Lino stood atop the courtyard’s wall, his legs hanging off the ledge, eyes staring into the distant sky. Just a few minutes ago a communication talisman burned up, signaling that Aeala and others had run into something and are on their way back. They’d been gone for two weeks, which meant whatever they ran into was deep in the woods, most-likely further than other mercenaries in the town dared travel. Whatever it was, Lino knew, it must have been big to scare them off and even cause them to use a talisman to warn him. He immediately climbed the wall and used Divine Sense as far as it will go to scout for any inconsistencies, but it appeared everything was fine, and whatever they ran into didn’t get them exposed. Lino glanced toward the Su Family’s courtyard, wondering whether it’s the right choice to warn them as well. In the end, he decided not to stir up dust without knowing everything in detail. For all he knew, it was just a big beast they couldn’t defeat on their own. However, deep in his heart, doubts began to fester, as his gut had practically come to a conclusion of its own that they came across Demons.
He sighed lowly, shaking his head as though to push out the dangerous thoughts, before descending down the wall and beginning a casual stroll through the city. He wore rather tattered clothes, making him no different than everyday beggar, which caused everyone to circle him from fear of being asked for money. He enjoyed the feeling quite a bit as he didn’t have to brush shoulders just to get places. Over nearly four months that he had stayed here, during which he’d turned seventeen, he had learned the town’s streets by heart. Even with closed eyes he’d be able to go out and about. Just a few blocks off from their courtyard, toward the city’s northern side, was his favorite bakery, where they made a jam-and-butter bread that he’d spent dozens of gold coins on by now, eating it every day. A few dozen meters further away was a fine tavern where they sold town’s local special ale, made from the yeast extracted from the nearby farms. On the other end of the town, by the southern gate, was a gambler’s den, where most of the mercenary bosses spent their days trying to make it big. On the western side were mostly houses and further away farms, tying up to the river. On the eastern side were numerous headquarters of Mercenary Groups, and shops that catered to them. All around, it was a very normal town, Lino found; even with presence of cultivators, save for the latter’s arrogance, it wasn’t much different than Umbra Capital, though somewhat smaller and more rural. He’d grown to enjoy his days spent here; they were beyond peaceful. Most days, he’d wake up late and go out for breakfast, taking a stroll back when he’d either craft something or study up arrays, runes and materials. Though his Level hadn’t gone up by much, barely passing 80, his crafting had increased exceptionally he felt. He even crafted a few weapons and sold them on the market for decent sum, and even managed to stir up a small commotion over a new, unknown blacksmith with a winged crest. However peaceful his days were, though, he hadn’t lost the sharpness; he felt, deep down, these days were coming to an end.
It was nearly evening when he’d finished strolling through the town aimlessly lost in his own thoughts, returning back to the group’s courtyard. They still hadn’t come back, and he wasn’t expecting them for a day or two at the very least, even if they rushed back at full speed. Just as he was about to head inside for another round of studying, he felt a small Qi fluctuation coming from above, causing him to smile. He casually looked up and saw a familiar figure descending from the sky atop the sword, landing in front of him. Velin wore a rather casual clothes this time around, seemingly having realized that Lino didn’t care much about the customs, seeing as latter had worn rags most of the time when he wasn’t fighting. Those were simply clothes Lino was accustomed to, and no matter how much money he had to buy fancy ones, he simply felt uncomfortable wearing them.
“A drink?” Lino asked, entering the small house. Velin followed shortly after him, assenting with silence. “I wasn’t expecting a return visit from you, you know? You seemed pretty mad when you left.”
“... I wasn’t mad,” Velin said, sitting down while Lino went to fetch a bottle and two cups. “Just confused.”
“What brings you back today?” Lino asked, sipping them both a cup.
“... you may not realize, but not many people in the Clan like to socialize with me.”
“Oh, I realized that one.” Lino said, smiling.
“You did? How?” Velin asked, seeming confused.
“... it’s people’s nature,” Lino elaborated. “You’re a golden kid, elders’ favorite, and though you may not look down on them, they’ll still take it as you do no matter how you behave. Just let it go.”
“... you’re rather perceptive.” Velin said, taking a sip. “And you’re right.”
“Don’t feel bad about it,” Lino said, gulping down half the cup and burping. “It’s not even your fault to begin with. They’re just insecure.”
“Heh, of course I’m not. I’m way better than you.”
“Wow, cat bit your tongue?”
“I want you to teach me how... how to be like you. You know, happy-go-lucky type.” Velin suddenly said, surprising Lino.
“...” the latter stared at the man in front of him for a moment, sighing. “Why’d you want to be like me?”
“... Sylvia canceled our engagement.” Velin dropped a bomb out of nowhere, causing Lino to nearly spit out a mouthful of ale he had just drank. “Though everyone’s giving me the looks of sympathy, in their eyes I only see mockery. Then I remembered you and realized you’d never let it get to you. I want you to teach me how.”
