A heavy silence hung over the encampment, curious eyes peaking behind the shroud of fear and terror and gleaming at the two flying up in the sky -- one winged, and the other surrounded by the streaks of thunder. Both wore the same masks as the two standing right in front of them, who’d arrived just a few minutes ago and had sent the whole upper echelon of the Order into the spiral of madness and confusion.
Ethwart glanced curiously at the two in the sky, quickly noting their numbers, his lips curling up into a smile for a moment. The woman standing next to him, however, didn’t seem to share the same enthusiasm, her eyes like piercing daggers.
Lino and Hannah didn’t stay up for too long, landing shortly after and walking up until they were just a few meters away from their counterparts. Fifty-Eight and Forty-Nine, respectively; the former being Ethwart and the latter being a woman Lino didn’t recognize.
“What are you two doing here?” Hannah asked casually, looking around for any sign of a battle.
“Fixing your incompetence,” Forty-Nine replied coldly. “You took too long.”
“We were not given a time limit,” Hannah continued. “So... how could have we taken too long?”
“It was a time-sensitive mission, and you were aware of it.”
“I don’t deal in implications,” Hannah’s mood seemed to sour as her voice grew frigid as well, eyes turning emotionless. “If I did, it would seem to me you’re implying we are unfit to complete the mission.”
“And what if?” Forty-Nine replied in kind.
“Then we have a problem.”
“Alright, alright, chill out ladies,” Lino joined in, seemingly trying to diffuse the situation. “Geez, we’re all on the same team here, right? What’s with the tension?”
“Adults are talking, Seventy-Two. Keep quiet.”
“... ouch,” Lino exclaimed softly, faking hurt. “Though, I suppose I am honored that someone, for a change, chose to down-age me. Feels kind of good, actually.”
“Long time no see.” Ethwart, too, joined in, addressing Lino with a faint smile. “You look great.”
“And you look terrible,” Lino replied, smiling back. “Can’t blame you, though, being stuck with that ever-barking dog next to you. Most of us would have our wills for life drained within months, I imagine.”
“I don’t think she appreciated you calling her a dog.” Hannah chimed in with a faint chuckle.
“Eh, she called me a kid. Gotta act the part, right?” Lino grinned. “Anyway, we’re here now. So, you know, it’s time you two left.”
“... I’m afraid that’s not the mission,” Ethwart said, smiling bitterly. “Forty-Four said--”
“Eh? That bastard sent you?” Lino interrupted, startling all three surrounding him. “That guy’s really persistent with his whining. Aah, what I wouldn’t give to just have a minute alone with him.”
“Are you defying the authority?!!” Forty-Nine exclaimed angrily, the Qi around her transforming into an outright onslaught directed at Lino. The latter, however, merely glanced at her casually, seemingly unaffected.
“Authority?” he mumbled. “The day I give the authority of myself over to someone else is the day I’ll put a sword through my heart. Ease down with the intimidation, you brainless speck of sand. Just because you’ve surrendered your cunt to another doesn’t mean all of us had. Individuality and all that, you know’”
“Calm down.” Ethwart held his arm out and grabbed her, forcibly stopping her. “That’s not a way to speak about a lady, is it now?”
“Oh, he never does,” Hannah said. “I can confirm.”
“Eh, would you look at that. She can confirm.” Lino chuckled, realizing that Hannah had picked up on his intentions. “Now, I didn’t fly all the way over here to bicker and moan with a woman with the emotional control of a ten year old, but to complete a mission. There’s no need to escalate this any further, is there?”
“You are not allowed to escalate it further.” Ethwart said, frowning.
“Says who?” Lino quizzed, tilting his head sideways.
“The most core rule---”
“Ah, rule this, rule that, you and your rules,” Lino interrupted, sighing and shaking his head. “If I followed rules all my life, it would have been one quite boring existence, you know? Ah, whatever, whatever. She looks like her brain’s about to burst, and that wouldn’t be pretty. Just tell me what you plan on doing with them.”
“What else? Killing them, of course.” Forty-Nine scoffed.
“Oh. Well, you see,” Lino smiled. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”
“Wasn’t that your mission?” Ethwart asked.
“No clue,” Lino shrugged. “All I know is that there’s a group out there with enough balls to stand up against the Descenders... and that I’d like to meet them, face to face, to see how they do it.”
“That’s it!” Forty-Nine suddenly ripped herself away from Ethwart’s hold and clasped her hands together, causing a massive blurb of earth to explode beneath her feet, shredding itself into hundreds of pieces and molding into the blades, all sent flying at Lino.
“Gotcha.” Lino exclaimed with a grin, summoning the shield from the void world.
