Chapter 196: Betrayal (4)

Chapter 196: Betrayal (4)

The next day.

I bid farewell to Seo Hweol, who transforms into his true form and flies away to another realm, from in front of the Sea Dragon Palace.

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[Then, I shall take my leave. Please, take good care of the Sea Dragon Palace in my absence.]

Whoosh!

Immediately afterward, Seo Hweol rides the dark clouds and quickly flies far away.

'It's done....'

Finally, I exhale deeply and smile.

Seo Hweol has finally left.

Realizing this fact made me feel like I can finally breathe.

The past seven years have been days when it was hard to even breathe properly.

'Now, I've finally got some breathing space.'

Of course, just because I've got some breathing space doesn't mean I'm going to stupidly just breathe.

'Seo Hweol might not have left any schemes against me, but who knows what he's left behind in the Sea Dragon Palace.'

Not just the Sea Dragon Palace but also the Sea Dragon Race and even the surrounding aquatic demon race are all subjects of concern.

Everything under Seo Hweol's influence is not to be trusted.

"Upon his departure, the Grand Prince instructed to leave his true blood with Seo Eun-hyun and bestow an official title."

After Seo Hweol left, the elders of the Sea Dragon Palace summoned me.

"Now that you have received the true blood of both the Grand Prince and an Immortal Beast, having reached the Nascent Soul stage, you will be granted the title of Great Leader of Many according to tradition. This is the Grand Prince's command, and refusal is not permitted."

"I accept the Grand Prince's decree."

"Thank you, Great Leader."

Following Seo Hweol's command, I receive an official title from the Sea Dragon Palace.

And, as expected, what Seo Hweol left behind isn't just his blood.

"Since you are now of noble status, Sea Dragon Palace warriors will be assigned to guard you at all times."

Ten Nascent Soul stage Sea Dragon warriors are assigned to monitor me around the clock.

"Additionally, as you have received an official title from the Grand Prince, you must fulfill the duties laid out in the decree he left behind."

"What duties?"

"Primarily, it involves internal management of the Sea Dragon Palace, as well as assisting in several rituals."

"How should I proceed?"

"First, we will provide you with the techniques needed for the rituals. Learn these techniques and follow their flow during the rituals."

"..."

Now, instead of dealing with Seo Hweol's tactics, I have to learn the techniques provided by the elders of the Sea Dragon Palace.

"Also, the Sea Dragon Palace's sea ritual is in a month, so please quickly master the Sea Moon True Dragon Transformation we provided within a month."

"...Understood."

Seo Hweol didn't just stop there. He imposed all sorts of social restrictions on me, making it impossible for me to step outside the Sea Dragon Palace while he is away.

'Heinous indeed.'

But, amusing.

Kee-ing―

I fiddle with the circuits of the Mad Lord laid out in the Sea Dragon Palace.

The Mad Lord's circuitry isn't merely for creating puppets.

The circuitry spread throughout the Wonderfully Mysterious Fortress, interconnected with his Wonderfully Mysterious Innate Heart Canon.

In other words, the amalgamation of all puppeteering technologies utilized throughout the Wonderfully Mysterious Fortress is the Mad Lord's circuitry I control.

With the Mad Lord's circuitry installed.

This Sea Dragon Palace is no different from my own puppet.

'Of course, to use it as a real puppet, it will need much more modification, but for now, I'm satisfied with having control over the Sea Dragon Palace's seals, barriers, and various enchantments placed around it.'

The greatest utility of the Mad Lord's circuitry is its ability to forcibly convert the opponent's magic artifacts or dharma treasures into puppets of the Mad Lord.

Therefore, I freely manipulate the entire Sea Dragon Palace, now virtually a puppet, and secretly send a message to someone without the other elders of the Sea Dragon Palace knowing.

'A ritual in a month?'

Surely, there will be more than one or two constraints prepared by Seo Hweol for me.

But whatever scehmes he prepared will be futile.

Because, in a few days, not even a month, the Sea Dragon Palace will be in chaos.

