The Guardian coldly watched as the youths appeared one by one in the hall. Every one of the original fifty competitors was present. I didn't matter if they had failed the first Trial or made it all the way to the peak; they were all due a suitable reward, even if it was nothing but broken expectations and shattered hopes. This was the kind of world they lived in, after all.
When all of the competitors were finally gathered, the Guardian emotionlessly observed as they naturally gathered with the members of their respective sects, making him give a silent sneer.
He transmitted his voice to all of them, making some jump in fright due to the sudden unpleasant sound echoing in their minds.
"The rewards will be given out now. Step away from each other." He said, watching closely as they all promptly obeyed him.
With a thought, the space between each of the participants seemed to solidify, as if a glass wall had appeared between them. Then, billowing tendrils of shadow started squirming in the frozen space, slowly tainting it black and blocking the view of all the participants and closing an area of a few meters square around each one of them.
Trying to not get annoyed at the competitors that showed surprise and a hint of fear at the changes happening around them, the Guardian silently focused. In front of each of the competitors, the faint light that managed to somehow pass through the frozen space blurred and flickered, making some feel dizzy. When the light finally returned to normal, a tall man with white hair stood there, facing each one of them with cold eyes.
Splitting his thoughts into fifty-one parts and holding fifty different conversations at the same time was very taxing on the Guardian, especially when he already had to sustain the Hellblaze Secret World by himself. Nevertheless, he had to do so. Nothing unexpected had happened in the Trials so far, so he decided to separate all of the competitors as he gave the rewards, closely observing all of them in search of abnormalities.
Nemeus didn't know what Lloyd wanted to take away from the Hellblaze Secret World, and neither could the Guardian guess. There were far too many treasures stored there, and they originated from all of the Five Sacred Sects. Most of them could be considered average, but a few could certainly spark the greed of a Protector of the Abyss Sect.
The problem was not knowing which one of those treasures Lloyd wanted. If they couldn't know what he was aiming for, they wouldn't know his final goal. Information was vital, and they lacked it.
Nemeus could only take the risk at Lya's request and open the Hellblaze Secret World. They would bait Lloyd into action and, even if they failed to protect the treasure, they would at least be able to get information.
Lloyd Kressler was not a trivial enemy, but risks had to be taken in order to have a grasp of the big picture. Considering the strange occurrences that had been happening in the Five Sacred Sects on the last decades and how they were slowly being divided, the Guardian couldn't help but shudder.
Since the Guardian couldn't leave the Hellblaze Secret World, it could only hear the details form Nemeus. He knew very well that the Five Sacred Sects were suffering on all possible fronts, losing disciples, money and resources at an acceptable, but still ever growing rate.
Although the Guardian could not witness these slow changes by himself, he could, every ten years, personally watch the current state of the relationships between the Five Sacred Sects. Since a few decades ago, however, he also started noticing gradual changes.
The competition between the sects started turning fiercer. The eventual fights that broke out were always more violent than the last, and he could clearly see the disciples bundling together with members of their own sects and no one else.
Also according to Nemeus, disputes over territory and resources were resulting in more and more conflicts between the sects. The flames of strife seemed to also turn brighter each passing generation, making the Five Sacred Sects relationships turn more complicated as time went on.
The best example of all would be the Abyss Sect. Although at face value seemed to be on par with the others, in truth it had fallen behind long ago. It had been the sect that had suffered the most due to these slow changes, and its reputation had plummeted due to the Scavenging. Behind the scenes, the Abyss Sect's name brought nothing but disdain from the others due to its fall from grace. In a few short decades, it would certainly lose its position as the strongest sect of the Central Continent if the situation did not change.
Not only that, the Four Guardian Beasts, as well as their respective clans, seemed to be turning more and more reclusive. Even if they were not always on the best terms, making the current state of affairs still be considered reasonable, the Guardian could not know if it wouldn't continue degrading gradually.
As such, year after year, the sects lost more power and their relationships turned a bit more strangled. Even if those changes were very subtle, almost unnoticeable, they were still there to whoever managed to look deep enough into it.
The key factor, however, was that the gaps only started widening after Arthur Royce died. When the strongest cultivator in the world died, the force binding everything together disappeared. The world had fractured and the pieces were slowly drifting away.
This could also have been considered natural. The problem was the mysterious conditions of Arthur's death. It had certainly not been a natural one. That being the case, neither Nemeus nor the Guardian could rule out the possibility of someone moving in the shadows.
The thought alone gave the Guardian shivers. Such an opponent had the power, the resources and the information to carry this all out. Worst of all, the person responsible for all of this had the patience to carry this all out through decades or even centuries.
Such possibility also frightened Nemeus greatly, so there was no room to wait and see how things played out, especially if Dale Loray turned out to be the one behind it all.
They could either start playing the game in a disadvantageous position or risk being simple pawns on the board. For that reason, any and all sacrifices were worth the price.
