HEART OF IT ALL
A youth draped in simple robes sat in silence inside a dimly-lit room, his expression hardened. Below him, as always, a black-clad figure lay kneeling, his head lowered in a seeming shame. The atmosphere remained heavy for nearly an hour, only the sound of the tapping finger escaping.
"... what do you mean, you can't locate him?" the youth asked, at last, lowering his eyes and looking at the black-clad man.
“Forgive us, Your Grace,” the black-clad man quickly said. “We... we are unable to pick up his trace past the Shrinking Mountain. It’s almost as if... he simply vanished.”
“... nobody vanishes, not even the Harbinger of Chaos,” the youth said, sighing. “Did you use all methods?”
“Yes.” the man quickly nodded.
“... what is your opinion, then, as to why you were unable to locate him?”
“... I... I imagine he’s fallen into temporary hibernation.”
“He must have also realized the Descent would go after him,” the man said. “Which is why he temporarily withdrew.”
“Well, it stands to reason that when you failed to find him, so will the Descent,” the youth cracked a faint smile, shaking his head. “I wonder... how did he do it?”
“... I do not know, Your Grace.”
"Oh well," the youth shrugged after a momentary stillness. "Keep monitoring for any movements, regardless, but you can temporarily cease active search. Instead, focus on tracking the location of the Descenders. I imagine that information would be a decent bargaining chip once we find him."
“Yes, Your Grace.”
The black-clad man vanished from the room, leaving the youth to his own thoughts and silence. A faint smile of bemusement hung on his thin lips as he resumed tapping his finger against the armrest.
Meanwhile, Lino observed in silent awe the blasting arrays of light that made up a commanding formation surrounding the fortress in sixteen layers altogether, all stacked on top of one another. Despite the fact that he had a fairly decent knowledge of formations, he had a literal zero clues as to what they all represented.
Next to him stood three figures: Eggor, Tim and Primul. Though Eggor and Primul remained seemingly unaffected by the spectacle, Tim wasn’t; his face lit up marvelously, a faint trace of jealousy tracing through his eyes. However many wonders Gods were able to fashion without Qi, there were still many sights that simply could not be otherwise replicated.
“... alright. Someone explain to me this shit.” Lino said after helplessly staring at the formations for nearly an hour, eventually relenting with a sigh.
“Tsk, your pride must have been taken to a shitter, huh?” Eggor cracked a grin, stroking his beard; it wasn’t often he was able to put the young lad back into his place, so he decided to always treasure those moments.
“... less gloating, more explaining, old relic.” Lino fired back, turning to Primul who smiled as he met the former’s gaze.
"Though it appears complex, the underlying core is rather simple," Primul said as he took out a strange, ring-shaped object with cyan light at the hollow center. A mere moment later, a screen shot up, one remarkably different than the flat one Lino was familiar with; the formation appeared wholly, rendered in midair to completion, down to the finest detail. "Sixteen layers are connected through the so-called ‘basin tubes'," Primul pointed at the zig-zag set of lines darting at angles between the layers of the formation. "With Eggor's and Tim's help, I was able to re-fashion the original design so that it conducted not just Qi, but also other forms of energy, including Mana. The whole formation is separated into four sets, ending up as a four-by-four creation -- defensive, supportive, offensive and boosting sets. As it would otherwise consume too much energy, all but the supportive set must be manually activated to be used."
"In effect," Eggor tagged on, pointing at the four separated sets. "The sets cannot be individually targeted, so someone can't focus on taking out our defenses due to the inner workings of the arrays. The formation always draws energy to repair itself if damaged and can do so at probably unprecedented speeds thanks to Primul. There's still room for improvement, but the core stability of the fortress would be compromised if we pushed it any further. We call it ‘Eternal Orbiter'."
“... how does your guys’ project figure into this?” Lino turned toward Tim and asked.
"One layer of each set currently remains inactive and is not connected to the formation's core," Tim explained. "Once we've completed the project, we'll be able to attach it to the conduits that will convert Qi into raw electricity to power it up. The supportive set will be responsible for the aircraft deployment, the defensive set will be equipped with missiles, offensive set with rapid-fire cannons, and boosting set with manned crafts carrying supplies. Rather than connecting to the formation's core inside the fortress, we'll redirect it to the carrier instead."
“Have you made any progress with cloaking?” Lino asked with a frown. “For the time being, that should be our priority.”
