Sun glistened golden high up in the sky, its rays folding over hills and mountains and bathing forests in its shimmering hues. Umbra Kingdom slept as though there was a moon instead of sun high up; villages and towns and cities and roads all seemed abandoned and empty, void of a living soul. Eerie silence hung over the vast landscapes, painting a canvas estranged from norm. Closing in on the border, high up in-between the narrow pathways of mountain range, a group of people climbed steep slope overlooking a deep abyss beneath. With Eggor in lead, they walked in a single line at a crawling pace, afraid of the slightly chilly winds that would occasionally howl out through the sky. Someplace toward the back, Lino walked rather leisurely, slightly lost in his thoughts. It has been half a month since the day they escaped City of Mercenaries. After doing their utmost to evade the ever-growing demonic army, they had finally made it toward the border of Umbra Kingdom. Across the mountain range lies a massive wasteland, aptly named Wasteland of Decay. It stretches all the way from south almost all the way up to north, and is the last threshold before the gorge and the other side.
However, Lino’s thoughts were hardly focused on the journey; he kept replaying his experiences from the past fifteen days, namely reaching Soul Realm and gaining a new chance to choose a Primal Spirit as well as being given another Martial Art. When it came to Primal Spirits, both were lightning-based, one being named Glint, which would give him ability to move at lightning speed within a specific radius in any direction so long as there was Qi supply, while the other was named Spectre which would make him immune to most types of lightning present in the world. Lino chose former, as he already felt his body to be quite durable. He felt the disadvantage of having to chase after someone in a fight without proper tools while fighting Sin; had he had Glint back then, catching up to him would have been a cake.
As for the Martial Art, Lino has yet to understand what it actually does; named [Empyrean Rite], the only explanation he got was as following: In the time of need, Will shall answer the call. Whatever that meant, he could only vaguely guess. The greatest benefit, of course, was acquiring Divine Sense as he finally needn’t roll his head into dangerous situations to scout out and could just perceive things directly with his mind. Which he practiced in excruciating detail over the past half a month, repeatedly expending his Qi on using it and sustaining it. As they were constantly moving, he hadn’t had a chance to craft anything which had resulted in a deep itch he was unable to scratch, a soulbound yearning for it. He was looking forward to crossing the Wasteland and settling on the other end. Though he very much doubted that would mark the end of his journey and would become a place where he’d settle, he felt it would do him good to lay low and relax for a while. He was jolted back from his thoughts as he bumped into stout, plated back. Groaning lowly while rubbing his nose, he realized they had reached a somewhat of a flat cliff with enough space to camp out. Overhead ledge provided decent protection from possible rain while a egg-shaped depression in the side of the mountain could be used as a shelter against the wind. Others had already began settling down and retreating into their own little corners, resting. Lino, however, hardly felt tired; his mind has barely been focused on the journey which is why he felt the time pass so quickly. He walked over to Eggor who began taking out logs of wood from a storage item and preparing the campfire.
“Still no word from her?” Lino asked; Eggor’s expression grimed for a moment, his eyebrows furrowing.
“No...” he said, sighing.
“Could it be she dumped you?” Lino asked, grinning slyly.
“...” Eggor merely gave him a stink-eye before returning back to his task.
“Relax old man,” Lino said after short silence, leaning back onto the wall. “If there’s anyone who’ll survive this whole ordeal, it’s her.”
“... not if she went to the place I’m thinking she went.” Eggor said.
“... back home?” Lino ventured a guess, but judging from Eggor’s reaction, he hit a nail. “What’s the story there anyway? Is she like an illegitimate but talented kid every proper heir hated and envied and eventually managed to cast out because her strong benefactor died?”
“... no,” Eggor said, sighing as fire began crackling slowly. “She’s very much a proper heir, I suppose.”
“Even if I told you, you’d merely stare at me like a blank sheep,” Eggor said, smirking faintly. “You’ve yet to see and understand the world, kiddo.”
“... alright, alright, tease the sixteen year old kid for not traveling around. Nice jab, ancient corpse.”
