Chapter 24:

Cath’s Door

Mad God


The northern region is only known as Catherine or Catherine’s Forest. This impassable mountain range reaches up above the clouds. It borders the Empire of Aerthus and the Kingdom of Ten, running from the Storm Coast, a constantly raging, endless sea, reaching towards the Western Desert and stretching up until the Wall of the World.


The forest is not just one jungle; it has hills, flatlands, and significant rivers that continue downwards through the two giant empires below it until it reaches Calm Blue, the southern ocean. But the most exciting things are the thousands of ruins, ancient cities, and towns that lay deep within.


It wasn’t always called this. Its name came from the last Empress who ruled the land before the Tear in the Sky. Thousands of years ago, this territory was one of the richest on the known grounds, home of that era’s powerhouse, the House of Ein. They were ruled by one family and maintained almost a million-strong army since its inception. The Ein family had access to resources like no others. Thanks to the northern mountains, the lush fields, and the deep forests, their coffers were always full of shiny gold coins and jewels, the envy of the surrounding powers.


When the Calamity came, the whole kingdom came falling to pieces, mainly because every neighboring country looked on, wanting to jump in after their blight was over, stealing their wealth for themselves. Only they did not know that it would be the fall of the northern region, not just the ruling cast. At first, it was only animal attacks, which was part of life here, but soon their numbers exponentially rose, and even the trees started to ‘rebel,’ refusing to be cut down.


It was chaos, and they started to lose territory quickly. After only a few hundred years, they were pushed downwards, out of the mountains and forests as it was retaken by nature. The ruling family died out when the Capital of Ein, deep within the dangerous new forest, fell, consuming the last Empress, Catherine. It was a literal consumption. Legends state a living tree came, released its seeds, devoured every living being, taking them as nutrients, and growing out new trees by the minute. Such a seed used the body of Catherine to raise a giant tree in the middle of the once-imperial palace, crumbling it in the process.


The survivors soon fled and populated the southern regions, mingling with the kingdoms and their population as the House of Ein became nothing more than a legend. It stayed that way, until Aerthus came along, unifying hundreds of small kingdoms and establishing his Empire. He pushed up his Empire’s borders as far as possible, reaching an old fortress of the Ein family. From then on, it was what guarded their northern borders, which he named Cath’s Door, a gateway to the forest.


Cath’s Door was built between the Swordscar Pass and a natural, sharp mountain range that goes towards the desert, the Grindstone Mountains. Legends state that the mountain range was once just as extensive as its northern cousin. But its constant eroding was what gave birth to the Western Desert. Its sand originates from it, still fed to this day by the dying rocks. The fortress was a strategic point as Aerthus I could advance from there, striking into the territories of demons, holding them temporarily, and harvesting natural resources before retreating.


This continued until centuries later, under the rule of Aerthus IV, when the fortress was attacked by a never before seen wave of beasts. The main forces were caught in the wild without warning, eliminating them. Not a corpse remained, and soon, the fortress itself fell.


The Emperor organized dozens of campaigns, but it was evident that the demon folk had learned a lot in the previous centuries. They kept them out, even killing the Emperor in one of the fierce battles. He fell, sword in hands, on the walls of Cath’s Door when they tried to retake it. After that, no Emperor tried again. Instead, they built defensive lines in the plains before the forest, meeting the invading demo folks time after time as they periodically downwards. Usually, they held the lines until the horde dwindled in numbers before they pushed them back to the fortress or into the Swordscar Pass’ depth as the land was soaked in blood.


In the long centuries of status quo, the demon folk got careless, just as humans do. When they invaded now, they almost left it empty, not guarding their backs. Xendar took notice and struck on the advantage, launching a surprise attack with a small, elite force, taking Cath’s Door. At the same time, the main army pushed the demon folks backward, catching them from two sides, eliminating them, and retaking the fortress fully.


Since then, years passed, and the demon folk was hell-bent on not letting the Empire rest as they launched attacks almost every three months, none as significant as in the time of Aerthus IV but still severe enough to keep the Empire bogged down.


The most concerning news was that, on the side of the Kingdom of Ten, where Catharine’s Forest had a more easily accessible side, it wasn’t experiencing the same attacks. It was guarded by a long wall called The Great Wall of Naulin. Demons periodically attacked that, yet nowadays, there were fewer and fewer invasion attempts. Everybody agreed in the Empire that something big was in the making, yet they didn’t know what.


