Dawn’s light banished the night’s darkness as the sun heaved over the eastern horizon, the golden rays draping over the wavy landscape of the continent like cloth. Chimneys soon began to billow smoke as streets woke, horse-driven carriages departing through the flat roads. While men left for work, women carried large baskets of laundry to the river banks and began cleaning them, while children departed either to schools or to begging avenues.
It was a day like any other for many, though not quite so for the remaining few. Hannah was currently standing on top of a cliff side looming over the gorged out pathway connecting two ends of a city, a deep frown plastered on her face, eyes gleaming with anger. Faint, slightly chilly winds of the dawn blew occasionally, hurdling her simple, one-piece dress back while spilling her crimson hair over back into the waves.
Her chilly gaze penetrated past the sights of the world to its far end, where her homeland rested, and where those at whom her anger was aimed resided. Jolted slightly, she turned sideways and spotted a familiar figure standing next to her, smiling faintly. She still had trouble adjusting to Ella’s housewife appearance, as her actual one had such a strong presence in Hannah’s mind. Glancing down, she saw a small bulge on her stomach, causing her frown to disappear and her lips to curl up into a smile.
“Oh my,” Hannah said, chuckling. “Congratulations are in order it seems. I’ll save the gift for later on, though, if you don’t mind.”
“Ha ha, don’t worry about it,” Ella laughed as the two shared a hug. “What’s up with the frown?”
“... ah, I’m being summoned back,” Hannah sighed dispiritedly. “Apparently they didn’t take my leaving without uttering a word as kindly as I thought they would.”
“Will you go back?” Ella asked.
“Of course not,” Hannah shrugged. “Especially now that I know they sent Eos to check up on me. It means that Gaia already has doubts. I’d be tested to all hell and back if I went, and I’d rather not.”
“Isn’t it a bit too early for you to expose yourself?” Ella asked as the two sat down.
“I’ll just admit to being a Descender,” Hannah replied. “That should buy me a couple of years at least. What about you?”
“I’ll stick around for a while,” Ella replied, smiling faintly. “Would rather not engage in the worldly struggle with a kid in my belly.”
“Makes sense,” Hannah chuckled. “Lino knows?”
“He’s already assigned himself a role of the lady tutor if it’s a boy.” Ella sighed.
“Ha ha ha, that indeed does sound like him.”
“How are you two?”
“... too well,” Hannah said, unable to hide a smirk from emerging. “That it’s kind of scaring me, to be honest.”
“Ha ha, to think I’d ever see the legendarily cold Hannah acting so coy,” Ella chuckled, ruffling Hannah’s crimson hair. “He must have done quite a number on you.”
“Haah... he really did. I bet my past self is already cursing me out.”
“Nothing wrong with being bashful,” Ella said. “And happy.”
“... it’s an entirely new life for me,” Hannah said, suddenly looking up toward the clean blue sky. “Every day I wake up fearing it might slip... or I might wake up to realize it was all just a very nice, very long dream.”
“...” Ella said nothing, merely sighing deeply for a moment. “You ever talked to him about it?”
“Hah, no way,” Hannah chuckled. “With all he’s been through, if I spring onto him my ‘problems’, I might quite literally never hear the end of it.”
“... you don’t really believe that, do you?”
“... no,” Hannah smiled lightly. “Rather, I knew it would be the exact opposite. Seems unfair, though, no matter how you look at it.”
“... when I turned forty,” Ella spoke out after a short silence. “It was the first time in my life that I didn’t participate in the obligatory party. Instead, I locked myself up in the room, held the [Heartseeker] and contemplated shoving it into my heart.”
“...” Hannah glanced curiously at her, seeming shocked.
“By then I’d been looking for Eggor for a good decade,” she continued. “And while in hindsight it doesn’t seem that long, for me back then... it was practically a lifetime. That night, for the first time in years, my Grandfather visited me. Of all the people in my life, I’d never expected him to come and try to console me.”
