A charming house constructed out of oak rested sideways on top of a cliff that overlooked a busy and crammed village, built with the intent to allow Daina's room have a great view of the bustle outside. Paved was a smooth path the midst of the grassy hill that reached the village and extended all the way to the doorsteps, where a wind chime hung from the door topper with an intricately-carved flower design. Well-kept Devious Coquettish bushes surrounded the home. Fenced in at the back of the house is a garden, all crops lush despite the scorching summer heat. In the far right corner laid a chicken coop that housed three ferocious and territorial inhabitants.
The delicious fragrance of warm bread drifted from inside of the residence, so sweet that it tempted even a full man to consume it. In the kitchen stood two people: Delyth and Alfred.
Alfred was a handsome man. Skin as pale as snow, green eyes more precious than an emerald, and mahogany hair glossy even without care. One would imagine him to look androgynous or feminine, but on the contrary, he could only be described as masculine and fit. Coupled with a winsome smile and kind heart, the village-women viewed Alfred as the ideal prince and secretly envied the spouse.
Delyth, while not a beauty that could cause the downfall of a nation, was vivacious and pretty. Exotic silver hair, an adorable snub nose, and lively blue eyes that matched her playful personality, she would not lose in terms of looks to any of the village women. Due to cultivating for so long, the married couple did not look a day over twenty-five.
Delyth sat down to eat with Alfred. Silence filled the room, not awkward but pleasant. Words became unnecessary to communicate and receive affection; by merely being in the other's presence, one automatically was at peace with the world.
However, without chaos there is no silence: one must always precede and follow the other. The entrance door creaked open, destroying the serenity.
"Ma! Pop!" Daina called from the mudroom, removing her shoes. Her thuds grew closer until they drew to a stop before the kitchen table. Her face expressionless, she sneakily reached for a slice of the loaf, but failed. Delyth had trained to a high level, thus how could a kid get past her defenses? As quick as a blur, she swatted Daina's outstretched hand that had managed to traverse only a third of the distance.
Daina yelped, clutching the swatted hand and blowing on it to ease the stinging sensation.
Delyth rolled her eyes. "Don't be so dramatic. Now, wash your hands or you're starving today."
Aggrieved, Daina swirled to look at her father, seeking pity. Alfred raised an eyebrow, amused. Finding no ally, Daina reluctantly left to clean her hands.
Delyth was by no means petty or strict. Daina was her soft spot after all; she could never hold anything against her baby. However, the task of teaching her daughter proper table manners fell on her shoulders. Thus, she had no choice but to keep up this front.
Furthermore, Delyth was willing to bear grudges as long as it meant Daina benefited. In her mind, her method of discouraging unhygienic habits was acceptable and justifiable.
The harmonious married couple waited patiently for Daina's return. They didn't wait long, for Daina glided into the room and would have almost collided onto her cushioned seat, but caught the edges at the last moment and successfully landed on her seat comfortably. Triumphantly grinning, she began to gulp down her food, causing her parents to tacitly fret. Noting the changes in their countenance, she slowed down her movements.
Afterwards, Daina hesitantly asked, "I―I know that you've refused previously when I've asked, but I'm willing to continue asking until you guys give me permission."
She took a deep breath, too distracted to notice the discreet nods her parents gave each other in tacit agreement. "I want to start cultivating. Yes, I know. 'It's dangerous,' and 'It's challenging,' but I feel prepared. Besides, it's been my goal ever since you guys turned your anecdotes into my bedtime stories."
"Alright," Alfred stated, a twinkle in his eye.
"Ah! But I know you guys will worry, so, so…" Daina rubbed her chin, contemplating. Suddenly, she stood up and banged the table. "I can communicate via TeleConverter every single day! No, three times each day! And I promise that I'll have better hygiene, apply sunscreen daily, brush after breakfast, lunch, and dinner, stay hydrated because I know how mad you get ma when I go without water for two days, and―and…"
Wide-eyed, she turned and stared at her father. "Pop, you agreed?"
"Are those ears working? Seems like I'll have to buy you new ones, dainty-doll," Albert sweetly said.
