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42 That thing with the fee

Some years earlier

Vidio had his thumb and index finger pressed on his forehead. His eyes were shut and he was deep in absolute concentration.

"What the fuck are you doing now? You've been sitting like that for five minutes."

Vidio scowled, gesturing with his free hand to be quiet.

"Learn", replied Vidio with a hoarse voice.

Helial tried to pay more attention to the Master's movements. They were inside the tavern and Vidio was clearly trying to use some kind of special Skill.

Helial narrowed his eyes in concentration, trying to grasp the meaning behind those movements.

All of a sudden, Vidio pointed at something in the distance.

"Pink!" he boomed.

Helial looked in the direction where the Master was pointing. On the trajectory there was a sweet and innocent-looking young waitress wearing a long skirt.

A small black cloud appeared out of nowhere and a gust of wind lifted up the waitress' skirt, revealing a pair of… pink panties!

"Hahaha!" Vidio clutched his belly, bleeding from the nose. The smug look on his face could only be summed up in one comment: that Master was a swine.

Helial stared at him, dumbstruck.

After making sure that the waitress would not kick them out of the tavern, he covered his face with his hands, while all around them customers were whispering.

"That Master's a pig…" whispered one of the mercenaries seated at a table.

"Stuck here, in the asshole of the Nation, he has to amuse himself somehow", commented the Commander of the mercenaries.

The others shrugged and kept drinking in silence. They did not dare make trouble inside the tavern, or the city guard would not let them off the hook easily. Mercenaries were not liked in the Nation. They could become enemies at any moment.

"You'd do me a great favor if, instead of wasting time with this bullshit, you'd tell me why you don't have a breakthrough to the next Phase. From what you've told me several times, you've been in the Second Phase for more than 20 years now, right?"

Vidio began to laugh: "Who needs a breakthrough? All you'll ever need in life is the love of a woman, little brat!"

"I don't think so, Master. Without power, how can you love a woman? What meaning has love in front of weakness?" asked Helial, shaking his head. "In love, and I don't mean your love for panties, in love there are some tough choices that can ruin us because we're weak."

Vidio looked at Helial with a weird light in his eyes and asked: "Brat, why do you want to become strong so bad?"

Helial was a very odd boy. He did not like Vidio's sense of humor, but did not dislike it either. The Master knew him pretty well now, but there was still something imperscrutable in that boy. Every time he talked about Phases, Skills, Techniques and the lot, the boy did not miss one single word.

Besides, he could always understand everything straight away. His thirst for knowledge and accuracy in solving problems did not belong in a boy that young. Only someone that has been marked in the depth of their soul can become like that.

As much as someone is willing to train and become stronger, apart from some monsters, there must be a reason behind it, a motive that pushes them to ignore self-preservation to obtain more power.

Vidio knew very well that, if necessary, Helial would have been willing to jump in a sea of flames and climb a mountain of blades if it could help him become even a little stronger.

But he did not understand.

Fifteen years old. How could have life marked him so deeply?

"You're so lazy and laid-back. You can afford to be like that." A fleeting glimpse of spite flashed in Helial's eyes. "You have capabilities that allow you to be who you are. I can't afford to be like you, I need power to aspire to such a life… otherwise, I will never be free to make any choices. Why do I want power, you ask? To choose, to have the freedom to choose my life. I just want to be free…"

Helial fixed his gaze on a distant point, while his eyes became blurry. There was a shadow on his heart that would not dissolve easily.

"Free, huh?" sneered Vidio. Inside one of his usual empty laugh, though, there was a trace of bitterness. Better be at the tail of a tiger than at the head of a dog, brat. His face remained emotionless, he was just the usual fun-loving, care-free Vidio.

"Today I'll tell you a story, a fantastic story!" said Vidio, dramatically.

"Actually, I would like to talk about how to know how many HP an opponent has left…"

"Shh! We'll talk about those trifling matters some other time."

Stupefied, Helial resigned himself to listening to that lazy Master. If I had the same opportunities you had, Master, I wouldn't be here wasting my time on these trivialities.

"I'll tell you the story of when the big wigs of the Congregation, including the Episcopus, almost shit their pants in front of my astounding talent!"

Helial glared at him: "The story of how you passed your test to become a Master?"

"That's right, brat!"

"You've already told me that one, uhm, like 30 times?" Helial raised an eyebrow.

"Cut the bullshit, please", snorted the Master,

Helial was about to retort, when Vidio cut him off: "Just 26 times."

Helial stared at him with his mouth open, stunned by the Master's complete lack of modesty.

