Chapter 22:

Following Trails

Mad God


“Ugh, I hate riding a horse!”


Moaned Ren as she sat atop a brown horse, holding the rein, wearing leather trousers and boots with a tucked-in white shirt and a brown leather vest with the crest of the Empire embedded on it. Her long, silvery hair was tied in a ponytail, flip-flopping behind her back. Her petite frame was only a little taller than four years ago, and everyone knew better than to bring it up as it would trigger the little demon’s temper, flaring up like a volcano over the topic.


“I would be rich if I got a coin every time you said that.” Isha snorted, arriving next to her with her horse, wearing a similar outfit. Only hers were filled to the brim, revealing gorgeous curves that captivated any traveling merchant’s eyes who passed them on the road.


“We will arrive in a few days, Ren. Relax!” Leinor laughed, who looked like a handsome adult by now, his aura radiating out the charm of an elegant prince trying to appease his sulking fiancé. Both wore the same simple silver rings on their fingers, signaling their official engagement that came into effect the previous year when the Emperor held an official banquet for the two.


“I hope so! What about Zern and Poli?”


“They are still ahead of us by a day. Going by the letter they sent, at least. They found trails of demons nearby, so they are checking it out.” Isha answered, petting the little pigeon on her shoulder that cooed a little and soon flew back up.


“Oh? Then we are getting close to the frontlines!” Ren stretched with a tired moan, looking up at the blue skies.


It was the middle of summer, and even though they were traveling by hills and forests, having the blessing of shades, the hot air still made their journey too hot to enjoy, especially wearing the designated uniforms by the army. It was mandatory, so people they came across recognized them as part of the military.


“Then we should get back on the move. Maybe we can exercise before arriving at Catherine Forest and onwards to Cath’s Door.” Ren said while starting to ride out, picking up a notebook from her satchel.


“Did you come up with something again?” Leinor asked, catching up next to her.


“Kinda. Since last year I have been compiling the results from Uncle Boursat’s people who he trained with our technique. It shows an interesting pattern! I am trying to compile and build a system around the results. Streamlining the whole thing for the different affinities.”


“You mean?” Isha asked who had little interest in research but always kept her attention on Ren’s ideas.


“There are affinities that are more common than others. If we could build an institution that helps the masses improve themselves, we could more easily find gems amongst them.”


“What are the main affinities?” Leinor asked.


“It’s still not big enough to be sure, but it seems like 40% have an affinity to fire, 30% to earth, 20% water, and the rest is spread out, wind, lightning, light, shadow, etc. I somewhat expected that there would be elements that are more common than others, so it will be easy to create a stable, fixed system to let them train and spot who has a special talent and can rise above the rest.” she explained as she was scratching her chin while thinking “I already submitted my findings to Father-in-law and let him devise the standardized training program, first for the army. Then comes the civil population. We need more data to be 100% sure, but it’s mostly his problem to solve now! I’m more interested in developing my second affinity to match my first. I reached the ninth level but still, I feel I can improve myself more! I want to maximize my abilities before attempting to break through.”


“Maniac,” Isha said, rolling her eyes as she saw that Ren and Leinor spent most of their time training and only taking some days off to rest and relax in the past few years. Which mostly meant they were at home lazing on the couch or sleeping together.


She couldn’t help but feel inferior, which made her work twice as hard, now loitering around the edge of breaking through the ninth refinement. Leinor was also at the ninth, just like his love, while Zern broke through to the eighth while Poli surprised everyone! He was the first to go straight to the ninth realm before anyone! Surprisingly he also could keep up with the fighting speed of Ren, and when wielding his sword, he was even faster. The only thing he had problems with was precision.


“I just feel an imbalance. It’s a weird feeling. I just… get this whispering in the back of my head that I need to balance out my inner forces before trying to reach Harmony.” Ren sighed, a bit frustrated, putting away her notebook. “Even though my second affinity is subservient to my first and weaker… ah, it's just a weird gut feeling!”


“You're probably right, I have the same premonition when I want to break through, yet I get the feeling something is not ready yet and I should not rush it. I just don’t know what.” Leinor answered.


“You guys are just training maniacs. Same as the other two blockheads. In the past four years, I had less fun than when I was out on the streets begging for bread.” Isha complained.


“Hey, it’s fun to train! Nyahaha, especially when we fight!” Ren retorted with a grin.


“For you, maybe. You like whooping Poli’s and Zern’s asses, eh?”


“They get easily distracted.” Ren giggled with a mischievous smile.


