Chapter Forty-seven: Commendations (Part Three)
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The fighting within Davenhold had spilled back over to the western district, though by now most of the inhabitants had been killed or rounded up and corralled to another area of the city.

  Hundreds of unmoving inner court disciples lay interspersed throughout the square, the majority of which surrounded by heaps of dead defenders. As for the host of outer court disciples, she wasn’t sure what to make of their apparent cause of death. It appeared as if all of her companions had been killed by some sort of poison, though she remained perplexed as to how the deadly toxin had been administered to thousands of people at once. She had never heard of anything even remotely resembling the unknown method that had decimated thousands of their numbers on the city’s western front.

  That boy from the forest crossed her mind. No, he was quite formidable but nowhere near enough to kill thousands of disciples from both courts. Despite the logic behind her common sense rationale, the fact remained that the young cultivator had disoriented Meldon with a fog of poisonous smoke that had erupted forth from a mysterious barrel that he’d thrown.

  Sersa didn’t hesitate to dismiss all disciples in the area, but only after she had given them strict orders to shift their focuses toward capturing their enemies and not killing them. Once they were gone, she expanded her spiritual sense and counted just over one thousand waning life signals interspersed among the countless bodies that filled the spacious plaza.

  She moved quickly and arrived next to the weakest life signal, which flickered like a small flame in the wind as the last of its strength continued to slip away. The old man held a mess of his entrails with quivering hands, any prolonged survival attributed to his cultivation of the fifth level of Profound Entry, which preserved his failing body with its last vestiges of fleeting inner essence.

  The old man stared up at her with pure hatred in his dull grey eyes, which continuously swam in and out of focus. She wondered what this person might have lost in this invasion. His belongings, his home, his loved ones? Likely, all of them. She slowly circulated inner essence throughout her body and shifted her focus toward her right hand, which she swiftly jabbed into the gaping tear in the man’s stomach.

  She wouldn’t have thought him capable of unleashing such a shriek in his enfeebled state, but his cry of pain and indignation stuck out among the innumerable others that carried through the blood-slicked plaza.

  Sersa’s pupils dilated rapidly as she was taken by a euphoric shiver that swept throughout her body from the top of her tousle-haired head to the tips of her toes. She fully embraced the indescribable rush that accompanied the act of leeching someone’s inner essence to supplement her dantian, for fighting it was not only futile but detrimental to the technique’s functionality.

  She glanced at the open gate and the cluster of bodies that lay beyond, the man’s screams coming to a stop within a few short moments. He had struggled to resist her until the very end. As she arrived before the next weakest life signal, her eyes returned to the area beyond the gates where thousands of dead youths lay immobile, their tender faces frozen in eternal expressions of anguish.

  As her hand pierced into the middle-aged woman’s bosom, she once again recalled the odd trio that had conveniently lured Meldon away from the city, the fierce intelligence that burned beneath the young man’s earthen irises. The boy’s physique had been unbelievably disproportionate to his cultivation base, and the peculiar barrel had summoned quite the sizeable cloud of poisonous smoke.

  The militiawomen died with silent tears, guttural grunts subsiding as the last of her life force set Sersa’s body alight with an almost inhuman wave of sensuality. Her skin grew course with goosebumps and her nipples hardened as her face became increasingly flushed, and soon she was panting in anticipation of her next helping of energy.

  This wretched technique.

  Her chest heaved with guilty pleasure as she arrived beside her next victim, a young man clad in a dented set of armour. Even if she were knowledgeable about the noble houses of the local landholdings, she wouldn’t have been able to determine his affiliation as his tabard had been completely torn from his body. He had suffered several ruthless stab wounds, and his left shoulder was terribly dislocated.

  By the time she finished absorbing the life energy of her twentieth victim, she had completely replenished her energy reserves. At least a dozen wounded defenders had died during the time it took her to refine just a bit more than that, which prompted her to cultivate as quickly and efficiently as possible.

  Time passed indeterminately for Sersa as more and more emaciated corpses littered the square by the minute, and very soon she could sense a semblance of fullness from her previously ravenous dantian, the long-sought prelude to a highly anticipated breakthrough. The regular soldiers were particularly beneficial in that they bolstered her dantian while simultaneously sending a pervasive wave of unparalleled satisfaction through every nerve-ending on her body.

  Sersa had never refined so many people in succession, so it came as no surprise when her awareness began to fade with each new indulgence. Her actions were almost mechanical at this point as she continued to refine the soldiers, militiamen, volunteer defenders and unfortunate civilians that filled her feral vision like a field of wealth that was free for the taking.

  Her muddled mind drifted back to the image of the boy that had killed Meldon during the crucial seconds after she had momentarily rendered him dangerously disoriented, but she soon lost track of the thought.

