SCENT OF THE VOID
Dark night descended upon the vine-infested mountain range, cradled entirely in ever-encompassing nature. Trees rose as far up as twenty meters, with even the shrubbery surrounding them growing as far up as the heights of two grown adults. It was a miraculous place by any definition, seemingly defying the natural order of things, existing with an entirely different reality.
Small and large animals lived inside a self-sustaining system, seemingly untouched by the hand of man, existing onward within their own little world. Howls of the wolves matched the ones of the wind, cries of the mockingbirds blending in the back, roars of the tall, black bears acting out the crescendo... had there been a soul to witness it all, they’d no doubt have to rub their eyes in disbelief.
Yet, the mountain was not void of living beside the beasts; insides of it were hollow, artificially carved and dug out, into a terrace-like structure with the central, spiral staircase leading to each and every breaks individually. The staircase wrapped around a massive, black-glowing obelisk, with the former's sides lit up by standing lanterns.
Sides of the mountains had thousands upon thousands of holes dug out, creating a cave-like system connected entirely through the staircase. Strange, black flags hung off the edges ever so often, fluttering in the hazy wind. Down below, as though it were a gaping maw of hell, coral fire hummed in the far distance of the burrowed abyss, visible all the way from the very top of the obelisk, like a massive, guiding star.
It was a strangely-crafted dwelling, seemingly void of any souls on the surface, yet stacked with life when one gazed a bit deeper. Nearly a million souls altogether lived here, mostly in cycles, cultivating in solace. Each cave was the exact replica of the former, sporting only a praying mat at the very center beneath which a Qi-gathering array was drawn up. Nothing else existed within the hollow holes in the earth.
One differing point, however, was the bottom. A lake of fire existed there, over fifty miles wide, burning eternally. Within it, a small island at the very center stood from which the load-bearing obelisk stretched out into the sky. Next to it, a singular dwelling rose form the earth, brick-made, surrounded by a peculiar garden of terribly large plants and flowers.
The island was seemingly unaffected by the surrounding, roaring flames, protected by invisible hands from its effects. Currently, inside the brick-built, single-story dwelling, a black-veiled figure sat opposite of a young man sipping tea with one hand while holding onto a piece of a strange item with another. The item was seemingly an ordinary, milky-white pearl. Yet, the misty drive inside was indeed quite queer and peculiar.
“... hm,” the young man mumbled, cradling the pearl with his rather long fingers. “It is indeed quite peculiar. Why haven’t you managed to unlock its stats yet?”
“It is a Continental-tier item, we believe,” the black-hooded man replied, bowing slightly. “It will take some time.”
“Any idea who crafted it?”
“A newcomer, Divine Smith they call him,” the man replied. “We tried to look into his identity, but he only appears less than a year ago within the Do’r. Prior to that, there is no record of his existence.”
"... someone so talented can't have remained undiscovered so far," the young man said. "It's probably a fake identity."
“That’s what we believe, as well.” the hooded man said. “However, attempts thus far to identify him with an existing smith yielded nothing.”
“It is fine,” the young man said, putting the pearl down and smiling faintly. “Do not put too many resources into it; just keep it in mind for now.”
“What happened with the Prison?”
“... we have lost control over it.” the hooded man said, suddenly kneeling down. “I apologize. We have failed Your Grace.”
“How have we lost it?” the young man asked.
“It was an unexpected attack by the Empyrean.”
“Hm? Why? Did we antagonize him somehow?” the young man asked, clearly surprised.
“The Overseer had captured the Bearer of Order.” the hooded figure said.
"... regardless. I don't believe Hannah is so weak as to be unable to break out of it," the young man said, frowning. "Did she summon the Empyrean on purpose?"
“We believe so. Perhaps it was a warning?”
“... warning for what? For us to stay out of it for now?” the young man cracked a smile, tapping his finger against the armrest of his chair. “I believe we extended our courtesy long enough, no?”
