It’s almost been a month since Felix and Lino had entered the ruins, yet save for the accidental meeting of four people once, they haven’t ran into another living soul since. Moreover, Felix only now began to grasp the sheer size of this place; it wasn’t simply ‘ruins’ as those he read about in texts, that at most had a few dozen buildings. It was a genuine, Empire-sized underground place of sorts, with signs of numerous, individual cities connected with the winding roads.
From time to time, his Master would wander off following the dog, but Felix never inquired as he himself looked forward to those times since they gave him opportunity to study the ruins in more detail. Even if he was unable to understand a single letter of the strange language, thanks to mosaics, paintings and occasional sculptures, he slowly began forming a notion of Forgotten Kingdom’s identity.
Along the way they came across another Artifact which was similarly gifted to him; it had little practical use as it mainly increased Fire Qi attributes, but he could always donate it to his Family’s treasury and take something that suited him in return. From what Felix observed, Lino truly didn’t seem to care about the Artifacts. He only ever bothered if they were somewhere close, and would always have Felix go grab them and keep them without ever even looking at them.
Felix, lost in thought while looking at various sketches on an archaic piece of parchment that he picked up, suddenly bumped into something firm and fell backwards. Looking up, he saw that his Master had suddenly come to a halt, hands in his pockets, a faint smile on his face. Following Lino’s gaze, Felix looked forward and spotted another figure ten or so meters away; it was a... completely ordinary-looking man, Felix realized. However, once he looked at the man’s eyes, Felix felt terror akin to hellish punishment creep through his soul. Powerful expert!
Damian stood in place, curious of the strangely-dressed newcomer standing close to him; it didn’t take even a moment for him to realize that this was the legendary beggar from the City of Sun that he heard so much about. True to the rumors, no matter how Damian looked at the man, he couldn’t gleam anything... absolutely anything. It was as though the man before him didn’t even exist; he would be able to discern a thing or two even if the man was just an ordinary mortal, yet, despite his probing, nothing came of it. It felt as though the world was void of everything at the place the man stood.
“Hello.” Lino said with a carefree smile, waving lightly toward Damian.
“Hello.” Damian replied in an ordinary, unhurried voice, bowing slightly. “How are you?”
“I’m well. You?”
“I can’t complain.”
“How are wife and kids?” Felix watched the two exchange small-talk as though they were old-time friends, yet, he was 100% certain this was the first time two met. Experts are truly terrifying... in many different ways...
“That’s good. Health is important.”
“Indeed it is. Are you blessed with a family?” Damian asked.
“That’s a shame. Family is a good thing.”
“Indeed it is,” Lino said, nodding. “How’s work?” Hey, hey hey!!! Felix screamed inwardly, utterly gobsmacked. What the hell is this?!! Why are you talking like two friends from work?!
“Interesting. I’ve learned many things recently.”
“That’s good. Knowing more is always beneficial.”
“You?” Damian asked.
“I’ve learned plenty as well.”
“Do you wish to trade?”
“What are we trading?” Lino asked.
“What do you have?”
“Three quality, [Rare] otherwise extinct materials per blueprint.”
“Agreed.” Felix then watched two men exchange goods as though it was nothing out of the ordinary. They truly operated on a completely different level from him.
“Nice.” Lino said, examining the twelve materials he obtained. “You were quite lucky.”
“So were you.” Damian said, looking over the blueprints of strange weapons and items that he couldn’t yet fully understand. He figured he’d have to immerse himself in seclusion if he wanted to grasp them truly. “I’m Damian.”
“It was nice meeting you. In case you come across more goods, contact me.” Damian threw over a jade-crafted talisman which Lino casually caught and threw into void world.
“Ditto.” Lino said, throwing one of his own that Damian caught and similarly put away. “It was a pleasure.”
“Likewise. Good luck.”
“Same to you.” as casually as he came, Damian walked away, leaving behind gratified Lino and Felix who felt as though his understanding of the world was being shattered. What was that?! No matter how hard he tried... he couldn’t process it.