The blades of earth blast against it to no avail, creating a massive dust storm that had blindsided everyone, including those standing behind who cried out in fear, trying to back away. As the dust settled, everyone saw Lino and Hannah standing casually, still in one piece, seemingly entirely unhurt. Forty-Nine, on the other hand, was seething, held back by Ethwart who suddenly had a bad feeling.
“You saw it, right?” Lino mumbled faintly, glancing up. “They attacked first.”
“Ow, come on now,” he pouted. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna take their side here? I was just having fun, and that bitch suddenly decided to blow my brains out. Are you really going to take their side Gra--”
“That’s enough,” a voice suddenly collapsed over the encampment, bringing everyone except Lino and Hannah on their knees. “Forty-Nine, Fifty-Eight, return to the headquarters for your punishment.”
“Aww, thanks.” Lino waved up with a big grin as a voice transmitted into his ears.
“You are going to be the death of me...”
“Ah, I wouldn’t worry about that.” Lino chuckled as he and Hannah walked over, passing star-struck Ethwart and the woman whose eyes were by now shaking saucers.
“T-that... that was...” Ethwart mumbled.
“Shoo, shoo. Didn’t you hear the old bastard? Go and receive your punishment. Geez, attacking members of the same group out of nowhere for no reason whatsoever. You lot are the worst.” Hannah, meanwhile, was doing her best to not burst out in laughter, while the group behind everyone else stared in confusion.
Glancing back at Lino, Ethwart smiled bitterly and finally remembered that vicious tongue of his; he did find it odd, as he never thought of Lino as an idiot who would stir trouble for no reason. He knew he should have figured out what was happening, yet even he got blindsided with anger in the moment.
“Let’s go J’,” he whispered to the woman, picking her up. “We lost this round.”
“I--I’m going... I’m going to rip him to pieces,” the woman mumbled, glancing at Lino with a murderous gaze. “I’m not going to let him--”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ll get your revenge eventually. Let’s go.”
The space around the two distorted as they disappeared, leaving only Hannah and Lino behind, the latter quickly taking off his mask. Though slightly surprised by his actions, Hannah didn’t follow suit, merely standing on the side as he faced the huddled group and the six standing in front as protectors.
“Hello everyone!” he said, smiling widely. “Name’s Lino. And, well, I believe I just saved your asses, no? What’s with the terrified faces? I expected some gratitude by now.”
“... w-who... are you?” one of the men standing upfront -- the oldest of the bunch, Lino noted -- stepped further up and asked with a feeble voice.
“... eh? I just told you. Lino. L-I-N-O. Geez, did they scare you so much your brains fried?”
“Khm, khm...” Hannah coughed from the side to cover up her laughter. “He, uh, he means no harm. I think. Probably. I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Hey!” Lino exclaimed, glancing at her angrily. “What do you mean? I always mean harm. That’s my thing.”
“You’ve got a lot of things.”
“Shame you’re only ever interested in one.”
“Goes both ways buddy.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m at least interested in four of your things,” Lino said. “There’s quite a discrepancy at play here, don’t you think so?”
“If we’re counting everything, then, you know, I’m definitely winning.”
“... tsk. Me and my damn muscles.” Lino clicked his tongue, shaking his head and turning his attention back onto the old man. “Women, am I right? Can’t help but love them, but all they do is try and cripple your heart and soul on every corner.”
“Ego, Lino. I think you meant to say ego.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my ego.” he said.
“No, of course not. There’s just too much of it.”
“Ah, I think we genuinely might cause their brains to fry if we continue, so,” he took a deep breath and grinned, glancing over everyone present. “I’ll make it quick: you lot are hunted by practically everyone. Holy Grounds, smaller Sects, Gaia, the Bearers, hell, even the freaking Descent. Let’s be honest: you’ve got very few friends you can trust, and the world of shadows is growing ever-so-smaller each passing day. If we hadn’t come when we did, you would have been downsized to those few brats you sent to the Holy City. So, in lieu of that, I’m here to offer a friendly hand.”
“... heh, you say so, but aren’t you a Descender as well?” the old man asked.
“Oh, yeah. But, if I shortened myself to a singular identity, it would beat the whole point of living, no? Besides being a Descender and a great lover--”
“--can confirm.” Hannah chimed in.
“--she confirms. Anyway, besides being many things, some good and some bad, I’m also your last bastion of hope, old man.”
“Oh? And who exactly is that?”
“The last Empyrean.” Lino said, his Will billowing out form his eyes like smoke, dousing the entire encampment in pressure no one was able to withstand as they began shaking in terror. However, the old man didn’t, Lino noticed; rather than terror... in those tremor-filled eyes, Lino saw... hope. A genuine article of hope and of rather pronounced... joy.