Lino had truly found himself slightly stunned as he stood beneath the behemoth-like walls of the Umbra Capital. Towering at over fifteen meters tall, they seemed constructed in such a way to blanket the sky for all the newcomers, while the seemingly countless watchtowers sprawling at every cut-corner appeared as reminders of Kingdom’s might to all those who might have any ideas. While the stream of people was somewhat lacking when compared to City of Mercenaries, the ‘quality’ was certainly a notch higher. Lino was also certain there’d be an endless stream coming over the next few days until the Annual Festival, which would most-likely clog even the massive, iron gates erected before his eyes. Divided with metal plates with identical lions carved on each side, painted in deep gold, they gave off a feeling of overbearance, one which pressured one’s soul and mind.
Lino was quickly dragged off by Eggor as the two headed toward the eastern part of the city. The wide streets - where two whole horse carriages were able to pass side-by-side - sprawled like spider web, conduits between countless, smaller alleyways at whose sides numerous buildings rose up from earth. Brick, concrete, stone - from four to over twenty meters tall, they seemingly occupied every inch of free space available. And, far off in the distance, toward the very center of the city, Lino had been able to see several spires rising like spears into the sky, shrouding a domed, glassed roof of a massive palace. All spires had sharp and edged style to them, emitting a rather threatening atmosphere, acting as guards of sorts themselves.
Eggor soon dragged him to a slightly poorer part of the city, where one could carp about streets for hours due to their narrowness and filth. Every so often, they’d come across a beggar lying or sitting on the ground, fiendishly leaning against the walls or street posts, their charred and scarred arms extended into open hands while their eyes watchfully observed the passers-by. The high sun slowly sank as they found their way to a slightly ran-down, two-story inn.
The moment Lino crossed the front door, he felt a strange sensation assail him as his eyes widened, scanning over the room. His eyes soon landed on a man behind the half-cracked counter; he appeared to be in his late thirties with chiseled and sharp features and black, messy hair, though his eyes provided a stark contrast with their emerald-green hue. He appeared rather tall, but also thin, as his eyes rose up and met Lino’s. The latter quickly felt as though there were spiders crawling over his skin ceaselessly, hurrying Eggor on while he pretended to observe the inn, whistling in a low tune.
Eggor carried out the arrangements rather quickly; Lino noticed that the man spoke little, in low, brash voice, and seemed disinterested in practically everything surrounding him. The two climbed up to the second floor and entered their room - or rather a prototype of it, anyway. A small, stuffy, squared room with two bed that could hardly be called so constituted the room.
“Wow, you really wanted to save up money wherever you could, huh.” Lino mused as he sat down on the bed, quickly feeling his bottom ache to the firmness of the mattress.
“We need to stay inconspicuous,” Eggor reminded angrily. “Would splurging around let us do that?”
“No, but it’d be a hell of a lot more fun.” Lino said, smiling. “But, your money, your rules.”
“... what is your first plan?” Eggor asked, shifting the topic.
“I’ll visit the district.”
“The district.” Lino replied.
“Yeah, but which?” Eggor asked, frowning.
“Khm, okay, how can I explain it to you... you see, there are girls there, and there are guys there; former are mostly naked, while latter are looking to get naked--”
“No!! I ought to talk to you about that! You need to learn to carry yourself properly! How can you go off whoring like that?!” Eggor blast into anger immediately, entering his lecture mode.
“... ah, first off - you’re wrong. I’m not whoring, I’m having fun. Secondly, that’s not why I’ll be going,” Lino explained. “Most of the unfiltered information goes through these places. I might get lucky and come across a girl or two who know something.”
“Or you might get lucky, huh.”
“Oh, wow! The bearded bastard playing with words! What day is it today?”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“What will you do?” Lino asked.
“I’ll go and talk with the participants under the guise of applying you,” Eggor replied. “I might learn something as well.”
“Chances are, though, that neither of us will see much luck,” Lino said, shrugging his shoulders. “If they were yet to be found by now by anyone, I don’t think we’d get so lucky to find them in a day or two.”
