Lino was currently standing at the edge of the Palace’s grounds, looking over the city well down beneath. Brisk breeze caressed his cheeks, his slightly loose clothes fluttering on him. He directed his gaze into the horizon, where right about now the sun was supposed to be dawning on the world; yet, far and wide, there were only ashen clouds and occasional flicker of lighting.
There were too many things at the moment that were ripping apart his ability to think properly; according to Non, the Emperor had settled in a rather obscure village near the edge of the Holy Continent for a few weeks now, which either meant he was waiting for someone or that really was his plan on prolonging his existence. There was also the matter of Devils he had captured and were currently residing in his Dimensional Pouch and what to do with them; there was also the mission he and Hannah were supposed to be solving by now, tracking down the members of the Order of Eternity.
Then there were more personal issues looming over him -- Lucky, for starters, as he was still entirely blind to what he can do there. There was also Eggor who ‘stealthily’ shadowed him wherever he went, the matter of what Hannah’s visit home would do to her, and his place in all of that. He’d made too many promises to too many people, and the tolls were beginning to catch up to him.
This was all without even thinking about the fact that he’d become the most wanted person in the entire world -- that, right now, there were probably tens of thousands of people crossing Continents searching for him. All of it seemed too much to unload and unpack, yet he seldom could relax; he hadn’t took a sip of a drink for nearly three days simply because he couldn’t afford to.
“... you look eerily handsome, gazing off into the distance like that.” a rather settled voice spoke out next to him; he briefly glanced sideways and saw that Princess Annabelle had joined him, wearing a rather decorated dress and so much jewelry she could almost replace the sun in the sky. “The rugged, brave sort of soul, a forbidden romance for us Maidens.”
“... I’m honored.” Lino smiled faintly, putting his hands into his pockets. “You look... effervescent.”
“Apparently it is easy to bedazzle the minds so long as you bedazzle the eyes,” she chuckled. “And we still have quite a lot of bedazzling to do.”
“... ‘s that so...?”
“... I’ve figured it out, you know?”
“Figured what out?” Lino asked.
“Who you are.”
“Oh? Besides being the rugged, brave sort of soul, a forbidden romance for Maidens such as yourself?” both laughed for a moment before she replied.
“... you’re the Descender,” she said. “The one I met way-back-when.”
“... you seem to be handling that revelation well enough.” Lino said.
“With it, things make much more sense.” Annabelle chuckled faintly, taking a deep breath. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”
“... you have the same look my Father used to have,” she said after a few moments of silence. “Right after it, he would lock himself up into his Chambers for months at the time. We never knew what he was doing... until, well, recently, when we had to do everything he did.”
“Everybody wants the Crown,” Lino said. “Nobody wants the title’s burden.”
“... are you alright?” she asked, concern flashing in her voice.
“... I will be,” Lino smiled widely, glancing at her. “You know, you ought to bear a whole lot more hatred toward me. After all, I’ve pretty much sent your Father into exile.”
“... Father’s a term rather loosely applied here,” she said, sighing, gazing off into distance herself. “Besides, even if I were angry, you think I’d dare show it to a Descender?”
“... your Father’s mistake was that he was too terrified of me,” Lino said. “Had he not been, he might have even told me the truth. But, he feared I’d not only take it all away, but possibly execute him in the end.”
“... would you?” she asked.
“... probably not,” Lino replied. “I’m a softie like that, which, apparently, only tells the rest of the world that you consent yourself to being fucked over time and again.”
“... I won’t ask what happened to your friend, because I’m fairly certain it is well above my pay-grade,” she said. “But, I can offer an ear if you wish to talk about it.”
“... what happened to him, huh?” Lino chuckled bitterly. “I did, I suppose. I happen to a lot of people. You should be careful; people around me tend to drop like flies. Poof, gone. Just like that.”
“... I’d met him just a few times,” she said. “As I’ve Annar and Scarlet, but I can tell they weren’t here against their wills. People that shadow the light tend to lag behind, and eventually flicker out. At least that’s what my Mother used to say.”
“... I hope you’ll do better than your Father did,” Lino turned around, beginning to walk away. “And lead your people to a better place. They truly believe, Annabelle. However that faith was achieved is irrelevant; their faith in you is nigh impossible to shake. Don’t abuse that.”
“... likewise, Lino.”
Lino’s chuckle faded softly in the wind as he vanished into the Palace, leaving behind Annabelle to stare strangely at his fading back.
He aimlessly traced the massive hallways of the Palace, admiring the painted walls and chiseled stones sticking out of them, and hand-woven carpets beneath his feet, and golden chandeliers burning away the darkness. All of this grandeur, he mused, was beyond vain -- yet, even he was not averse to decorating himself in splendor. Image of oneself is a fickle thing, he realized, prone to a quick change depending on how others see you.
He eventually found himself inside a basement room, one he’d visited quite often over the past few days. There, beneath the ceiling of crystals, three translucent, crystal coffins were lain at an angle. Two were stacked with crimson gems, and the one in the middle with pure silver. He approached them and leaned over, the still faces beckoning back expressionless.
Each time he’d look at him, it felt as though he was being given a punch in the gut; though he very much wanted to give him a burial of Kings, Lino knew he couldn’t. Across the vast ocean, he had a family -- a family who deserved to bury him, to mourn him, and to let go of him. Just then, a peculiar sensation escaped through the void world and shook him; furrowing his brows, he reached into the vast emptiness and took out a flickering talisman. As he’d handed out far too many, he couldn’t exactly pinpoint to whom it belonged so he simply answered it.
The screen flickered brightly for a moment as a familiar face popped out; to his surprise, it was none other than Evelyn’s. Her usual beauty seemed marred, her expression exhausted, eyes tired-looking and dull, a massive scar running down the left side of her face.
“... hello.” she smiled weakly and bitterly, seemingly short of breath.
“... hello.” Lino replied.
“... your promised favor still valid?” she asked, surprising him. Though he very much wished to say no, seeing her like that, he couldn’t.
“Of course,” he said, smiling lightly. “Who needs to get beaten up?”
“... I don’t know,” she said, anger present in her voice. “A group of ten just came out of nowhere a few days ago and started bombing the Sun City with... well, let’s just say we stood absolutely no chance. I can’t even count the number of soldiers that threw their lives away so I and a few others could escape. I don’t know how much longer we can hide, though.”
“... where are you?” Lino asked, frowning.
“We’re, uh, we’re approaching the border of the Demonic Battlefield,” she replied. “We figured we’d stand a better chance over there.”
“... look for Kvalend tribe and Valkyria,” Lino said after a short thought. “Tell her I sent you. She should be able to keep you safe until I get there. Can you at least describe anything unique about them?”
“... uh,” Evelyn frowned for a moment, thinking deeply about something. “They all, uh, wore same coats, inscribed with same insignia. I can’t recall the exact shape, but it was like a circle, I think with only two colors. That’s about it. I’m sorry, I--”
“It’s fine,” Lino sighed inwardly, smiling on the surface. “Don’t worry about it. I should be able to get there in a few days tops. If the situation changes, Val has ability to contact me. Try and avoid fighting at all costs though, okay? We wouldn’t want that beautiful face scarred any more, would we?”
“... heh, ply-tongued as always. Thank you.”
“No problem. See you soon.”
Putting away the talisman, Lino quickly rubbed his temples in frustration; he very much hoped his assumptions were way off the mark, but doubted they were twice as much as he hoped. From what he recalled, there was only one Clan in the entire world who donned that sigil as no one else dared to -- the undisputed leader of all the Holy Grounds practically since their inception, Heaven’s Chosen Clan.