She wondered if this was all an elaborate ruse orchestrated by Hugo to teach her something.
Maybe that bathing was the evil, petty sin of human―no, that can't be it. Is he angry that I opposed his teaching? Wouldn't put it past him.
During her musings, her head began to throb inexplicably. At first, the pain was comparable to a pinprick, but then gradually became more painful until she couldn't even think straight. It was like a force banged against her skull, attempting to emerge from her brain. She clutched her head tightly after dropping her belongings, hoping the pain would ease if she successfully contained the force. She achieved her wish, for the pain subsided. Surprisingly, nothing changed or occurred. Only a strange urge remained. An urge that, even if she wanted to ignore, would not let her go.
For miles and miles, mist was all she could see. This lack of visibility typically would have deterred her from the extremely frightening trek, but the urge clouded her judgement. Unable to stop, she continued traveling down the rocky road. Seconds, minutes, hours―or even days―may have passed before the an end to this white, blind world appeared.
Up ahead the mist parted to reveal a lake and its shore. The fathomless lake reflected the night sky. Clear and pure, if not for common sense declaring above was the true sky and below the reflection, distinguishing between the mirror images would be impossible. On the shore of the ethereal lake grew strikingly vibrant trees unlike any else. Maroon leaves, bark of a myriad of colors, these trees could only exist within the realm of imagination. Picturesque and breathtaking, no being with the ability to capture the enchanting scenery existed. The mist enclosed around the visible landscape, as if protecting this treasure from human greed.
This overwhelming palette of colors assaulted Daina. Accustomed to using the sense of touch instead of sight to maneuver around, this sudden transition made her feel dizzy. Once the world stopped spinning, she could now notice that in the depths of the lake there was a glowing light. Previously stationary, the glowing light rapidly rose above water. Fixed on top of a pillar, the source of the light turned out to be a high-quality scroll that magnificently stood above the rest, like an emperor overseeing his citizens from his throne.
A voice, old yet young as if having experienced a lifetime within his twenty years, sounded from all directions.
"Savior of Worlds, Champion of The Human Race. If power is what you seek, then power is what you will receive."
Instantly after finishing speaking, mist coats the entire lake, becoming a solid layer to create a walkable path.
"Absorb the manual and its hidden techniques will eventually reveal themselves to you."
Due to her current lessons, Hugo found it unnecessary to supervise her and thus would occasionally leave to visit nearby towns.
Once after returning from a trip, Daina had come back to camp to witness Hugo throwing books onto the table, which resembled a child's tantrum.
Daina tiptoed to her tent as to not become collateral damage.
Hugo yelled at her. There ain't nothing in this world free. If somebody offers something or flatters you, it's because they want something in return. When you see a random beggar offering stupid, dusty books after complimenting your handsomeness, remember the people who he stole it from will come chasing you like hound dogs.
She'd chuckled, causing him to glare in her direction. For the rest of the week, he refused to speak to her and ignored her.
Hugo's warning from that awkward situation rang in her head.
"How cryptic." Daina crossed her arms. "It's common sense and human instinct to distrust someone I've never seen."
"I no longer have a physical body but a spiritual one, thus only cultivators who are deeply-attuned or have a high cultivation can see me. Typically a 'but rest assured, I have no malicious intent' would suffice, but not for a precocious kid."
More vigorous than before, the wind picked up.
"These matters shouldn't concern children, but soon fate will force your involvement.
On a faraway planet, a boy was born. A humble background caused him to be without backing despite his peerless talent. Tragic, for the planet's inhabitants instilled obsession of cultivating to their offspring. Suffering due to his talent, suffering due to his background. Never winning his matches, society shunned him. After difficult times, prosperity arrived. However, arrogance got the better of him. With his newfound powers, he attempted to repay every grudge he had. Too many grudges to repay, too many people against them. While he fought them all at once and killed them, crippling injuries paralyzed him. This loss spurred him into action: he established his own clan and took in people, desperate due to their own circumstances.
After many decades of building up his following, he has now begun to take steps in preparation for his plan of vengeance. He is no fool, but aware he still lacks much power. So now he sends his men to retrieve the manual."
"And so you want me to take it first. They'll never suspect a child holds the sought-after manual."
