THE CAST OF DAWN
Walls were thick and soundproof, the only source of light being a single candle at the tail end of its lifespan burning in the corner. Primul and Hannah sat in one corner while Lucky and Alison sat in another. Of the four, the last seemed most downcast and trodden, with Hannah seemingly being the most indifferent to their current situation.
They had been captured just a couple hours ago, and were thrown inside this cell without a spoken word, left alone ever since. None of the four were quite sure as to how they got caught as they were quite careful. Primul was yet to even temper with the formation, largely still studying it and trying to draw up a counter-measure. Hannah and Lucky had a few guesses, but couldn’t be certain either way. For all they knew, they were simply found out by accident and thrown in here until their identities were confirmed.
Hannah had immediately contacted Lino as she wasn’t certain how far the things would escalate. If it were simply a matter of breaking out of here, she was entirely confident that the four of them could do it without outside help, but she didn’t want to bet on a straightforward scenario of it all.
“... someone’s coming.” Lucky mumbled faintly as she glanced left where, in the distance, sounds of footsteps soon began to echo. Alison drew closer to her, while Hannah slowly got up and walked over to the iron bars. Though they were reinforced with all kinds of arrays, it hardly presented a challenge to her.
Thirty seconds or so later, a hooded figure showed up in front of them, holding four folders full of papers and casually reading over them. Above his head hung a blooming sphere of light, illuminating both his surroundings and the cell, yet strangely casting him into a shadow.
Hannah inspected the man silently, slightly shocked that he was already a Titular Fiend. Perhaps breaking out, she mused inwardly, wouldn’t have been as easy as she imagined.
"... two Bearers, an ex-Bearer, and a stranger walk into a prison..." the figure mumbled in a coarse, deep voice. "Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn't it?"
“... why are we here?” Hannah asked casually.
“Because you were trespassing official property,” the man replied simply. “And broke the law.”
“You really want to preach laws to us?” Hannah asked, smirking.
“... there are a lot of tales out there, on the Mainland, of this place,” the man said instead of replying to Hannah. “Most of them speak of this hole as a hellish, inescapable one. Truth is, it’s neither of those two things. Every prison here is modeled after those on the mainland, and this place is fairly easy to escape. If you had left right after you grabbed him, we would have never caught you. That easy.”
“... well, you did catch us. What now?” Primul asked indifferently.
“Well,” the man took a deep breath, looking up. They were still unable to discern his features, however. “One of you, at least, probably called for reinforcements. And, quite frankly, whichever ones arrive, we don’t feel like dealing with them. So, tell me, Bearer of Order, what is the right thing to do for us here?”
“... I’m the one who called for reinforcements.” Hannah said simply, giving the man a gentle smile. “So think again what is the right thing for you to do.”
“Heh, the Empyrean, huh?” the man chuckled. “I think we can handle a young lad, I’m afraid.”
“... many stronger, wiser and richer than you though the same. Do you know where are they now?”
“Oh, do tell.”
“Oh my, how scary.”
“... you’re right,” Hannah smiled gently as she suddenly withdrew to her corner and sat back down. “You’re a big, bad shadowy wolf that even the Holy Grounds could never capture. Heck, even Great Descent just decides to let you be because you’re too much of a headache. What can a little Empyrean boy do, then? Scowl at you until you die of laughter?”
“... we’ve dealt with many Bearers before, miss Hannah, Empyreans included,” the man chuckled back. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
“... see you on the other side,” Hannah winked, closing her eyes after. “Where the grass is greener and people ain’t as dumb.”
“... he he,” the man laughed eerily right after, turning around and walking away. “Someone will come by to pick you up soon. Please, for your own safety, do not resist.”
“... I can’t believe you called him for help.” Alison scoffed coldly the moment the man’s footsteps stopped resounding back to them. “What? You now can’t do anything without him?”
“Sure can,” Hannah replied, her eyes still closed. “But why waste the energy? And, besides, he could use a leg stretcher. He’s been chair-bound for a while recently.”
“... this generation’s Empyrean... is coming here?” Primul asked.
“... he is,” Hannah cracked a smile. “So just sit back and enjoy the show.”
