A beautiful, quaint and small village rested on top of the flourishing hillside decorated with wild patches of flowers and willow trees. All roads leading in and out of the village were muddy due to last night’s rain, with droplets of water still cascading down the slanted roofs of the wooden houses fit into perfect squares, spaced neatly into a rectangle.
People began slowly waking with the beams of the dawn, its muddy streets soon becoming occupied by nearly a hundred souls regardless. Cries of roosters beckoned out immediately after, forming a strange sort of serenade to the world around.
Outside one of the taller buildings, on top of the small, front porch where a couple of tables rested, two young women were currently enjoying a plateful over two cups of tea. While Alison had a rather rested and pleasant face, Lucky on the other hand appeared rather drained and sleepy, half a mind away from leaning back into her chair and falling asleep right then and there.
“Do you do this often?” Alison suddenly asked.
“Wake up early?” Lucky glanced at her, taking a sip of tea -- which in reality was wine. “Sure. All the time.”
“He he, no, I meant just... randomly walk into a village and book a room in one of the inns.”
“... that? Oh, yeah. It’s kind of necessary part when you’re traveling around.” Lucky replied.
“You travel around a lot?”
“No, of course not. I’m not traveling now either. You’ve dreamed this whole thing up.”
“My my, someone’s cranky in the morning,” Alison chuckled. “Would you have liked if I let you sleep in?”
“... I would have ignored you if you didn’t bust into my room.” Lucky shrugged.
“I know you would have. Why do you think I busted in?”
“... you pretend you’re this sweet, innocent girl,” Lucky said. “But, you’re one mean, evil bitch. I’m onto you, just so you know.”
“... he he,” Alison chuckled coyly. “What do you want to do today?”
“... you know what I want to do today.”
“Besides sleep, I meant. And rest. And lazying off. And dosing away. And--”
“--I get it, I get it,” Lucky grumbled, sighing deeply. “What do you want to do?”
“Well, as long as we’re here, we may as well look around.” Alison replied, glancing out onto the muddy street with slight perturbation.
“How about we just stay indoors and chat?”
“Really?! Khm, I mean, sure... if you want to have a really boring day. Whatever you want.”
“... yeah,” Lucky grinned faintly for a moment, taking another sip of her tea-wine. “I was always curious, by the way, about the Holy Grounds. What are they like?”
“... hmm,” Alison thought for a moment, taking a deep breath before replying. “They’re really just like any other sect, I believe. Highly hierarchical and rigid, with so many rules it’s practically impossible to remember them all.”
“... you don’t like it, then?” Lucky questioned.
“Oh, no, I love it,” Alison chuckled. “But, then again... I imagine my experiences differed vastly from those of ordinary Disciples. Ever since I was taken in, I was given practically everything... just because I happened to have a proper talent. Most of my childhood I struggled greatly with it, never quite believing I deserved everything I was given.”
“What changed?” Lucky asked, immediately noticing a flash of pain cross through Alison’s eyes, mixed with anger.
“... a... a friend of mine,” Alison said, biting her lower lip. “She... helped me get through it. Unlike others, she didn’t treat me any differently. If I did or said something dumb, she would point it out and laugh at me. She would listen to my troubles... and then just hug me.”
“... she sounds like a great friend.” Lucky said.
“... she was.”
“...” though she wanted to ask what happened, Lucky could already imagine; after all, it wasn’t difficult to infer that the friend was Hannah, which could easily explain the complex look in Alison’s eyes at the moment.
“A-anyway, I strayed off the topic a bit,” Alison tried to hide pain with an awkward and lithe smile, taking a sip of her tea in the process. “As I was saying, Holy Grounds are rather similar to other sects. What sets them apart is really the strength of the Martial Arts, Mantras, Cultivation Methods, Formations and so on. Oh, and the fact that each Holy Ground has a four-layered final barrier of defense that is nigh impossible to penetrate by anyone other than another Holy Ground.”
