Lino remained seated, leaning against the cooling wall, as he watched Ella stretch and enter the house, smiling at him faintly. His eyes quickly veered off into the horizon, beyond the now flat stretch of earth and over to the hills in the distance. After a short silence, he got up with a grunt and began walking briskly, his hands in his pockets.
Though quite a lot weighed on his mind in regards to what had transpired in such a short period of time, one which confused him the most was the presence of Prince Relish - or whatever his actual name was. The last time the two met was very close to the Necropolis, almost ten years ago. Lino, while taking a brief glance at him, was still unable to determine his actual strength. For someone so strong, it felt odd to remain on the Western Continent for so long.
As he walked ever further away from the house, he could feel more and more eyes pierce toward him from the distance, as well as hundreds of Divine Senses trying to feel him out. Even he felt somewhat shocked over the sheer number, as it far surpassed his initial estimates. However, he quickly shrugged the thoughts and ignored them, as he knew none stood a chance of figuring out that he was a measly Early Purity Realm kid in the belly of the Exalted and the Imperials and even those above.
He reached the dried, wavy dunes quickly and climbed over one, looking around for a moment. Atop a small ledge, not too far away from him, overlooking a set of ruins beneath, he spotted a young-looking man sitting casually and reading a book. Lino turned toward him and began walking, realizing that the scrutiny dropped and outright stopped when he reached the man. The latter seemed to be unaware of his presence and continued reading the book. Lino leaned over and realized he couldn’t read the characters as it was a language he didn’t understand.
“It’s a compilation of the Empyrion Folklore,” the man suddenly said, startling Lino who immediately began looking around. “Relax, even if they had ten billion times the courage, they wouldn’t dare listen in.”
“...” Lino gulped and looked again at the man, who didn’t seem all that out of ordinary - especially not so much that he’d inspire so much fear in so many. “Long time no see.” he recovered quickly, however, and decided to go with the flow.
“What do you mean? We saw each other not even two hours ago.” the man said, still reading.
“Funny. Is the folklore that interesting?” Lino sat down next to the man and took out a gourd of ale.
“It is quite fascinating,” the man said, closing the book suddenly and glancing at Lino from the corner of his eyes. “It is one of the few Western Cultures to ever mention the Lineage of Dragons. Apparently, the far northern peninsula used to be a home of a Dragon named Ok’tah. He was reportedly over two miles in length and half that in height, his wingspan blanketing the sun itself. In folklore, he would feast on human sacrifices that the nearby tribes would bring annually. One day, though, a young man came forth with a sword and a shield and challenged Ok’tah, saying that he didn’t wish to see his sister be given off as a sacrifice.”
“...” Lino listened while drinking, as he was quite curious himself. Though he knew quite a bit of history of Oreb Kingdom, he hardly knew their customs, traditions and myths, if at all.
“Ok’tah found him rather silly, the story goes, but also courageous. He granted the young man a Primordial Fire, and the first forefather of the Oreb Kingdom was born.”
“... children of a Dragon, huh? Well, they certainly weren’t humble.” Lino commented.
“Can you blame them?” the man asked, smiling lightly. “They’ve risen from the ashes of this cursed land and united it, even going as far as to become the quasi-Holy Ground for the Bearer of a Writ. No matter where, that feat ought to be celebrated in and of itself.”
“... who are you?” Lino asked. It was clear that the man knew Lino was an Empyrean - probably having learned the very first time they met - yet he also didn’t seem to care much about it.
“My name’s Ethwart,” the man said, extending his arm for a handshake. “It’s an honor to meet you - again - little Empyrean.”
“...” Lino returned the handshake with an odd smile. “Nice psychological warfare right there.”
“I merely believe roles ought to be established immediately if a relationship is to sprout in the future.”
“... well, you won me over,” Lino shrugged, withdrawing his hand. “Want a drink?”
“If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be drinking that filth. No offense.” Ethwart replied, still smiling.
“Haii... what can I say? This is all a lowly guy like me can afford.”
