IF THE WORLD KNEW
A playful smile hung on Lino’s lips, his eyes narrowed slightly as he observed the colorful expressions of four men standing in front of him, tucked neatly and tightly into the protective bubbles as flames around them raged on. They’d occasionally glance around and shudder, no doubt imagining what it would be like to touch the fire with the naked hand.
Edryss had already told Lino who the four men were -- Sylos, a keenly kind-looking man, also know as the Sage of Thunder; Ajjy, the youngest among them with a slightly angry look in his eyes, also know as the Sage of Fortitude; Ryvone, a big-bellied man with a slightly questionable fashion sense, also know as the Sage of Desires, and Vyne, twilight-eyed man with indescribable atmosphere surrounding him, also known as the Lunar Sage.
The four of them made up the leaders of the Last Bastion of Magic -- well, at least the political ones. They were hardly the fighting sort, which Lino could easily discern, save for perhaps Ajjy who still had some fire in him, which is also why Lino’s surprise was greater over the fact that Edryss chose to introduce them. That surprise was heightened when she informed him that they were the ones who requested the meeting.
Meanwhile, the four men stared at the one in front of them with some trepidation; he sat cross-legged, entirely topless, with his jet-black hair let down, reaching nearly half his back altogether. The man had sharp features, high brow, pronounced cheekbones, squared jaw, and rather thick beard to go with it. Yet, the most striking feature of his -- even more so than the muscles they all chose to ignore lest their self-images crumble -- were his eyes. By merely meeting his gaze, they felt as though he’d peered into their souls and learned all there was to learn about them.
“Boy, you lads sure look comfy in those bubbles,” Lino was the first one to break the silence, chuckling faintly. “I’m somewhat jealous.”
“Aren’t you in one, too?” Ajjy asked with a faint scoff.
“... no?” Lino replied, tilting his head slightly.
“... hah, as if.” Ajjy continued. “You really want us to believe you’re enduring Edryss Flames by your very own skin?”
“Yup, pretty much,” Lino nodded, stroking his beard. “Although, I wouldn’t say ‘endure’ though; it’s more along the lines of enjoyment these days. No, wait. That makes me sound way too perverted. Oh well. The secret’s out.”
“... fucking Cultivators...” Vyne mumbled, shuddering.
“Hey!” Lino exclaimed suddenly. “This has nothing to do with cultivators! You really think others would be able to do what I’m doing? Nah, no way in hell! If you think so, why don’t you go outside and meet those two lowly--I mean lovely ladies and ask them to join me. Nah-ah. I’m the freak here!”
“...” the lofty image of the Empyrean the four had built up inside their heads was quickly falling apart, as the man in front of them seemed anything but. “I hope you don’t mind our disturbing you,” Sylos said suddenly. “We merely wished to meet you when Edryss told us you would be her helping hand. Mind if I ask you what were you doing here in the first place?”
“Uh, a lot of things,” Lino said. “Hiding, running away, looking for you, completing a mission... so, you know, a lot of things.”
“... are we really going to put our fates into the hands of this man-child?!” Ajjy suddenly exploded angrily. “Even by the Empyrean standards, he’s a joke!”
“No, no, let the man speak his mind,” Lino said, smiling faintly. “Ajjy, was it?”
“Yes.” Ajjy nodded, barely managing to meet Lino’s gaze for a moment before looking away.
“So, you think I can’t help you guys?”
“... if you took things a bit more seriously, then maybe...” Ajjy mumbled.
“That’s no good,” Lino sighed. “If you’ve got balls to call me out, have balls to look at me and speak louder than a mouse. I ain’t gonna bite. And even if I wanted to, there’s a big Dragon out there just waiting for me to make a bad move so she can snip my head right off.”
“... if, khm, if you took things a bit more seriously,” Ajjy, with Lino’s reassurance, voiced out again, meeting the latter’s eyes. “Then maybe. But, this all seems like a big joke to you. It’s not to us. It’s about survival.”
“... I’m hardly making light of your situation,” Lino said, chuckling faintly. “Merely trying to ease the tensions. Ever since you four came here, you’ve been fidgeting around like a teenage girl standing next to a boy she loves. Not one of you even looked me in the eyes for more than a few seconds. And, however amusing it may be to see old people shitting their pants in fear, it also hurts. Do you think I need to help you?”
