UNTIL DAWN (IV)
Darkness cloaked the swift shadow barreling through the thick forest, making no sound, as though entirely ethereal. Grass and branches of the tall trees seemed to sway sideways to open up a path, as though welcoming their lord, while nightly animals grew silent wherever the shadow would pass. Its steps seemed sporadic yet had certain rhythm to them, as though its feet were composing a song, piece by piece. The moon above cast faint light blazing through the small openings in-between the branches, yet not even a whiff of light seemed to catch the shadow itself.
Lino hurried as quickly as he could, barely maintaining the equilibrium between consuming and replenishing his Qi. It has been a few days since he escaped from the Capital and he’s spent them all recovering as quickly as he could. He knew there was one more thing he ought to do before leaving Umbra Kingdom: find Aeala and bring her with him. Though both Freya and Eggor offered to join him, he knew that it wasn’t an option; he wasn’t going there to fight a war, but to swiftly go in and out without hopefully anyone noticing him. He sent both of them to pick up Valor and rejoin with Ella, wherever she may be at the moment. Lino had no clue as to how things transpired within the Capital and whether the bald guy and his friends engaged or withdrew, but he didn’t care enough to check out. City of Mercenaries ought to be the second target after the Capital since it’s almost as important as Capital itself, both as a strategic stronghold as well as the transit-hub of thousands of people on daily basis. At the very least, if Lino were on the other end, he would have gone after it following the fall of the Capital.
He hadn’t taken a moment’s rest for hours now, barreling forth like an unstoppable machine. He even regretted slightly not venturing sooner and recovering as he traveled, but past always remains past and cannot be changed. He didn’t know whether Aeala managed to gather any cultivators, but he knew that even if she did, it wouldn’t be enough. For one reason or another, occupation of Umbra Kingdom is on a much higher scale than he initially anticipated. He could venture a guess as to why - which is him - but he couldn’t be certain. It’s not as though every Demon and Devil is in on their Ancestor’s actual plan, and most wouldn’t think twice about killing him or even reporting him if they find out he’s Bearer of Writ. He often found himself cursing whoever set these plans in motion on such scale under his breath, but it hardly did him any good besides venting out frustrations partly.
Still a few hours away from the city, he began feeling restless, odd, bizarre feeling creeping up his spine and tangling around his heart. Small portion of rationale he had remaining at the time convinced him not to speed up any further; even if he arrives a few minutes early, it would do no good for anyone if he’s completely exhausted. The only thing he had left was hoping that she either already escaped, or has yet to be caught. Either way, if he doesn’t find her in the city, or if the city is occupied, he decided he will retreat and look for her once things settle down. Though, deep down, he knew he was simply reassuring himself falsely, he could hardly afford to get tangled with the dark thoughts.
The journey over was rather simple, which he found surprising. He had expected to at least run into a few demonic patrols, but the road - however ‘off-road’ it may have been - was completely barren of life, corrupted or otherwise. He would only occasionally spot a wild animal minding its own business, some casting him a curiosity glance before moving on back onto what they were doing beforehand. Such eerie stillness and silence hardly inspired confidence and stern hope that everything will be okay, but he persisted and pressed on. Sweat had already broken out and doused his flushed face while his hood had long since fallen off his head, revealing long black hair that kept fluttering backward as he ran forth, rhythmically joining the cloak which increased his speed further. He was still in no condition to fight desperately; at the very best, he would be able to bring out 80% of what he’s capable at his peak, which is why he hoped dearly he wouldn’t get entangled in a fight and, even if he did, it would be a short-lived one against easy opponents.