  Before long her frenzy of mindless cultivation had carried her to the open gates, her hand buried to the wrist inside of a nameless torso, a voiceless scream in her ears. She sensed what could only have been three large barrels on the other side of the walls, an odd thing to notice given the degree of her delirium and how inconspicuous the targets of her astuteness.

  The boy with Lord Zaro’s sword. I’m glad that I didn’t kill him.

  The western battleground was not the only designation where thousands of their forces had suffered through nothing short of genocide, for Havel and his brother’s forces had experienced the same brand of devastation at the southern gate.

  That boy couldn’t have been any older than her and yet he had inflicted more crippling damage against their forces during this invasion than anyone else, including the deceased ruler of Davenhold. He accomplished all of this despite being far weaker than she, and even managed to escape the region with his life.

  The last thing to run through her mind before she lost herself to a pervasive bloodlust was more of a wish born from selfishness than anything else. She hoped that the boy she’d encountered would survive their conquest of The Split and continue to mature, that the path he took on his pursuit of power would be littered with corpses of the tragically delusional siblings of the sect.

In the three days since Sersa had begun her voracious consumption of the wounded that had been left to agonize in the western square, she had mindlessly refined nearly eight hundred hapless cultivators. Most of the inner energies that she had recycled belonged to individuals at the Profound Entry stage, which augmented the reserves within her dantian with a direct influx of inner essence. This was a stark contrast to the simpler Origin Energy that typically strengthened the constitutions of Body Nourishment cultivators, such as those that had died one after another once she’d deferred to refining at random.

  Sersa came back to herself as the last sliver of the sun’s glowing visage fled into a pomegranate horizon. She lay atop a morbid mattress, her body shivering as she propped herself up from the heap of harvested corpses, the soldiers’ faces indiscernible in their mummified states.

  When did I…?

  She cried out as a terrible pain raked her body. The usual sensation of a thousand prodding daggers had intensified to something in the realm of being dipped into a cauldron of boiling oil. She struggled to her feet but instantly collapsed back to the tattered mess of stiff limbs.

  An entire hour passed before she was able to subdue her shaking enough to sit up, cross her legs and meditate. A short few minutes later and she had somewhat stabilized her aura, which had been churning within her body like the lashing waves of a stormy sea. Not a speck of blood remained on her body, each drop refined with bestial efficiency during the hours of her blackout.

  She had successfully broken through to the Integration stage’s fourth level, which took her one step closer to integrating with the inner essence that had begun to fill her body the moment she’d achieved Profound Entry. She lost control of her faculties upon reclaiming consciousness because her dantian had assimilated the energies that she’d consumed over the past few days and then redirected all of its reserves into strengthening her physique by another level, which subsequently increased the maximum capacity of inner essence that she could retain in her body.

  Once she’d properly collected herself, Sersa descended to the plaza below and was startled to find several dozen unstirring silhouettes strewn about the area of the square closest to the staircase that led up to the parapets that she’d just left behind.

  She stood near the crumbled remnants of a house near the battlements where an intimidating crater served as the former home’s grave. It seemed that the core disciple that had been in charge of this area’s offensive had been quite proficient in the Crippling Blood Palm, and yet he’d still been killed in battle, presumably by someone much younger and significantly weaker than him. And vastly more intelligent, it seems.

  She stared around at the remains of several dozen disciples that cluttered her immediate vicinity, husks that hadn’t been there when she’d initially begun to nurture her cultivation. Their bodies were broken where they had been slammed to the ground by a half-hearted martial skill, made evident by the massive imprint of a demonic hand that left the pavement spider-webbed on a scale that was several times larger than the inner essence projection that had destroyed the stone house. It didn’t take much effort to deduce that these youths had suffered through their ends at her hand, which was now stained with such sin that the scent of her crimes would never leave her.

  When it suddenly occurred to her to expand her spiritual sense, she sensed hundreds of unstable auras lining the alleyways that fringed the outskirts of the plaza.

  She bolstered her voice with a controlled trickle of inner essence. “Come out!”

  Hundreds of disciples appeared around her within seconds. She saw many hesitant expressions, and more contracting muscles and quivering limbs than not.

  “How long have you all been there?”

  An inner court disciple with a long mess of frayed hair stepped forward, her thin lips wobbling as she struggled to compose herself amidst her withdrawals. “The great elder bid that we guard you during your cultivation period. It’s been two days since he gave the order.” Her eyes darted toward the dead disciples by the crater near the wall, which could only be differentiated by height and hair.

  How long had I been at it when the great elder gave those orders? She continued to address the same girl. “What is the status within the city?”