“Unlike others, we know what to look for specifically,” Eggor said, sighing lightly. “In case we don’t find it within two weeks, we’re leaving. Not just this city, but also the Kingdom.”
“You don’t agree?” Eggor asked, raising his eyebrow at Lino.
“... I can’t,” Lino said, smiling bitterly. “There’s no way I can leave. Not until I at least figure out what the hell’s going on.”
“... I see.” Eggor said, sighing lightly. “We’ll figure it out, then. No matter what.”
“No matter what... yeah, I like the sound of that.”
Lino waited until night fell over the skyline, causing lanterns around the city streets to radiate out like stars, before departing from the inn, scurrying through the narrow alleyways while avoiding the main streets. He needn’t even ask where the ‘red district’ was as he easily spotted dozen or so young and old men alike on their way over, no doubt their destination expressed on their faces. Red district of Umbra Capital was situated toward the rough border of the southern wall, surrounded by low-cost and worn down homes and shops. Though the night had already fallen beyond midnight by the time Lino arrived, it felt like day once he laid his eyes on the main street cutting directly across the heart of the entire district. Hanging lanterns, tied to thick, iron strings, hung above the streets like ornaments, lighting it up in mesmerizing colors. Windows at the sides of the streets were nearly all alight, and chatter continued ceaselessly, silence seemingly unknown thing to all of them. Scantly-clad women adorned the sidewalks and streets’ corners, sending flirtatious gazes to every passer-by, sometimes even moving that bit of linen covering their breasts and exposing them entirely in hopes of enticing the onlookers.
Prostitutes weren’t chosen by their age, Lino quickly realized, as there were those as young as fourteen, and those as old as sixty from his estimation. He very much doubted most of them wished to stand on these corners, hoping others would demean them, but he didn’t dwell on it for too long; it was the reality of things, one he’d witnessed countless times while growing up. He knew he couldn’t save them beyond giving them temporary relief with some coins, but how many could he save? Even without counting, only here they numbered in over a hundred, discounting those already inside, providing services. While his eyes scanned around, he set his eyes upon the group of three girls, aged between fifteen and seventeen, standing on the corner, feeling slightly out of place. Their demeanour was awkward and stiff, and their attempts at flirtatious glances failed to capture anyone. He noted they’d just recently entered the world, and are yet to get used to it.
He approached them slowly and openly while ignoring the nearby chatter and other women trying to drag him by his sleeve, and in no time found himself in front of the three girls; unlike most other women around, they were slightly better dressed, only exposing parts of their legs and arms and cleavage, their stomachs entirely covered. They grew startled for a moment as Lino stopped in front of them, smiling lightly.
“Y-yes?” the oldest one muttered out weakly, slightly on guard against him.
“How much for your girls’ time?” Lino asked nonchalantly.
“... you mean... all three of us?” the same girl asked back; she had appeared to be roughly seventeen years old, with long, black hair and thick eyebrows beneath which a pair of emerald gems hid, carefully observing Lino.
“Hm? Isn’t that why you girls are standing together?” Lino asked, tilting his head sideways.
“It’s fine,” Lino interrupted, shaking his head lightly. “I’ll give twenty gold pieces for an hour. How about that?”
“T-twenty?!!” all three girls shrieked in unison, quickly looking around from fear of someone having heard them. “A-are you sure?” the oldest one added.
“Yeah.” Lino replied simply; he had enough gold to splurge on whatever he wanted, but he was hardly a spendthrift. Growing up with empty pockets had taught him to always have a hidden stash in case all hell breaks loose.
“A-alright,” the oldest one said after a short silence, during which the three girls exchanged strange gazes. “Follow us.”
Lino followed them to the nearby house, not unlike any other in surroundings, and got lost in thought in the meantime. He naturally had plans to ‘hire’ other girls as well, of varying ages, but he decided to try his luck with the youngest ones first as they aren’t as shrewd and as experienced as the older ones. Lino was certain, deep down, that experienced prostitutes were the shrewdest sort you never wanted to cross, as your life would quickly turn into a nightmare.