Daina, while aware she was a sacrificial lamb, was too impressed to care. Frankly, in her eyes there were no risks and only benefits. The consequences he implied she could easily take care of with high cultivation.
Daina wouldn't sit idly, waiting for the clan to knock on her door.
Refreshing mist cooled her bare ankles as her hand hovered above the scroll. Her tiny hand partially covered the symbol of a purple eye. Gradually, the symbol shrunk out of sight. Confused, she lifted her hand but coincidentally glimpsed at something dark staining her palm. No, that wasn't it. The symbol had transferred itself onto her hand!
"Vital to hide the technique, but none apart from our clan members have ever seen the symbol. You'll be safe as long as the secret remains a secret."
There was another way for the enemies to figure out that information. However, the possibility of meeting a human or beast bestowed psychic abilities or omniscience, nevermind employed by the Calamitous Raven, was less than one percent. With such low probability, why worry needlessly?
Mist began to rise and swirled around Daina, a cocoon that wrapped itself around the butterfly. Her slightly muffled shouts could be heard. "Which clan am I supposed to avoid?"
"Calamitous Raven, they call themselves. Most of the time they hide within society, biding their time. But there's a way to figure their true identity: all of them carry a tattoo of the silhouette of a bloody raven on their bodies."
A sigh of relief escaped him after Daina disappeared, transported back to her planet by the mist.
Fortification in this section of the forest had been set centuries ago by him. Never before had anyone successfully found the Forbidden Lake, much less broken its defenses. Luck and his Luck and his granted power kept it safe. Now, it seems they've found a match: the Calamitous Raven.
Outside of the lake stood two men, identical wine-colored cloaks swaying in the wind. In front of them were the same shriveled up forest trees Daina obliviously pondered around. No matter how long they'd tried to walk forward, they'd inexplicably walk in a circle and end up in the same spot.
The tall and stocky, yet slightly hunched man, turned to his partner. Covering his face was a frightening mask crafted out of stone that caused nightmares: canine teeth outside of closed lips, demonically-narrowed slits for eyes, a horn with a blunt tip. Cracks covered the surface of the otherwise-smooth stone, frailty juxtaposing the sinister carvings. Despite the stone mask he wore, his disappointment was evident. Muffled slightly by the lack of a mouth gap, he uttered one word: "Protected."
A plastic mask turned to face him. Crescent-moon gaps revealed red lips and amber eyes. Creepily remaining on the mask and its owner's lips was a grin. Hands behind his head, he surveyed the land to confirm the immobile man's claim. Despite a relaxed posture, an aura of danger surrounded him. "Ugh. Of course it is. Hasn't given up yet, has he? Too bad there's nothing he can do to stop us. Blank Grass, what do you want to do now?"
Blank Grass stepped forward. "Move."
"Tsk. Why not use my code name? Rabid Hound sounds pretty cool, you know." The man codenamed Rabid Hound frowned at the silence that followed, then scolded Blank Grass. "Unresponsive partners make for the worst conversationalists."
With a glowing right hand, Blank Grass cut the air, spirit energy trailing to form a visible "X" that floated. The spirit energy extended formed tiny veins, growing to encapsulate that small area. Like a hammer breaking glass, the spirit energy pulsated once before the image of withered trees cracked, shattering to reveal a mist-covered forest instead. Flickering spirit energy surrounded the oval gap, a passage a couple of inches off-ground.
"Nice one!" Rabid Hound rubbed his hands excitedly.
Stepping within the new realm and leaving the old one behind, Rabid Hound eagerly sniffed around, trying to locate the man's distinct spirit energy. However, the mist overwhelmed his senses, so Rabid Hound had no choice but wait to become accustomed to the abundance of spirit energy. That didn't sound appealing to him. Thus, out of impatience, he hollered, "Hey hey hey. Old man! Where you hiding?"
Blank Grass dispersed the mist to uncover the path, his ability tainting the maneuvered mist red. Despite focusing intently on his task, he surprisingly responded with precision. "Above."
Rabid Hound shielded his eyes from an imaginary sun. After all the mist cleared and the guardian of the manual came into view, Rabid Hound whistled. "Looking great, aren't we, old chap? Been centuries and still going strong. I'd take a page out of your memo, but see, I'm too in love with my body."
