Despite Lino’s relentless assault, it was clear he’d run out of strength eventually. When Fae realized that he’d stopped gaining momentum and that his strikes became less and less oppressive, she decided to finally end their little spar. By parrying Lino’s thrust, she managed to force an opening and smacked the dull side of her spear’s blade across Lino’s chest. The latter’s eyeballs bulged for a moment as he felt immense pressure against his chest blowing him backwards. He flew for nearly twenty meters before crushing on the platform. Rog’s heart jumped a bit as he leapt on the platform; he didn’t expect Fae to be so vicious. However, when he saw Lino, his already frightened heart nearly burst out of his chest. A strike that could leave even him scrambling to evade without heavy injury merely scratched the top of Lino’s skin, slightly bleeding.
Meanwhile, Lino was breathing heavily, replying the battle. He didn’t know what overtook him; he just felt like pushing onward without stop. He didn’t even use the special technique and merely struck with intent to kill. That’s right: kill. He had no enmity with Fae, yet every one of his strikes was aimed to directly take her life. The realization struck Lino deep inside his heart to the point it hurt more than Fae’s ruthless slash against his chest. He wasn’t himself, but was that really an excuse? That primal urge – which he thought was there to save his life – began scaring him at the moment. Holy shit, I better never spar again in my life…
“Rog, leave us alone for a while.” Fae’s voice echoed across the platform. Startled, Rog glanced toward the source and saw an exceedingly gloom and solemn expression at Fae’s face, a true rarity. He immediately realized it’s something he was not privy to knowing and left without saying another word.
After a few moments, Lino managed to recover some Qi as his body began operating normally yet again. He pressed his palms against the floor and flipped himself up, standing firmly. It was only then that he noticed Fae’s gaze; it was extremely complicated, as though the matter she wished to discuss was tearing her walls bit by bit. Only after a whole minute of awkward silence did she shook her head and sighed, putting away her spear and appearing next to Lino at the very next moment.
“Sit.” she said as she did the same. Ignoring the odd tone of her voice, Lino sat next to her and waited. “Ella taught you <Empyrean Writ>?” she asked. Lino’s eyebrows jumped slightly but he didn’t think it was weird that Fae knew so he nodded. “Ah… as I thought…”
“… why? What’s wrong?” Lino immediately realized there’s more to it than he thought.
“… she didn’t tell you anything?” Lino immediately thought back to the moment Ella taught him the method and replied.
“Not really. She just said she encountered it when she went out adventuring, but she never tried cultivating it as requirements were too harsh.”
“… well, she didn’t lie,” Fae said, sighing. “She did indeed chance upon it while adventuring, and requirements are indeed too harsh.”
“… but?” Lino looked at her with worried expression.
“… I’ll give you a suggestion. As to whether you adhere to it or not, I won’t ask or probe any further,” Fae replied after short silence, glancing at him. “Don’t actively cultivate it. However amazing you think it is at the moment, it is not worth it, especially if your goal doesn’t coincide with the method’s nature.”
“… method’s nature?” Lino asked, feeling somewhat strange.
“Your every strike just then aimed to kill me, no?” Fae asked.
“Ah… about that, khm, I—“
“No need to explain it,” Fae interrupted, shaking her head. “That’s what I meant by its nature. Not all cultivation methods have their own, specific nature. However, those that do are extremely stingy. If you won’t adhere to their nature, they’ll force you to do it. Just like you were just forced while we sparred.”
“<Empyrean Writ’s> nature is domination,” Fae said, her voice quaking somewhat. “Tyranny. That is to say, even if you were to face ten thousand people that were Level 1000, if your willpower was weak, method’s nature would override your own and you’d be forced to engage the ten thousand people.”
“… shit.” Lino mumbled in low breath.
“I honestly have no idea why she taught you that,” Fae suddenly said, sighing. “I don’t know whether she saw something in you, or for some other odd reason, but… if it were me, I’d rather have taught you nothing than that.”