It was around an hour before the dawn would break out that he finally approached the valley where the plateau and city in extension were. Already from the distance he saw the horrid sight; thousands of corpses piled against the rising slope, the stench of blood permeating the air miles on end. Red rivers ran joyously, paying no heed to the message they innately carried. Lino realized it was a horrid night for those who stood on top of those distant walls. Demonic or not, in the end, all those corpses were people one way or another; they hardly wished for their minds to be corrupted and to be lost in the endless void of nothingness. He carefully used the tall grass to hide his presence as he hurriedly approached the slope. Just before reaching it, he realized that even more things were amiss; in the distance, he saw flattened gate and rattled walls and crumbled watchtowers. He wished deeply he could use Divine Sense, but he was still a few levels off from that, reaching 61 after his last fight. There were no guards on the slope nor near the gates, which is why he dared to slowly climb up, avoiding the moonlight as much as possible. He reached the flattened gates after a few minutes, scurrying over toward the corner of the ledge and casting a glance inside. He barely held a sigh of despair inside; streets were tombs, houses ruins of what once used to be a beautiful marvel. Red eyes emptily stared into nothingness, void of reason. Young, old... men, women... children... elderly... it didn’t matter. Heaps of corpses, some whole some cleaved, were strewn across the streets, blood dyeing what little remained of whole walls, all crevices filled with crimson. It all pointed to a single conclusion: the City of Mercenaries had fallen, and all those who lived here with it. There were no dying in sight, just dead.
Feeling slightly sick in the stomach, he had to look away. He leaned in closer toward the wall and crumbled, sitting down while leaning against the cold stone behind him. His breathing quickened, eyes growing hazy. He’d decided if the city fell, he would retreat. He had no business sneaking inside and looking around. All outcomes would lead to terrible endings for him. Yet, for some reason, he was unable to walk away. As though there was a hand from inside pulling him, he had deep-seated yearning to walk into the city. To look for her; to look for anyone who may yet to die. It went beyond the instinctual desire, beyond a simple feeling. Realizing what it meant, he chuckled bitterly, barely holding himself back from cursing out toward the sky. When the Writ said his Will was ‘recorded’, Lino merely regarded it similarly to how Q’vil’s Will was recorded, and nothing more. He never imagined it would be ‘recorded’ in a literal sense, whereas it would become a part of him, a part ingrained so deeply it can’t be ignored. He took a deep breath and stood up, readying himself.
“... fucking shithead,” he cursed under his breath as he took a step forward beyond the flattened gates and entered the city. “Sneak into the city crawling with Demons without even knowing if anyone inside is alive,” he continued. “Great idea, you fucking braindead moron. Why not strip naked and wave your dick around as a greeting? Sing a song ‘Hey it’s me, come and kill me’ while you’re at it! Fucking bitch,” his cursing persisted as he avoided a line of Demons by scurrying in a narrow alleyway and rounding it. “And you, fucking bastard, warn me at least you shithead. You pop your dumb head out when I don’t need you, but a heads-up is too much to ask? Saying ‘hey, don’t go there, you won’t come back’ is too much? Fucking dick,” he avoided open spaces as much as possible, while looking around for relatively undamaged buildings where alive people may be hiding. “Alright Lino, just calm down. You’ve been in bigger shitters than this. Remember that time that bitch literally threw you in a shitter? Yeah... aah.” he sighed, ducking down the pile of stacked boxes, sneaking his head out slightly. The distinction between inner and outer city has all but collapsed, but one thing remained the same: it was mostly a clear opening with hardly anywhere to hide. No matter how much he thought, he was unable to come up with a way to pass through that didn’t include literally bounding wall and circling it from the outside. Even then, though, he runs the risk of being seen.
After waiting for about ten minutes and realizing that none of roughly two hundred Demons moved a single inch, he realized he couldn’t rely on them deciding to take a nap all of a sudden. He only had two options: go back or fight through. And, whether his desire or someone else’s, the latter seemed rather attractive, while also remaining mostly suicidal. He hadn’t noticed any signs of life so far and he doubted there were any deeper in. In the end, he decided to retreat and observe from outside the city for a while, seeing if there was another way in. There was no reason for a suicidal rush, he wagered, which is why the reason won out in the end. He took a deep breath and turned around, crouching and beginning to take the same route back.
