Days swam across the span of time, though its passage seemed meaningless to Lino. He remained seated, seemingly frozen in the same spot, ever since Ethwart left. He would occasionally take out a gourd and drink some ale or wine, but he would mostly meditate or sleep. Nobody came up to him yet and nobody asked him any questions, despite numerous pairs of eyes and Divine Senses occasionally scanning him.
He didn’t seem to care for them, however, instead looking as though he was waiting for something or someone. His eyes would occasionally dim as they peered into the distant dark, yet not for too long. What he awaited, though, only he knew.
Spending days in such a simple manner caused time to ceased to bear a meaning. It was always all the same, with infinite darkness cascading over the hilly dunes and ruins, and occasional eyes glistening on the surrounding hilltops. Yet, he didn’t seem to mind, seemingly capable of sitting there almost motionless till the end of days. He waited and waited until a whole month had passed.
Lino woke from a short nap and stretched, yawning lowly in the process and suddenly extending his arm sideways. A darkened flash bashed against his palm, a strange sound echoing as though it was a metallic clash rather than something cutting into flesh.
He slowly turned his head sideways and smiled at the seeming nothingness in front of him and, just a moment later, he extended his other arm backwards and clenched his fist as a wisp of smoke tried to cut into him. An invisible force seemed to struggle to pull back from his grip, yet he held it firmly.
“That’s not the way,” he spoke in a tone of strange warmth. “You have to be more decisive.” he added, pulling his hand back. A faint shadow flickered behind him and withdrew into the nothingness a moment later.
“...” no sound responded, as though he was madly talking to the air itself. He remained seated, his lips curled up in a faint smile, as he began to hum a low tune, seeming completely defenses. Without halting the hum, he slightly tilted his head whereupon the faintest of flickers brushed past and disappeared into the distance.
“Close,” he said. “But too slow.”
“... you’re still a pain in the ass.” a cold, sunken voice spoke out from somewhere. Lino’s heart sank for a moment as he sighed.
“... you’re not.” he faintly mumbled. Next to him, colors suddenly began to blend and space almost seemed to have glistened as a figure formed, sitting just like Lino. She had jet-black hair and eyes and skin as pale as snow, clothed in black, leather armor. Her expression was placid, eyes void of emotion.
“How long have you known?” she asked after a short silence.
“Who I am.”
“When Al’ told me.” Lino said. “Though I had hoped secretly he was wrong.”
“Why? Disappointed?” she glanced at him.
“Disappointed? No,” Lino shook his head, smiling bitterly. “Mostly just sad... and sorry.”
“...” Lucky stared into his eyes for a moment before withdrawing her gaze. “You don’t have a reason to be.”
“... hah, really now?” Lino chuckled oddly as he looked up. “Yet... I still am.”
“What haven’t you Sealed yet?” he asked.
“... you should have crossed that one out first.”
“... why did you kill Gustav?” Lucky asked.
“... can’t tell.” Lino glanced at her and smiled mischievously.
“You really haven’t changed... or grown up.”
“How did they treat you?” Lino asked.
“You’ve made a name for yourself. ‘Shade’ is slowly becoming a new boogeyman.”
“It just means I’m good at what I do.” Lucky said.
“... what? Nothing else to say?” she glanced at him yet again, still expressionless.
“I’ve many things to say, L’--”
“Don’t call me that.”
“--but I suppose I should answer what you want to ask me,” Lino said, ignoring her slightly angered expression. “I won’t kill you. No... rather, I won’t even fight you.”
“... what makes you think I wanted you to do it?”
“Because you haven’t sealed me yet,” he glanced at, smiling. “Perhaps you think it a cathartic sort of ending, or maybe even poetic or something along those lines. Or you just want to punish me... or just to liberate yourself. Whatever the true reason, I can’t do it.”
“Can’t or wont?”
“Can’t,” Lino said. “Don’t ask that of me.”
“You’ve done many worse things,” Lucky said, grunting. “Is this really where you want to draw your moral line?”
“Who said anything about morals?” Lino looked at her. “If that’s the case, I should want to kill you.”
“Then what’s it all about? Don’t tell me you’re sentimental. You’re too young for that crap.”