She ran over and embraced him tightly, and he returned it, spinning her around the room until they reached Delyth who had remained taciturn throughout the interaction. Excitedly, Daina turned around to her mother, her eyes pleading.
Delyth sighed. "But you can't go back on your promises, Daina, or we'll have to do the same."
She rushed to kiss her mother, who reacted by clapping her hands delightedly. While clinging to Delyth, she glanced up and asked her father, "When will we commence the training together?"
Delyth shifted Diana so that the latter now sat on the former's lap. Facing each other, Delyth explained the situation intimately to potentially soothe her daughter's fury. To soften the blow of news, her parents had learned that they only had to convey it sweetly to their daughter and she would typically forgive them.
"Little darling, we have assigned an acquaintance to be your instructor. Parents want to protect their children from all danger. Therefore, you'll neither get the full experience of being a cultivator nor reach your unlimited potential―yes, we are confident that you'll surpass these old bag of bones, so remember that. But I digress. Cultivators endanger themselves to improve their abilities of survival. We would only hinder your progress because we would only shelter you. Thus, we are unable to accompany you. We don't want to be the cause of your demise.
Do you know why we're supporting this idea of yours? It's because we realized that, either we consent or continue rejecting for the rest of our live, no in-between. The latter option is impossible, for we'd hate to see you dejected or miserable. That only leaves cultivation, yet it is a tough path. You'll meet many stronger than you, and there'll be nothing you can do but use your past experiences to fight and hope to win. But there is something we can do: find you the most qualified expert we can to train you for those circumstances.
We have many friends and connections, and if it truly comes down to it, we will even abuse our relationship with the indebted king to find you one who will accept. Even so, the person must be willing to train you or that dislike will impede you. The optimal master is one who pushes you to the extreme because he wants you to reach great heights. For instance, lazy incompetent masters will teach their disciples only the basics, ill-equipping them. But you don't have to worry. We'll make any sacrifices to make you happy, my little darling."
Alfred rubbed his fist. "Whoever dares to cause you troubles shall experience a life worse than death."
Deadpan, both females simultaneously uttered: "no."
He scratched his head, laughing awkwardly.
Daina slid off her mother's lap and skipped down the foyer, declaring, "That's all I'm bargaining for, so don't think you can exploit this rare moment of pleading, ma."
"She's a precocious child, Al." He drew up behind her and leaned on her chair. "Who'd she get it from, I wonder? Hmm, maybe the vivacious and naughty lady sitting in front of me could answer."
"Oh stop it, Al," Delyth groaned, rubbing her temples. "That child will be the death of me."
Alfred stepped behind her to squeeze her shoulders. She sighed. "Comforting, but you know what I state is true. All I've ever wanted was to give her a normal childhood where power was trivial and people would love her either way, unlike mines or yours."
"But I agree with what you stated previously. She's got the gift, she's got the passion―all she needs now is someone who can guide her. Besides, I've already got someone in mind. And I'll think you'll agree with me, and maybe even reward me later, hmm?" Alfred wiggled his eyebrows.
Delyth lightly smacked his forearm. "Stop that. And you wonder who she got that mischievous attitude from. Geez."
She got up, turning to face him. "So, who do you have in mind?"
* * * * * * * * * * *
The moon rose that night, illuminating the rough road within the tranquil forest. A shadow darted by, weaving through the forest lithely as if familiar with the area. It seemed that his destination was nearing, for he began to decelerate until halting before a clearing. A symbol appeared before the eyes. Two diamonds―one smaller than the other―overlapped, the distance between both peculiarly absent of grass. Furthermore, a perfect oval lay in the center.
A man-made symbol.
Noticing presences nearby, he raised his hand to unobscure the intricate tattoo from his sleeves, signaling the presences to drop the weapons, for they were all on the same side. A man appeared before him suddenly, but the hooded man stayed immobile and expressionless. Experienced and talented, none of these regular lookouts could land a blow on him. Even the semi-retired Harmonious Duo would struggle to defeat him. Well, only if one was already incapacitated and the other lost a limb or two, but whatever―he was still formidable.