“Oh the fucking hell---” he cursed out, swiftly sidestepping and drawing out the spear from the void world. He rushed sideways, rolling over rather embarrassingly as the place he was just at suddenly turned black, a vortex spawning within, sucking everything within it. Lino haphazardly landed on his feed, dirt covering every inch of his clothes, his eyes dancing around. It took him but a moment to spot a figure standing a few dozen meters away. Cloaked entirely in black, with sinister eyes that shimmered in strange understanding. Lino frowned for a moment; he recognized the person in front of him. Using <Empyrean Writ>, he inspected his stats.
[Sin - Great Demon - Level 81]
Titles: The Corruptor (???), Demon
Occupations: Rune Master (Level 48)
Martial Arts: ???, ???, ???
Sin? He frowned further, thinking back to the thin figure that got blown backward when he saved Valor. I’m betting my ass he named himself.
“... you’re an unexpected guest. How did you survive?” Sin asked. “Where is Cole?”
“I remember you being more handsome,” Lino ignored the question and said instead, tightening the grip on his spear. “What happened?”
“... you have some balls, trying to sneak in here. Who are you looking for? A girl? Is it a girl? You seem to have quite a liking for the opposite sex, repeatedly risking your life to save them.” Sin grinned, reaching for his belt and taking out two pitch-black daggers.
“Hey, what can I say, it’s a burden ugly shitheads like you would never understand,” Lino shrugged his shoulders. “So, tell me, you catch any hotties but decided to spare them for some reason?”
“... how can a cultivator be so vain,” Sin mocked. “You’ve chosen a wrong calling, kid.”
“And you’ve chosen a wrong name, but you don’t see me judging.” Lino said, smirking and beginning to move sideways, clockwise, while Sin followed the pattern in a counter-clockwise direction.
“I recommend you begin running away,” Sin said, bringing one of the daggers closer to his lips and licking it. “You can’t defeat me.”
“...” Lino suddenly stopped, stunned for a moment. “Holy shit! Those books I read as a kid were right!! Bad guys do do and say the dumbest shit! Fuck, thank you for ruining my fantasy of perfect, cool bad guy, you cow-head!”
“...” Lino stared at the angered Sin, confused for a moment. “Wait...” remembering something he read when he first began studying Demons, he squinted his eyes. “You... your original form... couldn’t have been a cow, right?”
“Pft, hahahaahhahaha,” Lino burst out laughing, forgetting that he was in the belly of the beast, unable to control himself. “Oh my god, this is golden! Hahahahaha...”
“I WILL KILL YOU!!” Sin suddenly disappeared, morphing into a shadow, scaling the side walls and leaping toward Lino.
Latter’s laughter immediately stopped as he smirked for a moment before pulling the spear back and hurling it sideways. A rather loud boom of clashing metal echoed out as spear and two daggers met; Sin felt his arms grow limp for a moment before he felt force akin to a massive mountain barrel him backwards like a cannonball. He crashed through dozens of half-collapsed buildings before coming to a standstill, landing on his feet lethargically. Before he even had a chance to recover he noticed the crimson hue arcing toward him from the side, forcing him to ignore the pain and numbness paralyzing his body and move. He darted sideways, reaching into his cloak and beginning to throw array of daggers toward Lino.
Latter pummeled the earth beneath with the spear, burrowing out a massive, rectangular stone and hurling it toward the daggers, blowing them away. He followed the stone’s path, leaping halfway through and crashing right through it, causing the storm of debris to spawn a mini dust storm. Beyond the stone, Sin’s shadow awaited; spear missed by an inch, brushing past Sin’s right arm and embedding into the earth beneath, causing a massive explosion to blow him outward yet again. Sin’s mind was in pure chaos; he realized he stood no chance in direct clash - as a body cultivator, no less - against a kid who’s supposed to be far weaker than him. He knew that if he were to clash directly once again with Lino, his arms would be turned into liquid. However tame that spear and those arms holding it looked, they hid strength Sin had only experienced from a few of his peers.
