A horde of people numbering in hundreds stood just outside the massive, elevated platform in the heart of the city. The platform was flat, made out of a shiny, white stone, and was decorated with nothing but a single, oval-shaped altar at the very center.
The crowd consisted mainly of the young, with a few dozen or so Elders leading the groups up front, their eyes reverently locked at the altar. At the back of the crowd, seemingly out of place, was a beggar-looking man with a peculiar expression on his face and a strange glint in his eyes.
It has been two weeks since he arrived here. It was only yesterday, however, that Freya came looking for him at last after they parted, telling him the whole story with an ashamed and highly embarrassed expression, her eyes always looking as though on the brink of tears.
Turns out that her Grandmother wasn’t banished from the Clan; rather, she ran away with a few of her friends because she didn’t want to become a Matriarch. Ever since then, the members of the Clan tried their hardest to locate her but to no avail. While he didn’t inquire the details of the story - mainly as to not drive the poor Freya to madness - he still couldn’t help but feel a rather peculiar sensation over the whole ordeal.
As an apology, Freya offered him a spot among the crowd who was to enter the Ancestral Grounds - whose opening has been pushed ahead of time as Freya’s arrival disturbed quite more than just an old history. She was, after all, a Direct Descendant of the Hierarchical Matriarch, which was something Clans took quite seriously.
Lino, however, didn’t really care too much about what they did so long as she was safe. He came quite close to even declining the invitation to enter the Grounds but then he remembered that Lucky still needed a cultivation method, so he figured he’d at least try his luck within the Grounds in case something pops out.
Even without it in the worst case he wagered he’d still manage to pry some resources for crafting from the adventure which he wanted to begin hoarding again. After all, though he crafted a weapon for Felix, he had nothing for himself.
His peculiar expression, however, wasn’t due to any of that; it was because of a short conversation he just had with the Writ who informed him that there’s an quasi-Dimensional Pocket within the Ancestral Grounds themselves which was a remnant of a previously complete Eldritch Realm.
Though he had a lot of questions, the Writ didn’t seem that interested in answering them, only telling him to try his luck. It appeared as though the Writ’s approval came both with benefits as well as negatives. Lino only heard of the term ‘Eldritch’ once and it was in conjunction with other terms he didn’t understand well after Grazynth listed them out.
While he stood out as a sole adult in a line of mostly children aged anywhere between 8 and 15, all of whom would occasionally look at him and point their fingers, he remained seemingly impervious to it all with his hands in his pockets. It would be his first time experiencing the magic of Dimensional tinkering, a field of space study he was interested in greatly.
Freya was naturally among those who would be entering, but she was well upfront, surrounded by at least ten Elders that were there to secure her safety as well as escort her to bury her Mother and Grandmother. No matter how thick-skinned Lino was, he wouldn’t go over to her and ask her to let him join. She had her own plans when it came to the Grounds and Lino had his own.
The current Matriarch of the Clan was a middle-aged woman who still retained her youthful looks. The moment she set foot on the platform, all the clamoring and whizzing and bustling ended immediately. She had a relatively indifferent expression on her face as her eyes scoured the mass of people beneath her. They soon landed onto the distant figure who was the only one among hundreds of those present who dared return her gaze, even smiling faintly in the process.
It was the strange beggar that Freya brought along as a ‘bodyguard’. The news travel fast, and it had already reached her - though she didn’t divulge it to anyone else as she was too fearful of the commotion it would cause. The ordinary-looking beggar over there... managed to overpower and even kill Arch Emperor Gustav, eventually forcing back the Elite force of the Empire back with their heads slouched.
Though Freya had inadvertently brought the monster inside their ranks, she didn’t mind all that much and was even expectant. After a short thought, she returned the smile and proceeded to hold a brief speech mainly aimed at the youths who would be entering the Grounds.
“... looks like she knows.” Lino mumbled faintly, his lips still curled up in a smile. “Matriarch Valkyria, was it? Interesting...”
The speech wasn’t long and the moment she finished, Matriarch Valkyria turned around and walked up to the oval-shaped altar which was decorated with various gems - mainly crimson and scarlet in hue - and placed her hand squarely onto it, pouring in Qi through her palm.
