AGE OF EMPYREAN (IX)
Ella had quickly descended from the orbit, rapidly reaching the very edge of the formation. The world around her was still and quiet, though she hardly had a capacity in her mind to notice -- she was too worried. Just as she was about to puncture a hole in the formation and storm in, she could feel it shake and quake, aggressively so, before a hole suddenly appeared right beneath her, a figure blasting through, accompanied by an ear-bursting explosion and clouds of smoke.
She didn’t think twice before appearing behind him, gently cradling him with one of her arms and easing his momentum, taking on the burden herself. As she felt the tremor of the aftershock run through her, she felt her heart crack briefly; it caused even her pain... yet he had to take it on directly. She glanced at him for a moment and saw it all -- dented, bleeding chest, disfigured face, absolutely distraught expression hidden beneath the wounds... he hardly looked human, and even less alive.
Her eyes veered off of him and toward the distance where she saw the six figures floating casually. As anger bled through into her mind, she steeled her determination and decided she would do all in her power to erase them, she felt a faint, weak tug at her sleeve. Looking down, he saw his downtrodden figure slowly straightening, against all odds. She didn't even know how he was conscious -- a quick inspection of his body through the Divine Sense taught her that his heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, spleen, and virtually every nerve beneath his neck had either collapsed entirely or was in process of. Though he wouldn't die, as he could simply directly absorb oxygen through Qi, the levels of pain he was enduring must have been unimaginable... yet he prevailed, nonetheless, slowly lifting his head up and looking forward.
Strands of hair, bound by blood, fell over his forehead, covering all but one of his black eyes. In it, she couldn’t find a trace of anger, of fury, of madness, or even pain. She saw something far more desolate, something far more primal and inhumane... apathy. Complete, absolute apathy toward the six figures standing some distance away.
“... take him away.” Two suddenly spoke to Ella who moved her eyes back onto the six. “I hope you won’t make the same mistake as him, Maiden.”
“... no,” Ella shook her head lightly. “Your lives are not for me to take, despite how much I want to.”
“Oh? So he hasn’t learned his lesson?” Two arched her brows, glancing at Lino indifferently who merely stared back at her, unfettered. “Seems not.”
“Ah, he’s learned his lesson, I imagine,” Ella said, smiling faintly. “I wouldn’t worry.”
"--live quietly and in peace," Two said, still looking at Lino. "It's the generosity we offer very few. Thank Six for that."
"..." Lino suddenly took out a small token from his void world, holding it in the palm of his hand for a moment. The token had ‘72' carved on top of its surface; he caressed it twice before pressing it between his fingers, destroying it completely much to the shock of everyone but Two and Ella. "You should have killed me." he said simply, his voice void of any emotion, flat and even. There wasn't a trace of anger or hate in it... just... absolute nothingness.
Coughing up a mouthful of black blood, Ella quickly drifted sideways and held him up, glancing one last time at the six before vanishing.
Two frowned for a moment, though quickly dismissed the thought as she turned around and examined the destruction.
“Have Twenty and Twenty-One fix this,” she said dismissively. “Have Fifteen locate their headquarters and prepare for a full-scale invasion.”
“I’ve given him a chance, Six,” she interrupted quickly, glancing at the old man. “He refused it. The Maiden will be a problem, but I’ll handle her. It shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“... you’re making a mistake,” Four said suddenly, surprising everyone. “Today, Ataxia remained silent as we didn’t push too far. If we, however, truly do go that far -- you really think he’ll take it standing down?”
“I can handle Ataxia--”
“You can’t,” Four immediately interrupted sternly. “Nobody can. Even One can’t. If Ataxia chooses to let go of all inhibitions and disregard consequences, all our work will be in vain.”
“Don’t question my certainty,” Two spoke in a harsh, angry tone. “If I say I can handle Ataxia, it means I can handle him. Do you really think I’m a moron and hadn’t taken that into account? Cease your stupidity and get back to work.” the moment she finished, she was gone, leaving the remaining five in somewhat awkward silence.
“... he really pissed her off,” Three said, sighing. “She can’t think clearly.”
“Could she really have an answer for Ataxia?” Five asked.
“No,” Four shook his head, sighing. “She’s shaken. That last attack -- you guys must have noticed. She didn’t hold back. She fully intended to either kill or permanently cripple the Empyrean. Yet, despite his seeming disfigurement... she failed to achieve either of the two goals... and Ataxia didn’t intervene in the slightest.”
“... did anyone figure out how did he do it?” Seven asked after a few moments of silence.