A translucent man floated above the lake, clothes billowing. "Merely a mortal attachment. Don't worry, this 'old chap' shall aid you. Ease thy worries: I'll be merciful."
Heavy mist swirled before the intruders, solidifying into spears. Spearheads menacingly pointed in their direction.
"Hey, let's keep a nice conversation. I'll start. I like what you did to the place. Very tranquil."
Keeping his usual demeanor, Rabid Hound spoke. In reality, he furtively produced hand symbols behind his back, synchronizing with Blank Grass's conspicuous ones. Like the river, their hands quickly―yet gracefully―moved from one symbol to the other. A complete set created a rune that covered the immediate area. The rune had three layers: center, outer, inner. The inner was a duplicate of the intricate outer layer on a smaller scale shifted slightly, whereas the center was left unmarked. The pair repeated the movements, quickening their pace, and the rune became brighter, signifying the amount of spirit energy being sacrificed to strengthen it. Satisfied, they halted in synchrony, never once breaking their unity.
Rabid Hound smirked. "What a shame you'll never see it again."
Anger painted the guardian's translucent face red. "I have become neither inept nor senile. Such mockery is truly insulting."
The guardian directed the spears to attack those below him. Inches before they met their targets, Blank Grass stopped them midair. Rabid Hound took this distraction and teleported to appear behind the guardian, palm hitting the latter's spine. The guardian had been wrestling against Blank Grass to regain control of the spears. Finding it futile, he gave up his attempts and created new ones, meanwhile keeping close track of both men. However, Rabid Hound unexpectedly teleported and the guardian could not protect himself fast enough.
After learning the beginning stages of the technique Daina received, the guardian could sense danger and never once received injuries or suffered a defeat. Compared to the full capabilities of the technique, his aforementioned proficiency could only be considered the tip of the glacier. It was truly limited: he could only detect people directly nearby with malicious intent even if hidden perfectly. Having never encountered it before, he had no reason to fix the weakness. Teleportation was a granted power. Every granted power had one owner, transferable only once the original owner died. During the span of time Rabid Hound teleported, his intentions and presence became hidden, ceasing to exist. Thus, it is the greatest counter to his technique.
Nevertheless, the guardian still had a vague sense of danger and tried to escape, but his reaction was too slow, resulting in the current situation.
Rabid Hound lifted his palm from the spine, unveiling an identical rune immobilizing the guardian. Afterwards, he teleported in the center of the rune next to Blank Grass. They both striked the center, activating it. The rune's outer layer and its contents rotated, aligning with the inner layer. A large beam shot out to its marked target, intending to obliterate him. Mobilization was nonmandatory to control the mist; as long as he was conscious, the mist had to obey his commands.
To protect himself, the guardian solidified all the mist into a thicker-than-ice shield, purposefully blocking the beam's trajectory. Sensing danger once more, the mist thinned out to protect the guardian from all angles. A good move, for the beam had changed its trajectory midair and aimed for his back.
The power behind the beam was too strong. It broke past the guardian's defenses and shattered most of his soul, while scattering much of his spirit energy away. A person―or spirit, in this case―can only exist if their soul is intact. Reincarnation is impossible without a soul, thus cultivators duplicate and store it in a separate realm. Nevertheless, destroying the soul residing in one's body, even if transparent, propels the person into the path of reincarnation; the destruction of the soul is equal to death.
As a man without a body, the only way he existed was for his soul to produce spirit energy. However, the attack dispersed much of his spirit energy. Unable to levitate any longer, his body crashed to the ground.
The guardian inhaled sharply, only to groan afterwards.
Any movement, any breath caused him to tremble in pain. It felt worse than the time a hundred arrows had impaled him. That memory had been suppressed for over five hundred centuries out of shame, and this new injury forced him to recall it. The humiliation was unbearable compared to this pain.
A heavy boot stomped his chest down, an excessive precaution for such a battered man. The guardian bit his lips and stared daggers at the man standing above him. If he survived, then he would repay these humiliations a hundred fold!
The guardian grinded his teeth. Rabid Hound smirked after observed the man's countenance. "Now tell us. Where's the Legendary Sixth Sense?"