“Is <Empyrean Writ> special?” Lino asked. “I don’t know much about other cultivation methods, but it does seem quite different than the rest.”
“… it’s unique,” Fae said faintly. “So unique that there isn’t a single one like it out there.”
“… ah, forget it, forget it,” Fae said, shaking her head. “You’re still in initial, growing stages of it. If you halt your progress, you’ll at most ever reach Mystic Realm in your life. However, you’ll also stifle the Writ’s nature. On the other hand, if you continue cultivating it actively and pursuing higher realms, that nature – the primal urge seeping from your very soul – will continue growing. If your willpower isn’t growing alongside it to suppress it, you’ll eventually turn into a Writ’s manifestation. In simpler words, you’d become a battle-crazed maniac thirsty for blood.”
“It’s not hard to see that <Empyrean Writ’s> benefits are immense,” Fae said, smiling faintly. “As you are now, you can probably match even Soul Realm cultivators if you’re careful. And, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone of your Level and below who can leave an injury on your body. While I’m far from knowing mechanics through which this manifests, unlike you, I know of few… existences who’ve cultivated <Empyrean Writ> before. There were ever only two outcomes: either they rose to prominence and eventually became one of the strongest cultivators in the entire world, or they were consumed until they began wantonly massacring. I can’t – nor will I – tell you what to do. I can see that you care about those two quite a lot, and that you even had a faint idea of trying to help them. I won’t discourage you on that, but I will say that if you choose this method, those two wouldn’t allow it.”
“… perhaps,” Lino finally spoke after short silence during which he managed to somehow swallow the new information. “Maybe they’d truly scold me dry if they knew I had such aspirations. But… how could I not?” Lino suddenly smiled as he looked at her; his smile was simple, beyond honest, almost bordering childlike innocence. “Those two gave me a new lease on life. I’m well aware that if I continue down this path, I may be consumed by that desire. Rather, I’m already finding it almost impossible to control. But, I’ve also gleamed something else from this. As long as those two shine their light upon me, and I have a reason to grow stronger, I’ll never be consumed. There will always be something to pull me back before I cross the final threshold. Even though you didn’t say it directly, I can already guess that <Empyrean Writ> isn’t simply a cultivation method, but something that involves many things I can’t even begin to fathom right now.”
“…” Fae remained silent, as though admitting to the fact.
“Even so, I can’t simply abandon it,” Lino chuckled bitterly. “While it’s true that it’s requirements are a bit insane, it’s also true that rewards and progress form an equilibrium. Did you know that, before today, I have never once in my life held a spear?”
“… I faintly guessed it.” Fae said, sighing, slightly shocked in her heart.
“This goes beyond a simple cultivation method,” Lino continued. “To have actual experience stuffed inside my head and then integrated into my body… even I know that’s simply impossible for a cultivation method. Although I’ve realized that <Empyrean Writ> is the so-called body refining cultivation method, the fact that I can’t externalize Qi at all has nothing to do with that, does it?”
“… you’re right,” Fae nodded. “<Empyrean Writ> is unique in that segment.”
“… then, it really suits me,” Lino mumbled as he gripped his fingers into a fist, rising it up slightly. “I’ve never had anything in my life I wanted to protect, to fight for, except myself. And even that desire was merely a survival’s instinct. But, now I’ve got two. Rather than to use fancy tricks and whatnots to protect them, isn’t it far more fitting that I use my body? One which was basically constructed through their efforts?”
“I know it sounds dumb and childish,” Lino chuckled as he noticed Fae’s strange gaze. “And, to a certain extent, even I realize it is. After all, I’ve barely spent a year’s worth of time with them. I know next to nothing about the two. Hell, I don’t even know how old they actually are. But, to me, none of that matters. I’m currently pursuing two dreams; one of my own, and one tied to them. Ella told me at the very start that it is impossible for one to become a peak-level cultivator and a world-renowned blacksmith and, at the time, I agreed. I never intended to pursue cultivation as something important. But, eventually, that thought changed. Even if it’s impossible, I’ll make it possible. While fulfilling my own dream of pursuing the peak of craft, I’ll also find any means to help them. Both of these goals are equally important to me. By asking me to stop practicing <Empyrean Writ>, you’re asking me to actively abandon one of my dreams. Now… how could I do that?”