"... unfortunately no," Tim shook his head helplessly. "The most we can do at the moment is what we're already doing -- using generators to dissipate naturally radiating Qi of the fortress and convert it over into electric energy. On casual inspection, the fortress wouldn't show up on anyone's radar, and if one did a deeper search, they'd most-likely mistake us for a billow of thundering clouds. We aren't, however, in any way invisible or hidden."
“Keep at it,” Lino said. “If need be, ask Val to re-allocate more resources.”
“Will do.” Tim nodded. “Alright, I’ll head back for now. If you can spare some time, Edith and the rest have managed to whip out some new designs, so come visit and look them over.”
“Sure.” Lino nodded, shifting his focus back onto the formation. “How goes our armory build-up?” he then glanced at Eggor and asked.
“Slow,” Eggor said. “We’re in a desperate lack of high-end smiths, especially with... well, you know.”
“It’s pretty much just Rion, Synthia and me that are gearing up the high-end cultivators. It wouldn’t hurt if you jumped in as well.”
“I’ll come by in a few days,” Lino said. “To deposit some materials and craft a few items. I’ve no plans on heading out anytime soon anyway, so I may as well grind myself out.”
“Alright,” Eggor nodded, turning around. “I’ll head back as well. Cae’s been asking about you, so swing by later today at least to say hi.”
"Will do." Lino smiled warmly as Eggor left, leaving behind only Primul and Lino. This was effectively, Lino realized, the very first time the two of them were alone. Glancing at the man, Lino couldn't quite pinpoint why, but he felt a strange closeness to him, one that went beyond the two of them simply being Empyreans. "How are you finding the fortress so far?"
“... unexpected.” Primul replied.
“Hm,” he nodded, turning back and glancing at the rising towers and carved streets full of people. “It’s much more... jovial than I expected it to be. And people are far less horrified.”
“... yeah, I keep it a point not to scare them.” Lino said, cracking a smile.
"No, it's beyond that," Primul shook his head. "When I look back at my time and compare myself to you, I realize why I failed as a leader, and why I had so many souls stab me in the back."
"If it was me from back then, and if I had survived what you had," their eyes met, both pairs eerily black. "I wouldn't have withdrawn here. Rather, I would order every single soul here to march out with me into the war."
“...” Lino remained silent, musing that, eventually, that was his plan.
“You’ve fashioned a breathtaking place, Lyonel,” Primul said. “And, every day I’ve spent here... was a blessed one. I’d randomly take a stroll down a street only to be stopped and offered food and drinks, or to see one or another performance taking place amidst thick crowds. Not even in my wildest dreams would I imagine the Empyrean being the cornerstone of it all.”
"... I'm hardly a cornerstone, though," Lino said, glancing back at the fortress as well. "Sure, I may be the gathering point of all these people, a blanket they chose to hide under during the dark times... but, I imagine most of them don't exactly think about me on daily basis. They've fashioned their own lives and created a community you've seen and experienced. Truth is that most people don't need a leader or a ruler," he added with a faint smile. "Only a safe place that allows them to chase after their dreams. That, really, is what I tried to create all along."
“... how noble.” Primul smiled faintly.
“Ha ha ha, hardly. They still have to work, regardless of their dreams.”
“... you say you aren’t a cornerstone, but you might be wrong, Lyonel.” Primul said after a short silence. “When the news spread that you’ve returned injured, the entire -- and I do mean this literally -- fortress came to a grinding halt. People lined up in front of one major figure’s house or another, waiting for days on end to hear how you were. Eggor and a few others were effectively forced to keep the whole place running themselves.”
"It's true that, in their minds, you are most likely a very different figure than you are in reality," Primul added, slowly beginning to walk away. "But, every fantasy, however distorted, is based on reality." he glanced back for a moment, smiling. "You are both their fantasy and reality. All these people would stand in fiery and bloody rain and would cry out your name even if the whole world scowled at them. That is why I failed as a leader, and you didn't. You took on the hearts, hopes, dreams, and desires of your people," his faint footsteps slowly began growing distant, though his voice remained as mellow and as close as always. "And you've put them all in your soul. All people ever need in life is recognition of their counterpart... and the light to shine upon them when darkness descends. You are the latter, and you gave them the opportunity to find the former. Me? I wasn't and didn't..."