In the enclosed space, Amon quietly observed the humanoid form of the Guardian. In the midst of shadows and dim light, the tall man seemed to produce a light of its own, giving him a white brilliance.
To Amon's surprise, his piercing and always focused icy eyes seemed to be hazy as if the Guardian was in a daze. Amon couldn't help but unconsciously raise a brow, curious.
The light by his side started distorting and turning chaotic as Lya's figure also materialized in the enclosed space. Amon's brows furrowed and he didn't hide his dissatisfaction as he opened his mouth to talk.
He wanted to ask Lya about how she knew the Guardian. About that Nemeus they mentioned, and also what was this Skoll's blessing he had. Before he could talk, however, Lya lightly raised a hand to interrupt him, not once taking her eyes away from the Guardian.
There were dark lines creasing her brows, and she seemed to be in an awful mood, but she didn't speak. She simply waited as the Guardian returned his attention to them.
"Well kid, it is about time we ended this." The Guardian suddenly said in its crisp, cold voice as it suddenly regained focus. "I already have a suitable reward for you, so I hope you use it well."
"Our talk is not over." Lya said in a cold voice, showing a hostility that made Amon taken aback. He felt that Lya was acting in a very unnatural way.
"As long as you don' have a talk with the boy, there is no reason for us to continue ours." The Guardian dismissed her without hesitation. Lya's expression sank, but when she glanced at Amon, she showed some hesitation before turning quiet again.
The Guardian didn't spare her a second glance as he waved his hands. A tumultuous wind rose between him and Amon, slowly converging and forming what looked like a blob of red light. It shone with a hellish color, sending terrifying ripples and distorting its surroundings, making it seem to be on fire. An astounding wave of heat took over the enclosed space, making Amon start sweating profusely.
When the blob of light finally finished forming, Amon saw that it was actually an incredibly long feather. Its shaft was of a bright golden color and its translucent barbs were of a deep scarlet, making them seem to be made out of ruby. Circular patterns of gold and silver naturally formed on the feather, making it very similar to a peacock's tail feather.
Its aura alone was menacing enough, but when it was coupled with its beauty and the heat it exuded, Amon couldn't help but be enthralled by it. His golden eyes were glued on the feather, and his expression turned blank.
"Arthur still had that stored away?!" Lya asked in shock. Her previous sour expression quickly melted into genuine surprise as she looked at the feather in front of Amon.
"He left it behind for a suitable candidate." The Guardian said as he faced Amon with surprising intensity. "The only reason I am entrusting this to you is because of the deal we made in the Trial of the Mind. I hope you keep that in mind as you decide how to use this."
Amon's eyes shone with surprise as he gave the feather another look. He couldn't help but unconsciously ask, "But what is this used for?"
The Guardian gave a disdainful smile as he answered.
"Whatever you want, as long as you give it to the right person."
"Is that it?" Reynard asked the Guardian, clearly unhappy. In his hands was a very strange sword.
Its blade was about the size of Reynard's arm and had a very ordinary shape, unlike his curved sword. The guard and the pommel were made with a material that resembled amber, and the grip was covered with silver threads interwoven in a delicate pattern.
What drew attention, however, was that the blade was made with what seemed to be a light-blue crystal. It reflected all light that touched it in beautiful rays that made Reynard seem to be glowing. Moving the sword around made it leave ghostly afterimages, making even the most inexperienced movements surprisingly elegant and beautiful.
"This is a legacy artifact left behind by one of the strongest Sect Masters your sect ever had." The Guardian scoffed at Reynard's disappointment. "You can always return empty-handed if Mirage doesn't suit your tastes."
Reynard was about to answer the Guardian when his face suddenly fell. There was a very light, almost imperceptible rustle coming from the inside of his right sleeve. His brows furrowed deeply as he quickly waved his hands, shaking his sleeves.
"Well, I suppose this sword should suffice if that is the case." Reynard spoke, controlling his expression as quickly as it had changed before. The Guardian narrowed his eyes slightly but didn't voice his thoughts.
The Guardian closed its eyes as the space surrounding the disciples started to ripple, and the hall soon returned to normal. The illusory bodies the Guardian had made also started to disperse, and soon only the cultivators could be seen in the hall.
"The rewards are given." The Guardian's voice echoed in the mind of the competitors again. "However, do not forget what are the greatest benefits you all reaped from this place."
"The Hellblaze Trials are not about the treasures in your hands, it is about the path beneath your feet." It spoke gravely, making his already unpleasant voice even more unbearable.
All of the competitors gathered according to their sects again. Some looked incredibly happy, while others couldn't hide the disappointment on their faces. Reynard secretly shook his head. Such simple-minded fools.
He glanced at the members of the Abyss Sect. Jake was one of those that looked incredibly happy. He couldn't hide his emotions at all. By his side, the man Reynard recognized as Daniel Meyer also had a light smile on his face. Maybe he was the reason Jake was so carefree in front of others.