The four of them quickly found their way to a small room with a single, slightly narrow bed. Lino sat down without hesitation while the three girls remained standing, some ways off the bed, looking at him warily. He smiled gently and reached for his pocket, fiddling around while pretending he was taking the coins out of his pocket rather than the void world. He dragged them out and slowly placed them onto the floor, lifting his gaze up only to see the girls’ shocked expressions full of desire.
“How long have you been girls doing this?” he asked.
“... a-are you... are you into virgins?” the oldest one asked yet again, swallowing a mouthful of saliva in the process.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lino said, smiling lightly. “I’m interested in beautiful girls, which you three certainly are. However, that is not why I’m here today.”
“What do you mean?” the oldest one asked, drawing a step back alongside the other two.
“What’s your name? Mine’s Leo.”
“... Anna.” the oldest girl replied.
“Anna? It’s a nice name,” Lino nodded faintly. “Don’t be afraid,” he added softly, not making any sudden movements from fear of scaring them away. “My request is rather simple: I just want you girls to be my ears. I’ve just arrived in the city, and I’d like to know what’s going on here.”
“You have Information--”
“We both know they’ll tell you nothing of importance,” Lino interrupted Anna with a faint shrug. “I don’t need the names of the streets, the most popular girls and guys, and the name of the crazed, witchcrafting widow.”
“... what... what do you need?” Anna asked, clearly tempted. Lino knew they would be; after all, twenty gold coins would allow these girls to live in luxury for over a year, and for over ten if they use it sparsely.
“Rumors,” Lino said, relaxing slightly and leaning back onto the bed. “Strange people, strange events, unexplained phenomena, people with red eyes... such stories.”
“... I-I haven’t heard anything of the sorts.” Anna said after a short thought.
“No worries, just keep your ears out. Money is yours either way,” Lino said as he slowly got off the bed, moving toward the doors while girls quickly sidestepped him. “I’ll be back in a few days; wait for me in this room, during the daytime. If you find out anything useful, there’s more of that shine in my pockets.”
He casually left, leaving the girls dumbstruck. Though the prostitutes were indeed shrewd, they were also easily enticed by the golden shine; you flash them enough coins, and they’re willing to do anything for you, no matter how odd, weird or disturbing it may be. However, Lino still avoided girls that appeared rather dubious to him, as his actions weren’t exactly ‘proper’, since he was avoiding Information Guild and going behind their backs. He also avoided the girls which seemed like they’d bargain over more gold as they would probably see his desperation over coming to them of all places.
In the end, he ‘hired’ seventeen women, ranging from fourteen years of age to forty-something. Though he didn’t expect much, he still had some hopes of finding out at least something odd about the city. Even if his pockets did grow slightly hollow, it hardly dented his overall situation, as he still had tens of thousands of gold coins to spend. To him, beyond survival, they were only used as means to an end rather than something he ought to hoard and bank until his dying days, or to flaunt about to people who don’t have as much as he does.
On his way back, he decided to stray from his previous path slightly, deeming it necessary to explore the Umbra Capital a bit and confirm everything he learned from the various maps he studied. After all, maps are dead and they can’t tell everything exactly as it is; no matter what hell breaks loose eventually, he wanted to be properly prepared for it to the best of his abilities.
Halfway through his journey, thunder began to boom out throughout the sky as the clouds eclipsed the moon, drawing a completely black carpet over the sky. It didn’t take long until thunder grew louder and first droplets of rain began to fall, quickly turning into an absolute hailstorm as strong winds began to blow in addition. Streets grew wet immediately and pond after pond erupted from crevices in the road. Lino’s vision grew limited and he had to slow down, oftentimes completely hiding from the rain as it’d grow too heavy. The world around him fell into strange, almost eerie silence where only the sound of the rain pounding against the roads and roofs echoed. Even the near corners would be blanketed entirely in the night and heavy rain, making him uncertain as to where exactly he was going. Though not exactly lost, as he could always cast a glance at the Palace which was clearly visible even during the terrible weather, it did cause him to slow down even further, oftentimes having to orient himself against the Palace itself to know where exactly he was. He’d long since parked the map inside his void storage as even with Tri-Spirit Flames, he was unable to read anything properly.
