PASSING OF THE TORCH
Lino sat atop the city wall, his legs dangling off the edge, looking over the towering buildings competing to touch the sky. He looked at the bustling streets full of people in rush to live their lives, looked at the peddlers trying to sell things that are hardly worth a pebble for enormous amounts of money, and looked at beggars hoping someone would give them a glance at the very least. It’s a city like any other, he realized. No matter the corner of the world, no matter if cultivation is a magical myth or something common, people naturally behave the same, creating the same atmosphere, the same, strange serenity that wraps the city in thick veil of comfort. He leapt off and landed firmly by the road’s end, walking casually through the side alleyways on his way over to the edge, where the headquarters of his new Mercenary Group were. He decided to name it Archangel’s Darkness, in the memory of someone who probably forgot Lino was able to hear everything him and the Writ talked about.
Though it was a small building with even smaller courtyard, it was their own; however cramped it may be, it will always be a place they can all come back to. He’s yet to hear from Eggor, but he wasn’t worried. If anyone can pull themselves through any sort of hell, it was those two. They’ll come, he knew. In the meantime, all he was trying to do was to get the group off the ground, forcing them to accept the most menial tasks just so they can get their grade up. The system was simple; from E to A, Mercenary Groups were ranked based on their achievements. In order to get jobs that actually pay, one has to first do the lowliest grunt work, no matter how meaningless it may seem.
“You know,” Aeala suddenly popped out in front of him, her hair disheveled with a few feathers scattered about in there. “Just because you’re the, khm, ‘boss’ of our little group, doesn’t mean you can do jack diddly all day long!!”
“What do you mean nothing? I’ll have you know I was just out there mapping the whole city out in case something terrible happens, like, you know, a war. So we can take the quickest escape route.” all he saw was anger, yet he still couldn’t help but smile.
“Lyonel,” Oh no. “I’ve been in this dump for half a month, and all I’ve done was clean shit up, clean horse shit up, clean pigeon shit up, and help a homeless guy find his home.”
“Well, that last must have felt nice.”
“He was fucking homeless!!”
“Look, I don’t know - nor really care - where you go off to all day long while we’re here doing crappy stuff,” she appeared to be on the verge of crying, Lino realized. “I... I just wish you showed up once in a while and at least pretend you’re also helping.”
“... no, you’re right.” Lino said, smiling faintly. “I will. For sure.”
“Now where’s that goddamn red chicken?! I swear to god I’ll strangle the bitch!”
As he watched Aeala bounce off someplace, Lino couldn’t help but think back to the past half a month. It felt... empty. He wasn’t able to craft a single piece of equipment that didn’t suck, wasn’t able to go an entire day without letting his mind drift off to someplace far away, wasn’t able to even admit the reason for it all. He glanced at the small courtyard for a moment before he turned around and walked away. Bounding the same alleyways as he did for the past month felt excruciatingly same, yet also oddly peaceful. He knew his destination, where he’s supposed to be and why. After ten minute long walk, he arrived by a small chapel with what could barely be called a spire by its side. Surrounding it was small, yet comfy courtyard, more akin to a well-managed garden. People passed by this place in droves, left and right, without ever paying a second glance. However, he walked straight in past the slightly creaky doors and onto a cobblestone paved path leading to the entrance. In there, a dimly lit hall of roughly a hundred seats that were never busy waited him, alongside four lit candles because he knew that was all they could afford. On the other end was a man in priestly robes, far down on his knees, his hands clasped against his chest. Lino sat on the bench behind the man as silently as he could and waited.
“You know, if you get bored, you can interrupt me any time.” the man broke the silence five minutes later.
“Oh, no, please, go on. I enjoy watching overly hairy, sixty year old men on their knees. It’s just... a picture.”
“Son, and I’m going to keep telling you this,” the man said, getting up. “You need god.”
“Sorry pops, not interested. I’ve brought candy.” Lino said, smiling.
“Why are you so angry with Him?” the man asked as the two began walking toward the chapel’s other end.
“Why are you so angry with yourself?”
“Oh, so many reasons we’d need a year just to cross out the first page. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I very much doubt even your god could help me with my problems.”
“... He doesn’t help with your problems, son,” the man said, smiling faintly. “He tells you you’re strong enough to help yourself.”
“... yeah. I wish I could believe that.” Lino said, smiling meekly. He’d been coming here every day for the past two weeks, ever since he discovered this place. The kindly, old man walking next to him was Priest Andre, and he’s been mainstay in this chapel ever since he was fifteen, which Lino counted to roughly eleven thousand years. Besides being a church hardly anyone ever comes to, it’s also a place Lino can understand better than anyone else. Opening the wooden doors and exiting into the backyard, he immediately saw ten or so snotty faces gathered around a small ant hill, pricking fingers at it and then laughing at how ants begin running around mindlessly. It was a poor man’s orphanage, where one, sixty year old guy went out every day to do three dehumanizing jobs just so these kids can afford to eat. He’d realized there were still some good people in this world, which is why he kept coming back here, to make his life at least a bit easier and let him know he didn’t completely waste it.