Three days after I sent the message.

I use the Record of Transcending Cultivation and Exhausting Martial Arts to evade the 10 guards assigned to me and arrive at a certain location in the Sea Dragon Palace.

"It's been a while since we last met."

"What do you mean a while? It's only been a few days."

I welcome Yu Hwa, who has entered the Sea Dragon Palace by bypassing all its seals with my help.

"By the way, this time of day would be the peak of activity at the Immortal Demon Tower. Is it really okay for you to come?"

"Well... My colleagues willingly let me go when I said I was meeting you."

"...? Why would they let you go to meet me? Did they figure something out?"

"Hmm... I'm not sure. It didn't seem like they figured out we're from the Heart Tribe. Rather, they even encouraged me, saying to do my best. Hmm. Perhaps it's because you generously donated spirit stones last time. Maybe they think you might donate more?"

"Ah, it must have been that."

"Well, those kinds of matters aren't really important. After all, my main job isn't as a musician at the Immortal Demon Tower, but as a Heart Tribe espionage agent."

She says with a light smile.

"Then, will you lead me to Baek Nyeong now?"

"...Let's do that."

I nod with a reluctant face.

"As I said, I'll control the Sea Dragon Palace's seals to help you get out. But taking Baek Nyeong with you is purely your responsibility."

"Yes, of course."

I lead her, undetected by the elders of the Sea Dragon Race, to a village spread with corals where Baek Nyeong and his White Goat Race are living.

Baek Nyeong and the White Goat Race reside in a village made of coral reefs next to the Sea Dragon Palace.

The corals serve as pillars for the barrier, covering the entire village with a large bubble of air, and most of the White Goat Race adorn themselves with expensive corals and live luxuriously.

Yu Hwa seems startled by their opulent and peaceful appearance.

"What is this...."

"...Currently, Baek Nyeong and his White Goat Race are living well... under whatever Seo Hweol has cooked up."

Yu Hwa looks bewildered as she observes the luxurious and affluent White Goat Race and the other enslaved races being exploited throughout the village.

"...Is Baek Nyeong here?"

"...Yes. The most luxurious estate over there belongs to Baek Nyeong."

I point towards a grand estate within the coral village.

She then strums her zither.

Woong!

Crimson rivers swirl around her.

Soon after, she completely merges with the sunset, becoming one with the sunset herself.

It's like she fuses with her own melody, similar to my Treading Heavens.

Transformed into a river of twilight, she swiftly infiltrates Baek Nyeong's estate.

I also follow her.

What greets me and Yu Hwa is Baek Nyeong, standing in the estate clad in blue attire, wielding a whip made of dragon scales.

"Welcome, Miss Yu Hwa. And Great Leader."

The yin and yang flow emanating from the collar around his neck naturally translates his speech into the demon language.

Yu Hwa, appearing bewildered and in the form of a crimson river, swirls around him and initiates a conversation.

[What on earth has happened...? I came here to rescue you.]

"Ah, Miss Yu Hwa. There's no need for that. I am very content serving under the Grand Prince right now."

[You're content serving under the Earth Tribe? I saw your kin outside abusing other enslaved races. What's going on?]

"What do you mean what's going on? According to the law of the survival of the fittest, we, now being the superior race, are merely enjoying our rightful privileges."

[What sort of nonsense is that... Have you forgotten the memories of being whipped at the cotton plantations?]

"That was because we were weak then. Oh, anyway, I truly am grateful to you, Miss Yu Hwa. If you hadn't approached me when I was just awakening my intent and guided me, I would never have reached Last Quarter."

[Last Quarter... You call it Last Quarter while you go against my teachings and abuse innocent enslaved races?]

"Innocent? They are guilty."

[What...?]

Yu Hwa, incredulously, shoots a piercing intent at Baek Nyeong from within the river.

"They are weak. Isn't that a crime in itself?"

[What... are you saying?]

"Miss Yu Hwa, you are like a master to me. You led me to this stage so you should understand more than anyone! How much blood and sweat I have shed to reach here! How much effort I put in, what obsession and longing I had to become strong!"

