The sounds of the whizzing air echoed out through a small, squared martial room. Around the center, Lucky was currently performing what Lino could only describe as gymnastics, twirling and whirling around as though her body didn’t have any bones. He silently watched on, drinking in the process, while simultaneously breaking a part of his concentration onto the war itself.
He hadn’t reached the Illumine Realm as he wanted to; he did reach Level 179, just a sliver away from crossing the boundary. Yet, bounding the Realms wasn’t simply a matter of Cultivating Qi and sitting around doing nothing. As the Writ remained silent on the issue, Lino figured he’d just take a few stabs in the dark until something sticks. In the meantime, however, he’d concentrate on the issue of war.
He had even cut back on his favorite past-time -- sleeping -- in order to stay on top of every possibility. He figured he’d fill up the lack of experience and knowledge with readiness and preparedness rivaling any and all. There were still a couple of days before the first two battling Legions would meet in the South, so in the meantime Lino decided to limit his interaction with the Continental Forces. The less they could learn about him, the better.
Just as he was about to shuffle onto the next scenario, he felt a faint pull of his shirt, snapping him out of the half-dazed state. Glancing sideways, he noticed Felix sitting down next to him with a slight blush on his face. As he was about to tease him, Lino saw a new look on the boy’s eyes as he glanced at Lucky who was still spinning around like a dancer.
“... what’s up?” Lino asked with a somewhat mellow tone.
“I...” Felix mumbled. “I... I think I’m falling in love, Master.”
“W-with Lucky of course! Who else?!” Felix exclaimed angrily, realizing Lino was just messing with him.
“Eh, lucky you, young lad. Good luck with that. I wish you two luck out--”
“Please, I-I didn’t come here to hear you make puns about the name of the girl I like...”
“Sorry,” Lino fumbled, scratching his head. “It’s just hard to resist, you know?”
”... are you telling me that?” Felix glared at him angrily for a moment.
“... why are you telling me this though?” Lino asked. “Shouldn’t you be confessing to her?”
“You’re terrified, aren’t you?”
“Yup, pretty much.” Felix nodded. “I... I don’t know how she feels. What if she’s just having fun?”
“What would you then?” Lino asked casually.
“Urgh.” nearly choking on the gulp of rather bitter ale, Lino forcibly spat it out, coughing several times after. “Dude, you’re not fifteen anymore. Jeez.”
“So you too think she’s having fun?” Felix asked with a rather pained expression.
“I never said that.” Lino replied.
“But you suspect it?”
“... I don’t suspect anything,” Lino said, smiling faintly. “One thing I do know, though, is that Lucky is many things... but not someone who would so casually play around with the feelings of others.”
“... ah, these are the times I wish I had Master’s confidence...” Felix mumbled. “You can just approach any woman you fancy and ask the most embarrassing thing without flinching... and I can’t even tell the one woman I love that I do.”
“...” I’m your Master, not your love guru!! Why come to me with this?! Lino shouted inwardly, yet kept his expression placid. He knew just how much Felix looked up to him, and if he came to Lino with it, then it meant he was quite serious. “Somebody once told me that asking for a woman’s love is more terrifying than dying.”
“Who?” Felix asked.
“Nobody, I just made it up,” Lino said. “The point is, so what if you’re scared? You think I was always capable of approaching random women and asking them this and that? Of course not. The point of fear isn’t to eliminate it entirely... it’s to press onward in spite of its presence.”
“... have you ever been in love, Master?” Felix asked.
“... in love?” Lino mumbled, taking a sip as a strange expression surfaced on his face for a moment. “I.. I can’t say I have. Though, I suppose, I have loved.”
“Eh?” Felix exclaimed softly. “What’s the difference?”
“Loving someone is a conscious effort,” Lino replied. “Falling in love... well, that’s just your brain being an idiot.”
“... y-you sure have an unique view of it...”
“Ha ha, hardly,” Lino laughed for a moment, glancing at Lucky. “Answer me this. If Lucky suddenly found herself in danger, what would you do?”
