MEETING IN HEAVEN
Lino was currently sitting in solace, drinking through the gourd of wine while reading through a stack of papers. They were mostly reports from the Shadows as well as various stores he had opened throughout the Holy Continent. Information ranging from emerging individuals to the stock prices of various materials flooded his mind slowly as he tried to process it all and properly compartmentalize it.
It was what he started doing recently to clear his head, peering into the lives of others. For instance, one report that caught his attention was about the recent winner of the Junior Holy Competition, so-titled Illuminator. In the era where Qi of Light had been diluted, someone had actually managed to emerge from the masses and use it to obtain victory over his peers -- and not just any victory, but an overwhelming one. Lino mused inwardly for a moment that the lad certainly hadn't used Light Qi but had probably augmented it with something else to achieve stronger results.
However, cultivation was about ingenuity; those who followed textbooks and simple paths would never become anything more than footnotes in the history books. All of those who were currently standing on the top had broken one barrier or another, had thought of something no one else before them had.
He lifted his head up slowly all of a sudden, gazing toward the doorless front where space ripped open, a figure briskly walking through. Ella had once again returned to her original appearance, mind-bending one that even Lino had difficulty reconciling. It was difficult to put in words, he mused, as her appearance went beyond simply physical beauty to something far deeper and more soul-stirring.
She smiled gently at him and walked up, glancing over the papers that he was reading and taking the bottle from his hand, putting it away.
“You really need to slow down,” she said, pulling out a chair from her void world and sitting down. “It will kill you.”
“Eh, a worthy sacrifice.” Lino grinned, taking out another bottle and taking a sip. “What’s up? I figured you’d be busy with helping Hannah plan the wedding.”
“Oh, I am,” she said. “But, there are more than enough interested to replace me temporarily. And, besides, Val is far better at planning these things than me.”
“... what’s up?” Lino asked, his expression turning serious.
“What? You thought that the world would simply ignore you kidnapping Alison?” Ella grinned at him for a moment as he chuckled.
“... that was quick,” he said. “I’d expected at least a day of respite. Who is it?”
“Since no one can contact you directly,” she said. “Hannah and I have been fairly busy watching our talismans glimmer and burn. Who isn’t, Lino?”
“What did you reply?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she shook her head. “This is not the sort of action you can simply shrug away with a message.”
“... let’s go then,” he smiled, putting the papers away. “I suppose it was high-time I introduced myself to the holy ones.”
“... I might not be able to protect you if they truly decide to go all out.” she warned with a serious expression.
“Yes, yes you would,” he winked mysteriously, getting up. “But, there’s no need. I’m not that weak anymore, El’.”
“... what’s your Level anyway?” she asked, getting up as well, stretching out her index finger toward the front where she came from. “You’ve shut down ever since becoming a Titular.”
“Eh, it’s high enough,” he shrugged. “Let’s go.”
"Stay close to me." she said, making a simple motion with her finger, ripping space open once more. "And, please, just this once, try to control that vile tongue of yours. Remember, you've done a bad thing this time around."
“At last, huh?”
The two chuckled as they stepped through the distortion in space; while staying with the Gods, Lino had come to realize that these ‘rips' in space were hardly actual ‘rips'. Displacements in the so-called spacetime forge an imaginary tunnel between two distant points in space, creating what humans on Earth called a ‘wormhole'. Stepping through one end leads immediately to another, but no actual teleportation is involved.
Walking over to the other end, Lino found himself standing on top of a massively tall peak, well beyond the clouds, inside a rugged clearing. The edges were carved out like inwardly bending fingers and claws, looming over him. The floor beneath was cast entirely out of ice, the clearing void of any objects save for the singular statue in the center depicting a faceless woman descending from the high skies.
Standing in front of it, Lino saw a mass of people suddenly turn toward him and Ella. Young and old, men and women, donning all forms and sorts of sigils upon their chests. Altogether, he counted nearly five hundred souls, causing his lips to curl up into a smile.
Ella and he landed a couple of hundred meters away from the rest. Without even waiting for her, immediately upon landing, he slowly began walking forward, his hands in his pockets, eyes veering around, as though he were a tourist on a sightseeing tour. Tension immediately exploded, practically tangible, as Ella followed behind silently, smiling faintly as she stared at the ever-widening shoulders of the man in front of her.
They truly made an odd pair to those who watched; a world-defying, gold-haired beauty with seemingly a pure-white halo blasting eternally from behind her, and a rugged-looking, black-haired man over a head taller than her. He wore tattered, old clothes, his shirt cut down to beneath his breasts, exposing his upper torso nearly in its entirety. He walked barefoot, his pants barely reaching beneath his knees.