“… alright,” Fae said, chuckling strangely. “I suppose it puts me at ease.”
“It’s time Rog and I went back to the Clan,” Fae said with slightly solemn expression as she gazed up toward the clear sky. “We’ve been away for too long.”
“… won’t you go and meet them?” Lino asked with slightly queer expression.
“… I’ve been sending a Clan-specific Qi signal for the past twenty years,” Fae said, smiling bitterly. “She must have noticed it. But, even so, she never came or replied. Really, I just wanted to see how they were doing. But, hearing it from you, I’m content.”
“… I’m almost tempted to ask just what actually happened.” Lino chuckled, shaking his head.
“… you’re determined,” Fae said, her voice carrying a hint of seriousness. “And I can clearly see that. However, determination is… placid. You have no clue as to just how cruel the world of cultivators is. If you wish to help those two, you’ll be forced to abandon your humanity at some point. When that day arrives, whether you hesitate or not, will be up to you.”
“… I won’t.” Lino said simply.
“… hone your spear,” she said, smiling suddenly. “It’s sorely lacking.”
“… tsk, who knows how fucking old you are. Of course it’s lacking when compared to you.”
“What do you mean old?! Can’t you see this perfect skin of mine?! Humph, I’m still as young and as beautiful as anyone else!”
“And also just as vain.”
“Don’t tell them about us. Let them have their peace.” Fae said, smiling lightly, while Lino merely nodded.
He didn’t stay too long with the two; packing the Dragon Spear, he glanced once at the duo and sighed inwardly before going back to the hotel. Although their meeting was brief, Lino still felt somewhat appalled at the sheer coincidence of it. While he may not have learned anything earth-shattering when it came to Ella, he did manage to gleam a few things from his conversation with Fae. Two words kept resonating throughout his thoughts: Qe’ll Clan. Lino was far from being aware of just what that name represented in the world, but he was certain that Umbra Kingdom couldn’t even constitute a single backyard for it. His starting point was low, his experience incomparable, his strength non-existent. All he amounted to at the moment was a fleeting potential that didn’t even stem from his own bones but the cultivation method that Ella imparted on him. Considering Fae’s tone and expressions when she spoke of it, Lino gleamed just how grave the ordeal was. Before he had left, she reminded him at least five times to never divulge its name to anyone else, be they friend or foe. Although he was burning with curiosity, he didn’t ask. If Fae wished to tell him anything more, she would have.
With thoughts spanning story larger than his own, by the time he returned to the hotel, sun was already setting beyond the horizon, casting a magnificent, crimson sheen over the inner city. He stood in front and glanced up toward the sky, his heart in slight turmoil. Only after a few minutes did he enter and go up to the floor where Aeala and he were staying. Yet, his hand froze as he reached for the doorknob. His expression revealed rarely seen complexity, his eyes filled with unwillingness, confounded emotion of loss and strange depravity. A rather lonely sigh escaped his parted lips as he twisted the handle and opened the door, causing a faint creak to echo out throughout the room. Aeala was sitting near the window, looking out into the sky. Her hair fell down her back like a waterfall, face illuminated gently by the piercing light of the fading sun. She truly was beautiful beyond words, Lino thought for a moment.
“You’re back?” she asked as she turned around and smiled at him.
“… yeah.” Lino nodded.
“You found what you were looking for?”
“Yup. Even more, actually.”
“… yeah.” Lino mumbled, sitting on the bed. “How do you like the city?”
“It’s a new world,” Aeala said, chuckling. “Quite different than Clan’s.”
