AGAINST THE WORLD (II)
Ella was currently furiously shoving Qi into the ever-expanding formation that lit up the somber sky in countless cascading colors. The sheer quantity of Qi could not be visualized by anyone present, even Lino. However, despite that, there were limitations – however advanced the formation was, there was still a delay between her input and the actualization of her intentions. Though she found it frustrating, she didn’t have the luxury of ranting about it.
After all, with a part of her attention split and focused on Lino, she followed him all across the sky as he was beaten back repeatedly, cut and sliced, dug at like an animal. What she found strange, however, was that he only occasionally fired back; she didn't believe he couldn't counter-attack at all, though one explanation would be that he was simply buying time for her to open up a passage.
She also quickly realized he killed only enough to maintain a stable recovery of Vitality, while slowly sucking away at the dead and making himself stronger. Though his movement appeared eerily sporadic, it was well-calculated; he had managed to keep a relative distance from Two, Three and Six, though that was only a temporary patch. He did what he could with what little could be done; after all, one-man-army, even one comprised of an Empyrean, was mostly a myth, especially on the higher strata of cultivation.
“—can you temporarily cut the supply to the Defensive Layers?” a familiar voice surprised her as she cried out, turning sideways. Primul had a worried and hurried expression, his eyes shining strangely, droplets of sweat falling down his forehead.
“What?!” she quizzed somewhat angrily.
"I've spotted over a dozen deficiencies that I can improve upon in a matter of seconds," he quickly reasoned. "But, there can’t be any Qi in the threads.”
“If I drop the Defensive Layers, they’ll burn a hole straight through us!” she exclaimed. “Fix it later and stop distracting me!”
“—he can’t hold on for much longer!!” Primul screamed out, pulling Ella’s attention back toward him. “And, even if you burn a hole through them and escape, what of it?! They’ll be after us immediately! Part of the deficiency is what allows the link between Ataxia and Ashtar to persist despite all our attempts to block all leaks!”
“… you have a way to end the connection between them?” Ella asked with a strange glint in her eyes, causing Primul to take a step back. “You do realize the implications of your claim, don’t you?”
“… of course I do,” he replied candidly. “But, I am not ending the connection between them – merely setting up a temporary barrier.”
“—Lucky," space ripped open in front of Ella as Lucky found herself forcibly flung over to the center of the fortress, somewhat shocked. "Gather all the Shadows, be they graduates or in training, and surround the fortress. Also, tell Eggor to use the Shield Formation in exactly thirty seconds. Have Hannah and Alison help on the eastern and northern ends.”
“… uh, sure. Why, though?” Lucky asked.
“Because all goddamn Empyreans are just absolutely batshit insane…” Ella grumbled in frustration, causing Primul to smile bitterly as he scratched his nose.
Meanwhile, Lino found himself on the receiving end of another concentrated beam of elemental compendium – barely managing to lift his shield in time to block it, he was nonetheless flung nearly a mile backward, while his left arm was completely shattered to the point he had to cut it off at the shoulder to let it regenerate quicker.
By then, Two, Three and Six had caught up to him, trapping him in a triangular formation. Glancing at the fortress and its surroundings, he realized it was not the time just yet. Cursing inwardly, he looked around and assessed all possibilities – something he rarely did. If it were a literal matter of life and death, he certainly wouldn’t have and would have just fought by his gut; but, as it wasn’t, he was forced to calculate.
“—you may as well go out in a blaze of glory,” Three said, her hair suddenly beginning to shine in faint golden. “Since they are not escaping. You’ve condemned them all to the same fate.”
“I think we’ve established that your juvenile attempts to piss me off don’t really work,” Lino fired back, more than happy to chat with them instead of fighting. “But, if it’s going to get you off my fucking ass, I’ll happily play the part of the emotionally-charged cripple whose pride can’t take a single hit since it’s the basis of my entire ego. And, yes, that was a not-so-subtle insult aimed at Two. I used to be so much better at this, ah…”
“… you could have achieved it all, if only you were patient.” Two said solemnly.
“I doubt patience has much to do with it,” Lino said, chuckling faintly and coughing out a mouthful of blood. “I never expected our friendship to endure the eternal tides of time, but I genuinely didn’t think the breaking point would be your inability to control me.”
"But, it's fine," he shrugged, taking a deep breath and heaving the [Dragon Slayer] over his shoulder. "I get it. Somewhere inside your hearts, past the rotten vanity and shallow pride, good intentions reside. None of us are much different in that regard, eh? Somewhere inside of me still lives that hopeful boy, a naïve kid convinced the only reason people aren't getting along is that they don't trust themselves. Somewhere deep inside, buried beneath the heaps of corpses, and countless harsh lessons the world dished out. It's hard…" he added, looking up suddenly toward the sunless sky. "To keep a steady heart."
“—a steady heart would have realized what it’s doing is just repeating the mistakes of his predecessors,” Three said with a faint scoff. “A blinded one believes itself better.”