Alex stood silently among the crowd, deeply observing the newcomers. He could still accept the fact that Ella could probably storm through every soul here and erase them from the existence, yet, his gut and heart were telling him that the Empyrean could do the exact same thing. A young boy in his eyes, who had just recently become a Titular... it was perhaps far more mind-bending than Ella’s appearance.
He could feel it, the Will contained within that ruggedly-dressed body. Just a whiff of it was enough to make the few of the weaker, younger ones here sick. What would happen if he unleashed it completely? It would be difficult... a terribly exhausting battle.
Lino and Ella walked up to only a few meters of distance before stopping. In front of them, seemingly the leaders of the massive entourage, were fourteen people in total. Lino recognized all of them from the papers, though the information on their strengths was quite outdated, he mused. He cracked a smile at their serious, hardened expressions, glancing toward unsuspecting Alex from the corners of his eyes. The latter shuddered for a moment as he felt a pair of terrible eyes land on him for just a second.
“Return the Bearer,” one of the leading men, in his late sixties seemingly, broke the silence. “And we can go our separate ways for now.”
“... she ain’t even from your Sect,” Lino glanced casually at the man. “Why are you meddling?” Ella immediately sighed and shook her head; the world would end before the brat in front of her would ever hold back that tongue of his. “When El’ told me a few peeps were interested in some answers, I figured they’d be Elders of Alison’s Sect or something. But, what the fuck is this shit? Why are they all bunched up behind you insignificant lot? This has nothing to do with you.”
“... on contrary,” the man said, smiling faintly as well. “This has everything to do with us. Perhaps, in times before you, it wouldn’t; but--”
"--aye, aye, a common enemy and all that. Got it," Lino shrugged looking up before glancing back at Ella. "Where are we?"
“Tallest peak of the Holy Continent,” Ella replied, smiling. “Heaven’s Dome. Legendarily known as the place of Mother’s Descent.”
“... huh, what do you know?” he mumbled, ignoring everyone else and focusing his gaze on Alex. “What do you think?”
“Hm?” Alex hummed, meeting Lino’s smiling eyes squarely.
“Of literally every single soul present on this mountaintop, you are the sole one that reacted to me with worry,” Lino elaborated. “You must be her Master. So, what are your thoughts on this matter?”
“...” Alex didn’t say anything, merely closing his eyes and lowering his head, seemingly ignoring Lino.
“They are the same as ours -- return the Bearer,” the same elderly man said once more. “And this shall be forgotten.”
“Yavvivv, or better known as the Fury of the Seas,” Lino’s gaze shifted away from Alex onto the old man, turning from smiling into frigid. “Do you want to be known as the Corpse of the Seas? If not, keep that trap of your shut already. I didn’t come here to bicker with old farts who’ve nothing to do with me,” he added, running his eyes across the group. “If El’ wouldn’t slap me dead afterwards, I would have simply butchered everyone here who isn’t from Alison’s Sect. So, while that’s still a concern for me, shut up. You,” Lino turned to Alex once more. “Know Alison the best. Is she so weak-willed I’d be able to convert her over to my side within a month?”
“...” Alex remained silent, still refusing to open his eyes.
“... let’s go back,” Lino remained silent for a moment, keeping his eyes on the man before sighing and turning around. “This was a waste of time.”
“... where do you think you are going?” hundreds of Wills suddenly surged into the sky, encompassing both Ella and Lino. The former merely glanced up and shrugged, while the latter stopped and glanced back at the group, his eyes darkening.
“Kneel.” he muttered lowly.
It was a breath of silence, of stillness, that passed as quickly as it came. Every single soul on top of the mountain save for Ella suddenly found themselves on their knees, their heads plastered against the chilly floor. They didn’t dare cry out, they didn’t dare fight back, they didn’t dare even breathe. Up above them, they saw, just for that brief flash, an abomination not of this world. A creature so dark and vile and tragic it broke their souls at the cores.
“That’s enough, Lino,” Ella mumbled lowly, gently shielding everyone on the floor. “They’ll die.”
“... they won’t,” he said, glancing eastwards and then westwards, sighing lowly. “It’s not the time yet.”
“... you noticed them?” Ella quizzed, surprised.
“...” Lino didn’t say anything, merely keeping his gaze focused toward the west where, in the far distance, beyond the lines of strings of reality, another pair of black, swirly eyes met his. “A month.” he mumbled into the phasing wind. “We’ll meet here after a month.” he turned toward the group. “I’ll bring Alison with me. It will be entirely her choice.” glancing one last time toward the west, Lino followed the rip Ella created and vanished, as the souls atop the mountain finally released a pent-up breath in their chest.
Alex glanced up from the floor toward where the man vanished, his jaw crackling. Squeezing his teeth together till his gums bled, he managed to contain it somewhat. The whisper still echoed inside his mind, banging against every wall. I’ll visit your Sect in two days... make a choice until then.