[Yes. You did work hard. However....]

"Then! Aren't those who are weak the ones who did not work hard!? Currently, those serving under our White Goat Race are from races known for their laziness. We, the White Goat Race, have taken up the whip with tears to reform them!"

Stunned by Baek Nyeong's twisted logic, Yu Hwa appears to be at a loss for words.

[So, before you appeared, your White Goat Race was abused because they were also considered lazy?]

"Yes. Sadly, that's the truth. The law of this world is the survival of the fittest! Only that!"

[...I see.]

Swoosh....

Yu Hwa reverts from the river's form, standing before Baek Nyeong. The upper half of her body remains undulating like the river, not fully revealed.

Baek Nyeong squints at the sight.

Yu Hwa speaks to him.

[You have been brainwashed. Someone has subjected you to severe brainwashing and suggestion. The owner of the Sea Dragon Palace... the one who kidnapped you, was it Seo Hweol?]

However, Baek Nyeong responds with an even more distorted face, retorting,

"Brainwashing? Don't talk nonsense, I have sworn loyalty to the Grand Prince of my own will!"

[What...?]

"Honestly, you have never shown me your true face, even now, Miss Yu Hwa.

[That's because... Heaven and Earth Tribes can torture souls to read memories, and it will be troublesome if my face is revealed... Didn't I say I would reveal my face and form a proper master-disciple relationship once we reach the heartland of the Heart Tribe!?]

Given that Yu Hwa was the one who led Baek Nyeong to reach Beyond the Path by contacting him when he awakened his heart essence, their relationship seems akin to that of a master and disciple.

"Ha, speaking of forming a master-disciple relationship, what did you do when I was captured by the Grand Prince, Miss Yu Hwa? You kept saying you were harboring the Heart Tribe Esteemed One's strike within your heart essence but you never used it once, did you? If you had used the Esteemed One's strike when I was captured, perhaps I could have reached the Heart Tribe Territory with you, just as you said!"

Baek Nyeong's rebuke is met with silence from Yu Hwa.

"Ha! I even think it's fortunate that I didn't go with you. Unlike you, who never showed your face until the end, that person welcomed me with a smile from the start and did not hesitate to teach me the techniques for controlling intent, even though I am from a lowly race. Moreover, unlike you, who was always just talk, the Great Prince liberated my White Goat Race and even gave us a position of dominion near the Sea Dragon Palace!"

[...]

"Even now, do you say I'm brainwashed!?"

A moment of silence falls between them. Then Yu Hwa speaks.

[...I'm sorry.]

"Ha. Now you say..."

[But!]

Twang!

She strums her zither.

Simultaneously, crimson rivers overflow in all directions.

[You are indeed brainwashed.]

"With nothing left for excuses, you resort to calling me brainwashed."

[Not brainwashed, you say? Then let me ask you one thing. What did you see in Seo Hweol's heart essence?]

"Grand Prince's heart essence? I saw an idyllic paradise, fragrant and clean, much like the legendary Peach Blossom Land!"

[...]

Crack....

My jaw drops at Baek Nyeong's response, and Yu Hwa, too, is momentarily speechless in disbelief.

Shockingly, neither I, who have reached the realm of Treading Heavens, nor Yu Hwa can detect any intent of lying in his eyes.

He truly believes that Seo Hweol's heart essence is an idyllic paradise.

[...Indeed, you have been brainwashed.]

"To me, it seems like you, Yu Hwa, have been brainwashed by that Heart Tribe Esteemed One!"

"Well..."

Unable to listen anymore, I interrupt Baek Nyeong's rant.

"I too have once met a remnant of the Heaven-Collapsing Esteemed One. Though powerful, he didn't seem like someone who would go around brainwashing others."

"Ah, right. Great Leader, you were here too. Haha, you also reached the mid-stage of Last Quarter, right? Now that I see it was you, Great Leader, who brought Yu Hwa, the Heart Tribe spy, to the Sea Dragon Palace?"

