Chapter 574: 574
LEGENDS ARE FOREVER
Lino had stealthily removed himself from the celebration, sneaking back into the fortress while the flames of joy and shouting still lived on just outside its tall, aging walls . He had gone to a small garden deep inside the fortress, surrounded by minimal decorations save for the flowery groves ripping out of the earth in half-circles, conjoining to create a rather breathtaking scene .
At the very center of it all was a small patch of dirt covered in tiny, pebble-sized, red petals spreading out wholly beneath a child-sized, hand-carved stone, seeming as polished as though it was buried yesterday .
He sat in front of the grave and stared at it in silence, taking out a gourd of ale and dousing the earth twice over before taking a sip himself . Though it has been over fifteen years, that day still remained as clear inside his mind as though it had all happened yesterday . The world, on the other hand, seemed to have moved on . Save for Eggor and Cae, who from time to time visited this place, he hadn't heard Ella's name mentioned in ages .
It was eerie, really, how quick the living are to forget some dead, yet how slow they are in forgetting the others . He pondered the differences between those remembered and those forgotten, yet Ella lacked nothing of what made others immortalized . Partly, he suspected, they forgot due to him, as they seemed to also forget all his other past failures . Though, to be fair to them all, he rarely left his smithy in the recent years; as far as he knew, chattering about his past failures might be all the rage at the moment . He doubted it, however .
Sighing, he veered his gaze up toward the clear sky, a whizz of the cool wind nestling against his skin, cooling him down . It has been so long, sixty years and up, since it all began . Sixty years . That number seemed so large to his young self, the passage of time that would take forever to complete . Yet… looking back, it all went by so quickly he barely had a moment to catch his breath . Time, truly, was as relative as anything else in the world .
A sound of the ruffling leaves caught him by surprise as he turned his eyes sideways . Strips of cloth billowed out into strange loops as the spacetime settled, birthing in its place a figure that Lino knew well – too well – horribly well . His expression, however, remained placid as he met a pair of shimmering eyes adorned with the aged face and the bald head .
He had changed a bit, however, since Lino last saw him; he seemed to have far more spring in his steps, his body barely containing the extreme levels of energy that left even Lino stunned temporarily . It was him, yet it was not .
Lino took a sip of ale and continued meeting the man's gaze . The latter smiled quaintly and took out a gourd of his own, taking a sip before sitting down in front of Lino, glancing at the grave, sighing right after .
"… such a shame, what happened to her," he said . "She had talent that rivaled the Ancient One . "
"… the Ancient One?" Lino quizzed .
"The Creator's first Creation," the man replied, turning around and meeting Lino's gaze squarely once more . "The Prime Agent . "
"Ah . "
"Though, to be fair, she would have never caught up," he continued . "But… it would have been joyful watching her try . You don't seem that surprised to see me . " The man smiled lightly, taking another sip of his drink .
"… I am," Lino replied, taking a sip as well . "It's been a while since we last saw each other, though . I might have changed slightly . "
"… hm, you have," the man nodded . "You grew up exactly as I was hoping you would . "
"… though we could continue talking in the roundabouts and the riddles, I'd rather you spring on me whatever answers I might have to claw out of your mouth, no?"
"… ha ha ha, I suppose so," the man crackled, shaking his head . "Ever as impatient, however . "
"… who are you?" Lino asked .
"The same man you've always known," he smiled cheekily . "The Eternal Watcher . "
"… ah, fine," the man sighed, rolling his eyes . "But, I really am called the Eternal Watcher . At least I used to be when people remembered I still existed . "
"… and I'm guessing your job is to eternally watch, no?"
"I've no job," the man shrugged . "Save for the one I assign to myself . "
"How'd you end up on Noterra?" Lino asked .
"Followed the scent of Destruction," the man replied . "If you ask it, it will happily tell you I've been following its scent since beyond the count of time . Asgrid, Ferteln, Tytorn, Fulkumn… each and every time it tried to reestablish itself, I was there to help it . "
"So, when I traced it over to Noterra, and saw who it chose, I was ready for another cycle of disappointment and failure," he continued . "Don't get me wrong; Eldon is a great man, but I've seen so many great men in my life, it ceased to matter a long time ago . So, I slithered about this world, waiting, having some fun in the meantime… when I met you . "
"—it was love at first sight, eh?" Lino chuckled .