“Looks like you’re leaving me, hm.” Lino’s whole body shook but he refused to look at her; rather, he was afraid to look at her. “Ha ha, what’s with you?” her laughter resonated through the room. “Why are you so depressed about it? I’ve always known that our meeting was but a twist of fate, a brief lapse in design.”
“… you truly believe that?” Lino chuckled bitterly as he finally looked at her. Her eyes were incomparably clear, her smile honest and full.
“It doesn’t matter,” she shook her head lightly. “I never thought I’d get to monopolize you. You’ll be a story I’ll be telling my grandkids in due time, and their eyes will faintly shine in admiration.”
“Heh, of course!” Lino said, puffing out his chest weakly. “It’s as you’ve said. Our meeting really was purely coincidental,” he continued, looking her directly into the eyes. “But, it was a very happy coincidence.”
“It really was.” Aeala smiled gently. “Although I can’t keep you here to bear your children, at the very least I wish we can remain friends.”
“… ha ha, that’s only natural,” Lino said as he suddenly took out a golden ring from his necklace and played around with it. “Rather, I could really use your help if you plan on staying here.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“You’re incredibly smart,” Lino said. “Much, much smarter than me. It’s only natural that you’ll eventually find your way up the social strata here. In the coming months, or maybe years, this Kingdom will undergo a massive change,” Lino said, glancing at her with grave expression, causing Aeala’s smile to immediately disappear. “When that time comes, you’ll know. Until then, try to locate any loose cultivators like me, whether it’s in Umbra Kingdom or surrounding ones. I’ll leave you with Endo Clan’s cultivation methods and martial arts as they don’t mean much to me, as well as some Qi Stones. I want you to secretly build an army of cultivators and, when the time comes, I want you to help me.”
“…” Aeala looked at his eyes and saw nothing but honest desire. She immediately realized it had something to do with Demons, but as she wasn’t exactly itching to know every detail of it, she didn’t press for an answer. “I’ll do my best.”
“I’ll also help you open up a few meridians,” Lino said as he took out two books, some Qi Stones as well as gold coins, putting them onto the bed. “And get you started with cultivation. While I can’t claim you’ll really peak up, it will be enough to protect yourself before you establish your footing. I’ll also leave you this ring; in it are the rest of cultivation methods and martial arts, as well as 50,000 Qi Stones as well as roughly 80,000 gold coins. Use them to establish yourself properly and create a network for both searching for cultivators and general information and status around here. If I ever get some free time, I’ll also come and deliver some of the things I create, but don’t bet on that too much.”
“… aah, lady truly can’t relax,” Aeala chuckled lightly as she got up and walked over to him, patting his head gently. “You’ve saved my life. Restored my dignity. Even if you asked me to find a way to blow this entire city up, I would do it, let alone gathering enough strength to help you when you’re in need of it. Don’t worry,” she added, crouching down and looking him directly in the eyes with a faint smile. “Although loose cultivators are rare, they aren’t wishing stars. I’ll also try and poach some from the Sects and Clans I’m familiar with. After all, you clearly have no clue just how precious 50,000 Qi Stones are.”
“… heh, I think I’m starting to miss the vixen side of you.” Lino said, grinning lightly.
“Oh? Then maybe I can teach you a thing or two more before you leave, eh?” Aeala said while smiling seductively, pulling his hand onto her chest.
“Gulp. You really know how to make me speechless, eh.”
“I’m just teaching you not to get tricked by women in the future,” Aeala said, smiling. “After all, you will never truly know the true depths of woman’s cunning nature when it comes to men. Before the one who stirs your heart appears and teaches you properly, take heed to my guidance.”
“… you don’t sound very convincing while rubbing my hand against your nipples, you know?”
“That’s that, and this is this. Don’t mix pleasure and business together.”
Lino stayed for another five days in the City of Mercenaries. Most of the time he either taught Aeala cultivation to the best of his abilities, or she taught him things and position he didn’t even know existed. On the fifth day, feeling slightly reluctant, he parted ways with her and promised he’d visit in the future, while she promised that at the time an army would be waiting for him.