He hurried to land, looking around with eyes wide open. From the dusted shadows of crippled earth, a silhouette emerged. Spear swirled in his hand while his steps remained confident and even, his head tilted slightly sideways in a mocking and taunting manner. His lips were curled up in a disdainful smirk, seemingly disregarding Sin’s existence entirely.
“Shall we go for another round?” Lino spoke softly yet his voice carried tone which caused chills to run down Sin’s spine. He suddenly took out a thick, old book and opened it midway through, chanting something under his breath. A moment later, low wails cried out from all around, drowning the silent city in heart-breaking noise. Lino frowned for a moment, looking around. “Calling on your friends, eh? That’s kind of unfair dude.” he spotted hundreds of Demons moving in toward him from all sides.
“... I don’t know who you are, or why are you so strong,” Sin said, retreating a safe distance. “But you’ve made a mistake coming here. You have to die. Tonight.”
“... so I keep hearing.” Lino sighed, reaching into the void world and taking out a sword. In one hand he held a spear, in another a sword, taking a confident stance. “Yet I still breathe and bleed. I suppose I can play with you lot a while longer.”
He shoved a mass of Qi into his legs, causing earth beneath to erupt as though a dynamite exploded. He hurdled himself forth without caring as to whether he could stop, spinning sideways like a rotating machine of death. He cleaved through a nearby group of demons, spilling blood like water as halved wholes fell apart like apples from a decaying tree. He burst through dozens of buildings, demolishing them further, before somehow landing. Without even taking a breather, he repeated the same action and barreled himself forth toward Sin who felt his heart chill when his eyes met Lino’s. Dark, cold, sinister; if he hadn’t met a genuine Devil before, he would believe Lino to be one at the moment. He immediately morphed into a shadow and evaded the humanized comet. Lino landed like a cleaved side of a mountain, causing the whole city to suddenly quake. Cracks like spider webs emerged, crater growing wider, buildings slowly being swallowed up by earth. Lino didn’t let up, quickly pursing after Sin who desperately tried to evade. Though dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Demons tried to block Lino’s way, he easily dispatched of all of them. Simple-minded, single-patterned creatures hardly posed a challenge. However, there were tens of thousands of them, and there was only one Lino. He knew he couldn’t keep it up forever, which is exactly what Sin was banking on. For all his shortcomings, Lino realized, Sin was rather slippery; one moment you begin thinking you have him cornered, and the next he’ll find a way out, disappearing from sight.
Growing impatient, Lino heaved the arm that held the sword back and ran forward for a moment, gaining momentum. He chucked the sword like a bullet, causing space itself to distort visibly around it. Feeling the burning heat at his back, Sin only managed to skew sideways before he felt the right side of his body blaze out. He threw himself further away upon which a beautiful, yet terrifying, pillar of golden flames burned out at where the sword landed. Sin looked at his right side, noticing the missing arm almost up to his neck and the cleaved right side of the body, down to his thigh. He wanted to cry out in terror, but his instincts forced him to look for Lino. The latter was standing at the same spot, breathing quickly while sweat poured down his forehead. He was utterly exhausted, yet he still failed to kill Sin. He wasn’t even certain whether he had enough strength to retreat, but, luckily, Sin was in much worse shape. The only problem were the thousands of enclosing Demons. Though slow-moving, they will all catch up eventually. And no matter his items, no matter his physical strength or resilience, he would still fall.
His mind spun quickly, searching for the best solution. He made enough noise to even alarm the Capital, but no matter how quick the reply, it should still take quite a few hours until they arrive. External influences were null; the only thing preventing him from leaving were the Demons and his own lack of strength.