“Interesting guy.” Lino mumbled, smiling faintly.
“M-master... was... was that really Damian? The Damian?” Felix asked weakly.
“Hm? Yeah. What about it?” Lino asked.
“Nice guy, right?”
“Y-yeah... nice guy...”
“He even gave me a piece of [Refined Moon-cast Iron]. Do you know how rare this thing is?” Lino said, flashing a palm-sized, silver-hued object in front of Felix’s eyes. “Rumors are that there are no more than fifteen unused pieces remaining in the world, yet he so casually gave it away. Haah... a really generous guy.”
“...” above everything else, however, Felix felt... disappointed. That was a meeting between two powerful experts!! Where was witty banter?! Where were exchanges, respect gained through mutual struggle?! Where was anything worthwhile?!! “M-master... did you know him before today?” Felix asked.
“Eh? No. I just met him.”
“He’s much better than that Al’ prick,” Lino said, clicking his tongue. “Calling me little beggar. Humph. Bastard.”
“...” Felix felt cold sweat swarm his back. Master is really unafraid of everything and everyone!! Calling His Majesty a bastard... he’s probably the only one on the continent...
“Ah, anyway, let’s speed up,” Lino suddenly said, putting his hands back into his pockets. “That guy will probably circle around and meet up with his forces before converging toward the center. Chances are, Al’s already there as well as few others. We can’t be lagging behind. What if they take all the good stuff? Humph. I’d rather eat shit than let that guy take anything.”
“... M-master... do you... do you have some grudge against His Majesty?” Felix asked meekly.
“Grudge? No? Why do you ask?” Lino asked, turning around and looking at Felix with odd eyes.
“... haaah.. no reason.”
“Jeez, get a grip man. Don’t go off creating stories in your head, that’s unhealthy.” Yeah... I’m really unhealthy, caring about anything anymore...
Felix remained quite dispirited as he matched his Master’s slightly elevated pace. They sped past numerous ruins, making Felix sigh in regret. However, he knew there would be time to come back here and explore to his heart’s content once the major powers have swept all the important valuables. Though it may take a while for that to happen, as Empress’ right-hand he felt he would also have at least a small bit of priority. Thinking about it elevated his spirit somewhat, making him more excited. Though his Master and Damian’s meeting was rather... uneventful, Felix knew that wouldn’t be the case once everyone converged at the center.
However they may behave on the surface, Felix was well aware that this was the dog-eat-dog sort of a world, especially at the very height of power. In order to remain there, one can hardly afford to be soft; if there were benefits to be gained, especially if those benefits were quite important, it wasn’t strange for two sides to enter a long, dreadful war over it all. He’d watched his Father repeatedly go back and forth between the City of Sun and Frontier, growing colder and more distant with each visit. Felix didn’t really understand it as a young boy, even fostering some resentment toward his Father. While other kids his age enjoyed their Fathers’ personal teachings and love, he was lucky enough if he got to see the man twice a year.
It wasn’t until much later that he learned to instead respect what his Father was doing. While other Nobles festered in the comfort of their own homes, his Father remained at frontlines repeatedly, year in and out, defending against all sorts of wicked groups. He even began hoping to one day inherit the title of the Duke and substitute his Father at the frontier.
This expedition was also quite important to him; not only would it show him the true big players of the continent, but also provide him with knowledge over just how far behind he was and what he had to do to get up there with the rest. He cast a quick glance at his Master, at this elusive figure that seemed completely unshakable. Whether it rained blood or thunder, it always seemed as though Lino had it all under complete control. Felix envied that greatly, that lofty freedom. Yet, in his heart he knew that the price his Master paid for it was definitely not small. Perhaps it was even something his Master regretted, as Felix would often catch glimpses of buried sorrows and aches in his Master’s eyes. He wondered whether that’s really what it took to reach the peak... to abandon everything and discard fears and anxieties completely, becoming as tranquil as an undisturbed lake. Maybe... and maybe not. He would certainly learn it one day, he knew; he was just wondering whether he should be dreading or welcoming that day...