Suffocating air suffused the thick, earthen walls carved out into a half-spherical room. Occasional glint of a droplet flashed bright in darkness, splatting against the floor. The room was rather small, large enough only to fit a few chairs and a primitive, mud table at the very center. A single sphere of cyan light hovered above the table, ceaselessly spinning in circles while casting dim light over to the far edges of the table and the chairs beyond.
“... are you certain?” a hoarse voice asked while tapping sounds of finger against the table echoed out slowly. “You sensed Qi yesterday?”
“It was very faint, but it was there,” a mellow and charismatic voice answered. “One of the competitors, though I couldn’t pinpoint which one.”
“... it seems we’ve already got friends in the city, he he. What do you think we should do?”
“Smoke them out?”
“No, no, you’re thinking too simply,” the hoarse voice brimmed with excitement as it talked. Sin leaned his cloaked head over into the cyan light, his dark eyes glimmering faintly. “It’s too early. Fighting it out now wouldn’t be beneficial. Misleading them, though... any ideas, m’ Lady?”
“... that is your job,” a gentle voice replied. “We were tasked with speeding the plans up. If you don’t, well, you know what to expect.”
“... ah, as cold as always,” Sin said, smiling widely. “You really know how to spin me in circles.”
“We can create a diversion by releasing some out into the open.” the mellow voice joined in again.
“... wasteful. I’ll set up a massive formation beyond the north gate. Your job is to find them and bring them there. You have three days.” Sin said.
“They’re clearly cloaking their Qi with something. How do you expect me to find them in three days?!” the mellow voice turned slightly angered as a young, handsome face of the Prince Yox came into view.
“You already have your first clue,” Sin shrugged his shoulders as he backed into the darkness. “The competition.”
“I already know who it is,” a fourth, slightly ruff voice, joined in. “It’s the guy who got fifth place in the competition.”
“... hm? Him? Why?” Prince Yox asked.
“... I saw the weapon before he chipped it,” Shante said. “It was well beyond anything ordinary smiths can do. I also think he made me out.”
“... is he strong?” Sin asked, frowning slightly.
“I couldn’t tell,” Shante replied, sighing. “I paid attention to him the whole time after he showed me the weapon, but I couldn’t sense a whiff of Qi or anything coming from him... as though he wasn’t even there.”
“He must be quite a bit stronger than you, then,” Prince Yox said. “And me, in extension.”
“... m’ Lady?” Sin looked toward the only person who hadn’t stepped out of the darkness yet and asked.
“... we can’t be drawing up any conclusions,” the voice replied. “Other departments are ahead of schedule, only we’re lagging behind. It’s at point of no return now. Even if he’s made her, it doesn’t change much. They already know something’s happening here. I’ll do the scans more frequently. The rest of you be careful. Even if they hadn’t sent anyone stronger than Purity Realm, Dying Roses bastards have strange methods.”
“What about your partner?” Sin asked.
“He’s growing suspicious as well, but I have preventive measures against him. Don’t worry about it, just focus on yourself. Dismissed.” a faint whizz echoed out, leaving the trio behind alone.
“... your mom’s really something else, eh?”
“She’s not my mother.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Gather up more information for the next week’s meet. I’m going.”
Within a mere minute, Shante found herself walking down the familiar streets, moving toward her house while her eyes danced around with great alarm in them. She couldn’t help it; something about that boy, besides his incredible crafting skills, threw her off yesterday. His attitude... stance... eyes... voice... words... none of it belonged to a simple sixteen-year-old kid trying his luck in the Capital. It belonged to someone who had a plan, purpose and reason to be here, at this specific time. She was just confused over why he had showed her that weapon in the first place, practically outing himself. He must have known that someone would have discovered him using Qi, yet he still used it. A whisper sounded out and Shante found herself frozen in spot, her vision growing dark. She only saw black cloak flash before her eyes before she lost her consciousness, drifting off into dreamless sleep.
Lino was leaning against the wooden bean, his arms crossed over his chest, staring at Shante who was tied to the chair. His eyes were out of focus as he tapped his leg against the floorboards in rhythmic fashion, doing so all the way until Shante groaned out in pain and slowly opened her eyes, looking around while trying to make sense of it. Her eyes quickly landed on Lino, causing her heart to start while her throat grew parched. She knew she was done, yet that scared her far less than what would happen until that end.
