Gentle wind swept past the empty road woven into a rising hill on the furthest, southern side. Overlooking the hill itself was a barren cliff, once a home to continent’s tallest waterfall - Sanguine Fall. Now, it was but a carved stone with barren bed and dry, scorched land surrounding it. However, it still acted as a natural barrier, a wall of sort, on city’s south, preventing any invasion from going smoothly.
Next to the barren bed of the fall was a small hut made of wood and straw, and in front of it at the moment, atop a stool, sat a beggar-looking man, overlooking a fire and the whirling, skinned rabbit above it. It’s been over nine years since Lino first fell asleep in the Necropolis. From an innocent-looking, seventeen years old youth, he’d become a twenty-six year old man who looks more like he’s in his forties.
He’d woken up from the slumber three years ago, spending one on journey from the far west toward the east and the Divine Dynasty, wandering around for a few months before settling in the City of Sun. His slumber wasn’t dreamless or voiceless; rather, throughout its duration, he’d done nothing but contemplate upon the Laws and Martial Arts.
It was a long, long night, though; perhaps long enough to drive anyone insane. And, even so, he hasn’t fully healed, even today; rather, he was fairly certain even ordinary soldiers of the Empire could actually defeat him in a battle. Forget using Qi, even his bodily strength and resilience has yet to return fully. It also meant he was unable to craft anything, but instead also simply ponder and wonder of the designs, ways and materials time and again.
He didn’t hate it though. Rather, this setback was more akin to traveling back through time to him, to those years where he could neither leap the dozen-meters tall walls, nor lift a rock weighing thousands of kilograms, nor could he battle it out against dozens, if not hundreds, of people at the same time and come out on top. Perhaps some may derive it as a period of utter, shameful weakness; to him, though, it was merely a reminder of the fact of who he was.
Willingly or not, he indeed had wrapped himself in a cloth of the chosen along the journey, dubbing himself a man who would change the world. However, a man never changes the world, he realized; the world changes him, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Ever since waking up, he’d assumed a mantle of someone he would have most-likely become were it not for Ella and Eggor - a beggar. He didn’t mind the looks, the words, or indifference of others toward him. It was pleasant, in a way, at least to him.
However, deep down, he knew such state could not persist forever; the Writ had already informed him he’d fully heal in less than a year from now. Then, time to resume the glorified mantle of an Empyrean would be again. Thinking about it, he couldn’t help but sigh silently.
He got up from the stool and walked a bit north, just at the summit of a hill overlooking the city. It was a grand one indeed, with only small sections of it appearing out of date; most of it was fashioned from stone, some more precious and rare than another, with high-rising buildings standing like spears among the swords. However, shortly after arriving here, he’d realized the place was broken inside out.
Part of the reason why he instigated so much trouble over the past few months was indeed in hopes Lucky would hear about it, while part was indeed just him having some fun after a long time, there was also a third reason: he had hoped he’d give them a wake-up call. However, as he quickly learned, it was unnecessary. There was already someone else sweeping through the order and dismantling it into chaos.
“... it should be any day now, huh?” he mumbled faintly as he looked at the distant Palace.
Though many were unaware, he very much knew a civil war - or at least some form of it - was imminent. It wasn’t a natural one, but the fashioned kind; the city needed cleansing, and its new Empress wasn’t shy about spilling blood to ensure it. Lino held nothing against her in that department, merely excluding her from people he’d ever want to interact with through his life.
It was, in the end, her choice over how she wants to rule her own Kingdom. He was but a little, insignificant beggar toiling through empty days and trying to have some fun.
“Woof, woof!!” a bark jolted him out of his thoughts, forcing him to glance backwards; there, right next to the fire and the rabbit, was a dog kneeling, spitting out with his tongue swirling around. Lino named him Hairy, though he really mostly called him just a ‘dog’.
“Fuck off, that’s mine. Didn’t we agree both of us will hunt for our own food?”
“What do you mean someone stole yours? Do I look like I give a shit?”
“I’m not your Master! If I’m your master, come and lick my bumhole!”
“I can’t... I can’t believe you’re actually trying to do it...” Lino said, sighing and swiftly evading dog’s wet tongue about to land on his backside. “Fine, I’ll give you some.”
“Yeah, yeah, kiss my ass...”
