Ella was currently standing atop the Eternal Sky Plateau, the prized Void Artifact of the Eternal Paradise Holy Ground. It was a swirling platform with connecting bridges, enclosed within a dome-like barrier that can withstand virtually every attack from anyone. Though it wasn’t her first time seeing it, it was no less impressive than before.
At the very center of the platform was a small, hand-crafted garden of white roses, topped with a simple yet elegant water fountain around which a set of benches were built. She stood right next to one, observing the fountain before her where a flower-shaped top spat out crystal-clear water ceaselessly.
“It’s been quite some time, Sword Maiden,” a soft, clear voice jolted Ella out of her thoughts as she turned around. Standing right behind her was a seemingly ordinary-looking, honest and gentle man of black eyes and brown hair. Yet, even Ella currently felt a faint sense of danger coming from him. “I see you have regained your Title.”
“Long time no see Alex,” Ella smiled, nodding faintly. “I see you still quite enjoy playing the role of a harmless rabbit.”
“Old habits die hard, I suppose.” the man shrugged, smiling faintly. “What brings you to my humble abode?”
“I willed to visit the old Murook,” Ella said. “But, the stubborn fool said he doesn’t welcome anyone who bears no gifts. So, I’ve no choice but to come to you.”
“One of these days I really hope to shove a spear through his rotten heart and teach him some manners. Wherefore have you come to me, though?” he asked, curious.
“... to implore you at the very least freeze the war for the time being,” Ella said, her expression turning serious. “This is no time for it.”
“... I can’t do that, Ella.” he quickly replied.
“... I’ll personally train your Bearer for three months,” Ella said, seemingly having expected his reply. “And give you a single talisman to summon me for whatever future battle you wish.”
“... quite tempting, I’ve to admit,” Alex smiled lightly. “But, you overestimate your value, Ella. Perhaps, had you not vanished for many moons, your words would still hold some weight. I’m afraid... you have fallen too far behind to matter.”
“... and you’ve gone complacent, Alex,” Ella smiled back, letting a sliver of her Will enshroud the whole garden, causing Alex to suddenly frown. “For two eyes you have, yet can’t see a single thing with them.”
“... Origin Soul... is indeed something,” Alex sighed, forced to repel Ella’s Will with his own. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lamented you weren’t born an Eternal. I, however, still can’t halt the war, Ella. Do you even know why it was started in the first place?”
“... why?” Ella asked.
“Sixteen assassination attempts at Hannah’s life,” Alex replied. “Even after she gave up her title of the Maiden. And while, naturally, all of them failed, sixteen is already fifteen too many, Ella. If I suddenly ordered my people to withdraw, what would become of our dignity?”
“... I imagine all those assassins are dead,” Ella said. “Isn’t it way more embarrassing for old Murook than you? Having been unable to kill a single girl?”
“... aah, you really are persistent,” Alex said, sighing and sitting on one of the benches. “I’ll agree with one additional chip from your end.”
“What?” Ella asked.
“Your dear husband’s talent, for a personal weapon for Alison.” Ella frowned for a moment, thinking. “And I don’t mean his hard-working creations, I mean the arsenal he’d given you. A minimal Creation-tier, growth-style pair of swords with properties of Body Enhancement and close-quarter combat as well as reliance on speed. Naturally, we’ll provide all materials necessary.”
“... he hasn’t crafted a Creation-tier item in hundreds of years Alex,” Ella said, sighing faintly. “Despite his pride, even he would tell you it’s impossible.”
“I didn’t mean right now, Ella,” Alex smiled. “I just meant eventually. The sooner the better, of course, but I’m no idiot; I understand very well just what goes into creating something so high-tier. I’d have asked for a Void-tier, to be honest, if he also hadn’t vanished for so long.”
“... ha ha, your ambition certainly isn’t easily sated,” Ella laughed bitterly for a moment. “You do realize that there are currently only two people, save for the Descenders, who can actually equip the [World Beheader], right?”