“What show?!” Alison exclaimed from the side. “Do you really believe he can take on the whole Headquarters all on his own?! He has blinded you, Hannah!”
“...” Lucky remained silent, yet in a desperate need of good laughter.
Meanwhile, the hooded man reached the upper floor, leaving the dungeons down below, and entering a rather small, sparsely decorated room. A woman in her seemingly late forties awaited him there, looking out the window and up into the sky. Turning around, the man quickly bowed his head low, avoiding her milky-white eyes, both decorated by a straight scar across them.
“... who have they called?” she asked.
“The Empyrean, Lady Iron.” the man replied.
“... a boy? Looks like we worried for nothing.” the woman sighed, shaking her head. “Perhaps the Master was right; the years in shadows have truly made us too cautious.”
“It is never wrong to take everything into consideration before taking action.”
“... what’s the word from the continent?” she asked.
“House and the Empire are still probing, but they’re getting nowhere. No one else has shown any interest. What about the items?”
“... we found a few good ones, but two of them were duds.”
“Duds?” the man asked.
“Their maker imparted purposeful flaws into their design so they would immediately break under right circumstances. Either someone is as cautious as us... or they might have predicted something like this happening. Once we get back on the continent, find everything you can about the newcomer -- the so-called Divine Smith.”
“Will do, Lady Iron. What shall we do about them?” he asked.
“I’ll escort the Bearers to their Sect and reap a fine reward in the process,” the woman said. “Kill the other two; that runt has long since lived past his expiration date. I didn’t even know he was still alive.”
“Very well,” the man nodded. “Shall I send out a Brigade to intercept the Empyrean?”
“No, that is fine,” the woman shook her head. “Even if he was alarmed right before we captured them, he should take at least a few days to reach here, even if he knows where the entrances are. In the meantime--”
Before the woman could finish her sentence, the world in front of her blew up in a symposium of flames and water mingling, capsizing the entire island until only the singular fortress floated above, solitary, eerily. Water shaved off of its ends and mingled into tiny waterfalls as it dropped off into the ocean.
Both the man and the woman cried out lowly as they rolled over and fell, quickly shooting up to their feet and exiting the room through the window, heaving over above the fortress where over a hundred souls already were, all looking up at the far-high sky.
There, basking in golden colors of the massive, breathtaking wings was a masked figure looking down on them. Yet, were they not able to see him with their eyes, they wouldn’t have ever realized he was there.
“... Void Cunts or whatever, I presume?” the figure’s voice was low, calm, indifferent, yet it easily reached all their ears. “Who’s the one in charge?”
“What’s it to yo---” before a youthful voice could finish the sentence, a head flew up into the sky as the body fell shortly after. There was not even a time for him to cry out.
“It looks like it’s you,” the figure focused onto the woman called Iron Lady; she frowned for a moment before stepping out, lifting herself into the sky and meeting the figure far above. He wore simple, tattered clothes, not a single piece of armor to be found. Ghastly-white porcelain masked covered all but his eyes, which were swirls of eternal damnation from the woman’s point of view. “Hello.”
“... the Empyrean, I presume?” the woman said, smiling faintly, her arms behind her back.
“...” Lino didn’t say anything, merely taking a deep look at the woman for a moment before looking away, down at the remaining force. For a secret Cult, they were rather powerful, he had to admit it. If Ella, Hannah and he were not to participate, they would absolutely obliterate his own, little ‘army’. “You’ve got big balls on you,” he said, seemingly entirely ignoring the woman. “Going after me.”
“... going after you? So, her trespassing on our property is us going after you?”
“That? Oh, no,” Lino grinned faintly. “I mean literally going after me. Stealing from me, no less.”
“I don’t believe we have ever interacted before today.” the woman replied with a faint smile, quite contradicting her cold voice.
“... I don’t like killing... a lot,” Lino said slowly. “So I’d like to avoid doing that today. So here are my terms: the items you stole will be returned to the house, and if any one of you ever shows their face on the Mainland, I’ll obliterate you.”