He met Hairy shortly after arriving in the Capital and, strangely, the two quickly formed a bond - one built upon not trust or love, but upon the fact nobody else really wanted them, so they just kind of wound up together.
As the two indulged in loud chewing, Lino once again cast a glance at the Palace; in a few days, he suspected, seemingly tranquil city would burst out in flames. Disasters appeared to be a part of any corner, however remote or central. People, after all, everywhere are all the same.
“... should I warn her?” Lino mused, smiling lightly.
From what little he’d learned about Evelyn, he really liked her - as a ruler, at the very least. She understood a nation can’t have several cornerstones of power, can’t have muddled options for future, can’t depend on anyone but itself. Though he very much suspected all of those were things passed on as teachings, he didn’t mind lending a hand in return for a favor. After all, he didn’t direct Felix toward her merely because the latter had no other choice; those who served her and stood by her side would prosper greatly so long as she did; it was the kind of ruler she was.
For him, at the very least, it wouldn’t be a terribly difficult task to sneak into the Palace - he’d done it numerous times before. There are surprisingly few guards, perhaps because the entire compound is layered with formations and trigger-traps that work both based on Qi detection as well as life detection. Despite being unable to really utilize Qi in any way, shape or form, Lino was still like a ghost in front of any form of detection.
He quickly finished the rabbit and got up, dusting off his butt. From far south and Sanguine Fall, one would have to cut through the centralized farmland spanning several miles - embedded in an artificial, squared pit - before reaching the other side. Usually, for cultivators, the journey would take minutes, but as Lino was for all intents and purposes a mortal, he always cut through it.
He enjoyed the view of fluttering corn and wheat and rice fields, and looking at ordinary people devote themselves to the land. It had a calming effect on him, and he’d visit this place more frequently than all others over the course of past two years; each time his nightmares would flare up, he would bolt over here and simply gaze.
Since arriving he’d admired City of Sun; not only was it far more advanced in architecture and structure than any other city he’d visited, standard of living was also greater. There were fewer beggars and poor, and so long as one had a talent and will, they would be able to succeed here. City, if nothing else, provided people with vast array of opportunities. He personally didn’t wish to see it decay into chaos, but, then again, he wasn’t the one ascending the throne.
From what he’d learned, Evelyn’s chambers were directly in the Palace, where the rest of Princes and Princesses lived. However, instead of heading there, he headed toward where many suspected Emperor himself to live - the Spire of Sun.
The structure was like a straight spear, with woven steel beams bending in spirals surrounding it like coiling dragons, each spitting out flames ceaselessly. It was beyond a grandiose sight, far outstripping everything Lino’d seen so far.
Reaching exactly 365 meters, the only way to the top was right across those steel beams set ablaze. The entire structure was covered in hundreds of formations, arrays and defensive mechanisms, yet Lino didn’t hesitate even a moment before jumping at the mouth of the path and casually strolling upward.
Though his entire body appeared to be consumed in flames, he had long ago realized the flames themselves were merely an illusion projected outwardly. He neither burned nor even felt warm in the slightest. With hands in his pockets, he began the slow climb around the spire which had several ‘floors’, mostly where Emperor’s Imperial Guards were stationed, Empire’s ‘treasury’, and perhaps the most important chamber of the entire Empire: Hall of Edicts.
The climb itself had taken him nearly three hours, yet he appeared unfazed; his body, after all, while not having recovered entirely, did somewhat. His stamina still by far outstripped even cultivators up to Illumine Realm. At the end there wasn’t an entrance, but a platform made of cyan stone, and a throne at the very edge, one made of obsidian glass with a golden disk hanging as a central piece above, held up by spiked swords melting out of the throne into it.
The platform was bereft of life, inhabited merely by winds and silence. Lino walked over toward the throne slowly and sighed; thrones, in his eyes, were but uncomfortable chairs, yet it appeared everyone was trying to outdo another with the size, the projection, the instilling of might and awe. He caressed it gently before suddenly leaping up and sitting on it. Indeed, as he had suspected, it was quite uncomfortable.
It didn’t even take a second before space at the center of the platform suddenly warped and a spinning vortex emerged. From it, a figure walked out in calm strides. It was a woman, seemingly in her early-twenties, though as Lino looked at her through the Primal Spirit, he’d realized she was well into her thirties. No wonder... he wouldn’t have given the throne over to a child... she must have been born with a sign for him to trust it all to Fate.
