Lino stood on a small mountaintop beneath the open night sky, gazing down with a perplexed expression and a questioning gaze. Though the innumerable stars in the sky, each brighter than the last, forming fascinating discs of light altogether, lit up the world splendidly, their light appeared eerily snuffed out compared to what welcomed his eyes down on the ground.
It wasn’t as though he hadn’t ever seen a city lit up by lanterns and gems and even stranger things than that, but never quite as strange as this; he couldn’t sense a whiff of Qi -- of any kind -- anywhere inside the city. Yet, it shone so brightly and exceedingly it nearly blinded him. Hundreds of windows glowed, ranging from yellow to white, with strange, box-shaped objects with wheels spitting beams of light from two frontal cases. Massive lamps hung on the sides of the street, their oval-shape heads casting divine light downwards and illuminating the streets to the point night ceased to matter.
City’s luminosity blended together in a perfect cascade, like a painting, giving way to day where night ought to be. He couldn’t recognize almost anything, let alone understand the mechanisms behind them. Strangely-shaped buildings with massive chimneys on the side, tall, barbed fences occasionally flickering in cyan lightning, large plots of land drowned in boxed objects on wheels, tall towers, one especially so with its centerpiece being a massive, round clock on the top lit up by round, strange bulbs emitting white light... the entire city was unlike anything he’d ever seen in his life, so much so that he’d truly believed for the first time he’d gone to an entirely different world.
Tim stood by his side in silence, waiting for him to process everything patiently. He didn’t try to explain anything or to offer a story as to how things came to be this way, and Lino didn’t bother asking as he knew he most-likely wouldn’t get an answer just yet.
“... goddamn.” Lino mumbled after nearly half an hour of inspections which gave him exactly zero answers. “I’m lost. But also quite intrigued.”
“... welcome to the Bastion of Gods, Empyrean Blacksmith,” Tim said with a faint smile. “Our little solitary expanse we preserved for tens of thousands of generations.”
“Call me Lino,” he said. “And this... is really something else.” he added as the two slowly began descending toward the city. “What sort of energy do you use?”
“A mixture of steam power and electricity,” Tim explained. “Though we’re in the process of developing some new, better avenues.”
“Yeah, I’m just gonna pretend I understand that until you decide to explain it.”
“Ha ha, it’s hardly anything complex,” Tim laughed for a moment before elaborating. “Steam power is self-explanatory, really; we use high pressure of vaporizing water to create a chain reaction which generates enough energy to perform certain actions, while electricity... hmm, well, I guess the easiest way to understand it is as a form of ‘tamed lightning’. Follow me; they are expecting us.”
“They?” Lino asked as they took a route that didn’t lead directly into the city, but slightly around it.
“Our government is ran a bit differently than you might be used to,” Tim said. “Rather than one leader, or one group of leaders, we are split into several parties based on core ideologies. People, in return, elect a single party to be in power for a year, and so on. We are going to meet current representatives of the five most popular parties.”
“... that’s weird.” Lino commented with a frown.
“Perhaps, but it works for us. This way. Do you have any other questions?”
“... I suspect none you can answer just yet,” Lino replied. “Where are those flying things you said you’ve got a lot of?”
“They’re in a hangar just outside the eastern side of the city,” Tim said. “As to not disturb the city, I was forced to land us on the backup runway, though we usually land on the one next to the hangar as it’s much longer and better maintained.”
“... why do all this?” Lino asked suddenly. “Why not just do what the rest of the world is doing?”
“Unfortunately... I’m unable to answer that just yet; it has to do with some of the most secretive parts of our history, and before we divulge any of it to the outsiders, we first need a majority vote.”
“Huh... ‘s that so? Well, then, let us get you that majority vote.”
“Just a fair warning,” Tim pulled his arm for a moment as the two stopped. “As I stated before, they are mostly doing this as a courtesy to me -- they are going into the meeting with the idea of simply humoring me and sending you away. They will most-likely test your temper, and I hope, from the bottom of my heart, you will be understanding.”
“...” Lino merely grinned mysteriously at Tim’s warning, leaving the latter to wonder silently.
The two quickly passed the seeming edge of the city and bound it around a small hillside until they’d found themselves in front of a large, fenced-off pavilion. Two brick towers rose out of the earth, with circular lights shining in a beam shape onto the earth below, causing Lino to briefly exclaim in surprise.
Pavilion itself consisted of several buildings, each oddly dull-colored yet also eerily fascinating. Coral and brown bricks mingled with ash-gray stone, streets beneath covered in the like Lino had never seen before; though still gray, the stone-like substance was exceedingly smooth with hardly a bump anywhere to be seen.
Entering one of the buildings, rather than climbing the stairs, Tim stopped in front of the strange, metallic doors. For a moment Lino had hoped he’d finally see something familiar, perhaps a short-distance teleportation array, but his hopes were dashed again; as the doors opened and the two of them stepped inside, he spotted a rectangular protrusion from the side of the wall with eight circular buttons. Tim pressed one which had ‘4’ carved into it, and the doors slowly closed as loud, unfamiliar sounds startled Lino for a moment. Though he couldn’t see it, through sensing the space around him, he realized they were moving upward. Upon further inspection outside the strange box, he saw a row of cables and gears dragging the box up through a shaft; the concept was similar to the mine carts Lino had seen before, though far more complex.
