AGAINST THE WORLD (I)
The sky shook in repeated tremors, the fortress itself soon after quaking as though rising above the epicenter of a world-shaking quake. Cries billowed out like smoke as people fell on their sides and backs, worried expressions filling their faces.
Lino merely took a second to hold back Hannah before his expression of worry was overtaken by anger. Growling like a threatened beast, he ripped open space in front of him and rammed through, leaving Hannah, Lucky and Alison back in the chamber despite their protests.
He soon found himself on the outside of the fortress, gazing at the ever-ephemeral surroundings. Usually just half-cleaved clouds and occasional thundering ones, now his horizon was filled with souls beyond count. Devils alone numbered in daft millions, to say nothing of others. All around, above and beneath, the horizon was blocked by the sea of crucibles all staring at him as though he were already dead.
He spotted Two, Three and Six rather quickly among the crowd, floating in slight elevation over the others. No matter where he looked, he couldn’t see a potential exit – every avenue of retreat was blocked, every path but direct confrontation impossible. Space next to him ripped open as Ella, in addition to Eggor, Val and Amadeel walked over, standing by his side. The latter three found themselves in abject shock over the sea of souls awaiting them, while the former merely glanced at Lino with a tinge of worry.
“… I can open up a path for you,” she whispered softly into his ear. “And buy you enough time to escape.”
“—you jest, mom,” he glanced at her, smiling meekly. “Don’t worry too much about it. Just ensure they don’t break into the fortress.”
“What will you do?” she asked.
“…” Lino didn’t reply, merely whipping out a talisman and burning it as the screen lit up, soon after condensing into Seya’s somewhat frustrated face.
Following the short conversation, he re-focused back onto the masses who merely waited in their spots, as though entirely uninterested in fighting him. Suddenly, Two stepped out and floated slowly over to Lino and others, stopping roughly ten meters in front of them. Frigid eyes stared at his with a tinge of cold wrath, causing some trepidation to awake inside his heart.
“—your victory certainly was short-lived, no?” she said, smiling faintly.
“Victory?” he smiled back. “I don’t recall winning much of anything… just losing quite a few people I cared for and getting my ass beaten black and blue.”
“Then you know the end-result of today… so you may as well surrender, Lino. If nothing, I promise to not touch anyone in the entire fortress so long as you comply.”
“… a tempting offer,” he said. “But…”
“… it wouldn’t be you if you bent a knee at least once in your life, huh?” Six suddenly appeared next to Two, startling Ella as she quickly recognized the unmasked face.
“G-grandfather?!” she exclaimed as the old man glanced at her.
“… you’ve reached above and beyond what I thought you ever would, Elanor,” he sighed faintly. “But, not enough. Please… Lino, Ella… think this through. There is no way out today. Even if you put up a fight, and even if you carve out your names from our bones across the sky, you’ll be overwhelmed. Be smart about this.”
“… today won’t be the day of our deaths, that much I promise,” Lino said, glancing at Six. “It’s high-time, it seems…” he added, shaking his head as he took out a small, ordinary-looking cube from his void world, twirling it through his fingers.
“… so, this is who you are? Someone who doesn’t care if he puts people he supposedly cares for in danger? Humph, what a jo—” before Two was able to complete her sentence, she felt her heart freeze over as though in winter. She rapidly channeled Qi through every inch of her body and put up a barrier in front of her; less than a breath later, it cracked like meek glass, shattered like the binds of reality around her as she felt Will well beyond hers overwhelm every part of her being.
Barely defending, she was flung nearly ten miles backward like a cannonball, crushing through over a thousand souls during her journey, ending their lives immediately. Six remained in the same place, shellshocked, his hair and beard fluttering as the wind finally caught up, his lips trembling and quivering. Right next to him, a gash the size of a massive tower wriggled like a worm through the space, a man drawing back his sword from it.
“Tsk, bitch never puts her guard down?” Lino clicked his tongue in slight disappointment. “Heed me!!” he suddenly shouted toward the fortress as the quivering hearts of everyone calmed.
Despite the fact that they were facing an uncountable number of souls, all trepidation and fear that had consumed them vanished within that single moment as the familiar voice cascaded through the cores of their beings. It was like a wave that washed away all they felt, leaving behind only peace and calm they would otherwise spend lifetimes searching for.
“Arm the Formations!!” he shouted. “Man the Orbiter!! Defend our home!!”
There wasn't even a moment of silence for them to process the words, as thousands of footsteps soon consumed the nothingness, every soul running toward their post. The dark fortress suddenly lit up like the sun, layers upon layers of formations firing off rainbow-range of lights, spinning in circles rapidly as they began generating low hums that stirred the surrounding stillness into the wind.
The reality surrounding the fortress bent and wrung over itself, sliced away by mere stray energy generated within a few moments. Eggor, Val, and Amadeel withdrew back into the fortress, only Lino and Ella remaining outside.
Hannah, Lucky, and Alison stood by the edge of the wall, their eyes glued to the two of them. All three had rather somber expressions, especially the former; though she wished to be up there with every fiber of her being, today was not the day.
“Let’s go,” she said, shaking Lucky and Alison from their thoughts. “We’ve jobs to do to do as well aside from limping around.”
Two recovered slowly, looking down at the cross between left shoulder and her chest where a massive gash appeared, bleeding profusely. She gritted her teeth in frustration, a worm of anger tunneling through her veins into her heart, causing restlessness to overcome her for a moment. Taking a deep breath, her fierce eyes focused on the distant figure before she unleashed all her anger in a singular roar.