Only one man stepped forward. Black, cuffed pants of thin material outlining toned legs, a navy-blue cotton long-sleeved shirt, and a tabard thrown over. King Frederic's lookouts wore identical garments. However, the captain's clothes differed slightly: he had the honor of having a blue oriole embroidered on the left shoulder pad.
The captain saluted to the hooded man, enthusiastic. "Sir Hugo! Hello! Welcome back to Moon Castle. I expect your most recent mission has been a success, as usual?"
The renowned man removed the hood, uncovering his face comprised of many scars. A man in his middle age, nothing about him stood out, except for the dangerous aura that discouraged the rest of the lookouts from approaching him, despite their admiration. All were aware of the perils he had faced, and none felt they could remain cool-headed under his harsh glare.
Both men trekked up the hill and continued chatting. "Of course. I hurt the Skeletal Dragon so much it self-exploded, but I still got away with the core. People living nearby thought they were fireworks. Ha! Ignorant dimwits."
"What about nearby expert martial artists? I highly doubt they'll be as ignorant as those commoners, sir."
"They'd have to either be stupid or powerful enough to go against the king. Anyways, if they are so powerful, why not go get a Skeletal Dragon core themselves? They're not even that rare. The only real threat are lazy crooks who haven't gotten caught. Only one matching description I can think off the top of my head is Salem. That lazy bum takes, takes, takes, and is too greedy to give. Respectable my ass. He's not even talented! I've met apprentices who could beat him in terms of pill quality. But everyone toots that lucky bastard as my generation's 'miracle boy.' Bullshit! More like the epitome of why our generation went to shit. Acts all high-and-mighty. Even my foot can do a better job than him."
"S-sir, I implore you not to slander him. I hear he's got many spies who've got impeccable senses and the ability to read lips, as astounding and unbelievable as it seems. Rumors they may be, but they're founded on truth. Last time I walked with Sir Alfred, who'd begun to criticize Salem's fickleness, Salem appeared before us suddenly and they began to bicker. Good thing the kings were there, so they restrained their argument, or it would have gotten messy."
The pair arrived at the Moon Castle gates. The captain pulled out an insignia, dismissing the guards from bowing to open the gates quicker, all while attentive to Hugo's response. "You dimwit! Do you truly believe he'll try to read your goddamn lips? Besides, I bet that time you talk about was during the Sunset Annual Evaluation, that year where the kid vomited all over his opponent," he chuckled, reminiscing.
Then he smacked the back of the captain's head as they walked the grand steps to the bronze doors. As they pushed them open, the engraved oriole split symmetrically. "Dimwit! How do you not expect Salem to hear you guys. He was sitting right besides you two! Anyways, you know how Alfred gets when he starts slamming someone. He starts speaking so loudly it's basically considered yelling. And the bickering was one-sided. We all know Salem lost that. If they had truly gotten into a fight, Lil' Al would have whooped his ass. Either way, hell rains lose when you mess with Delyth's man, even if he's wrong."
At an intersection, they unhesitatingly took the left corridor. "Sir, weren't you the previous year's designated combat tournament referee? I'd heard many rumors surface because of that incident you caused."
Hugo guffawed. "That stupid prick deserved to lose! How dare someone barely in the Fusion Realm try and deceive me? Who do they think I am? A man in the Creation Realm?"
"But you are―"
Hugo motioned to the totally-uncreepy Narrator who hid behind them, following their every move. "Shh. It was just for comedic and informative purposes. See, I'm helping the Narrator accomplish his task of worldbuilding."
The Narrator swiftly ducked behind a pillar―sculpted to resemble an angel, whose aventurine eyes gleamed―before the captain caught a glimpse. "Who are you talking about, sir? I don't comprehend."
Hugo patted the captain's shoulder, his disappointment unconcealed. "Maybe you should go back to the barracks and train with the novice soldiers. I'll mention it to the King when I meet him."
