It was the howling; cold, decadent, mocking - swiftly cruel like a sword plunging through one’s heart. It was the howling which stirred his heart and mind and soul, causing his veins to bulge like worms and his whole body to shake off the coat of forsaken age, slipping through a hole in time to be reborn. It was the howling that nobody else heard - or could possibly hear - for it lived on inside of him. It was not his own or of some other entity, but more akin to a primal being that is always there within us all, only ever unveiling itself when we least need it.
Lino sat cross-legged atop a mat, his figure seemingly both frozen and burning, for a shade of something grander than both life and death swiftly coiled his body, prating in wordless choir joined in the wind. His body was shaking, clothes already tattered and holed collapsing further, some parts into ash itself. Yet, inside, even grander storm was brewing; no matter who it be, if anyone were to glance at Lino’s little world inside of him, they would no doubt fall to madness, for it defied what should be possible.
The world was a blanket of darkness, eternal stretch of void roused ever so often with glimmering stars. The void was his body, and stars were his Qi; they were everywhere, gallivanting across like playful children, lacking only that innocent accompaniment of laughter. A strange sensation washed over his mind as he once again felt Qi after so many years. It was familiar, yet so strange he nearly felt as though he’d just began cultivating again.
Though he very much wished to indulge himself in curious sensation, he knew he didn’t have much time. He knew very well he was grasping at straws here, yet he nonetheless felt like he had to do it; perhaps ‘had’ to was a bit of an overstatement, but he certainly did feel a need. Not a calling of sorts, but need of heart to see them and confirm they were alright.
Those little, glimmering stars suddenly shook; from the expanse everlasting, they all bounced roundly like little balls as the howling began. Unlike before, where he simply used instinct itself to command Qi to move around, he now used Will - a concept he’s yet to even understand. A face flashed inside his mind, one from many moons ago, face of Q’vil and alongside it his words. Not of Will, but of being an Empyrean; the latter was birthed from the former, or at least Lino understood it as such.
His Will was recorded, yet, as he’d learned, it wasn’t a static thing; like him, it would evolve. Change. Shift. Morph. Or even disappear entirely should he ever do something in complete opposition of it. To move Qi with his Will was strange, bewildering experience. It felt as though he was moving himself, strangely similar to walking, eating, speaking, crying... seemingly just another part of everyday tragedy of man. Yet, it was not.
Bit by bit, the strands of Qi began moving. They, indeed, Lino realized, were much like children; like young toddlers curious of the world yet unaware of its plight, employing utmost trust in those who feed them. They wander where told and not, and they listen and absorb and learn everything. Strands of Qi seemed to have heard his voice telling them to move, to walk, to run toward each other. Bit by bit they sped up till they seemed like falling stars upon the sky all falling toward a single place. It was a spectacular sight, one well beyond the Collapse of Heaven itself Lino had experienced when fighting Su Clan.
‘Are they really sentient?’ he wondered for a moment but dispelled the thought as he couldn’t afford to be distracted. He carefully observed their flight and fall, as hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of strands collapsed unto each other like droplets of water of waterfall collapse into the river beneath. However, unlike droplets, the strands of Qi didn’t disperse over surface and become a part of something larger; they instead began collapsing further into themselves as though there was a massive, world-defying external force pushing them into it.
That force, Lino realized, was him - it was his Will - his voice, his command, his heart’s desire. ‘You’re almost there,’ a robotic voice bellowed out into the reaches of void. ‘It will become painful. Endure.’
Rather than painful, however, Lino ascertained a moment later that language lacked apt description for it. Being burnt alive, frozen, stabbed countless times, poisoned with every poison known to man, beheaded, hanged, boiled alive, ripped apart, sawed right through while hanging upside down, strapped to a rack watching your arms and legs being pulled away in ways disallowed by nature... he’d experienced pain many times in his life yet, all those experiences combined, paled like snow in comparison.