Hundreds of thousands of roars merged together into a symphony that shook the world. Lino and Ella were forced to take a step back due to the sheer pressure of countless Wills exploding temporarily into the open sky.
“… go into the fortress and man the core,” Lino said, glancing at her. “Others won’t be able to sustain it.”
“… what about you?” she asked, frowning.
“—it’s frustrating, but we can’t really show our cards just yet,” he sighed bitterly. “Even pulling out the Orbiter this early cut me deep. I’ll try to stall for as long as possible while you focus on shredding a single direction and carving open a path. Direct the fortress to the eastern shores of the Holy Continent; Seya had found someone who can navigate the Edge and guide us to the Isles. Vy told me that there’s a pact between the Dragons and the rest that prohibits encroachment on each other’s lands.”
“… be careful, alright?” she added with a worried expression, grabbing his hand tightly for a moment. “Nothing is worth your death.”
“… how can I die now?” he said, smiling gently. “Just when I’m about to become a dad…”
“Right, another time.” she nodded, smiling, before vanishing.
Lino took a deep breath and focused. Today, perhaps for the first time in his life, he truly realized what it meant to be at war with the world. Though he spoke of it many times before, it's a difficult concept to comprehend. Even now, he was merely up against a small cut that was able to make it here in time. Yet, even so, it was overwhelming. Beyond overwhelming. He couldn't even fool himself into believing he stood an iota of a chance of winning. Two and Six alone would be enough to hold him back to say nothing of countless others, hundreds and thousands of Fiend Titulars and above.
Empyrean or not, a single soul can always be overwhelmed. The only good of it all was that he didn’t need to win; he needed to survive. And, if there was one thing every Empyrean since the time immemorial was known for, it was surviving against all odds.
“… by gods, I so regret the day I took your ass in…” he mumbled softly as he took out the [Dragon Slayer], gripping it tightly. No other weapon in his arsenal could do much in his current situation, which once again reminded him he needed to expand his arsenal once more.
“Rejoice,” Ataxia replied in his usual, robotic voice. “You always dreamt of what it would be like to stand against the world…”
“Yeah, key difference being ‘dreamt’,” Lino sighed as surge of Qi barraged the world, cutting it away from the reality. “Hardly a desire to experience it, however. Ah, whatever, whatever. I’ve brought this on myself.”
“… oh? Self-awareness in the dire times? Perhaps you should jump into situations like these more often.”
“… go suck a goddamn dick.”
He unfurled his wings, six in total bracing the world, blinding it with pure-white, milky light. His figure darted through the spacetime, ignoring seemingly all laws known to man, appearing nearly a mile away instantaneously, swinging the Slayer horizontally. The mirage of the blade extended over from the steel itself, cutting through over a hundred souls within a single slice. Torsos split open as cries of horror ensued. Yet, Lino hardly had a moment to rejoice, soon crying out himself.
His left arm was blown off from his shoulder by a concentration of over a thousand spectacular arrays of fire; a massive hole wrung itself over the right side of his chest, still sizzling, smoking in the ashen dark. He was forced to cough out several mouthfuls of blood due to what he could only describe as a planet-sized hammer blasting against his back. Every single bone in his body broke within that second, and within the same second, it was all restored as though he were born anew. The pain was still there, however, pulsating. His heart shook in terror, his mind repeatedly telling him to run away.
He endured, however, bolstering himself once more. Whipping out a shield, he heaved it over his head as he charged forward; those around him suddenly came to and withdrew rapidly while firing off chain-links; winding rods of light, fire, and water compounded together in fingers of flexible light that shook his shield. He flapped his wings once more, catching up to those retreating, slamming directly into them before sliding the shield sideways and stabbing out with the Slayer.
Once more the mirage stretched from the tip of the blade, skewering over fifteen souls in a single thrust as Lino heaved them over, thrashing them away into the sky as they drew their last breaths. He had no time to distinguish between who was the Devil, who was Human, or any of the countless beasts that were present. Once more he found himself the target of innumerable attacks that shook and shredded him; in an angular fashion, going from his left breast to the right end of the abdomen, a blade light cut through cleanly, shaving off everything below it. Though he quickly recovered, the pain once more remained. Thumping. Pulsating. Three seconds – just three seconds had passed, and he'd already died twice. He'd already experienced the horror of death twice.
There wasn’t a moment of respite, a moment to catch his breath. From the corner of his eyes, however, he caught a glimpse of a scene that renewed his hope; the fortress stood strong. Though besieged by countless more souls than he was, it endured it all with ease. One beam of light after another shot off from the countless arrays, reaping tens of thousands of souls with each attack. Fuckin’ hell… why the fuck didn’t I hide in that monstrosity as well…
Spotting Two, Three, Six and several God-devils approaching from his left, he quickly remembered why. He was the target – the fortress merely an afterthought. Endure, a thought echoed as an edged storm of icicles blasted at him, one managing to pierce through his right eye. Endure, heaving his shield over, he was nonetheless blasted backward, spinning uncontrollably, retracting his wings. Endure, a shadow appeared beneath him and stuck a dagger in his gut, causing blood to splash out like a waterfall. With faint wherewithal, Lino managed to slice downward and beneath the culprit, causing yet another body to fall from the sky. Endure, the sky tore open above him as a golden palm descended, pressing against him. Endure… the pain was so overwhelming his receptors actually shut off. He turned numb. Numb to pain, to feelings, to everything. Repeatedly dying and reviving, on the fence of two divergent realities, he couldn't make heads or tails of it all. All he could do is endure and tightly hold onto the cube, still waiting. Soon… so just… endure…