Hell Beckons (IX)
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"Drip, drip, drip."

Dark blood slowly dripped down Joshua's spear as he spoke, looking menacingly to the other cultivators. Under the gloom of Hell's Keeper City, his red hair looked as dark as the blood that slowly fell to the ground. Drace's body was lying lifeless by his side, with the terrifying wound in his chest still gushing out blood.

"How dare you!" Someone screamed from the Roaring Mountain Sect's disciples, stepping forward with a saber in hand.

Reynard finally uncrossed his arms, extending a hand and holding the disciple back. His face was expressionless, but his eyes were burning with sheer anger. He looked at Joshua with a glance that gave one shivers, and his brows furrowed.

"Is this the stance the Abyss Sect will take?" He asked with a chilling tone, not hiding the murderous intention in his voice.

"No!" Jake shouted, desperate. His face was red and his eyes were wide open as he spoke, completely shocked. "Joshua, fall back right now!"

The situation was critical. A singles misstep now would lead to a disaster. If Joshua retreated, he could still manage to buy time until the Elders came. Even if the Abyss Sect had to somehow compensate the other sects and suffer heavy sanctions, there was still a very fine thread of hope to not worsen the situation.

Unfortunately, however, Joshua completely ignored Jake. Instead, he slowly turned to face Reynard, with his spear in hand and a murderous expression on his face.

"Yes." He said, completely indifferent. No more words were needed. He quietly sustained Reynard's gaze, not moving in the slightest.

"Damn traitors! All of you!" The boy dressed in blue from the Noan River Sect, Eli, shouted again.

Hearing his words, Anna's body slightly twitched. People could not see her expression, but behind the mist covering her face, there was a deep frown. The whole situation had been strange from the start, but her instincts were screaming at her that something was particularly wrong now.

Her clothes slowly started to dampen, turning darker and clinging tightly to her body. Her hair started to turn wet, sticking to her neck and shoulders and a crystal-clear puddle of water started forming beneath her feet. Soon, the puddle had grown large enough to cover the feet of all of the Noan River Sect's disciples, wetting their feet and turning the ground muddy.

Reynard looked at Anna's actions and his lips twitched. It couldn't be helped, she was a competent leader. He didn't let his displeasure show in his expression, only feeling it was a pity that things would quite possibly not be as decisive as he had hoped for. Nevertheless, for the overall plan what he had in his hands was more than enough. Even if things did not fit perfectly, it was all in the realm of the acceptable.

Reynard looked at Joshua's eyes for but a moment. In that brief moment, his eyes flashed with what seemed to be annoyance and disappointment, but those emotions were gone as fast as they had come. His furrowed brows relaxed, and the strange, tense smile made its way to his lips.

"Well then, this is your choice." Reynard said, turning his back to him and facing his fellow disciples. The crystalline sword Mirage was raised above his head as he took a deep breath.

Hearing Reynard's tone, Anna's meticulous movements suddenly turned hasty. With another wave of her hand, the water beneath her blasted outwards, and the edges of what was now a shallow pool started to rise, soon forming a thick wall of water that enclosed all of the Noan River Sect's disciples. Crackling sounds started coming from the wall as a chilling cold spread from Anna and the water started to solidify into a robust wall of ice.

More water continued flowing from the wall, going higher and higher and slowly curving to Anna's direction before being frozen by the cold. When Anna finally stopped focusing, a thick dome made of pure ice had formed next to the Ashen Heart Tree. With a flick of her wrist, a bright blue medallion slipped from her sleeve into her hand, which she promptly crushed before letting out a deep breath.

"Just standby until the High Elder comes to our aid." She said in a tired voice before sitting down and crossing her legs to start recovering her stamina and Qi.

"But senior sister, what about the others?" A small girl asked, looking deathly pale and clearly scared as she looked at Anna.

"They will have to deal with it by themselves. My job is to guarantee our safety, nothing more. All you have to do is stay put and not try anything funny." She said in a cold voice.