“… I’m no better than them,” Lino said, meeting her gaze evenly. “Just slightly luckier, is all. What can anyone even except? Since the day they became Empyreans, they were viewed as nothing short of the bloodthirsty morons hellbent on cradling the world in chaos. No one cared who they were as people, what they actually wanted to achieve, or even who they were. Only the empty title. Just like you, right now.” he added, smiling. “You don’t see me. Lyonel. You see the Empyrean. And, no matter what I do, or what I say… I will forever remain just that: another Empyrean. Perhaps slightly stronger, wordy, loose… but an Empyrean nonetheless. I'm not better, either. I don't see three people in front of me, doing what they believe needs to be done. I see two walls I need to break through, and a whore I need to behead. No uglier thing in the world than the bitter, vain heart, is there?”
Two said nothing, merely staring at him for a moment before smiling plainly. Qi around her surged like a storm, soon accompanied by Six and Three who joined her. Lino took a deep breath and replied in kind, combining Qi with Will and drawing a single iota of Primal Chaos from the depths of his soul. The unbearable pressure he was feeling ceased somewhat as the sky began bleeding crimson from the tears and rips it was being put through.
A shear appeared right next to him as he replied in kind, slicing with the Slayer and demolishing it immediately. Activating all the boosters he had in his arsenal, his figure suddenly expanded into a crowned mirage of a shadowed fiend, soon after mirrored in the complexion of his own; white and black smoke mingled like two lovers, trailing out of the corners of his eyes. His entangled hair found itself free, ensconced in edgeless shadow that quickly overtook his whole body. Not a human, yet not a beast, but something larger than life.
His figure darted through bends and shears of reality, the Slayer carving out a road ahead. Two spliced back and spun in a circle as time around her ceased to move temporarily, causing Lino's strike to come to a grinding halt. Pushing Chaos Qi into his surroundings, he managed to free himself of the constraints just in time to spin sideways and cut at the golden beam of light Three sent toward him. It shattered like glass, shards sprinkling over from the sky onto the earth down below like rain.
He picked up the pace, leaving behind a trail of warping shadows as he skated around in a spiral circle, first striking at Six who raised a curtain of earth to block it, then stabbing at Three who enamored herself in a golden sheen, then at Two who once more slowed down the threads of time just enough to evade his strike, condensing her palm into a transparent mirage right after that struck at his shadowed figure, blasting it back.
Weaving roundly, he evaded a combined strike of fire and light that pierced by his side like a shower of arrows. Smoke arched around his body as the massive mirage behind his back suddenly stretched out its arms, the Will of End encumbering the reality around it, bringing it to its knees. All others who were approaching in an attempt to attack suddenly found themselves frozen, be they Devils or Humans. They couldn’t take a single step forward, their souls screaming at them to retreat.
Grasping the Slayer tightly, he funneled a combination of Qi and Chaotic Will directly into it, causing the sword to cry out like a cornered animal. It began vibrating at speeds which caused it to turn into a shuffling, shadowy blur, blending in with its beholder.
“<Sword of Chaos>,” Lino mumbled as the space above him cradled unto itself, forming a golden hammer the size of a small mountain that began dropping toward him. “Sixth Form – Wrath of the Empyrean.”
Lino suddenly felt his heart straddle, as though a dam broke open at its entrance, all his emotions rushing out like the torrential river, blazing through his arm into his sword, powering it into a black-burning fire. Empty. Desolate. Freeing. A roar of liberty cruised out of his lungs through his throat and lips, shaking the world around him as he swung the Slayer upwardly, slicing straight through the golden hammer as though it was made out of paper. The terribly dark blade light crushed onward, crashing into the unsuspecting Three. A whole arm flew out alongside a spray of blood and a vanquished cry, a figure thrashing through the sky, spiraling out of control.
“<Tempest of Time>!!” Two screamed out, clasping her hands together in front of her chest. “Reestablishment!”
Lino's eyes sprinkled in a glimmer of confusion as he watched Three retrace her trajectory through the empty sky and back into her original position, the cut arm reattaching itself over to her shoulder right after. Though somewhat pale and short of breath, she otherwise appeared entirely unharmed.
“<Elements of Creation – Silence>,” Six’s voice shook the surrounding reality slightly as Lino felt all Qi in his surroundings undergo a fundamental change in its make. “Annihilation.”
Lino rapidly counted roughly twenty thousand vortexes that simultaneously opened around him, each the size of two grown men. They spun splendidly for but a moment before their make and color changed, each spitting out a sword – though not the exact replicas. Each sword donned a different color, seemingly encompassing the entire spectrum, in addition to embodying a different element. They all homed in on him immediately, and as though twenty thousand eyes pierced through his skin, his very soul could feel their gaze.
“<Tempest of Time>!” Two cried out just then, startling him. “Resonance!”
He only had but a breath to let go of the cube he held onto tightly all this while, and utter a single sound. Right after, he was skewered by thousands of swords that seeped through his shadowed being as well as the vast mirage behind him, pain blasting off from every inch of his body, bringing him down to his knees.