“He didn’t do anything special -- at least I didn’t notice it,” Three replied, sighing as she glanced toward the distant horizon where Lino and Ella vanished. “He took it on directly... and just lived.”
“... should we prepare for the invasion?” Five asked.
“Start amassing information, at the very least,” Three replied. “Their location, numbers, strength, defensive measures and so on. Chances are we’ll have to do it, regardless of our wishes.”
Meanwhile, toward the very edge of the Holy Continent, Ella suddenly landed on top of the ice-capped mountain, quickly whipping out pill after pill and feeding it to Lino as she administered quick Qi treatment to prevent any further damage to his body. However, to her shock, his body was already visibly regenerating -- though she suspected it would take a few weeks for it all to heal, it was still beyond astounding.
“... just how high is your Vitality?” she asked as she watched in shock as Lino sat up all on his own, leaning against the flat chunk of ice.
“With all the temporary bonuses,” he replied in a low, hoarse voice. “It was around sixty-one million when she landed her attack. Fuckin’ hell... she packs a punch.”
“... s-s-sixty... sixty-one million?” Ella stuttered, feeling week in her knees.
“Yeah,” Lino said, sighing. “I didn’t have time to push it any further. Ten more and I would have been able to at least inflict a wound on her as well.”
“... no wonder you’re already healing. It’s a miracle you aren’t healed already.”
“No, my resting Vitality is merely eight million,” Lino shook his head. “It will take me around two weeks to completely recover.”
“....” Ella found herself at a lack for words; usually, people would long since be dead by the time they reached the state he was in, yet he was complaining it would take two weeks to recover from it. This went beyond him simply being an Empyrean; even if they were, in general, more resilient, they were not immortal. This had more to do with his path of cultivation and items, rather than the starting point. “Yeah...”
“... I’ve fucked up El’... I’ve fucked up big time.” he said suddenly, his gaze veering off toward the sky, empty still. “I’ve been played like a flute. Years of careful planning have been shat all over in a span of a few minutes.”
“... you’ll bounce back. You always have.” Ella said, caressing his hair gently. Though he himself had begun developing wrinkles already, with a few strands of silver slowly appearing in his hair, in her eyes he was still but a young boy. “This is just another setback, that’s all. Why didn’t you retreat earlier, however? I imagine you had the chance.”
“... how could I?” he said, sighing. “I can’t go against my Will.” he added, shaking his head bitterly “Today, I’ve been taught once more that I can’t be nothing short of a greedy, skiving, manipulative degenerate if I’m to ever stand a chance against the world.”
“... you don’t mean that.”
"No, you don't," she slapped him slightly, forcing him to look her in the eyes. "Do not try to find an easy way out of this, Lino. You never have, because you always knew that those roads... cannot be turned away from. Those people in the fortress and many more across the world respect you exactly because you are not like that. They fight for the dreamed future you promised them, but they fight on your terms."
“... then how, El’?” he asked. “Tell me... how? Today, I sacrificed six people because I thought she would share a shred of compassion. To make matters worse, I’ve failed to rescue the only one who survived, dooming him to a lifetime of torture and pain. I’ve watched someone I considered family take arms up against me without a shred of hesitation. All because I believed.”
“... and thousands march in your name because you believe,” she said. “You can’t be afraid, Lino. They all knowingly follow you. They are not fools, nor they are blind. They know the chances of them living past this era are slim. Why do you think they still stand by you? Why do you think I stand by you?”
“... because you’ve no choice?” he cracked a faint grin. “After all, you entangled me in this mess to begin with.”
“... w-well, yeah,” she stuttered somewhat awkwardly, brushing her hair away. “But, more so because you’ve inspired me, just as you inspired them.”
“... before you, I was content with waning away in an obscure corner of the world, settled to never try. To make matters worse, I pulled a man who I loved, and who loved me beyond words, into my apathy. However, watching you woke me up and made me realize I was merely being a coward.”
“You’ve always prevailed, no matter what the world threw at you,” she reached out suddenly and hugged him, pulling him into a gentle and warm embrace. “You had your heart broken time and again, but you pushed on. You never gave in to the machinery of the world because you believed--no, you knew we could be better than what we show. That as much capacity for evil we hold, we hold just as much, if not more, for good. Let them play their broken games,” she added, kissing his nape. “You... as you always have, elevate above it.”
“... haah,” Lino sighed, resting his forehead against her slim and tender arm. “You always manage to somehow make me feel like a young, hotheaded lad who doesn’t know anything.”
“... it’s mom’s special power, after all.” she said with a chuckle.
