“Excuse me, but may I ask who you are?” Katsys said to the man who looked ready for a fight.
The old man was dressed in a loose-fitting robe without any other armor that one would expect from a historical kung fu film. Furthermore, it didn’t seem like he was carrying any kind of weapon either.
“My name is Lau Ki Young, a practitioner of the arts.” The man bowed to us. “But otherwise, just someone passing by.”
“The arts? And you want to fight that?” I pointed to the menacing figure in the distance that was still being chased by Ludmila.
The man named Lau nodded confidently. I couldn’t get a read on his stats, so it was likely that he could keep them hidden like Carina. He was either incredibly strong or incredibly dumb. I nodded to Katsys, who shot a portal over to the dragon.
Timing the portal such that it stopped right as the dragon paused to launch an attack towards the untouchable Ludmila, a wave of dust stirred up from its abrupt stop shot out of the portal next to us.
Lau peered into the portal next to us, looking rather amused before jumping in. He appeared right behind the dragon.
With a deep breath, Lau screamed at the dragon.
“AHHHHHHHHHH! TAI CHI KUNG FU IS SO GREAT! WON’T YOU HAVE A TASTE OF MY INVINCIBLE FIST?!”
Everyone stopped to stare at the proclamation from the old man, even the dragon.
My jaw dropped. I thought he was going to pull out some surprise attack while it wasn’t looking, but that hadn’t been the case at all! Was he one of those crazy guys that thought kung fu would be the solution to everything? This was a dragon, not a soccer match dreamed up by some comedy movie director!
In our moment of stupor, the dragon recovered first and swung his right claw at Lau, who was just standing there in a loose stance. As the mighty swing came down, threatening to smash the man into a stain on the ground, I panicked and reflexively jumped through the portal to save him, despite knowing that there was no way that I could reach in time.
Passing through the portal and with a front-row seat of the carnage that was about to happen, I noticed a sudden glint appear in Lau’s eyes. The scene in front of me was not a man resigned to death nor acting out of ignorance. There was an air of calm surrounding him.
Time almost seemed to slow down as I felt mana gush from within him. The mana coated his arms, forming a light glow around them. His thin arms paled in size compared to the massive claw that could engulf his whole body. Yet, I watched as his form danced around the swinging claw.
All of a sudden, the claw drifted upwards as Lau’s hands grazed its surface. Those hands, which looked too small to do anything, started guiding the dragon’s claw away from Lau’s body. Like he had just pulled a rug out from under the dragon, its arm flew over Lau and continued to spin around, rotating its body in midair.
With a tremendous thud, the dragon fell on its back. Lau had not taken a single step away from where he stood before. All of this had occurred in the span of a split second.
“Hmm… once more with feeling,” Lau taunted the dragon.
The other bystanders and I couldn’t believe what we had seen. Completely unarmed, Lau had managed to effortlessly toss the dragon aside. What kind of ridiculousness was this?
Seemingly angered by being thrown, the dragon got up and roared at Lau. Lau’s mana encompassed his body as he stood his ground without a single quiver in his limbs. Like a slab of stone in a storm, nothing the dragon did seemed to weather him down.
After the roar, Lau simply got in a low crouch before leaping forward to strike. The mana around him flickered as it looked like he slowed down in midair, impeded by the same feeling my attacks faced. In response, the glow around him got brighter as it tore through the natural barrier that the dragon created. His body was no longer impeded by the thick mana that blanketed the dragon.
With a thrust of his palm, a burst of energy exploded into the dragon, creating a shockwave that shook the surroundings. I brought my arms over my face as I hunkered down, trying to dampen the pressure that was threatening to flip me backwards.
When the wind finally died down, the dragon had fallen over once again, this time unconscious.
“Holy hornbeam… what the hell did you do, Mister Lau?”
“I overloaded its mana. Quickly, are you able to strike its core?” Lau pointed at the dragon’s chest. Now that the veil of mana had been extinguished, a dull purple glow could be seen embedded in its heart.
“I tried before, and I couldn’t cut it through the thick mana.”
