FRIENDS IN STRANGE PLACES
As Aeala and Lino walked through the enriched streets of the Mercenary City’s inner compounds, she occasionally stole glances at him. They had remained within the outer reaches for only three days, but his mood seemed to have improved considerably. His smile was more genuine and the dull, heart-wrenching look in his eyes was gone. She sighed inwardly in relief; although she knew that his mind wasn’t weak, she still feared it would impact him greatly.
The two paid – or, rather, Lino paid – a total sum of two hundred gold coins to obtain the entrance to the inner city. Unlike the outer part, the inner city truly lived up to the reputation of the ‘second greatest Umbra Kingdom’s city’. Buildings made of all kinds of stones, roofed from colors ranging from red to white, littered the wide, concrete streets. Despite the massive requirement of entry, there were still thousands of people living here, and the street before them was full to the brim. All kinds of buildings – from bakeries, medical pavilions to armories – shone their displays of goods proudly at the entrance via a see-through, glassed windows. Aeala was stumped more than once, and they’d barely been in the city for an hour.
Lino, on the other hand, was thinking of something else entirely: he had to get his hands on a spear. Although he technically did have one – as a part of [Celestial Rod] – it was not only low-level, but he intended for that form to evolve into another surprise attack rather than re-shape it entirely into a spear. While he definitely did plan on crafting one himself, he decided to only do it once he went back to Bridge Village and consulted Eggor. For the time being, he wasn’t too concerned over it, but he still wanted to have it as he had almost run out of swords completely. As the two came across a weapon shop, Lino paused for a moment and looked at the glassed display. There wasn’t a single spear present. There were six swords, two shields, three axes, two bows, and dozen or so pieces of equipment altogether.
“Let’s go inside.” Lino said faintly as he pulled Aeala toward the entrance.
The building shimmered in faint white, and the insides were rather spacious, elongating up to the third floor. The first floor was adorned with nothing except a single counter behind which a woman sat, while six or so other women were currently attending other customers in the shop. Sides of the room were littered with weapons, armors and accessories, and after quick sweep throughout everything, Lino only spotted a single spear. However, it looked incredibly shabby, and he was fairly certain his finger was sturdier than that spear’s shaft.
“Good day,” a mere moment later, a woman appeared virtually out of nowhere and greeted the two. She was seemingly in her late teens, wearing formal, black suit akin to butler’s, while her hair was tied up neatly to look like boy’s. However, despite the attempts to hide her femininity, her face exuded a strange grace. Her eyes were of deep azure hue, and her lips were slightly on the thinner side, complemented by her fair, blended nose. Her cheeks exuded slightly rosy complexion and her gaze seemed deep and profound. “How may I help you?” she asked in a warm voice. Lino scrutinized her for a moment and activated the Primal Spirit of Blood, looking at her stats. Inevitably, he rolled his eyes. Is my luck good or really shitty?! Why do I keep running into cultivators?!
[Fae ??? – Human – Level ???]
Titles: ???, ???, ???, ???
Occupations: Attendant (Level 80), ???, ???, ???
Martial Arts: ???
Not only was she a cultivator, Lino was unable to even see her level, which gave him quite a scarce. He was barely able to discern anything about her, and he couldn’t even see her surname. The reason, on the other hand, she was unable to see that Lino was cultivator is exactly the Primal Spirit of Blood, which allowed him to hide his cultivation to the point it was almost impossible to discern it. Nonetheless, he hadn’t lost his cool and decided that even if he were to expose her, he’d only do it once he was certain he’d survive her wrathful retaliation.
“I’m looking for a spear,” Lino said as he glanced to the backside of shelfs where that shabby spear resided. “Khm, a functional one…”
“… you’re a Spear Master?” Fae mumbled as she looked at him oddly. Lino felt her gaze was strange, but didn’t really know why.
“Well, I’d hardly call myself a Master,” Lino put on his best humble expression which caused Aeala to nearly burst out in laughter. “But, you know, I can do a thing or two with it.” Fea was clearly unable to pick up the underlying meaning in Lino’s sentence. After all, she had never before dabbled in such ways. On the other hand, Aeala found it harder and harder to bold back.
“Hmm… unfortunately, even our best spears are subpar,” Fea said as she thought for a moment. “If you don’t mind, could you wait until my shift is over? I know of a place that has good spears.”
“… are you even allowed to do this? You know, turn the customer away? Are you a spy for another shabby shop?” Lino said as he slanted his eyes.
“Do you care?” Fae asked.
“… when does your shift end?” Lino asked, clearly unconcerned.
“In two hours. There’s a restaurant across the street. You can wait for me there.”
“Is there a hotel nearby? I’d like to polish my, khm, Spear Skills for a bit.” Lino said, scratching his nose as Aeala quickly looked away, covering her lips with her hand.
