A vast valley tucked in-between dry, sand-colored mountains stretched onward into a placid and tranquil lake, its surface only disturbed by occasional animal coming to its edge to drink from it. Lino stood with his arms at his hips, breathing in deeply the fresh air of the spring-grown flowers that surrounded him while Lucky and Felix were currently sitting down and panting, occasionally even gagging.
Lino glanced at them once and shrugged; the hippogryph hasn’t apparently been trained in landing softly, which led to an unfortunate crash and a landslide for the two of them. Since Lino’s body was harder than steel, he was better off at the end of it save for the now muddied clothes.
He took yet another glance at the world around him; had he not known himself where he had landed, there was nothing about it that would suggest he had entered an entirely new world. Mountains stretched east and north and south, spilling into tall cliffs at the very edges of the west-most peninsula. It was the picturesque landscape one can witness within every corner of the world, but the differences still existed -- namely in Qi.
Not only was it far more abundant than on the Western Continent, but it was also far denser and purer. Just a single breath revitalized Lino’s entire body, causing the Singularity resting within his soul to pulsate like the heartbeat. He quickly realized that it was no wonder the Western Continent was so far behind in the world of cultivation; rather, they never truly stood a chance.
“You two done groaning yet?” he asked, glancing back at the two who managed to somehow sit up.
“Fuck you!!” both of them exclaimed in unison, glaring at him.
“Hey, it’s not my fault you guys are so weak.” Lino shrugged. “Anyway, giddy up. There’s a town nearby where we can hopefully buy some horses.”
“... we can literally crawl faster than them.” Lucky commented.
“Heh, I’d love to see that.” Lino smirked, not elaborating further.
The two got up shortly after and dusted themselves off, following Lino down the cliff side and through the valley toward the sand-colored mountains. The valley was rich in fragrance of flowers each mingling together to form a rather powerful one; were an ordinary person to take a full breath here, they’d most-likely approach the point of suffocation.
Strange growls and howls and cries of the beasts occasionally broke the chirping of the birds, and Lino even spotted several flying beasts occasionally crossing the sky in orderly fashion -- clearly either subdued or mounted by people. Though they were spotted, Lino didn’t care much; after all, they were still far off from the Titan Empire’s Capital and even more so from the Unholy Calling Sect.
Across the lake a simple pine forest awaited them, beyond which they finally reached the first sign of the civilization. Walls rolled tall and wide, yet still too short to cover the high-rising buildings within. Even as far as a mile out the trio could clearly hear the sounds of human voices and the grinding of the horses’ hooves. While Felix and Lucky tensed somewhat, preparing to fight at any moment, Lino merely put his hands into his pockets and calmly walked toward the town’s gates.
Even though the town was at the very edge of the entire Continent, it was still quite marvelous; layered squarely, with numerous cross-sections running through its rather abundant surface, despite the somewhat large number of residents the town was quite orderly. The streets were cleanly divided between the parts for the horse carriages and people, and Lino spotted scarcely a beggar anywhere.
The gates themselves were guarded by at least a dozen people, though nobody approached Lino and merely inspected the trio with Divine Sense. As to not arouse suspicion, Lino leaked enough Qi to make himself appear as just another, ordinary Early Purity Realm cultivator.
As soon as the guards realized that the strongest person in the group -- Felix -- was merely a Late Purity Realm cultivator, they lost all interest in them, even turning to look at them with disdain. Lino ignored them entirely and entered the town, glancing around with some anticipation until he finally figured out where it was stationed -- or, rather, where they were stationed -- six in total.
“Alright you two,” Lino turned toward them, yet his eyes remained glued to the other end. “Go and find us a lodging. I’m gonna... uh, explore a bit.”
“... just say you’re going to a brothel.” Lucky rolled her eyes at him as Felix looked at him dubiously.
“... but I’m not going there,” Lino replied, presenting a hurtful expression. “What kind of a man do you take me for?”