The box suddenly stopped moving and after a few moments of stillness, the doors opened on their own, revealing a long-winding hallway stacked with dozen wooden doors with plaques furnishing names plastered on top of them. Tim led him down to the end of the hallway before stopping in front of the wider doors with a plaque that read ‘Meeting Hall’. Taking a deep breath, he glanced at Lino and smiled faintly before flinging the doors open and walking in.
Lino followed, walking in briskly and taking the strange room in, one object at the time; it wasn’t terribly spacious nor it was cramped. Hardly a decoration hung off the walls save for the strange rectangles of white light on the opposite end. An oval-shaped wooden table spread at the center, surrounded by twelve cushioned chairs whose materials Lino couldn’t see through, startling him greatly.
Five out of twelve chairs were currently occupied, three by men and two by women. All appeared to be in their early to late forties, dressed in similar, dull fashion like Tim. They all also had high brows and similar facial features in addition to their skin color, confirming they were all also Gods. Five pairs of eyes quickly landed on him squarely, and he immediately sensed Tim’s words personify onto him; those gazes were full of disgust, distrust, anger and hate, all compounded together in a singular beam of ‘go away’ aimed at him. Lino merely cracked a smile as he walked up and sat on one of the free chairs.
Looking up, he saw a lamp-like object hanging from the ceiling, half-spherical with the open bottom where a white-beaming sphere of light hung, illuminating practically the entire room. Tim joined him right after, sitting next to him, opposite of the remaining five. Silence quickly fell over the room as Lino studied the five in front of him. Three men mainly differed in their height and eye-color, all sporting black hair with practically identical hair styles. Two women, similarly, had same hair styles and color, differing mainly in stature and the amount of make-up -- just a little, and zero. Though seemingly dull, there was something fascinating about the simplicity of everything, the sort Lino greatly appreciated.
“A warm welcome, eh?” he was the first one to break the silence, leaning back into his chair and smiling. “Though, to be fair, after bathing in Vy’s flames, I much prefer cold shoulders.”
“Humph, a buffoon with no social grace,” one of the men scoffed, staring at him with a mocking grin. “No greeting, no introduction, no courtesy... you may as well be a barbarian.”
“But I am, though,” Lino replied simply, still smiling. “All I know is how to swing massive stuff around and scream while doing it. You know, like my swords, and my axes, and my dick, and my spears... so I apologize if I lack the grace required to sit in your Godly presence.”
“... let’s get this over quickly,” one of the women spoke out before three men had a chance to. “Tim here has probably told you already that we have zero interest in seeking your help, Empyrean. I know not why you decided to come anyway; perhaps merely out of curiosity, perhaps out of vanity, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps out of confidence you may change our minds... it doesn’t matter. Nothing will change. Speak your mind and leave, hopefully forgetting you were ever here.”
“Tim told me he wants me to Liberate you,” Lino said, tapping his finger against the table. “He didn’t explain from what, but seeing your clothes, your rigid expressions, your entire... well, everything, I think he meant I’m supposed to liberate you from your bad tastes. I’m afraid you’re too far gone, however.”
“Insults? Really?” the other woman spoke out, arching her brows.
“You know,” Lino said, getting up suddenly. “Hypocrisy is one of my favorite things in the world; I love preaching things I’d never do in my life, you know? Like telling children to abstain from alcohol and sex because they’re bad for them. This rather liberal usage of it, however, has made me quite versed in the art of hypocrisy. And I find that I make best friends with other hypocrites; after all, we click at the most base level.”
“Are you calling us hypocrites?” one of the men asked.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Lino nodded. “Good job, picking up that one. I thought I might have been a bit too vague.” Tim sat by the side and listened silently; though his interactions with the Empyrean were brief, he’d learned that the man was no fool. Rather, he was beyond difficult to read, so much so that Tim had absolutely no idea as to what the man was thinking... at all. “I don’t know what you need help with, or whether I could even help you in the first place. And, if I’m being honest, the reason I came here was mostly out of curiosity; after all, you lot have hidden yourselves away for a long, long time, and most of what I know of you comes from the books. I’m more of the type that likes the practical knowledge over stories and tales. In that sense, my trip here has already paid off.”
“Call me an idiot -- and I know you already are in your minds -- but, wouldn’t it be better to simply have a conversation? Get to know each other? Heck, maybe put out some drinks and snacks. And then, hours later, when you realize you were kind of assholes to a pretty decent guy, we might revisit the question of me Liberating you or whatever.”
“... perhaps I was not clear enough,” the woman who first spoke suddenly stood up and met Lino’s gaze squarely and firmly. “So let me put it this way: I would rather have us all burn to ash right this moment than seek help from a murdering psychopath who fancies his tongue witty and charming like a spoiled child.”
“That’s enough, Tim,” she interrupted him, still holding Lino’s gaze. “I humored your request, as you asked. And while he certainly doesn’t seem to have gone mad yet, he is hardly any better than that. A childish, vain, self-important man who believes manipulating people is the best way to get what he wants... is not the sort I wish to see lurking around here.”
“... fine,” Lino said, smiling lightly. “Children of Gaia, I’ll leave you be, shackled inside the chains your very own Mother cast upon you. Perhaps, one day, when I’m choking the life out of the whore, I might even include you in the list of people with grievances against her. A word of advice, before I leave however,” Lino paused for a moment and looked at the five shocked faces. “If there were such a thing as an unbreakable chain, we’d all be reigned over by their beholders. Truth of the matter is, o’ stupendously stupid Gods, there is no chain. Just eons of guilt, fear and anger. There,” he added, turning around and waving back at the six of them. “You have been Liberated.”