Baek Nyeong continues, looking at me.

"The Grand Prince instructed to closely watch over you, Great Leader, in his absence, and here you are bringing Yu Hwa, a Heart Tribe spy, right to the Sea Dragon Palace. Are you betraying the Sea Dragon Race?"

"You..."

That's when it happens.

Boom!

The crimson river surge, sweeping Baek Nyeong away and hurling him far into the distance of the estate.

"Kr... ugh...!"

Baek Nyung struggles to stand, barely keeping his eyes open as if resisting 'sleep' after being hit by Yu Hwa's sunset wave.

[...Is it not you who is the traitor, Baek Nyeong!]

"What...?"

Yu Hwa's voice, filled with rage, echoes in all directions.

[Once... you swore to save all the enslaved races from abuse... to ensure no race like yours would ever exist again! Where is the Baek Nyeong who made those vows! You have betrayed yourself!]

"Me... a traitor? Don't make me laugh! You are the traitor, Yu Hwa! You always acted so high and mighty, claiming to possess the Esteemed One's strike, yet when it came down to it, you did nothing and left me to fend for myself!"

[Enough... there's no need for long speeches. If that's how you see it, as the one who led you to Last Quarter, it's my responsibility to deal with this.]

"Ha, now you want to act as the master?"

[...As an unworthy master, I'll beat the brainwashing out of you if I must.]

Twang, Thump!

She strums her zither, and Yu Hwa's performance begins.

Her music is directed solely at Baek Nyeong.

Thus, it has no effect on me, with all its power focused on Baek Nyeong alone.

Normally, Baek Nyeong should have succumbed to sleep and wandered into a world of dreams in an instant.

However, one of the ornaments Baek Nyeong wears emits light.

Flash!

A faint spiritual energy flows into Baek Nyeong's Baihui, swirling around his upper dantian before bursting out from his forehead.

'Mental awakening...!'

Baek Nyeong, who was about to fall asleep, uses a magic artifact to regain his composure.

Yet, seeing that technique, I shout.

"You...! That's a dangerous technique!"

It isn't a simple mental awakening technique.

It resembles the technique I used to burn my upper dantian or the one used by the Jin Clan to infuse resentful souls into the upper dantian.

A technique that, by igniting one's own mind, grants an immense consciousness in an instant!

Kee-eeng!

The size of the consciousness domain surrounding Baek Nyeong instantly expands, merging with his energy and infusing into his whip.

Chalak!

Last Quarter, Mountain Repelling Whip!

Kugugugung!

The name he coins resonates through consciousness, swirling around in all directions.

Yu Hwa continues her performance with the zither, but Baek Nyeong, in the midst of mental awakening, resists her music and lashes out wildly with his whip.

I too want to join their fight, but Yu Hwa stops me.

[Do not interfere, this is our matter!]

Her will is so firm that I merely control the aftermath of their battle and stay put.

Kugung, Kugugugung!

Baek Nyeong is sacrificing his own lifespan to resist Yu Hwa.

'Did he receive a longevity pill from Seo Hweol?'

It seems he is burning through his life, thinking a little reduction in lifespan is fine as long as it can be extended again.

Whether it's because she is facing her own disciple, or because Yu Hwa's technique isn't effective against someone who has overcome the sleep demon, Yu Hwa fails to exert much force against Baek Nyeong, who is burning his life.

In a prolonged battle, Yu Hwa will naturally have the advantage.

The problem is, this place is the village right next to the Sea Dragon Palace, the territory of the Sea Dragon Race, and the commotion here will soon attract the elders of the Sea Dragon Race.

No matter how much I try to control the aftermath, it's impossible to completely evade the eyes of the Sea Dragon Race's Heavenly Being warriors within their territory.

'Well, that works out.'

Since the commotion has already started, I plan to blow up the Sea Dragon Palace entirely, draw their attention, secure some time for the two, and use that as an excuse to escape the various restrictions placed by the Sea Dragon Palace.

Just then.