“... years have chiseled you well.” Ethwart said. “Better than I expected, at the very least.”
“... uh, thanks?”
“I’ve found out why I let the invasion happen, by the way,” the tone in his voice suddenly shifted, darkening considerably, surprising Lino. “Are you still interested in knowing?”
“It’s because of power,” Ethwart said. “As is often the case with people. Two years ago, I learned the unfortunate truth that sixteen of my brethren were colluding with the Holy Grounds over your situation.”
“... I feel like I need a lot of background info to understand what the hell do you mean.” Lino commented.
“The relic that I had given you. Where is it?” Ethwart suddenly asked, surprising Lino. The latter mulled over it for a second before withdrawing a strange, star-shaped wooden object from his void world.
“Ah... as I suspected.” Ethwart sighed. “It’s one of the corrupted ones. Apologies.”
“I wanna say you’re losing me, but you’ve lost me a long time ago.”
“... I’m part of the sect of sort; it’s really more of a community, or perhaps a collective enforcer.” Ethwart explained, taking the object form Lino’s hand and fiddling with it. “We go by many names, depending on where you ask. This relic would have acted as an invitation when you reached Mythic Realm, sending you toward one of our recruitment grounds.”
“... eh? What?” Lino was quite startled, as it truly came out of left field.
“Ha ha, don’t be surprised,” Ethwart suddenly laughed, flicking the relic and throwing it into the stretch of darkness. “A few billion years ago, it was quite a custom for Empyreans to have honorary seat next to us, or even become full-fledged members. After all, it was one of the few places in the world where nobody dared to bother you guys, no matter how great a grudge they bore. Have you ever heard of Great Descent?”
“...” Lino thought for a second but then shook his head.
“It’s not all that strange, actually. After all, Western Continent isn’t really that interesting in the grand scheme of things. Every few generations, one of us is sent here to see if there’s any newly emerging talent, but other than that, we hardly ever come here any more. Truth is though that, even when the entire world is considered, no more than a couple of thousand people know about us.”
“I can’t tell you much as I’m bound by an oath I swore,” Ethwart said, turning toward Lino and looking the latter straight into his eyes for a moment before continuing. “But, I can guarantee that it’s the best place for you to go after settling all the remaining accounts here.”
“... why?” Lino asked, frowning for a moment.
“Bearers oft get self-absorbed in their ‘Holy Crusade’,” Ethwart said. “Forgetting that their conflict is also world’s. When they fight, those who worship them fight too. Every time two or more Bearers fought, a series of wars would erupt all over the world. It’s sort of like when you see two people of different races duking it out in the middle of the street... it usually never ends with just the two of them, but a full-on pile-on. It’s just... bound to happen.”
“... oh for the fucking clouds of cunt’s drought,” Lino suddenly exploded, surprising Ethwart. “Can’t any of you fucks that I meet ever be direct?! Do you know how many times I stood on sidelines listening to you fucks speak in some fucking cryptic language, while literally TRYING to explain something to me?! Why does everyone fucking assume that I have ability to decipher your nonsense and fill in all the gaps?! Fuck!”
“Khm, uh... sorry... y’know, lasting issues...”
“... right. Anyway,” Ethwart decided to ignore it and continue. “The point is that Great Descent is not only a place with abundant, verified knowledge, but it’s also a place where you can grow in secrecy rather than out in the open. We are usually tasked with maintaining balance at all costs across the Central and Holy Continents - by any means necessary. You forgo your identity and become a number, making it impossible for others to identify you so long as you don’t expose yourself. Doesn’t that sound like something that you’re perfect for?”
“... no fruit given to you is that sweet.” Lino said, squinting his eyes and expecting that ‘but’.
“Of course not,” Ethwart said, smiling. “If you want to gain access to anything more than basic, shallow knowledge, you’d have to climb up the ranks. And that’s not done through completing missions.”
“Through killing your superiors.”
“You find someone who ranks higher than you,” Ethwart said. “You challenge them and then you kill them. Afterwards, you directly inherit their position as well as their sigil. The one that I gave to you... it belonged to my Master.”