“... do you know why she dropped your ass?” Lino asked, causing Velin to growl lowly for a moment.
“No, I don’t. She just said she wanted to focus on herself for the time being.”
“...” Is this my fault? Nah, she was already screwing Annabel before I showed up. That’s all on her. “Maybe you should look at her as an example.”
“What do you mean?”
“... I’m really not the best person to give out advice,” Lino said, smiling bitterly. “You ought to look for sagacious people with wisdom beyond their age, though their age may be kind of insane. I’m just a poor boy looking for crumbs so he doesn’t starve.”
“... right. And I’m still a happily engaged, golden child of my Clan.”
“Wow, you’d already hit the first rule right on its head.” Lino exclaimed.
“Right, first rule: sarcasm. It’s a mother of deflection,” Lino said. “It’s followed closely by denial. If you want to be like me, those are two ingredients you need. If it hurts, you pretend it doesn’t. If someone asks if it hurts, you sarcastically tell them you aren’t a six year old girl whose candy just got stolen.”
“... that seems unhealthy.”
“Oh, it is, trust me,” Lino said, finishing up the cup. “But, you’re the one who asked to be like me. Oh, and there’s also drinking,” Lino said as he poured another cup. “Lots and lots of drinking. It kills things inside you that should have never been born to begin with.”
“... maybe I should look for those sagacious people you mentioned.” Velin said, smiling.
“Maybe you should,” Lino added, his expression growing serious for a moment. “That being said, I could use you and your sagacious friends.”
“For what?” Velin asked, surprised that the kid in front of him had a serious side to him.
“... my group departed for the forest a few weeks back,” Lino said. “And yesterday, a communication talisman we’ve set up for highest emergencies got triggered. They’ve ran across something so terrifying they had to warn me beforehand.”
“...” Velin’s expression grew serious immediately; though he wasn’t from town, he also knew of the strength of Lino’s mercenary group. All of them were cultivators, most around Level 80. That’s the strength of Elite Disciple groups in his Clan, future elders. “What do you need help with?”
“... how much do you know about Demons?” Lino asked.
“Demons?!” Lino immediately saw horror spawn inside Velin’s eyes. “They came across Demons?!”
“... most-likely,” Lino said, trusting his gut feeling. “From your reaction, I’m guessing you know a thing or two.”
“... how can I not?!” Velin’s expression grew distorted with anger and hate before replying. “About half a year ago... my Clan suffered a major Demonic invasion. Nearly half a million of demonically possessed, thousands of Demons, from Low-tier to Great Demons, even Devils... they sieged us for nearly a month before we managed to get rid of them... on the account of thousands dying form our side. Why do you think it’s Demons? After that, we made sure we exterminated every single one we found.”
“...” as Lino guessed a long time ago, it appears as though Demonic Invasion wasn’t limited to Umbra Kingdom. Even beyond the gorge, it happened. Which made his hypothesis that Aeala and others ran into Demons even more into a certainty. “My group and I came from the other side of the gorge,” Lino explained. “Where Demonic Invasion took place as well. However, cultivators are scarce over there. We were unable to fight back. The entire other end had fallen into their hands. Just as we crossed it, they could have as well.”
“...” Velin’s pupils dilated for a moment as he grit his teeth. “So it’s really an epidemic...”
“What do you need our help with?” Velin asked.
“... as whatever they came across is in the forest,” Lino said, sighing. “It’s a good guess it’ll come out eventually. And the first thing on its path is this town. With what we have, if it’s really another Demonic Invasion... tell me, can we defend against it?”
“What, you don’t have a confidence in being a hero?” Velin asked, grinning.
“... heroes die pointless deaths,” Lino said, his expression strangely obscure. “I have no desire in becoming a name on the chart of history.”
“.... right. You’re definitely not a happy-go-get type.” Velin said. “You need reinforcements?”
“Not at the moment,” Lino said. “That would just scare them shitless.” he added, pointing outside toward the town. “But I need to be able to reach you immediately, and you need to be able to respond immediately if needed. Do you have anyone in your Clan that can construct Teleport Formation?”
“Teleport Formation?” Velin arched his brow as he questioned. “Well, Elder Varr has the method, but... the amount of resources required is simply... we’ve barely been able to establish a single one in case of emergencies so we can flee safely.”
“... write down the ingredients,” Lino said. “I’ll take care of that.”
“You sure you can? These aren’t the things you can find growing around. For over half, we had to purchase them from big-time Sects at insane prices.”
“... I’ll handle it.” Lino said. “My group will take point on this and if it really turns out to be a Demonic Invasion, I’ll coordinate with other Leaders to form the scout team so we’re always ahead.”
“If you tell them Demons are coming, they’ll leave this town before you can get another word in.”
