Lino was currently leaping over the small hills and running over the larger ones, speeding up whenever he had a chance. The scenery by his side blurred, turning into a blend of darkened colors, shapes indistinguishable from the brushed mess. He cared little for it, wondering still how to play out the whole conundrum that he was facing. Deep inside he knew there was no right choice, yet a choice he had to make, of that he was just as certain.
He screeched past the woven roads of interconnecting blocks, causing faint traces of dust to blow backwards as though carried by wind. If there was one remedy to his current situation it was that he knew he would finally be able to go all out yet again. Feeling stuffed for so long caused a pent-up frustration to build; it felt as though there was an iron chain hanging over his heart, splicing into his lungs, causing him to feel suffocated.
His brows suddenly furrowed as he came to a screeching halt, causing a small dust storm to rise, shrouding him in ambiguity. A few figures suddenly appeared behind the hill, looking over at him. Lino looked back at them calmly; two men and a woman, all clad in healthy white coats and furred shirts. All three had extremely similar features, with chiseled, narrow jaws, sharp eyes and noses as well as light-colored hair. On the left side of their coats was a strange crest that Lino didn’t recognize, which meant that they weren’t from the Western Continent.
Lino’s heart tightened momentarily; it appeared as if though his premonitions were right. Luckily, however, the trio wasn’t exactly all that strong. All three were Exalted which was quite impressive considering their age, but posed no threat to Lino.
“... you should turn around.” one of the men said casually.
“...” Lino glanced backward and then looked at them again, seeming stupefied. “There’s nothing there though.” he could see the brows of the man who spoke visibly twitch as his lips curled up in a strange sneer.
“Funny guy.” the man said.
“I try.” Lino replied, smiling.
“You should also try turning around again, but this time start walking and never turn back.”
“That doesn’t sound like something I’d do, though.”
“Where are you guys from?” Lino asked, curious.
“What are you doing, talking with that filth?” the woman chimed in suddenly. “Just kill him.”
“See? I’m the nice on here.” the man said, looking at Lino.
“Maybe,” Lino said, taking a step forward, causing the trio to stiffen for a moment and take battle stances. “But I’m not.” in a flash, Lino barreled up the hill and reached the trio.
Before they had a chance to properly process what just happened, the man who spoke saw a pair of hands clasp his shoulders, pull him forward into a rising knee, capsizing his lungs in a swift motion. Lino then quickly spun around with one of his legs airborne, cracking it against the other man’s side, shattering a few rows of ribs and causing him to fall backward, rolling down the hill. He then stopped and looked at the girl whose lips were currently trembling, her eyes unable to look away from Lino. The latter reached forward toward the top of her head, causing her to instinctively close her eyes. However, she soon realized there was no pain and instead a strangely comforting feeling. She opened her eyes and saw Lino gently caressing her hair, smiling at her.
“You’re too young and green to be saying ‘kill this and that’.” Lino said. “Jeez,” he then sighed as he let go, casually walking by the woman. “It’s almost like you people have some weird sexual fetish with death. I mean, you know, we all have our quirks... but they’re supposed to be quirks. Not... aah... poor youth...” by the end, it seemed more as though he was talking to himself rather than the girl, who remained frozen in spot. It wasn’t until almost ten minutes later that she realized that strange man had assumed she had found sexual pleasure in death, causing her to scream atop of her lungs before finally remembering that there were two squealing men rolling around in pain.
Lino’s relaxed demeanour changed shortly after, however; the reality that the Central Continent’s powers have also emerged struck him deep. It meant that there was even a chance that someone might have come all the way from the Holy Continent. After all, teleportation arrays - although rare - weren’t non-existent. He would dare bet his left cheeks that powers of the Holy Continent had more than a few arrays connecting them to the Western Continent.
This made this expedition of sorts far more dangerous than he initially anticipated. It would still be fine to a certain degree if there were only one or two groups from the Central Continent; after all, their goal most-likely greatly differed from his in the first place, and chances of running into them would be quite low. However, he had a feeling that wasn’t the case.
“The pocket’s already quite unstable...” he mumbled as he looked around. “If fighting on that scale really emerges... holy shit. What if I get trapped in a fucking void?! That’d be worse than that cat-urine wine!!” he spoke to no one and nothing, yet it gave him a sense of peace, strangely. He felt a cold shiver run down his spine as he imagined his life while drifting in the infinite void. He really might be forced to commit suicide eventually in that case.
Dispelling the strange thoughts, he continued onwards, hoping in his heart that the fighting won’t escalate to that degree. While the entirety of the ruins wasn’t stationed inside the dimensional pocket, vast majority of it was. Unless one actually understood the basic concepts of Dimensional Laws, however, they would have no chance of even seeing it in the first place. Lino, certainly, held no such capabilities; the only reason he knew of them was because of the Writ.
He soon found himself drifting into a continuous roundabout of the streets, strutting along the rows and rows of collapsing and aging buildings and protruding columns. It didn’t take him long to realize that he’d finally reached the most-central part of the ruins, the capital of the Oreb Kingdom. Though it was most-commonly referred to as simply the ‘Capital’, its actual name was Empyrion.