“Yet I see you two less and less to butt heads! What happened?”


“Ugh…” Ren twitched her mouth, averting her eyes.


“Oh, we do fight.” Leinor smiled with a teasing expression. “It’s just Ren can’t win.”


“What?” Isha asked, blinking her eyes, completely stunned.


“Hey, you said it’s our secret!” Ren yelped, frustrated.


“Ahaha, sorry~.”


“Hmf! Yeah, yeah, be proud until you can!” she turned her head and continued to sulk.


“So you can’t beat him? How surprising!” Isha laughed.


“It seems LeiLei got completely accustomed to my energies. His bloodline is scary, you know!” Ren looked at Isha with a defeated face. “He just consumes any attack I aim at him and turns it into his own! The longer we fight, and I exhaust my energies, he just gets stronger! A complete cheat! Unfair!” she moaned frustratedly, grabbing into her hair with the accompanying laughter of Isha and Leinor.


….

…..


“They went this way!” Poli stood up from the ground where he was checking the trails. They were surrounded by an evergreen forest from all sides, far away from any human presence.


“It’s too thick to give chase with horses here. Also, this forest itself connects to Catharine’s Forest in the north. They can retreat easily from here as they know the layout, and we don’t!” Zern looked around.


“Not really, the forest ends at Swordscar pass, and they need to cross that to reach their home ground. It’s a good natural barrier, hard to cross, and we demolished most bridges a thousand years ago.”


“Maybe they made a new one?”


“That means someone in the Harmony Realm commands them.”


“If it’s just one, we can take it on and escape with our lives.”


“If Master comes, then we can even kill it.” Poli patted the hilt of his sword.


“Maybe. But we need to be careful. You weren't there when we fought our first Harmony expert. It wasn’t good. We lost badly!” Zern warned him.


“I heard it from Master. But she also said we are much, much stronger by now!”


“Have you ever fought with demon folk?”


“No.”


“Exactly. Let’s rendezvous with Master and make a decision then.”


….

…..


It was already night when the five were together again at the bonfire, grilling their dinner.


“Mmm, you may be right. They must have made a crossing over the pass! Probably trying to open a second front because Father still holds the fortress and killed the previous leader in the last battle.” Ren crossed her arms.


“Should we ask for help?” Zern asked.

“We know too little. We will circle the forest and check out the pass. Suppose we find how they cross, we will decide what to do. If we can, we will destroy it first, then make a report later. If we can't, we leave, report for duty, and pass on the information.” Ren said after a bit of deliberation in herself.


“What if we come across a Harmony realm demon folk?” Leinor tilted his head.


“Depends. If it’s just one, we can try fighting it. But not on their side of the pass. We MUST NOT cross over. Got it? If we were stuck there, we would be in deep shit!” Ren warned them. Looking around with a commanding presence, “If the demon comes to our side, good, this is our territory, even if we can’t win, we can retreat safely.”


“Got it, Master!” Poli nodded enthusiastically as he was itching for a real fight to try out his new powers finally.


“Relax. You will have your turn. I also look forward to seeing how sharp your sword becomes!” Leinor patted his shoulder.


“I just want to get this over with. Really… How the heck am I stuck with you four? I’m supposed to be back home, taking a bath and lazing around in one of the brothels.” Isha moaned while massaging her feet after taking her boots off.


“Well, it was your Daddy’s order.” Leinor added.


“Fuck off, boytoy.”


“Oh, you gave up on him?” Ren asked, surprised.


“Fuck you too.”


“Lady Isha still has feelings for Mr. Boursat, it’s just… he refused her confession for the… fifth time? If I remember the numbers correctly.” Zern murmured, but of course, everyone could hear him.


“Zern, you can too, fuck off!” Isha sighed, looking at him with slanted eyes.


“Really now? Oh, this is new~ Isha. If it’s not working and you can’t push him down yet, then maybe you should try making him jealous! Why don’t you two start going out in front of Boursat?” Ren laughed.


“Huh?” came the exact answer from Isha and Zern simultaneously.


“Master is right, brother Zern!” Poli nodded with an understanding expression.


“Poli…” he rolled his eyes as an answer, but Isha put on a thinking expression.


“I never thought about that… it may work. Yo, Zern, take me out to dinner when we go home!”


“What? Why? No! You always drink too much, and I must drag your passed-out body through the streets to get you home!” Zern protested.


“Why don't I remember something like this?” Isha asked, trying to recall something like that.


