Thick, black flames billowed onward, consuming the entire intersection. Crowds quickly gathered at the edge, mounting on top of one another till one could barely approach it. Bells rang soon after, crying throughout the entire city as City Guards swiftly sped through the streets toward the intersection. Even the sky was soon filled by a peculiar sort of a beast, an eagle-bodied animal with a head of a lion, ridden by cultivators to the scene.
At the intersection, one after another, people began leaping out of the fire, charred though seemingly unharmed. Among them was Lino who jumped off of the window and onto the street with Seya in his arms. The latter was slightly shook, but seemed fine otherwise. After a quick glance, Lino realized that save for those who stood directly above the platform, most others have managed to survive, with the end-count of victims being roughly a hundred, including the auctioneers and the participants.
After all, people who had enough wealth to participate in such an auction were hardly weak, and even if they were, those guarding them were not. Lino frowned slightly, pondering what the purpose of the fire was as he had immediately discarded it being an accident. If it wasn’t to kill, then it was almost certainly to steal -- but he had a hard time believing that, too, as even if they managed to steal, they’d be hard-pressed to leave. Besides, even Lino failed to spot anyone strange all the while, and if someone could go undetected beneath his eyes, then they wouldn’t need such a massive fire to steal anything.
“You alright?” he asked Seya tenderly.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.” she nodded slightly, distracted by the still burning, black flames. “I recognize these flames.”
“Hm?” Lino glanced at her with faint curiosity.
“I mean, I don’t recognize them, I just read about them,” she corrected herself, rubbing her temples in a seeming attempt to remember something. “Back when I was studying in the Academy, we had this really boring class about history and such. What was it? Ugh... right! Right! It’s the Dragon Flames!” she exclaimed under her breath, ensuring nobody else heard her.
“Dragon Flames?” Lino mumbled under his breath, quickly diverting a part of his concentration to the guest within his dimensional pocket.
“The stolen Dragon Flames,” Seya continued. “It’s actually more a legend rather than an historic event; it goes that a long time ago, someone managed to steal the breath of the Origin Dragon, capturing it in some or another ancient artifact. I can’t remember anything more than that, though...”
“That’s fine,” Lino grinned faintly. “I know someone who can.”
“... oh, right.” Seya rolled her eyes, having seemingly forgotten Lino had a Dragon pet.
“Is she right?” Vy’s dwelling was similar to all others, just on a much larger scale. He was bound within four, gray walls, forever resting. A pair of sun-like eyes opened and stared at Lino’s artificially-enlarged figure with amusement.
“Somewhat,” Vy replied. “It’s true those are the Dragon Flames, though hardly the stolen kind... or even the pure kind.”
“What do you mean?” Lino asked.
“If they were pure Dragon Flames, don’t you think you would have picked up on it as well? After all, as far as I remember, you were bathed in them once by yours truly.”
“... right.” corners of Lino’s lips twitched. “So, diluted form? Copied form? What are they?”
“Artificially cultivated Dragon Flames,” Vy replied. “I suppose that’s the best way to describe them. Though it is strange to see them here; as far as I know, the only race that has ever been capable of cultivating quasi-Dragon Flames were the Titans and, well, they’re gone.”
“... could someone have found them in one of the ruins?”
“No,” Vy quickly rejected the idea. “That’s impossible. These sort of flames have a very short lifespan. As the matter of fact, these are just about to burn out.”
“So someone learned of a method?” Lino mumbled under his breath, frowning. “What the fuck...”
“I don’t know,” Vy shrugged. “But, you’ve experienced it yourself; they aren’t that dangerous. If they were actual Dragon Flames, I imagine only you and a couple of others might have come out of it alive.”
“... could they have been stored inside an array and timed to burst out at this exact moment?” Lino asked. “Or did someone have to set them up directly?”
“They could have been stored in an array,” Vy said. “I’d wager, actually, that something went amiss.”
“What do you mean?” Lino asked quickly.
“Perhaps the array imploded too early, or parts of the flame didn’t combust with the rest. As it stands, these flames are pretty much only useful to cook chicken or something.”
