Lino lay on top of Grim’s back, Hannah cradled in his arms, sleeping, as they flew across the vast ocean, heading toward the Central Continent. Though still starkly dim, he could spot a few flashes of sunlight beaming behind the ashened clouds. It won’t be long, he mused, until partly cloudy would become the norm. He missed the sunshine slightly, the warmth of it upon his cheeks, the beautiful orgy of colors painted across the horizon during one or another odd sunrise or sunset.
Hannah groaned suddenly, her eyes fluttering for a moment before opening wholly. She smiled for a moment, snuggling further into his arms, exhaling deeply.
“How long was I out?” she asked.
“Just a few hours.” Lino replied, caressing her hair softly. “It seems you made peace with me seeing you drool all the time.”
“Well, I figured,” she chuckled. “If you’ve seen the depths of all my orifices, drool can’t be all that bad.”
“... wow, I really am corrupting you.”
“Ha ha ha, you really are.” she said. “But, it’s not all bad, you know?”
“Oh? Please, do tell.” Lino said.
“Well, for starters, I’ve learned some very... expressive ways of cursing. Never knew language could be so creative.”
“It really can be,” he nodded faintly. “I always find myself surprised over why more people aren’t digging its depths properly.”
“I’ve also learned how to laze around,” she added. “A lot. Still not quite sure how to feel about that one.”
“Hey, hey, that’s not fair. I’ve repeatedly told you that wasn’t one of the habits you should be picking up. How’s it my fault you are so stubborn?”
“... do you think we’ll make it?” she suddenly asked in a slightly lower tone, surprising him.
“All jokes, all bravado, all these facades aside... can we really win, Lyonel?” she lifted herself up, meeting his gaze squarely. “Or are just burning out till... well, we’re out?”
“...” Lino stared back at her for a moment, smiling lightly afterwards as he moved a few strands of her hair behind her ears. “I don’t know. We might, we might not. One day we may come to stand tall as the Queen and the King of the world, or we might become two nameless graves in the middle of nowhere, never to be remembered by anyone. Or, we might even struggle for eons to come, only to meet the bitter end of the time’s crutch. I hardly care much for the destination, Hannah. This? Right now?”
“... yeah.” her lips spread out into a wide smile, one Lino considered beyond contagious. “For me... all of this is very much new, though.” she added, lowering her head slightly. “All my life... I’ve hid myself. Hid behind the smiles, behind the compliance.” she sighed, lying back down next to him. “Really, my ‘defiance’... if you can even call it that... was just a way to make myself feel special. Different. Unique. Had you not come along... I doubt I would have ever taken that final step.”
“Well, that was never going to happen.” Lino suddenly chuckled.
“Hm?” she exclaimed softly, glancing at him.
“A long time ago, Ataxia asked me... when would I be ready to let you go,” he said. “Back then, I still didn’t really understand my role in all of this. Didn’t understand much of anything, if I’m being honest. So, I lied and said... one day. He, of course, knew I lied, but I guess had enough of a wit not to probe.”
“I’d have found you, one way or another,” he added. “If for nothing than to steal that first kiss back.”
“... you do realize it was mine first as well?” she rolled her eyes at him.
“Be that as it may,” he chuckled, rolling on the side. “You would have never remained hidden, Hannah. I would have unearthed you even if I had to uproot the entire world in the process.”
“... god that made me wet.”
“Hey!! I’m trying to have an honest conversation here, you horned beast,” Lino seemingly pouted, barely stifling his laughter. “And all you can think about is my raw sexuality. Bad, bad, bad girl.”
“... you chased me away, though.”
“I had to,” he said. “For both our sakes.”
“... I know,” she said, kissing his forehead gently. “Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt like a bitch.”
“Well, you went and became weird,” Lino scoffed. “I mean, crushing on a twelve year old boy? Come on. Even I have to admit there was something off about that.”
“Hey... when we find them,” choosing to quickly switch the topic, Hannah donned a serious expression. “You’ll let me talk to them, right?”