“The kind that will visit the brothels of new towns and cities immediately upon entering them?”
“No, no, that’s the secondary objective now,” Lino said. “It’s still a day. Jeez, I don’t want to come off as truly desperate. You wait for well past midnight, spill alcohol all over yourself and then walk in. It’s like you guys had never done it before.”
“Yeah, whatever. Off you go. I’ll find you later.” Lino ignored the hateful gazes and took a right turn.
The houses rose in two rows, streets paved with cobblestone in-between, occasional street lantern standing indifferent, extinguished for the time being. People of all sorts mingled, though Lino realized that majority were rather tall and dark-skinned sort with seemingly universally beautiful, emerald eyes that caused even Lino to feel some envy.
Not unlike other towns this large, everyone seemed to be hurrying somewhere, their heads up in the clouds, causing shoulder-to-shoulder bumps to be a regular occurrence. Lino had to consciously limit his strength as to not break someone’s shoulders up and stir trouble where it need not be.
It didn’t take him long to reach his target -- a three-stories building constructed out of grayed limestone rose in what appeared to be a business district. Up top were several chimneys repeatedly spitting out black smoke, with the sounds of hammers clashing against the metal resounding as profoundly as any gospel song Lino had ever heard. It was beautiful, he mused, taking a deep breath; each time it sounded out, he felt his heart and blood stir, an odd sort of thirst assailing his now parched throat.
His fingers shook, his arms almost reaching forward, legs ready to break out into a sprint. Lino quickly calmed himself down and smiled bitterly; from a hobby he was interested in to a calling, it now turned into an obsession it seems.
He slowly walked over to the smithy and opened the front doors, causing a bell to sound out. The insides were rather spacious, sides lined up with glistening items of all sorts and kinds, and at least a couple of dozen people currently seeking to enrich their strength through external means.
Naturally Lino didn’t come here to buy something, but rather to find work. Anywhere outside the Western Continent, the main currency used in transactions were Qi Stones. Though he had a decent amount from the ring Ava gave to him, it was hardly enough. As they’ve decided to stay a couple of weeks on the border town before rushing down south, he figured he may as well find work in the meantime to occupy himself.
Despite the numerous customers, there were still a few sellers loitering around, yet after paying him a quick glance, none approached him. After all, his attire hardly lent credence to his riches. Though he no longer looked like a side-street beggar, he merely moved up to an ordinary commoner. He didn’t mind it, though, approaching one of the freer walls stacked with items, inspecting them with his eyes.
“Hoh...” he exclaimed softly into his jaw. “A rather fine one. [Frosted Steel] alloyed with [Dragon Ore]... what did they use for a conduit? [Liquid Gold]? No... the sheen is different. <Quickdraw Array>... ah! [Falcon’s Blood]! Yes! It’s resistant to the freezing effects of the steel, which allows it to absorb parts of it and negate the effects of [Dragon Ore] binding the two... hoho, looks like I’ve come to the right place.” as Lino left his dreamland, he momentarily shook as he glanced sideways. A rather short man, barely up to Lino’s thighs, draped in simple, blacksmith attire, looked up to him with starlit eyes. The man was rather chubby, his nose seemingly too large for his face, with thick, bushy beard covering even more of his face than what Lino used to be like with his. Realizing that the man was staring at him without saying anything, Lino frowned before asking. “Unless you have a sister three times your size, completely hairless -- well, save for hair, gotta have something to pull onto--I mean to decorate her pretty head -- I’m not interested.”
“Huh?” the man seemed to have been jolted from his daze as he looked at Lino oddly. “My sister is 48 years old and she has eleven grandkids. You sure you want to after that?”
“... beggars can’t be choosers.” Lino gritted his teeth and smiled.
“Hey, I ain’t gonna judge, but that’s sick.”
“You just said you ain’t gonna judge.”
“Did I? You must have heard wrong.”
“Yeah, it’s my hearing that’s impaired, not your brain.”
