RISE AND FALL
Lino and Hannah stared at the crimsoned eyes with gobsmacked expressions, their eyes saucers, mouths gaping pits, bodies shaking involuntarily. Neither had half a mind to comprehend what they’d just seen, their minds spinning into a whirl of madness and classic denial. Yet, no matter how many times they checked, the Titan’s information remained exactly the same.
“... you should not be surprised,” Alst spoke out in a mellowed tone. “I’ve had over three billion years of life... most of it cooped up inside this mountain, restlessly wreathing in silence and solace. It does little for one’s sanity, but leaves a lot of free time to cultivate.”
“... yeah, dude, no matter how you put it, it’s insane!” Lino was the first one to come back to his senses, crying out. “I thought I was some big-shit for finally crossing into the 500th realm of levels, but you--goddamn you-- holy shit... just... holy motherload of shit...”
“Strength is relative to the beholder,” Alst said, his Will still holding the two in the air in front of his eyes. “As are all the numbers constituting it. At the end of the day, Levels are merely a depiction of numb nothings; while within them one can find egotistical notion of strength and power, they segment the truly strong and weak. For example, the Last Titan Empyrean was merely Level 4000 when he died, yet he was twice as powerful as I am right now.”
“Can you just break it down for me?” Lino asked, seemingly spirited as his mood took a quick shift. “Everyone keeps saying that the numbers are largely irrelevant. Why is that?”
“Because beyond numbers is where you find the foundations of strength and power,” Alst said. “Wills and Laws. They are constituents of the world, whereas numbers are just... numbers, young Bearer. The higher up you venture, the less meaning they have. It is especially so for people like you, those who focus entirely on a single mantra. Despite the difference in levels between us, your Strength and Vitality are almost exactly the same as mine.”
“... yeah, I guess I’ll never understand it.” Lino shrugged after contemplating over the Titan’s words for a moment.
“Ha ha ha, yeah, Empyreans largely ignore the numbers, because they charge with their hearts.”
“That’s a cute way to call someone dumb.” Lino moaned in dissatisfaction.
“No, far from it.” Alst shook his head faintly, but quickly stopped as even the simplest of his movements stirred winds strong enough to nearly blow Hannah and Lino out of the air and into the mountain’s walls. “Fools are those who rely on numbers, on talent, on vocation of good fortune and such to determine one’s capacity for strength. A mother who charges against a thief to protect her child, an ordinary man who charges into the war to defend his beliefs, a young child who holds back their tears despite the scraped knee... strength can be found everywhere, young Bearer, and in no place is it virtued through numbers.”
“... I suppose so.” Lino said, sighing faintly.
“Think of your own life -- your own experiences -- your own memories. Think of the moments in your life when things were truly difficult... those moments that truly matter. Was it strength depicted in numbers you sought... or something else entirely?”
“... that’s good and all for the everyday life,” Lino said. “But, I don’t think I need to tell you my battles are rarely fought through wit alone however much I’d like that to be the case.”
“And... did that striking difference in numbers ever hold you back from coming out victorious?”
“We had this old saying,” Alst said after a short silence. “Dating back to the days of our Origin -- may the fists shake the world... while the hearts shake the souls. If numbers accounted entirely for the strength, young Empyrean, then the world wouldn’t be nearly the way it is now. Especially for you, Humans; a young, fledgling race of misfits with no inborn, numbered worth... yet, right now, the strongest individual in the world is a member of your race.”
“Eh? Gaia is a Human?!” Lino shrieked in surprise.
“Gaia? No... Gaia was never the strongest, little one,” Alst chuckled. “She’s even weaker than me, at least on individual basis. But, despite that, I could never defeat her in a battle. No, the strongest individual belongs to your race, of all the possibilities. But... my heart tells me that one day you will meet him, and that, perhaps on that fateful day, you will fully understand my words.”
“... is that what my Master tried to explain to me?” Hannah, who remained silent thus far, suddenly chimed in. “That strength is entirely binary, denoted entirely through creation and destruction, neither of which can be summed within the numbers?”
