Lino stood atop a ledge looming over a tranquil lake hidden beyond the curtain of the surrounding mountains and forests. Lush green surrounded it, its hue tainted faintly emerald, the lake hardly seemed out of place standing there in peace. He slowly reached out into his pocket and took out a star-shaped object that Ethwart gave him.
Suddenly a spark of luminescent light bolted out of the object and drew an arc from the cliff into the center of the lake, diving in carelessly. The object shook violently in his hand as it seemed hellbent on diving after the light, but Lino’s grip hardened, keeping it in place.
“... are they insane?” Lino mumbled, smiling bitterly as he glanced backwards. There, roughly a mile and a half away, hovering magically in air was a massive palace made of white, marble stone and golden adornments with several towers rising like swords around and a domed roof made entirely of silver over the central building. “They stationed the branch in the backyard of the Empire’s core place...” he added with a sigh, shaking his head before veering his eyes back onto the lake.
Perhaps, he mused, this was the perfect sort of veneer; who would ever expect them to be here, after all? Even Lino, if he had not had the star-shaped object, would have absolutely no clue that there was any sort of importance to the lake before him. He dove off the ledge with a chuckle as the wind fluttered his knee-long coat and unruly hair which he forgot to tie.
He seemed to have no inhibitions as he dove straight into the lake with a massive splash. Yet, neither the chill nor the warmth of the water welcomed him, and he didn’t even feel his clothes turning wet. Rather, amidst the myriad of strange feelings he was besieged with, he quickly realized he was thrown into an illusion.
The water around him danced and swirled and blended around as though with a brush, inked across the surface of the massive canvas that his world became. It all lasted but for a few seconds before he was hurdled into an empty street of a seemingly empty city with no end. A cobblestone-paved road rested beneath his feet, surrounded by small and shabbily-built brick buildings all of which had cracked windows.
Lino smiled faintly, seemingly amused, as he took a step forward. He could have easily broken the illusion if he had used <Eye of the Phantom>, but decided against it as he wanted to see what they had in store for him. Perhaps it was sort of a test, and forcibly breaking out would be considered cheating.
He walked about a hundred meters forth when two people suddenly stepped out of the surrounding buildings -- a man and a woman, both seemingly in their mid-twenties. They were rather ordinary-looking and wore shabby clothes, both having jet-black hair and eyes and several scars over their arms. Lino couldn’t recognize them, yet still felt strange familiarity.
Neither of them spoke and Lino didn’t pause his steps, casually walking by the two as though he had wind in his back. He hadn’t crossed much further before more and more people slowly began stepping out. It didn’t take him long to realize that it was a rather ordinary illusion, yet also one of the most potent ones in the world.
Whichever name it took, the illusion simply dove into person’s deepest memories, driving them all out in association with emotions that accompany them. For instance, when Alison showed up as her eight-year-old-self, she blamed him for what had happened to her as a direct response to Lino’s emotions. On the other hand, when Barry showed up, he immediately raced to kill him without saying anything.
Soon, he had seen hundreds of faces, some of which he recognized and some of which he didn’t. Yet, his expression didn’t change since the start, his lips seemingly forever curled up in a slight smile, hands in his pockets. He hadn’t paused his steps once as he crossed the massive street of the seemingly infinitely-large city. He mused that while it certainly wasn’t easy to cross through the illusion, it hardly merited the seeming reputation the Great Descent had. Anyone who had some emotional and mental control would be able to cross it with a bit of effort.
The last person to show in front of Lino was Lucky -- her expression a spitting copy of the one she had when she stormed out of the room a month ago when he’d last seen her. His smile turned bitter for a moment as the memory was still rather fresh and it felt as though someone just slapped him in the face with his own reality. However, he didn’t pause, pressing onwards all the same.
The illusion then shattered like glass into countless pieces as he found himself in the endlessly dark abyss. He didn’t try to spread out his Divine Sense or even try and figure out where he was; he knew that the illusion simply evolved in some way, and he anticipated the next test.
However, even after a full minute, nothing happened. He shrugged his shoulders for a moment before sitting down and taking out a gourd of ale, slowly drinking it. Another minute... then ten, an hour, and soon an entire day passed without a single sound beside his gulping echoed throughout the darkness.
“... I can’t figure out whether you’re emotionally dead or just really good at hiding it.” a rather old voice finally echoed out a whole week later, at least by Lino’s rough estimate. A single spot of light suddenly besieged his eyes, blinding him for a moment. The next time he opened them, he suddenly found himself inside a seemingly infinite room stacked with white floor and ceiling without any blemishes. His eyes quickly landed on the source of the voice; it was an old, bald man sitting behind a desk, wearing a rather old-looking and tattered robes, currently writing something on a parchment of paper while being surrounded by piles of others.
“Or maybe your just aren’t as skillful as you believed.” Lino said, smiling faintly as he remained seated, still drinking.
“All is possible,” the man replied without looking up from the parchment. “Except that.”
“Looks like I’ve come to a right place.”
“Have you?” the old man finally looked up, his eyes meeting Lino’s; the latter exclaimed softly as he realized the old man’s eyes were entirely white without pupils, as though he was blind. “If you wish to join, come forth and kowtow before me.”
“How about I come over and kill you instead?” Lino smiled faintly as he tilted his head.
“Arrogance is a path leading to damnation.”
“I’m glad you’re aware of that.” Lino said, still smiling.
