FRIEND IN THE FOREST
The moment Lino walked into the town, he was able to sense that things were rather tense. Several men in groups patrolled the streets while armed to teeth, while all windows and doors on buildings were barred, mere flickers of light barely pulsing to outside. Lucky led him deeper in, just past the town’s central square, into a four story tall building - the only one without barred windows and doors. She didn’t explain anything on their way over, remaining silent and Lino followed suit as he realized it wasn’t the time for joking around. They climbed up to the topmost floor and into a rather plain room with only a few simple bunk-beds, chairs and tables. Inside, besides Shaneine, there were also Freya and Aeala looming over a table with a large piece of cloth spread out wide with strange markings and lines drawn over. Both Aeala and Freya lifted their heads almost at the same time when they heard the approaching footsteps, smiling warmly in the process. Lino spotted the oddity and nearly spoke out, but figured it was best he said nothing all things considered.
“Yo guys!” Lino flashed his best smile and waved lightly. “So I heard you already fucked something up without me.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t resist,” he added, chuckling into the condemning silence. “So, who will be the one to explain to me what’s going on?”
“I will.” Aeala and Freya spoke out at the same time. Damn me and my charms... after stroking his ego silently for a moment, he instead looked at Shaneine.
“Why are you looking at me?” she asked, avoiding Aeala’s and Freya’s piercing gazes.
“’Cause you’re the person who has the least amount of emotion toward me in this room.” Lino said, causing Freya to faintly blush, Aeala to smile meekly and Lucky to roll her eyes.
“That’s not true,” Shaneine said plainly. “Last night I had a dream about ripping your clothes---”
“Ooooookay,” Aeala interrupted, turning the cloth to be facing Lino who stood on the opposite end of the table. “We came across this town yesterday and simply wanted to resupply,” she explained. “But, before we even got to the gate, we were attacked. After a bit of scuffle, they finally sent someone important on the wall and after a bit more talking--”
“You mean seducing?” Lino interrupted.
“After a bit more talking, they let us in. Just about that time, Eggor suddenly had to leave. He said to tell you that Ella contacted him.” Lino’s nonchalant expression hardened almost immediately, but he said nothing. There was probably a reason why he couldn’t wait for him to come back. They’ll meet up eventually, Lino figured.
“Go on.” he said.
“The town doesn’t really have any political structure to speak of,” Aeala said, sighing. “It’s mostly comprised of mercenaries, mercenary groups and their families. They sustain themselves by hunting in the woods and picking herbs and such. However, for the past month, of the ten parties that had gone into the woods, four had gone completely missing, which is why all the tension is about. After they’d explained it to us, we feared it might be some Demons causing it all, which is why Fish, Kraval, Smite and some town’s mercenaries departed together into the woods. The smoke you most-likely saw was Lucky’s idea as it’s a formation to repel Demonic Spirits in case it’s their fault.”
“...” Lino turned silent for a moment, thinking while tapping the table with his finger lightly. “On my way over,” he said. “I hadn’t sensed any Devil Qi. This is also quite a remote location, hardly accessible by normal means, which is why I doubt it’s the Demons at work here.”
“... yeah, we figured. But, we still had to make sure.” Lucky said, sighing. “They left like four hours ago. If only you were a bit faster.”
“Oh? Who said I would even go?”
“... you always dive headfirst into everything like a complete moron?” Lucky said.
“No, no, that’s the old Lino. The new Lino is a chill dude who sits back and watches others nearly die trying to fix shit they didn’t even fuck up. You need a new sword? I’m your guy! You need some ten-headed, quadra-winged beast killed? I’m not your guy.”
“... what does quadra-winged even mean?” Freya asked.
“... it-it means it has four pair of wings.” Lino explained.
“I’m fairly certain nothing and nobody has four pair of wings.” Shaneine added. “What would even be the purpose?”
“I don’t know! That’s why I wouldn’t be the guy to go and kill it!”
