THE SPANNING BLAZE
Lino felt short of breath, sprinting through a narrow alleyway while occasionally looking back into the distance. The whole city had been flipped upside down, panic and chaos emerging from the troves of a massive, booming explosion that had occurred fifteen minutes ago. Palace’s southern wing blazed out in golden glory, like a signal flare heaving up into the sky for everyone to see. For the past fifteen minutes, Lino only saw people racing toward any of the gates, practically carrying nothing from fear of being one second too late. He, on the other hand, was currently looking for Eggor as they had went their separate ways this morning. Cursing under his breath, he vaulted over a stack of boxes and, springily, climbed up the side of a small house from which he jumped over to the towering clock tower, scaling it nimbly and quickly.
View from the very top, where the whole of the city blended into a simplified mass of streets and roofs, was truly beautiful but he hardly had time to appreciate it. Pushing Qi into his eyes he first looked toward the Palace, where he could sense faint presence of both Qi and Devil Qi, causing his brows to tighten. While the streets were picturesque swarms of people, Palace courtyard seemed eerily empty. Just as he was about to avert his eyes and look for Eggor, another massive explosion occurred as the walls surrounding the Palace’s courtyard blew up into large chunks that flew off in arcs all over the city. From the bellowing dust storm, a single silhouette flew out like a cannonball, crashing through several dozen homes while leaving behind a trail on the ground. Focusing his eyes, Lino was startled as he recognized the person quickly climbing onto his feet, holding a massive sword on his hands.
“... Valor?” he mumbled, frowning lightly. “What the fuck happened in the Palace?”
“There was a clash,” robotic voice replied as though on cue. “I am not certain for the rest, but that man did participate in it.”
“... ah, great.” sighing, Lino extended his arm out as he squashed his body slightly before leaping off the clock tower and flying out in an arc. Radiant Spear appeared in his hand and he quickly heaved his arm back, pushing his chest outward, gaining momentum midair. Valor was currently panting, blood trailing out his left arm, while three figures were walking toward him. There was a strange light in Valor’s eyes, one akin to maddened yet also hurt beast, as he stared at the central figure - Prince Yox.
“You should not have done that, Valor,” the Prince said, sighing faintly. “We could have talked.”
“... talk? I have no desire to talk with traitors.” Valor said, spitting out a mouthful of blood.
“... shame. I suppose we have come to an impasse then.” the Prince said.
“... word will get out, one way or another, even if you kill me. Housing those... things... corrupting our own people... I merely believed you were an ambitious person, not a cruel devil.”
“Ah, Valor, Valor, Valor,” Sin spoke out, sighing faintly as well while reaching for his belt were several daggers were stashed and taking out two, blades of both gleaming in pitch black. “Were you not such a simpleton, we could even slowly explained it to you. But, I suppose not... and, because of that, you should---what the fu--DODGE!!!!”
It fell from the sky like a comet crashing at full speed, blasting directly at where the Prince and the other two were standing. The strike seemed to have uprooted the world as a gigantic pitfall appeared while massive chunks of rock and stone flew out like rain. Valor stared at the phenomenon with a shocked face, tongue-tied, unable to comprehend what had just occurred. Though Sin’s fist certainly shocked him, it hardly upended his world view, unlike whatever that was. The only thing he managed to see was a faint flash of gold before a thunderous explosion blew out his eardrums, causing blood to trail out. He saw Sin jump over and grab Prince Yox by the latter’s arm before it all turned to dust. The third person was directly in the epicenter and was decimated from the face of the world within a blink of an eye. A hole spanning half a mile in diameter, deep beyond what he was able to calculate at the moment, spawned in front of his eyes from a single flash of light. As though by instinct, he slanted his head sideways and spotted a figure gently landing a few meters away from him. He wore a black coat and cape and leather boots up to his knees, holding his arms behind his back. His black hair was tied up neatly in a bun, jaw squared, eyes gleaming in strange light, the strange gaze meeting his.
“Yo, long time no see,” Lino smiled widely, extending his arm; a mere moment later, a spear appeared within it out of nowhere. “You don’t seem to be doing that great.”
“...” Valor stared at him, gobsmacked, averting his gaze toward the other side of the hole where Sin and Prince Yox were standing, the latter missing an entire arm and crying out in pain. “Uh...”
“You went snooping, haven’t you?” Lino asked.
“Hmm... you know, a smart man would back off after learning something and look for allies, you know? What were you doing man, instigating all this? Let’s go. We have too many eyes on us.”
“Huh? Who? What?” instead of replying, Lino grabbed Valor’s arm and switched to cloak form, before bursting out at maximum speed, vanishing into thin air while using <Empyrean Writ> to hide his Qi. A mere moment later, three figures appeared where he stood, looking around while frowning.
“What was that Shi?” one of the men asked; he appeared to be in his early twenties, wearing spotless, white robes, glancing at the pit next to him.
“... something unexpected.” the bald man appeared out of nowhere and replied, sighing. “Go capture those two.”
“What about the boy?”
“What about him?” Shi asked, frowning.
“... leave him be,” a middle-aged man joined in, turning his eyes toward Sin and Prince Yox. “A Great Demon and a Human... a sickening bastard.”
“Now, now, that’s just unfair,” a hoarse voice startled the four of them as they turned toward the source; there, a man cloaked entirely in black with emerald eyes stood, emptily staring at them. “We all find friends in strange places.”
“... another Great Demon. You guys have sure found your home.” old man Shi said, grinning.