“... a rash boy indeed,” the woman chuckled lowly. “No wonder nobody wants to work with you. You do not make friends in this world by treating everyone as though they were already dead, Empyrean.”
“...” Lino finally lifted his gaze up and met hers; just a mere moment later, the woman found herself unable to breathe, the whole reality around her collapsing. Her playful smile turned into a soundless shriek of horror as she stared at the empty abyss, trembling. “Do you know what dying feels like?”
“Cold,” he continued as the woman slowly began floating toward him against her Will. “Empty. Hollow. You slowly feel your soul being sucked out of every one of your veins as your brain desperately tries to fix everything that’s wrong, which only results in far more pain than there need be. It’s like an obsession -- the body can never let itself to just... die. It tries to fix and fix and fix... even in those moments when nothing can be fixed. If I rip your heart out, do you think your body will listen and just kill you immediately because there is no chance? No... it will be short, for sure, but for a few moments after, you’ll still live as you find it impossible to breathe. Alarms will begin blaring off in your head -- where the hell is your heart? Find the heart. Something broke. Fix it. Find a way to fix it. I can’t die.”
“...” the woman was now within Lino’s reach as he grabbed out and over her neck, holding it tightly. “The body never wants to die. Even if, in your heart, mind and soul, you’ve made peace with it... the body always has the final say. Even for us cultivators, you know? When we are killing ourselves... it’s hardly a suicide. We have to actively kill our body, in a way, as it resists our own will. Quite fascinating if you ask me.”
"... I will make an example out of you," Lino leaned over and whispered directly into the woman's ears. "On your way down, fight your body. Fight its instincts, and scream out to your subordinates not to fight me. Otherwise, I will kill every last one of them. If you want them to live, fight the urge to close your lips, to hold your breath, to cry out in vain, to pray to whatever gods you pray... and instead scream at the top of your lungs for them to back off. Show me that you are a better leader than you presented yourself as just a moment ago, will ya'?"
Without even giving her a second to process anything, Lino suddenly heaved his arm back and hurled the woman down toward the fortress at the speed nobody else could even begin to follow. All they saw was a blurry flash of light blowing past them, crashing into the fortress beneath, decimating it down to its core as chunks and pieces blew up into the sky like an upward rain, showering the ocean beneath. By the time their minds caught up to it, so did the fading, screaming voice.
“DO WHAT HE SAYS...” it was brief, yet it pierced their hearts and froze them in their spots.
From down below, emerging from the rubble, four figures looked up into the sky. Hannah sighed and shook her head, lamenting the fact that the man she loved was still as showy as ever; Lucky merely shrugged, having already accepted that fact many moons ago; Primul gazed deeply at the figure in the sky, having caught a glimpse of the passing Will that had nearly caused his soul to self-implode; Alison stood and looked up, her eyes teary, lips quivering. High above stood a man she hated from the depths of her soul, the sole person in the world she would do anything to kill... yet, she had realized it right then and there, as bits and pieces of that woman splattered against the cold and wet rock... she didn’t stand a chance. He was far away... far away from a place she couldn’t even imagine. His Will alone, just that whiff she managed to catch by the end, nearly drove her insane. Had she been the full recipient of it, she wondered whether she could scream out like that woman did; she didn’t want an answer, for she only it would only break her further.
She suddenly felt an arm on her shoulder, jolting her; looking sideways, she met Lucky’s eyes and a warm smile. Her beating heart calmed as her lips curled up in an involuntary smile.
“He can’t touch you,” Lucky said. “I’m right here. Alright?” Alison wondered, in that moment, why was she so weak. Even though she was immeasurably stronger than Lucky... the latter withstood that Will and even promised to protect her, despite knowing she never could. What was it that she lacked, she wondered? What was it that Lucky had and she didn’t? What did that woman have? And even Hannah... what did they have that she didn’t? Perhaps an eternity would pass, she mused, before she would figure it out. Smiling with tears in her eyes, she lunged over and hugged Lucky who nearly fell back, surprised somewhat. Sighing lowly, she pulled Ally closer and rubbed her back, glancing up at Lino and scowling at him lowly. You didn’t have to be that scary, you jagoff...
END OF VOLUME XV