“... eh? Really?”
“Yeah,” Alison nodded somewhat excitedly. “For instance, my Sect, the Eternal Paradise, has in our deepest reserves two Primes and Sixteen Fiends.”
“...” Lucky stared blankly for a moment, which Alison mistook for confusion and quickly elaborated.
“Oh, Primes are among the first creatures to grace the world,” she said. “Though technically children of the Chaos, every Holy Ground has a Mantra for temporarily controlling them. Fiends, on the other hand, are the first children of the Mother, her first Creation. Although neither is necessarily stronger than us, Cultivators, their methods of attack differ so much that we stand absolutely no chance of defending against them. Waking of the Prime is a crime far worse than even committing a genocide, as a woken Prime can easily go berserk.”
“... oh, wow...” Lucky exclaimed somewhat absent-mindedly; if a single Umbra had managed to take an entire Empire down to its knees while merely playing around and helping Lino, she could hardly begin to quantify what two Primes could do in a complete outburst of strength.
“Besides Primes and Fiends,” Alison continued, missing Lucky’s dubious expression. “We also, naturally, have Defensive Artifacts. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about them, as they are practically the most well-kept secret of any Holy Ground, since they’re the last breath of life the Sect or the Clan has. And, lastly, the final reserve that only three Holy Grounds have are--first promise me you won’t tell anyone, please?”
“... I promise I won’t.” Lucky smiled faintly and said.
“Alright!” Damn, she’s way too naive... “He he, I think you’re going to like this; the penultimate weapon of top three Holy Grounds... are actually Origin Dragons!!”
“Right?!” Alison replied with a rather proud grin. “We have a pact with an Origin Dragon whereas we, on yearly basis, give a lot stuff away. In return, we are allowed to summon him three times to defend us! It practically guarantees a victory. Origin Dragons, after all, are the strongest beings in the entire world!”
“...” Lucky stared gobsmacked, much to Alison’s joy; after all, she’d just picked up a massive piece of news that will undoubtedly force Lino to change their plans greatly. Though Lino certainly can claim to have fought and won against a Dragon, Lucky doubted very much he would be willing to throw a gauntlet against three Origin Dragons who wouldn’t give him a massive handicap. “That’s... amazing...” she managed to stutter out after a while.
“He he, I bet you’re regretting not accepting my offer now, huh?” Alison asked as she puffed her chest out, causing Lucky to chuckle for a moment; despite being roughly her age, she certainly did seem like a little kid from time to time. “Humph, laugh all you want, I’m not giving you that offer ever again!”
“Of course I am! Do you want to join? You do, don’t you? Come, join!”
“... ha ha ha ha, man, ha ha ha ha ha..”
“Y-y-you!! You meanie!!” Alison exclaimed, blushing lightly. “You just keep on teasing me and you’ll see!!”
“See what?” Lucky grinned. “More of your embarrassed expressions? If so, good god, I’ll never stop screwing with you. As the matter of fact, I’ll ensure I do it at least twice a day.”
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry,” Lucky said, ruffling Alison’s golden hair. “I promise I won’t tease you... too much.”
“What?” Lucky shrugged. “I can’t help it. You’re too adorable when you blush.”
“Yup, just like that.”
“Eeh, you’re looking too angry now. Go back to just blushing embarrassment.”
“Yeah, now there’s just anger. Still kinda cute.”
“... I hate you!!”
Lucky watched in silence as teary-eyed Alison stormed back into the inn, leaving the former alone on the porch. The faint smile soon vanished from her lips, her eyebrows scrunching into a frown; just Eternal Paradise had two Primes defending it, and potentially even an Origin Dragon... that changed things far too much. Even if Lino was ten times as brave and as idiotic as he was now, he still wouldn’t come even close to being brave and idiotic enough to make a direct move against the Holy Grounds. What just started off as a fun little trip that Lucky mostly treated as vacation time turned into something far greater than she could have anticipated.