“Help her, of course!” Felix exclaimed immediately.
“But her opponent is a hundred times stronger than you.”
“T-then... I’d buy enough time for her to run away!”
“... and that’s why your brain is being an idiot,” Lino said, grinning. “Love overrides your most basic instinct -- survival. Though, I suppose, it’s also a reason for all the babies popping out, so, y’know, it’s not all bad.”
“... I see. Even Master is afraid of falling in love!” Lino looked at him dubiously for a moment but said nothing. Eh, if it gives him confidence... “Thank you, Master! You’ve helped me a lot!”
“You’re not going to do it now, are you?!”
“When else? Time waits for no one!” Ah! The light in his eyes! Shit, I’ve corrupted my disciple...
“W-wait! At least wait until I leave!”
“There’s no need, Master,” Felix said, pumping his chest. “I want you to witness your Disciple’s progress!”
“I’d rather not however!”
“It’s fine! There’s no need to be embarrassed!” Felix then turned on his heel and rushed toward Lucky.
Lino remained sitting, his body trembling ever so often, corners of his lips twitching. He didn’t stay, however. Should they one day retell this story to their grandkids, Lino would rather avoid being the weird, stalking creeper in the story; he’d much rather be the cool Master who encouraged Felix to finally confess.
Leaving the dojo, he decided to roam the streets at random as it has been a while since he’d last done it. Even while still living in the orphanage, he always liked just mindlessly walking around and taking everything in. The passionate expressions of people bantering for goods, the seductive poses women in front of the brothels would make, the kids chasing one another around while pissing off every adult they encountered, the occasional brawls in front of the taverns and pubs, the occasional woman screaming at her husband because the latter decided to spend all their money on booze... these everyday realities always fascinated him.
It was even more so after he left his little corner of the world where he grew up. It was only then that he’d truly realized just how similar people are, west, east, north or south. All of them share the same, little quirks however different the cultures and traditions may be. Just before he had a chance to immerse himself in his own little dream, however, he felt a vibration coming from within his void world.
Reaching in and taking out the object, his expression soured, a sigh escaping his lips. He held the three-winged crest, which was not only vibrating but also exuding a faint, golden sheen. This could only mean one thing, he realized: another member of the Great Descent is near... and he could already guess they weren’t just touring around and came across him by accident.
Finding a small, dark and empty alleyway, he donned the mask and followed the ‘feeling’ which was telling him where the source of the connection was. He soon found himself outside the district’s walls, in the in-between area that was mostly barren of life, filled mainly with small hills and occasional forest and a lake. Which was exactly where the feeling led him.
Ruggedly circular, the lake was placed at the very heart of a small forest. Its water was majestically clear, making it possible to see the bottom -- which was barely two meters deep -- and all the life living inside of it. Sitting by the lake’s edge was a woman’s figure, her legs dipped into the lake up to her knees.
Much like Lino, she donned a mask, making it impossible to see her facial features. Save for the strikingly green eyes and eerily crimson hair, and slightly pale skin, Lino couldn’t discern much else. Yet, that mere glance at her had shook his heart for a moment before he forcibly calmed it down.
He didn’t dilly-dally, walking up and sitting next to her, dipping his legs into the lake as well. The water was quite chilly, and it almost felt as though someone was massaging his muscles. I need to map this place out carefully...
“... so,” Lino was the first one to break the silence after nearly five minutes of it. “You here to oversee me or to tell me I’d already failed?”
“You failed. Your sentence is death.” the woman turned toward him and stared into his eyes, her expression serious. Yet, Lino could still notice the faint twitch of her lips.
“No, my sentence is: don’t make jokes if you can’t hold yourself back from laughter.” Lino said, smirking.
“Ah, a man of bad puns,” the woman said. “You have a great taste.”
“I am a man of culture, after all.”
“Yet, your clothes would tell an entirely different story.”
