SETTING THE STAGE
Hope Town was sacked in-between boundless valley of green, thick, terrifying forest, and cloud-bounding mountain barren of any green halfway up the winding road. It had a single road perching up its main gates, a road which further along the way branched out into nearly thirty more, all leading where feet would take some. It was not large, yet not small either, just in that midsection where it makes perfect sense it only had one school, and nothing else.
Lino was currently wandering the streets, no doubt hiding from the others who have been practically slaving away for the past two months while he mainly spent the money they didn’t know he had, occasionally doing a mission or two if it interested him. Priest Andre had passed and he had hired almost ten people to move over into that small chapel and look after the kids in his stead, while Lino himself was also a rather frequent babysitter. Today, however, was another’s day; rather than just sight-seeing the already memorized streets, Lino was gathering information for the past month, one which would allow them to climb up further as a Mercenary Group. Though the ceiling awaited them, they were still at the bottom, too far away to see it at the moment. He learned that in order to climb to being the top Mercenary Group in the town, he had to uproot four long-standing ones - Wolf Gang, Skyriders, Velvet Sun and Horned Lords. He also learned that the town was practically ran by a branch family of Su’s, though he hardly knew how important the main family was. Today, he was headed over to find out as just yesterday he found an invitation letter addressed in his name from the branch head. Since Archangel’s Darkness reached C Rank as far as the Mercenary Groups go, they were finally allowed some actual jobs, and it is customary that every new Mercenary Group was inspected on their way up. He was hardly nervous, and mostly curious of how they would approach him. He wagered not many teen-looking leaders came walking through their doors.
Branch family’s compound was stationed eastward of the town’s Central Plaza, it was a rather beautiful mansion laden with marble bricks, and surrounded by oversized gardens which mostly appeared empty more so than anything else. Road leading from the main gates to the mansion was upward and winding through the numerous gardens, small ponds, fountains, and even a training grounds. Lino took it all while he casually strolled, seeming unhurried though he was already half an hour late. His expression was tranquil, his surroundings filled with pleasant silence. Life’s been good, he realized, ever since he arrived here. He knew it was a right thing to do, settling down somewhere inconspicuous for a little while. By the time he’d arrived at the mansion’s main doors, he was nearly an hour late. He truly felt the imposing feeling of the mansion, yet, having been through two halls that would make even seasoned warriors piss their pants, he could hardly care for the awe-inspiring columns and sculpted walls. The doors suddenly opened on their own and he entered into a main hallway, blending straight into a massive stairways leading to the first floor. On the first step, man dressed in simple, black, butler’s clothing waited with his hands behind his back. He looked briefly into Lino’s eyes before beginning to ascend the stairs, signaling Lino to follow him.
The lad began his stroll yet again, taking in the wonderful paintings on the sidewalls and rather beautifully sculpted figures of men and women. The first floor was hardly any different from the one below save for a few more doors leading to a few more rooms. The man moved toward one of them and Lino followed; the doors were already ajar and man merely stepped aside and signaling Lino with his eyes to enter. The latter nodded his head gently and smiled faintly before pushing the doors further open and entering. The room wasn’t large by any means, but it was comfy. Satin blankets hung from the side, separating one of its corners from the rest of the room, while large, half-circular sofa encased a glassed table in its glory. Beyond were a pair of windows, though Lino didn’t get a chance to admire the view as a man was already sitting on the large sofa, sipping tea. He appeared to be in his late thirties, with first signs of thinning, gray hair appearing on his head. With blue eyes and seemingly chiseled face, he was rather handsome, and his clothes were but golden folds and red ribbons, lavish beyond what Lino could ever hope to describe.
“You’re late.” the man broke the silence and jolted Lino from the sight-seeing tour of the room.
“Yeah, sorry about that.” Lino smiled faintly. “I get a bit lost, from time to time.”
“... you’re the first person to have made me wait in almost thirty years,” the man said, putting down his tea cup. “It appears you neither want your Mercenary Group to succeed in this town nor do you want to keep on living.”