“It is, indeed,” Alst nodded faintly. “But, I have not summoned you here to debate over the virtues of strength; my days had grown numbered, young Bearers -- and it is time I departed for Valhalla, and joined my kin in the eternal rest.”
“When I was elected to live beyond the Ashening, I despaired; to sink my teeth into death’s embrace alongside my brethren was an honor, yet I was being denied it. But, eventually I understood that someone had to stay -- and me being deprived of that honor meant somebody else needn’t, I can graciously uphold my role. And I have, until this very day when you finally came to me.”
“... you... waited for us?” Lino asked, furrowing his brows.
“Every Era, no matter how prosperous, how long, how defiant to the end, eventually succumbs. We, too, at one point believed ourselves immortal -- impervious to any and all disasters that had befallen those before us. Yet, in the end, Titans, and our world with us, were felled.”
“How did that happen, anyway?” Lino asked quickly. “There are absolutely no records of you guys for like 40 million years before the Era’s end.”
“... you can call it a collective suicide.” Alst answer shocked both Hannah and Lino into silence as they awaited for an elaboration. “To understand our end, you first need understand our Beginning, young Bearers.”
Lino and Hannah listened with fervent attention as Alst accounted brief -- yet very eye-opening tale of the Titan Race. The birth of the Titan Race, it turned out, was entirely accidental, as they were the creation of the leftover Primal Chaos. For billions of years prior, throughout the four Eras predating the Titan Era -- Origin Era, Fiend Era, Prosperity Era and Skyhaven Era -- the so-called ‘Primordial Elements of Creation’ were largely disappearing.
Some were absorbed by Gaia and transformed into the Qi Elements, some dissipated naturally, some were used by the Father of the Devils to reverse Qi of the World and create the Devil Qi, some where then overused by humans during the Skyhaven Era in the practice of magic, and by the Titan’s Era, of the known Primordial Elements, only Primal Chaos remained as it was the original element of creation from which all other Primordial Elements came into existence, namely Primordial Elements of Life, Death, Creation, Destruction, Light, Darkness...
The creation of the Titan Race was the Primal Chaos’ last breath, as it too disappeared from the world alongside other Primordial Elements. This, however, even within the Titan societies, largely remained a tightly-held secret as each individual Titan actually carried a whiff of Primal Chaos within their hearts. Those small bits were their substitute for other races’ Souls, and also the originator of their inborn Will.
Throughout the Titan Era, however, rather than defying the past, they too largely succeeded it -- the conflicts escalated as the Titans splintered into communities; some joined Gaia and inherited the Writs, some formed an opposing faction, some remained neutral, and ever-so-often one would become an Empyrean. Throughout the chaotic maundering, whatever was the original sentiment of their creation was washed out from their conscience -- and they simply became one of the races striving for world’s dominance.
A part of what Lino and Hannah already knew also came into play, but was vastly different than what they believed; roughly around the time any records of Titans simply cease to exist, they were visited by the Origin Prime -- the very First Prime and, in extension, the very first creation outside the Seven Writs, the Scripture, and the Archangels.
The Origin Prime, however, did not cause their destruction -- it’d simply reminded them of something that Ataxia had no heart to do -- that they’d strayed... and that they were well past the point of salvation.
It was also then that the Ashening of the Titan Race had been decided upon, not through the war or such... but through the collective suicide. All the alive Titans, whichever faction they belonged to, to whomever they served and pray, whatever beliefs they upheld... joined together for the first time since the early days of the Titan Era, came together as one, and used their bodies to reconstruct the ravaged landscape of the world, dying out in the process.
For the following forty million years, it was only Alst who roamed the world’s surface, ensuring no one else came out from the Underworld. He waited until the bodies of his brethren could no longer be distinguished, and there were only mountains and rolling hills and lakes of clear water... before withdrawing himself in the small pocket realm, which was the last reminder of his own culture.
His mission was fairly simple -- it was to wait for the Empyrean who will find his or her way to him, however long that may take. Millions, tens of millions, and even billions of years in the end, forever seated in solitary isolation. Every time an Empyrean awakened, he became hopeful; yet, Ataxia never led a single one to see him. Until four months ago, when Hannah and Lino entered the Titan Realms for the first time.