Throughout the whole journey here, Lino pieced together a few clues. The first ever he’d gotten was from the old, bald guy Patriarch of Dying Roses; Vyeala was brought over from the Umbra’s Capital City, and she was apparently still incubated in some egg-form. He’d gotten the second hint from the weird boy while he was recovering in the cave. Demons are sent out of the devilish dimensional pocket to contaminate the world’s Qi and reverse it, to make the environment hospitable for Devils. Lino realized then, without even being told, that just a single Demon appearing out of nowhere isn’t something that’s likely to happen. While Vyeala’s demonization of her Clan Members wasn’t something he expected, he was able to gleam a few more clues from it; while they did take somewhat of a roundabout path, from Endo Clan’s hidden stead, they moved toward the Capital the entire time. There was also the strange, foreboding feeling rooted deep inside his chest telling him that this was truly far from being over.
As he headed toward the Bridge Village, he remembered the news he obtained within the City of Mercenaries about the whereabouts of ‘groups with red eyes’. He intentionally took a roundabout path back in hopes to come across them and help along with the cleansing, even though he knew it probably won’t amount to much. On second day after leaving the City of Mercenaries, he was resting near a calm, slightly emerald-hued lake. Lying back down, with one of his legs hurled over another’s knee and a straw in his mouth while humming a relaxing tune, he stared at the clear, blue sky with serene expression. While the pyramid-shaped necklace still hung over his neck and shimmered faintly, there was nothing in it. All of his things were stored in the strange ‘void world’ that was granted to him through the Primal Spirit. He could only lament on the obscenity of it all, but he’d be hard-pressed to reject the grace. His gaze flickered for a moment as he suddenly swept up and landed gracefully on his feet, his black cloak fluttering faintly against the hushed wind. His eyes turned westward where, through thickets of green, several faint silhouettes emerged with panicked expressions. Among them, two wore rather simple, leather armor with bows strapped to their back, while one wore a full set of silver armor and had a broadsword hanging from his back. Of the three, his expression was the calmest as he retreated with steady steps. Not even a few breaths later after them, a group of dozen or so people emerged from the same spot; their eyes seemed maddened and crazed, wholly red like blood, exuding eerie, dreadful aura from every orifice of their bodies.
However, Lino completely ignored the demonized group as the strongest was merely Level 38. What caught his attention was a silver-armored man; surprisingly, he was Level 67. And, shockingly, he actually wasn’t a cultivator. That is to say he reached such level purely through his physical prowess and nothing else. The reason why Lino was certain the man wasn’t a cultivator was because he only sensed very faint, almost untraceable thread of Qi lingering around his body. Although he didn’t know why the man simply didn’t take care of the demonized group, Lino didn’t retreat and instead stood calmly next to the lake as the trio approached him.
The silver-armored man noticed him after they were within a hundred meters gap, his brows furrowing. His heart froze when he looked into the youth’s eyes, and he felt incredible sense of danger overwhelm him, telling him that he scarcely had a chance of defeating this youth. Throughout the entire Kingdom, he got such feeling only from three people; not even First Knight Rue, King’s personal guard could make him feel so cold. The youth had a faint smile as he watched them, but from his stance, it didn’t appear as though he had any intention of either helping or obstructing them. Gritting his teeth, the silver-armored man – Third Knight Valor, Commander of Royal Guard and one of the legendary figures within the Kingdom – grasped the two leather-strapped youths next to him and suddenly sped up considerably, increasing the gap between him and the demonized figures, reaching Lino’s position within mere three seconds. Shit! How can he be so fast without even cultivating?!! Lino bellowed inside his mind due to shock despite keeping a calm expression. Is the bastard even human?!! Even demonized Varick wasn’t this fast!!