“Have you determined the Empyrean’s strength, at least?” the young man asked after a few moments of silence.
“No,” the hooded man shook his head. “It was impossible.”
“He sectioned off the reality within that brief moment he exerted his strength,” the hooded figure said. “I believe only the members of the Descent were privy to it.”
“... the fact that he has the ability to section off reality from the timeline tells us more than enough already.” the young man said, sighing. “Gaia will certainly come to regret her rashness quite soon...”
“V has pulled out of it,” the hooded figure said. “Should we break him out?”
“No, not yet,” the young man shook his head, thinking for a moment. “We’ll have to wait for this all to play out before making any more rash moves. I’m just surprised... that the Empyrean hasn’t reached out just yet, despite knowing of us. Why do you think that is?”
“... perhaps he’s waiting for us to reach out to him?” the hooded figure guessed.
“No. If that were the case, he’d at the very least throw us a bone on how to find him. Is he expecting our help in the upcoming battle? No... if anything, in his eyes we’d be an unaccounted variable he’d have to look out for. Or is he simply that complacent, believing he doesn’t need us to begin with?”
“It could be due to timing, Your Grace.”
“Timing?” the young man questioned, tilting his head sideways slightly.
“The Empyrean has rapidly increased his forces over the past few years,” the hooded figure replied. “Perhaps he is trying to consolidate them before expanding any further.”
“Oh, right. He’d also swallowed up the remnant faction of Gods recently. Hmm... this is worrying. What has the world come to?” the young man sighed, lowering his head. “For it to be the case of the Empyrean being the most difficult figure to predict. Times used to be much simpler -- the Empyreans went where the scent of madness carried them. It was so easy...”
“Do you want us to increase the manpower in order to find him?”
“... yes,” the young man nodded. “Don’t do it too rapidly or overtly. It’s worrying how little we know of the Empyrean. How little the world itself knows of him. If you were him... what would your current plans be?”
“... taking into consideration only what I know of his situation,” the hooded man mulled over for a moment before replying. “I’d aim to kill the Bearers.”
“... hm?” the young man’s eyes suddenly lit up as he looked at the kneeling figure in front of him. “Why do you say that?”
“Though largely just a symbol of status,” the hooded man replied. “The Bearers still present a roadblock to the Empyrean; they are inadvertently drawing nearly-purified Qi toward them before it turns into Chaos, thus making it more difficult for the Empyrean to cultivate. Though, I imagine, there might be other reasons, I’d assume that was his prime one. It is quite similar to Eldon’s times. Eerily so, if you ask me.”
“... could it be... that he purposefully staged it all?” the young man suddenly shot up to his feet, dropping the cup of tea, causing it to shatter against the wooden floor, his fingers quivering. “No... that’s impossible.”
“...” the hooded man remained silent and seemingly unmoving, patiently waiting for the young man to calm down.
“Relay my order,” nearly five minutes would pass before the young man sat back down, taking a deep breath. “No matter what they have to do, I want the upcoming battle recorded and I want the Empyrean identified. If possible, also assist -- not him directly, however, but rather whoever else appears there to fight on his behalf. We need to establish the first contact.”
“--if I may, Your Grace.”
“... what is it?”
“If the Empyrean truly does intend to do what I said... he would alienate every single faction outside the ones currently under his control. This includes the Descent, High Lords, perhaps even the Sleepers. Is it truly wise, then, to try and contact him?”
"... sometimes," the young man said, smiling peculiarly. "We can't rely entirely on our minds. The logical choice is usually easy, but, there are times when it becomes a tricky business. Truth be told, I hadn't expected the Empyrean to even become the Titular when he first awoke. Yet, here we are, nearly thirty years later... time and again, he'd showed us what we thought was impossible. In times like these, I'd like to take a gamble. If we fail... it will certainly hurt, and cause a huge setback... but it won't be fatal. However, if we succeed... we may, at last, fulfill the goals and dreams of our forefathers. For that... I'm willing to take any risk... let alone this one."