“... yay, I made friends with a psychopath.”
“There are no grudges,” Ethwart shook his head. “Outside the arena, the two who are fighting may be the best friends in the world. But inside... all of that is forgotten.”
“It’s quite a fucked up system.” Lino said.
“Perhaps,” Ethwart said, smiling. “But it works. If you can kill someone who’s been grooming you patiently for over a decade... and still manage to sleep at night... what else can’t you do?”
“... that’s the part that scares me,” Lino said after short silence. “Especially because I don’t think I could do it.”
“... truth is, neither could I,” Ethwart suddenly said. “It wasn’t me who challenge my Master, but the other way around.”
“When the duel started, I froze... I couldn’t move an inch. My Master looked at me for a few moments and smiled faintly before he took out a dagger and slit his own throat.”
“... shit.” Lino mumbled.
“While it is true that we don’t lack psychopaths who would stop at nothing to climb,” Ethwart said after taking a deep breath. “The duels are much rarer than you think. I’ve been out and about for nearly a hundred years, and have never gotten challenged. The reason I’m telling you this Lyonel,” Ethwart added, his voice deepening. “Is because your situation is... quite unique. Your eyes still glisten with demons... so many that I’m surprised that you’ve managed to assimilate them so perfectly with who you are. However, if you think your current mental state will carry you onward till the end... you are far dumber than I gave you a credit for.”
“Western Continent is like a child in the cultivation world,” Ethwart explained. “There are conflicts here and there, but no matter how cruel they may be, they really are like a kid pushing another into a muddy pond when compared to the Central, and especially the Holy Continent. If what you’d seen and lived here is enough to cleave you... then I suggest you never leave this place.” Lino’s mind suddenly shuffled through his memories as Ethwart’s words began echoing through his mind. “I’d had hoped that you could use Great Descent to cleave at your demons, one by one, and remove them slowly. There is no place at the world’s stage for someone who offers pity to his opponent just because the latter didn’t deserve to die.”
“... you listened in?” Lino asked.
“... I’ve been told the same thing many times over,” Lino said as he took a gulp of ale, few drops escaping his lips and trickling down his beard, glistening faintly. “By people that I trust far more than I trust you. However... just as you’d all learned the way of life from your perspective, I’d learned it from mine. What can I achieve by becoming the part of the madness, Ethwart? Look at all my predecessors,” he continued.
“They’ve accepted the rules of your world and they lived by them and none managed to accomplish much in the end... what was then the point of it all? That vain struggle? I’d promised myself a long time ago... that even if I were accomplish nothing in the end and die as just another failed attempt... I wouldn’t compromise. I will never shy away from killing, but I will also never allow myself to get entombed into madness and normalize it. To you, and others like you, and especially the Writs... most lives are worthless. But... they’re not.” Lino glanced sideways, his eyes strangely calm. “I’ve lived those lives, and I’ve seen those lives many times over. Even if you strike me now and kill me because you think I won’t be able to accomplish anything with such a childish mindset... I’ll stand by it.”
“...” Ethwart stared into those calm, jet-black eyes for a moment before his lips suddenly curled up in a smile. “You really are different, Lyonel. However... there were many Empyreans who were just as different as you before. Can you endure through what they could not?”
“... I don’t know. Worth a try, at least.”
“Here,” Ethwart suddenly flicked his sleeve and handed Lino another star-shaped object, except this one was made out of metal rather than wood. “When you’re ready to leave this place, inject Qi into it and follow the guide. It was a pleasure to share a few words with you, Empyrean. I hope that, in my lifetime, I’ll see the long-forgotten grandeur of your nora shine away in the void of darkness. Farewell.” his voice still echoed faintly by the time Ethwart disappeared, leaving Lino alone to sit by the cliff. He held onto the object for a moment before putting it into the void world, looking up toward the sky.
“... there’s really just one more thing to do.” he said, sighing as his eyes glistened for a moment. “I sure hope I can do it though...”