IN THE DARKEST HOUR
The thunderous roar and the following sweep roused Lino’s basic instincts from their sleep. He felt blood in his body boil as his Qi began circulating throughout him like a crazed river. Air around him warped, bizarrely wound as his feet began leaving deep-caving imprints on the stone beneath them. He felt his breathing hasten, his senses heighten, the fabric of his very being contract back into singularity with a solitary purpose: survive. He knew he stood no chance of winning if he gets caught; he’d be dead and broken before he could work a word in. He hardly believed in miracles, in divine intervention that would come to his rescue, as he’d only ever trusted himself, as it was still the case. The remaining part of his sanity fought to tooth and nail not to throw Freya off his shoulder just to increase his speed by a single unit, while the rest of him was focused on ducking into the alleyways and bounding rooftops, occasionally glancing backwards only to see a looming shadow foregrounding the nightscape of the sky.
His legs kicked up a storm of stones and rocks and roof tiles, founding a cascading shower of desecration in an arc behind him. He heard Freya scream something into his ear, yet his mind didn’t register it; it felt as if every inch of his brain was working overtime to think of a solution. Every moment he’d spent reading up maps and checking out Umbra Capital with his own eyes was being re-examined ceaselessly, trying to conjure up an escape plan. However, no matter on what answer he arrived, he found it hopeless. The shadow was already catching up, and he was already going his fastest without breaking himself completely apart. Just as he was about to leap off his feet onto a roof, he felt alarms go off inside his head and instead burst toward right, blowing apart the building and arriving on the other end. A moment later, dark, cylindrical beam flattened the roof he was about to bound and everything surrounding it, turning it all into gray ash, blown apart further by the ensuing storm. Lino himself was blown backward through the sky, his right arm bearing the brunt of it all as he tried to shield Freya. The latter screamed out in fear, closing her eyes and burying her head into Lino’s chest while he grit his teeth and endured the burning sensation on his forearm. Looking down, he saw worm-like creatures crawling atop his skin, black in hue, trying to dig their way in. He circulated Qi as they burst out in blaze, scalding off within seconds. Landing nearly half a mile away, he took the course toward the eastern gate as the shadow in the sky began following him again.
Looking left and right, he saw absolutely no avenue of retreat; it felt as if an iron cage was closing up on him, as if chains were slowly wrapping around his feet and as if his mind was slowly being worn off. Sweat had long since permeated every inch of his skin, but he hardly noticed.
“There’s no point in running away,” a raspy voice reached his ears from the sky, causing his heart to skip a fear. Illusion! Fucking shit, are all these fuckers good at this?! Lino shook his head and ignored the voice as well as the images it conjured up in his mind. “You’re just prolonging the inevitable.”
“Not if you let me go!” he screamed at the sky without turning around.
“You know I can’t do that,” the voice added, a trace of amusement in it. “You have taken something you shouldn’t have. He... he really cares about her, I’m afraid. Far more than anything else.”
“Like I give a fucking shit...” Lino grumbled in his jaw, still speeding ahead as quickly as he could.
“You ought to. Isn’t he why you came to this city? To look for who opened up the portal?”
“...” Lino did his best to ignore the voice, but, as though without rhyme or reason, it began to wear on his mind and even his body. “You cowardly piece of shit. Purity Realm fuck using tricks to wear down a Core Realm kid... I’d be ashamed if I were you.”
“Anything to grant a certain victory. It’s the creed worthwhile of following.” the voice replied.
“...” Lino finally felt his legs give out as he came to a halt, panting and trying to catch a breath. A moment later, he heard a pair of feet land behind him; turning around, he spotted a man enrobed entirely in black, with only the green of his eyes showing.
“Don’t play a hero,” the man suddenly said. “On the grounds that you’ve endured so far, and had entertained me for a while, if you let her go, I will do the same for you. You could still live out your days peacefully.”
“...” Lino looked deeply into the man’s eyes and saw nothing but honesty; he’d truly let him go were he to release Freya. Alas, that was not something Lino could do. “It’s funny,” Lino said, chuckling. “Recount over ninety percent of my life, and I’d say ‘yes’ to your proposal in a heartbeat.”
“... not now?”
“I want to. Heh, I really do. Truth be told, I barely know her,” Lino said. “But... I feel that if I give her to you here... the rest of my life will turn out the same. I will always make compromises, take the easy way out. I will always end up sacrificing others for myself.”