“Oh, Uncle Lino is here!!” one of the kids cried out.
”Alright Timmy, what did I say? I’m way too young for you to call me an uncle, right?”
“But you have beard.” the kid said.
“... it’s, it’s not a beard, it’s just a patch! A patch, alright?!”
“What’s a patch?”
“Oh good god--”
“Don’t call his name in vain.”
“--oh good, dear devil, take my soul away.” Lino grinned at the kindly Priest who barely held back from rolling his eyes backwards into his skull. “If you call me uncle one more time, I won’t give you any candy.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about. Come here. Look, I’ve got apple, I’ve got strawberry, I’ve got this thing you suck on and all flavor just melts in your mouth, I’ve got--” the man stood by the side and watched, saying nothing. On the first day Lino showed up, he knew the boy was the child of a place like this. But, he also knew that place like this had already ruined him. He never needed to ask Lino why he didn’t believe in god, as the answer was obvious. Anyone who’s suffered through life so much on every step of the way could hardly find it in themselves to believe in anything good. They’re just lucky if they can manage. He withdrew back to the courtyard’s edge where a small table and a pair of chairs was at, sitting down. Lino joined him only ten minutes later, when every kid finally started ignoring him.
“Here I am, busting my back trying to feed these kids healthy food, and you just stroll right in and remind them my food sucks. Do you know what Anna told me last night? That you were a better cook than me.”
“You don’t even cook.”
“No, no I don’t.” Lino said, smiling faintly.
“... you can’t keep coming back here son.” the Priest suddenly said, surprising Lino.
“Eh? Look, I can bring them healthy food if you’d like, no need to get so defensive. I won’t steal them, you know?”
“It’s not about them,” the Priest said. “It’s about you. At first, I know you were here because you felt close to the kids and wanted to help them out, to let them know there was someone in the world that cared. But, you’re not here because of that anymore. You’re lost.”
“...” Lino said nothing, faintly tapping his fingers against the table.
“But... you’re looking for answers in a wrong place,” the Priest said. “I don’t have them, and these kids sure as hell don’t. I don’t know what you’re scared of, I don’t know what you’re running away from... but, one way or another, you’re just delaying the inevitable. Nobody and nothing can hide you from your own heart.”
“... I’m surprised you even took a single breath to indulge me. I’m still a kid, so what do I know, right? Hah.”
“... yeah, in many ways you are still a kid,” the Priest said. “You pulled Andrew’s finger when he told you to and then you had a blast laughing for ten minutes with them yesterday. The day before you pretended to be a goat and actually ate the grass that you know these kids pissed onto at least once. So, yeah, you are a kid. But, you’re also not. Which makes it that much harder for you. You never got to enjoy these silly things, the innocent quibbles that end up in hugs and kisses. You were thrown out to the wolves and told to bite. And, now, that you’re dealing with something you can’t seem to handle, you’re scared. Because nobody’s ever taught you how to handle it.”
“... the kids are lucky to have you.” Lino said after short silence. “Keep showing them there’s good in the world, pops. Otherwise... they’ll forget what good even is.”
“If you didn’t know what good was, you wouldn’t have walked into this place to begin with,” the Priest said, patting Lino’s shoulder gently. “You’re just... a bit lost, son. There’s no shame in it. I can’t help you, but for some reason, in my heart I know you have people who can.”
“... ah. So you checked me out and learned who I am.” Lino said.
“It’s the talk around the town,” the Priest laughed. “A leader of the new Mercenary Group in city has his minions so terrified that they’re out there doing literally anything you ask of them while he’s nowhere to be seen except occasionally on a wall, observing everything like a hawk. I’ve met you and... I know they aren’t so terrified of you they’ll do anything you ask them to. So, ask yourself then... why are they doing all that even when you’re never there with them? You crawled out son,” he said, getting up. “Don’t claw your way right back in. You’re better than that.”
Lino stared at the man’s back for a moment, knowing he won’t live for longer than a month. He’s dying, and he knows it, yet he doesn’t show it to anyone. He still smiles for the kids, still does the same jobs he’s been doing for years, and still begging everyone left and right to take over this place once he’s gone. It was too late for him to begin cultivating, and Lino didn’t know any other way to help him. Yet, he still smiled. Because, the look on the man’s face told him the only reason he was still feeling regret was because he didn’t know what will be of kids once he was gone. He got up and walked over to him and leaned over, whispering something into his ear before turning around and leaving. The Priest looked up at the fading back of a young man he barely met while his eyebrows relaxed, his flexed wrinkles folding over one another, tired lips curling up into a smile, his yellowed eyes growing moist for a moment. In that kid’s eyes, the moment he walked in here, the man saw reflection of himself from when he first started working in this chapel. And, all he did for the past week was hope. And his hopes were answered. And he knew kids will be safe, even after he’s no longer there with them, to show them the way. Because there will always be someone else to pick up the mantle and carry on the torch.