That old fart even kept count of how many times he had told that story?!

And when was he going to wipe the blood on his nose?! Everyone in that tavern was still staring at them!

Cori sweetly stroked Vidio's hairy cheeks, tracing with her slender fingers the broad features of the naked young man lying at her side.

Vidio had the same foolish smile he always had when he looked at her, and Cori could not help giggling. Her crystal-clear voice warmed up the room as she drew closer to the man.

Vidio ran a hand through her hair, caressing it and tousling it from time to time to bother her.

Cori was squirming, but just for show. She loved that young man, she loved him like she had never loved anyone else.

Vidio sighed; he wished he could freeze that moment. He stretched out a hand, generating a small Mana sphere.

"See", he explained to Cori, while the sphere began to tremble and change shape, "everything's made of Mana. The energy the circles in the universe, the tiny particles we are made of. Even our feelings can somehow be traced back to Mana Energy."

While the globe kept shifting to different geometrical shapes, Vidio whispered: "Everything changes, because everything is energy and energy cannot be harnessed, except by corrupting its nature. There is always Life and Destruction, death and rebirth." Vidio smiled, looking at the ceiling.

"Nothing escapes this law. Or at least that's what we believe. However, in this life longing for change, there is a tiny part inside humans that has decided to rebel against the universe."

Vidio looked away and fixed his gaze in Cori's eyes, shining on her the warmest of smiles.

"Love. Love is a vapid feeling that titanically subverts all the laws of the universe, including logic. There is no explanation, but once someone has felt true love, this feeling is everlasting. Everything can be corrupted by the energy, but nothing yet has been able to corrupt love and thwart it. And the love that I feel, Cori, could not be broken even by the legendary Iblis and Amaterasu."

Cori smiled and got closer to Vidio to kiss him on the lips; then she seemed to change her mind and she pulled back at the last second.

"Like the love for that courtesan whose beauty you've praised during the last council?!"

SLAP

Vidio found himself with a swollen cheek, while trying to explain: "Which courtesan? The one with the blue dress and big boobs, the one with an ass that looked sculpted in marble or the one who is said to suck even the anim-"

SLAP SLAP SLAP

Vidio got bombarded with slaps by the young and jealous Cori, who was punishing him for his insolence.

After venting her rage on him, Cori turned to the other side of the bed, clearly annoyed.

They stayed quiet for some minutes, before Vidio suddenly heard her weep.

He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned forward to look her in the face. Warm tears were streaming down her face, falling on the white sheets.

"He knows", whispered Cori.

"Your husband?" asked Vidio with a frown.

"Not only him. My father, the Episcopus… he knows everything. I think they both know", her feeble voice trailed off, while a great weight oppressed the heart of the young woman.

"I don't give a damn", snorted Vidio, letting himself fall back on the bed, his hands behind his head. "It makes no difference, they can't touch me. You know the rules of the Congregation. You cannot kill a brother and both your father and your husband are big wigs inside the Congregation, very high-profile people."

"My father hasn't become Episcopus, head of the national branch of the Mana Congregation, by chance, silly. In the tests, he'll find a way to hinder you and kill you. You know that too."

Cori sank back on the pillow, deeply anguished.

"I don't know if you remember who's about to become the youngest Master in our Nation. I haven't gotten here only thanks to strength, Cori, I have a brain too. Your father is known to be an exceptional man, but your lover is far more incredible", Vidio chuckled, pinching her butt.

Cori spun around, enraged by the indecent gesture in the middle of a serious conversation.

SLAP!

"Do you want to make me a cripple even before tomorrow's test?" complained Vidio, rubbing the cheek on which Cori had poured her wrath.

"I wish I could do something, Vidio, I wish I could help you."

Vidio smiled at her reassuringly and then looked at her as though he just had an Epiphany.

All of a sudden Vidio grew extremely serious. "I've just thought of something you can do to help me, Cori", he said solemnly.

Stunned by that sudden change, Cori replied with the same serious tone: "I'm listening."

Vidio looked torn, as if unwilling to tell her what it was about. He hesitated.

"Tell me!" snarled Cori, eager to be of help.

"Are you sure?" asked Vidio, even more hesitant, with a very worried look.

"I'm here for you. I love you and I don't want to see you die tomorrow."

"Well, you see…"

Cori was drinking in every word, holding her breath. She was ready to suffer and sacrifice herself, had it been necessary.

"There's that thing you do… you know, that thing with the feet would surely give me the right motivation!"

SLAP!
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