The man's lifted arm was the first thing visible over the hill, as he reached the top with his hands over his eyes to block out the glare of the sunlight. Slightly out of breath, he let his arm down and leaned against a nearby tree.
"Pack inventory, visibility mode-"
A large brown cabinet materialized on the grass beside him, landing with a heavy thud. He really had to get rid of some of the stuff in there, it was taking a toll on him to carry around even with shinsoo control. What was stacked in the bottom of this mercifully large inventory was out of even his prodigious memory, and was probably older than the very tree he was leaning on. While the man begrudgingly admitted that the clutter was mostly due to his own laziness, he also partially attributed it to the magnificent compression ratio that the cabinet offered. The smith who had been responsible for this cabinet had been a fine craftsman indeed. He had heard from the wayfarers that the smith ended up selling some of his goods to even the Ten Families themselves, with the Koon family head taking a particular interest. A large number of briefcases had been bought, he had heard.
Pushing himself off from the bark of the tree, he walked over to the cabinet and rummaged in it for a while, and soon pulled out a canteen from which he drank deeply and slowly.
He glanced at the tree he had been leaning on. Its many branches were extended far from the trunk of the tree, with lush leaves drooping slightly like angel's wings. A wing tree - though their headquarters were further down the Tower on the 77th floor, the influence of the Wing Tree was now widespread on even the highest of places. The man had known a few fairly kind acquaintances in that group, before the bloodlines of the Ten Families thinned and the race to become a ranker became steeped with people. In the days of old there had been less climbers, and less structure to the whole deal. This had a direct effect on the climbers' sentiments; even as late as the time of the formation of the Wing Tree, the people were still respectful, and there was restraint and calm amongst those who would seek the title of ranker. Now all that was left was corporate rabble, and unworthy fools who threw away their lives in search of the impossible. "The Tower has not chosen you," the judges and their file of rankers would inform the defeated lot. Ridiculous. However Headon might have changed his views on the contestants since the first years, the man did not care. Things had been better back then. Truer.
The man finished off the last of the water in the canteen, and threw it back uncorked into the cabinet. He grimaced and ruffled his hair. He should not dwell on past glory and the failings of the young. Wiping his mouth with the ragged sleeve of his overcoat, he peered downwards from the hill onto the deserted village below. A few broken houses, silent chimneys and splintered doors - wild beasts, naturally resistant to shinsoo, prowling carefully amidst the wreckage. If anyone had stayed here in the past, they were skilled people - to have escaped the eyes of the royal army for so long, to have hidden in an actual floor of the Tower. The man smiled lightly at the defiance in the act. Sifting the air with his hand, the man felt the remnants of a stealth spell, weakly propagating through the shinsoo that fueled it even after the clear demise of its caster. Skilled, yes, the man confirmed. He had felt a similar trace in Askelon, in the Temple of the Crest, and at the Lighted Bay where he had found his last piece of evidence.
Here, however, the spell also radiated a faint inscription of blood, the interference of the caster's wound on the purity of his defense. Most likely, the casting ranker - and his group - had met their ends here. The man went back to his cabinet and pulled out a large scroll. Unfurling it, he marked a dark blue X on the detailed map with his finger, indicating his current location. "My good friends," muttered the man, rolling the map back up and dropping it into his bag, "our search may indeed end here."
"Pack inventory, invisibility mode" The cabinet twisted and vanished. The man lifted one hand to the sky, and pointed to the ground with his other. "As above," the air shook with resistance. "So below." Immediately a shining dome was seen covering the entire village, marked with a shining glyph of the Red Three-Eyed Seal. The form wavered and bulged outwards. The man withdrew his hands and covered his ears just in time - the dome shattered and a splitting scream rent through the air and echoed off the surrounding hills.
"I hate that part," the man half-shouted with a scowl, almost deafened despite his emergency measures. He really should've put some barriers up before he did that. He forgot every time. He really was getting old - to hell with those bearded academics, claiming immortality was possible with shinsoo. If no one had died yet, how did they know it was immortality and not just living to a ripe old age? Stop trying to prove the unfalsifiable, was his take on it.
The man carefully started to step down the hill towards the village. A stone rolled off under his feet and he almost fell, sliding down some dangerous distance before he corrected his balance on his tiptoes. The man looked up to the sky. "Well then, you lunatic," he gulped. "That doesn't mean I want to die."
Letting his dusty hands drop to his side, the man heaved a loud sigh. With his boot he kicked an unlucky nearby skull into a broken furnace – and immediately shuffled over to return it to its body with a guilty look, despite the fact that he knew no one had been watching. So easily aggravated even at his old age. Perhaps the wisdom of mind depends to a certain extent on the aging of the physical body as well. Even if it was a façade, perhaps the young ones would respect him a bit more if he had been older looking?
The man sighed again, this time at length and with a disenchanted look. No, they would probably all just think he was senile. And in any case, what did it matter what others were saying about him, or whether or not he was treated as an elder? He had already seen all there was to see, had been to everywhere there was to go, and had enjoyed all the exquisite things the tower had to offer. The little ones that had been born after he had made high-ranker were now issuing edicts of their own. Apart from being the result of the man's apathy towards the ranking system, this was a testament to the amount of time that had passed. Countless years, centuries. Since the first days of everything anyone knew about this tower.