The woman appeared calm and lofty, dressed in black, one-piece dress, her equally black hair falling flatly downward. Her purple eyes immediately landed on Lino as bolts of surprise and curiosity appeared within them.
“... how’d you get here?” she asked without needing to be told as to who this shabbily-dressed man was.
“With my very own feet.”
“... I could have you executed for this, you know?” Evelyn said.
“For climbing here or sitting on a chair?” Lino asked, smiling faintly.
“... it’s really uncomfortable,” Lino said, moving left and right. “You ought to fatten your ass before coronation. I hear they can last for days.”
“... I can see why my little brother got obsessed with you.”
“I don’t, though,” Lino spoke honestly. “I’ve done nothing that would warrant attention of noble children of the Emperor. Of many things that I’ve realized, however, I’ve yet to know as to why you lurched him toward me.”
“...” Evelyn smiled faintly, yet, despite it all, she realized there was no reaction on the beggar’s side. “You prefer men?”
“Duke Erdicth,” Lino began listing names suddenly, surprising Evelyn. “Duke Callus, Duke Mardent.”
“... I know.” Evelyn said.
“Duke Fercrow, Duchess Le’vol, Three Imperial Counties, all Sky Seers, Eldest Prince and Princess.”
“...” Evelyn stood frozen in spot, unable to either speak nor even comprehend the words the beggar just spoke.
“Eighteen out of twenty-seven Marquises, thirty-two out of forty-nine Barons, Sky Legion, Crow Legion and Dragon Legion.”
“... that’s not possible. All Legions are directly under the Emperor.” Evelyn said, managing to calm herself down.
“Yes, they are. But you are not an Emperor,” Lino said. “Though you no doubt believe yourself cruel and ruthless enough, and witty and charming and coy enough to deal with whatever comes, you’re not.”
“I’m not trying to belittle you,” Lino said, smiling faintly. “If you were that rotten to the core, I’d have never cared enough to come here and warn you. I’ve been to the Palace numerous times before, and I’d realized many things. Your Eldest Brother is a warmongering fool who thinks of emptying the Empire of army and marching to the Demonic Battlefield to conquer it. Your Eldest Sister is, and pardon my saying this, a whore more suited for a brothel than the Court. All rest, either incompetent or corrupt.”
“... what is your goal?” Evelyn suddenly asked.
“Are you trying to become my Hand? My trustee? Are you after riches? Or to control the throne from the shadows?”
“... you overestimate my ambition,” Lino laughed lightly as he replied. “I won’t remain here for much longer. Perhaps a year at most. If anything, I want to lessen the deaths of as many innocent as possible. Whatever the outcome, they are the ones who will end up suffering the most.”
“... nobody is that saintly.”
“Of course I’m not. I will be expecting a favor from you.”
“How ghastly or costly will that favor be?”
“... when you become the Empress,” Lino said, getting up from the throne. “Help me find someone.”
“Oh? Quite a romantic, aren’t you?”
“... if she’s still alive,” Lino ignored Evelyn’s comment and stopped in front of her. “Tell her I’m glad and happy for her. If not, put flowers on the nameless grave.”
“... what’s your cultivation realm?” Evelyn asked, rather curious about this; not even with the help of the formation her Father set up was she able to pierce through the strange beggar in front of her.
“You’re awfully curious about a random, little beggar,” Lino smiled cheekily. “Forgive me, but I am unworthy of thine love.”
“... at least tell me your name.” Evelyn hurriedly asked as she saw Lino walking away.
“... Lyonel.” Lino replied without looking back. “Look after Felix for me. He might really become your Hand in the future.”
“... what do you mean?” she asked, frowning, though a reply didn’t arrive. She merely remained standing atop the platform, watching the beggar descend the steel beams of fire in pure calmness. Her initial, small curiosity grew; she almost wanted to imprison him, though she held back. There would be time to understand him, she knew. For the time being, she needed to confirm whether the names he’d given her were correct. Just a mere thought on them caused a small spark of anger to flourish inside of her heart; most of those she hadn’t known about had actually sworn themselves to her. If they were planning on renegading on that promise... more blood than she’d initially imagined would flow. “Pray tell... how did you learn all of this, Lyonel?”