“That’s reasonable. Self-interest is hardly ever a wrong choice.” the man said.
“... maybe. No, heh, definitely. After all, the whole of the world is ruled by self-absorbed people. Anyone who really matters is self-absorbed, I’d learned. It’s a way to succeed, I’d realized.” Lino said, taking a deep breath as he finally managed to relax and calm down. “But...”
“... but you can’t be someone like that, you’re trying to say?” the man added after Lino went silent for a moment.
“I’d hardly call myself a good person,” Lino said, looking up at the sky. “But, she doesn’t deserve this. This city didn’t deserve this.”
“That’s not on us.”
“The hell it isn’t!!” Lino screamed out. “Your war with Cultivators, whatever the fuck you guys have been doing since the fucking dawn of time, what the fuck’s that got to do with the innocent people?!! What’s any of it have to do with people who just want to live out their lives and die a peaceful death?!! You come to the fucking edge of the world because there are no cultivators, and why?! So you can... what? Kill without restraint? Control without restraint?! Execute your ‘grand fucking plans’ without someone prying in? Hah... what’s it matter anyway, at the end of the day? You’ll kill me, take her back to that sick fuck, and go on as if nothing had happened. Eventually, there will be no innocent person living in this city... in this kingdom. And, to you, that will be considered a victory. It’s an empty one. What have you won? Grand devils managed to take over almost entirely non-cultivator Kingdom. Ha ha ha, it’s the joke of the fucking century. Good job.”
“... are you done?” the voice revealed impatience and anger, causing Lino to chuckle.
“Yea... I suppose I am. One last thing, though,” he quickly added. “You will never win. Today it’s me, tomorrow it’s going to be someone stronger. Someone you can’t intimidate with your shitty encore. Like her, one day.” Lino mumbled meekly as he smiled, sending a spiral of Qi into the arm in which he was holding Freya.
“What are you doing?!!” the man cried out when he sensed the Qi’s movement. Lino looked at him and grinned, suddenly spinning in half-circle and jerking back his arm before barreling it forward, letting go of Freya. She screamed out as she suddenly felt herself leave Lino’s arm, and she opened her eyes. The world was beneath her feet while her fingers were touching the clouds. She suddenly felt freedom akin to nothing she ever felt before, like the chains which were binding her down were melted off, cast aside, her shackles disappearing. She looked down, at a tiny spot of the immeasurable city, in a small corner of it, where the arm that had freed her was. Lino glanced at the sky and saw the dot flying off, sighing lightly. “Idiot! Do you think you saved her?!! She can’t survive that!!”
“... who cares? She’s just another normal human. You’ve already killed enough of those that it shouldn’t matter.” Lino shrugged his shoulders.
“Heh, you think you saved her?! After I kill you, it won’t take me long to track her down. You just delayed the inevitable.”
“... maybe you’ll kill me quickly,” Lino said as he extended his arm whereupon a radiating spear appeared, glistening in the dark. “And maybe you’ll find out that I’m sort of a cockroach. Looks a bit too feeble to be real, but a real bitch to take down.”
“... is that so?” the man said, chuckling suddenly and extending both his arms as well. A mere moment later, two bolt-like shadows appeared above his palms, dancing like serpents. “We’ll see just how resilient you are, then. Do not disappoint me kid. Otherwise, none of this would have been worth it.”
Lino blasted off, leaving a trail of dust behind him and appearing directly in front of the man, startling the latter. He swept his spear sideways and ground down, sweeping with his leg at man’s ankle. The latter clasped his hands together, causing a black vortex to appear above them which immediately began spitting out black bolts of lighting while the man himself turned faded, like a shadow, kicking back. Lino ground his teeth and held back a scream when he felt a bolt perch itself into his left shoulder, causing a massive wound and countless worms to try and swarm his body whole. Ignoring them - or rather leaving them for <Empyrean Writ> - he instead pursued the man, piercing straight at the man’s shadow. While the latter dodged, Lino managed to graze him, causing a splatter of black blood to paint itself on the wall behind. The same wall that was struck with the spear a blink later and was blown to smithereens, causing a domino effect as wind swept about like an awakened monster.
