A familiar path spread before his eyes, one which bore a striking memory of the first time he came to the City of Sun. It was a winding road splicing the mountain as it went round and through, surrounded by lavish greenery of meadows and valleys, and great Flent River which went on southward to spill into the Imus Sea. It was a highly traveled road, be it merchant’s or ordinary man’s, and it never dubbed itself silent since many moons ago.
Lino was not alone, however; traveling alongside him was a silver-furred husky whose tongue lashed out in drool, its eyes cunningly glancing around, its tail waggling strangely. Besides him was another companion, a curious, handsome youth who respectfully walked a few steps behind Lino. The latter, though, found it quite awkward as Lino still appeared like a common, filthy beggar, while Felix oozed the air of nobility, which invoked many strange glances toward the trio.
Though Lino asked the youth to walk by his side many times, Felix resoundingly refused each time, saying it would a sin to his forefathers. Lino had no clue what that meant, but seeing just how stubborn Felix was about it, he decided to let it be. It did incur more than a few strange glances, but Lino, after all, had a rather thick skin, all things considered.
What annoyed him more, though, was the damned dog who for some reason decided to follow him. Along the way, Lino always prayed that no female dogs came along, because whenever they did, his little ‘friend’ would jump them immediately. He also had tendency of stealing and pulling pranks. More than once he’d jumped in front of the horses pulling carriages, causing the poor animals to freak out and fall, dragging the carriage - and everyone in them - down. It’s only been two days since he’d departed from the City of Sun, yet he already regretted pulling along the entourage.
“Master,” Felix’s voice pulled him out of bitter thoughts as he glanced back. “There’s a traveler’s inn nearby in case you wish to rest. I can ensure they give you the best room they have.”
“... why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be serving Evelyn? You were just made the second most influential person in the Kingdom! Why are you wasting your youth following me around?!” Lino cried out suddenly, feeling it all overwhelm him.
“It doesn’t matter. Following Master is more important.”
“Woof, woof!” the dog barked, nodding of all things. Lino felt truly bitter; in his heart he believed his purpose for traveling to Demonic Battlefield was pure and innocent, yet with the accompaniment of these two, it now appeared more like a luxurious getaway rather than anything else.
“... fine. I guess I could use a map seeing as I forgot to buy one.” Lino mumbled in slight frustration before letting it go... for 11th time since they departed from the city.
The trio slowly began climbing the upward spiral, only stopping to rest before the night fell upon the world. Per Felix’s instructions, the trio moved slightly off the main road and soon came across the traveler’s inn that was rather popular. It was a three-story, beautifully designed building erected near a small, but perversely breathtaking pond of water over which a stone bridge sprung to the other end where a system of caves existed, each leading to archaeological sites and artifacts that were unearthed, pointing to the distant past.
Felix and Lino lodged in a single room while the dog was let go to survive on its own devices, which Lino believed would include a lot of weepings and cryings come morning. In that brief moment as he watched the dog skittle into the wooded area, he silently prayed for all those who were staying in the inn.
They were welcomed at the counter by a middle-aged, smiling lady with sharply red hair and freckled cheeks, above which a pair of diluted, crimson eyes rested. Lino immediately recognized her to be a member of Kvalend Race, a rather prominent tribal race of Demonic Battlefield. Although he wondered how she wound up here, he didn’t care enough to ask.
“How can I help you two?” she asked in a joyful manner.
“We wish to rent a room,” Felix said, digging into his pocket and taking out a few gold coins. “And reserve an early-morning breakfast.”
“...” woman’s eyes glistened strangely as her gazed washed over the golden shine of the coins. “Of course, of course! Anything for the revered guests. Do you require any... extra attention?” she added with faint smile.
“Extra attention?” Felix mumbled in confusion as he tilted his head sideways.
“... who would... be giving it?” Lino asked in similar, ambiguous tone, confusing Felix even further. As a Child of Nobility, especially one of the few who didn’t frequent brothels, he was quite unaware of the jargon.
“Does Young Master have any special preference?” the woman asked, smiling strangely at Lino as her eyes looked up and down across him.
“... yeah, I was thinking someone my age.” Lino said in strange tone.