“... setback, huh? How do we bounce back? I’ve agitated the hell out of them,” Lino said as he whipped out two gourds of wine, handing one over to Ella. “Those eyes of hers told me I’m no longer tolerated. Chances are they’ll try to finalize me soon enough.”
"... yeah," Ella nodded. "They'll definitely instigate a war. Chances are that it's going to be a proxy war; but, their arrogance will, in the end, be their demise."
“I’ve managed to convince the leader of the Heaven’s Chosen to, you know, switch sides.” Ella added with a whistle, looking away as Lino stared at her dubiously.
“... and how exactly did you manage to do that, Madame?”
“Eeeeh--d-don’t you know I’ve got a plenty charming smile--”
“Whatever,” Lino shrugged. “How does that help us, though? It doesn’t exactly suddenly make us overall stronger.”
“... it’s a surprise factor,” she said. “You just told me you didn’t go all out, no?”
“... no. I promised both Ataxia and Hannah I wouldn’t.” he said, taking a sip.
“But, they certainly think you did -- which means they’ll severely prolong your actual healing time period. Chances are that they’ll employ two to three Holy Grounds, definitely including the Chosen, in addition to some rogue groups, for their attack. Two will definitely be present there, as there’s still the variable that’s Ataxia.”
"..." Lino didn't say anything, merely fancying a thought in a distant, hidden from everyone but himself, corner of his mind that even if there were a billion Two's, she would still fail... spectacularly.
“We can expect several more to join her, but she’s leagues above the rest in terms of raw combat power -- as you’ve experienced.”
"... no, they're all plenty strong. Don't underestimate them," he said, sighing lightly. "I really think they gave her the spotlight due to the fact that, you know, she's the quasi-leader of sorts. From their brief interactions, I came to realize not a single one of the five really saw her as a leader but still deferred to her. Perhaps it's due to her number, or due to her relationship with One."
“... what do you mean?” Ella quizzed.
“The Great Descent has this pseudo-equality sort of a system,” Lino elaborated. “Where each individual member, regardless of their number, has a ‘voice’. I imagine the entire principle was founded on the relationship between the founding members; so, when they sit down to discuss, I imagine each opinion is valued, but someone still has to call shots.”
“... and you think it’s One?”
“Could be, I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I know for certain nobody else was there, however, so either he or she doesn’t see me as a large enough of a threat, or they are otherwise occupied.”
“... I wouldn’t worry either way,” she said, ruffling his hair gently. “I will never let anything happen to you. I promise.”
“... then what about today?”
“Y-y-you’re alive and kicking, so, you know...”
"Ha ha ha, yeah, I guess I am," he laughed freely for a moment, shaking his head afterward. "Aah, this day truly marks a spectacular failure in a string of victories that write up my legend. Come tomorrow, the world will be flooded with information about me."
"He slew the Mother, but was beaten to an inch away from death by unknown figures... he is a madman who, even after such a beating, still hasn't learned the error of his ways. The world, sometimes... is so predictable."
“Was that her plan?” Ella mumbled.
“I imagine it was twofold.”
“Hm,” he nodded. “On one hand, yeah, she most-likely wanted to restore the image of a madman running around and cleaving people in half. But, I imagine she had also hoped I would genuinely go mad.”
“... aah, Hannah will be pissed if she sees you like this...”
“So I better recover rapidly, huh? ‘Cause, if I’m right,” he smirked. “She’ll be home come tomorrow evening.”
“Oh, yeah.” Ella nodded. “She’ll definitely hear the rumors. Ouch. I feel kind of sorry for you.”
"Ha ha ha ha, yeah, the same way I feel about Eggor-- I mean, nevermind." he quickly added as he watched her face attain a darker tone briefly. "Khm, anyway, we should head back. I ought to finally employ Primul, ‘cause we'll need the hell out of his formations. I'll make that fortress a fucking bastion that will never fail."
Ella watched with a smile as a faint trace of life returned to his eyes; she knew, in her heart, he had hardly moved past today. But, in the end, that was what she, and many others, loved about him -- his capacity to handle pain and not allow it to lead him astray. He would be fine... in time.
She glanced back toward Do’r one last time, her expression darkening terribly for a moment; much like he, she marked today in the depths of her soul. Perhaps Lino had the ability to never let himself be corrupted, but she didn’t; she’d spent too many years playing the game, after all. Blood will flow, she knew, and it wouldn’t cease until every last one of them had their heads spiked upon the high heavens. She would make sure, she swore.
END OF VOLUME XVI
END OF BOOK IV