Within the ever-encroaching darkness, weaving in through the complex array of pathways around a small chapel-like ruin, a group of people remained silent. Well up front were three men, walking shoulder-to-shoulder while inspecting the chiseled, aged dome of a chapel to their right. The three were Althone, Gustav and Felix’s grandfather, Butcher of the North - Andrew.
“Are we really not going to talk about it?” Althone spoke up, corners of his lips rising up into a faint smile.
“Humph, smelly brat,” Gustav cursed, instinctively reaching for his wrist which was still aching. “Do you really hate your Father so much?!”
“... I’m just asking. Sorry.”
“How strong is he?” Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have same inhibitions holding back Althone and asked plainly.
“... damn bastard,” Gustav cursed under his breath. “He’s no weaker than me.”
“Huh?!” both Althone and Andrew exclaimed at the same time. Though neither thought the beggar was weak, they did firmly believe Gustav held back in his attack. In the end, beggar was still a beggar; Gustav was, after all, Arch Emperor of the greatest Dynasty on the Western Continent.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t fight with him in the City,” Gustav said, glancing at Althone. “I’d be one son short right now.”
“... no weaker than you?” Andrew picked up on the underlying meaning. “You mean he could be stronger?”
“I can’t say,” Gustav shrugged. “We both held back considerably. At the very least, in terms of pure body strength, he’s miles ahead of me. But because I don’t know property of his Qi, cultivation method, arts and so on, I don’t know if he’s stronger in an actual fight.”
“That’s easy then,” Althone said, sighing in relief. “There’s no way he can have better resources than you. He’s also much younger.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Andrew said. “He had enough confidence to enter this place all alone, despite knowing that numerous powers could converge here.”
“Wasn’t he with your Grandson?” Gustav asked.
“He most-likely sent him back by now. There’s no way that kid is strong enough to swat a fly here, let alone anything else.”
“... as harsh as ever.”
“Are you really the one to talk?” Andrew said as he glanced at Gustav strangely. “I distinctly remember you beating this kid every day for decades. At the very least, I never did such a thing.”
“... what do you mean beating?! I was clearly training him!”
“Ah, so that’s why Empress Annya had to take precious medicine after precious medicine to save poor Al’s life?”
“... fuck you.”
Meanwhile, dozens of miles away, a figure was casually walking along the path, seemingly disinterested in everything surrounding it. On his way, he’d passed numerous artifacts and potential places where cultivation methods were held, yet he ignored them all without exception, as though he was merely taking a casual stroll through the park. Suddenly, his eyes lit up as he looked toward east followed by his lips curling up into a strange smile.
“He’s here, huh?” he mumbled. “So he’s finally recovered? I suppose I can lend him a hand... just this once.”
At the same time, westward of man’s position, currently sitting by a ruined columns piercing out of the earth was a woman wrapped in thick robes and a veil. She was holding onto a thick book and reading through it, her thin eyebrows dancing to the rhythm of her thoughts.
“... he’s here.” a strange voice suddenly echoed just near her ear, jolting her back to reality.
“Eh? Who’s here?” the woman asked.
“Relish--no, I suppose he’s back to being Ethwart now.” the voice replied.
“What?!! What’s he doing here?!” the thick book dropped from the woman’s hands as she suddenly jumped up, growing alert immediately.
“Relax, he hasn’t spotted us yet.” the voice said.
“... this is bad. Could it be that the Uncle sent him here for investigation?”
“Doubtful. It’s most-likely his personal curiosity.”
“... dammit. This is growing more and more dangerous,” the woman sighed after a short thought, slumping back, seemingly listless. “First it was those Echo bastards, and now it’s him. Just how many people have snuck into this place? Wasn’t it supposed to be difficult?”
“... it’s difficult for those from this continent,” the voice said. “As they have no means of forcibly tearing through the spatial barrier. But can something on this level really prevent anyone who wants to enter? You should be more careful. Chances are, there are a whole lot more people here than we initially anticipated.”
“... shouldn’t we also be asking for reinforcement by now?” the woman asked, frowning.
“Even if you do, you won’t get any. They’re still trying to re-establish their footing in the world after that disaster. Besides, there are no functioning portals anywhere near here. What could a pack of small Demons possibly do?”
“En...” the woman seemed to agree, yet at the same time appeared even wearier than before. “I should have just taken the invitation...”
“Aye, you should have.”
“... that’s right. Pour the salt onto the wound. You bastard.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
Unbeknownst to Lino, Althone, Gustav and even Damian, the number of powerful experts that were currently inside the ruins breached well past three digits. Strangely, though, as though driven by the will other than their own, they all took different passages; the problem was that all those passages led to the exact same location: the very heart of the Forgotten Kingdom, where the ruins of the Empyrion Palace remained half-buried in dust.
There, in one of the barely-preserved rooms, a fire was currently blazing in a makeshift fireplace, lighting up the room. Save for the fireplace, there was only a table, a couple of chairs and a bed inside, despite its rather large size. Currently, two figures were sitting on the chairs; a woman was reading a small book, while a man was inspecting a strangely-shaped, wooden tool.
“Huh?” the woman softly exclaimed as she raised her head and looked outside the makeshift window.
“What is it?” the man asked, frowning as he got up.
“No, it’s nothing,” the woman said. “More and more people are piling on in here.”