“... it’s a clever scheme,” Lino suddenly leaned in close to woman’s ear while grabbing her arm and preventing her from pulling back. “But, and I know this might come as a surprise, your Art isn’t omniscient. Now, I want you to slowly retract it so the poor boy’s future isn’t forever fucked because of you, or I’ll snap your head off your body. Got it?”
“...--y-yes...” the woman meekly mumbled as she closed her eyes quickly, her expression distorted to one of terror. Not specifically because the strange man’s words, but rather because of the grip on her arm; it felt... inhuman. It felt that no matter how strong she could ever get, that grip could forever hold her in place.
“Good,” Lino let go and smiled, even laughing for a moment. “Chop us some fine meat into the breakfast soup. Give us keys now.”
“O-of course. It’s, it’s on the second floor, room 11.” the woman said, handing over a copper key, not daring to look up into Lino’s eyes.
The latter grabbed the keys nonchalantly before pulling Felix after him and climbing upstairs, leaving the woman to seethe in silence. The stairs creaked slightly and the two passed by numerous guests, some which had rather strange expressions and glint in their eyes. It was only then that Felix’s eyes shone in realization as he gasped lowly.
“Kvalend Arts...” his eyes steered toward the man in front of him almost immediately. “Master... how did you know?” Lino glanced back at Felix and smiled faintly before replying.
“Aroma.” he said. “I remembered reading a passage on most prominent races of Demonic Battlefield and the mention of Kvalends. Though not large in number, they are still relatively feared and left to their own devices due to their innate art, easily recognized through the aroma they exude when using it.”
“... still, just knowing the aroma isn’t enough to resist it.” Felix said, feeling somewhat frightened in his heart. Most of the time when his Father would talk about Demonic Battlefield, he would warn Felix of specific dangers - and one of those was the entire race of Kvalends, specifically their art.
“Of course not,” Lino said. “Do you know why, despite being respected and recognized, Kvalends never tried to expand further into the mainland in an attempt to conquer?”
“... why?” Felix asked, somewhat interested. The two had by now climbed onto the second floor and turned right toward the room numbered 11 that was at the end of the hallway.
“Because, once you remove their Art of Corruption from the equation,” Lino explained, unlocking the room. “They are by far one of the weakest cultivators of the same realm. And, really, anyone who’s undergone a crucible of one kind or another can easily dispel their illusions.”
“... crucible?” Felix mumbled, an image flashing inside his mind, one of his Master standing above the graves, his shoulders sunken like ships on dried riverbed.
“It need not be anything grand or life changing,” Lino said. “Just something that would strengthen your heart. Of course, for more senior members of the race, it’s a bit more difficult to resist but, by large, majority of top-ranked Races, Clans and organizations on the Demonic Battlefield are resistant to them.”
“...” Felix suddenly felt a slight tinge of shame as, if it wasn’t for his Master, he would have no doubt been put under the spell.
“Don’t feel bad about it,” Lino said, smiling as he jumped onto the bed and sighed in strange comfort. “It was your first time coming face to face with them.”
“B-but.. wasn’t it yours too, Master?” Felix asked meekly.
“And that’s why I’m a Master and you’re a Disciple!” Lino exclaimed with strange sense of pride and oddly serious expression.
“... what?” Lino asked, seeing Felix’s strange expression.
“C-can... can I say something?”
“... right. Your rules apply to everyone, including you,” Felix said, taking a deep breath. “Why is it that Master is sometimes so serious... and... sometimes so... childish?” Felix asked a question out loud, one that he has been asking himself inwardly for months now.
“... c-childish?” Lino was taken aback, a feeling clearly reflected on his face. “W-what do you mean childish?!”
“... I-I mean... I mean... at one moment, you will be teaching me mysteries of cultivation, and a second later you would be approaching women and begging them to slap you...”
“Khm...” Lino coughed lowly. “It’s, uh, it’s a... it’s above your understanding for now, yeah. It’s not something you can comprehend at the moment. Don’t think about it. Yeah. Go to sleep. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us tomorrow.”
“... yes.” Felix once again glanced strangely at his Master before moving to the other bed and lying down. Now, at least, he knew why his Master behaved so strangely; it was just... who he was.