BIRTH OF THE ORDER
Lino sat inside a small tent decorated with a single torch, a bed, and an assortment of old books strewn across the blanketed earth beneath. The light was dim, yet bright enough to illuminate the expression of awe on the elder’s face, and the gleam in the pair of honest eyes. He could faintly hear the excited choir of children’s laughter over Hannah’s ‘magic trick show’, and the muffled chatter of others, all unable to peel their gazes away from the tent.
On one of the walls of the tent was an old-looking painting, its frame heavily discolored and chipped. The canvas, however, was perfectly preserved, depicting the sign for infinity superimposed over the golden halo of the sun. A bit on the nose, he mused inwardly, yet inspiring nonetheless.
The old man in front of him, he’d learned, was the closest thing to the leader the Order had -- an old, thousands of years old, washed out, weary mind who’d spent most of his life not trying to enact revenge upon the world, but keep his people safe and sound. It was hardly a cult, Lino quickly realized, an organization threatening the world; they were more like an exiled tribe, shunned by the world.
“A drink?” Lino asked, taking out a bottle of ale.
“A-ah, yes. Thank you.” the old man stuttered, accepting the cup with shaky hands.
“Your people are rather blessed,” Lino said, smiling faintly. “Having you as their leader.”
“Ha ha, hardly,” the old man laughed bitterly. “I’ve promised them a world once... and all I can offer is... well, this.”
“More than most ever get,” Lino said. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Av, Your--”
“Call me Lino.” he quickly interrupted, fearing the words he’d come to despise.
“Ah, y-yes... Lino.”
“To be honest Av, I thought I’d have to do some convincing first. I didn’t think you guys would fold immediately.”
“... truth be told,” Av said, lowering his head slightly. “We have just recently sent some of our youngest and brightest to the Holy City -- which you already know. It was with hopes of locating you.”
“... you were right. We’ve hardly a friend out there in the world. We’re chased like dogs by whoever fancies a hunt. The world... is hardly our home no more.”
“... I can give you a home,” Lino said, smiling faintly. “But, you must know it won’t come for free.”
“... what do you have in mind?” Av asked.
“... I’m sure you already know I’ve declared the war on the world. What you may not know is that they’ve already sent the hounds to find me. Or anyone I care about, for that matter. I intend to repay in kind.”
“...” Av listened carefully, his heart shuddering upon meeting the cold gaze.
“For the time being, I’d only have one task for you; it’s up to you who you send, how you have them do it and whatnot.” Lino explained. “Afterwards... well, you’d have joined a war, Av. I’ll provide a sanctuary for the feeble--”
“--but you need our abled to fight?” Av finished the sentence.
“Ha ha, no, no, of course not,” Lino laughed freely for a moment, taking a sip of the ale. “No, the only soldier my army will have is me. What I need are limbs, Av. Many, many, many limbs. Extending all the world over, covering every nook, every cranny, every god-forsaken valley... I want to see the entire world, and I want the entire world to hear me when I speak.”
“... grand ambitions.” Av laughed for a moment, taking a sip as well.
“... ambitions are for the dreamers,” Lino said. “But, well, dreams can be rather uplifting.” Av turned to the sound of faint footsteps, realizing that it was the other Descender who joined them -- the crimson-haired woman. “For all my status as an Empyrean, I can hardly expect you to trust me.” Hannah sat next to him, smiling faintly. “So it’s up to you, Av. Whether you take this leap of faith or not.”
“... what do you know about us?” Av suddenly asked, surprising Lino.
“What I was told,” Lino said, glancing at Hannah. “A splinter group of the Holy Ground, deemed unworthy successor, banished and hunted.”
“Hah, a fitting tale, no? Hardly the truthful one, though.”
“Oh? Do tell.” Lino said.
“I was a small child, barely twenty, when my grandfather told me what happened,” Av said. “This was... hah, I’d long since forgotten the count of years. A long... long time ago. Eternal Paradise... do you know how they got that name?”