Beneath the misty veil, her eyes were locked into the disciple that had actually started the argument that led to all of this. The boy, Eli, shivered as he felt as if a cold wave had swept past him, but he didn't do anything out of the ordinary, looking as nervous as the other disciples. Anna closed her eyes to focus on her recovery, but still decided to remain attentive to his actions.

"Joel." On the other side of the plaza, Alden called in an emotionless, bland voice. His usual enthusiasm was nowhere to be seen, and he suddenly looked abnormally distant.

A boy by his side gave him a slight nod, squatting down and placing his hands on the ground. The earth quaked, and a loud rumble started echoing in the major plaza as cracks started spreading around the Southern Flame Sect's disciples. The cracks completely surrounded them before the earth beneath their feet start to distort and ripple as if it was water, slowly ascending a few meters above the ground.

"Whoever tries to climb will be regarded as an enemy." Alden's powerful voice made its way to all of the present in the plaza as he reached inside his clothes and recovered a small triangular medallion that shone with a red color.

"Whoever tries to descend will be regarded as a traitor." He finished, decisively crushing the medallion in his hands and coldly watching how the situation would unfold from above. The disciples of the Southern Flame Sect exchanged a few looks but ultimately said nothing. They knew better than anyone that when Alden dropped his act he meant every word he said, and he had the backing and the position to follow through with his threat without consequences.

The Storm Peak Sect members also started hastily retreating, and someone in their ranks broke a green medallion, not unlike what Anna and Alden did.

"Kill them all!" Reynard shouted, pointing the sword to the Abyss Sect members. It was time to end this before the Elders came back. He knew Leonard wouldn't be able to hold them back for long after the inheriting disciples asked for aid.

In a heartbeat, the nine remaining Roaring Mountain Sect's members pushed forward, weapon in hand. Two of them surrounded Joshua, and the other seven directly threw themselves at the Abyss Sect's party.

"Reynard, stop this!" Jake shouted, hurriedly drawing his saber. Reynard didn't bother answering, instead, his pace seemed to quicken.

Reynard seemed to slide through the earth in a graceful, unpredictable manner. It was as if he was standing in a layer of ice rather than soil. The earth beneath his feet rippled as his body moved while he barely moved his legs as if the earth itself was pushing him forward. His eyes were set on Jake, and there was nothing but a murderous rage in them while a savage smile was stamped on his face.

"Spread out and don't let them surround us!" Jake ordered, trying to calm his mind.

The Roaring Mountain Sect had lost Drace that was at Body Tempering but they had left behind one member at Elemental Purification and one at Body Tempering to deal with Joshua. They still had four Elemental Purification and three Body Tempering members. The Abyss Sect had four of each remaining since Amon was gone and Joshua was stranded further away. Even if the difference in power was negligible, on the right circumstances it could make the difference between a victory and a loss.

"Face only someone on the same level as you! Daniel, you stay behind, use your swords to aid Karen, Skylar and Evan in taking care of the Elemental Purification members they will face!" Jake quickly ordered, and the Abyss Sect members soon fanned out with Daniel in the rearguard, ready to face the incoming attack.

Daniel's manipulation of swords would be valuable to guarantee the Elemental Purification members had the upper hand in combat or at least were not overpowered. It would be far too risky to leave even one of the Elemental Purification member on their side in an advantageous position.

There was a chasm in regards to destructive power between Elemental Purification and Body Tempering cultivators. If a single one of them managed to slip by, disaster might befall the weaker members of the Abyss Sect, and the remaining would soon be outnumbered and surrounded.

"Karen, you go to the right. Skylar, you go to the left. Both of you are Wind Cultivators. When they come, your job will be to make a pincer attack and try to blast as many of them back as possible." Jake ordered as he opened his eyes. "Evan, you are a Fire Cultivator like me. When the Roaring Mountain Sect tried to defend from the pincer attack, they will most likely raise earth walls to block the windblasts. Even if they don't, they will still bundle up together to avoid as most as possible the attacks on both sides. At that moment, we strike together."

That would force the other party either to fall back or to directly try to block the attack in front of them, blocking their own path. Even if it didn't hold them back for long, it would be enough to break their pace.

