In the roaring darkness that surmounted the seemingly endless world, one of its corners was currently lit up with dozens of torches and campfires, with nearly a hundred figures sitting around, casually eating and talking with each other within a rather relaxing atmosphere. If one didn’t know any better, they’d think the group was on a collective vacation... just that their choice of destination was a bit dubious, to say the least.
However, if one took a closer look and inspected the way people were stationed, they’d realize that of 82 people present, 80 were perfectly surrounding the remaining two in such a formation that didn’t have any blind spots, where one side could easily and quickly reinforce another in case something happened. At the heart of the formation, two people currently sat around the raging fire while drinking. Ava drank from a rather beautifully carved, glassed bottle - containing no doubt a rather expensive wine - while Lino drank out of a cheap-looking gourd, which, true to its container, held the cheapest type of wine one can buy in the City of Sun.
“... I didn’t think you escaped.” Ava said, sighing solemnly. After the sudden invasion of the Demons all over the Valley of Sects as well as its surroundings, it took nearly four years of constant battles to quell it all. Several times throughout she tried searching and employing others to search for Lino, but to no avail. In the end, she had come to peace with the fact that he most-likely died; she only felt it was truly a shame that such talented youth perished so soon.
“Eeh... so little faith in me? I’m quite disappointed.” Lino smiled faintly, a flash of reminiscent pain crossing his eyes.
“Ha ha ha... it has nothing to do with faith. It’s just that... many... many have perished under Devils’ blades... most who were much stronger than you.” Ava said, clearly pained. She had lost many good friends and subordinates during the war.
“... I’d heard,” Lino said, sighing himself. “To think a battle at the edge of the world need a cultivator of Godly Realm to descend...” Lino mumbled. Among the first things he did when he left the Necropolis was study what had happened just after he went into slumber - it was the war, coined as Devil’s Massacre. In the end, after nearly four years of constant struggle, a mysterious expert of Godly Realm - those in-between Level 800 and 850 - descended and managed to push back the Devils, ending the war single-handedly.
“It’s truly strange,” Ava nodded; even now she was confused as to why her Second Martial Uncle himself came over to help. “World’s beginning to change... and even ordinary mortals are beginning to notice.”
“Heh, what’s that got to do with us?” Lino faintly chuckled, diffusing the heavy air that was descending. “Anyway, what are you doing here? Are you also interested in these fabled ruins?”
“Ha ha, of course! Whoever has any interest in history is interested in them,” Ava replied. “This place... it’s one of the last few remaining bastions of Forgotten Knowledge on this continent. I’ve heard rumors that there are even few powers of the Central Continent that are keen on crossing over and seeing what’s what.”
“...” Lino’s heart shook for a moment; even he wasn’t expecting the other continents to take interest in this place. If they truly did cross over and join in on the expedition... chances are, Lino would be left with nothing. “Aren’t you already here? That alone shows the interest.” Lino said, smiling.
“Ha ha... cheeky. However, I’ve been on this continent for many years,” Ava said. “My personal interest hardly have much to do with my Sect’s.”
“... you’ve gotten much stronger,” Lino said, noticing that she had actually managed to cross over the first major barrier of cultivation and reach the Realm of the Exalted, currently being Level 343. “Did you finally become serious?”
“Heh, I was mostly forced to... seeing as I depended on it to survive. What about you? Sending Gustav back with a fist... just how strong are you, anyway?” Ava asked; her shock, however, was much greater than Lino’s. The last time she saw him, though he was quite talented and strong, he was at most around Peak Purity Realm cultivator, who also happened to be an extremely talented blacksmith. She expected that, if he had survived, he’d become even better at smithing while his cultivation would suffer. That, however, seemed not to be the case.
“Hehe, I’m not too shabby,” Lino evaded the question, taking a gulp of wine. “What are your plans? You don’t really expect to be able to contend with those two bastards with your current force, do you?” Ava’s eyebrows twitched for a moment; truly, he hadn’t changed... a bit. To have gal to call Damian and Gustav bastards... even her own Father would think twice before doing it.
“... I’ve no intention of antagonizing them,” Ava said honestly. “I’m merely here to learn a thing or two about the Empyrion. As for the rest... whatever Fate Wills, that I shall take.”
“... Empyrion, huh? So you too know about the background?” Lino asked.
“Ha ha, of course. Everyone here does,” Ava shrugged her shoulders. “Do you really think just any random Kingdom from an era long since gone would incite so much curiosity within so many different kinds of folk? Perhaps, if there’s one thing that can unite all the Sects and Clans of the continent under the same banner... it’s anything that has any link to the Empyrean Writ.” Ava added.
