Thick mist veiled the bursting rays of the sunrise, casting a strange, ethereal light over the Umbra City. The nightly silent streets soon grew loud and chatty as neighs of carriage horses sang out like a strange hymn throughout the streets. As the city woke up from its sleep, Lino sat on the corner of the street, leaned against the wall of a rundown, empty house, while looking up at the sky. Though many odd gazes came flying toward him, he seemed not to have noticed them, focused entirely onto the nothingness up in the sky. His mind grew derailed over the events that had transpired just a few hours prior. An overwhelming sense of smallness overcame him, fogging up the future he had planned for himself. It seemed as if he was forced to change his plans on every corner, on every new revelation he’d stumble upon. Now, this city, the Demons inhabiting it, the immediate danger it’s under, all seem so small, so insignificant, which he knew not to be truth, but still couldn’t help but think that way.
The world he’d kept rebuilding for almost two years keeps getting eroded, bit by bit, in its place growing new things, those he could hardly even begin to understand. At the very least, though, he understood that Q’vil wasn’t simply fighting to save his homeland. He’d learned that, besides <Empyrean Writ>, there were six others - and like it, they were also sentient. Q’vil’s fight was larger than this world - quite so - and the invites for him to join Skyhaven Dynasty had far greater meaning than Lino at first thought. Though a scorching star, the trail left behind by him appeared everything but radiating with light. A section of world entirely shrouded in darkness, forever eclipsed in mist beyond which no eye had ever seen.
“Ah, fuck,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Let’s just go and meet that bald guy for the time being. Whatever comes, comes,” he added, getting up and dusting off his already dry clothes. “Just wing it, as always.”
The inn they were supposed to meet at is relatively popular, situated at the very heart of the city, in a cross-section out of which three main roads diverged into different parts of the city, further branching out into small alleyways and streets. By the time Lino arrived, the whole cross-section was filled to brim with people and carriages, causing the air itself to grow stifling. The inn was packed, barely any room to walk from the entrance hall to the restaurant in the back where sets of tables were tacked on with rowdy bunch, room lit up by sparsely opened windows in the far back. Lino quickly spotted him in the corner, sitting alone, wearing rather loose robes, standing out in the crowd, while drinking a cup of something.
“You really stick out like a sore thumb.” Lino said as he sat down. “We ought to be driving attention toward us, ah?”
“You look well and healthy.” the old, bald man said with a smile. “You found the inn fine?”
“Oh, no, I had to wander around the city like a homeless loon, asking dogs and cats for directions to the only inn in the city that uses bear as an insignia.” Lino replied.
“Still a sarcastic one, eh?” the old man Shi chuckled lightly as he poured down the contents of the cup. “You could have just said no, right?”
“Right, but where would be fun in that.”
“I suppose there wouldn’t be any,” the old man said. “Here.” he then took out a small, gray ring out of nowhere and placed it in front of Lino. “What I’ve promised you.”
“I’m flattered, but I’d rather not get ordained to an old, bald guy.” Lino said, taking the ring and stashing it into his void world.
“Oh, how could you break my heart like that?” the old man played along for a moment as the waitress came.
“I’ll have the same.” Lino said, pointing at Shi’s cup.
“Bring me another.” the old man said.
“So? Don’t get me wrong; flirting with you is all good and fine, but how about we get down to business.” Lino said, smiling lightly.
“I’ve brought the help.” the old man Shi said, glancing sideways.
“I know,” Lino said. “You guys look like clowns in here. I’d be an idiot not to notice them. Tell them to back off with the inspection.”
“... hm, you’re really more than what I thought,” the old man Shi smiled vaguely as he nodded toward a table in the distance where four men were sitting. “Apologies for that. This is, however, a rather important mission for them.”
“I couldn't care less,” Lino said, shrugging his shoulders. “So? What’s the plan?”
“Pretty much the same as what we’ve discussed before,” the old man said. “We’ll work separately to locate any signs of the Demonic presence, and if you manage to snuff them out, leave the rest of it to us. You don’t have to fight.”
“... are you sure you can win?” Lino asked.
“Things are much worse than we’ve thought,” the old man said, sighing lightly. “We hadn’t noticed it before entering the capital, but the concentration of Devil Qi is substantially higher than we’d imagined. Whatever is going on here... it’s much larger than a simple Demonic invasion. There’s a high chance that all of us will have to flee.”