“... it’s because I care about you.” Lino replied simply, causing Lucky to shudder for a moment before recovering. “Call it sentimentality, weakness, whatever you may... in the end, it all means just one thing: I care about you.”
“... if you cared about me you would do what I ask of you.” Lucky said.
“... let’s go for a walk.” Lino suddenly leapt off the ledge and landed on the road down below, waiting for Lucky to follow.
“...” seeming somewhat reluctant, she in the end decided to join him and jumped down as well, walking side by side.
The two remained silent as they pushed forward, rounding several corners and hilltops and ruins. Two stood slightly apart, with Lino walking down through the center of the road and Lucky at the very edge, seemingly unwilling to get any closer.
“... what happened to you?” after nearly half an hour of silence, Lucky decided to break it and asked.
“I got... crippled. For a while, at least.” Lino replied.
“Did you get your revenge?”
“... no.” Lino said calmly.
“If nothing else, I thought you’d at the very least work your hardest to avenge them and bring them some peace.” Lucky said.
“They’re dead, L’,” Lino said. “That’s the most peaceful they’ll ever get.”
“... you’re really an asshole, aren’t you?” Lucky said, seeming disgruntled.
“I’ve made my peace with their fates,” Lino said, glancing at her. “I’ve embraced the pain, the loss, the hell of it all, and I’ve entombed them into who I am to rest there till the day I die. What have you done?”
“I’ll tell you,” Lino said. “You’ve culled them from your heart,” his words seemed to have shaken her for a moment, temporarily breaking her frosty exterior. “And you’ve made them into pointless memories. We all deal with pain in our own little ways,” he added. “And I can’t really blame you for the path you’ve chosen. I just hope... it was worth it.”
“... what would you know?” Lucky suddenly stopped walking, prompting Lino to turn around and face her. “What the fuck would you know?!!” she suddenly screamed out, her jet-black eyes glistening silver for a moment. “You weren’t the one who spent every waking hour of every fucking day with them!!! You weren’t the one who knew them inside out, their fears, their dreams, everything that they were!! You weren’t there to see them get butchered in ways that shouldn’t be fucking allowed before your very eyes!!! To see them all die in agony... to see them sacrifice their last breaths just to let you get away... what the fuck would you know about worth?!! You’re a selfish piece of shit!! You’ve always been one, and you haven’t changed!!”
“...” Lino remained standing and calmly stared into her glistening eyes which by now had already grown teary.
“You say you entombed them? You entombed shadows of who they actually were!! Tell me... what did Aeala want to become? What was Freya afraid of the most?!! Why did Smite joke around all the time?!! Can you even tell me who the fuck Shaneine was?! Why did Fish drink all the time?! Fuck... can you even tell me what was Kraval’s favorite food? No... you can’t. Don’t you dare... don’t you dare tell me what’s worth and what’s not... you don’t know. You’ve never fucking known...” by now she was crying openly, her entire body trembling.
“... you’re right,” Lino said, smiling faintly as he walked up to her and suddenly pulled her into his embrace, startling her. She tried to fight back, but found it impossible to escape the arms that seemed more like chains rather than things made of flesh and bone. “And you have every right to be angry with me. But... why are you also angry with them?”
“...” Lucky didn’t say anything, simply pressing her head harder against Lino’s chest. She could hear the calm beating of his heart, the warmth of his body, a feeling of safeness suddenly surging from within her.
“Don’t be afraid...” he mumbled faintly into her ears. “Of facing your demons. Sealing them... only ever delays the inevitable.” his eyes suddenly flickered with dangerous sentiment as he extended his right arm sideways and opened his palm, catching an arrow that was aimed at Lucky’s head. He quickly realized it was coated with poison, but didn’t seem to care instead moving his eyes toward the distant darkness where the arrow came from. “Your bosses are here.” he said.
“... you expect me to fight?” she mumbled faintly. “I’ve just destroyed ten years of my cultivation because of you.”
“It’s lucky then that you have me here with you.” Lino suddenly said with, giggling boyishly.
“Fucking hell... will you ever stop?” that frigid voice that she was so accustomed to began slowly melting, and the voice that Lino remembered began to return.
“Luckily for you, I won’t.”
“Go eat a dick.”