Of the four Elemental Purification members of the Roaring Mountain Sect, three of them, Reynard included, were Earth Cultivators. The remaining one was a Water Cultivator. This guaranteed that at least two earth walls would be used in the upcoming clash, most likely to block the windblasts as water wouldn't be as effective and there was no feasible time to freeze it before the attack landed.

Jake also doubted that the Water Cultivator alone would be able to block the joint forces of him and Evan. This meant that Reynard, that was leading the charge, would most likely be forced to raise the third earth wall and momentarily pause to either change directions or wait for the attack to be over. Either way, their side would lose momentum.

"Do not let any of them break our ranks; we must stall until the Elders come!" Jake started giving his final orders before the clash happened, and his right hand started trembling. The saber started making clinking noises as Jake tightened his grip in it, trying to make the trembling stop.

The first clash was already planned. After that, it would be chaos. He could only do his best to guarantee the best chances for his sect when both sides collided. Taking the initiative away from the attacking side was all he could do for now.

Regarding the most important order he could give, he was indecisive. The best course of action would be to make sure no more blood was shed, but to do so Jake would have to order his members to avoid using lethal power. The problem was that the other side obviously had no such concerns. If his side held back, it would be hard to manage to stall for time and guaranteeing that they would not lose anyone. He didn't want to have the blood of his fellow disciples in his hands because he had ordered them to hold back.

On the other hand, giving that order and making sure the other Sacred Sects listened to it would be enough at some level to prove that he didn't want conflict and that Joshua had acted on his own. In the first place, Jake had already said that the Sect's stance was not the same as Joshua, but Reynard Stark didn't bother one bit. He lost a member and he was out for blood. Joshua had given him the excuse to act.

If he said nothing, however, or even said to the Abyss Sect members to not hold back in order to properly defend themselves, it could be used later against him and the Sect. Even if in what was clearly a murderous rampage on the part of the Roaring Mountain Sect the defending party would have all rights to use lethal force too, the one that had started the conflict was the Abyss Sect. It would not fare well, even if they technically had the right to fight back with the same intensity.

In other words, for the other Sacred Sects, the Abyss Sect was already in the wrong. It was now a matter of trying to ease the situation but risking lives or doubling down on hostility to make sure they lost as little lives as possible and dealing with the consequences later.

Jake took a deep breath, making his decision. Time seemed to slow down as he closed his eyes trying to calm himself. What was but a split second felt like an eternity for him. What came after this moment would decide everything.

"No matter what, fight for your lives!" He shouted aloud. Even if it brought trouble for the Abyss Sect later, he would not allow any of them to hold back. He already made the mistake to try to mend the situation before, and the other side was abnormally eager to attack, not to mention Joshua's inexplicable actions. If they held back, he was afraid they would lose miserably.

Jake had a solemn expression on his face as he looked at the Roaring Mountain Sect members approaching with Reynard spearheading the charge. Jake couldn't help but notice Reynard's expression. His grip on the saber tightened even more, to the point where his hand started hurting.

"Now!" He suddenly shouted, taking a deep breath to focus and prepare for his attack.

From the right and left sides, Karen and Skylar dashed forward in a diagonal run, moving away from both parties in a bid to get some space. When the Roaring Mountain Sect members started passing by them, they both changed directions, facing each other with the enemies between them.

"SWOOOSH!"

The wind howled madly, and a cloud of dust rose from the ground as two violent gusts came crashing down on the Roaring Mountain Sect members from both sides. Jake's hair started whipping about as he spread his perception to sense what was happening in the cloud of dust, and he promptly signaled to Evan to follow his lead.

The ground beneath their feet started shaking and the soil on the sides of the attackers suddenly rose, forming two thick, crude walls that protected their sides. A deafening roar echoed as the gusts collided against the walls, throwing gravel and dirty everywhere before dispersing. Both walls trembled, but in the end, they managed to hold on.

As Karen and Skylar quickly retreated to the Abyss Sect's formation, Jake and Evan took a step forward. Scarlet flames danced on Jake's saber and Evan's sword as they focused. Stomping on the ground, they both roared as they struck with their weapons, sending a wave of scorching flames towards the now grouped Roaring Mountain Sect members.