“Well, try it now! I stopped the flow of it coming out for the moment.”
True enough, the heavy air around the dragon had lifted. I dashed up to the dragon’s chest and swung my knife at it. A few stabs later, I felt my knife dig into the glowing area. By instinct, I flicked my hand through the area of no resistance. The knife drew an arc that sliced through the core where the heart should have been.
Immediately, the dragon started convulsing as if a deadly blow had been given to it. I dove away from it and parked myself next to Lau. Flailing around aimlessly, a small amount of purplish fire spewed from the wound, before I saw its body turning to ash. Within moments, the large body of the dragon had disintegrated onto the earth, and the remains were swept away by the breeze.
By this time, Katsys and Ludmila had walked over, sensing that the fight was finally done. All three of us trembled in shock as to what had transpired. Rather than the ferocious dragon, our shock had come from the old man that could casually render that being immobile.
“How were you able to deflect its attacks? I couldn’t even get close,” I asked him.
“I’m guessing you kids haven’t been trained in the art of mana. You don’t look like a set of traveling merchants. Not seasoned adventurers either. What the hell are you doing up here? Most people would scram after picking up the dreadful aura of a demonic beast.” Lau eyed the three of us.
Certainly, we didn’t give off the ruggedness of people used to travel, nor were we equipped with fancy weapons or armor that signified a strong party.
Lau grabbed my hand before I could react and stared at my palm intently.
“Hoh, so you are actually a chef? I thought it was strange that a cook was out here facing off against a demonized dragon of all things. For a moment, I believed that you were an assassin in disguise.”
“Huh? How could you tell from looking at my hand?” I questioned his observations.
“Quite simple. You have calluses on your fingers that suggest that you hold your knife for cooking rather than combat.” Lau walked over and examined Katsys’s hands next. “My my. Your hands also appear to be rugged like that of a crafter but masked under the treatment of fine skincare items. Ambitious but wealthy daughter of some nobleman, I take it?”
“Something like that…,” Katsys responded meekly.
“And this little girl. She’s got some legs on her. Faster than anyone that I’ve seen. Perhaps, an Electi?” Lau bent over and gave her a smile. In a flash, Ludmila ended up hiding behind me.
“You seem to know an awful lot about us at a glance. Care to tell us who you really are?” My guard was still up for the moment. Though he had helped slay the demonized dragon, I still knew very little about him. What was he doing here? Had he been sent to take out the dragon, or did he have another objective in mind?
“I’m just an old man from the nearby town of Haneman.” Lau fiddled with the thin hairs on his chin.
Even if I hadn’t seen what he had done just now, his aura would’ve still triggered the ‘overpowered veteran battle master’ flag. I’ve learned to distrust anyone that simply refers to himself as ‘just an old man.’
The look on our faces made it quite obvious that we weren’t buying it. Lau cleared his throat.
“Well… I did mention that I was a practitioner of the arts, part of the Kinkou school of spiritual control.”
“And… that lets you flip dragons?” I questioned. Ludmila had a twinkle in her eye. The amount of technique and mana control needed for a feat like that seemed like the stuff of legends.
“I have my secrets,” Lau smiled at us. “Anyway, tell me what led you here.”
I proceeded to explain how we had escaped Sistina because Katsys was being targeted by an evil nobleman and that we were told to find someone in Sanshiro for help. It was pretty much the truth, aside from leaving out the details that Katsys was a princess and that I had been a wanted man.
“Well, I would be happy to guide you into our country. After all, that strange contraption of the Miss gave me a hand. I just can’t seem to move as swiftly anymore, so walking up to the dragon would’ve been a chore.”
It didn’t seem like Lau was in that bad of a shape, but who knew?
“Master, Ludmila will go fetch the cart!”
I nodded to her. With her speed, she’d probably reach there in a fraction of the time. As we watched her speed off, Lau stared at her shrinking form intently.
“So…she’s a Speed Electi, right?”
“Pretty obvious, huh?” It would be hard to convince him otherwise, since he had seen her in action.
“One of you her master?”