“Oh, shut up,” Aeala said, slapping him lightly on the shoulder. “We all know that you’ll go after them the moment we leave you alone.”
“...” Dammit. It’s in the eyes, right? They read my eyes. I need to learn how to control them.
“Bullseye.” Shaneine said. “Want me to come with?”
“... no need. I’ll be faster alone,” Lino said, not elaborating any further despite various stares. “How do you guys communicate?”
“We had some low-tier talismans in reserve,” Aeala said. “But they will only use it in emergencies or to check in once every two days.”
“... alright, so that’s useless. I should have learned talisman crafting or whatever it’s called.”
“It’s called Talisman Drawing,” Lucky said. “And Shaneine’s already at it. It’s just that we don’t have materials for it.”
“... I’ll see what we can do about that later on. Do you guys have any idea as to what could it be besides Demons?” Lino asked.
“Wild beasts? That’s the best we got.” Lucky said.
“... yeah, that’s really not helpful. But, it’s better than anything.” Lino said. “Anyway, I’m off. You guys try not to kill any friendlies while I’m away.”
He bolted out of there, unwilling to suffer Lucky’s undoubtedly long barrage of insults and complaints. He didn’t spread his wings immediately, not even after leaving the town, but after getting away enough that he wouldn’t be seen while ascending into the sky. The forest was hardly an eerie one; it was rather quite tranquil and beautiful, with all sorts of flora and fauna growing left and right, twining around the trunks of colorful trees. Lino recognized from the markings and lines from the cloth the general direction Fish and others departed toward and he decided to follow it in a broader way as they could have taken side routes someplace. After ascending into the sky, he spread them wide and sped up, repeatedly using Divine Sense to scout while pushing <Empyrean Writ> to regenerate his Qi as quickly as possible. He simultaneously inserted some Qi into his ears and eyes, increasing their sensitivity. It took but a minute for him to pick up something strange - smoke bellowing out into the sky in the midst of nowhere. He got surprised as he thought they’d gotten much deeper which is why he proceeded with caution. He landed almost half a mile away from the smoke into the forest and proceeded on foot, making sure he didn’t make any sound. He also used <Empyrean Writ> to cloak himself entirely, proceeding with caution. Occasionally he’d run into a strange-looking bird but he ignored them all, following the path from his memory that led to the source of smoke. After a few minutes, he climbed up a tree and heaved himself over a few rows down, hiding in thick branches, as his eyes peered through them onto a small clearing below. There, leaning against the trunk of a tree, a young-looking, black-haired man sat. Fire burned in front of him, a rabbit spinning on a skewer on his own over it, sizzling out while intoxicating smell of good food whiffed into Lino’s nostrils, almost causing him to jump down and take a bite.
He remained stationary, however, suspicious of the young man. His skin was rather pale, clothes hidden beneath a black cloak. Lino couldn’t see any weapon nearby, if the straw flapping about in youth’s mouth wasn’t one. After a few minutes, Lino was growing impatient and decided to check out the man through <Empyrean Writ>. The moment he did, though, the man casually raised his head and looked directly toward him. Startled, Lino screamed out as he lost his footing and plummeted onto the ground, rolling forward through thick bushes while crying out in pain.
“You alright?” a melodic, yet cold voice called out to him, waking Lino up to reality that he had been found out. He immediately jumped onto his feet, ready to fight, only to realize that the youth hadn’t moved even an inch, and was merely looking at him curiously. “You seem alright. You know, it’s rude to check someone out before even saying hi.”
“...” utterly confused, Lino merely stood there, blankly staring at the strange youth.
“Care to join me?” the youth said, flicking his finger barely enough for Lino to notice a movement whereupon the rabbit flew off the fire and skewer, miraculously sliced in half in midair, one of the halves flying over to Lino while the other one landed in youth’s hand. “It’s a rare hare,” the youth said, taking a bite. “Can only be found in these woods for some reason. I think it’s the trees.”