Karen and Skylar then both waved their hands, sending a blast of air towards the flames, pushing them forward. The wave of flames suddenly turned wild and even hotter as the blast of air seemed to fan them, leaving a trail of scorched land and black smoke as it traveled towards the attackers.

Being a cultivator meant primarily comprehending the Qi. This also meant comprehending the world. Knowing how the elements interacted with each other, strengthening or weakening each other as they came in contact was basic.

When two Elemental Cultivators paired up, the results could be better than the sum of their strengths or worse, it all depended on how well they worked together and how much they knew about elemental interaction and how to best make use of their combination. This was also the reason why the rare cultivators that managed to wield more than one element were exponentially stronger than their peers.

As one advanced in the path of cultivation, their fights would turn even more complex, and even more knowledge and resourcefulness would be needed to come out on top. Mindless blasting of Qi and forceful use of techniques would only lead to shameful defeats, especially when the fights did not only two cultivators.

At the moment the raging wave of fire was about to hit its target, the earth started rumbling again, and Jake almost let out a sigh of relief. Behind the searing flames, he could faintly sense another earth wall being erected, and he knew he had succeeded. At that moment, however, the world came tumbling down.

"Commendable effort, but far too predictable." A cold, ruthless voice made its way from behind the wall that separated the two opposing factions.

Jake raised his eyes, looking at the wall directly in front of him. It was glowing with a bright red color, and parts of it were flowing down like some kind of viscous liquid. Pieces of burning dirt fell into the ground, looking like burning coals. The heat coming from the wall was terrifying, yet the walls were still standing.

"Crack, crack, crack!"

Innumerable cracks started spreading through the wall. The molten parts seemed to quickly cool down, turning firm enough just to crack like all the rest. Even if the surface of the wall was a malformed mess, it still had a dim glow. The heat in it hadn't been completely dispersed. Soon, the whole wall was covered in cracks of all sizes, looking like it was about to fall apart.

"Brace yourselves!" Jake shouted as his instincts warned him of the incoming danger. He stood in front of Daniel as a thick barrier of Qi appeared in front of him. Karen, Evan, and Skylar also covered the other members that were too weak to defend against the incoming counter. They quickly patted their Bottomless Pouches, producing shield talisman.

Jake reached inside his clothes, trying to find his own Bottomless Pouch... and he found nothing. His expression turned grave. When had it disappeared?

"BOOM!"

A horrendous force blasted out, hitting the wall and shattering it in thousands of pieces that whistled through the air. They flew towards the Abyss Sect members at blinding speed, burning with a threatening heat.

Jake's face paled. Those fragments were coming at them with enough force and speed to blast a hole through a metal plate. He was not confident of facing head-on even one of them, and they would have to face thousands!

"Karen, Skylar, try to slow them down!" Jake ordered in a desperate bid. Fire was immaterial, there was no way he could use it to block the incoming rain of projectiles. The best he could do was use a rudimentary blast of Qi to try to slow the projectiles down.

Karen promptly waved her hands, throwing a gust of wind outwards. Skylar was heartbeat late but did the same. The dust was blown away as the wind swept by, clashing with the projectiles. They didn't seem to slow down by any considerable margin, but some of them were thrown out of trajectory and stopped being a direct threat.

Still, deflecting a few droplets in a rainstorm made no difference at all. The deadly rain came pouring down on them, bringing nothing but pain and disgrace.

"Bang! Bang! Bang!"

The fragments of the wall struck the ground, opening holes a few times larger than their sizes, and digging meters deep into the earth. The burning projectiles ripped through Jake's protective Qi as if it was paper, poking holes in it without the slightest difficulty.

Jake completely ignored the small fragments, but his arm moved at an inhuman speed to deflect the bigger ones that were coming directly in his direction. The impacts were enough to make the bones in his arm creak and the skin in his hand rupture, even if he was only skillfully deflecting the fragments away rather than directly slashing with his saber.

