Less then 10 km from where the fight took place, two black-robed men scurried near and bowed. "We've searched all our way back and found nothing."
An old man nodded, gesturing them to return to their team.
Before long, a few other groups ran to him and reported in turn. "Nothing in the northeast!"
"Nothing in the southeast!"
"Anomaly detected in the northwest!"
The old man looked around and asked suddenly, "Where are Bahu and Batu?"
"They're not back yet," replied someone.
The old man frowned, apparently not happy to hear that. A creepy and gloomy aura emanated from him and the temperature nearby seemed to instantly drop by a few degrees. The crowd shuddered, all lowering their heads in silence, fearing to be somehow incriminated.
Huo Zhou was only accessible to those who reached the innate state, which these men obviously did not. Their physical strength had been forcibly improved with some occult technique to an advanced state so that they could withstand the corrosion of the fire spiritual essence.
Some of these men would even rank among the top percentile if they were to join Qiyun. In the presence of the Archmage, however, they were as jittery as mice facing a cat, all too frightened to make the tiniest mistake.
The old man was none other than the one talking to Zhang Wei before. Strongly-built, the old man had a pair of blood-red pupils that gave him the look of a devil rising from hell.
"The two brothers might be a bit flashy, but they are diligent enough in their tasks. Something must have happened to them. Agul, take some men with you—"
He was about to issue a command when a yell came from afar. "Archmage!"
The crowd turned around and saw Batu stumbling towards them, holding his shoulder with a hand. The man was panting when he said, "Archmage, s-something was wrong!"
"We were searching with the ghoul when we ran into a man and a woman. They destroyed our ghoul."
"What did they look like?" the archmage asked in a grave tone.
"They were both tall and very good-looking. The woman had a magical instrument and was very good with her sword. The man, the man…"
Batu's gasping grew heavier, as if he was frightened by some invincible power. It was some time later when he finally squeezed out a few words. "He was formidable! Very formidable!"
The archmage's tone was noncommittal and his face as incomprehensible as a deep pond. "Where is your younger brother, then?"
"He was covering for me. He's, he's probably been killed!" There was sadness and anger in Batu's voice.
"And you're stupid enough to run back alone?" The old man's tone was suddenly sharp.
There were terror and panic in Batu's wide open eyes as a familiar feeling rose inside him. Only that he used to be an onlooker, not the one in question.
"You two have been capable fighters, too bad you did not have the matching intelligence. Your injury is grave and to fix that will cost us a lot of divine liquid… the ancestors will remember your contribution. Now, set your mind at rest."
With that, he stretched out his hand and grabbed Batu by his crown.
Batu struggled fiercely, but to no avail. He was aware of his vital essence being sucked out by that withered hand until he was drained.
A mere ten seconds later, the man went limp and crumpled down to the ground like a pile of shrivelled skin and meat. The red pupils of the archmage flickered, shinier than ever. He then gave the command.
"Agul, Gatu, Kemer, you three take some men and guard the place. Whatever it costs, you can never let them pass!"
"The rest, with me!"
With that, the three mages each took two men and stayed where they were. The rest of the group—five mages, twelve ghostly men, and a dozen minions—filed out to the northwest.
Followers of Shamanism formed the most unique group.
It was not a religion, for it lacked a specific system and religious regulations. Shamanism was a general term used to call those carrying out Shamanistic practices. It used to be widely believed in by people of the northeast and southwest, as well as the nomads of the northwest. The practices varied slightly in different regions, but in general shared enough similarities.
In modern times, however, the remaining believers had set up religious sects for the convenience of management and centralized belief. Technically speaking, what they followed was no longer genuine Shamanism. Occult skills such as the ancient practice of stargazing, god-communing, blessing, etc., were all lost, replaced by stuff from other beliefs such as Vajrayana of Tanggute region, necromancy, or even foreign religions from the West Regions.
The archmage here was the principal of the northwestern region.
For decades, they had been infiltrating all social strata, introducing their own people into all levels of administration, which had provided them with an immense amount of information. Basically, the moment the government learned the concept of the spiritual essence, they knew it as well.
The discontented lot were eager to make their move. The chief task of the northwest branch was to follow a map passed down by their ancestors and reactivate an altar near Jiaohe Town.
"How much further?"
The effort of several generations was finally seeing its fruition and even the archmage himself grew impatient. He had been asking repeatedly along the way.
"It's just ahead. Just ahead!"
The one leading the way was covered in sweat. After another while, he halted suddenly. "It's right there!"
The group stopped to watch. They were at a mountain pass with a giant rock hanging over their heads, which cast down a shadow. There was a cave lower on the mountain wall on their left with traces of damage on the outside.
The opening used to be a crevice on the mountain and was hidden in the shadow of the giant rock, allowing one to crawl in and out only. Had Gu Yu not been an innate-state cultivator and sensed the strange energy inside, he would never have found it in the first place.
It was also the reason Zhang Wei tried to abduct him.
Of course, these people had made their own ghouls that could smell the sinister energy, who were now yelping at the cave.
"Someone's been here before?"
The archmage's face darkened at the traces. A thousand thoughts ran through his head before he finally forced himself to calm down. 'Never mind. The front gate is all that matters.'
He then took out a strange scroll made from human skin and found the right direction. "This it an insect-raising cave. The real entrance should be that way."
"The Archmage was over-cautious. He didn't have to leave all three of us here."
Agul was a stalwart man two meters tall. He had arms and legs as thick as tree trunks and his muscle tone alone was proof enough of his ferocity. The man was now walking to and fro in circles, apparently not happy with the arrangement.
Gatu was more level-headed. "We shouldn't underestimate our enemy. Only a handful people can get into this place now and if it turns out to be those two of Phoenix Mountain, we'd be in great trouble."
"They might be capable people, but I think they were given too much credit."
Agul casually wiped his hand across the mountain wall. The sharp top layer crunched under the rough palm, shaking down a shower of rubble. The surface was flattened out at his stroke.
He grinned widely and still thought little of their task. "Even we three put together are no match for the Archmage, what can that Gu fellow do?"
The internal structure of Shamanism was set up as follows: Archmage—Mage—various principals and chiefs—common followers—peripheral personnel. The three here were all mages, a title high enough to run the affairs of an entire city. The fact that they were all here only to hinder their enemy was making them feel overqualified.
"That's enough! We might have not seen them in person, but the info sent back could not be false."
Kemer, the only female among the three, had heard enough. "We should figure out first how to…"
She gasped abruptly like a duck being choked and gazed open-mouthed at the two people standing on the mountain wall. They simply showed up without any warning, as if they had materialized out of thin air.
Seeing her reaction, Agul and Gatu raised their heads in unison. They both jolted.
All nine people drew their weapons, ready to face the tough battle ahead.
"Wow, there are so many of them!"
Xiao Qiu watched the group of people, looking surprised.
Frowning slightly, Gu Yu instructed, "No more practicing. We're on a tight schedule and need to finish this ASAP."