“Yeah, kill a man because he’s late,” Lino said, sitting on the sofa as well and leaning back while groaning lowly; it was rather comfortable. He decided he’d get himself one of these soon enough. “Sounds reasonable. So, what’s your name?”
“...” though Lino could almost feel man’s fiery gaze parch his skin, he chose to ignore it. Proud and egotistic men were everywhere, and have been a part of Lino’s life since his childhood. If you give them the respect they expect, they’ll never see you as a human being, but as some form of a bob they can walk right over any time and anywhere.
“Relax big guy,” Lino said, smiling as he poured himself a cup of tea. “You don’t seem a day older than a hundred to me, but if you keep that frown up, you may just get to two hundred by the time we’re done.”
“... you never really learned to respect those above you, have you?” the man asked, forcing a smile.
“No, I have,” Lino said. “You see, when I didn’t respect them, one of them used to use butcher knife to skin my back, another used me to experiment with whip sturdiness, and another would starve me to near death just because I woke up in the morning... alive. The difference between then and now is that, now, I can just get up and leave, and, well, let’s face it, you could try, but you’re hardly strong enough to stop me from doing that.”
“A little respect goes a long way, lad.” the man said, chuckling as he also leaned back. “Had you given them any, perhaps your childhood would have been less of a bore to listen to.”
“... I assume that, by now, you had your minions look us up,” Lino skipped the drivel and decided to get straight to the point. “And beyond the fact that you’re rather terrified of how strong we are despite our small numbers, I’m betting my left ball you haven’t learned anything else about any one of us. You invited me over most-likely expecting someone over the age of twenty, but, well, tough luck. You expected a pal you could take afternoon off with and sip this disgusting tea while laughing about things neither one of you finds particularly funny. Well, tough luck again. We don’t care about the city,” Lino said, his piercing gaze sending shivers down the man’s spine. “We’ll be out of your hair soon enough. That is, so long as you leave us alone and let us do our thing. We don’t need any encouragement with gifts, and neither will you from us. And, one of my dear friends told me that the next minion you send over to our compound will end up with his head on a stake right atop the city gates. And, trust me, she means every last one of those words. She’s also insane. Like, literally insane. I think the last time she felt something, she was someone completely different about ten billion years ago.”
“...” every word Lino spoke seemed to be true, yet man could do nothing but sit still and stare. After he’d learned of the new Mercenary Group, he had them researched as every other in the city. However, the more he learned about them, the less he wanted them in the city. Every single last one was cultivator, and almost all were strong. And, perhaps worst of all, he truly didn’t know anything about them. Not their names, not how old they were, not what their cultivation path was, not where they come from... he learned that knowing someone well was half a battle won, yet, that half was missing with the new, mysterious group. He was looking forward to today’s meeting, as he truly wanted to make friends with their leader. He, however, hardly imagined their leader to be a kid with a tongue of a snake. “Heh, it’s a shame you won’t be staying in the city for too long.” the man said after short silence, chuckling.
“... I did not expect that.” Lino’s eyebrow arched as he took a sip of the tea he couldn’t help but hate down to his core yet also repeatedly drink.
“... the town’s full of people willing to bend over without me ever saying anything,” the man said, smiling faintly. “Almost all Mercenary Groups worth a while are competing over who can be a bigger kiss-ass, and... well, truth be told, I’ve grown tired of it all. They’re cultivators, for god’s sake. That calling used to mean something. It used to say you were proud, your will was firmer than diamonds, your heart sturdier than stone. Now? Any poor, filthy degenerate seems to be a cultivator. You... you just don’t seem the type, for a change.”
“... you’re weird.” Lino said. “Got any fruit?”
“Yeah, I’m the weird one.” the man said, looking at Lino oddly while taking out a bowl and some fruit from seemingly nowhere. “What’s your name?”
“... it’s, uh, a unique name. I’m Van Sereh Qinn Su. Nice to meet you, Lino.”
“That’s a mouthful.” Lino complained.
“... just call me old man.”
“I was going to.”
“You don’t really hold your punches, do you?”
