his dish is done, let me prepare something for us.” The man went up to the carriage, took three bags from the cart, and came back to the bonfire. In those bags, there were some cooking wear and some vegetables and meat respectively. “Oh, by the way, I’m Bulda.”
“Nice to meet you Mister Bulda.” Said Aleran as Kindrav nodded with his head and went back to his meditation. Now that Kindrav knew the beast was controlled, he could focus again. His injuries had only been roughly treated before and now he needed to gather qi to heal faster.
“My sudden questions made us skip the introductions, I’m sorry about that.” Aleran continued while the man started to prepare the food in a very professional manner. He could already tell that the meal was going to be good. “As I said, we are just a pair of brothers with bad luck. We are going to the capital to try and take the entrance exam at Dragon Fist Academy. Sadly, we ended up in this state.”
“You are going to the Dragon’s Heart? I live there, and I’m currently on my way back from a trip. I was with my son, but a few days ago, he got word that a special auction was taking place back in the Capital. Without wasting a second, he left this old man alone and went ahead by himself, can you believe it?” The man sighed with fake sadness before proceeding. “ Why don’t you come with me? I can show you around the Dragon’s Heart, I know the city like the palm of my hand. Meanwhile, you could help me around. After all, Avalanche has brute strength but some things need opposing thumbs and brains, hehe.”
“That sounds great.” Aleran accepted without much thinking. “To be honest, we barely know the general direction of the Capital. It would have taken us many detours to get there.”
“With me as your guide, you will get there in time for the academy entrance exams,” Bulda said without lifting his head.
“That sounds great, thanks.”Aleran agreed immediately. There was too much they don't know, and having someone with experience on their side would save them tons of trouble. Besides, Aleran could tell that despite not being a cultivator the man could know some useful things about the cultivation world thanks to that son of his.
“Great! Let's eat first, I’m starving.” After reaching an agreement, both started to talk about more casual stuff like the kind of food they like and the such. Once Kindrav finished gathering qi he joined the conversation and the meal.
Aleran waited for about an hour to taste a stew made of meat and strange vegetables. Although it wasn’t at the level of the food on Earth, it had its own flavor and charm. “Mmm! This is delicious, are you perhaps some kind of chef?” He asked with his mouth still full.
“Haha, well, thank you but I'm no chef, cooking is just a hobby. I should spend less time on it, though.” Said Bulda patting his big stomach. “I'm a merchant, I deal mostly with antiques, but I have a little bit of everything in stock like some low-level weapons, clothes and some carpentry made by a friend of mine.”
“Oh, a traveling merchant then! You made a smart choice by skipping Hilua, otherwise, you would have been stuck there for a while.” Said Kindrav with a satisfied voice as he finished his bowl of food.
He felt very relaxed now with his belly full, that was until he got a hidden glare from Aleran. He immediately realized that he shouldn't have brought that topic. It wasn't like they would immediately get caught, but it was better to avoid anything related to it. Kindrav had dropped his guard with the food and had talked before thinking. “From afar it looked like something big had happened.” He said with the hope of repairing some of the damage.
Bulda's face turned serious and his whole body froze for a second, but soon, his smile returned. “Something big happened? I wouldn't know about that, I came from a minor road and didn't pass by Hilua.”
“Oh, we only saw some smoke from afar, and because of it, we did not get too close, but we don't know much either.” Kindrav rapidly put an end to the issue.
Bulda nodded while sighing in his head. ‘Oh young man, what would you think if I were to tell you all that chaos is probably my fault?’ He didn't like to lie, but when it came to this matters he could only hide the truth. He was usually an honest person which made his few and rare lies more believable.
What he said before about being with his son was true, but before he even met with his son, he did something else. In the beginning, the trip was purely for private business. But then, he got a special request from Heaven's Vault. As every mission they issued, it was totally up to him whether to take it or leave it. They only asked him to reply if he was going to do the mission in less than a day. He was sure that if he said no they would have some backup staff to accomplish the mission.
The price they paid was too good to let it pass, it was something Bulda wanted for a long time but couldn't get his hands on. So, after weighing the pros and cons, he accepted.