“Exactly, kiddo!” the man exclaimed, his lips straining into a full smile. “You’ve got a promising future.”
“And if you keep this shit up you won’t have one.” Lino said, smiling kindly.
“... ah. You’re the devil sort with fiendishly handsome smile.” the man chuckled. “You lot are the most dangerous! I constantly warn my daughters to avoid you like a plague, but... eh. They’re young. They don’t listen! Two of ‘em married a devil like you and year later came back to my house with four kids in tow -- each! Can you believe it?!”
“... sorry, what?”
“Eh, whatever, personal tales come later,” the man stroked his beard as he glanced between the sword on the shelf and Lino. “You’ve got a good eye for the materials. A smith?”
“More so than you, at least.” Lino replied with a smile.
“Hah, a cocky one too? Heh, I take more pleasure in striking cocky bastards like you down than anything else in my life.”
“... maybe you should rephrase that sentence.”
“Heh, I take more pleasure in striking cocky bastards like you down almost as much as other things I enjoy doing with my life.”
“You interested in a job, kiddo?” the man asked.
“Aye. That’s why I’m here.” Lino said.
“I gotta test you first, though.”
“Test away, old man.”
“Are you a virgin?”
“Good, you’re hired.”
“... you’re not gonna explain that?” Lino asked.
“Eh, it’s nothing complicated,” the man spoke out as he led Lino out of the store and to the second floor. “But the last kid we hired was an up-and-coming star who spent most of his youth barred between the four walls. We have a few female assistants working with us, and because it can sometimes get really hot, they tend to dress scarcely -- if at all -- which, as you can imagine, wasn’t really the best working environment for a green kid.”
“No, they’re not dwarfs like me,” as though reading Lino’s mind, the man quickly interrupted him. “But keep your kinks when you’re out there somewhere. Here, we’re all professionals.”
“Eh, I don’t know about that,” Lino said. “I’ve never heard of other professionals that strip naked in front of other people because it got kind of hot.”
“... so you’d rather work in a smithy full of sweaty, topless men who stink of pig shit?”
“No, I’d really rather not. This is paradise.”
“Ha ha, you know it.” the man winked at him as they reached the second floor which was sectioned off into small portions out of which sounds of continuous ringing of hammers and metals echoed. “Anyway, my name is Edward.” the man turned toward Lino and said. “And my brother and I are owners of the Hellenguard Smithy, the number 1 smithy in town! You’re lucky you came to us kiddo! Your talents would have been wasted elsewhere!”
“Why do I have a feeling every single one of them would have said the same thing?”
“It’s because they would.” Edward shrugged. “Anyway, even though I’ve hired you already, I still gotta know your exact limits. So, choose one of the three tests: knowledge, practice, guidance.”
“Practice.” Lino replied without a second thought.
“Ho ho, we have a bold one over here, no? Alright, practice it is. As you already seem rather familiar with [Frosted Steel], I’ll give you a chunk alongside a few pieces of [Hardening Stone] and, well, I’ll watch you make magic! Well, not just me... we have this tradition where each time we’ve got a newcomer, we all gather on the third floor and constantly chirp in while the newcomer’s crafting to test his patience and resilience to the outside factors. You’ve no problem with that, right?”
“For all I care you guys can start an orgy.” Lino shrugged.
“Ha ha, good lad! Heh, anyway, wait here. I’ll go gather the rest, and we’ll see just where your cockiness stems from, alright?”
Lino faintly nodded, already ignoring Edward’s words. He inwardly mused that there was nothing more beautiful than having other people provide you with materials for free. In his head, he already began figuring out what to craft; he, naturally, had no intention of holding back. He was here to make a name for himself -- but, even more so, he hated holding back far more than anything else. Looking at an item that he had crafted knowing that he could have done ten times better... he found it rather depressing and hypocritical. Looks like that old bastard’s teachings are really kicking my guts... haah...