“Oh, someone’s hurt finally, huh?”
“Not hurt.” Lino said. “Just curious. What’s the secret you guys are so adamant to keep me in dark about?”
“... it’s not really a secret,” Eggor said. “Just something both of us have worked hard to put behind us. Especially her. Imagine... imagine if you were sitting on top of the world, Lino,” he continued, his voice growing weary. “Only to suddenly fall to the very bottom over the course of a single night. Truth be told,” he turned his head sideways and looked deeply into Lino’s eyes. “You were... exactly what she needed. What we needed. A dumb kid to distract us from reality.”
“.. I’ll ignore the subtle insult in order to appreciate the compliment.” Lino said. “Why would you think she’d gone back?”
“Because she would have returned by now otherwise,” Eggor said. “She must have sensed the issue to be much larger than what we thought. ‘A few friends’ just couldn’t have measured up.”
“...” Lino felt the sudden urge to expel the whole truth of the matter to him, but held back in the end. The silence ensued between the two, one which lasted for a while, yet hardly the uncomfortable type. It was broken only by the incoming set of rhythmic footsteps; Lino glanced sideways and saw Freya approach while holding a plate of freshly frisked rabbit meat.
“Here,” she handed it to him with a faint smile. “You have not eaten much recently. You’ll lose all muscle you’ve gained.”
“... thanks,” Lino replied, taking it with an awkward smile; he rather regretted his outburst by the cliff side, but Freya went out of her way to show it with her actions that she didn’t mind, or rather that she’d completely forgotten it. “You tired? I can’t imagine a Princess is used to something like this.”
“I’ll live.” she said, sitting by his side. “What were the two of you talking about?”
“Oh, that. Just about how lucky we are to have so many beautiful maidens join us on this adventure,” Lino said, taking a wolfing bite out of rabbit’s meat. “Imagine if it was just a whole bunch of smelly, ugly guys. Ugh. I’m suddenly losing my appetite.”
“... does your brain really work that way?” Freya asked, tilting her head in confusion.
“What way?” Lino asked back.
“Unable to simply refuse to answer,” she explained. “But wired to make up an entirely new story instead.”
“... yup, pretty much.” Lino said nonchalantly. “I can’t tell you how fun it is to be me.”
“... I can only imagine,” Freya said, smiling faintly. “So... this could just be my jealousy rearing its ugly head, but I have to ask: who is she?” she glanced stealthily at Aeala who was sitting on other end, seemingly immersed in the ongoing conversation - or rather fight - between Fish and Lucky. “She has been more than just attentive to you through the whole journey.”
“... really?” Lino squinted his eyes for a moment. “I didn’t imagine you’d be so stubborn.”
“Why? It is the first time I have felt like this,” she said, still smiling. “Let it flood me whole... at least for a while.”
“...” Lino stared at her for a moment, deciding not to comment on it in the end. “Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. You should get some rest while you can. I doubt we’ll have many opportunities once we leave this mountain.”
“... so should you.”
Lino dazed off once again, retreating into his thoughts. However, rather than focusing on the past half a month or prior to that, they ventured over onto Ella. He hadn’t seen or received a word from her in a month. Either she’s simply too lazy to contact them, or she’s unable; whichever the case, he thought, it gave him restless feeling. Whether he was ready to admit it or not, he had grown dependent on her. Sudden absence hardly equates placid reaction. The sun slowly set and moon burned out from the shadows, lighting up the sky in sun’s stead. Save for Eggor and Lino, who were seemingly asleep yet wholly awake, the rest were gathered around the campfire, drinking and laughing. Even Freya decided to partake in warriors’ past-time, which she found both alarming and fascinating; the crude words and stories that come flying out of their mouths after a few drinks shocked her rather deeply, yet also opened her eyes to a whole new reality she was completely unfamiliar with until recently. She couldn’t quite yet explain it properly, yet she felt like she had finally found a place she belonged to after searching and yearning for so long. A place where masks, facades and fake smiles do not exist; a place where people are honest, no matter how unruly they may seem. A place she could call home.