“Ho ho, you don’t say?” Lino said. “I only know a thing or two about it... but it seems people really shouldn’t be bringing up those names so casually.”
“Heh, of course not. To be honest,” Ava said. “My Sect Elders weren’t too keen about me probing... however, I can’t say what their reasons are. At the very least, it seems these ruins aren’t that simple.”
“... what ever is?” Lino mumbled faintly as he glanced up and sighed inwardly. Another one... he could only silently pray in his heart... pray and hope they aren’t around when it happens. He really liked nearly everyone currently in the ruins, be it Ava whom he knew from long ago, Althone, Damian... even that old bastard Gustav. If there was a chance... he’d like to avoid having to kill them.
“Indeed... hah, anyway, enough about the heavy topics. Tell me, are you interested in joining my Sect?” Ava suddenly shifted the topic, glint in her eyes turning serious. “When I showed that beast you crafted for me to my Elders... heh, you should have seen their expressions. It’s like someone told them their Sons are Heaven’s Chosen and would become so strong they’d rule the entire world. Of course, we won’t treat you shabbily!”
“Ha ha ha, nah, sorry. As enticing as your offer is, I’m more of a free soul.” Lino replied with laughter.
“Tsk, fine. Can we at least draw up some contract? I’d really like if you could sell us a few more of those... we’ll even provide you with the necessary materials...” Lino’s ears perked up. Though he had no intention of joining any faction, it didn’t mean he always wanted to remain as piss poor as he was at the moment. He practically had no materials to craft with, and the last few weapons he had in his Void World were... well, they weren’t great. To say nothing of the fact that he didn’t have a single piece of armor.
“I’m listening.” he said.
“How about this? After we leave this place, I’ll go meet my Elders and ask them what they want. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal anything about you, no matter what! After that, I’ll contact you and we can figure the rest out.”
“... alright.” Lino faintly nodded; even if she told on him, he didn’t really care much. If he didn’t wish to be found... let’s just say there was no one outside the Holy Grounds that even stood a chance of finding him if he decided to hide with all his might. “In the spirit of cooperation,” after a short inward struggle, Lino decided to warn her. “I’d like to offer you an advice.”
“Oh? Please do.” Ava said, smiling faintly.
“You should leave this place. The sooner the better.” his words startled Ava for a moment, turning her smiling expression into a frown.
“Do you know something?” she asked.
“... take it as a gamble,” Lino said, avoiding her question. “On my character.”
“... yeah, I think I’ll just stay.”
“Did you forget I was also there on that crossroad?” Ava asked, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, that? Meh, that was just me, y’know, playing around a bit. Joking. Having fun. Nothing to do with my character.”
“... you nearly caused a poor man to have a heart-attack with words. I’m fairly certain it has everything to do with your character.”
“I’ll have you know my character is unblemished!! Pure!! Completely innocent of world’s filth!”
“... yeah, and I’m the legendary Sword Maiden.”
“Who knows? You really might be.” Lino said.
“Oh, no, trust me, I’m not.”
“You don’t know.”
“But I do.”
“See? And you’re telling me to trust your character?”
“... just... hah...”
“Trust me... just leave.” Lino said again. “A few bits of historical knowledge aren’t worth it.”
“... your lives.”
“....” there was a long silence between the two during which Ava entered deep thought while Lino drank his wine. Even just warning her could backfire, but he decided to gamble. Gamble on the fact that she might take into account his strength and withdraw, regardless of what she may think the reason for it all is. “Fine.” after nearly ten minutes of silence, Ava faintly nodded and agreed. “I’ll trust you. Take this,” she suddenly flung a ring his way which he casually caught. “It’s not much... but, I hope it can help you. From the start I knew I won’t be able to entangle myself in the heart of everything. That feeling increased even more once I entered this place... for some reason, ever since we started entering into depths, I had this gnawing feeling that was telling me to go back. I know you’re strong, Lino,” Ava seemed completely serious, prompting Lino to listen rather than to inspect what was in the ring. “And I know you’re clever. However... Gustav, Althone, and especially Damian... those three aren’t simply super-strong cultivators from this continent. Their ties to the world run much deeper. If you can, avoid completely falling out with them. I hope you can trust me on this one.” Lino looked into her eyes for a moment and notice that she was truly serious; she probably couldn’t disclose why, but he didn’t really care all that much. He knew that it was nigh impossible for people from this continent to grow to Gustav’s and Damian’s levels of strength without some external help.
“I’ll try.” he said, smiling faintly. “After all, I really do like those old bastards.”
“... c-could you not give strange nicknames to everyone? Now I’m afraid of even asking what’s mine.”
“Oh, that’s easy. You’re the Woman That Should Just Dump Her Husband And Marry Me Instead. Fancy, right?”