“It is my charisma that makes all eyes veer toward me,” Lino said. “Not unnecessarily flamboyant clothes.”
“Quite a confident one, huh?” the woman smiled lightly.
“Half a man’s fortunes lie in his confidence to bullshit himself through every situation.”
“As do half the woman’s.”
“Don’t you guys just have to make your boobs bounce and you’re good to go?” Lino asked nonchalantly.
“Ah, some do,” the woman nodded. “But, as you can see, I’m not exactly superbly endowed in that area.”
“You’re full enough.” Lino said after giving them a moderate stare.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but you don’t have to comfort me. I have resigned to forever being known as the averagely-tittied one.”
“I’ll be stealing that phrase, just so you know.” Lino said.
“Be my guest.” the woman chuckled for a moment. “Anyway, will we continue to talk about my lacking breasts for hours to come, or should we take things a bit more seriously for a moment?”
“Hey, you’re the one who started this charade,” Lino shrugged. “I merely followed suit.”
“Ah, sorry. I just assumed it would have been difficult for you to talk with a woman without stammering your way through, so I wanted to relax you a bit.”
“... well, if I were the type of a guy to stammer my way through to the woman’s heart,” Lino said. “Talking about your boobs certainly wouldn’t have helped me.”
“Anyway, who are you?” Lino asked.
“How rude of me,” she suddenly extended her arm for a shake. “It’s nice to meet you, Seventy-Two. I am Sixty-Eight.”
“... d-do I seriously need to call you Sixty-Eight from now on?” Lino replied the handshake yet still asked.
“What do you want to call me?”
“I’ll call you S, then.” Lino said.
“I’ll then call you M.”
“Even if we do happen to indulge into bondage play, I’m taking the S.”
“You don’t look the type.”
“That’s the beauty of it. Anyway,” Lino quickly interrupted the derailment of the conversation any further. “You here to tell me what?”
“To observe and help,” the woman said with a chuckle. “After all, it is your first mission, and it’s a pretty overwhelming one.”
“Oh, what? You mean acting as a Commander of the Continental War between Cultivators and Hell’s Forces? Psh. A piece of cake. Breeze in the wind. Easier than being a fast shooter. More--”
“So you basically have no idea what you’re doing?”
“Yeah, yeah, pretty much.”
“The formation you’ve chosen is a pretty good one, though.” the woman said. “If not a bit too passive.”
“Better safe than sorry.” Lino said.
“... I’m very interested in how you handle the whole ordeal.” the woman suddenly smiled freely, causing Lino to blank out for a moment. That smile... he could never forget it.. “Don’t worry, I won’t be breathing down your neck all day and night long. I’ll just be lurking around, like a good, sweet stalker. If you ever do feel like you could use a helping hand, just follow your heart.”
“... why do you have to make it weird?” Lino asked with a dubious expression.
“Right. It’s ‘cause you are weird.”
“That’s a rather rude thing to say, no? Even if it is true...”
“Ah, you’re not just weird... you’re the sort who likes being acknowledged as weird because it boosts your ego... I suddenly like you way more.” Lino said, getting up as well.
“Kindred spirits indeed.” the woman smiled as she began walking away. “I’m looking forward to talking with you more, Wing.”
“Likewise, Thunder.” Lino replied, glancing one last time at the woman’s fading figure. The reason he chose upon the name Thunder is similar as to why she called him Wing -- because of their crests. While Lino’s were wings, hers was a bolt of lightning. His lips momentarily curled up in warm, ethereal, joy-filled smile, as though he’d found something he’s been looking for far too long.
Meanwhile, the woman walking away was questioning herself over the sense of familiarity she felt. She rarely, if ever, talked with someone she just met like that. The man she just met felt rather familiar, yet also distinctly distant, as though merely a part of him exuded closeness she felt. Wing, huh? Maybe I can sweeten Moon to procure his information... ugh, no, she’s gonna request something weird again... I suppose I’ll just find out on my own...