“Right after I deal with the nuisances,” Lino said, pushing her back suddenly. “Go back and rest.”
“Will you kill them?” Lucky asked, seeming somewhat reluctant.
“Nah,” Lino shrugged. “I’m just gonna spank them once or twice to teach them a lesson.”
Shadows and tantalizing smoke slowly began morphing into figures bathed in the faint, fluorescent light of the levitating spheres which illuminated nearly the entirety of the surrounding area. Lino immediately recognized a few familiar figures, including Althone, Evelyn, Felix’s Father and Grandfather, as well as Felix himself who stood on the back end, a conflicted expression on his face.
They didn’t choose to encircle Lino, rather besieging him from the front entirely. Lino stood calmly in front of Lucky, looking at them with a faint smile. He waited mostly for Lucky, but he also hopped her entourage would show up alongside of her. He didn’t want to leave an unfathomable shadow in their hearts when he left; he’d rather leave something more substantial.
Instead of Althone, it was Evelyn who slowly stepped forward. Lino couldn’t help but glance at the former for a second; it was, after all, a perfect moment to entomb the fact that Evelyn was now their Empress rather than him. Even in such a situation, old fox sure knew how to play political games.
“Release Shade.” Evelyn spoke, her purple eyes glistening in strange anger, half-pointed at Lino while the other half aimed at herself.
“I’m not holding her a prisoner.” Lino replied calmly. “And her name’s not Shade.”
“Are you defying me?” Evelyn asked, frowning.
“Defiance would imply subordination.” Lino said, grinning lightly. “Which I don’t think I’ve ever showcased.”
“Are you willing to repent?”
“... roses bloom and wither,” Lino slowly spoke up as he withdrew a sword from his void world, glancing at it with a strange glint in his eyes. “’Neath the Shades of Sky; As sun and moon dance; Heavens asunder cry.”
“A tomb awaits all; Kings and Beggars alike; Death to all a Foe; In its grace all is alight. Do you know the poem?” Lino asked.
“No.” Evelyn replied coldly as she also withdrew her sword, which was followed by everyone else behind her - including Felix - preparing for a battle.
“It was written by King Everick IV.” Lino said taking a short step forward, the sound of his footsteps echoing out amidst the silence. “He was a small King of a small Kingdom who dreamed of bigger things when he’d fallen ill. On his deathbed, the story goes, he recollected all his dreams... all those aspirations... and realized he’d wasted the life he was given by dreaming of the life he could never have.”
“Three days after he’d finished writing the poem,” he added, now merely twenty meters apart from the rest. “He died.”
“Profound.” Evelyn said, grinning mockingly.
“Hardly,” Lino shrugged as he stopped, his eyes slowly veering over everyone present at the scene. “If it takes death to realize just how insignificant you are... there’s nothing profound about it.”
“... your sins can only be redeemed in the afterlife.” Evelyn said, lifting the sword and pointing it at Lino. “You are charged with treason, murder, theft, colluding to raise a rebel army and defiance against the Crown. I sentence you to die!”
“... sorry,” Lino smiled lightly as he whirled his sword momentarily. “I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse.”
He sprinted forwards, his feet coated in thick bolts of azure lightning, leaving behind the story of their wake. He blew past Evelyn, seeming to wholly ignore her and dove straight at the heart of the crescent formation, where Althone, alongside his two personal guards drafted from the Sons of the Damned Legion stood, both of whom were clad entirely in black armor. When they spotted Lino coming after Althone, they braced their swords and shouted, thick, black energy blistering off the surfaces of their armor.
They swung forth in concert, trying to intercept Lino on his anticipated trajectory. Yet, the latter seemed to somehow defy the very laws of nature as he heaved over the two swords, arriving directly in front of Althone. The latter frowned immediately, realizing that Lino was far, far faster than anyone else in his own army. He quickly channeled Qi through his passages and used the billow of the wind to shift himself sideways, evading the piercing slash which caused a massive explosion followed by arousal of dust.
Lino withdrew the sword in the meantime and took out a spear; though it wasn’t the best of the kind, nor even all that compatible with him, he was still better versed with it rather than swords. And as he couldn’t use <Sword of Chaos> due to fears of being exposed again, there really was no point in continuing to wield the sword.
