MEETING AT THE CROSSROAD
A scene which Felix wouldn’t forget till the day that he died was currently unfolding before his very eyes. Just a few minutes ago, Lino and him ran across a tightly-knit group of protruding ruins, clearly remnants of an actual city from the past. It still even had streets, criss-crossing in-between the tall rocks and the ruined buildings. The two began casually exploring it, with even Lino showing some interest at last, when they came upon a crossroad stretching out into four direction.
As though designed by Fate itself, it was also at that moment that three other branches of the crossroad lit up in golden, light flickering in the otherwise boundlessly dark world. Lino and Felix immediately came to a halt as figures began emerging from the visage of light; on their left was a group of roughly 30, on their right a group of roughly 50 and on the opposite end of theirs was the largest group, roughly composed of 80 people.
Felix immediately felt his legs grow limp as his eyes darted around; group of 50 was led by His Majesty, the Emperor - Althone as well as the Arch Emperor himself, Gustav! Right behind them were several of supposedly retired Arch Dukes, among which Felix immediately recognized a familiar figure - his own Grandfather, the titular Butcher of the North!
The group of 30 was actually led by Damian as well as another familiar figure, ex-Duchess of the Divine Dynasty - Le’vol! Though Felix didn’t recognize anyone from the group across from them, the terrifying auras swirling about were even greater than those of the other two forces! He truly felt short of breath, quickly glancing at his Master who appeared as indifferent as ever, a faint smile hanging on his face as though he was merely meeting old friends.
“Ho ho,” it was actually Lino the first one to break the silence as he realized that tensions between three sides were rising. “What a meeting this is... haii, Fate herself bound us together here, what are you old guys doing, immediately wantin’ to slap each other dead?”
“... hello.” Damian tore away his gaze from the woman to his own left - she was not the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, but her bearing was truly other-worldly, especially her gaze which seemed capable of tearing through all defenses. “It’s been a while.”
“It hasn’t really.” Lino shrugged. “Hehe, old pal Al’, how come you look older than the last time I saw you?” Lino waved with a beaming smile toward the ex Emperor of the Divine Dynasty as though he was talking to an old drinking buddy. M-master!! That’s... that’s... his-His Majesty!! Felix truly felt fear akin to nothing he ever felt before in his life! Calling an Emperor an old pal... his Master truly was... extraordinary.
“You said you wouldn’t be joining us for a whole year.” Althone replied back with a smile, seemingly unaffected by Lino’s brazen behavior.
“Ah, what can I say...” Lino sighed. “Being apart from you for so long simply seemed impossible. I just had to rush over to see you.”
“Haii, what’s with those expressions? What? Can’t two guys enjoy their love without a bunch of assholes butting their noses in?”
“Khm... he... you truly live up to the rumors,” Gustav broke apart the strange silence that emerged, smiling. “Tongue as sharp as sword indeed.”
“... oh? You must be Al’s dad. Do you approve of the two of us?” Lino seemed hellbent on making the atmosphere as awkward as possible, all the while still holding onto a faint smile of indifference.
“Hey, who am I to stop two young people from loving each other?” Gustav shrugged his shoulders, even laughing for a moment.
“Hah, truly a father a man could only hope for.” Lino said.
“...” of all people present, Ava seemed most out of sorts as she tried to make heads and tails of the current situation. She was quite apprehensive over running into Damian and that old man Gustav this early on, yet, despite the two sides’ numerous forces, there stood a beggar-looking man and some kid who was shaking in his boots, completely relaxed. For some reason, she felt air of familiarity surrounding the strange man.
“We’re still good ways off the true heart of the Kingdom,” Lino said. “Are you really going to duke it out this early on?”
“Heh, I don’t know about the rest, but I’m quite interesting in seeing what you’re built of.” Gustav said, cracking his knuckles.
“Old man, save your bones while they still last. What are you doing, butting into the adventures of young ones? Shouldn’t you be playing cards or chess or something with other one-step-in-the-grave folk?” even Damian felt cold sweat pour down his back when he heard the strange beggar talking to Gustav. The latter was a legend even Damian didn’t wish to entangle with, let alone fight all-out this early on. Is he a braggart... or does he have something to support his bravado? Damian wonder.
“Oh? He he, it’s been a while since someone talked to me like that,” Gustav said, suddenly leaving ranks and moving toward Lino casually. “Why don’t you test these old bones then?” Gustav said, his eyes turning into slits.
“... step back, Felix.” Lino muttered lowly, his indifferent smile turning serious. Felix had already turned entirely numb, unable to process why his Master was trying to instigate trouble with the Arch Emperor himself.
The reason was quite simple actually - Lino hasn’t been in a true fight for nearly ten years... he just wanted to fight for a bit. If Felix knew the truth of the matter, he would probably collapse onto his knees and start crying. The reason why he picked Gustav is because he immediately realized the old man was also a Body Cultivator. In addition to stretching his bones, it would also help him understand just where he sat at when it came to the Body Cultivators.
