INSIDE THE POCKET
A track of six footsteps stretched over the hillsides and dipping, frozen valleys, winding around a cliff and eventually ending in front of a large hole in the side, leading into the cave -- the only visible place within one’s sight free of ice and snow. Deep inside the cave, surrounding a raging fire, Seya and Hannah were rubbing their hands together, clustered as close to the fire as possible without being burned.
Lino, on the other hand, stood by the side and watched with a rather dubious expression; they’d barely been traveling for three hours from the shore, yet these two were already almost out of commission. As far as he was concerned, the weather here was rather pleasant; unlike, for instance, the scorching heat of the Demonic Battlefield’s desert, where he had to actively use Qi to cool his body, here he was at peace.
Sighing lowly as he sat down, Lino realized that their trek across the Northern Fjords would be anything but easy; if they were truly only capable of walking for just three-four hours at once, how long would it take them to actually reach inland? And, even if they reached it, how long would it take them to actually locate any sign of a civilization?
They were completely barred from using Qi -- and this even included Lino. One of the more fearsome properties of Magic was that even Ataxia was unable to hide itself completely from it; it was fine as long as Lino didn’t utilize Qi, but if he did, the chances are that he would be detected nonetheless. It simply wasn’t a risk he was willing to take so early in their mission, so all that was left was to hope Seya and Hannah would grow some form of innate resilience to the frost over time.
As he waited for the two to warm up enough to do anything but crackle their jaws and shake, Lino went over the information he had on the Last Bastion of Magic one more time. In reality, it was truly pitiful -- so pitiful, actually, that he may as well know nothing. Situated somewhere inland, surrounded by Magic Arrays -- which was unconfirmed, merely suspected -- homeland to the last Mages of the world, numbering at least in a few tens of thousands... indeed, he could have guessed most of these things himself in the end.
Still, there was one piece of information that was rather interesting -- which was the origin of the school; according to the old man, they were able to faintly trace some of the remnant Magic to a rather old, but robust school of Magic that used to dominate the world during the Skyhaven Era to the point that even the Skyhaven Dynasty had to show them respect -- School of Duality.
As its name implied, the school dealt largely in the binary nature of the world; the differences between Magic and Qi, however, were at full display here -- there were hundreds of Sects and Clans who were similarly training duality, but it was the difference of the scales -- micro versus macro. It was very, very difficult to create opposing dualities through Qi, something Lino was keenly aware of. For instance, the duality of Water and Fire, in theory, would reach as far as oceans and active volcanoes; yet, there was never an instance of a Cultivator managing to utilize two past the rather basic stage of a small stream and ordinary campfire.
Magic, on the other hand, made it much easier to form dualities on a macro scale, which is also why its most popular school -- Creation and Destruction -- had piqued Lino’s interest ever since he’d learned of it. It resonated closely with his own situation; though he himself had embarked down the Path of Destruction, Hannah was pursuing the Path of Creation. Even if they were unable to actually use Magic, merely just learning the theory behind how Mages bound two ends together would be more than simply beneficial.
In one of the books on history of Magic that the old man had given him, there was an entire chapter dedicated to the two Mages during the Skyhaven Era -- exactly of the Creation and Destruction School -- and how they managed to bring the Skyhaven Dynasty nearly to the brink of complete collapse. While the details were fuzzy and no doubt exaggerated or even outright fabricated, nearly every flaunt in the history books could be traced back to an event that truly happened.
Glancing sideways as he ripped himself away of the looping thoughts, he saw Seya and Hannah were finally back to being themselves, leaned against the cave’s strangely warm walls. Their cheeks had finally turned somewhat flushed as color returned to their faces and life to their eyes.
“About time,” Lino cackled from the back, walking up to the two and sitting opposite of them. “How are you ladies feeling?”
“... I wanna go home...” Seya mumbled.
“And I want to own the entire world,” Lino said. “But it’s best we kept our stupid dreams to ourselves, don’t you think?”
“We can’t go on like this,” Hannah said, sighing. “There’s only so many caves out there. What if we don’t find one the next time we’re out? We may really need you to literally cradle us into your arms just to survive...”
“... I’m sorry,” Lino replied, sighing as well. “I’d have crafted you ladies something, but I wouldn’t have been able to use any Qi, which would mean I couldn’t have crafted anything, really. But, hey, think of this as a test! To nurture your Will!”