Althone had barely managed to stabilize when he saw a flicker of light approach him at the speed he couldn’t possibly comprehend. Growing flustered, he gritted his teeth and extended both his palms in a parallel, squatting down squarely into a sturdy horse stance. Qi shifted from his palm into reality, fusing with the nature of wind and creating a massive storm which extended over half a mile across and just as much above.
Lino welcomed the sharp cuts of the wind and grinned madly as gashes began appearing over his body. He ignored the burning bits of pain and thrust his spear directly at Althone’s palms, breaking the latter’s feeble defensive formation and piercing one of the palms directly, causing blood to gush out. Althone held back the cry of pain and used his free hand to grasp at the spear before forcibly tearing his penetrated palm away. He then pulled the spear with all his might in an attempt to offset Lino’s footing only to realize the latter wouldn’t budge an inch.
Althone’s eyes veered over the to strange beggar and met the latter’s jet-black pair. As though a voice suddenly whispered into his mind ‘you cannot win’, he was a moment away from retreating before he realized that there was a whole platoon of soldiers just behind Lino, finally launching his attack. Lino grinned at Althone in a strangely boyish fashion, even going as far as to wink at the man, before turning around and facing the avalanche.
Amidst the fires, the winds, the large chunks of earth, the lightning and even some disfigurement of space, Lino recognized a few battlements of ice heading his way. Three cascaded next to one another, with the tallest and sturdiest-looking at the center, and two smaller surrounding it. He quickly found the one Felix cast and flashed forward, heading directly at it, ignoring the besieged sky that came crashing at him.
Though he was hit quite a few times, his Singularity spat out Qi in droves, quickly healing every wound before it had a chance to turn into anything serious. He cleaved directly through the Felix’s icy avalanche with a simple swipe of his spear. Ice was cold and frigid yet also soulless, Lino realized. It was weak, heartless, almost as though it was merely there for show rather than anything else. His eyes quickly located Felix at the back, two somewhat elderly men at his sides. Lino ignored the two completely and heaved through the sky in a magnificent flash of lightning.
There wasn’t a soul surrounding him that could catch even a glimpse of his figure. They all briefly stood in awe before realizing their goal was to strike the beggar down rather than to admire him. Evelyn was perhaps the most frustrated one; not only did she not land a single hit on him, he seemed to have completely ignored her and disregarded her as an opponent, firstly striking at her Father - which she could still somehow rationalize - but he was now going after Felix... arguably the deadweight of this army who was mostly here as an attempt to make the beggar emotionally unstable.
Two massive icicles came hurdling over at Lino who landed with a blast and spun in circle as he slid over, causing the spear to bend halfway through in the process and deflect the incoming icicles. He came to a halt squarely in front of the frozen Felix, who stared at the figure surrounded by dust without being able to utter a sound. His Father and Grandfather had already withdrawn as close combat wasn’t their forte, only to realize that Felix still stood there. Though both wished to immediately come to his rescue, they saw him flick a finger as a signal to just wait.
“... what was that attack?” Lino asked, frowning slightly, seemingly completely ignorant of his situation.
“That was embarrassing,” Lino said, suddenly slapping Felix across the latter’s head gently. “For you, for your family, but most importantly -- for me. How can you disgrace me like that?! Huh?! How can I go around proudly exclaiming you’re my pupil if you keep doing disgraceful shit like that?” Felix barely held himself back from laughter; his Master, regardless of the circumstances, Felix realized... was always the same. Even here and now, where he was opposing the strongest force on the entire continent, he still acted carefree.
“... sorry Master. I promise it won’t happen again.” Felix said, bowing slightly.
“Ah, good, good!” Lino said, patting the boy’s head and smiling. “Now, you better straighten your ass and attack me properly from now on, alright? What, do you really think you can actually hurt me or something?”
“Heh, just keep laughing and see if I don’t shove my foot up your ass.”
“Alright. I’d love to chat more,” Lino said, sighing lightly. “But these bastards won’t let me.”
Felix didn’t say anything, merely taking a deep breath to calm down and beginning to summon all of the Qi he had. His Master was right; he stood no chance of harming him. Wasn’t this, then, the perfect opportunity to test the extreme limits of his strength? Perhaps even achieve a breakthrough? At the very least, experience just how strong his Master was? Felix mused inwardly as he slowly began preparing to pour everything he had into his next art.