“A hotel?” Fae looked at him strangely but was still unable to pick up on the signs. “If you’re looking for a hotel, there’s one just down the street called Thousand Moon Pavilion. They’re rather famous here.”
“Alright, thanks. I’ll let the clerk know to call me up once you arrive.” Lino said as he turned around and left. Fae stared at his back for a moment, eventually shaking her head and returning to her own business.
Meanwhile, Aeala finally let out a laugh which nearly suffocated her as the two moved toward the hotel. There was a clear sign at the street’s end which read Thousand Moon Pavilion, and it was almost impossible to miss. While some strange gazes landed on the duo due to Aeala’s laughter, neither seemed to care as they completely ignored them.
“She was older than me, right?” Lino asked.
“Yup.” Aeala nodded.
“Damn,” he mumbled. “I better watch out my tongue. It’s hard to find someone so innocent nowadays.”
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Aeala asked.
“… is she older than you by any chance?” Lino asked right back as he looked at her with incredulous look.
“…” Aeala rolled her eyes and sighed. “What? Can’t a girl be jealous?”
“Well, yeah, a girl can,” Lino nodded, stroking his chin. “But… are you really a girl?”
“I’m a girl.”
“You’re definitely a girl.” Lino echoed as he saw her murderous gaze. “I didn’t know you gals care so much about the simple titles.”
“So you wouldn’t mind if I called you a boy?”
“I am a boy.”
“That’s not what I experienced.”
“… khm, we’re here.” Lino said, scratching his nose as the two entered the Moon Pavilion. It didn’t even take a minute before they entered their room. Money really takes care of everything… ah, dear Patriarch Varick, I may not know the place of your rest to thank you properly, but thank you nonetheless for stuffing your entire treasury into that ring…
“Luxurious.” Aeala exclaimed softly. Although it was by no means cheap, the room really echoed the price; there was a massive canopy bed on one side of the room, surrounded by silken curtains. Across from it was an amazingly sculpted fireplace, emitting silver luster. At the center of the room was a small fountain with a sculpture of a winged baby spitting out water ceaselessly. Besides that, there were full bookshelves, a large closet, and even a veranda overlooking the City of Mercenaries from the third floor.
“Ah, after sleeping in that shit hole for three days, I can finally experience living again.” Lino exclaimed softly as he immediately threw himself on bed, groaning.
“Oh my! There’s even a bath here!” Aeala exclaimed.
“Oh my! Quickly get in!” Lino exclaimed right back.
“… you won’t be joining me?” Aeala’s voice echoed across the room seductively. Lino gulped down a mouthful of saliva as he started calming his nerves.
“I-is it large enough?”
“… HEY! Only I’m allowed to play with words! Perish the thought, woman!” it didn’t take Lino even a moment to retaliate.
“… I was talking about the bath,” Aeala’s voice came right back. “I wonder what the word-playing Lino had in mind, though.”
“… oh, so the bath is large enough. Here I come, woman!”
Two hours passed quickly. Lino was currently lying in bed, half-covered by a thick, comfortable sheet while panting, covered entirely in sweat. Aeala was lying next to him, her disposition not much different. A mere moment later, Lino heard a knock on the door which jolted him out of his sweet dreams.
“… two hours couldn’t have passed already, right?”
“Like I would know…” Aeala replied weakly. “I won’t be accompanying you. Bye.”
“I said bye. Time to sleep.”
“#!#!!” Lino grumbled some indescribable words before getting up and pulling a towel over his lower part and putting on a shirt over his bare chest. On the other side of the door was a middle-aged clerk. Seeing Lino’s disheveled hair and quickly-put-on attire, he gave him a knowing gaze and smile while faintly nodding in approval. Should I be proud?!! Should I be ashamed?!! “She’s here?”
“Yes,” the clerk replied, nodding. “If you’re worried, we have a few more free rooms, Sir.” Lino looked deeply at the clerk, stroking his chin.
“… woman’s jealousy is an ugly thing,” Lino replied in a whisper. “I’d rather not risk it. Do you have any recommendations?” the old clerk’s eyes flashed in a strange glint as he leaned in and whispered into Lino’s ear.
“Although I shouldn’t be doing this, I will tell you anyway because you’re rather impressive. Three streets down, turn left. There’s an alley full of abandoned houses, none of which are locked. It’s a public secret here. Knock three times at the house you chose and if you hear no reply, feel free to enter.”
“…” corners of Lino’s lips twitched as he listened. This guy’s impressive! “Many thanks,” Lino said as he took out a gold coin and handed it over to the clerk whose lips immediately curved into a beaming smile. “There’s more where that came from if you keep it up.”