“... thanks.” Lino said, his body slowly vanishing from the pocket. “Keep an eye out and let me know if you pick someone with the scent.”
“What am I? Your pet? Ha ha ha ha ha... goddamn, my life has become rather depressing...”
“...” Lino held back from laughing as he returned to the reality. Seya had led him away from the flames as the city guards began showing up in droves in addition to the flying cultivators. As Vy predicted, the flames quickly vanished, leaving behind them the destroyed house.
“What’d you learn?” Seya asked.
“Something interesting,” he replied, smiling faintly. “But, mostly just answers that led to more questions. Are you aware of any morbid secret cults around here? Perhaps the sort that like to cultivate weird stuff?”
“... hmm,” Seya mumbled lowly, thinking for a moment. “The only one I know are actually your sort.”
“My sort?” Lino exclaimed softly, glancing at her.
“Yeah, so-called Agents of Entropy,” she replied. “Nobody really knows their exact hiding location, but they pop up from time to time, usually in possession of one weird thing or another. Could this have been their doing?”
“... how would I know?” Lino shrugged. “This is the first time I learned I’ve got some secret admirers out in the world.”
It didn’t take long for the entire intersection to be consumed by guards who kicked out everyone else, only allowing the few high-standing members who escaped the flames to stay in. Lino, naturally, wasn’t among them, so he retreated to the intersection’s edge, leaned against the wall of a tall store with a bottle of ale in his hands, thinking. He didn’t find it too strange that someone was capable of cultivating the Dragon Flames, or at least a matching copy of them. The world was vast and full of wonders and smart people who aren’t restricted by the boxed-in thinking. Given enough time, he wagered, even he -- with the help of some people inside the fortress -- would have been able to foster quasi-Dragon Fire.
What worried him, or better yet intrigued him, was who and why. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he knew he wasn’t the target of those flames, which was a refreshing experience as he was an outsider looking in for a change. He didn’t care much for who the target was, really, but the broader implications; this was the heart of the Empire, one that was almost as strong as a Holy Ground all things considered. Whoever set off an attack on not only the strongest Empire, but also the wealthiest company in the world, didn’t do so because they felt like it. Stakes were far larger than that, and he didn’t exactly want to be left out of the entire story.
Though he could always ask Freya as she would most-likely come to know the truth, he didn’t want to rest his laurels with her. Wasn’t this, really, why he created his own faction in the first place? So he wouldn’t have to rely on the outsiders? Just as he thought about contacting Lucky, he sensed her walking up to him from the side. Glancing sideways, he saw a relieved gaze in her eyes and a warm smile as she sauntered up and hugged up. Chuckling lowly, he hugged her back.
“Aww, you missed me that much?”
“A lil’ bit, yeah,” she said, pulling herself away and standing up next to him, stealing his bottle. “I was at the entrance to the city when I saw the fire.”
“Noticed anything strange?” Lino asked.
“Hm,” she nodded, taking a sip. “Around a hundred figures snuck in after the guards began pouring toward the center.”
“... distraction?” Lino mumbled. “Seems like too much work. It’s not as though entering the city is all that difficult to begin with.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I raced over instead of following them.”
“Did you recognize their presence?”
“No,” she shook her head. “Entirely unfamiliar. The best I could make out was that they were a whole lot like me.”
“... interesting.” Lino smiled lightly, stroking his chin. “Looks like something big will soon happen. And I thought I was the only interesting thing in this world. Tsk, tsk, my ego really needs a beating...”
“You’re realizing that just now?”
“Ha ha ha. Were you alone?” he asked.
“No, Ally was with me,” she replied. “She knows where I am and she should be here soon. You sure you wanna stay?”
“...” Lino thought for a moment; he truly was tempted. It wasn’t as though she could recognize him; even if a part of him still lay in the depths of her soul, it was him as a boy. Not only was he a middle-aged man by now, but also one in heavy disguise. Regardless, it wasn’t the time. He promised Hannah, after all, he would abstain from breaking her just yet. Lucky had barely spent a few months with her, which was barely enough to establish a rapport, let alone enough to grease some wheels. “No,” he shook his head after all. “I better go. Meet me at the smithy tomorrow.”