Lino on the other hand spun around and began cleaving through the monsoon of attacks that came barreling at him every second it seemed. For all their attempts, though, most quickly grew dispirited; the boy, even if hit, didn’t seem to even notice, as though they merely tickled him for a moment. None were more frustrated than Evelyn and Althone, though; had they known at the start just how strong the beggar was... this all could have played out much differently.
Lino danced the strange waltz of death, escaping it seemingly at the last second. Yet, no matter how much he attacked, he only wounded... and never killed. Everyone quickly realized that which emboldened them slightly, but only for a moment. It felt more like he was teaching them a lesson rather than participating in a life-or-death struggle.
It was half an hour later that the attacks stopped and Lino stopped moving. There were some low groans of pain echoing out around him, and most were either lying down or sitting, with only a few still standing, yet seeming completely discouraged from attacking him yet again. Though his clothes were even more tattered if at all possible, there wasn’t a single noticeable wound that they could attribute to themselves, despite numerous scars criss-crossing over the beggar’s body.
If there was one good thing that came out of this, it was that they finally realized he was fairly young, at least judging by his stature. However, this only dispirited them more as they realized the beggar couldn’t have been older than thirty. Lino, on the other hand, was feeling somewhat angry; there were so many of them, and yet he wasn’t even out of breath after fighting for so long. Truth be told, he was feeling slightly bored.
“Hey!” a low, coarse voice bellowed out into the darkness, causing Lino to shift his head slowly. “If you don’t drop your weapon and surrender, I’ll kill her.”
“...” Evelyn’s eyes shifted away from one of her Father’s guards holding Shade by her throat back onto Lino whereupon her entire body froze. She only glimpsed at those eyes for but a moment... yet, what she’d seen she was certain she would never forget.
“Let her g--------o....” it was too late. There was but a flash and the freezing of the time. The temperature dropped till everyone felt as though they were in a completely frozen hell. Their bones, souls and hearts creaked and croaked, crying and begging at the same time to be let go.
The stuffy silence was followed by a thud and spur of blood whistling through the air. Headless body fell and splattered across the soaked sand, above its head still hanging, held by bloodied fingers. Lino slowly shifted his head and looked back, causing everyone to immediately stop breathing for a moment. Evelyn felt her sword suddenly shake as its soul completely suppressed its presence. Althone’s entire body screamed for him to run, yet he didn’t dare to. He could only stare at those jet-black eyes as though mesmerized, unable to look away.
“... you should leave.” Lino spoke calmly as he let go of the head, letting it roll down the dune, stopping right next to Evelyn’s feet.
“...” as though given a pardon for their crimes, everyone quickly scrambled and slowly began leaving, afraid the strange beggar might change his mind. Lucky on the other hand glanced at Lino with intention of praising him when she saw a strange grin on his face.
“... fuck, you really are like a kid!!” she exclaimed, hitting him.
“Eh? What do you mean?” Lino asked, wiping the grin off.
“You don’t let a single opportunity to show off go, do you?”
“What man would?” Lino scoffed. “Especially in front of such a pretty lady! You’re lucky to have front seats to such a show!”
“... suck my dick.” Lucky rolled her eyes and sat back down.
“I’d rather not.”
“Looks like one dude didn’t buy your show. Ha ha, must feel pretty retarded now!” Lucky spoke laughingly as she pointed her finger.
“What a ballsy fucker. Who is he?” Lino frowned and followed her finger only to see a familiar face walking up to him. “Eh? Felix? The hell are you still here?”
“...” Felix seemed to swallow something, perhaps a last shred of his pride, as he replied. “I want to learn how to be as cool as Master.”
“...” Lucky’s laughter froze as her finger trembled.
“Oh?” Lino quickly assumed his ‘heroic’ pose and began stroking his chin. “You have finally been exposed to light, haven’t you?”
“... good, ha ha ha ha, good!” Lino exclaimed and walked over, grabbing Felix’s shoulder before suddenly pulling him over to Lucky, forcing her up onto her feet and grabbing her shoulder with his other free arm, forcing the two to walk with him. “You two... ah, you two! It has been worth the wait... oh, right, it’s not just you two. That fucker’s here too.”