“Do you believe yourself strong enough to bear the mantle of the Descended?” the old man asked.
“It’s been a while since someone came here, hasn’t it?” Lino asked suddenly, finally getting a reaction from the old man. “Hah, bullseye. If you wanted to talk that badly, you could have just asked.”
“... you are a rather disrespectful type, aren’t you?”
“Why? Because I didn’t kiss your feet immediately upon meeting you?”
“Who recommended you?” the old man asked, ignoring Lino’s comment.
“Ethwart.” Lino replied nonchalantly.
“Oh? So he’s finally got rid of his Master’s sigil?” the old man exclaimed in a soft surprise as he stroked his chin for a moment. “Good child has finally moved on, then.”
“There is no turning back if you choose this path, Lyonel,” the old man’s voice turned much deeper and more serious as he spoke out following a short bout of silence. “Once a Descended, always a Descended. Once you mantle the digits, you may never carve them out of your skin no matter what you do. Are you willing?”
“Yes.” Lino replied calmly.
“Then may you fall forever downwards,” the old man slowly raised his arm and streaked some letters across the air itself, causing white sparkles to fly out. “And reach the deepest reaches of the infinite abyss of madness and disillusioned suffering. Henceforth your name is Seventy-Two.” the letters suddenly molded into the circle and flew over toward Lino, splitting into two as they reached him. One raced into the strange medallion in Lino’s hand which quickly switched from the star’s shape into a winged one, gaining somewhat golden, even angelic, luster, while the other end of the light flew into Lino himself. Though he was unable to see it, he knew that something appeared on his back at that moment.
“If you wish to switch it,” the old man continued. “Become stronger and better and challenge others. Note that you may only challenge others within the Main Headquarters. Once you inject your Qi into the medallion now, it will only lead you to the Main Headquarters and nowhere else.”
“As this is your inscription, you may refuse to accept a mission for the first ten years. On the other hand, if you wish to test yourself... I have one for you.”
“Oh?” Lino exclaimed softly in surprise, arching his brow.
“If you complete it,” the old man said. “I shall answer one of your questions -- no matter what it is.”
“... what’s the mission?” Lino inquired.
“I am afraid details cannot be divulged unless you accept it.” the old man said. “Shall you accept it, you will be bound by two Oaths: one that will forbid you from divulging information about it beyond certain threshold, and second which will bind you to complete it. Think carefully.”
“... I accept.” Lino said after a short thought.
“Very well.” the old man nodded lightly as he picked up the parchment he was just writing on and injected it with Qi, sending it flying over to Lino who casually caught it. “Eighteen Legions of the Hell’s armies had invaded the Central Continent,” the old man said. “Each is led by a Sin-Devil Variant as a Commander. Your task is to unite the powers of the Continent and act as the Commander in the upcoming war. As a form of assistance, the parchment holds the detailed information on the Hell’s forces as well as the forces of this Continent in addition to numerous war strategies that you may employ.”
“... you knew I’d accept it, huh?” Lino mused with a smile.
“No indecisive fool would ever be permitted to bear the title of a Descended.”
“... what’s the time limit?” Lino inquired.
“There’s none, technically. Your mission will be qualified as failure if you lose three or more consecutive battles. At that point, someone else will be sent as your replacement and your benefits as the member will be taken away for five years.”
“... may I use this identity?” Lino said as he lifted up the winged medallion.
“Which other one would you use?” the old man looked at him, smiling faintly. “From now on, you are Seventy-Two... and nobody else.”
“Heh, alright.” Lino shrugged as he got up. “Look forward to the good news.”
“Good luck to you.”
The old man flicked his finger gently whereupon Lino suddenly disappeared from the white room. Just a moment later, two holes in the space open as two men walked through -- one rather stout in his build and the other one quite slender -- looking at the spot where Lino stood.
“What do you two think?” the old man asked with a faint smile.
“He threatened to kill you.” the bulwark-built man commented, smiling. “I like him.”
“That was the most indifferent I’ve ever seen another person behave in front of you, Master.” the slender-looking man said. “I like him too.”
“Y-you two brats!! Looks like I need to teach you two a few more lessons!!”
“Think of how much you love us...”
“Yes, we are your dear Disciples...”
“Anyway,” the slender-looking man said. “What are his chances?”
“He’s too weak, so pretty low.” the muscled man answered.
“He seems like a rather cunning type, though,” the old man said. “Plus, he knows that the Devils are invading because of him. I have a feeling he’ll fuck them over so hard soon that even that old Jailer will be spitting blood once he learns of it.”
“Oh, good point.”
“Now I suddenly feel bad for that old guy.”
“Yeah, true, true...”
“You two go back. I’ve heard that the Holy War between the Eternal Paradise and Aeonian Soul has escalated. Both had their Holy Children engage in a battle recently, and it seems they’re planning to awaken the Fiends.”
“Should we tell them to stop?” the slender-looking man asked.
“No need,” the old man replied. “Just limit the destruction.”
“Oh? Don’t tell me you’re trying to weaken the Holy Grounds for that Empyrean kid?” the slender-looking man asked further with a faint grin.
“Ho ho, is that so Master? You like the kid that much, huh?” the muscled one fanned the flames.
“Hah, it seems I really do need to flay you two back into submission...”
“Please no, Master. Remember how much you love your two dear Disciples...”
“Yes Master. Your love for us is like the universe... boundless and relatively warm at certain places...”