The eerie atmosphere grew softly, causing Lino’s mouth to go dry a couple of times. He couldn’t exactly explain it, but he felt a sensation of dread creep up and down his spine, as though his body was repeatedly warning him of something, though he could hardly venture a guess as to what. As the sensation grew even more horrid, he finally decided to turn around and leave, deeming it too dangerous to continue on. Just as he was crossing from one alleyway onto another, he caught a heavy, thudding sound followed up by low wails. Startled, he immediately came to a halt and carefully scouted around, noting every single detail he could make out. He couldn’t understand how he was able to hear the sounds over the deep rain, as he’d barely been able to hear the sound of his own footsteps. A few seconds later, the same two sounds repeated as the thudding sped up slightly, growing rhythmic. Low wails soon turned to dreary sobs, and the sound continued to weave between the two.
Somber atmosphere permeated every inch of the place, but Lino couldn’t locate the source of the sound exactly; it bellowed out from all around, as though he was encapsulated within the heart of the source itself. He carefully took a step forward, trying to heave himself up to look beyond the roof and toward the Palace in order to orient himself; however, he soon found out something which sent shivers down his spine - Palace was nowhere to be found. Rather, the entire city seemed to have been swallowed up in a void while even the sky itself loosened suddenly with thunders as the black clouds swirled together in a clot as the centerpiece, whirling round and round until a massive, gaping vortex leading seemingly to the abyss opened up in the sky. Illusion!! Lino immediately realized he’d fallen into an illusion of sorts, but it was far too late now. The indifferent air quickly turned foul and rancid as Lino spotted the seeming source of it all. Land beneath his feet was no longer cobblestone pavement, but opaque water atop of which he was somehow standing without sinking. Gloomy fog pervaded all through, causing a sinking feeling to grow in his chest. Within the misty fog, a set of seven silhouettes, all seemingly exact replica of one another, appeared. They were standing still, their forms distorted as though smudged by a finger. Entirely black, they provided a stark contrast to the white mist, but Lino was unable to discern any of their features.
Dreary sobs and low wails were now gone, Lino realized, but something even more horrid replaced them - a sort of hysterical, high-pitched laughter screeched out, grating against Lino’s ears like a grindstone against a sword, forcing him to put both his hands up to cover them. Immediate headache assailed him as his senses grew crippled, his vision turning distorted and blurry, as though he was looking at things through a spectral mirror of sorts. He could still, though, notice the seven silhouettes suddenly move - not toward him or elsewhere, but toward each other. As though ink spilling over and rushing to the lowest central point, they morphed into shadow-like enigmas and floated against the gravity itself, blending together in a rather morbid fashion. Hysterical laughter continued, thudding sounds growing into booms that caused the earth beneath his feet to sink. His eyes finally landed onto a giant vortex in the sky which was now spitting out eerily pale-white arms up to their shoulders in droves. It was raining, but not the rain he’d just escaped. The arms numbered in thousands, tens of thousands, carpeting each and every ounce of the sky as they dove toward him in their own individual arcs. The morphed figure in front of him stopped wriggling; its silhouette was reminiscent of a spider, as it had nearly twenty limb-like protrusions erected from its body, swaying around almost as though independent of its main body. Within the white mist, beyond the ebony silhouette, another color appeared: crimson red. One dot... two... ten... soon, almost a hundred of red, eye-like dots appeared in a gleaming fashion, all staring directly at him. Realizing he’d gotten trapped by a Demonic creatures, Lino gathered his wits quickly and used <Empyrean Will> to resist the assault on his mind. He then quickly extended his arm, drawing the Radiant Spear from his void world and gripping it tightly while shifting his gaze between the figure in front of him and the army of arms racing toward him. It was a conundrum; he could attack either of the two, or wait for them to come at him. Whichever he chose, though, he had a feeling it wouldn’t be much easier. The key point was that he had no clue how to escape illusions as he was yet to reach Soul Realm, where he could use his mind for purposes other than to think. Thuds. Laughter. Eerie hissing sounds of the arms cutting through the air. Strange, crackling sounds coming from beneath his feet. What the hell did I get myself involved into?!!