Nevertheless, it was not enough. Many of the fragments managed to get past his defenses, scrapping against his limbs and taking away chunks of flesh. He was having the hardest time, since he was directly in front of the wall, unlike Skylar and Karen, for example. Even so, Jake did not move an inch. He knew that if he moved he would put his brother in mortal danger.

As such, he diverted his attention to defending his life rather than completely avoiding injury. When the deadly storm finally passed, he was left in a wretched state and on the brink of collapsing.

"You really couldn't see this coming? You are far too green, Jake." Reynard's mocking voice echoed through the plaza. With a wave of his hands, all of the dust in the air suddenly fell down, clearing up the view.

Jake cut out a sorry figure. His clothes were full of holes, and blood was covering his whole body. His hair was a mess and his face was full of scratches and bruises. His saber, a high-tier artifact, was filled with dents and cracks. His legs were trembling and his arms were motionlessly hanging from his shoulder, as he could not even move them anymore.

Daniel was sprawled on the floor, and the right side of his clothes was drenched in blood. He was slowly trying to stand, but he didn't seem to find the strength to do it. His black hair was glued to his face, and his eyes showed a hint of fear and dejection.

Evan lied motionlessly on the ground. His chest and legs were filled with countless holes that still gushed blood. Not even his shield talismans managed to properly protect him. Even if he wasn't dead, he wasn't too far from it. The Body Tempering cultivator he tried to protect, on the other hand, had his arm directly blown off, and was in what seemed to be a daze as he silently gazed at his injury without blinking or moving.

Skylar seemed to have come out relatively unscathed, but a deep wound could be seen in her right leg. She was tying a piece of her own clothes around it. Malia, the Body Tempering cultivator she shielded looked unharmed, despite her pale face frozen with shock.

Jake raised his head, looking at Karen's direction as his heart beat wildly. She was lying on the floor with a terrifying wound on her left shoulder. Blood didn't stop coming out from her injuries, but she didn't move to stop the bleeding. She had clearly lost consciousness. The boy she had protected had fallen to the ground, trembling in fright.

"Orson, get the fuck up and stop Karen's bleeding." Jake commanded in a weak voice, trying his best not to fall to his knees and pass out.

The frightened boy shuddered, but after a moment of hesitation, he tried to get on his feet, only to fall down. All of his body was shaking uncontrollably, but he managed to craw over to Karen and put pressure on her shoulder.

The members of the Roaring Mountain Sect stood behind Reynard, still surrounded by the walls they had raised previously. However, they stood motionlessly with their weapons on hand, as if standing guard for their leader.

Looking at Reynard's mocking smile, Jake trembled with rage. He had probably predicted what he would do from the very start. Reynard had let his plan go on without a hitch only to make a brutal counter when he relaxed after the success. That mad charge he had instilled at the beginning was most likely only a way to pressure him into making a quick decision without thinking too much.

He had lost even before the battle started. Jake gritted his teeth, raising his eyes to look beyond Reynard. Joshua was still fighting the two cultivators from before, being pressured by them into a merely defensive role. He swung and spun his short spear wildly, masterfully blocking and deflecting all of the strikes coming at him.

Still, he did not even spare a glance to the members of his own sect. He did not seem flustered or affected at all by what had just happened. In fact, he looked completely absorbed in his own fight.

For the first time, Jake wished he actually failed at parrying a get struck down by the enemy. He had put them in this situation, and yet he didn't seem to bother one bit. Was this really the person that he had known for almost ten years? Was this really his best friend?

"This is it, Jake. It was fun while it lasted. Well, somewhat." Reynard said with a sigh. He seemed incredibly disappointed. It was impossible to know if Reynard was disappointed with Jake or himself.

Reynard started slowly moving forward, unhurriedly waving his sword around. The crystal-blue blade refracted the faint light of Hell's Keeper City as if it was water, distorting it in dim wave patterns that spread through it. The way Reynard swung it around made the effect seem almost hypnotic, ad incredibly entrancing.

Jake used every ounce of his strength to stay on his feet, trying his utmost to raise his arm. Somehow, he still hadn't lost the grip over his saber. Fighting back against the burning pain coursing through his body and the crippling exhaustion he was feeling due to the blood loss, Jake slowly raised his saber, assuming a defensive stance.

