Chapter 55: The Bane of Man
The riders charged at us with ferocious impunity, if not for one final linked rope to cause a few to stumble I would have died right there and then, trampled by a warhorse.
The horse that fell in front of me, delivered its rider to my feet, concussed obviously but still looked whole, I dove my sword right at the small opening between his helmet and chest armor, I didn't need to do more, the strike slit a major artery and he would die within minutes, nor could I afford to make a cleaner hit as more rider came at me.
Our forces, not more than a couple of dozens that decided to stand and allow the rest to escape, were nothing more than gra.s.s in the way of a stampeding rhino, only the rhino needs to slow down due to the narrowness of the valley, the ropes stumbling the horses and the fallen animals blocking its way. If we were on open fields, we would have been mowed down to the last in less than a couple of seconds.
But thanks to the buckle of the enemy, we managed to stop the rest by using their own numbers against them. At best, twenty of our soldiers remained to fend off hundreds.
A wide mace threatened to cave my skull in, but thanks to my mind's eye, I was able to predict the mace's trajectory. Though I was unable to use any cultivation, my mind still worked like that of a cultivator, giving me ample time to duck under the mace then deliver a rising slash at the rider, slicing through the opening under his armpit.
The sword connected and the rider's arm was barely attached to its socket thanks to a bloodied tendon.
Another spear threatened to impale me where I stood, to which I dodged by the barest of margins. The spear's tip sliced through my leather pauldron causing mild discomfort while the shaft rubbed against my shoulder netting it a hollow empty strike against the air.
I pulled lightly at the already extended spear causing the rider who refused to abandon his weapon to fall from his horse. I sliced at the rider's back neck, as fast as I could as I noticed another spear coming my way.
My sword slid fast enough, ripping the man's neck, gus.h.i.+ng blood, and moved in a rising slash to parry the spear, where one of my comrades struck at the spear wielder with his own spear toppling him from over his horse.
I knew that I had no martial skills to speak off, and most of the stuff I had just done was thanks to the power behind the soldier I was currently possessing, and the increased thinking process of the mind's eye. But mental exhaustion will soon down upon me, that is of course if this soldier's body I'm using doesn't outright collapse from physical exertion.
The battle continued for what felt like hours as we fought on the back end. More of our comrades fell to errant sword strikes or crushed under the maces of the enemy, further dooming this already hopeless situation, but I had to fight, and I kept on fighting, even when one spear cut through my thigh, not because I couldn't dodge in time, but because the body I'm using refused to dodge, it was already exhausted beyond humanly possible.
Another soldier sliced at my left arm, rendering it barely useable. But I still fought, and fought, using every sc.r.a.p of energy I could muster, every bit and every speck of power that was left in this body.
My comrades had long since died and only I was left fighting and that had been a long time ago, or perhaps I felt like it was.
Bloodied, battered, and exhausted. I still heaved for more breath as I sliced at the enemy. Until a time I noticed everyone standing still, none moved towards me.
For they knew that with injuries such as the ones I have right now, it would only be a matter of time before I fell down.
The enemy soldiers knew that if they were to attack, they'll only die. And not attacking is what they did. Standing still watching this strange man, fighting to the literal last breath. And then one of them slapped a fist to his chest, as did others, and soon I understood why.
They were saluting, an enemy, one worthy of respect for standing against odds, fighting to the brinks of death, yet still grasping straws of futile hope, they didn't see an enemy, they saw a soldier fighting for a cause and that would bring even the mightiest of foes to respect such act.
There and then, my eyes darkened, and I fell on my knees, breathing the agonizing last breaths of this body.
Suddenly, I woke up, where I found myself seated within the Laughing Slaughterer's paG.o.da, in front of me was the small table with the teacup emptied out.
The laughing slaughterer's sound resounded through the hall.
"Pitiful display! Such is yours, for you only slew forty-three of your enemies. Many had achieved higher than you have, you're better off giving up, for the tests will only become harder."
