POISE OF THE EMPYREAN
A squared hall stood silent, lit beautifully by the hanging oil lanterns and chandeliers above, perfectly divided into two halves through which a path cut straight, leading up to a slightly elevated platform where a single figure sat, overlooking the rest of the filled hall.
Lino sat in a relaxed stance, his head leaned against his right arm, the other one casually set on top of the armrest. His legs were split slightly apart, his back leaned wholly into a rather comfortable, slightly over-sized chair that did its best to seem like a throne without ever truly becoming one. His gaze was calm and leveled as he scrutinized everyone in the hall evenly; most of those who met his gaze looked away, only a few -- mostly those who knew him from well-before -- dared meet it.
Yet, all the same, they found themselves rather shocked -- especially so Ella and Eggor. The former was worried that the image she and the rest tried to build up of Lino would come crashing down upon his return, yet not only has he not pulled any shenanigans, but he had also surpassed the stories through which they painted him.
Sitting on top of the chair, looking down at the rest, he seemed absolved of the surrounding reality, as though he lived on an entirely different plane of existence. His face remained expressionless, his eyes lit up like diamonds, seemingly peering through every obstacle they encountered.
Lino recognized many faces inside the hall; Ella, Eggor, Hannah, Val, Lucky, Edward, Jack, Evelyn, Althone, Litha, Vyrone... practically everyone he’d ever met personally was here, in addition to nearly a dozen figures he didn’t recognize. Four were in the early twenties, two were well in their hundreds if not thousands, and the remaining six appeared middle-aged though it was difficult to gauge their ages correctly. Realizing Lino’s intention, Val stepped forward and began her introductions.
"Master Everick," Val pointed at one of the older men with a faint smile; Everick had a hunched back, making him seem far shorter than he was, and a hairless head and a hairless face. His eyes were starkly golden, his canyoned face exuding an air of confidence yet humbleness. He stepped forth slowly and bowed before Lino as Val continued. "Lord, Master Everick is our best Formation Master, largely responsible for all the upgrades You have noticed upon your arrival. He has also mantled the responsibility of teaching the interested youngs of the craft."
“It is an honor to meet you, Lord Empyrean.” Everick spoke in a calm tone, yet seemingly aware of the customs, avoided Lino’s gaze entirely.
“Honor’s mine,” Lino replied evenly. “Your work is rather astounding.”
“Thank you for the praise.”
“Go over the southern <Bend-Shift> array responsible for the timing of phaseouts,” Lino added. “Chip away at the web of the second layer; you should be able to improve conductivity by roughly double.”
“Ah...!” Everick’s eyes suddenly lit up as he began mumbling to himself, seemingly having forgotten where he was.
“M-master Everick...?” Val called out awkwardly as the old man remained standing for nearly ten minutes.
"Ah, my apologies!" he exclaimed quickly, bowing toward Val and Lino. "Thank you, Lord Empyrean, for your guidance. This old man has finally broken through a barrier that has been holding me back for decades. Your wisdom exceeds your reputation greatly, my Lord."
"Go consolidate your breakthrough," Lino replied with a smile. "We can chat a bit later."
“Y-yes, thank you!” Everick didn’t bother staying inside the hall any longer, immediately beelining toward the exit and leaving.
"Khm," Val coughed awkwardly for a moment before continuing the introductions. "Master Amadeel," the other elderly man stepped forth, a stark contrast to Everick; his shoulders stood tall and wide, his head both full of hair and beard -- albeit snow-white in dye -- his pair of silver eyes dauntingly dangerous to behold. He held his hands behind his back and walked forward slowly, bowing in front of Lino as Val continued. "Master Amadeel is our only Rune Grandmaster, Lord. Thanks to him, the quality of our Armory and Weaponry shot up considerably thanks to his runes."
“Many thanks, Master Amadeel.” Lino said.
"It has been an honor, Lord Empyrean," Amadeel replied calmly. "Does your Lordship, perchance, have breakthrough-worthy advice for me as well?"
“... ha ha, I’m afraid not,” Lino replied with a wry grin. “I have never tinkered with Runes before, but, if I ever do have some free time, I may have you teach me a thing or two, Master Amadeel.”
“It would be my pleasure, Lord.”
"..." as Amadeel withdrew, Val slowly began introducing the remaining ten; Lino, however, only truly paid attention to three more -- Santheer, Grandmaster of Talismans, Vyena, a Master Scribe and Talleah, Eggor's disciple, seeing as his original one enjoyed disappearing for years on end rather than learning from the Master.
Santheer was seemingly a middle-aged man of proud and tall stature; he wore expensive yet well-fitting clothes, had copper skin, a pair of gemed, blue eyes and jet-black hair tied up behind his back. Vyena was a timid-seeming young woman in her early twenties. All the while, she scuffled and ruffled, seemingly half a mind away from simply running out of the hall. Her cheeks seemed perpetually flushed, a sea of golden locks that was her hair falling freely, and a pair of clear, honest brown eyes made up her appearance. She reminded Lino somewhat of Seya before the latter inherited her own version of a vicious tongue from Hannah and him.
Talleah was the one that surprised Lino the most; perhaps the tallest person in the entire room, not just among women but men also, she towered to nearly two and a half meters altogether. If she jumped, Lino gauged, she would be able to flatten the top of her head against the ceiling. Though on the slender end, she had built up quite a muscle -- the sort Lino recognized, the ones he had after Eggor’s initial training. She was rather awkward all around, however, biting her tongue more than once, attempting the court-like style of speaking only to forget the words halfway through... it took most of Lino’s willpower not to burst out laughing.