“… can you kill that group?” Valor’s faint voice echoed inside Lino’s ears as he sped past him and landed several meters behind. The latter glanced back and smiled knowingly before taking out a sword from out of nowhere, startling Valor into further retreat; on the other hand, Lino sped forward and spun midair, causing winds to stir, as he immediately reached the demonized group. He slashed a few times at speeds that neither Valor nor the other two next to him could actually follow. Within a breath, the sword disappeared and the youth slowly began walking backwards. Behind him, a series of ‘plops’ sounded out as dozen or so bodies flashed crimson and fell over, never to get up again. Valor’s brows knitted further together as he stared at the youth alarmingly; even he was unable to properly catch the sheer speed of youth’s slashes, to say nothing of the two people next to him.
“Knock them out.” a voice that only Valor was capable of hearing reached him, startling him slightly. Taking a deep breath, his two hands flashed and landed on the backend side of two heads that barely reached his chest, as the two twenty-something youths next to him fell unconscious.
It was only then that Lino properly inspected the man in front of him; he had short, spiky black hair and piercing, honest eyes. His jaw was squared and his features aggressive, yet also simple. He was almost as tall as Rog, but definitely more on the refined rather than muscular side. Lino estimated that the man was roughly thirty-something years old, but couldn’t be wholly certain.
“Who are you?” Valor asked, still keeping his guard up as the youth stopped ten meters ahead of him.
“Just a lonely traveler,” Lino replied with a smile. Damn, does it feel good to play a mysterious expert!! He he, I ought to travel around more often and search for people in trouble… he he. Khm, less vanity, be humbler. Yup, that’s the way. “And you? Who were those people chasing you?” Lino asked casually. “The so-called ‘slaughterers’?”
“… yes.” Valor replied.
“Why didn’t you take care of them?” Lino asked, tilting his head slightly, still smiling. “You’re more than strong enough for it.”
“…” underneath those eyes, Valor suddenly felt naked, as though all his secrets were exposed. But, he couldn’t find a hint of hostility in the youth’s eyes, let alone any killing intent. “I didn’t want these two to realize who I am.” Valor said, pointing at the two unconscious bodies.
“Oh.” Lino faintly exclaimed, his expression growing ever-so-mysterious while his childlike vanity surged in troves. “Well, no matter. Think it as fate that the two of us met.”
“… what’s your name?” Valor asked.
“Lino.” Lino replied honestly. “And yours?”
“Khm, sorry,” Lino coughed lightly as he looked away awkwardly. “It’s just, uh, unexpected, yeah, that’s all.”
“I get that a lot.” Valor said, a rare trace of smile on his face.
“Are you from the Capital?” Lino asked.
“… yes. Why?”
“… hm,” Lino nodded faintly. “I’ll take your name on the face value and give you a bit of a warning,” he added, smiling mysteriously. “The source of this lies there.”
“Hm?!” Valor’s expression immediately stiffened as his gaze grew cold. “What do you mean?! Speak!”
“Ha ha, don’t be so angry,” Lino shrugged his shoulders calmly. “Do you really think that a bunch of people just decided to start massacring wantonly on a whim? I don’t take you for that much of an idiot.”
“… you mean to say that something happened to them?” Valor asked, his eyes narrowing into slits.
“Eh, something like that,” Lino nodded, sighing. “Just… be wary. In due time, I myself will come there. I just hope that it won’t be too late.” Lino added, speaking honestly from the bottom of his heart as he looked toward the direction of Endo Clan, his expressions fluctuating. Valor took a note of it and realized that there wasn’t even a hint of lie or deceit in youth’s words, causing him to become even warier.
“… can you at least tell me what’s the cause? What do I look for?” even Valor himself was surprised due to his question. After all, the youth before him just jumped out of nowhere and told him that the source of the terrible event that swept through the Umbra Kingdom was actually its most protected place – the Capital itself.
“… don’t look for it,” Lino said as he glanced at Valor; even if he wanted to, Valor was unable to search for the source as he can’t sense Qi. “Just… be wary. I’ll see you in due time.” with a faint smile, Lino’s figure turned into a blur as he sped off into the distance. Damn, what a cool exit!! He thought as his smile turned into a vain grin.