Ignoring the ever-growing pain, Lino didn’t let up. He’d figured that the man didn’t have much expertise when it came to melee combat, which is why he felt he could extend their fight beyond what it should last in reality. Should the man ever gain some distance between them, Lino knew, it wouldn’t take him longer than a second to end the fight. Which is why Lino tried to stick with him, mimicking every last of man’s movements while gladly accepting bolts that were raining on him. Hole after hole appeared on his body and blood ran crimson, dyeing him slowly. Pain inched ever so closer to his heart and he felt his life being eaten away at, but he ignored it. He pierced, slashed, swept, dove, heaved, rolled, blowing buildings like wooden logs while sliding along. On the other end, the man grew more and more agitated, clearly not expecting Lino to hold up as well as he did. Him sticking to the man could perhaps be done away, but it was Lino’s pain resilience that gave the man a start. He himself knew just how much those bolts hurt, but it was the worms they fed to the body that were the true source of agony; they nibble, eat away at every ounce of one’s being, slowly until there is nothing of the person left. Yet, the young man before him seemed hardly affected by them. His footsteps didn’t slow down, remaining as nimble as they were at the start, his attacks were still ferocious, precise, and were even gaining momentum as the battle dragged on, so much so that man felt receiving a direct attack from the spear now would no doubt leave a lifelong scar, if not actually end his life.
However startled the man was, Lino himself best knew that he was burning his reserves. Pain had nearly numbed his ability to think, and the only reason he was still gaining momentum was because he was overdrawing his every muscle, vein and bone to do it. A part of him hoped for a lucky shot, but for the most part he merely wished to extend this battle for as long as humanly possible. Just as he was about to do another pierce at man’s heart, the latter suddenly vanished into gray smoke and appeared fifty meters up in the air. The green eyes emitted hostility and anger, staring down at Lino, who finally gave into his weakness, his hand feebly letting go of the spear as Lino himself fell onto his knees, his arms lying listless by the sides of his body. He looked up, barely holding himself from crying out in pain. His entire face was dyed red, his eyes even more so, and with a body filled with holes, he hardly looked like someone who should still be alive.
“A cockroach indeed,” the man said, panting; clearly the move he’d just executed took a toll on him. “You are a variable we certainly didn’t account for. Luckily, you are still young, inexperienced. Had you trained yourself and then came back for her, perhaps you even stood a chance of saving her. Not anymore, though.”
“... it’s a beautiful night,” Lino mumbled, ignoring the man and looking at the round moon in the sky instead. “Don’t you think so?”
“...” the robotic voice he was expecting didn’t reply, causing Lino to chuckle faintly, coughing up a mouthful of blood afterwards, but still keeping himself from falling entirely over. Perhaps he was unable to die on his feet, but he wouldn’t die lying down either.
“... good luck with your future endeavors,” Lino mumbled weakly. “I may not have been the one you were waiting for... but someone will be.
“... is this your will?” the robotic voice appeared inside Lino’s head, asking him.
“... dying? Ha ha, I don’t think so.”
“Going against overwhelming odds... to do something right.”
“Oh... that. I think it’s more along the lines of stubbornness.” Lino said.
“Your Will is recorded,” the voice replied. “As you have finally found yourself in the dancing shadows of doubt. Hardly a time to depart from this world now, don’t you think so?”
“You are not alone,” the voice added. “Not anymore. Even in the darkest of nights following the darkest of days, look how bright the moon is. Just the same, in your darkest moments, there will be someone to show you light. Enfeebled you may be; alone you are not.” a beautiful, divine-like light suddenly appeared around Lino like a sphere, a mythical shield protecting him from harm. He suddenly felt warmth encapsulate him, eating away at pain, at his brutish unwillingness to die. His chaotic mind eased, his body relaxing. Just before he closed his eyes, he saw a strangely familiar knee standing in front of him, and the bearded face looking down with eyes that did not belong to a stranger. In them, he saw hurt, worry and pain. They glistened with moist tears. His arms reached down and grabbed Lino, gently putting him down onto the ground. They were shaking, much like his lips were trembling. The pair of eyes scaled Lino’s tattered body, growing moister by second until, by end, tears rolled out in waves.
“... y-you’re going to be fine,” Eggor mumbled in a weak voice. “You... you’ve fought well. Leave the rest to me, alright? Go... g-go to sleep. You’ll be fine. I promise.”