“Because you black out like a dead person, always puking on me in the last 50 meters!” Zern murmured with a frustrated voice.


“Bwahahaha, so you two regularly go on dates? Nyahahaha! I see I see!” Ren clapped happily.


“Also, she still has that fetish?” Leinor sighed with the same provoking face that Ren usually wears.


“You can kiss Zern’s dickhole!” Isha threw her boots at Leinor’s head, who just leaned sideways to dodge it. “Anyway, what is so surprising about that? Every time Zern came over for the reports on the training you asked for, we also sparred a little, and the best thing to do afterward is to take a bath and drink!”


“I don’t think they realized yet.” Leinor sent over a voice projection.


“Yeah, Zern maybe did, but he is too reserved, while Isha is just too dumb.” Ren nodded.


“Anyway!” Zern cut in, clearing his throat. “We should go to sleep. I’ll take on the first shift of guarding.”


“Good idea. We should ride off before dawn anyway.” Ren stretched, soon climbing into Leinor’s lap, curling up like a little kitten, enjoying his gentle strokes on her head while quickly falling asleep.


“Really… I feel like puking at your constant flirting games….” Isha harrumphed softly, taking out a wine jug from somewhere, turning away, looking at the clear, night sky while drinking, ignoring Leinor’s chuckle.


“What is this puking thing about?” Poli whispered to Zern, but before answering, Isha threw her other boot at him, firmly landing in Poli’s face.


“I’ll tell you later.” Zern sighed, shaking his head but taking a glimpse at Isha’s back as she drank, with a red hue on his face.


….

….


“This way!” Poli shouted, riding in the front as they were going along a 2-300 meters deep gush stretching endlessly and about 150 meters wide. Down in the deep, a quick-flowing, violent river was churning relentlessly. “There! I found it while scouting ahead!”


When he stopped on a minor hill and the rest of the team arrived, they saw a bridge made out of wood in the distance that was freshly built, stretching over the pass.


“You were right, Zern. They built a bridge!” Ren grinned as the midday sun shone on them. “It seems weak and only able to support small groups of 5 or 6 demons passing over, but it could be only a temporary solution before they expand on it.”


“It’s made of wood. I just need to burn it down!” Isha commented.


“True, but I don’t think it's that simple. Why aren't there any guards? They just left it there? To be found and destroyed?” Leinor asked, furrowing his brows.


“Also, we are standing on a hill, It’s easy to spot us, but I don’t see any movement,” Zern added.


“Because I am the one who guards it.” cut in a male voice with a strange accent, as if he only learned the language, not yet fluent in it.


When they turned, a tall man, around 220 centimeters tall, with crossed hands. Or at least he looked like a man but only at first sight. Soon you could spot the apparent differences, as he didn’t wear any clothes. His body was covered in brown scales, leaving him with V-neck-like, natural clothes. Only at that spot and on his face grew some human-like flesh. His black hair, worn in dreadlocks, was shoulder length and his eyes were completely black without any colors. Around his waist, he had a scorpion-like tail wrapped around it, and his frame, although skinny, looked tough as nails.


“He came from underground.” Ren murmured while getting off the horse like the others, sending the animals farther away as they were already terrified and restless by the aura the demon folk was releasing.


Behind the man, on the ground, they could see a hole that led to who knew where, but it only raised the question; Is he the only one here, or are there others?


“You’re not the first humans here. Sorry to say, but you won’t leave,” he said as his scorpion tail struck out from his waist, but to his surprise, it was blocked off by Zern, whose hand threw off sparks as it was shining in a metallic, silvery color, blocking him. “Oh?” he let out a surprised sound while bringing back his tail, blocking Poli’s sword behind him, trying to slash the back of his neck.


As the sword slashed the tail, another round of sparks flew everywhere before the demon folk kicked backward, but Poli was way faster and easily dodged. Soon the demon found himself surrounded by Ren’s group.


“You are not ordinary soldiers.” he looked around with a serious expression now.


“Not really, soldiers.” Ren smiled. “Sorry to say, Mr. Scorpion, but I think you miscalculated here.” she looked into his black eyes while licking her lips. “Your aura feels strong, but….”


“Not as strong as Boursat was.” Leinor finished with a smile on his face.


When all five released their auras, the scorpion-tailed man trembled a little as he couldn’t believe all five possessed strength like this.


“It seems I did. But don’t get too cocky, humans.” The demon growled while his hands turned to pincers, rattling around with strength that could snap metal rods into half easily, clearly getting ready to go all out with a fight for his life.