[Are you planning to help us?]

Yu Hwa's mental message reaches me.

[There's no need for help. As I've said, this is a matter between me and my disciple.]

"But soon, the Heavenly Being elders of the Sea Dragon Race will come here."

[...This is a matter between my disciple and I. No intervention from anyone else is needed.]

"Realistically speaking..."

[Moreover, I am a spy of the Heart Tribe. My primary mission is to recruit awakening Heart Tribe members in the Heaven and Earth Tribes' Territories and bring them to the Heart Tribe's Territory. You are also a target of that mission.]

She continues.

[But you, being of both the Heaven and Earth Tribes, might not be interested in the studies of the Heart Tribe. So, if I can burn down this filthy territory of the Earth Tribe while dealing with my disciple, and at the same time show you the possibilities that the Heart Tribe can achieve, maybe you will become interested in the Heart Tribe?]

Twang, Thump!

She grimly reveals her true self completely.

Her face, which she has never shown to Baek Nyeong, is fully exposed.

[I advise you to escape to the outskirts of the Sea Dragon Race's lake. I will now show you Last Quarter, the Final Moon. The realm called the third stage of Manifestation.]

It's a declaration to show the next realm above Treading Heavens, and under normal circumstances, I would have done anything to witness that spectacle.

But why is it that the moment I hear her words, I feel chills all over my body and see the celestial energy suddenly shift?

'The heavens...'

They are revealing the fate of calamity.

I must flee immediately.

Otherwise, I will face a great disaster.

My instincts are telling me so.

The spiritual energy of heaven and earth begins to vibrate ominously, warning me.

Escape from the range she mentioned immediately.

At the same time, the Heavenly Being Sea Dragons of the Sea Dragon Race begin to appear outside the coral village's bubble.

[What is happening here!]

[Who are you to cause such a disturbance in the territory of the Sea Dragon Race!]

They growl at Yu Hwa, baring their teeth and gathering spiritual energy, preparing their spells.

However, she calmly strums her zither once more and advises me again.

[I'll say it again. I'm about to perform the third stage of Manifestation, so please leave the domain of the Sea Dragon Race's Cloud Heart Lake.]

I look up at the sky for a moment, considering escape.

It's the right choice.

However.

"...No, I'll watch from the side."

[...You are reckless. I'm telling you. You who are both a Heart Tribe and a member of the Heaven and Earth Tribes, will suffer significant loss.]

I want to see the next realm with my own eyes, no matter what the cost.

"I'm curious, though. Were you always someone of the third stage of Manifestation?"

[I was at the extreme of the middle phase of Last Quarter, and indeed, I was on the verge of entering the Final Moon of Last Quarter.]

She opens her eyes, which she had been keeping closed.

Her eyes are tinged with the color of sunset, much like the crimson rivers she controls.

[With this state, using the strike implanted by the Esteemed One as a beacon, I will burn my life and unfold the third stage of Manifestation with my own hands for a brief moment.]

She looks at Baek Nyeong with her eyes tinged with sunset.

[It's enough to show this power to only my disciple and the filthy dragons of the Earth Tribe. I advise you again, stay far away. Since it's not performed with my own power, I cannot control it even if you are near.]

"It does not matter."

My eyes shine as I speak.

"If I can see the next realm, I don't particularly cherish my life."

"Well, if that's what you wish."

Kugugugu!

Beyond the bubble barrier, the Heavenly Being Sea Dragons try to restrain her with their spells.

In an instant, the surroundings are filled with water.

And she, with her eyes wide open, begins to strum her zither.

[Last Quarter, the Final Moon.]

The realm beyond Treading Heavens.

The power of the Heart Tribe known as the third stage of Manifestation unfolds.

That day.

I understood why the Heaven and Earth Tribes sought so desperately to exterminate the Heart Tribe and feared them.

And why a minor tribe with fewer than ten thousand experts could compete for dominance in the Bright Cold Realm against the Heaven and Earth Tribes and earn an independent title.

The entire world began to fill with the glow of sunset.