"So, where have you been all these years that it is so darn hard to find you?" He muttered as he stepped out of the dilapidated house. Nothing, again. He could not figure out where the caster of the stealth spell had vanished to. If they had all died here, there should have been bodies – the only corpse here was that one back in the house, and judging from its clothing, it belonged to a regular villager who probably got unlucky in the town's assault. If they had fled, there must be traces of doing so, but the man could not see any. Had the Enforcement Division killed them off and then destroyed the evidence? From the barrier that he had to break through when entering the town, it was clear that the RED had been here. They, notorious for thorough completion of duty, would probably have taken care to dispose of the body of any rankers they had killed. If that was indeed the case, where could he go now for the next hint?
The man pulled out his pipe and started to smoke. Such hassle for a bygone promise.
Without his noticing, the day had already drawn to a close – the shinsoo sun of the floor guardian was hanging closely over the dust-clouded horizon. The man rose slowly from the stone steps that he had been sitting on, and brushed the dirt off his pants. Smoking lessened the throbbing knot of stress in his chest. How blessed it was that one could utilize shinsoo to cure the ailments caused by smoke. He reminded himself that he should bring Fo Bieder a top grade dried silverback eel gift set, should there be an occasion to visit his castle. Provided he came across some money, of course. He was perhaps the only ranker in the tower who was so destitute.
Lifting his feet heavy from disappointment and fatigue, the man walked through the broken town arch and out of the village. He should leave this failure behind and go find a nearby town centre or something so he could rest and begin his search anew. It had been a long time since he had slept in a proper bed. There was also a chance that in his current state of fatigue, he had looked over possible clues that still remained in the broken village. It was possibly worth his time to come back once he was well rested. His body, despite its outward youth, was shot with exhaustion from weeks of climbing up and down the tower. What devil was responsible for this back pain that even penetrated the armor of eternal life! The bastards at the shinsoo research institute were clearly wrong – the proof was shaking him wholesale from deep inside his spine.
But in the next moment, the man stopped massaging his back and stood still. The shaking was not solely because of the pain. The man, who was bent over in resemblance of a certain famous hunchback, slowly lifted his head and stared at the increasing, incoming noise.
The dust cloud that had been covering the horizon was now larger in size, and was moving towards him. Not keen on hearing his vertebrae make any fatal sounds, he slowly and very carefully straightened his back and examined the dusty haze closely. Upon a sharp stroke of wind, the man could see a host of flags being flown amidst the clear ringing of battle horns.
The Red Three-Eyed Seal manifested itself upon a black backdrop.
For an instant, the man thought of the Enforcement Division and contemplated running back to the village to hide; but before he could make a move, another flag came into his view. The flag, bearing concentric circles of blue and black, flew with unabashed pride even beside the royal seal as if to demonstrate the audacity of the one who it represented. Beneath the etched paint of the eye-like symbol of Kun Edan there was drawn a sword of piercing yellow.
Ah, so that's who it is…The man turned away from the village.
The army quickly approached the man, and he could see now that they were fully clad in garments of deep blue. The one in front lifted a hand from atop the shinhaeo steed, upon which the entire army stopped in place. The commander dismounted and walked towards the man. Stopping in front of him, the commander shook a long mane of white hair once before looking down on him with sharp, narrow eyes.
The man spoke first. "Maschenny, it has been a while."
"I was wondering who it was, but it was just you again," the princess glared at him without losing her icy demeanour. "I heard from the RED scouts while I was passing by, that their barrier here had been destroyed. Your work?"
"Yes," the man smiled at the princess' unchanging attitude. "Looking for something, as always. I will talk to the squad commander, you need not mind."
"Things will not go over well, if you keep defying the House of Jahad."
A tense air began to flow, but the man remained composed. "I know, my dear. I have no intention of defying the royal house. Your Father will understand. If it is not too much trouble, let an old man be."
The princess stared past the man as if ignoring his request, gazing at the ruin of the village. Threatening sparks of dark blue were jumping around the sword that was girt at her waist – her hand had been on its hilt from the beginning of the conversation. The man knew that he would not be able to block the princess' strike. But if his name had not yet been forgotten by the head of the House of Kun, her murderous intent would remain at best an empty threat. The man simply held himself steady and waited.
The pensive princess soon lifted her gaze from the village and glanced at the man as if in mistrust. "…Very well. But please remember that this is the fourth time now that you have disrupted the work of those who carry out the will of my Father. My personal patience has its limits as well. I hope I do not see you again in places like these."
The man let out his breath, realizing he had been holding it without noticing. "No worries, my dear. You will not, I promise you that. In any case, now that we are through the less cheerful subjects, this all reminds me - how is your collection coming along? I heard the news that your younger sister recently procured another one of the thirteen."
The princess scowled slightly. "None of your business. I actually ran into her just recently at Repellista's place…you have a gift for saying the most annoying things at the most annoying time."
The man chuckled softly, unable to stifle his laughter completely. "Take a relaxed stance on things and carry everything out step by step. There is nearly forever in terms of time. You are not the least of the blessed and so you will surely be able to achieve. If I am still alive by the time you complete the collection of the Months, take me to a dinner. I am sorely out of money these days…"
"Don't be expecting much. That reminds me, Repellista asked me to tell you that she has not yet found anything. These days she seems to be busy with her own projects, whatever they are."
"I understand. No worries."
"I would not bother worrying."
Kun Maschenny Jahad, without saying or waiting for a goodbye, turned around and motioned for her guards to move out.
"Oh," the princess shouted over her shoulder. "That prick Holt says he awaits you in Askelon."
The man stood still until he could no longer see the princess' cohort. He resumed walking when the sun had completely set, and he could clearly see the light of the town centre in the distance.
"Askelon? But that's a place I've already covered…what a bother to be called there again…tsk, that Holt, ordering around an old man here and there…" The man muttered in complaint as he walked away from the village ruins.