“No, her master was killed shortly after her summoning. She’s been under my care since then, so I don’t think she’s bonded with anyone.”
“… see… that’s good to hear.” Lau mumbled to himself, too quiet for either Katsys or I to catch it. Before I could question what he said, he spoke over me. “You should keep it that way. Having someone bear the responsibility of an Electi at such a young age is not something I wish upon.”
Lau looked up and down at us, pondering at what to ask next.
“You escaped the country without any guards? And decided to take on a dragon? There’s something that you’re not telling me, kid.”
“Claude, my name is Claude. And this is Katsys. The girl that ran off is Ludmila.”
“Well then, Claude. I find it hard to believe that an important lady of some house would be accompanied by only a chef and a young Electi. What’s your story?”
I sighed. If he figured out that much, there was no use hiding it. I walked up to a thick tree and drew my knife. After seeing the mana lines tracing along its trunk, I brought my knife swiftly to one of them. With a simple flick of the wrist, the top half of the tree toppled over.
I heard Lau let out a whistle behind me. Interested now, he gave off the telltale movements of a ‘Status Check.’
“Crit, huh? And maxed out at 999? So, you’re an Electi also. Two Electi in one place, and a girl wielding strange contraptions, all fairly high level… what an interesting party.”
In the distance, we could hear the rumble of a wagon approaching. Ludmila sat at the helm cracking the reins.
“There’s our ride. Walking is such a pain when you’re as old as me. It’s not like I can deflect the planet so that I can land back home in an instant,” Lau said with a laugh.
Somehow, I could envision him doing something that ridiculous.
Not long after we boarded the wagon, the sight of a town could be seen in the distance. The three of us travelers caught our first glimpse of Haneman, a town that bordered right next to the mountains. Even from far away, we could tell that the buildings were constructed in a different manner.
Due to the lush greenery that surrounded the town, there were plenty of sources for lumber, which was likely why a majority of the buildings were crafted from woodwork. In contrast, the foundations of buildings in Sistina were formed with stone and earthen blocks, formed and hardened with Earth magic. The luxury of wood was used to craft more intricate decorations within a home.
Lau explained that most of the population of Sanshiro were gifted in spiritual arts, rather than ‘magic of the elements,’ as referred to by the people here. Guided by the oracle of this country, the people lived their daily lives in pursuit of self-betterment. They sought ways to cleanse themselves of possible evils.
Though the concept of elemental magic was still practiced in limited form, the people of Sanshiro were devoted to improving their mind and body as one. As part of the Kinkou school of spiritual control, Lau was one of the instructors that guided young people on a path towards self-enlightenment.
“Well, that’s my official role, but we’re really not that stiff once you get to know us. We just try to maintain peace and tranquility. This mindset has served the country well for centuries, I’ve heard.”
As we traveled through the town, we got a completely different feel from the townspeople than anywhere else. People were dressed in robes of Asian descent, giving off the feeling that I had stepped into a 19th century period drama. There were also a few people with katanas attached to their belts, ‘Samurai’ that complimented the setting.
A few strong smells came from the nearby outdoor shops. I caught a whiff that gave me nostalgic memories of my mom’s storage room. Eastern medicine was full of ‘natural’ remedies, herbs and roots that were crushed and brewed as supplements to aid the body. I had always been a bit skeptical whether any of them truly worked, but I steered clear because they tended to taste horrendous.
A faint memory of one such remedy floated in my mind. A child with a stomachache was given a powder that literally tasted like foul dirt. It had been so bad that I had immediately emptied the contents of my stomach. Though I did feel better afterward, I was skeptical whether the nasty medicine, which barely hit my tongue, had truly worked or simply triggered a placebo effect.
“And… here we are. I’ll welcome you as guests until you find who you’re looking for.” Lau’s voice snapped me out of my sight-seeing.
As I turned my head, a familiar-looking crest on the front gate stared back at me. Pulling the scroll from Carina out of my Item Box and unrolling it, I held up the picture printed on it to compare.
“Looks like you brought us to the right place, Lau.”