“Dying Roses... you certainly like running into us, as though you’re stalking us for the whole of your lives.”
“You think you’re enough to stop us?” the middle-aged man asked.
“Ha ha, I may be confident, but I’m no fool,” the strange man laughed out loud. “I am far from your guys’ match. However, I felt it was important to inform you that the Portal is completed. Calculate for me... how long would a Godfiend need to kill all four of you? A tenth of a breath? Less?”
“...” Shi sighed and looked up toward the sky. “We were late.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” the strange man said. “You never stood a chance in the first place.”
“Godfiend... huh? Seems excessive for a small place like this.” the middle-aged man said, frowning.
“... you should leave. The roses aren’t welcome here.”
“... one way or another, we’ll plant another garden here, demon. Be it Godfiends, Crimson Devils, Sacred Ones, or even your Patriarchs... there can never be enough horns stacked on our walls back home.” the young man said angrily.
Twenty miles away, already outside the city, Lino was standing atop a tree while Valor was sitting behind him, leaning against the trunk, breathing heavily. His eyes wouldn’t leave the boy in front of him as he simply couldn’t understand what had just happened. One moment they were near that pitfall, and within a few seconds, they were out of the city, overlooking the burning blaze in the distance.
“... who are you?” Valor asked after gathering enough courage.
“... just another traveler.” Lino glanced back and replied, smiling.
“... so that’s why you seem so familiar. We’ve met before.”
“Ah, I can’t believe it took you so long. And here I thought I’d left a rather deep impression.”
“Color me surprised.” Lino said, sitting down across Valor. “So? What’d you do?”
“I think we’re well past the point of staying silent here man. I’d warned you the source is in the Capital, you went snooping, you found something and probably went to King or Prince or someone and got your ass kicked out in a blaze of glory. Am I wrong?”
“So? What’d you find?”
“... as you said,” Valor said, taking a deep breath. “I got suspicious after you told me the source was in the Capital. At first I didn’t believe it, but, after a while, I noticed that more and more people were going missing in the slums. Men, women, children... no one was spared. Whenever I’d go to Palace, I’d get this suffocating feeling, like there were cold hands wrapped around my neck. Yesterday... yesterday I found Rena’s body - uh, she’s this beggar girl I knew - just outside the city. Her skin... she was entirely covered in black veins that were still wriggling like worms. That is when I knew for certain you were telling the truth... so I decided to sneak into the Palace. I’d known for a while there was a secret underground tunnel made in case our Kingdom ever fell for royalty to escape through. Following it, I’d found myself in a massive underground cave... no, calling it a cave is disservice. It was like another city beneath the ground. All around me were spider-like cocoons, on ground, on walls, hanging from the ceiling... hundreds... thousands... and no matter how dumb I may be, I connected two and two together. So I went to report to the King. It just so happened that Prince Yox was there, but I hadn’t thought much of it as I wouldn’t even dream of Prince himself being in on it. The moment I reported my findings, Sin came out from the shadows, sliced King’s and King Guard’s throats, while Prince attacked me. The rest... well, you know...”
“... you’re really an idiot, huh.” Lino said, sighing. “And just as I asked them to evacuate the city...”
“... you knew about it?” Valor asked, frowning.
“Of course I’d known about it,” Lino scoffed. “Why do you think I’m in the Capital? But, I also knew it was past the point of return. I could only make a compromise.”
“Compromise?!! They killed hundreds of people!! Turned them... turned them into those monsters!!” Valor exclaimed angrily in deep voice. “How... how can you even think about the compromise?!!”
“You haven’t, and look at what you’ve done,” Lino said, looking deeply into Valor’s eyes. “You’ve plunged the Kingdom into premature war. Within a week, there will be people just like Sin and Prince Yox and me, flying over here in droves. You’ve just sentenced the entire Kingdom to death, Valor.”
“... but, but you’re stronger than me!! Why didn’t you just kill them?!”
“I’m far from being as strong as you think I am,” Lino said, sighing. “Much like you, I’m powerless here. Was the Princess there when you reported it?”
“... no. Princess Freya is usually in eastern wing, alone. Why? Is she involved somehow?” Valor asked. “She’s... she’s a kind soul! I swear on my name she has nothing to do with this!”
“I know she doesn’t,” Lino said. “That’s why I have to go back in and save her.”
“... save her?”
“They haven’t found out who she is just yet, but they will soon enough.” Lino said, getting up and turning toward the city. “And I can’t let that happen.”
“... who is she? What do you mean?” Valor asked, frowning.
“... they still think she’s just another ordinary human,” Lino sighed, shaking his head. “She probably thinks so too.”
“... s-she’s not?”
“You got over that ‘not human’ part rather quickly, eh.”
“... seeing those things... nothing would surprise me...”
“... she’s Fate’s Child.” Lino said.
“Yup, I surprised you. I win.” Lino said, grinning for a moment. “I don’t have time to explain it. Just know she’s not someone who can die... just yet at the very least. Go to Bridge Village, there’s a small rundown blacksmith shop there at the very edge of the village, one full of holes, you’ll recognize it. Wait there for either me, an old, bearded bastard Eggor or a woman called Ella. In the meantime, prepare us some necessities for a long... long travel.”
“... where are you going?”
“To the belly of the beast, I suppose.” Lino said, jumping off the tree and disappearing before Valor’s eyes, leaving the latter to contemplate in silence for hours before finally departing as the night truly fell over the still burning haze of Umbra Capital, where wretched screams had at last come to an end.