“... it seems to me that you still see me as an Empyrean first and the best guy ever second,” Lino’s eyes turned into slits as his lips curled up into an evil grin, causing Hannah to groan audibly. “You know, it genuinely hurts. What? You think I flare out in fury every time someone flips me a bird?”
“No, no, I just meant, you know, the mission--”
“What mission?” Lino questioned, smiling faintly.
“What do you mean ‘what mission’? We find the Order--”
“And we kindly ask them to join us,” Lino shrugged. “What? You think I’d willingly pass on a possibly friendly and strong group of people because of those schmucks?”
“Hey, we’re already dicking it out with the rest of the world -- let’s please not drag the Descent in as well!” Hannah cried out quickly.
“Eh, who cares?” Lino shrugged; though he realized he was poking the bear, her relentless changes in expression were acting almost like drug for him by now. “So what if we add another group of old lunatics?”
“... oh. You’re just fucking around.” realizing she was being pulled by her chin -- once more, Hannah sighed in defeat. “You’d think I would have gotten used to it by now. How? Just how do you do it?”
“Disarm their defenses with a charming wit,” Lino said, smiling faintly. “And you’ve got them.”
“Yeah, no, I know how charming guys do it. I was asking how you do it.”
“Good one, eh?” Hannah grinned with pride.
“A great one,” Lino nodded, smiling. “You are ready kiddo. Ready to stand on your own. You can now rule the world.”
“We’re here,” she said as the two glanced down at the first-appearing landmass in the distant horizon. “How should we go about it?”
“I know where they are,” Lino said casually. “But, we’ll be going to the Capital first.”
“Eh? Why? Wait--how do you know where they are?!”
“They’ve sent some guests,” Lino said. “Wouldn’t it be rude to--shit.”
“What is it?” Hannah asked quickly, seeing his ever-deepening frown.
“Grim, head south.” Lino exclaimed. “Spare nothing.”
“Kwaa!!” the majestic hippogryph cried out before sharply turning right and heading south as per Lino’s orders.
Though Hannah wanted to ask and learn more, she held back for the time being as she realized this wasn’t a simple matter of hurry -- he was preparing for a fight. Donning a serious expression herself, she steeled her heart, realizing that this was just the first of many such scenes she would come to witness. While she very much enjoyed the calm and quiet of everyday life, she was becoming somewhat restless over having not fought for so long. Her cultivation had also slowed down quite considerably, having barely crossed Level 2500 recently.
Moreover, though she couldn’t confirm it directly, something has changed with Lino; for some reason, the silent alarm in her head kept sounding out that she couldn’t defeat him -- that she would be lucky to stay alive. She could hardly afford to lag behind; it wasn’t Lino alone that had declared the war on the world, she did too. She couldn’t expect him to fight her battles too -- no, rather, she didn’t want him to.
The two sped through the sky on top of Grim’s back, leaving behind only a blurry trail of afterimages. Half an hour later, Hannah felt the bird slowing down.
“Thank you,” he said, gently patting the bird’s head before putting it away into the pouch and unfurling his wings, glancing at Hannah. “Race ya’?” the two grinned at one another for a moment before turning into blurs of light -- one golden and one azure.
They streaked invisible, head-to-head, blasting past the clouds and burning their Qi reserves wantonly. The landscape beneath them blended together, bodies of earth indistinguishable within the blur, rivers becoming one with the mountains, cities with valleys, flatlands with hills.
It wasn’t until nearly twenty minutes later that Lino suddenly came to a halt and donned the Descent’s mask with Hannah quickly following his example. She also sensed a familiar aura a long time ago, prompting her to realize why was Lino in such a hurry -- though to also wonder how he noticed it so fast.
Another minute later and the two found themselves hovering above an encampment, with a huddled mass of people concentrated within a ring, only around ten standing up front, facing squarely the two standing opposite of them, both donning the all-too-familiar masks to Lino and Hannah. The former two suddenly turned around and looked up; Lino recognized one of them, the very same man who introduced him to the Great Descent in the first place and invited him to join -- Ethwart.