“... you have a choice,” he heard Sin’s coarse voice coming from nearby, slowing turning his head toward the source. Sin stood ten paces away with grim expression, his right-end side clotting in full black like stone. “Fight desperately here and leave your mark as you die, or try to run away and hope you can fight your way out of the encirclement.”
“... you really love talking, don’t you?” Lino smiled faintly. “I have another choice.”
“To chase after your dog-ass until I catch you and rip your fucking skull off your head,” he said. “That ought to stop them, no?”
“... he he, you can give it a shot.” Sin chuckled.
“... and then there’s the last option,” Lino mumbled, looking up at the sky. “Endure until dawn.”
“...” Sin’s muscles tensed for a moment.
“Night lasts only so long. And, truth be told, I think I can endure. What happens when sun burns out from the horizon? How long before your army crumbles, and you are left to fight me alone?” Lino asked, smirking. “Seconds? Minutes?”
“... you will never last a full hour.” Sin said confidently. “No matter how tough you think you are.”
“... maybe, maybe not.” Lino said, averting his gaze back from the sky onto Sin. “Shall we test it, then?”
If he really wanted to escape, Lino wagered he could; by risking the cloak’s destruction, he could imbue it with as much Qi as possible and blast his way out of here with speed. But he yet again felt the same pull, the same set of hands wrapped around his waist, pulling him further in into the madness. And it was all madness, indeed; faint moonlight folded over the corpses, giving rueful yet beautiful highlights to countless streams of blood. It stank so hard one could hardly hold back from vomiting, yet Lino felt a strange sensation that he belonged here. That he belonged in this mass grave; not as another number in the pile, but as the chosen to perform the last rite. He still had roughly 25% Qi left, and if he used it sparsely, it could last him an hour. The only variable he couldn’t account for is Sin; if he can recover faster and aid the Demons in attacking Lino, his chances of lasting until dawn would decrease immensely. Oh well, he thought for a moment, smiling bitterly. If I live, I can reach Soul Realm. It ought to be a nice rebate.
Lino gripped the spear tightly and swirled it, causing the whizzing sounds to echo out and blend into the roars and wails of the incoming army. He ran forward, into the largest group he could spot, just a hundred meters away. Ignoring the numerous corpses he was stepping over, he leaped into the air and drove himself downward, into the very heart of five hundred or so strong army. He crashed yet again, causing yet another earthquake to shake the city. He spun and sliced with his spear, dismantling dozen heads in a single motion. He ducked and skated forward, leaping vertically and piercing at their heads from above. He danced. Using the least amount of Qi he could, he relied mostly on his physical prowess to bob and weave in-between the Demons, killing as many as he could in the process, adding onto the numerous piles of decaying corpses. It was a horrid sight, but Lino had to ignore it. Ten minutes... twenty minutes... by the thirty minutes, Lino felt exhaustion slowly take over him. His legs felt as heavy as lead, his arms limp and unwilling to listen, barely holding onto the spear. However, he persisted. A hundred. A thousand. Ten thousand. He lost count of how many he had killed. Rather, he lost desire to count; it would weigh too heavily on his soul if he did.
At the forty minutes mark, he was no longer able to stand, forced to use spear as a support. Around him were nothing but walls of corpses and lakes of blood. The city was razed beyond recognition, and he could hardly tell where he was at the moment. Sin stood a hundred or so meters away, staring at him with eyes wide open, full of disbelief. Lino forced himself up, hanging his head low while catching breath. His legs began to shake but he forcibly froze them. From in-between the free-falling strands of hair, his eyes peered into the distance, into the fading moon in the sky and the slightly collar-colored sky in the east. The golden radiance felt so near yet so far.
“... yo, give me some strength, will ya?” Lino mumbled into his jaw in-between deep breaths.
“...” there was no reply, however. Only eerie silence occasionally broken by a distant cry of a Demon yet to be felled. Lino chuckled bitterly, lacking strength to curse out loud at the entity living inside of him.