“The founding father of the Sect... was the Bearer of Immortality,” Hannah’s eyes turned into slits for a moment, but she said nothing. “And, fittingly, she wanted to create a paradise... for all those who didn’t want to become the part of the world’s struggle. That was the creed, carved out into the foundational stone of the Sect’s Ancestral Grounds. For millions... tens of millions years thereafter, the creed was upheld. The Eternal Paradise was just a small Sect, obscure, a place the tired went to rest. Until two generations prior to the split.”
“The leaders of the Sect at the time decided being an obscure place wasn’t good enough, so, they fabricated a plan to become a Holy Ground. And they did. Despite the protests, despite the splitting views... the Eternal Paradise became everything it wasn’t supposed to be. It was no longer an escape; it was the pit to throw yourself into if you wanted to be at the heart of the conflict. And... that was how the split occurred. We wanted to go back to who we were supposed to be... and they didn’t. I imagine you already understand why the Great Descent backed their faction and deemed us the world’s vagabonds.”
“... that’s quite a tale,” Lino said, grabbing at Hannah’s arm and holding her tightly. “But, many tales are out there, Av. Even you have to admit it that a simple power-struggle makes a much more sensible of a tale.”
“Hah, it indeed does. And, there’s really nothing I can do to make you believe me. You either do or you don’t. I am telling you this, Empyrean, exactly because I want you to know the kind of sort we are; we aren’t soldiers, fighters, heroes. Shadows, though? We can be that. Aren’t you, though, afraid of offending the Great Descent?” he asked at the end after a short pause.
“... this Immortal. What was her name?” Lino asked instead.
“There’s no name in her records, just her title.”
“Wasn’t, well... the Immortal her title?” Lino questioned, seemingly confused.
“She called herself the Immortal Fae.” Av replied. “I very much doubt there are any records of her left in the Eternal Paradise. Last I heard, their founder had suddenly become this heroic figure who uplifted the place from ashes into a behemoth.”
“... they’re getting rowdy outside.” Lino said after short silence. “Ease their minds and tell them to start packing. Also recall those in the City. Tell them to get back here within a day; we depart come midday tomorrow, whether they’re here or not.”
“... yes.” Av nodded, glancing at Hannah one last time and leaving. The moment he left the tent, Hannah’s fist smashed the table in front of her; Lino didn’t react, seemingly having expected it.
“He’s lying!” she exclaimed, taking off her mask and putting it away.
“Perhaps,” Lino said. “Perhaps not.”
“... seems awfully convenient that he has this sob-ready story prepared just to buy a few sympathy points off of you.”
“Ask yourself Hannah... what’s more likely?” Lino said, smiling bitterly while caressing her hair gently. “That he fabricated the entire story, all the while knowing I’d have taken them in anyway... or that you were simply fed more lies?”
“... it isn’t right.” she mumbled faintly.
“None of it is.”
“What now?” she asked.
“... we go into hiding.” Lino said.
“The entire world is crawling with people after our heads,” Lino said. “If it were just the two of us, we would have been fine. But it’s not. Not anymore. Think as a ruler.”
“Stabilize, expand, infiltrate, resurface?” she mumbled. “That could take years.”
“... are we really going to vanish from the face of the earth for years?”
“No, of course not,” Lino chuckled. “We first have to arrange the farewell present.”
“The farewell present?” she questioned.
“The party they sent to this continent,” Lino explained. “I’ve promised them a war. I can’t crawl into a hole right after the declaration. What would become of my reputation?”
“You don’t have a reputation.”
“Exactly.” he said, smiling faintly. “So, we build one. One so grand it will withstand the test of years that, by the time we come back, they’ll still share stories about us.”
“... heh, you fucking maniac.” she chuckled lightly, pinching his shoulder. “But, you’re right. Withdrawal for the time being is a correct play. It should give Ella enough time to go through with everything, and it should give the Grounds some time to develop the inner conflict. Where are we going to hide? Not in that tribe, right?”
“Nah,” Lino shook his head. “I believe Val will have a surprise for us when we get back. Until then, however, it’s high time we stretched our limbs, huh?”
“It has been a while...”
“It indeed has...”