The altar lit up almost immediately as space around it grew distorted before it seemingly ripped open behind, a vortex-like spin appearing. Lino had immediately realized that it was a simple teleportation array and that the Ancestral Grounds weren’t a special Dimensional Pocket in and of itself.
There wasn’t much delay to the process; as everything was prearranged, the old leading the young soon came up to the platform and began pouring in. Lino didn’t try to squirm him way through and even waited patiently until everyone else had already gone in before walking up to the altar.
“... what do you want me to do?” rather than going in, he suddenly came to a halt and looked at the Matriarch standing not too far away from him, smiling.
“... shouldn’t we introduce ourselves first?” she replied with a smile, extending her hand.
“I’ll never say no to knowing another beautiful maiden,” Lino replied her handshake. “You can call me Lino.”
“You can call me Val.” the Matriarch said.
“So, Val, what do you want me to do?”
“There’s a quasi-Dimensional Pocket inside the Grounds,” rather than beating around the bush, she decided to get straight to the point as the beggar in front of her seemed like that sort of a person. “I want you to destroy it.”
“Oh? You expect me to destroy something that even the Great Matriarch is unable to? Surely, you overestimate my capabilities.”
“Name your price.”
“A piece of [Hervan’s Divine Stone].”
“...” the Matriarch’s eyebrows scrunched together, her lips quivering for a moment as a rather angry expression assailed her face. “I don’t know what--”
“I know I’m asking for quite a lot,” Lino said, wiping off the smirk from his face. “So I won’t cheat you, Val. If you can provide me with a piece, I’ll partition it and use a piece to enhance your Clan Artifact.”
“... you’re quite an interesting figure, Lino.” after a few moments of thought, she sighed and shook her head, smiling bitterly. “Fine. I’ll take the gamble. However, if you find anything worthwhile in the Realm, I hope you can at least part with a few pieces.”
“How about I offer you a piece of advice instead?”
“The chance for you Clan will come soon,” Lino said as he moved toward the vortex. “Damian will gather up his most trusted aides and leave the Continent within a year. Evelyn will focus on spreading throughout the mainland to snuff out the last remnants of the Demonic presence. The Demonic Battlefield will become... quite empty. People will look for a King... or a Queen to finally transfer this hellhole into something meaningful. Ponder on it...”
Leaving the stunned Valkyria behind, Lino briskly walked through the vortex and found himself within the spinning, spatial blaze. It didn’t last for long, however, at most a few seconds, before the tunnel spat him out elsewhere. Almost immediately upon landing he whipped out a sword from his void world and pierced sideways with immense speed and precision.
A faint wail of pain cried out before a thud echoed. Lino glanced sideways and saw a panther-like beast squirming on the ground. It was quite long, nearly two meters at that, and had deep, blue-colored fur and protruding pair of fangs. Though Lino didn’t recognize the species, he was fairly certain it fell under the general umbrella of the Night Crawlers, a sub-set of Panthera species which resulted from artificial cross-breeding of Abyss Leopards and Ebony Wolves.
The problem was that the entire Night Crawlers species - as well as its offshoots - were supposedly native to the very specific part of the Holy Continent and cannot be found anywhere else.
“These panthers are known as the Eldritch Watchers,” the Writ’s robotic voice echoed inside his mind. “Looks like the Pocket has grown unstable. You should hurry.”
“... you mean there’s a possibility it will fuse with the world?” Lino asked, frowning.
“It’s not that simple. Artificial Dimensional Pockets generally function based on their Cores. However, in special cases, the entire Pocket can be controlled by a single being. This, however, is usually reserved for very specific realms, such as Hell, Purgatory, Six Paths and so on.”
“So to say that this Pocket is controlled by someone?” Lino asked yet again.
“And that someone is trying to break out.”
“... and you’re telling me to go and meet it? Do you have a grudge against me or something?!”
“At least tell me where to go, dammit!”
“... I hope you die.”
“If I do so shall you.”
“Do you know why you’re not funny?!” Lino exclaimed bitterly as he began running westward at full speed. Though he still had the [Wings of an Archangel] as the only remnant of his previously packed inventory, they were damaged quite a bit and he didn’t want to risk breaking them by using them. “Your timing sucks absolute ass!!”