“....” the two girls merely glared at him, causing Lino to awkwardly scratch his nose; he was also out of ideas, after all. They really might have to wrap themselves into Lino’s arms if they had any hope of reaching inland.
“What about using Grim?” Hannah quizzed.
“....” Lino dubiously glanced at Hannah for a moment as he awkwardly coughed. “Uh, no go.”
“... what did that bitch-bird say?” Hannah asked angrily.
“N-nothing, don’t worry about it. Anyway, think of the rewards, alright! Think and let the idea of being showered in gold and glitter warm you!”
“... aaah, maybe we should just go back.” Hannah said. “I’m sure your glib tongue will be able to somehow trick them into accepting you.”
“And if not, you can always just beat whatever you need out of them,” Seya chimed in with a glare. “You seem to be very good at it.”
“Hey, oi,” Lino spoke with a pained expression. “I’m actually a pacifist, you know? I don’t like going around and killing people willy-nilly! Eh? That’s actually not a bad idea...” Lino suddenly mumbled.
“What?” Hannah asked.
“Everyone, meet Rothar!” Lino chuckled as a figure suddenly materialized next to him; Rothar looked nothing like a noble image of a Devil Seya had in mind. He was rugged, tired-looking, wearing barely any clothes, and too terrified to even look at Lino.
“L-lord Empyrean...” Rothar quickly bowed toward Lino.
“Ha ha ha, enough with the formalities,” though Lino said that, both Seya and Hannah could see that ego growing, causing them to click their tongues. “Khm, anyway, my friend here had an idea that might work.”
“... f-friend?” Seya’s brows twitched; after all, what part of that looked like friendship?! It more looked like a dog who was repeatedly beaten by his master to the point the poor thing forgot how to bark and bite.
“What is it?” Hannah asked with interest.
“I can shove you two into the Dimensional Pocket while we’re traveling.” Lino said. “And take you out once I find appropriate shelter!”
“.....” Hannah suddenly planted a palm onto her forehead, not because Lino’s plan was stupid, but because it was so basic she nearly cried because she didn’t think of it. After all, Dimensional Pockets capable of storing living things were so rare to the point that Hannah actually forgot Lino was in possession of one.
“Huh? Won’t we suffocate inside?!” Seya exclaimed.
“Eh? Where do you think I dragged this poor piece of sh--I mean my friend from?” Lino pointed at Rothar. “Don’t worry, you’ll be just fine. I mean, you’ll be bored out of your fucking minds, but at least you’ll be warm!”
“Hey! No cursing!” Hannah exclaimed. “She’s still just a child!”
“... she tried to kill me like four times since I’ve sat down.” Lino said. “I think that pretty much disqualifies her from being a kid.”
“... ah, whatever. Yeah, let’s do that. Wait -- what if you get found out alone?” Hannah asked in the end. “Wouldn’t that pretty much nullify our need to be here in the first place?”
“Heh, don’t worry. Although Ataxia is largely useless here, he’s not that useless...”
“Hey...” a robotic voice chimed inside Lino’s mind, but the latter simply ignored it.
“Anyway, you two ladies have nothing to worry about! Get inside of me and warm yourselves up!”
“Ewww...” both Hannah and Seya exclaimed at the same time, though they obediently entered the Dimensional Pocket; the latter was, for each, a small room with absolutely nothing else inside. At least, though, it was warm.
“So? Why are you still outside?” Lino asked Rothar who was currently squirming next to Lino, seemingly wishing to ask something.
“Uh, oh, umm... L-lord Empyrean... d-do you think... y-you could let us... go home? I-I promise we’ve learned our lesson!”
“Eh, not just yet,” Lino shrugged. “I’ve still got some uses for you. Don’t worry, I promised I wouldn’t kill you guys, and that I’d let you go eventually. I’m a man of my word, after all!”
“Now get back inside before I change my mind.”
Lino quickly found himself sitting alone inside the cave, entering deep thought. There were too many things he had to do, but, in the end, all of them could wait. There was a good reason why he chose to largely withdraw from the world for a few years, and there was no need to stir the hornet’s nest just yet. Completing the mission came as a first, though, inside Lino’s mind, ‘completing the mission’ most-likely carried very different connotations than what the old man had in mind...