Like always, the mission was very simple. He just had to wait in the outskirts of one of the border villages near the Forest of Eternal Nightmares. He had to make it look like he was resting for a while and putting his goods in order before going inside the village. Of the villages closest to the forest, he had to wait near Duckweed Village. Again, he had no doubt other people like him would be waiting in the Vast Sky Village and Freedom Village.
Once there, he had to wait. Wait for a man to appear. He was told that he could be wounded and that he should wait to be approached and not the other way around. If the man passed by him, he just had to stay put and do nothing. But if the man engaged him, he should pay attention to his condition. Bulda had to take note of anything that he might be carrying with him or anything unusual about him.
After waiting for various Ru, an injured man truly appeared in front of him. He was badly injured but his expression was calm, so calm that Bulda felt a chill run down his spine. If the man could be so injured yet not show any of it in his face, then he was surely a powerful expert. Maybe with his son, he would not have been afraid of him, but being alone he felt some fear. So, silently, he called Avalanche to his side.
The man who was approaching, all injured without saying a word and with an expressionless face stopped. His eyes twitched a little and his expression changed to a more cordial one. Bulda was sure at that moment, had he been alone, the man would have killed him and robbed him instead of walking towards him with a smile. The man was probably stronger than Avalanche but he was surely not in a state to fight anything that could put some resistance.
Once in front of him, the man asked for medicine, tons of medicine and bandages. It was more than necessary for a single man even for such an injured person. Bulda didn't sell medicine, so he gave him what he had for himself. He also cut some clothes and gave them to him to use them as bandages.
After that, the man asked if Bulda had a box to sell. That was something that Bulda actually sold. He showed the man the boxes. People who buy from him almost always needed some boxes or sacks to carry what they bought.
The man picked a long rectangular one. That was something Bulda marked as unusual since it would be better to buy a more practical box. One specifically made to carry things with handles would have been the best choice. Yet the man picked a rectangular box usually used to store weapons.
After getting everything, the man surprisingly took a small pouch of gold coins and toss it to him without even asking for a price. Then, he whistled and two more men came out from the forest. These two were wearing very distinctive uniforms. Which Bulda could tell were from Hilua thanks to the small crest of the city gates embedded in the shoulder plate of their armors. These two were more injured than the first man. Every step they took looked like it was an endless torment for them. One of the two was using a branch as a walking stick and looked to be in his lasts moments. Still, the two of them followed the man's orders with unbreakable discipline.
The three together gathered the things the man bought and went back into the forest. After that, Bulda took off as fast as he could and reported back what he saw in extreme detail.
Now, thinking about that crest Bulda sighed. ‘Yes, It was probably my fault’ Shaking his head Bulda couldn’t help but think that his mission was likely related to the disaster that fell on Hilua. After doing several missions for Heaven’s Vault, Bulda had already seen the pattern. The tasks he had to do would look small or insignificant, but in fact, they had far-reaching consequences.
He had noticed this a long time ago. One small act that ended with a big almost disproportionate consequence. That was the way Heaven’s Vault acted.
However, Bulda wasn’t bothered by it. He felt guilty sometimes, but every time he reminded himself of his objective and he would immediately stop thinking about that. Besides, he liked Heaven’s Vault. After all, they were the ones who gave his son the initial spirit stones to enter the academy. Right now, and although he had already repaid Heaven's Vault for that favor, he knew very well that his son’s power and status was owed in part to them.
If it weren’t for them, his son would be forever bound to a noble family, becoming nothing more than a fancy servant. He would not be the independent force he currently was.
“Amm... are you all right? Did we say something that bothered you?” Asked Kindrav who noticed Bulda spacing out for a while.
“Eh? Not at all my friend, I was just thinking about some businesses.” Said Bulda as he finally came back to reality. “It’s getting late. Why don’t we go to sleep? Avalanche will watch out during the night, that fellow slept enough already.”
“That sounds nice.” Answered Aleran.
“Yes, my body is craving for some sleep. It’s great that we don’t have to stand guard, this big guy sure comes handy.” Kindrav said with a yawn.