“Ha ha ha,” Sin suddenly burst out into laughter. “No wonder, no wonder you’re so strong!! I get it, I get it now!! Ha ha ha!! You’re Em--” his voice was halted midway through as a golden warhammer blasted his head into small pieces, causing his lifeless body to thud onto the earth and join the tomb. Though startled, Lino hardly had enough strength to grow alert, merely casting a glance sideways. He quickly spotted a man clad in full plate armor, with a look of wonder on his face, standing some ways off. Next to him was another man carrying a massive shield and a rotating sphere in another hand, almost mimicking the first man’s expression entirely. From the darkness behind the two, another figure emerged, clad entirely in black. Her eyes danced around, unsettled.
Just as he thought it was the end of entourage, another three figures showed up; a young, handsome-looking man with two swords strapped to his sides walked with uneven steps, look of horror on his face. It only took him but a moment to grow faint and fall sideways, vomiting his innards out onto the floor. On the other end, woman with a bow strapped to her back glanced curiously at Lino, a hint of fear in her eyes. However, Lino hardly noticed them; his eyes were glued to the figure in the center. She remained as beautiful as he had remembered her, yet now she had forceful and fierce gait about her. Her unblemished, golden hair fell freely down her sides, her blue eyes growing moister by second, locked onto him.
“... yo.” Lino called out softly, flashing her a beaming smile. “Long time no see.”
“...” rather than words, Aeala let her hastened steps speak for her. In a matter of a moment, she reached him and hugged him tightly, helping him stand upright. She felt warm arms wrap back around her as she hid her head into his chest, afraid others might see her tears.
“Oh for the love of god,” Lino grumbled. “I’m the one who should be crying. Do you know I’ve got eleven cracked ribs? And that you’re currently pressing against six of them? Ouch, ouch!” Lino cried out as he felt Aeala shove her head harder at him. “Alright, alright.” he sighed faintly, looking at the other people who stood frozen in place, their eyes egg-sized, staring at the two of them. “Hello, hello friends!” Lino smiled. “Thank you for saving me! I gotta say, I honestly did not expect it. Where did you guys come from? Oh, who cares. Any of you got any ale or wine? My throat is parched. Oh, I mean, I have to pour it over my wounds so they don’t infect... and stuff. Khm, anyway, I’m Lino.” silence still remained as everyone kept staring at him. “Hey, I told you to recruit cultivators, not mutes.”
“... pfft.” Aeala stifled her laughter as she slowly let go of him, standing by his side instead. “They didn’t believe you existed.” she explained.
“Ouch. Well, anyway, I’d love to chat you guys up, but how about we do it someplace where that buddy of yours over there won’t be dying, huh?” Lino said, pointing at the still-vomiting Smite. Others merely nodded their heads, following after Aeala and Lino. “Where did you guys come from?” he asked her.
“... we... we were in the city when they attacked,” Aeala said, sighing woefully. “We fought for as long as we could, but they simply overran us with their numbers. When the gate was breached, we decided to retreat into the mountains. We were going to circle the city and move southeast when we heard and saw a massive explosion in the city, which is why we decided to go back. We spent like ten minutes sneaking into it without even realizing that you’d gone and cleaned it up.”
“... so, how’d you gather such fascinating party?” Lino asked, glancing backwards. “I’ve heard giraffes talk more.”
“Ha ha, I’ve gathered them all over the place, actually.” Aeala replied, laughing joyously. “Don’t worry, they’ll come around. You kind of scared them shitless with the display you put on for us. How are you? Do you want one of the guys to carry you?”
“... really?” Lino glanced sideways at her, then looking back at the three guys behind him. The one clad in plate armor faintly nodded upon which Lino smiled like a child, running over as though at full strength and nimbly climbing on his back. “Aah, thanks man. I haven’t sat in literally days. This is almost as good as sex.”