“It’s all that suppressed anger from my childhood, I think.”
“There’s only so many things you can excuse by bad childhood, you know?” the man said, smiling.
“... I don’t excuse my shortcomings because, from time to time, I forgot what food felt like when I was a kid,” Lino said. “It’s pathetic.”
“Yeah, we’re all kind of insane,” Lino flashed him a bright smile. “But, you know, everyone’s got their demons. What’s yours Van?”
“Call me Qinn.”
“Van is easier.”
“You do realize you’ll never win this battle, right?” Lino asked.
“A man has to try.”
“Well, you tried Van.”
“... ugh,” Qinn grumbled something lowly into his jaw before replying. “My demon? There’s so many kid I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“How about staring with why do I feel a pair of eyes currently piercing my skull and trying to kill me?” Lino tilted his head sideways toward the doors who were ajar once again, and saw a head bobbled in-between the frame and the wall. His eyes and heart froze for a moment as his gaze landed on the oval-shaped, snow-pale face slightly obscured by night-black hair and a pair of glistening, emerald eyes.
“Hey, Sylvia!” Qinn called out when he saw the girl. “What are you doing here? I thought I told you dad would be busy today!”
“You told me we would have lunch together!” the girl grumbled as she walked in. Since Lino was expecting some sort of lavished dress, he was rather stumped when instead he realized she wore simple, leather armor with a pair of scimitars strapped to her belt.
“Oh, yeah, I did say that.” Qinn said, smiling awkwardly while glancing at Lino.
“Yeah, that one would be my fault,” Lino said, smiling. “You see, drinking tea with me was just far more interesting than having lunch with you, so he figured he’d just crush you and scar you like the rest of the kids out there.”
“...” Qinn sighed and shook his head.
“... who’s this tadpole and why is he speaking without ever being given permission?” the girl said. She appeared to be half a head taller than Lino and somewhat older, yet still near his age.
“Who am I? I’m your new husband,” Lino said as he got up and grabbed her hand, kissing it gently. “And I don’t like the tongue on you, young lady!”
“...” while Sylvia froze in spot, her eyes darting toward Qinn with a bucket full of pleas in them, the old man couldn’t help but nearly burst out in laughter. Hardly anyone could make his daughter be at a complete loss for words, while at the same time terrifying the god out of her.
“Don’t worry honey, he’s messing around,” Qinn said. “He’s a leader of the new group in town. We were just having a chat and I lost the track of time.”
“Hey, dude,” Lino looked at him. “Couldn’t you have played along for at least a while? Didn’t you see the look on her face? Imagine if she broke down and started crying. It would be beautiful.”
“... you and I really have different ideas of what beautiful means.” Qinn said.
“Hey, broken childhood, bitter dreams. Play along man.”
“... let go of my hand or I’ll kill you.” Lino heard angry voice whisper into his ears and glanced sideways to Sylvia’s distorted face.
“You can’t kill what has never lived,” Lino said. “You can only appreciate it for what it is.”
“I don’t know. It sounded better in my head. Anyway, Van,” Lino turned toward the old man as he let go of Sylvia’s hand. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Get us a better tea---wait, I’m a man, I don’t want to drink damn tea. I’ll take care of drinks. You just make sure this jewel here isn’t adorning someone else’s crown at least until we leave.” Lino didn’t give either a chance to say a word as he simply waved and left, leaving both Qinn and Sylvia stumped in strange silence.
“Seriously dad, who was that and how can you let them treat you like that?!” Sylvia was the one to break the silence.
“I was serious,” Qinn said, sighing. “He is the leader of the new Mercenary Group I was telling you about.”
“Archangel’s Darkness?” Sylvia’s eyebrow arched as she asked.
“Yeah. And as for why I let him talk to me like that,” Qinn said, taking a sip of tea. “It’s mostly because I’m terrified of him, to be honest.”
“... I figured,” Sylvia said, looking at him. “I couldn’t move a muscle in my hand when he was holding it. He didn’t even use an ounce of Qi. Who the hell are these guys?”
“... I wish I knew.”