“... leave that to me as well.”
“... you seem confident.” Velin said.
“People are rather simple,” Lino said, smiling as he got up. “Especially those who’ve grasped the power. They don’t want to let it go. If you can threaten that, you can get them to do whatever you want them to do. It’s quite straightforward, actually.”
“You should go.” Lino said. “Your would-be-father-in-law is on his way over.”
“... I’ll contact you in the next few days.” Velin said, getting up and leaving.
Lino sat back down and began drinking again, awaiting for another guest. He didn’t expecting old man Van to suddenly show up as he didn’t think he’d done anything to warrant a visit in the past few days. Perhaps it’s that Sylvia matter? Eh, must be. I should just deny everything. Yup, safer that way. Not a minute passed before another fluctuation of Qi blasted over the courtyard. Old man Van came through the doors without knocking, his appearance slightly dishevelled. He’s out for blood! Lino thought, though his expression remained serene.
“Where’s your group?!” Van asked, somewhat anxiously.
“My group?” Lino tilted his in confusion.
“Something... something big’s happening...” Van said as he sat across from Lino, taking the bottle in front of him without even looking at what it was, gulping half of it. “Are you familiar with Demons?” Massive Deja Vu right there...
“...” Lino said nothing, merely nodding his head.
“Part of me being a leader in this town,” he elaborated. “Is knowing everything. This includes the main hunting ground for the Mercenary Groups.”
“Aye, the forest,” Van nodded. “My men have pretty much mapped it out over these past few years, and I’m aware of every beast in every corner of it. However, just a few hours ago, report came in that they’ve discovered a new part that we previously haven’t mapped. I thought it was odd which is why I asked them to investigate further. Of the ten men that went in, only one came out with a simple report: Army of Demons has gathered.”
“...” though Lino didn’t mind being right, this was one of those few occasions when he wasn’t. He sighed deeply before taking up the cup and drinking. “How many?”
“... hundreds of thousands, possibly more.” Van said, seemingly calming down somewhat, as if Lino’s calm demeanour transferred over onto him. “Though he wasn’t certain, the one that survived said he felt dense Devil Qi coming from the high tower in the center.”
“Devil Variants crossed over, huh?”
“Yeah... the question now is... which kind?”
“It doesn’t matter which kind,” Lino said. “We can’t handle Devil Variant.”
“You don’t have to,” Van shook his head. “I’ve already sent a messenger to the Main Family. They’ll send people who can deal with them.”
“So, what do you need my group for?” Lino asked.
“They can’t pull out too many people... world of cultivation is a cruel one, and if those who don’t take kindly toward us realize we’ve emptied our headquarters...”
“...blood will flow.” Lino mumbled, nodding. “I’ve some experience fighting Demons,” Lino said. “Those Demonically Possessed aren’t an issue, and neither are the Low and High-tier Demons. Problems start to crop up when we’re dealing with Greater Demons. My group and I can handle two-three at most at any given time.”
“... even that’s better than what I expected.” Van frowned for a moment before speaking. “I’m not confident other Mercenary Groups will even stay once I relay the news to them.”
“Oh, they’ll stay,” Lino smiled mysteriously for a moment. “My group should be back in two days’ time. So, that day, at night, throw a banquet and invite every leader of every group over. I’ll have a heart-to-heart chat with them and convince them of their humanity.”
“... why does that sound far more foreboding than the words would incline?”
“You’re imagining things.” Lino smiled innocently, emptying the cup.
“... I don’t care, so long as you make them stay. A few elders from the Main Family should arrive by the morning; come over and we can start arranging the defensive strategy.”
“Will do.” Lino said.
“Thanks. I’ve a lot to do, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“To us all.” Lino nodded as Van got up and left.
Limo remained sitting and drinking in silence; no matter how far one ran from their past, it inevitably catches up and comes knocking yet again. Lino still hasn’t forgotten the massive swarms of Demonically Possessed people over in Umbra Kingdom, one group numbering in nearly a quarter of million. Even if individually they weren’t particularly strong, that number is large enough to exhaust anyone, let alone soldiers from this town who hardly ever fought against something that doesn’t care for its own life. Naturally, Lino had a choice of simply disappearing alongside Aeala and others, and dooming the town to fall. However, he’d already accepted the fact that he can’t leave; compromising once means only that one’s heart gets accustomed to it. He’d already ran away once, leaving behind dead and dying, and he couldn’t find it in his heart to do so again. Though it meant another pointless war where countless would no doubt die, he’d firmly decided he’d partake in it and see to its end, no matter how bitter it may turn out. He let loose a long breath and smiled faintly, looking out the window over the skyline of the town he’d grown to like. It always felt better to be fighting for something and someone, he realized.
END OF VOLUME III - ARCHANGEL'S DARKNESS