“... I didn’t actually expect you to sit on one of them.” Aeala said, giving him a strange glance.
“Eh, it’s fine. Look at this guy, he’s a freaking tank. He could carry a mountain, let alone an underfed, bony kid like me.”
“... so, he’s real.” Lucky said, taking in a cold breath. “And he’s worse than Smite. Oh boy.”
“Hey!!” Smite cried out, still trying to recover from singed throat.
“He’s funny.” Shaneine said.
“...” Lino glanced at her strangely as her voice lacked a single emotion.
“She actually means it, don’t worry.” Aeala said.
“Oh. Right.” Lino said. “So, now that we’ve established that you guys aren’t mutes, how about you introduce yourself?”
“Kraval.” a deep voice came from down below, forcing Lino to look at the helmet.
“Kraval. Alright, I’ll make it a point to remember you. How about you?” Lino looked at the girl who called him funny.
“You can just call me ‘hey you’ if my name is hard to remember.”
“Thanks. Appreciate it.” Lino said. “And you?” he turned toward Lucky who took a moment before replying.
“Well I’m lucky to meet you.” Lino fired off without even pausing for a moment.
“... yup, never heard that one before.” Lucky said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh? Don’t worry, I’ve got more!” Lino said, smiling. “With how you guys saved me, you must be my lucky star! Or, better yet, I lucked-the-fuck-out! It must be my lucky day! It’s just my luck that I’m already taken, otherwise I’d put a ring on you! That should do it for now.”
“...” Lucky sighed lightly, shaking her head.
“Yup, she’s definitely not my fan,” Lino said, turning toward the guy holding a shield. “How about you?”
“Just call me a shield guy.” Fish said.
“You have a weird name too, don’t you?”
“... no comment.”
“Alright. I’ll call you no comment then.” Lino said, smirking while turning toward the last one, who was lagging behind the group.
“That’s Smite,” Shaneine explained. “He’s in love with the Lady.”
“Who’s the Lady?” Lino asked, titling his head in confusion.
“... Lady Aeala.” Shaneine said.
“Oh! Well, of course. Look at her,” Lino said. “I’m surprised all of you aren’t gunning after her.”
“Alright, enough guys! Let’s first find a good hiding location for some rest!” Aeala cut the conversation short, leading the group up the mountain.
Bobbing up and down, Lino felt relaxed. For one reason or another, he very much let his guard around people he hardly knew. But, he trusted Aeala. As his guard went down, his exhaustion went up; the hours of constant running, the continuous battles, it all came crashing in a wonderful haze as he slowly dozed off, sleeping atop of Kraval’s shoulders. It took the group a few minutes to actually realize he was asleep as hardly anything changed about his posture.
“... he’s... unique.” Fish said, glancing at him.
“He’s funny.” Shaneine repeated yet again, her eyes glimmering strangely.
“He’s all yours.” Lucky said, shrugging her shoulders.
“... Smite, what are your thoughts?” Fish asked, grinning.
“... no comment.” Smite said, passing the group and catching up to Aeala.
“He’s light.” Kraval said, glancing up at the much smaller body than his. “Makes it all the more terrifying that he’s the one who did all that.”
“... oh, right.” Fish exclaimed suddenly. “His light-and-breezy personality almost made me forget I should be terrified of him!!”
“... how did he pull it off?” Shaneine asked, curious.
“Don’t think too deeply about it, guys,” Aeala’s voice came flying from afar. “One way or another, you’ll find out eventually.”
They traveled back up the mountain for a whole hour before finding a decently sized cave where all of them could fit. It was only then that Lino woke up; though still feeling slightly lethargic, he felt some strength had returned to his bones, at least enough to walk on his own. The group settled in a rather cozy cave, rounding the small fire and the sizzling fish hanging over it.
“Capital fell?” Aeala asked Lino as everyone settled down. Her question perked the ears of others as they all focused on Lino.