"You are only trying to kill me, aren't you?" He suddenly asked in a low, weary voice. His eyelids were turning heavy, and he felt his consciousness was about to fade away.

"No." Reynard answered in an equally low voice, slightly raising a brow as he faced Jake.

"You damn liar." Jake rebutted and his body started swaying. "Leave the others alone. They are not worth your attention. They are too weak, and even those with potential will not pose a threat to you in any way. What fun is there in killing such weak people?"

For once, rare surprise showed in Reynard's face. His mocking smile completely disappeared, and his dark eyes widened for a split second before he regained control. He then threw his head back and gave a hearty laugh.

"Hahahaha." Many of the Roaring Mountain Sect members widened their eyes in surprise. They had never seen Reynard laughing like that, even more after was clearly not a joke. Reynard, however, was oblivious to all of their thoughts. Rather, he didn't care. When he stopped laughing, he looked at Jake with a solemn, even respectful expression. "Oh Jake, this is why I always saw you as an opponent, even if you are undeniably weaker than me."

"It was a nice try." Reynard said, shaking his head. "Too bad it won't work."

He then turned around, looking at the Roaring Mountain Sect members and thinking for a moment. Would it be worth to risk the moral high ground he had in order to completely wipe out the Abyss Sect's disciples?

"Kill them all." He finally said in an enraged tone, repeating the previous order he had given. There would be no turning back and there would be no mercy for the Abyss Sect.

Even if it looked like an exaggeration, his side was still justified. The Abyss Sect had attacked first and he had lost his mind in the rightful anger that came from it. Yes, the after-effects would not be impossible to be reckoned with. Oura stealing everything in the Hellblaze Secret World would really make the difference when the Sacred Sects weighted down the possible actions.

"You coward!" Jake shouted as the little bit of color left in his face disappeared. He looked utterly enraged, even somewhat disgusted.

"You talk too much for a traitor!" Reynard promptly retorted, indifferent.

He suddenly raised his sword, slashing down with Mirage in a beautiful, deadly arc. Jake feebly raised his guard and changed his posture, barely deflecting the unexpected attack. Still, it was not enough. The crystalline sword swept past his defenses, scrapping against his chest and leaving a shallow, but long wound on it.

Part of Jake's clothes finally gave in, falling down to the ground like tree leaves in the autumn. Jake's abdomen and chest were exposed, revealing not only the bloody line Reynard had drawn but also a multitude of minuscule holes that had been pierced into his body.

Jake gasped for breath, losing his balance and falling forward. He somehow managed to fall over one of his knees instead of lying down on the ground. The saber finally escaped from his grasp, falling to the floor with a clinging sound.

He then raised his sword, looking at Jake with a surprisingly wistful expression on his face. Jake sustained his gaze without showing a hint of fear.

"Swoosh!"

A sword whistled through the air, passing by Jake's head. Reynard hastily retreated, being caught by surprise. The sword slashed at his neck at an unbelievable speed, making Reynard frown. He tilted his body to the side as the sword passed by, barely missing him.

It then suddenly changed trajectories, spinning wildly in the air before shooting back at Reynard's head. Reynard scoffed as he parried the sword without difficulty. It then flew away, stopping by the side of a man with black hair that could barely stand.

Somehow, however, the man seemed as stable as a rock as he faced Reynard with nothing but rage showing on his deadly pale face. Above his head, five swords danced through the air, in a complex and intricate movement. The blades were vibrating wildly, making a dangerous hum as they circled around him.

Reynard looked at him with an emotionless expression and cold eyes. He raised his arms and used the back of his hand to wipe a trickle of scarlet blood that was flowing down his cheek. There was a shallow wound in it, where the sword barely grazed in the surprise attack.

He looked at the back of his hand and the stain of blood in it, and his indifferent expression slowly changed into one of rage. He raised his dark eyes, meeting the gaze of the aggressor with nothing but murderous intent exuding from him.

Daniel Meyer sustained Reynard Stark's threatening look with a firm resolution.

"Get the fuck away from my brother." He commanded in a dreadful voice.

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