Yet, he couldn’t scream. Voice was stifled in his throat and his lungs felt ablaze, forbidding him from procuring a sound. His mind was a confused madman, unable to decipher what was happening or which part to prioritize, so it prioritized everything, sending signals repeatedly that Lino’s entire body was collapsing and that he was dying. Rather than focusing on the pain, however, Lino focused on the strands of Qi collapsing into a single point or, how Writ called it, ‘Singularity’.
Lino didn’t know what the word meant or represented, but seeing the reality unfold before his eyes, he could venture a guess. He didn’t know the purpose as he always felt that the fact Qi was spread throughout his entire body to be his strength over others, yet he had no other choice but to obey. Endure, obey and watch. He needn’t understand, he knew; on one level or another, he believed himself too stupid to understand either way.
He tried to ignore the pain, though found it impossible. If it was not for repeated warnings by the Writ and its robotic voice echoing through the vastness of the now empty world, Lino would have fainted. He would have failed and died alongside countless others he would have taken with him. Time ceased to have meaning, as he was fairly certain centuries had passed since he’d begun; every inch of movement from the strands seemed to have encompass a century, and every time they’d further collapse into themselves, a shockwave was blasted outwardly, burning his senses into pure, inhumane agony.
In reality, he’d forgotten the sensation of pain; rather, for the nine years since he last fought, he never as much gotten a cut. Now, he was remembering; every bit, every ounce, every dip of it all that he ever felt surfaced back into his mind like cannonballs, stripping him away of ability to reason and think. All the past memories were compounded into a codex of his own, ascribed together to the currents of life he was experiencing.
He’d finally lost himself in the sea of pain; his mind was reeling and his heart felt as though it would explode. That familiar, robotic voice failed to reach him, seemingly bouncing back against a strange veil separating it from Lino’s mind. He found himself standing in a meadow, one he’d dream many times before, one he’d imagine whenever things became too hard to bear. It was a flat meadow of knee-high, green grass and it spread into infinity. Wind here always blew, swaying the grass and caressing his cheeks with warmth.
Above was an expanse of a clear, blue sky and a golden sun right at the center, shining eternally. There was no night and there were no stars and there was no passage of time. There was only day and sunshine and meek silence interrupted occasionally by stranded howls of winds. He knew he had to go back immediately lest everything he worked for so far ends; he knew he had to return, pull himself away from this little paradise, yet he seemed unable to will himself to do it.
He held a breath inside his lungs and glanced at the sky with bowing eyes. Then, as though he was never there, he vanished. He was back in the endless expanse of himself, overseeing the collapse of stars. The robotic voice echoed throughout yet, what seemed different was that there was a trace of emotion - no, Lino realized, it wasn’t just a trace. There was a clear anxiety and fear present. Lino willed his lips up and smiled before concentrating yet again onto the collapse.
It hurt, well beyond what the words could describe. Yet he endured. He let his skin be charred and flayed and flogged and he let his heart be burned and frozen and he let his bones he rammed through like pieces of wood. From a star-sized glimmer of light, strands of Qi grew smaller and smaller. Smaller and smaller. Smaller and smaller. Fist-sized, pearl-sized, bean-sized... smaller and smaller, till naked eye could not see it any longer. It seemingly ceased to exist, yet Lino knew it was there.
A figure sitting cross-legged shook for a moment as his tensed muscles relaxed and veins withdrew back beneath the skin. His clasped hands before his chest limped downward as his pale and dry lips parted, a putrid breath escaping from in-between them shortly after. A pair of eyes opened, each as black as night yet seemingly in possession of universe itself. They glistened for a moment before turning dull and ordinary like any other.
There were no visible changes on Lino’s body; he was still very much a filthy-looking beggar donned in tattered and smelly clothes with beard and hair hiding his features, making him seem much older than he was. Old friends or new, there is no one who would be able to perceive a single difference about him. Yet, deep inside him, it was a difference of two worlds; one where sun eternally burned and scorched world of any life, and another where it worked in concert with the rest of elements to give birth to a small universe brimming with it.