“Yup.” he nodded faintly. “Almost a week ago.”
“... you were there?”
“Yeah,” Lino said, sighing and leaning back onto the wall. “Not the funnest of experiences. I nearly died.”
“You always nearly die,” Aeala joked. “It should be your promoting slogan.”
“Hey, that’s not fair! It’s not like I want to keep fighting battles I can’t win comfortably!”
“Hey, how about you tell us what happened back in the city?” Smite interjected, asking.
“What happened?” Lino looked at him, tilting his head. “Well, I first wanted to sneak in and find Aeala and just bolt. But, well, that didn’t happen. When I wanted to escape, they found me. So I had to fight. So I fought. Then you guys came in.”
“You just skipped a whole lot of necessary detail there, buddy!!” Smite cried out.
“Oh, you’re right! I exchanged a few words with that guy that had his head blown off. Quite a funny lad. Would you believe me if I told you his original form was a cow?”
“... a-are you doing this on purpose?” Smite asked, gnashing his teeth.
“Yup!” Lino replied, flashing back a smile. “Don’t worry about it guys. We’ve got bigger things to talk about. Like do you have any seasonings for this fish?”
“I have a feeling you don’t take things seriously often, do you?” Lucky asked.
“Eh, what’s the point in living if you got a stick up your ass all day long,” Lino said. “May as well go sell the hole for a copper.”
“... how old are you?” Lucky asked.
“Sixteen.” Lino said, taking a gourd of wine from Fish’s hands and gulping half of it down.
“... fuck me.” Smite sighed, dejected.
“What’s the plan now?” Shaneine asked, joining in.
“We’ll go with your original plan,” Lino said. “But we’ll have to make a slight adjustment. I’ve friends I have to pick up.”
“Are they strong?” Kraval asked.
“Well, stronger than me at the very least.” Lino said nonchalantly, taking another gulp; it was only after putting the gourd down that he realized the whole cave fell silent. “Oh, don’t worry, they’re on our side.”
“Who the hell are you?!” Smite asked.
“After plundering Endo Clan,” Lino said, ignoring him. “We’ll continue moving east until the gorge. There, we’ll go our separate ways.”
“Why? Where are you going?” Aeala asked.
“To the land of beyond...” Lino spoke in a mysterious tone.
“... and where is that?”
“... a place where only those stronger than me can venture.”
“So you don’t want to tell us, huh?” Lucky mumbled.
“Don’t worry, I’ll meet with you guys on the other side a bit later,” Lino said. “Don’t miss me too much.”
“... does anyone else want to punch him in the face really badly?” Smite asked. A few heads nodded in silence while Lino frowned.
“Why my face? It’s my selling point. I’ve already got cracked ribs. Punch me there.”
“... yup, let’s avoid his face guys. There’s already something horridly wrong with his head.” Lucky said.
“You look rather well for someone who has half his ribs cracked.” Fish said.
“... you don’t say.”
“Alright, fish is ready,” Aeala said. “Now everyone shut up and eat. One word and I’m kicking your ass out of this cave. Got it? That includes you too, Lino.”
“...” Lino ate in silence, silently smiling. Partly because Aeala was alright, and partly because she managed to find a rather fun group. He imagined coming days would hardly be boring with them around. Even more to the point, he now had enough people to open up a mercenary band across the gorge. Shaneine will definitely join me in a heartbeat, Lino thought as he ate. Kraval too, probably. The shield guy doesn’t seem to dislike me much either. Lucky... ah, I probably shouldn’t have made puns out of her name. Still worth it though. I guess key with her and Smite is Aeala. So they’re in. That bearded bastard can be our blacksmith---no wait, I’ll be our blacksmith. These guys can go out and gather materials for me to craft them stuff. Free practice. He can be shadowy leader. Freya can be fortune teller or something. Ella can be a cook. Damn, I’m brilliant.
END OF VOLUME II