“Here I come!” Gustav announced bravely when he came within twenty meters of Lino, his body bulging till his clothes nearly exploded.
Leaving behind a massive gust of dust, Gustav burst forth with explosive speed, carrying with him the surge of wind as he darted toward Lino. The latter smiled faintly as he also bulged forth and blasted off. The two met midway through, both stretching out their fists fearlessly and striking at each other. The ensuing explosion of energy resembled more several dynamites blowing up than two ordinary fists, without a single ounce of Qi, meeting midair.
Gustav immediately regretted his decision not to coat his fist in Qi; the surge of pure, barbaric strength that crashed into his fist was akin to him striking a ten times refined piece of legendary [Elven Steel]. Fearing that his bones would really break, just at the point of impact he quickly withdrew his fist, nullifying as much damage as he could. The dust around the two stirred and ensuing shockwave forced the three sides to actually pull up Qi barriers to defend themselves.
A figure stirred backwards through the air from the dust storm, doing a backflip in the air and landing quite gracefully. There was a faint smile on Gustav’s lips as he held his hand, moving it around casually to repel the massive throbbing. On the other hand, as the dust settled, people saw Lino standing casually, his hands already in his pockets, a faint smile hanging on his face as well.
“Well, old man? What do you think?” Lino asked casually.
“... ha ha ha ha,” Gustav burst out into honest laughter. “Interesting... interesting brat indeed.” he said, turning around and walking back toward his group. “You won this round. I’ll be seeing you more, little beggar. Don’t disappoint me...”
“Eh? What nonsense are you spouting old man?” Lino knew what Gustav was trying to do, but decided to mess with the old man a bit. “Being beaten like a wet dog and still trying to lecture me? Heh, if you’d like, I can give you a pointer or two. Perhaps even take you on as my Disciple if you’re honest enough.” Gustav stumbled over his own two feet and nearly fell over, thinking that this brat was really merciless, not leaving him a path of retreat! At all!
“... tsk, you’re really a hateful brat, aren’t you?”
“When did hateful start being honest? Heh, look at you. I bet you won’t even be able to do this and that with that hand of yours for a month. Ah, shame on me... to have forgotten no woman would want an old-boned guy like you... for me to have forgotten you had to take care of it yourself... hah, I really am hateful, it turns out.”
“...” both Ava and Damian actually pulled their hands up and crossed them over their eyes. The two figures who could stand naked in the sky and not feel embarrassment were actually feeling it right now... that beggar... truly... Felix, on the other hand, was actually huddled up in the corner and faintly sobbing. He’d realized something right now; above all his Master’s strengths, one rose to be untouchable: his tongue. That vile, vicious, two-faced tongue! Arch Emperor was probably bleeding in his heart, yet his Master seemed so indifferent... it was like a sadist picking on a small, helpless cub.
“... khm, stay well.” Althone also felt for his father however, unlike most others, he even felt a bit of joy in the old man’s misfortune. Being tortured since his early childhood left a bit of resentment here and there. As filial son, he can’t just go around insulting his own Father, so seeing this strange beggar do it in his stead really increased his favoritism toward him. “We’ll talk some other time...” just like that, Althone, Arch Emperor Gustav who was currently holding onto left side of his chest, and the rest of their men withdrew the way they came.
“It was nice seeing you again.” Damian said and nodded slightly toward the beggar before turning around and bolting as well, afraid he might become the next target of that tongue. His first impression of the beggar - that of a refined, well-cultured young man - collapsed entirely. If the two ever fought, he had to make sure the beggar had no time to spit any vile words at him. Lady Le’vol glanced curiously at this strange beggar and even smiled, looking forward to what stirs he’ll cause in the near future. The only ones left were Lino and Ava, as well as her people. Just as she was about to withdraw herself, afraid she might suddenly become a target, she heard the beggar address her.
“Hoh? How cold of you, lady Ava,” Lino said, smiling. “You won’t even say a hello to an old friend?”
“Huh?” Ava stopped for a moment and turned around, taking another look at the beggar. Everything about him seemed strange... except those eyes, she realized. Those eyes, she remembered... are one of a kind. “... Lino?” she mumbled faintly.
“Ha ha, to think that you’d remember me after all these years,” Lino said, smiling innocently. “It looks like your husband truly stands no chance against me! Hah... what can I say... my charm is simply something no woman can resist.”
“... yup, it’s really you.” Ava said, her expression suddenly softening into a graceful, honest and beautiful smile. Felix, who just recovered, happened to look at Ava at this very moment and felt his heart stir, his legs turning wobbly yet again, unable to stand.
Meanwhile, people behind Ava suddenly shuddered; they, too, were very much afraid of the beggar’s tongue. Realizing that he was Lady Ava’s old acquaintance... meant also realizing he would be joining them, at least for a little while. All swore immediately in their hearts to avoid him as much as possible, lest they were left with bleeding hearts like the poor old man Gustav.