Amon Kressler, on the other hand, was in a daze. Reynard furrowed his brows as he saw the boy's expression. He did not look happy, nor did he look disappointed. If anything, he seemed to be recovering from some kind of shock.
A strange light flashed in Reynard's eyes as he directed his gaze to the other members in the Abyss Sect. From Skylar to Evan, Karen and Joshua, and even the other two trash at Body Tempering looked happy.
Reynard discreetly waved his left hand, making his sleeve sway lightly. Someone amidst the Abyss Sect members locked eyes with him. Reynard gave a sneer, arrogantly shook his sleeve again and glared back until the person averted the gaze.
He then looked over at the Noan River Sect members. He saw Anna Hale slowly turning her head to face him. He gave her a very gentle, very amiable smile. She quietly looked away, without showing much of a reaction. Nevertheless, even if Reynard couldn't see her face behind the veil of mist she always used to cover her features, he could imagine her expression.
One by one, he looked at the members of the Five Sacred Sects reunited there. From the inheriting disciples to his own companions and even the trash to which he usually spared no attention.
The Guardian quietly observed Reynard. This seemed to be his usual disposition, his usual arrogance. The only thing that drew his attention was the occasional swaying of Reynard's left sleeve.
The Guardian focused his gigantic divine sense on Reynard, but couldn't find anything suspicious at all. His Truesoul was big for his age, but not much bigger than the rest of the inheriting disciples. A surprising amount of Nebula also covered his Truesoul, indicating he had never cultivated the Soul Arts before.
The Guardian pondered alone in silence. Then, he diverted his attention to the outer bounds of the Hellblaze Secret World.
There were no signs of all of the Hellblaze Gateway being activated. Lloyd had not even tried to make a move. Had he not taken the bait?
As the Guardian was using his divine sense to carefully scan the boundaries of the Hellblaze Secret World, Reynard joined the members of the Roaring Mountain Sect. He had a subtle smile on his face as he held onto Mirageclaw, but he couldn't hide the disdain in his eyes.
He looked back at the Abyss Sect members again. Jake had an arm wrapped around Daniel's shoulder, and the others seemed to be speaking nonsense about their experiences. They were all patting each other on the shoulders, and Amon Kressler seemed to have recovered from his shock, as he looked to be having a pleasant conversation with Daniel Meyer.
Reynard's smile slowly widened as he saw the scene. The look in his eyes turned savage, but he quickly repressed his emotions. He could feel faint ripples of divine sense constantly washing over him as an absurdly powerful soul peered into every inch of the Hellblaze Secret World.
Reynard tried hard not to scoff.
Eventually, the waves of divine sense died down, and the Guardian's voice echoed in their minds again.
"I will now send you out, be prepared for the spatial transference." The Guardian spoke with chilling indifference.
He hadn't found a thing. Nevertheless, his instincts were telling him that there was danger. Something was not right, and he couldn't discover what it was.
"Hey." Reynard suddenly called in a low voice and swayed his left sleeve again. "I have a question."
"Oh?" The Guardian was taken aback. He directed a part of his senses at Reynard, while still carefully trying to scan the Hellblaze Secret World again. "Speak."
At that moment, however, the Guardian felt something. A weak wave rippled through space from somewhere in the hall. It was so discrete the Guardian almost couldn't feel it. His instincts started screaming at him as he desperately tried to trace the origins of the ripple.
Another spatial wave rippled, stronger than the last one. It distorted light in a discrete way, getting the attention of the inheriting disciples. Even if it was a weak ripple, it astounded the Guardian greatly. If he couldn't properly feel the powers imbued in the first wave, he now managed to get a glimpse of them.
The scope and complexity of the Natural Laws in that ripple were far above his own. The Guardian turned utterly terrified. This was not something Lloyd Kressler could do.
He managed to trace the origins of the ripple to the surroundings of the Abyss Sect disciples. He focused his divine sense in a hurry, prepared to crush space itself if he needed to when Reynard finally asked his question.
"Who did you give the Vermillion Token to?" Reynard asked as a cold killing intent flashed in his eyes.
The Guardian hesitated for a split second. How did Reynard know about the Vermillion Token?
It took the Guardian a moment to realize that his hesitation and surprise had cost him his chance.
A third wave rippled through space, making the hall rumble loudly. The walls started cracking and the ground started quacking. A terrifying shadow started spreading throughout the hall, ripping the Guardian's divine sense away and locking space.
In despair, the Guardian could only struggle vainly against the shadow as it spread, tearing away from him the control of the area.
Some competitors turned frightened, while a few managed to keep their calm. All of them, however, were looking at the same place in fright, bracing themselves for the fourth spatial ripple that was forming.
Amidst the shadows and surrounded by an increasingly twisted space, Amon couldn't hide the confusion and fear in his golden eyes as the fourth spatial wave rippled from him, completely encasing the hall in darkness.