“Finally, we are here!” Ren stretched on her horse as they arrived, and she looked up to the giant obsidian walls that rose 30 meters high. It was almost the same size in width, while in the middle, five monumental gates were shut tightly, the famous Pentagate of Cath’s.


The reddish, short and barren mountain range went on endlessly on the left side. On the right side, the walls ended where the Swordscar Pass’ deep chasms started, proving a long, deadly drop for any guard who was not careful enough.


The fortress’ primary constructs were inside the giant walls or carved into the mountainside. It was more of a reinforced black dam than a traditional fortress. Only it kept back not water but the hordes of low-level demo folks at bay.


“You are late.” A thundering voice came as a flash of lightning struck before them as they approached the narrow passage toward the Pentagate.


“Fath-” Ren said, but her words quickly were stuck deep in her throat by Xendar’s gaze, standing before them in full, heavy military armor decorated with scars, dents, and dried blood. “General Xendar, the 1st Recon Squad, is reporting for duty!” she corrected while saluting.


“Named first yet arriving last. Every other squad sent by the Capital already took on missions, yet here you are. Any excuses?”


“Yes!” Ren nodded, presenting the head of the scorpion demon folk.


Xendar watched on calmly, but his eyes showed a brilliant light as he watched over them, clearly radiating happiness to see his daughter again after so many years, only being concealed by his status as the General of the Vanguard forces.


“I see. I want a full report. Come to my office Captain Ren. The rest will head to barrack 101 to take residence and await further orders.”


“Sir, yes, sir!” The group answered in unison as they got accepted into the garrison, going inside the giant labyrinthian walls, filled with torches and on-duty patrols, never resting. Losing Cath for a second time was not an option.


Ren followed her father up the spiraling stairs, close to the top, into a spacious room with giant tables around with maps, reports of different squads, and outposts established by various squadrons in the woods. Another familiar figure was inside, wearing a tight-fitting military outfit as she organized the parchments and smiled warmly at Ren when she stepped inside after her father.


“Captain of the First Recon Squad reporting for duty, Vice Commander Anya!” Ren saluted but couldn’t scrape off her smile.


Anya successfully advanced to the 9th realm two years ago, and half a year ago, she reached Harmony Realm just like her husband. Soon, she was ordered to help out General Xendar and quickly became the General’s second hand, to nobody's surprise.


There was some resistance at first, but most of the army followed the General for years and knew about her involvement in previously waged battles when they were not married. As Anya wasn’t directly commanding units, only helping Xendar out closely, most of the louder commanders soon found themselves barking up an empty tree.


“You can drop the formal speech; we are family when we are alone.” Xendar laughed, grabbing his daughter, lifting her, and showering her with kisses. “Oh, how I missed you, you little foxy! Come, give daddy a big kiss!”


“Ahaha, Daaaad, put me down. I’m all grown up now!” Ren giggled, soon wiggling out from his embrace.


“Huh? Really?” Anya’s ears perked up. “I knew I couldn’t leave you to Hal alone at home! You are too slippery for the old man!”


“Eh? No, not that way!” she rolled her eyes. “I mean by age. Anyway! I missed you too, Dad, Mom~.”


“I heard differently from your mother, ahaha! But tell us, what is this all about?” He asked as he put down the head on the table while Ren recounted their meeting with the demon folk.


“I’ll organize a plan to scout the Pass. They may have more bridges built.” Anya stood up, unfolding a map to organize a search party.


“Make it so they have someone with far-seeing abilities and, minimum, have two Harmony experts as escorts. If they have other paths of crossing and are defended with the same strength, the scouts could be wiped out without being cautious enough.”


“How many Harmony Realm fighters do we have?” Ren asked suddenly, intrigued since she learned not all Harmony experts wait until the 9th body refinement realm to advance.


“Here? Around a hundred.” Xendar said after gathering his thoughts, “Most of them advance around the 5th and 6th realm. Only a handful reached 7th or 8th. They all fill some kind of leadership role and are important assets.”


“What about you and Mom?”


“Besides us, I only know about Dermitos, advanced from the 9th realm.”