“... whoa...” Lino exclaimed softly, still trying to process everything. “That’s... intense.”
“... that’s really intense,” Hannah chimed in. “I imagined a lot of ways this story went, but holy crap...”
“Right, I’m here now!” Lino exclaimed. “So, what’s the big secret you were supposed to tell me, huh? Maybe a way to get super-strong real quick? Eh, that’d be real nice!”
“Ha ha ha, no, that’s certainly not it,” Alst laughed gently, musing inwardly over the young human’s strange behavior. “Or, rather, there is no big secret -- what I was supposed to tell you... you had already achieved.”
“... I have?” Lino mumbled, frowning.
“While you were here, actually,” Alst said. “The Primal Chaos created us as a self-preserving measure, as it too would have vanished had it been left up to the time. We inherited the last bits of it, and my mission was very simple -- that, on the day that I meet you, I rip my beating heart out of my chest and give it to you to absorb it.”
“... not following.” Lino groaned.
“No matter what we did, throughout the entire Era, we were never able to utilize that small bit of Primal Chaos resting within our hearts, young Bearer,” Alst explained. “The reality is that only an Empyrean, in theory, even could. But, not even the Titan Empyreans were ever able to summon it out and use it. It was simply because we’d forgotten... we... were never meant to use it... because, if we did, we’d die.”
“Yeah, that makes sense...” Lino mumbled.
“Our collective mission was simply to pass it on... but, we’d forgotten. And, that is why I was waiting for you, young Bearer.”
“... wait, didn’t you say I already achieved it? When the hell did that happen?”
“During your duel with Aggav,” Alst explained. “For the life of me, however, I cannot even begin to explain how you achieved it; but, one way or another, you did manage to Will Primal Chaos into corporeal existence, for however briefly it was. Ataxia... was right to put his heart in you, young human. As I am right to put mine.”
“Eh? You’re still giving me your heart? Nah, no need,” Lino shook his head. “How about instead you join me, and we go and kick some ass? And by that I mean Hannah and I watch you as you destroy the world!”
“Ha ha ha, I’m afraid that however tempted I am... I unable to comply. This body... is not fit for fighting, young Bearer. Rather, this body has died... many, many moons ago. However endowed one’s Vitality is, it is never infinite. We all have our expiration date. For hundreds of millions years now, I have willed myself to live, waiting for you. And my wait... is over at last. While old, cracked, and weakened... my heart still beats. Unlike the one you currently posses, it is not one meant for armor -- but one for your Singularity. And, while it will be somewhat lackluster at the moment... over time, I believe it will help you.”
“While I know you have many more questions... I am afraid I’ve no answers left, young one. What little I knew of the mysteries you’re so curious about, I’ve already said. All else... you will have to find out some other way... as you have found your own purpose, beyond what the world assigned to you.”
“... ey, big guy, any advice for her?” Lino suddenly asked. “I mean, I feel like I’ve hogged you a bit too much.”
“... she’s here with you,” Alst said, smiling lightly. “Anything I say... can never topple that.”
It was a peculiar moment that followed, for Lino and Hannah remained floating in the air while Alst’s body, bit by bit, began cracking and thundering, slowly turning into ash. All the while both his lips and eyes were smiling, every bit as free as of those of a newborn babe. There was no reluctance on his part, no unwillingness, no fear or anxiety -- just unbridled acceptance... and joy.
By the end of the least damning death Lino had ever witnessed, only a small rock, the size of Lino’s palm, was left there, hovering in front of him. It glimmered in faint red, it was cracked, yet it ever-so-often thumped in a beat. Lino grabbed at it and held it tightly for a moment, musing over how warm it still was. And while he still had many questions, at least he also obtained quite a few answers; for the first time in his life as an Empyrean, he felt as though he wasn’t entirely in the dark... that, however far it may be, and however fogged, the truth of it all is out there. Waiting for him.
END OF VOLUME X