“What fucker?” Lucky and Felix asked, seeming confused.
“... that... fucker.” Lino pointed his finger in front of the trio whereupon Felix and Lucky suddenly exclaimed in fright as they came to a halt. There, where nobody was just a second ago, now a silver-eyed husky walked briskly.
“W-when did that dog get here?!” Felix asked.
“Eh? What do you mean? He’s always been here.” Lino replied, looking at Felix as though he was a fool. “He’s been cheering me on the whole time.”
“...” the two looked at him with strange eyes, saying nothing.
“Ah, you wouldn’t understand,” Lino shrugged as he pulled them forward once again. “The bond the two of us share...”
“Woof!! Woof-woof woof woof!” the dog suddenly barked at Lino, baring his fangs at the latter.
“Fuck your mom too, you sick, sadistic fuck!!” Lino replied in kind. “If it was just the two of us, I’d have ripped that fucking tail of yours and shoved it so far up your ass you’d be coughing up hair till the day you croak, you ugly excuse of a dog!”
“...” words were said which left both Lucky and Felix more scarred than anything else they’d witnessed in their lives. It wasn’t a fight between a dog and a man, they’d realized; it was a fight between two shameless cretin who both were wastes of air they breathed.
The two, however, felt a sense of strange tranquility besiege them after they walked for a while. As though a monumental burden was lifted off their chests, it came to a point where they couldn’t even keep their eyes open, slowly slouching sideways and resting both their heads on Lino’s shoulders. The latter stopped arguing with a dog and glanced at the two, smiling warmly as he slowly put them down and leaned them gently against the rocks.
He sat opposite of them and took out a gourd of ale, reluctantly taking out another gourd and throwing it at the dog who started whining. He slowly indulged in his favorite past time, occasionally glancing at Lucky and Felix who both already had drool manifesting at the corners of their lips.
“... are you sure you wish to bring them along?” the voice he hadn’t heard in a while resounded inside his head.
“Aye.” Lino replied simply, without any hesitation.
“What? You think I haven’t learned my lesson?” Lino asked, faintly smiling.
“... I was mistaken,” the Writ said. “As all of us were, really. I don’t think... no matter what we do... that we’ll ever succeed in breaking your heart entirely.”
“Oh, wow. A compliment. Shit. I think I’m blushing.”
“... I promised you long ago that I would no longer meddle in what you do,” the Writ continued, seemingly oblivious to Lino’s jab. “But I did it merely out of fear you really might commit suicide.”
“Today I swear to you the same oath... I truly won’t meddle in any one of your decisions lest you ask me for an advice. I trust you, Lyonel. No... I trust that, no matter what, you will always find a way. And if there’s none... you’ll create it.”
“While I appreciate the trust,” Lino said, taking a sip. “I’ll still need you to be my infomania.”
“Ah, yeah, I’m testing out my linguistic talents,” Lino said. “It’s a compound, you see? Information plus mania! Since you’re full of information, and you’re an absolute fucking maniac, I decided to call you infomania. What do you think?”
“Yeah, I feel it too. Doesn’t really sit all that well. I’ll keep thinking and get back to you.”
“I’d rather you don’t.”
“But I will.”
“... I know.”
“Anyway,” Lino took in a deep breath and looked upwards for a moment. “I’ve still got account to settle with those girls waiting up there. I should probably also visit Damian before leaving. Oh, right, you’re awfully quiet about the whole Great Descent ordeal. Anything to add?”
“You should join. It’s a good choice.”
“Not the only one?”
“Certainly not. One of the downsides in joining is inability to pursue personal interests if they interfere with the Sect’s grand plans.”
“Yeah, we’ll see about that.” Lino grinned mischievously for a moment.
“You shouldn’t play around with them too much, Lyonel,” the Writ suddenly spoke in a rather serious tone, startling Lino. “Even I was never able to get any information about the true core of their Sect.”
“... that’s a new one.”
“Just be careful, is all.”
“Thanks... I will. Maybe. If I feel like it. Probably. I mean, you know, how bad could it possibly be?”
END OF VOLUME VI - FALL OF THE EMPYRION