Recalling his preparation for this situation, the guardian cryptically and ominously recited:
"Gone from this realm long ago established,
its acquisition a lofty dream,
here ye will find yourself intellectually-famished."
"If you think I'll just sit here, trying to decipher whatever the hell that means, then you're sorely mistaken." Rabid Hound kicked the guardian. "You know what? I'll keep you alive instead of killing you off. Make your life worse than death. Let's see if that'll cure your stubbornness.
Riddle me this: how many kicks does it take to kill the old man? One, two, three..."
No matter how much Rabid Hound threatened and wounded the guardian, the latter wouldn't budge. Frustrated, Rabid Hound kicked the man one last time. "Fine, stubborn old man!"
He pulled out a palm-sized object from inside his cloak. Metal and shaped as a sphere, those far away would never suspect it was a container. However, those close enough could notice a clean and purposeful crack running through its diameter. The guardian sobered at the sight of the object. Solemnly, he gazed at something beyond the sky. "You do not empathize.
Destiny manages, without fail, to trap me. Trapped by my own ineptitude, my weak body, and resolution. Meeting the original creator of the technique led me to assume fortune would be mine, for what did I have before?"
The guardian laughed like one finally at the end of their road, conveying more misery than tears. "How foolish I was. Eventually, I became the sole owner of the Legendary Sixth Sense. Greed followed me and I did not possess enough strength to combat it. I lost my body, my family, my life―yet, could not betray that man's wishes. To fulfill them, I spent my remaining centuries here after binding my spirit to this place. How ironic that, even in death, I cannot escape greed."
Rabid Hound snorted. "Should I care?"
The guardian laughed once more, melancholy. "That's the reason why I bare my wounds to you. You won't care enough to remember, and that boy over there won't speak of it even if he recalls. Too kind and timid, too pure for the actions he takes and the clan he represents."
Rabid Hound rolled his eyes."For a soon-to-be-dead man, you sure love to talk."
To open the container, Rabid Hound twisted the top lid clockwise while simultaneously rotating the bottom counterclockwise. Dark energy poured out, engulfing the area, swallowing up and destroying the pure energy inhabiting it. Before the dark energy reached the guardian's soul, Blank Grass appeared before the man and impaled him.
The soul destroyed, there was no reason for the spirit energy to remain. The guardian gratefully smiled before blinking out of existence.
Blank Grass hung his head mournfully. Rabid Hound could wait no longer. He threw the sphere back into his cloak and stepped beside Blank Grass.
"This isn't the time to pity the man! Look, the realms are already merging."
Before them was the incomparably-enchanting forest, and behind the tragic land. No mist separated the two realms.
Gods granted powers, but upon death, all signs of that power vanished. Accordingly, that enigmatic mist vanished and his effects along with it.
Blank Grass shrunk back at Rabid Hound's censure like a peony timidly withdrawing from covetous hands. Seeing a man with such an intimidating figure being treated that way could evoking a stranger's pity and melt anyone's heart.
Rabid Hound stood on his toes and consolingly patted the tall man's shoulder thrice before withdrawing it, closing his eyes.
After a few moments, he reopened them. Blank Grass noted the fury in the other's face and stepped back before questioning. "Gone?"
"What a waste of time!" Rabid Hound grumpily marched out of the forest, Blank Grass trailing behind him like a puppy with his master.
A distinct scent wafted into his nose, and he sniffed in the air greedily. The guardian had a fresh and minty scent. On the other hand, this one was of forests and fields, flora and rain, intermingled with a sweet vanilla-like scent.
Rabid Hound was an expert on everything senses-related. His granted power heightened his senses to beyond human capacity. Colleagues compared him to dogs due to this skill, and one of the contributors to his code name. Rabid Hound gravitated towards experience instead of assumptions. Fragrant sweat existed, moreover certain components in the scent corresponded with those of sweat-produced odor.
Following the trail, they stumbled upon a pile of discarded bathing items.
Rabid Hound crouched and poured a handful of the shampoo before inhaling the scent. After confirming his suspicions, he turned to smirk at his partner.
"Let's head back and inform the leader of the new developments. I'm sure the he'll be THRILLED to learn someone else got to the technique before we did."
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