“Everyone who became Emperor did so after reaching the 9th realm.” Anya added, “Other than that, it’s hard to say. There may be some hidden experts in the Empire under the control of the reigning Aerthus, not to mention those who were under the command of previous emperors, following them still.”


“Then we should be fine.” Ren nodded. “If you want, we can scout past the Pass and-”


“No. Your team has its orders already.” Xendar cut in, presenting a written order to her.


“Oh? Let me see~” Ren giggled, taking it quickly, opening it with an excited face, just like if she got a birthday present, making her father laugh out loud. “Huh? We are to head to the First Prince’s location?”


“Yup, he asked for adequate reinforcements. He is now camping in an old town ruin, around 10 km to the north, researching the history and scouting the area and trying to establish a peaceful contact with the demon folk.”


“Did he succeed?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.


“Your guess is right.” Anya nodded. “He successfully established a connection to a tribe called Forest Fairies. By the description of Prince Feynor, they are butterflies who gain intelligence. Low in fighting strength, peaceful by nature, but almost half of their numbers are evolved, so we view them as a threat to the Prince’s forces if it’s a trap.”


“More than half? How are we then the adequate force?” Ren grimaced, not believing her parents would approve of something dangerous like this.


“Don’t worry, Feynor is at the 9th realm, and he fought with them in the first meeting. He captured five of them.”


“Wha… wait…”


“Yup, as I said, they are low in fighting strength. They dislike fights and are peaceful by nature, easily scared and vulnerable. After defeating them and releasing them back without extortion, Feynor successfully established frequent connections with them in the past seven months. The reinforcement is because the Fairies asked for help, as they are threatened by other demon folks and want to move.”


“This is big, Ren. This could be a breakthrough, so go and help the Prince.” her mother spoke up.


“Will do! You can count on us!” Ren nodded.


“We do! Now come, come, tell Father what you were up to in the past years! Don’t leave out anything!” Xendar laughed, picking her up again, and soon Ren felt like her tongue would fall out depending on how much she needed to speak…


….

…..


“Fairies? Woah, sounds exciting!” Poli sat up on his bed when hearing Ren’s explanation.


“Huh, I never thought I would go and try to talk with demons one day. We were always told how they ravaged everything like locusts.” Isha added.


“The low-level ones are no more than animals controlled by the stronger, evolved counterparts. So it’s not so surprising. It is surprising that they are alive if they are really this weak.” Leinor commented while munching on a dried piece of meat.


“True.” Zern nodded. “They may have evolved quickly, explaining their low strength, so that they can survive or, like butterflies, live a shorter life.”


“Not sure about the life expectancy, cultivating expands our lifespan as our vitality grows. The same goes for them.” Poli inclined his head.


“Anyway,” Ren raised her hand, “We should get a good sleep and rest because the road will take almost all day with the rugged terrain, and we will go on foot.” She said as she climbed up to the top level of her bunk bed.


“I agree. I had enough sleeping on the ground, finally a soft pillow~” Isha moaned, laying down on her bed as others followed suit.


“This is going to be a fun adventure!” Poli giggled, polishing his sword before going to bed.


“You are too much alike, Master.” Zern murmured while climbing up right above Poli.


“Ahaha, Lil’ Poli is my protege. Leave him alone, fufufu~” Ren giggled, sticking out her head from the top of her bed. “Anyway, LeiLei, don’t you want to come up?”


“Mmm?” Leinor blinked his eyes as he was lying on the bottom portion, looking up at her.


“Should we go out for… I don’t know. Five minutes? It should be enough.” Isha smirked.


“Five? Come on. Master could go on for hours, I bet!” Poli added with righteous vigor, but soon he got a pillow thrown into his face with such force it exploded into million pieces showering him with white feathers.


“Stuff it!” Leinor snorted. “Both of you! You too, Ren!”


“Tsk. Oookaaay~”


“We should have a good rest and focus on the mission. We will have time to fool around when we are back home!” Leinor looked around them, taking up the leading role.


“Just as the Vice Captain said. Let’s rest, everyone!” Zern said, agreeing with Leinor. The small room became silent for about half an hour.


“How the hell have I got feathers in my underwear? Fuck, they make me itchy!” Poli murmured, and soon Isha’s and Ren’s laughter echoed in the small room, followed by the chuckles of Leinor and Zern.