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The night was dark, and the dirty, old slums were even more ominous. The occasionally dim light leaking out from the nearby shacks only accentuated the deadly silence.
Except for the occasional dogs barking, the place seemed like a forgotten world.
Gray Rat continued to maneuver through the alleys, which were as complex as a spider’s web, taking Hao Ren and Lily deep into the slums.
Hao Ren felt like he was walking into a nest, heading towards the most chaotic and dirty part of it. The city was like a bloated lesion in the Middle Ages. It had swollen so much on the outside, but the oldest part on the inside had begun to fester and decay. The once prosperous neighborhood in the city had turned into a slum occupied by garbage, sewage, mice and the homeless. The slum could not bring any vitality and prosperity to the city, but it could not leave the city as well. The ruler indulged in sensual pleasures and superficial glory. The excitement of bloody violence, which came from the witch-hunt had blinded and imprisoned their minds so much that they did not notice the decline of the city. Even when they saw it, they were helpless to do anything about it.
The Mythological Era was over. The natives of this world finally were back in the driving seat. But the young generation was not ready to start a new period. Humans had chosen to numb themselves in the face of sudden changes. They used ignorance and superstition to protect their minds. But one day, the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution would baptize the world twice, burning out the pustules and sores.
For Hao Ren, however, these things were of the past. He only cared about the contact point that Gray Rat mentioned.
“How long do we still have to go?” Hao Ren asked impatiently.
Gray Rat shrank his neck suddenly. The magic potion that he took earlier was losing its effect. His will weakened, and he cringed. “Right ahead, Sir.”
“It’s only a dead end in front,” Lily said after she glanced forward with her shimmering eyes.
“It is that dead end,” Gray Rat quickly explained. “Only in the darkest corner, it is the safest. The witches never get in touch with people in the open.”
“You better not lie to us,” Hao Ren said. “In my eyes, you’re already a dead man.”
Gray Rat was not lying.
The three of them came to the end of the alley. There were no more roads ahead. Earlier, Hao Ren thought that it was another alley, which led to other lanes.
There was a mossy stone wall standing in their way. The stone wall could have been part of a clock tower many years ago or a city wall. But as time went by, the city expanded and the wall was left to decay and crumble. Gray Rat went forward to pull down a few rags and vines hanging on the stone wall. His actions revealed the scratched surface beneath.
The scratches looked like graffiti made by children. Visual observations told Hao Ren that the carvings were made using stone chips from the loosening surface of the wall. Even the most cautious and observant church official would not have found anything suspicious.
However, Gray Rat carefully placed his hands on the graffiti-like lines. His frightened expression made it seem as if he was pressing his hands on a red-hot iron plate.
He just touched the wall a little before he trembled and stepped back.
Hao Ren and Lily looked on curiously but did not interfere with Gray Rat. They were also very interested in infamous medieval witchcraft.
The graffiti on the stone wall suddenly began to writhe.
The lines seemingly came to life at once and broke free from the shackles of the stone wall. They crawled on the wall and secreted a black oily substance. Just like stirring pigments, the substance quickly covered a part of the wall. The lines gradually dissolved in the “black mud”, which slowly rose in the shape of a middle-aged woman’s angry face.
“You damn rat!” The middle-aged woman’s face twisted and shrilled. “The devil should dig your heart out, you stinking bug! You’ve brought two strangers back!”
Gray Rat’s blood ran cold, and he sat still on the ground. “Madam Marie! Please listen to me! They’re not demon hunters. They’re looking for—”
Before Gray Rat could finish, an unpleasant burnt smell rose from his body. Large patches of red lesions appeared and popped all over his skin as if a charcoal fire was burning inside him. In a matter of seconds, the man fell to the ground and was lifeless.
It shocked Hao Ren that Madam Marie had executed the traitor instantly. Her killing method was incredible.
He quickly thought about what he should say next and what to pay attention to when dealing with the witch. Madam Marie did not go away after she killed Gray Rat. Her face was still on the stone wall. She sneered. “Of course I know they are not demon hunters, idiot!”
Madam Marie turned to look at Hao Ren and Lily calmly. “The traitor has shut up. Now we can talk with peace of mind. Who are both of you?”
Hao Ren glanced at Gray Rat’s body. “The man died just like that.”
“It is a necessary precaution.” Madam Marie laughed in a hoarse voice. “I am very grateful to him for bringing you to me, but I do not want him to bring in more ‘guests’.”
“How did you know that we were not demon hunters?” Hao Ren asked curiously.
“If you were a demon hunter, you would have traced the lines of witchcraft and burned your damn Sacred Flame in front of me.” Madam Marie then became impatient. “Now cut the cackle. If you’ve come here just to chat, I will have to excuse myself.”
“I am a wizard,” Hao Ren said. “This is my friend, a young werewolf.”
Lily showed off her fangs and ears. Had Hao Ren not covered her mouth in time, she would have also let out a couple of woofs.
“A wizard and a werewolf…” Madam Marie appeared interested. “Interesting combination. I have not seen werewolves and wizards coming together for years. So you two are not mutual enemies at least. What brings you here?”
“I heard that you’ve gathered a lot of people to save a captured witch.”
“Ahh, that is just to fool the rats. There is no captured witch. It was to prevent the idiots in the church from paying us too much attention. Those humans may be weak, but it is a hassle when a large number of them come with holy water in hand. Are you after this? It seems that you are no smarter than the mice.”
Hao Ren frowned, realizing that he needed a better excuse to infiltrate the circle of wizards and witches. After he thought about it for a moment, he came up with an idea. “Well, I was just asking. I have more important things to discuss with you. Where are you?”
“You may speak now.” Madam Marie was cautious. “We do not welcome strangers.”
“What if this stranger brings news of the demon hunters?”
Madam Marie’s face disappeared into the stone wall with a scream. It seemed that she flinched because she panicked. Her horrified face reappeared a second later. “What did you say? The demon hunters? Do you know what you are talking about?”
“No one would joke about a matter like this,” Hao Ren said with a serious look on his face. “How long have you been gathering here? A month? Or longer? You seem to be ignorant of what happens in the outside world.”
The expression on Madam Marie’s face changed. Hao Ren also noticed that there were other blurry images around Madam Marie. They were other witches, gathering and engaging in a heated discussion.
“We have been slow in gathering intelligence from the outside world, but information from the wild can hardly come in because there has been a blockade.” Madam Marie appeared to be explaining or telling Hao Ren something. “You mentioned that you’ve brought news of the demon hunters. What evidence do you have?”
Hao Ren pulled out a sacred silver dagger from his waist. “What do you think of this?”
The faint glow of the sacred silver dagger was particularly dazzling. It looked like moonlight had materialized in Hao Ren’s hand. The moment Madam Marie saw it, her tone of voice changed. “This is their weapon. How did you get it?”
“That is why we have to meet and talk.” Hao Ren shrugged and tucked the dagger away. “Fair trade is the way to go.”
The witch hesitated. Hao Ren persuaded her further. “You should know that not every wizard can wander around with a demon hunter’s weapon. Moreover, I have a werewolf by my side. No matter what you plan to do, you will need our powers.”
“But power beyond our control is not a good thing,” Madam Marie said in a gloomy voice.
“That depends on what you want. We are all aware of what era we are in now—survival is the only thing that matters.”
Again, a long silence. Just as Hao Ren was about to give up, the face on the stone wall broke the silence.
“Tomorrow night, leave the west gate, follow the crow as it guides you, and go to a place where moonlight cannot reach. I will be there, waiting for you.”
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