“Alright.” just as Lino turned sideways, ready to leave, he came to a halt. Standing some paces in front of him, just having left the street, was an out-of-breath woman in her late thirties to early forties. She had golden, long, smooth hair enclosing her oval-shaped face. A pair of sea-colored blue eyes shone like gems in the night’s dark, surrounded by a picturesque face of beauty. She was much taller than he imagined, barely half a head shorter than him altogether. Lean and slender, she wore a one-piece dress with a deep cut over her chest, extending down to her knees.
She hadn’t changed, at least not in his gaze; she still had the same look in her eyes, still had the same air about her, the sort that draws you in against your will. The kind of inescapable charm that made it difficult to feel anything but calm around her. Their eyes met for a moment; Alison exclaimed softly right then, feeling a peculiar sensation pulsate through her chest. The man in front of her was entirely unfamiliar, from head to toe; middle-aged, tall, muscular, shabbily dressed with white hair and a face full of thick, bushy beard.
However, whereas all about him was speaking and screeching of a stranger, the pair of black, swirly eyes struck her like a bolt. She didn’t recognize them, yet she did. They were stranger’s... yet also they were not. For a moment, her heart and her mind seemingly fought over something. The former was telling her those eyes belonged to someone important to her, while the latter was telling her she’d never seen them before in her life. Just as she was about to lose herself in the sensation, she heard a familiar voice call her out.
“Eh? Ally? Wow, you ran here real fast.” Lucky exclaimed, quickly walking past Lino and up to Alison. “Ah, look at you. Out of breath, dirty. What the hell were you thinking?”
“... u-uh, I, I wanted to make sure you were alright...” Alison replied absentmindedly, her eyes still locked with Lino’s. “W-who... who is he?” she asked somewhat meekly.
“Oh, him?” Lucky glanced at Lino, looking for answers. The latter smiled for a moment, approaching the two women and extending his arm toward Alison.
“Lucky’s Master, among other things,” he said. “Pleasure to meet you, miss...?”
“A-alison,” she replied lowly, still unable to tear her eyes away from his, accepting his handshake unconsciously. “P-pleasure to meet you too, Sir.”
“Oh, please, drop the formalities,” Lino chuckled. “Just call me Nilo.”
“V-very well... Nilo...”
“Hm, good,” Lino nodded, glancing at the auction house one last time before turning around, seemingly ready to leave. “I’ll see you tomorrow L’. It was a pleasure, Miss Alison.”
“...” Lucky grinned bitterly; if she didn’t know any better, she too would have believed he had no clue who Alison was. She once more found herself desiring one of his bad qualities, but quickly shook the thought. “Oi,” she slapped Alison lightly over her head, since the latter kept staring at Lino’s fading back. “Don’t go fallin’ in love. He’s taken, you know?”
“I-I wasn’t!!” Alison exclaimed sharply, a faint blush appearing on her cheeks. “S-so, that’s your Sect Leader? Humph, he seems weak. Pathetic, really. What’s he doing, dressed like that? And he already looks so old! You best ditch him and join me!”
“... you’re just jealous that, for a change,” Lucky grinned. “You fell under another’s charm, rather than the other way around.”
“... ugh... that’s not true. It’s just...” Alison sighed, glancing toward the end of the street where Lino vanished. “Something about him... is... strange...”
“... a lot of things about him are strange,” Lucky said. “That’s part of his charm. Anyway, you’ll have enough time to dream about him later. Let’s meet up with the guards and see what happened.”
“Alright...” Alison glanced once more in the direction where Lino left, an image of a young, faceless boy briefly flashing inside her mind. Shaking her head, she put on a determined and indifferent expression as she faced a new challenge -- after all, unlike Lino, she knew exactly who the culprits were, what the black flames represented, and what exactly would it lead to in the not-so-distant future...
END OF VOLUME XIII