"You managed to actually piss me off . "
"Didn't seem that hard at the time . "
"You lacked everything that those great men had," the man ignored Lino's jab, moving on . "You had no ambition you would die for . You had neither the heart nor the mind that could endure anything and everything . Every time you were hurt, you would shout and flay about like a child . You hardly ever thought things through, just ramming straight into the wall and hoping for the best . "
"But, from the get-go… I realized that it would choose you in the end . I'm fairly certain you were told this before, but you are just like the Chaos itself, Lino . On the surface so simple it's almost worth a laugh; yet, forever ineffable . To this day, I don't think anyone quite got you, as they say . Not me . Not the Creator . Not the Destroyer . And, perhaps, not even you yourself . "
"… stop . I might blush like a young girl in love . "
"… I think it was the fourth cycle after the Destroyer was defeated . It latched onto a young spring called Leveela . She was the literal opposite of you in virtually every single way . Until her last breath, she never once broke down in tears, never once cried injustice, never once made a wrong decision, never once failed . Until that breath . I was certain – certain – she would bring about the Destroyer's resurrection . Every single thing pointed toward it being a reality . She was catching up to the Ancient One, she was repeatedly winning skirmishes, she was building a strong force, causing headaches left, right and center . Truly, it seemed it was only a matter of time before we'd win . "
"Then, one day, she stepped out of the Meditation Room, ready to take a bath, when the Ancient One showed up and shoved a spear through her heart, killing her on the spot . None of us even realized it until hours later when her body was found . How? We asked and asked, hundreds, thousands of times over . Did someone leak our location? No . Only four people knew where she was at the time, and none of us would utter a sound even if disemboweled time and again . Did they somehow put some sort of a tracker on her without us realizing? No, that was impossible . For a long while, we truly believed the Ancient One simply got lucky and found her completely at random . "
"… but that wasn't it?"
"Pattern . " The man said, taking a sip . "It was all in the pattern . "
"There's no such thing as infinity; so, within the finite reality, everything eventually forms a pattern – except the Chaos itself . No matter how careful she was, she was not like you . She could be predicted, as it turned out . "
"… what happened after?"
"What else?" the man shrugged . "We were hunted down like dogs and executed till only two of us were left . The Destroyer went back into the swirls of Chaos, biding its time once again, and I had to continue watching the Creator spread its seed like a mad King raping its entire Kingdom . "
"… I don't think I'm all that different from her, old man . I'm not nearly as ineffable as you make me out to be . "
"… the moment I realized that you actually were," the man said . "Was when I saw you planning something for months, carefully moving around pieces and writing out the future, only to shit all over it in the spur of the moment and do the complete opposite of what you were planning . And this… this didn't happen just once or twice… but time and again . "
"… wouldn't that be what you'd call 'emotionally unstable'?" Lino grinned as he asked, taking another sip and leaning against the warm wall behind him .
"… just like the Chaos itself . " The man said, smiling, toasting the gourd toward Lino before taking a sip .
"… what do you want from me, Six? Or whatever the hell I'm supposed to call you anyway . "
"Sylas will do," the man chuckled . "And, as for what I want from you… absolutely nothing you already don't want yourself . I only wish to help you . "
"How can you help me?"
"The same way I helped all those before you; I'll be the ears and the eyes, and the whisper digging holes in the hearts of those rejecting you . Only, my job will be much easier this time around as there's the Edifice itself to back up all my claims . "
"Wouldn't it be in my nature to tell you to go fuck yourself right about now, or even try and finally actually kill you?"
"To be honest, I've no idea what you want to do," Sylas said . "So, whatever you choose will surprise me equally in the end . "
"… why are you fighting this war to begin with?" Lino asked . "If I'm to trust your words, you've been fighting it for quite some time . "
"Since the Beginning . "
"… the beginning?" Lino quizzed, tilting his head .
"… just like Iylas was to the Creator its first Creation, I was the Destroyer's," Sylas said, chuckling bitterly . "I'm what you'd call the Destroyer's First Agent . "
" . . . . . "
"Though, as you may have guessed, I've failed – big time – to live up to that role . Iylas shot past me in terms of strength within literal decades," Sylas sighed, looking up to the sky . "He slapped me around like a child my entire early life . To be honest, I've never quite recovered from it . Even today, I'm too afraid to come anywhere near his clones, let alone his actual body despite the fact that the gap between us has shrunk considerably . "
"… what makes you say so?" Lino asked .
"Because he hit his peak eons ago," Sylas shrugged . "Even if I got stronger at a snail's pace, I'd still close the gap at least a bit over time . "
"… you don't want your official role back?"
"… no," Sylas shook his head . "I've had it and wasted it . The least I can do is not gobble up someone else's potential by stealing the energy . "
"… I'm still quite muddy on the endgame of all this," Lino said, looking up toward the sky himself . "To be honest, I don't care nearly enough about the whole cosmic and dimensional war of two concepts well beyond my capacity to understand . The sole reason I've even come this far was because it was the best choice I've had at the time . In the end, what of their conflict? What if I somehow do manage to help the Destroyer topple over its scorned spouse? From what I understand, the entire concept of multiverses will vanish, and with it literal trillions of souls . Wouldn't I become the number one mass murderer in the history of everything?"