“... ha ha, yeah,” Hannah laughed briefly. “From what I read, he was the excessive less-talk-more-action type.”
“He very much was,” Ella chuckled. “He walked in, stared at me for a little while, spoke a single sentence and left. All emotions are equal, regardless of circumstance, he said. Of course, at the time I didn’t know he’d already convinced Eggor to talk with me,” both chuckled for a moment before Ella continued. “But, his words really struck me.”
“I still remember what you were like back then, Hannah,” Ella said, glancing at her with a faint smile. “And I still remember thinking that you too would eventually grow corrupted despite your defiance.”
“Ha ha ha, to be fair I was quite a cynic of human nature back then. I’d believed everyone was prone to the highest form of corruption. But, time and again over my lifetime, I was proven wrong. Never, however, more so than by you. If Lino’s affection for you back then was just a boyhood’s crush over what you meant to him, then now it stems entirely from what he sees in you. He, too, grew up believing the entire world is corrupt -- no doubt especially so for the world of cultivation. You, however, have proven him indisputably that he’s wrong. And, of many things he loves doing, he really hates admitting he was wrong.”
“... he really does.” Hannah nodded faintly, chuckling.
“Every one of our stories is worth telling,” Ella said, slowly getting up. “He’s told you his. Don’t you think it’s only fair you tell him yours as well?”
Hannah watched Ella vanish with a strange look in her eyes, one seemingly lost within the depthless river of time. Her entire childhood flashed inside her mind in that moment, since her first memory at the age of four where her Father handed her the responsibility of a Bearer, over to when she was twelve and exploring the world with her Master at the time which led her to the small, backwater Umbra Kingdom where she encountered two people who would come to define her entire reality, to the happiest days of her childhood that she spent with Lino, to the return to the Sect, conscription into the Great Descent, countless battles and wars she participated in, countless lessons designed entirely to sell her a story she never truly bought.
While hardly a tragic tale of Lino’s and Allison’s ilk, it was nonetheless a tale of her own life, of days, months and years through which who she is today emerged on the surface. It was a compelling tale, she mused; neither tragic, yet not quite joyful either. A story like any other, with ups and downs and occasional twist of fate she hadn’t seen coming. Every one of her steps carved out a story that would come to be known as her life, one she was hardly ashamed of.
The tail end of it all, however, was that she was still indignant over sharing her tale with Lino. After all, the last time she did, he pointed out everything she feared someone would say of her years; the world was in her arms since the date of her birth, and she could have always had whatever she willed, yet still remained unsatisfied due to the arbitrary sense of freedom.
After that day, she would often find herself lost in the thoughts, wondering whether she would trade her own upbringing with Lino’s; trade the privilege of everything for the cloth of freedom. Though she was still unwilling to admit in on the surface, deep down in her heart she knew the answer... and it was that she wouldn’t. She knew that all the freedom in the world wasn’t worth the trodden road one traverses from the bottom up; and however romantic it may sound when it is said that someone clawed their way out into the world from nothing, that they rose to prominence from tattered rags, none of those stories ever pay much attention to the upward journey.
However depressing it may have been to remain locked up within the confines of her Sect, at the very least she didn’t have to experience the world within which everyone she loved either died or disappeared; however boring it may have been to listen to old people teach her the world’s history, at the very least she didn’t have to experience the absolute cold of the world entirely indifferent to her suffering. However alienated she felt within her own home, she at the very least didn’t have to experience the life of true loneliness.
She very much doubted in her heart she would have had the strength Lino had to emerge from it still smiling. She even doubted she would do as well as Allison given the circumstances. And throughout her entire stay within the Central Continent, she witnessed numerous others who came from nothing, steadfast still, smiling all the same. It has put quite a large dent in her confidence, though she very much knew it was irrelevant; all emotions are, indeed, same... regardless of the circumstances. Hers too, the pains and aches, the cries and tears... whatever reasons they required, they were hers to live and to survive in the same fashion as the rest.