“Of course, Young Master!” and thus, Sir turned into Young Master. World sure is full of shrewd people…
Lino quickly dressed up and left the already-sleeping Aeala before descending down to the ground floor of the hotel. Near the reception desk, sitting on a wooden bench, a woman wearing white skirt over white pants, and leather boots up to half her calves, with a white coat dripping down from her shoulders, strapped around her waist. She had let her hair flow freely down her back, fully black in luster. Even while hiding her beauty, it hardly had any impact, and now that she was fully exposing it, Lino couldn’t help but sigh. Compared to other girls her age he’d seen so far in the City of Mercenaries, she may as well be fairy while the rest were pigs. Once again, he was reminded of the life’s unfairness. He quickly walked over and greeted her. As he didn’t have time to take a bath, his skin shimmered faintly with sweat.
“Oh? You really did practice?” Fae exclaimed softly as she saw his slightly tired face. Ah, no, perish the thoughts Lino. She’s too fair, too innocent. No raising your stinking claws at her…
“Khm, yeah. I’m sorry, I haven’t had a time to take a bath.” Lino apologized.
“It doesn’t matter. Let us depart.” Fae said as she got up and quickly left hotel, followed immediately by Lino.
“What’s your name?” although he knew her name, he couldn’t really say it.
“Fae.” the girl replied honestly.
“Oh? Fae? Like the Forest Fairies from the Fables?” Lino exclaimed.
“Yes. My father was rather obsessed with them, hence my name.” Fae said without a hint of embarrassment.
“Hmm, rather fitting,” Lino mumbled, nodding. “A fair name for a fair Maiden.”
“Hm?” Fae titled her head in confusion as she glanced at him.
“Never-mind.” Lino shook his head. “So, where are you taking me? Just so you know, the riches I possess may be worthy of murdering me, but it’s best you don’t blemish your hands with blood.”
“… I’m not going to kill you.” Fae said. “How would I even do it? I’ve never trained in my life.” Right, and my ass is a portal to heaven… Lino rolled his eyes but kept his retort deep inside his mind.
“Ha ha, I knew we were kindred spirits from the moment I met you!” Lino exclaimed.
“Didn’t you say that you know Spear Arts?” Fae glanced at him from the corner of his eyes.
“It’s merely a hobby,” Lino replied. How far will we push our web of lies before it all collapses? “Although I may lack talent, I am determined to at least master it to some extent.”
“Weapon mastery has nothing to do with talent.” Fae said but immediately realized she said something she shouldn’t have, quickly adding “Khm, that’s at least what I heard.”
“Of course, of course,” Lino nodded. At least learn to lie properly! Look at your daddy here, I don’t even flinch! Wait, I’m an upright person, that’s not something I should be proud of! “Miss Fae is truly wise.”
“You can just call me Fae.”
“I could hardly dare to.”
“Why do you sometimes use that strange language?” Fae asked him, glancing back as the two steered away from the main street and entered one of the less populated alleys. What do you mean strange language?!! It’s the language of courtship!! Even a fucking peasant like me is aware of it!! Where the hell did you grow up?!
“I… I have a, khm, flaw,” Lino said. “My mind, uh, my mind sometimes goes blank for a moment and random words leave my mouth.”
“Oh my! That’s terrible. Did you have it checked out?” Fae asked, concerned. I give up…
“It’s, khm, it’s nothing serious. Anyway, are we close?” he quickly changed the subject.
“Ah, yes. We’re almost there. What kind of a spear are you looking for?” Fae asked. Lino thought for a moment, stroking his chin. Now that I think about it, I can’t just say I want to buy a spear… there are different kinds, after all, made of different materials. “Hmm, I’d like the shaft to be at least two meters,” Lino replied. “Flexible but sturdy,” he thought about the spear scripture he received and the style he learned from it. “On the lighter side if possible. Flat but sharp blade, preferably double-edged, with elongated tip meant for piercing. As for the rest, I don’t really care.”
“… that’s rather specific,” Fae said, looking at him strangely. “Didn’t you say spear was just your hobby? And, from the looks of it, such spear would suit you perfectly.”
“Didn’t you say you never learned anything about fighting?”
“Khm, we’re here.” Fae said as the two stopped in front of a small, two-story tall building. Although it wasn’t as bad as those on the outer perimeter of the city, it was clearly slightly subpar when compared to the buildings surrounding it. Fae slowly walked up to the door and knocked a few times. Only after a minute did a gruff voice sound out.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, Master.” Fae replied softly.
“Oh, Fae! Come inside, come inside!” the girl slowly pushed open the door and signaled Lino to follow her.