"… you understand it wrongly, then," Sylas chuckled . "There never was just one universe or just one world, Lino . It's just a story, a tale of the winner . "
"Before the Destroyer fell, there were roughly forty-six million universes," Sylas explained . "With a new one combusting into existence on hourly basis . Following the Destroyer's fall, the Creator purged ninety-nine percent of them, leaving only those that belonged to him intact, killing those trillions you mentioned in the process . Despite the countless eons he had, the current number of the universes doesn't even topple a few million . In the past, both had the capacity to dig into the finite energy of the Source and use it to create the universes; right now, however, the Creator has the monopoly of it – and rather than using it to create universes, it is using a large portion of it to feed its own homeworld and breed one Agent after another into existence . All the while, anyone who manages to tap into the Source through some backend means is hunted down and executed like a dog – that is why the few that do manage to tap and escape are currently the only ones holding back the complete takeover . "
"… funny . The Destroyer never mentioned that . "
"And it would have never mentioned it," Sylas said . "Look at me . Do you think if I was under the Creator's wings, I'd have been allowed to live all this while after all my failures?"
"Yet, time and again, no matter the cycle, I was welcomed with open arms . It leaves our agencies intact, and lets us do by our hearts . If you were to change your mind tomorrow and decide to destroy it, do you know that it wouldn't even try to dissuade you, let alone actively stop you?"
"… I somehow doubt that . " Lino chuckled .
"And yet it is the truth," Sylas said . "Neither the Destroyer nor the Creator are beyond the concept of individuality, Lino . Just as you and I, and every other living thing, change how we look at things as we grow older, so do they . It's not the matter of good and evil, but simply that they developed in different directions . For instance, the Creator's love for its Agents borders insanity . It would do anything for them . Yet, outside of them, it could easily massacre everyone without batting an eye . "
"Eh? Did you get so mad lonely you went and resurrected Six?" Hannah's voice caused Lino's contemplative expression to mellow out into a gentle smile while Sylas laughed out, shaking his head .
"Turns out I was so weak back then I couldn't even kill this old fart . " Lino said as Hannah joined him, kissing her gently . "He came back to haunt my ass . "
"Well, to be fair, it's a fine ass to haunt . "
"If we're talking about fine asses to haunt, why is nobody haunting yours?"
"You are . Everyone else is simply too terrified to try . "
"Oh my . I'm so sorry," Lino said . "That must make your ass quite lonely . "
"On the contrary; you hound it so much, it's getting tired . " Hannah fired back, chuckling . "Anyway, though, what's going on?"
"… fine," Lino glanced toward Sylas and nodded . "Go find Lucky and cooperate with her . If you run into Caleb, coordinate with him as well . "
"… see you around . " Sylas nodded and quickly vanished, leaving confused Hannah to stare at Lino for an explanation that never came .
"… don't look at me like that," Lino shrugged . "You've got enough at your plate . When you become an Agent, I'll explain it . "
"… eh, whatever," Hannah shrugged back, leaning against his shoulder, closing her eyes . "I've missed you…"
"… not nearly as much as I've missed you . "
"Strength, turns out, is quite costly," she sighed . "How did you make it seem so easy?"
"Acting . Lots and lots of acting . "
"Pft, ha ha ha… dumbass…"
"… you keeping safe?" Lino asked .
"Always . You?"
"Hardly; I keep hammering my thumbs, distracted, thinking about you . "
"… hammer away, chief . You crafted anything nice for me?"
"As the matter of fact, I did," Lino said, taking out a heart-shaped necklace from seemingly nowhere, handing it over to the excited Hannah . "What do you think?"
"… it's beautiful . "
"Come here," he said, taking the necklace and turning her around, moving her long, fiery-red hair away from her neck and putting the jewelry on before shuffling to her front . "It looks perfect on you . "
"Really?" she asked, her smile widening .
"… really . " He smiled back, pressing his forehead against hers . "Everything looks perfect on you, though . "
"Especially me . "
"… now and forever?"
"Now… and forever . "
[Oathsworn Medallion – Divinity]
[Oathbound] – cannot be worn by anyone but the person it was intended for; cannot be destroyed by anyone but the person who created it
[Unlimited] – the wearer and the creator can communicate at all times, regardless of distance, and one can teleport to the other instantaneously once every decade regardless of the distance
[The Vow] – the wearer is made invincible for 10 seconds if their life is threatened; during this period, [Unlimited] can be used regardless of whether it was used within 10 years
[Forever] – the creator's Vitality is liked to the wearer's; one won't die so long the other lives
Legends in the eternity…
END OF VOLUME XXIII
END OF BOOK VI
END OF 'THE LEGEND OF THE EMPYREAN BLACKSMITH'