THREADS OF THOUGHTS
The silence hung like a heavy boulder, chastising sounds or even any attempts at them. Lino carried a listless body over his shoulders calmly as he arrived at the epicenter of crossfire, whereupon all battles halted. The dust storm settled shortly after and Lino remained standing along within the sparsely populated circular crowd, with all eyes pointed directly at him.
Althone happened to stand opposite of him, his eyes eclipsed in shock and disbelief, unable to tear his gaze away from that familiar body hanging over Lino’s shoulder. The latter slowly and carefully pulled Gustav’s corpse down and laid him respectfully onto the ground, crossing his arms over his chest. It was only then that Althone seemed to come back to reality, furiously bolting toward Gustav’s body and pressing against the latter’s neck.
His face shriveled and paled, breathing quickening, gaze dancing between the corpse and the man standing above him, looking down. Lino met his gaze squarely, and Althone could only recognize an oddly peaceful serenity within them, almost ethereal indifference.
“... you... you did it?” Althone asked through his teeth, trying to reign his anger back. He knew that it would do him no good to flare out; if Lino was capable of killing his father, killing him would turn to be an even easier feat.
“Yes.” Lino replied within hesitation.
“Why?” Althone asked again.
“...” Lino remained silent, though he caught Relish’s strange gaze for a moment.
“BE A FUCKING MAN AND ANSWER ME!!!” Althone heaved onto his feet and grabbed Lino’s collar, drawing himself closer till their foreheads were bumping one another. He was gnashing his teeth, barely keeping his eyes from weeping out.
“...” Lino remained calm, staring back into Althone’s eyes, still not answering.
“... you... you’re pathetic.” Althone said as he realized he won’t be getting any answers today, letting go of Lino’s collar and turning his back. “If I see your face eve gain, I’ll scald it. This isn’t over, filthy beggar.”
“... it never is...” Lino mumbled into his jaw as he watched Althone pick up Gustav and carry him over to his group.
Lino remained stationary for a while, staring at that ever drifting and slouched back. He was no better, he realized; and though his mind conjured up hundreds of excuses for his actions, he hardly listened. He had already endowed himself to accept his sins, however grave and trivial they may turn out to be. He knew that reality of his life would result in suffering of many, in the end.
He cast one last glance at Althone and turned toward Ella and the other two, walking over briskly. Eggor stared at his back solemnly, while Damian stared with caution, backing further away. He realized this wasn’t a fight he could win, nor a battle he should be fighting in the first place. Rather than accumulating additional loses, it was best to withdraw.
Relish smiled faintly and shook his head as he suddenly vanished from the spot, as though he was never there. Numerous curious observers also withdrew temporarily, eyes peering back to behind the hills, leaving the group of five to stand along at the epicenter of chaos that had just occurred.
Lino wiggled his way in-between Ella and Annar yet again, causing latter to grumble lowly and dispiritedly back away. Eggor joined them soon after, once again sighing as he looked at Lino. He could venture a guess as to why he killed the old man, though it was probably not the best idea to bring it up.
“... anyone wants something to eat?” Ella asked, trying to diffuse the charged atmosphere.
“I could eat some meat,” Lino quickly said. “Cook it your way, okay?”
“... what do you mean my way?” Ella asked.
“In large portions.”
“Oh. I don’t think that’s my way though.”
“I’m praising you.” Lino said.
“Doesn’t feel like it.”
“... tsk. And here I thought you weren’t the needy type.”
“...” Ella merely rolled her eyes at him before getting up and entering the house, Scarlet quickly replacing her and drifting closer to Lino till she was leaning against him, her fingers shamelessly already prancing along Lino’s shoulder. Though the latter didn’t seem to mind.
“Even as a blacksmith...” she mumbled seductively into his ear. “You killed an Imperial so effortlessly... aah...”
“I have ways,” Lino replied as he leaned further in and whispered directly into Scarlet’s ear. “To kill godly ones too.” Scarlet’s body shivered in strange excitement for a moment as she grabbed at Lino’s tattered shirt tightly. Annar and Eggor, who sat no further than a couple of meters away, both stared at the strange phenomena with odd expressions.
“Is... is he always like that?” Annar asked in a whisper.
“The day that I met him he declared he would take Ella away from me.” Eggor replied somewhat casually.
“... bold man.”
“He was fifteen at the time.” Eggor said.
“... I need to befriend him.” Annar suddenly said, surprising Eggor who realized that no cultivator truly ever seemed all that sane.
“Why?” Eggor asked out of curiosity.
“Look at Scarlet,” Annar said. “He’s known her for less than an hour, and she’s already trembling like a whore in heat.”
“... nothing.” meanwhile, Scarlet finally managed to bring herself back from the realm of fantasy, pulling her long, smooth hair behind her ear and smiling at Lino. Their faces were mere inches apart, as she could faintly discern the warmth of his breath pressing against her cheeks.
“You are a man of many talents.” Scarlet said.
“And you are a woman of many more.” Lino replied.
“Oh... you have no idea.”
“I would like to find out.”
“You will,” she whispered. “Trust me, you will.”