“Haii... that bastard’s sure taking his time.” the man grumbled as he sat back down.
“What do you mean? It’s only been a few years.” the woman reprimanded.
“... he’s alright... right?” the man asked in a solemn voice, hiding his face.
“... he is,” the woman said, walking over suddenly and hugging the man. “I can feel it.”
“Ah... I should have never left without him... what was I thinking? However clever... he was still just a kid.”
“You can’t keep blaming yourself like this, Eggor,” Ella said, holding his face up by his chin while stroking his hair. “You said it yourself. He’s clever. He would have known to get out.”
“... I still can’t forget that spear.” Eggor said, sighing. “Not only did he somehow get Rog to craft him something like that... what did he do to it to make it impossible to pull out?”
“...” Ella’s expression sank for a moment as she got up from her squatting position. “It’s imbued with his Will.”
“His Will?” Eggor asked, looking up at her.
“... hm,” Ella nodded, sighing as she sat back onto the other chair. “To think he was able to manifest it so quickly...”
“...” Eggor remained silent, waiting.
“I made a terrible mistake,” Ella said. “By giving him the Writ.”
“... the Writ?!” Eggor’s expression jerked suddenly. “You... ah... no wonder that bastard grew so strong so quickly. So that’s it...”
“... I thought he would use it to get through the buffer phase quickly,” Ella continued. “And then focus entirely on the smithing, leaving cultivation behind. Alas...”
“... you’re really dumb, aren’t you?” Eggor suddenly said, looking at her strangely.
“You gave a completely powerless kid the most powerful tool in the world, and you expected him to wash his hands off of it after tinkering it for a while?”
“... yeah, in hindsight...”
“He should be fine then,” Eggor said, sighing. “There’s no way the Writ would have allowed him to die so quickly. Especially if he already condensed his Will.”
“... his is a different world from ours, Eggor. While you and I can always just withdraw from the world and enjoy peace... he can’t. Seeing that spear, I realized he’d already entangled himself beyond the point of no return. He’s as much a part of this story as everyone else is now.”
“... what did the Patriarch say?” Eggor asked suddenly.
“He won’t do anything - help or harm,” Ella said. “Not that he can afford to. While that old Jailer may have started this war with intention of masking Lino from the other Bearers, those beneath him all have their own ideas and goals. For the time being it’s merely a prelude... however, chances are, it will eventually turn into a Realm War.”
“... can either side even afford another Realm War?” Eggor asked, frowning. The last Realm War ended an entire era... didn’t those fools learn by now?
“I don’t know...” Ella shook her head. “I thought we had another few thousand years before any escalation. Ah...”
“... if he’s gotten so far,” Eggor said after short silence. “It means he already made his choice, Ella. He was never dumb. Though perhaps he didn’t understand the true extent of what he was tangling himself with... the bastard knew enough.”
“... he he, look at you. The moment you realized he’s most-likely alive, you’re already beginning to practice your tough-guy persona for when he comes. Ha ha ha...”
“....” Eggor hid his head quickly, feeling his cheeks burn.
“Chances are... he’s most-likely part of this group,” Ella suddenly said, surprising Eggor. “Though I can’t confirm it... my heart’s been restless for weeks now. And it certainly isn’t because of those buffoons.”
“... Annar’s with them... you know that, right?” Eggor asked, arching his brows.
“So what?” Ella replied, suddenly turning toward Eggor and smiling; just for a brief moment, a flash, her housewife appearance vanished, causing Eggor’s heart to freeze momentarily. “Even if his grandfather came, I would still flatten them all if they become threats to our little reunion.”
“... you really have talent for saying terrifying things with the most beautiful expression... it’s kind of horrifying, actually.” Eggor said, feeling sorry for the currently traveling folk.
“He he, I’m a lady after all. I can’t go around behaving like a barbarian.”
“... a lady?” Eggor looked at her strangely yet again. “Yeah... sure....”
“Is there something you want to tell me?”
“There are many things I want to tell you.”
“Now that’s just mean. How can you treat your poor wife like that?”
“W-what?” Ella asked, flustered, as she saw Eggor’s eyes.
“Nothing... it’s just... I’m wondering how I managed to snag you from all those talented, brilliant and handsome folk from the Holy Grounds.” Eggor said, smiling.
“Oh, that’s simple.” Ella said, smiling back. “You have the biggest muscles and the smallest brain!”
“Pfft... ha ha ha ha,” she burst out into laughter as she saw Eggor’s pained and somewhat angry expression. “You idiot... what are you asking me that question for now? You’ve found my heart when no one else even bothered to look for it. If it weren’t for you... I would have been just another jaded, cold, unforgiving cultivator. I can’t say for the rest... but I very much prefer this life over that one.”
“... we’re living in a rotting dimensional pocket, within a shitty, dusty room with nothing but a single bed and a couple of chairs, in the middle of fucking nowhere, waiting for a brat that I KNOW will make me spit blood the moment we meet up... yeah, I think I’d rather be a jaded, cold, unforgiving cultivator living in a freaking palace.”
“...” Ella rolled her eyes at him and sank back down in silence, picking the book back up and resuming her reading. This peace, quiet, tranquility... his presence across from the table, knowledge that he’s always there... that was Ella’s idea of a perfect palace, though even she was too embarrassed to say it out loud.