The captain paled, obstructing Hugo. He frantically waved his arms with such force that he created wind. "That―that won't be necessary. I wouldn't want to be a bother to you. A sought-after figure such as yourself doesn't have the time of day to speak about a citizen as humble and unimportant as me. I wouldn't like to add to your troubles."
Hugo pushed his obstacle from his path, strolling away. "Aw, how polite. It won't be any trouble at all! All I gotta do is say, 'Fred, there's some guy under your employment that is begging to change positions because he's tired of escorting and interacting with me every single time I return.'"
"Stop teasing me, sir. You know that I'm your biggest and most loyal fan."
Outside of the chambers, two guards opened the heavy doors upon recognizing them. Hugo recognized the insignia they wore: a falcon perching on a setting sun, which meant these soldiers were King Frederic's Royal Bodyguards. The Royal Bodyguards are a group of elite soldiers that have gained fame for their cultivation and abilities, many of the same level as he. With these men's support, King Frederic could regain the throne and retain it without fearing the rest of the countries within the Sunset Continent. Truthfully, their reputation was enough to discourage any from rebelling, which eased King Frederic's worries.
"This is where we leave each other. I'll miss ya, buddy."
"It was a pleasure, sir," his escort saluted, and teleported away.
The chambers had remained the same since the last time he saw them. Velvet carpeting, a ginormous bed obscured by the fluttering, silk curtains, furnishings made out of polished wood, pearl sofas surrounding a glass table, and that memorable chandelier that hung in the center of all the lavishness, befitting for a king.
A man with graceful bearing and a warm smile approached Hugo, his attire enough to purchase
a small dukedom. "Long time no see, old friend."
If people were to know that not long ago their king couldn't even afford a regular pair of shoes, they would have a heart attack, Hugo thought.
"Not that old yet, Fred," Hugo replied. "But you are approaching your thirties. What, cultivation isn't important anymore to you, Fred?"
Frederic chuckled. "Will you present to me now your spoils, or do you want to continue jesting?"
After a few moments, Hugo knelt before Frederic and presented a jewelry box embellished with rubies, arranged to create a Blazing Phoenix.
"Ah, so you've succeeded once more, Hugo." Upon contact with the jewelry box, Frederic's ring glowed, causing the box to disappear. "You may rise."
"Rise? Not leave?" Hugo crossed his arms. "What is it now?"
Frederic quirked his eyebrows. "Is this the tone permitted to a subject when conversing with his king? This has broadened my view and increased my wisdom, Hugo. No, I didn't summon you merely to receive the core. I beseech you to listen to my request, and only afterwards comment.
Delyth and Alfred dote on their daughter. In fact, their pampering goes so far as to disregard their overprotective nature to please their daughter's wishes. However, the problem they've encountered now is that the girl's current wish is to cultivate and she's not relenting. Understandably, they can't to hire a random person to train her. No, they need someone they trust; someone who is capable and talented. And so they've thought of you."
"That's very flattering, Fred," Hugo said sarcastically. He furiously walked towards the doors, yelling, "What, do they―do you view me as someone who's lost their touch? Do I really have to become a glorified babysitter now? Huh!? Why not just assign me to the barracks to train those pathetic little boys you call soldiers!"
Frederic gently pulling him back from leaving. "Look, I know you're mad. You're right, this may be below you―but think about it. They'll be owing you a favor, and you know how beneficial that can be to your cultivation. The last time they owed me a favor, I regained my throne. And now look at me! Now I don't have to worry about starving to death, for my servants will take care of all my needs. You can be as fortunate as me, Hugo. Don't let your pride get in the way of future success."
Hugo shook Frederic's grasp off and pulled the door open. However, at the doorway, he heard Frederic's advice.
"I've heard that you've been stuck at Spirit Officer for the past couple of years, and have been looking for a solution. This is the solution you've been looking for, Hugo. You'll regret it if you don't take it."
This gentle reasoning calmed Hugo down, allowing him to weigh the pros and cons for himself without rage clouding his judgement. After much pondering, Hugo retreated back into the room, and shut the door close. Grudgingly, he turned around and faced Frederic.
"When do I begin?"
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