The room they entered was rather spacious, dimly lit but also quite unkempt. There were broken shards all over the floors and half-broken weapons hanging everywhere. Aah, I’m so gonna be robbed… Lino thought for a moment. A few seconds later, the entire room quaked as though a mountain suddenly fell atop of it as sound of footsteps approached. Through the door at the far end of the room came a… human. At least, Lino was fairly certain he was human. Even Eggor, who Lino thought was the greatest muscle head he’ll ever meet, fell extremely short of the… human that appeared before him. The man was two-and-thirty tall, his shoulders so broad that the width of the doors was actually three times the average size. He wore a blacksmith’s apron beneath which was his exposed chest. Muscles. Veins. That was all Lino saw on the extremely tanned skin of the newcomer.
The man appeared to be in his late forties. His face was wholly squared, features masculine and clearly distinguished, beard full and black as well as his hair. Eyes were slightly narrow, pupils also black. There was truly something terrifying about the man. After a quick glance, Lino nearly vomited a mouthful of blood. The man was actually Level 80. No cultivators my ass!! He cursed at Ella and Eggor who sent him off on an adventure while filling his head full of lies. Just as the man was about to greet Fae, he took notice of Lino who was standing behind her. His expression immediately darkened.
“Who are you brat? What are you doing here? Did you trick Fae? Did you do anything to her? Answer me!” accompanying his words was immense pressure of the Soul Realm cultivator. Naturally, due to <Empyrean Will>, Lino was able to completely disregard it as though it was a faint breeze. Nonetheless, he frowned. He was just like Eggor. Quick-tempered, brash, overprotective.
“…” Lino stared at those black pupils and surmounted his courage, banging on the fact that he won’t be flattened immediately. “Old bastard, what are you doing?” Lino said in a harsh and deep voice. “Do you think I won’t behead your ugly face before you could flex a single one of your ugly muscles?” seeing that Lino was completely unaffected by his aura – and that he even dared to threaten him – the man was slightly shocked. After inspecting the youth again, he realized he wasn’t mistaken. There wasn’t an ounce of Qi inside the youth yet, almost impossibly, he was able to withstand the aura of Soul Realm cultivator.
“Interesting…” the man grinned wildly as the corners of his eyes twitched.
“Master, what are you doing?” with a faint movement of Fae’s finger, the pressure descending on Lino was immediately cut. Oi, if you’re going to play a character, don’t suddenly break it!! Do you really think that finger-movement was stealthy?! Even the man looked at Fae with strange gaze, shaking his head.
“Did you teach her how to act?” Lino asked.
“Don’t look at me,” the man shook his head, sighing. “I… I really tried…”
“I’m just here to pick up a spear,” Lino said, sighing. “So, I’m not going to ask what are Soul and god-knows-what Realm pair of cultivators doing here.”
“You know I’m at a god-knows-what-realm?!!” Fae exclaimed in shock as she backed up a few steps. Lino once again sighed. He didn’t even have heart to roll his eyes at her. Wait, a pair of Soul Realm and god-knows-what-realm cultivators… one’s clearly a gruff blacksmith… the other’s a seemingly simple lady… no, no way, right?
“Khm, c-could it be that… you two are somehow related to the, khm, other odd pair of the Kingdom? Who also happen to be husband and wife?” Lino asked in a roundabout fashion. The man’s eyes flashed strangely.
“Other odd pair? You can’t mean the godly Maiden Queen and that horseshit, right?”
“…” Oh fuck. “Aah,” Lino sighed. “Why… why…”
“Eh?! Eh?!!” Fae exclaimed. “You know Master Ella!!”
“…” both Lino and the man looked at her with strange gaze, as though to say ‘hey, can’t you see that we’re trying to be really mysterious here, what are you doing, ruining our atmosphere?’. “So you really do…” Lino mumbled, sighing as he began massaging his temples. “What—wait, I don’t want to know. Just give me a spear and I’ll be on my way.”
“… Ella used to be her Master,” the man said as he pointed at the already star-burning Fae who kept staring at Lino like a hungry wolf. “She came here because she heard rumors Ella was living here. Now you told her she was. Do the math.”
“She called you her Master. Do something.” Lino said, afraid to look into Fae’s eyes.
“No. It’s more interesting this way.” the man grinned evilly.
“… Ella is pregnant.” Lino blurted out as he looked at the man whose grin immediately froze.
Ah, he’s really simple. I can already imagine that the two used to be rivals, both in blacksmithing and in… other stuff. Lino thought as he glanced at the two oddities in front of him. Life really won’t give him a day’s worth of relaxed breathing. He just came to pick up a spear, yet he picked up two people who clearly weren’t right in the mind. This shouldn’t be a pattern, right? I leave the village, boom, I suddenly release a bunch of Demons upon the world. I come to buy a spear, boom, I suddenly release two idiots upon the world. Ah, I should really be careful…