“So I keep hearing.” Lino mumbled in his jaw to himself. “That’s on your end. I’ll see what I can do on mine. Let’s limit our contact to as little as possible.”
“... very well. Stay safe.”
Lino got up and walked away before his drinks arrived, glancing back at the old man with complex expression. Though he understood just a few things from the last night’s events, he did take a gleam at a very important news: whether today, tomorrow, a month later, or even years in the future, the old man - and all those standing by his side - and him would be fielding two sides. The whole of world - not just Umbra Kingdom and its surroundings - is about to face chaos, one instigated by Devils, one everyone will see as a mass invasion of opposites. Only a few, perhaps, may notice the underlying currents. While millions throw themselves in the flames of the war, feeding and fueling the state of chaos, Lino feared the consequences of ever letting them know it serves no purpose. It’s a battle far larger than them; far bigger than that old man sitting over there, or his friends sitting on the opposite end. Demons in Umbra Kingdoms were pawns of a world-scale chessboard, if even that, and all events that will take place here will be for naught in the grand scheme of things. It’s an event among many bound to set a stage... stage for him, Lino realized. Or, perhaps, if he dies, someone who will no doubt come after him.
Leaving the inn, he felt short of breath. He didn’t know what to do. He felt lost. The thought that he’d slowly carve out his place in the world now shattered, given that his place in the world was already solidified before he’d even understood the world itself. He’s a soldier of ideologies he couldn’t hope to understand, a sword of a mind beyond his notion, a wall guarding something that may not even exist in the first place.
“Are you afraid?” a robotic voice jolted him from his stupor, startling him slightly. Lino smiled bitterly and shook his head, moving forward for a stroll through the city streets, taking everything in.
“Should I be?” Lino replied in a low voice.
“Yes.” was a simple and short answer he got.
“Then I am.” Lino said, glancing at a brick building to his left, its chimney billowing out gray smoke while a smell of fresh bread spread out from it.
“Good,” the voice said. “It means you haven’t broken down.”
“... why’d you choose me?” Lino asked, taking a left turn into a rundown alley with a motionless body lying cold on the street, its eyes rolled far back into its skull.
“... for the same reason you’ve chosen to trust me.” the voice said. “There’s hardly a logical reason for it. Isn’t every fiber of your being telling you to lay low and just live out your life in silence, far-removed from the world?”
“...” Lino said nothing, merely glancing at the body while passing by it, quite familiar with the sight.
“You see the world around you through your own lens, and I am the same,” the voice said, still as robotic as ever, seemingly lacking any emotional weight behind it. “You shelter your own purpose within you, just as I do mine. I am every bit a person you are, yet, I was never able to make choices you can make. Perhaps I know no fear because I’ve never had anything to lose, but I will not project my purpose on you. You can always stop this battle.”
“... hm,” Lino nodded faintly, walking over a bridge, glancing toward the riverbank where several dozen kids were currently playing. “I hardly know what a purpose is,” he said, empty-faced. “And can’t exactly understand yours, either. However, if you had chosen me, you must’ve had your own reason, however opaque that reason may be. I’ll do my best for as long as I can. One day, if I’m on my knees, defeated, I’ll think back to this day and curse you into oblivion, just so you know.”
“... do you know what all those who came before you had in common?” the voice asked.
“They were all batshit insane like me?” Lino asked, chuckling lightly.
“They all had kind hearts birthed from reality’s cruelty. Even I, with all my knowledge, never understood it, not until this day. But, what I do know is that without souls like you, my fight would have ended a long time ago.”
“Why do you even fight? Is it worth it?” Lino asked, moving on toward the other side. “Don’t you ever get tired?”
The city was hardly a dreamlike one Lino was led to believe. Anything outside of the immediate center was like walking into another world, into another reality. Filthy streets, dispirited eyes, broken postures, silent footsteps, full of a downcast, suffocating air. Lino realized that this was the reality everywhere; parts of the diamonds-cast city are glorified, trotted over to the eyes of the onlookers, while the cast shadow behind it is hid. Only a few of many ever get to bathe in light, while most forever remain battered in the shadows, left to their own devices to live out their lives to the best of their abilities. How should I go about this? Lino pondered in silence as he came to the edge, standing next to the riverbank, surrounding a river much filthier than on the other side. Take a side? Pretend I haven’t learned anything? Escape? Warn them and then escape? Or just... wait it out? Is there even the right choice, or just lesser of two evils as per usual? He realized, then, that it never hurt more to know less, or even nothing.