“....” the four men remained silent, lowering their heads.
“Rather, my mission was merely to locate you and report to the Descent.” Lino added. “And, even right now and here, if I wanted to leave, even Edryss would be unable to stop me. I could just tell the Descent everything, and have them deal with you. What is more terrifying? The upcoming war or having the Descent writing the story of your existence?”
“It’s true -- I may be a bit childish,” Lino said, suddenly getting up and walking over toward the four frightened men. “And I may spew a lot of shit out of my mouth. But... so what? What’s the point of living if you’re gonna spend your days with furrowed brows, anxious heart, and bitter thoughts? You need to lighten up,” he came to a halt in front of the bubbles, grinning faintly. “You’re going to a war with the fucking Dragons. Do you know how badass that is?”
“Anyway, I was kind of hoping at least one of you would be an eye-candy, but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be,” Lino sighed as the four men suddenly snickered, coughing afterwards to cover it up. “I won’t make any promises,” Lino said, his tone suddenly turning serious. “Nor spout about how I’m going to save you all. I’ve no luxury to make any more promises like that. But, I will help you. If for nothing else, then for the favor Edryss promised me if I deliver. And, believe it or not, even Empyreans need favors.”
“... t-thank you.” Sylos coughed lightly and awkwardly. “We appreciate it. I hope you... you won’t take offense to our behavior today.”
“... I’m not a saint,” Lino mumbled, turning around. “But I’m also not a monster the world has made me out to be. I’m just like you,” he glanced back and grinned. “Doing everything I can to protect the things and people I love.”
As the four left the small pocket realm of flames, they found themselves outside in the valley, standing in front of Edryss’ massive head with rather stumped expressions. The Empyrean was a bundle of... a lot of things, most of which they truly did not expect. It wasn’t their fault, however, which is also why Lino didn’t really seem all that bothered by it; after all, the common image of what the Empyrean was like was so embedded in all those who heard of the term that it was impossible to simply erase it away.
The four men exchanged brief gazes and laughed bitterly, shaking their heads. They realized they really needed to lighten up. Worrying is, after all, as effective as doing absolutely nothing.
“Interesting lad.” Ryvone mumbled lightly.
“That’s one way to describe him.” Vyne chuckled.
“Judging from your expressions,” a pleasant voice surprised them suddenly as they all looked sideways, noticing a girl sitting on top of a rock; the four old stooges were immediately stunned to silence. Crimson hair spilled over like blood, standing out like a sore thumb against the otherwise white and blue surroundings, with a pair of clear, emerald-colored eyes piercing right through them. “You must have met Lino. I hope he wasn’t too mean to you guys. If he was, I’m really sorry.”
“.... a-and... and who might you be, young Lady?” Sylos swallowed a mouthful of saliva and asked.
“Young Lady? Oh my, you are making me blush,” Hannah chuckled lightly. “I suppose, among many other things, I’m also that bastard’s better half so you better don’t start having any designs on me. Or do. I could never make him jealous; he’s really too trusting like that.”
“She will be your helper during the war,” Edryss voice jolted the four of them back into reality. “Ryvone, Vyne, Ajjy, Sylos, meet Hannah -- the Bearer of Order.”
“E-elysian?!!” the four men exclaimed in shock, looking at Hannah again yet with far different sets of eyes and gazes.
“Ah, so this must be how Lino feels.” Hannah suddenly sighed in faint ecstasy. “I... I get it. It feels good.”
“W-wait, wait a second!” Ajjy suddenly exclaimed, as though he realized something. “The-the Empyrean and the Elysian... y-you two... are... together?!”
“Aye, we’ve been making quite a few beds,” Hannah said, smiling innocently. “Exciting, isn’t it?”
“...” the four men slumped into silence yet again, wondering what the world has come to. Chaos and Order together... wouldn’t that paradox break the world apart? Clearly not, they mused, as the world was still together. Yet, it also eerily made sense, they realized after a few moments of thinking, especially so having met both of them. Both seemed almost chiseled out for one another, as if just taking the one away would rip the whole of the both. Many months would come to pass before the four would reconcile the shock they received today, and during those many months, Lino and Hannah barging in on them from time to time and making the embarrassment a whole new concept certainly didn’t help. Just for a brief moment, before they dispelled the insane thought, they wondered how the world react if it knew; then it might really break apart at the seams.