“... you guys are really impressive,” Lino smiled faintly as he crouched down, leveling their gazes. “I had absolutely no way to follow you. Well, I technically had, but I would have gotten caught and chopped up. And I’m not really into that.”
“... who are you? Seeing as I’ll be dead soon enough, I at least deserve to know.”
“... it doesn’t matter who I am.” Lino said. “And you’re wrong about your prediction. I have neither the will nor the reason to kill you.”
“Nope. I’m not that bad of a person, actually,” Lino said, getting up and walking over to the table in the corner, pouring two cups of bubbling ale and bringing them over. Shante felt the knot round her wrists loosen as her arms got freed. “At least I like to believe that. I just hadn’t expected that you guys would be walking around in the open, is all.”
“... how’d you make me out?” Read your stats, duh. Lino nearly spat out, but held back.
“How long have you been living here?” Lino asked instead, handing her over one cup while taking a gulp of his own. “You don’t seem that familiar with this place.”
“It’s fine if you don’t want to talk,” he said, smiling. “You should just listen then, instead. Unlike you, I didn’t decide to voluntarily partake in this charade. I’m hardly here because I want to be, or because I’m some sort of a noble hero looking to save the world. I can’t prevent the portal from opening. I can’t prevent the war from breaking out here. Other people who’ve come to stop you guys can’t either. One way or another, you’ll achieve at least initial victory here. But, I’m not in possession of a frigid heart either. I can’t watch that happen, Shante,” Lino sighed softly, glancing at her. “I can’t watch thousands of innocent die. So I want to make a deal with your side.”
“... heh, you just admitted you can’t stop us. Why’d we make a deal with you?” Shante said, sneering.
“Perhaps you don’t know where the portal is, but you certainly know enough,” Lino said. “I can rip your soul out and learn everything. Perhaps I won’t be able to prevent it, but by the time your guys’ plan is completed, you’d wish you had made the deal with me today.”
“... rip my soul?! Are you an Angel’s Descendant?!” Shante exclaimed. Angel’s Descendant? What the fuck is that? Lino remained placid on the surface while his mind spun around trying to come up with an answer.
“You’ve seen what kind of a weapon I can create,” Lino said. “I can provide you with much better ones. Weapons, armors, accessories, shields... I can even feed my side false information to ensure they don’t whiff up your scent. All you guys have to do is... open the portal outside the city.”
“That’s impossible. Moving the portal when it’s already open? Are you already out of your mind?”
“... khm, I mean--”
“You’re not on the bright side, are you?” Lino asked, sighing. “It doesn’t matter. I already knew that. However, others don’t. One of you is already drawing up a massive formation up north. You clearly have the resources for it. Just chop it up a bit, and you can teleport it. Share my sentiments with the crowd. I am not a patient man.”
“...” Lino watched Shante flee with all her might, after he might change his mind. His sharp gaze loosened and lost its focus yet again while his expression turned melancholic. He couldn’t help but sigh when her back vanished in the horizon, somewhere beyond the concrete walls of the abandoned part of the city.
“Don’t worry. They will accept it.” the robotic voice broke the silence inside his head.
“Honestly? I kind of liked you when you were a mute, just occasionally informing me that I’d gotten stronger.” Lino said, smiling bitterly.
“You still won’t be able to save everyone, so you should be prepared.”
“I know,” Lino said, his eyes glistening slightly. “I don’t have to. Why do I feel like I suddenly aged so much I’m beginning to see graves?”
“Because you had abandoned the part which had made you a child in the first place,” the robotic voice replied. “Your innocence.”
“... that just sounds dirty.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hm, nothing. I don’t think you’re ready for sex-ed just yet.”
“Yeah, so, what if they don’t agree and instead let hell’s hounds on me?” Lino asked.
“... then you run.”
“... encouraging. I should probably tell Eggor to leave.”
“Will he listen to you?”
“Not at all. Should I just knock him out and drag him away?”
“Can you knock him out?”
“You’re kind of killing my buzz here.”
Lino sighed yet again, looking up at the darkening sky. He had at least chosen what to do - save as many people as possible and just... leave. He neither can nor should save this place entirely through some form of noble sacrifice. Portal’s already opened... Demons have already probably overrun the whole upper strata... and a few folk are far from enough to stop this in any way, shape or form. However right his choice was he couldn’t say just yet; perhaps there was a better way, but even this he couldn’t have thought up without the Writ assisting him. Perhaps, this time, it just wasn’t meant to be.