The voice was monotonous as always.
But then another vocal message sounded.
"However! Unlike any before, your battle had secured the survival of more than three hundred and nineteen soldiers. You are the first to have managed to help soldiers escaping the pursuit of the Crown Regime. Most would fight against the enemy, scoring as many kills as they can, while the enemy would run rampant among their lines only for them to die once outnumbered. You secured a path to retreat for the others before you returned to battle. And my verdict is…" the voice trailed.
This time the message felt a bit more… life-like, but still it had a neutral dead tone to it.
But the following words were like heaven and earth.
"STUPID!" the word sounded like a thunder's echo within me.
"For no cultivator would weigh their own self-preservation against the survival of people they do not know! Foolis.h.!.+ For you gave your life for ones you didn't have any relation to. The most stupid of all, your pride blinded you to the simple truth, survive! Survive at all costs!"
I couldn't debunk the statement, because I knew in a sense he was right, I didn't know any of them, and I should have escaped when it was possible. I do know that I stopped and fought alongside the soldiers so others would survive? But why did I do that? Did I know them? They weren't friends family or anything else, they were just soldiers. Still, it felt wrong to leave them to their demise
"My conviction," I muttered, though I didn't think the voice would answer back, "I fought because I believed it was right."
A loud silence echoed around, it was so baffling that I could only hear the sound of my own heartbeats and the breaths I drew, it was a still deathly silence that I never felt before. Then the Laughing Slaughterer's voice echoed once again.
"So young…and you have the rudimentary understanding of the Truth…your Dao, perhaps not, perhaps egoistic beliefs, still. Idiotic, but I won't sway you against your conviction for it is not my place. Proceed!" the words echoed and another spiraling staircase came down, this time the reward was different.
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It was a manual, a sword art. The Sanguine Blade, first tome.
'Fellow cultivator' he said, and that's a sure sign that I gained his respect or his apprehensive fear. Which was better.
"No need," I said as I got closer to the barrier, giving him an easy target as I turned my back to him.
I looked at the barrier and smiled, then turned around and said, "let's go, there is no need to waste time here."
"Why? I tried hard to break through this barrier, and I think it could crumble with a bit more effort." Xi Son said.
I shook my head saying, "This barrier is designed specifically to do that, it will wane and look about to break just enough for you to exhaust all your power, then when you replenish, you'll try again and will seem about to break just as you're exhausted once again, it will do so until you're fully depleted, desperate and without any speck of power or items to replenish yourself. This is a test of your greed, and if you continue down that line, you'll fail."
Xi Son took a moment to digest my words the said, "How do you know all of that?"
"Simply put, this barrier is made using quasi saint Qi. No matter how strong you are, you'll never match this barrier in strength unless you're an ascendant. Even I can't decipher all of its mysteries, but I know that this thing will survive the bombardment of millions of nascent cultivators without a crack." I said in a decisive and certain tone.
Xi Son sighed and stood up, "d.a.m.nable trick, it almost cost me my cultivation as I tried to break through it using a forbidden technique. d.a.m.n, d.a.m.n!" Xi Son cursed and I felt that he was p.i.s.sed enough that he was going to once again take it off on the barrier.
"Also," I added, "Your efforts would have been for naught," I said.
Xi Son looked at me questioningly.
"Yeah, because those treasures are fake," I said.
"Nonsense, I could feel their spiritual release even through the barrier." Xi Son shook his head.
"That's the thing, this barrier is actually replicating the spiritual residue of all of the items behind it, these are nothing but fakes, but that doesn't mean that they're not here."
Looking completely lost I interjected, "These treasures probably exist on another floor and they are only projected here to exhaust the cultivators in futile attempts to lessen their chances at retrieving the real treasures. Simple method, but undoubtedly effective. I said as I gave a knowing gaze at the now slightly ashamed Xi Son.
"Right," Xi Son said after clearing his throat, "Let's keep moving then."
And we took off to the upper floor.
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