“...” still confused, Lino decided to just go with the flow, sitting down on the other end of the fire and beginning to dip his finger into the rabbit; the very first bite was enough to let him know that this indeed wasn’t like any other rabbit he’d ever eaten before. The meat was far more textured and crispy as well as salty, yet it melted almost immediately inside his mouth, turning into warm soup as it flew down his throat. “Shit, this is good!” he cried out, immediately taking another bite.
“Oh? You’re not a mute?” the youth voice out, seeming genuinely surprised.
“... what made you think I was a mute?” Lino asked.
“Because you were muted.”
“...” Let’s just chalk it up to strange people being in strange woods. Yup. “So... how’d you know I was checking you out?”
“Because you’re much weaker than me.” the youth replied casually.
“... no kiddin’.” Lino chuckled bitterly; he wasn’t able to gleam even a single thing about youth from his attempt, which meant the youth was at the very least a whole realm above him.
“Yet, you’re also much stronger than your realm would suggest,” the youth smiled faintly, glancing at Lino. “Strange.”
“... you seem familiar.” Lino said suddenly. “Have we met before?”
“No,” the youth said. “But, you might have seen me before, little blacksmith.”
“... competition?” Lino mumbled, squinting his eyes. “You were on the upper stands!”
“Bingo.” the youth said. “What times were those, no?”
“Prince Relish!!” Lino exclaimed, suddenly leaping onto his feet. “Fuck, you’re not Prince Relish!”
“Oh, in flesh and blood. Though, you’re right. My actual name isn’t Relish.”
“... wait, I thought you died during the Capital’s fall.” Lino said. “How’d you get out---yeah, that question was dumb. Let’s just forget I asked that. Why didn’t you stop it?”
“... why indeed.” the youth mumbled, his eyes seeming dazed for a moment. “I’ll figure out one day. Are you looking for your friends?”
“Yeah. You seen them?” Lino asked; strangely enough, he didn’t feel anxious near or about the strange youth in front of him who for some reason impersonated a Prince of a backwater Kingdom.
“They passed around here about three hours ago,” he replied. “Fidgety bunch.”
“... hey, back up. What were you doing in the Kingdom in the first place?” Lino suddenly asked.
“Oh?” the youth glanced upward, a strange gleam passing through his eyes. “Interesting.” he mumbled, reaching into his pocket and taking out a small, star-shaped wooden pendant from his cloak and tossing it over to Lino who caught it easily. “When you reach Mythic Realm, inject Qi into it and follow the guide. It may lead you to an answer to that question eventually.”
“... well, that was random.” Lino said, inspecting the pendant; however, it seemed completely barren outside its carved star shape.
“Nothing in this world is random,” the youth said. “Remember that. It may save your life. I assume your friends are on the lookout for those idiots living deep in the forest,” the youth said, taking the last bite of the rabbit. “Follow further west for about forty miles and you should meet up with your own, and then another thirty miles southwest and you should reach their hideout.”
“Who are they?” Lino asked, frowning.
“A cult of sorts, I suppose,” the youth explained. “An off-off-off-off branch of the Mainland’s very own great Holy Land, Necrosis Crypt.”
“... I’m drawing a blank here.” Lino said.
“It’s alright,” the youth said, chuckling. “You’re still some ways off from needing to know about them. The cult deals mainly in corpses and reanimation, though they shouldn’t pose much problems to you and your friends. I’m looking forward to meeting you again little blacksmith. Stay well.” before Lino even had a chance to get a word it, the youth disappeared completely, leaving behind not even a strand of hair. Startled, Lino jumped backward, anxiously looking around only to be met with silence. He took the last bite out of rabbit’s meat and sighed, shaking his head as he got up and dusted off his bottom.
“I need to learn something like that,” he mumbled. “I’ve got theatrical entrance in the books, but I’m lacking in exists. How cool would it be to come swopping in with massive wings, and then disappearing in a burst of smoke or something? So damn cool...”