Annar from the side watched in wonder as the woman who refused advances of the famed Antur of Elonia for decades, cracked and crumbled beneath the words and presence of a boy who wasn’t even thirty just yet and who looks like nothing more than any other filthy beggar you might run into on the streets. It only further steeled his resolve to pull Lino away and force him to teach and share his techniques.
The meal was passed in silence, as all five had quite a bit on their minds. It was after that Scarlet and Annar withdrew as they needed more rest to completely recover, with Eggor joining them shortly after, leaving Ella and Lino sitting alone outside the house, the former drinking tea with latter gulping down his sixth gourd of ale.
“... you okay?” she asked meekly.
“Not really.” Lino replied, shrugging his shoulders.
“... at least you’re honest about it.”
“What about you?” he asked. “How come you’re helping people who tried to kill you recover?”
“... it’s not really that strange,” Ella said, smiling. “There’s this sort of unwritten rule, especially when it comes to members of Holy Lands. If there ever is a battle that’s outside the Holy War, we are discouraged from killing one another.”
“... noble.” Lino said.
“Hah, hardly. It is just a way to prevent spoiled children from being killed for saying stupid things.”
“Wish all of us had that luxury...” he mumbled, taking a gulp.
“He found out?” Ella asked.
“It’s alright,” Lino said, glancing at her and smiling faintly. “It’s just a bummer, you know? I really liked the guy.”
“... the more I look at you,” Ella said suddenly, lowering her head. “The more I wish I could go back in time.”
“... what for?” Lino asked.
“To undo what was done.”
“It doesn’t need any undoing.”
“... say that after looking yourself in the mirror.” Ella said.
“... I’m not the victim here, Ella,” Lino said with a chuckle, suddenly caressing her hair as though she was the child. “At worst, you offered me a choice. Isn’t that what the reality of living is? Making choices? And I’ve made them. Were they good? God no. Some were outright awful,” he shuddered. “But, for better or worse, they all led me to today. I accept that. So should you.”
“... Eggor was right,” Ella said as she quickly swatted away his arm, smiling lightly. “You really are strong.”
“I’ve become strong,” Lino admitted. “For the most part, I merely fancied myself strong. But... that was all there was to it.”
“... then, I’m glad you found the strength,” Ella said, sighing. “Not all do.”
“I feel like there’s a story behind that.” he said.
“Ha ha, not a story... just... stories.” she said. “Though I can’t speak for the rest of the world, I can for the part that I grew up in. Many flames were and are stoked... only to be extinguished before ever being given a chance to burn.”
“... wow,” he took a deep breath for a moment. “Soon I’ll start associating your face with depression. I don’t think I’ve had a single fun conversation with you since the day I met you.”
“... screw you.”
“I think Scarlet’s already planning on doing that. Sorry.”
“... are you really interested in her?” Ella asked, looking at him oddly.
“Eh? Did you see her?” Lino looked back with the same, strange gaze.
“... so what? Do you plan on marrying her?”
“Eh? Where did that come from?”
“Didn’t you just say you’re interested in her?” Ella asked.
“I’m interested in having her send me to a premature paradise, not have her suck out my soul. Jeez. Get a grip.”
“... you’re corrupted. We need to have a talk.”
“We don’t need to have anything,” Lino quickly pulled back. “You’ve got your own philosophies, I’ve got mine. Leave me alone.”
“Yours will make you be alone!”
“Haii, it’s indeed true... women can never understand the hearts of men.”
“... aih... it’s my fault... I should have raised you better...”
“You’ve done a fine damn job if you ask me,” Lino said. “I mean, can you imagine Scarlet wanting to bang the brains out of any other beggar out there? I think not.”
“... I’m a failure.” she sighed, seemingly lamenting.
“To be fair, odds were stacked against you,” Lino said after a short silence, smiling. “You did the best that could have been done.”
“... ha ha ha,” Ella suddenly burst out into laughter, pulling him into into her embrace and ruffling his hair. “You little ruffian. When did you get so self-important? You’re still a cheeky kid in my eyes, you know?”
“Hey, hey, hey, let go you demented---creature--let go! Fuck, ugh.” Lino finally managed to pull himself away and ‘straighten’ his clothes as he glanced at Ella with a frown. “That’s no way to treat a fully grown man, missus.”
“Oh? And what is a proper way?” Ella played along.
“It is of course to praise him,” Lino said, looking up toward the sky that wasn’t there, though that hardly diminished his attempt at a heroic pose. “To utter words of his greatness repeatedly, and to stand in awe of all the things that he had done!”
“I’m not done!”
“Khm... yeah... continue...”
“It is to witness a journey,” Lino shamelessly continued. “A journey that a man carves out for himself! How he braves the storms, briskly murders death and spits in its face day after day, collecting admiration of heavenly beauties along the way! Soon, platoons of fair maidens are streaming in, staring at your behind with admiration and your front with desire, while unimaginable riches pour down from the skies over the man, eventually drowning him in glory that his feeble, complexly layered shoulders cannot withstand!! Ay, how many great men died under the weight of their own glory... tragic! Tragic!”
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha.....” while Ella laughed her heart out, the three inside wondered for a moment whether she’d gone insane, and why was she adamant about making noises so loud it made it impossible for them to get an inkling of sleep and rest.