“Never stopped me from dreaming about it, though.” Alex smiled as he replied.
“... very well. I’ll talk him into it,” Ella agreed dejectedly, turning around and preparing to leave. “Give me a call once you’re ready to hand her over, and I’ll come and pick her up.”
Lucky and Felix were currently enjoying a rather bountiful supper within the Palace’s Diner Room, where they shared a massive table with the Empire’s greatest figures. Though they very much felt out of place, the old hulk of muscles Eggor, who sat besides them, eased their minds slightly. The two, in addition, had grown quite close to the Princess Annabelle and Prince On’yal, despite a rather large difference in strength and age.
What the two didn’t know was that it was by Lino’s design, both them staying in the Palace as well as being so comfortable. He may have accidentally let it slip while wearing a mask that he felt Lucky and Felix were rather charming and that he considered taking them as Disciples, all while ‘not knowing’ that the Princess was listening.
Rather than relaxing, however, the two were hard at work, cultivating day in and out, even occasionally sparring with the Royal Guards and even the Prince and Princess herself. Time and again they felt nothing short of worthlessness, despite the stubbornness they displayed toward Lino when the latter questioned whether they wished to follow him. They didn’t wish to admit he was right, yet more and more it seemed he was.
“... you two look like you haven’t slept in weeks.” Eggor commented through the chewing sounds as he hoarded all of the chicken on the table. “Training is good and all, but nothing beats a good night’s sleep when it comes to getting stronger.”
“...” Lucky and Felix glanced at him dispiritedly before returning to munching on food they were too tired to eat.
“If you really want to get stronger quicker,” Eggor looked at the two for a moment as his expression mellowed out, a bright, youthful, smirking face flashing through his mind. “There are other ways than just stubbornly cultivating, you know? I’m barely Level 100, yet I’m quite confident I’d be able to kill everyone in this room, alone, while they banded together to attack me.”
“...” the two pairs of eyes of youths lit up like lanterns as they fiercely glared at Eggor for a moment.
“You’re willing to teach us smithing?!”
“Oh, god no,” Eggor laughed. “You two ain’t cut out for that.”
“If Lino is, so am I!” Lucky exclaimed, Felix fervently nodding.
“Just because you say it out loud, doesn’t mean you actually believe it,” Eggor grinned. “It takes a special kind of idiot to truly pursue smithing, and neither of you two looks the part.”
“But,” Eggor said, drinking a whole chunk of ale from the cup before continuing. “Smithing isn’t the only option, you know? Formation Masters, for instance, are actually more respected than blacksmiths at large. Talisman Masters can find a home anywhere they want, and can create some genuinely terrifying stuff if they’re patient. Even I want nothing to do with those maniacs. Then you have engineers, the crazed sort that create the most insane things. Alchemists and their pills are indispensable, practically a whole realm above smiths in importance. There’s plethora of ways you can be useful to that jackass, you know?”
“... what do you suggest we pick up?” Lucky asked, interested.
“Well, I can’t say what you should do -- it’s up to you after all,” Eggor said. “But, if your husband over there can learn Dual Qi of Frost and Flame, it’d be quite useful for Alchemy. And you seem nimble enough, I imagine; Formations oftentimes decide the end-result of a battle, you know?”
“He’s not my husband!” Lucky exclaimed lowly, her cheeks faintly blushing while Felix’s were already bloody red.
“Right... that’s the most important part...” Eggor grinned. “Anyway, as I said, it’s up to you. Do what you wish. I’m just speaking nonsense here. Oh, right,” Eggor had finally felt that soul-deep sensation that Lino was talking about, the itch in one’s heart when it came to tongue-whippings. “I know quite a few good jewelers,” he said to Felix. “In case you ever grow a pair and ask, you know?” seeing the two reddened faces unable to look at each other was quite wonderful, Eggor mused inwardly and then trembled as he’d also realized another thing: that little runt and his tongue had influenced him at last... something he promised he’d never allow. He shuddered, unwilling to admit it, festering the bubble of denial within his mind.