“Thank you all for gathering here today,” Lino said as he slowly got up off of his chair, descending the platform and walking toward the exit. All eyes followed him closely, people shuffling in their seats to watch his back. “I’ve been away for far too long,” he continued, continuing to move evenly toward the exit. “But, I have not been forgotten. Nor have I been forgiven.” he slowly flung the doors to the hall open, exiting onto a terrace from which he could gaze at the entire fortress down below. “Nor have I forgiven either.” he turned around slowly, his chin raised slightly, meeting all eyes inside the hall squarely. “Today, I only wish to say a single thing.” his Will suddenly exploded out of his body, enshrouding the entire fortress; within a breath, everyone found themselves equally stunned and slumped as they slowly bent their knees; save for Eggor, Ella, Hannah, Lucky and Seya, everyone else found themselves squarely on their knees, unable to resist. It wasn’t the sheer strength of the Will that bound them to the floor, it was the arrogant, overbearing, beyond imperious air about it that they found suffocating. “I will win.”
His voice was choired into thousands, echoing throughout every inch of the fortress. Hearts and souls shuddered in uniformity, eyes widening like saucers; as quickly as it came, however, the Will vanished, leaving most people with their backs soaked in sweat, their hearts still beating terribly quickly, their throats dry.
As they looked up, they realized that Lino was gone from the terrace, having seemingly vanished from the spot without anyone noticing. Glancing around, Hannah realized that Ella was gone too, shrugging shortly after and leaving the hall to take a nap.
Meanwhile, on the top floor of the fortress, inside a small room barely large enough to fit a chair, a table and a few bookshelves, Lino stood by the window, gazing down. The space behind him shuddered and splintered as Ella walked through; he still had trouble adjusting himself to seeing her like this -- in his eyes, she would always remain the black-haired, blue-eyed, wrinkle-skinned housewife, rather than the beauty that stood before him, one that could topple the world ten times over.
Ella smiled queerly at him, walking up and stretching her arms abound, hugging him tightly and bringing his head into her bosom; Lino could feel the faint tremors as he hugged her back. Though she looked remarkably different, she was still the same woman who’d given him home, he quickly realized; there was no replacement for the sort of warmth she had given him.
“You come back home and the first thing you do is show off,” she said as the two separated, sitting down. “You haven’t changed one bit.”
“I looked really cool, didn’t I?” he grinned coyly, taking out two cups and filling them with wine before handing one to Ella.
"Yeah, you really did," she said. "You scared everyone shitless, though," she added, staring into his eyes for a moment. "But, that's what you wanted anyways..."
“...” Lino remained silent, merely taking a sip of the wine.
“You have finally chosen the path, huh?”
“... yeah.” he said, taking a deep breath. “Hannah, Val, Lucky, hell, even you and Eggor... these people have enough kind souls looking over them. They don’t need another one.”
“... you’ve chosen properly,” she said, smiling warmly. “And, you’re right, they hardly need a friend in this case. They need an overarching presence they find terrifying, yet also comforting, for that terror bars all ills and evils of the world from reaching them. I wholly believe you’ve convinced most of them today that’s exactly what you are.”
“... and that’s exactly what I’ll be.” he said, replying the smile.
"You should have made everyone kneel, though," she quickly criticized, however, her brows furrowing. "Regardless of personal feelings."
“... pfft, ha ha ha, like hell I could do that,” Lino laughed freely, shaking his hand. “I’d rather stab my ass with a spear voluntarily than have you, Eggor, Hannah, Lucky and that brat kneel before me.”
“However silently, they will talk--”
“Then let ‘em talk,” Lino cleaved her thoughts in half. “What of it? If anything, I should have knelt in front of you,” he added. “And finally thanked you properly for everything you’ve done and are doing for me.”
“And I would have spanked your ass in front of all of them if you did.” she chuckled lightly. “All jokes aside... you have changed ever-so-slightly, despite my desire to still see you as that little, silver-tongued boy.”
“... I’ve come to realize many things over the past two years,” Lino said, sighing faintly. “And, well, I am almost forty. It was high time I developed some mature side to me.”
“... ha ha, it really was.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Anything.” Ella said.
“What do you know about the Dragon Isles?” he asked.
“Anything but that.” she quickly shot back.
“... I plan on heading there eventually, so you may as well tell me. But, later perhaps,” Lino said, stroking his chin for a moment. “Think about it.”
"... will do." Ella said dubiously, staring into his eyes for a moment before getting up and leaving the same way she came. Lino remained silent for a few minutes, fiddling around with the cup before lifting his gaze and looking into the seeming nothingness in front of him.
"Aren't you bored already, Master Amadeel?" he mumbled as space rippled and a man appeared on the other end. He stood there calmly, seemingly unaffected by the fact that Lino found him. "Amadeel... Master Rune Crafter. Impressive. Not as impressive as your other identity."
“... oh?” Amadeel smiled faintly, stroking his chin. “You are far more perceptive than you let on, young Empyrean.”
“... so, why have you snuck into my home, Amadeel?” Lino quizzed, his Will exploding out of his body, covering the entire room. “The First Master of Time -- the Chronoshifter.”