Just looking at the remnants Lino could already tell just how grand and imposing it used to be. He slowed down the pace, observing queerly the surrounding aspects. Aged stone had nearly turned dark gray, yet Lino could tell it used to be as white as snow. Hand-crafted columns had long since turned into comparable turds, yet deep within the recesses of years’ disfigurement one could still see traces of magnificence, of awe-inspiring grandeur, traces of dignity piercing the shrouded sky.
Lino stopped by a small, arched collapse. It had long since cracked into two, both halves leaning into the opposite sides. Straight, oval column shifted into a thick block of granite, superimposed over it, almost half a meter thick, after which it spat a curved stone thinly carved into helical threads resembling branches. He marked the beauty, but he marked more the heart put into it all; even after impossibly long period of time... those thin, finger-thin threads were still as smooth as the recently chiseled stone. They no doubt converged at the center at some point, formulating an entirely different shape, but Lino had no way of knowing what that shape was.
He found himself feeling strangely melancholy; it was an odd paradox of sorts, what with the entirety of Kingdom and all its citizens deriving an imposing sense of pride and dignity from the existence of an Empyrean within their borders, both of which are visibly traceable and noticeable hundreds of millions of years later, only for that same source of their entire defiant identity to eventually become their crude downfall.
A sudden urge to trace back the flickers of time to back before they fell assailed Lino. For one reason or another, he desired to see them both at their highest and also at their lowest. He wanted to see whether their defiant disposition vanished in the face of a foe looming over the sky. He wanted to see whether they held onto their convictions, onto their beliefs, onto their identity till the very end. He seldom resonated with people so fervently devout to external definition of self; he couldn’t fathom how one can be so deeply woven into the story remarkably indifferent about their existence, till the point of defending it till the dying breath.
Lino was very much different in that aspect. He could hardly constitute an identity from within, let alone extrapolate it from the things surrounding him. He frowned and sighed, shaking his head as though in an attempt to dissolve the strange thoughts. Philosophy of life was never his strong suite, however much he could spit out about it. He only ever truly knew himself. And, in fashion, he wound up similarly believing in the only thing he truly knew.
He moved past the cracked archway with sullied mood, unable to shake off a strange feeling. It felt almost as if the fervor of the era long since gone had seeped into his veins, prompting forever doused fire to rekindle. Hardly a superstitious person, he was on the verge of believing ghosts existed for a moment and had actually possessed him temporarily.
He smiled bitterly and swore he would forcibly cuff this strange habit he had developed over the numerous years of isolation. Moving onward, buildings around him grew larger and larger, even in their ruined forms. They were more detailed, more resilient to the corruption of time. He’d finally arrived at an open space; it was wholly flat and square, with a cracked fountain in the spat center of it all. Surrounding it were numerous buildings, some of which actually wholly resisted the charm of death even after so many years. It was no doubt a central plaza of some sort, Lino realized. He looked around and smiled for a moment, imagining a sea of people revving about their days. He imagined kids dipping their feet into the cold water of the fountain only for their parents to reprimand them. He imagined old folk gathering around and watching the youth scramble to make something of themselves. It is never all that different; it is merely the scale that changes. Since the dawn of mankind till today... what all sought was their own little form of happiness.
He suddenly shook from inside out as his eyes forcibly tore away from the building he was focusing on toward the other side. There, slithering outside one of the whole buildings was a figure clad in gray, tattered dress. She wasn’t all that tall, and appeared slightly aged in appearance, perhaps in her forties. Her dark hair was tied into a single bun, her eyes seemingly tired of watching the same, empty scenery over and over again.
It was also then that she suddenly noticed him, her whole being coming to a halt, as though frozen in time by a hand of god. She stood rooted in place, lips slightly agape, eyes wide. Her hands trembled as though instigated by a quake, her knees weakened as she suddenly fell down, reaching up with her hands and covering her mouth. Those eyes that could pierce through the stars suddenly glistened as a river of timeless tears streamed out. Joy... happiness... surprise... warmth... the familiar gaze jolted Lino’s heart. He felt the shackles of unwound time that littered him weaken and crack like enfeebled eggshells and couldn’t help but tremble. She hasn’t changed a bit, he realized. She was still just as beautiful, just as warm, just as kind. Even the wrinkles and bags under her eyes and strained skin over her lips couldn’t hide her beauty. It was the kind that knew no age, one that surfaced from within.
The distance between them wasn’t large, perhaps fifty meters altogether. Yet, as though fearing he might slither back into the darkness and disappear, she suddenly bolted onto her feet and ran. She slipped and fell and got back up immediately and ran. Lino felt his legs move on their own, driven entirely by his heart. He ran too, afraid she might disappear in a puff of smoke, afraid his mind was imagining her. He lurched himself into her embrace and felt the sensation his body had long since forgotten.
A pair of arms wrapped around his back and pulled him in, holding him clamped. The same pair trembled and felt so weak Lino felt his heart bleed for a moment. Even though he was well over a whole head taller than her, he felt insignificantly small within that embrace. He felt like that same kid, snuggling into the warm warp of loving arms. He felt her tears wet his hair, he felt the trembling sensation of her body, he heard the faint sobs as they ravaged his bleeding heart further.
“... y-you’ve... you’ve finally come...” a familiar voice trailed into his ears, soft and melodic. Warm. Kind. Loving.
“Yeah...” Lino replied feebly. “I’m... I’m home...”