Thank god I made it in time. I’m so glad Minna had the sense to leave a note behind. To be honest, I first thought of leaving Sen and company to their devices so I could bolster the village’s defences, but there were just one too many suspicious details for me to ignore.
Why did the cultists allow themselves to be captured if they were going to commit suicide anyway? Was the destruction of the communication item really due to avarice? Finally, why would Sen and everybody agree to leave without saying a word?
My first thought was that he discovered the state of the communication item, leading to an act of impatience or desperation. However, as far as I can tell, neither Lili nor I have divulged a thing about the fact. Furthermore, nobody came to check or eavesdrop on our progress, otherwise I would have detected their presence. Of course, Sen could have assumed we were having problems, but knowing his straightforward personality, he would have checked on us first. In that case, he must have been informed by somebody who knew beforehand, and suddenly everything fell into place. Regardless, I never thought the traitor would be our former guide Mr Kell. Although he has Borris’ magical and spiritual signature, that voice can only be his.
Anyway, I’m now standing atop what remains of the hollowed hill, gazing at the situation below. While I’m glad everybody is alive, the situation couldn’t be more bleak. There is no doubt in my mind that the man dressed in black and gold with the head of a ram is the hierarch, Tascus. Although I never thought of killing him with my opening attack, I can’t believe he reacted so quickly when his entire view of me was obstructed by the canopy. Of course, having torn through said canopy, everybody can now see me standing in plain view.
“E-enbos!? What are you doing here?”
“Why else? I’m here to save you all.”
“N-no, don’t! Just run, Enbos!”
“You can’t hope to beat that monster by yourself! Forget about us and save yourself while you still can!”
“Calm down, Sen, Minna, I know what I’m doing. I swear it will be over soon.”
Ignoring my companions’ pleas, I turn to face the mastermind behind all this madness. To be honest, he’s probably the strongest being I’ve ever seen. Not only is his mana vast, it’s so refined that I can clearly tell the outline of their body. Although he’s slightly smaller than Zur of the Crimson Hand, I’d wager he could kill a thousand men unarmed just the same. Worse, I can’t analyse his soul, which only those on the level of Takashi or with a cheat skill like me could pull off. I suddenly feel incredibly exposed as his powerful gaze attempts to peer deep into my soul.
“Hmmm, I see. So, you’re the mage who singlehandedly retook Kasseus village.”
“Indeed I am.”
“Curious. Very curious. I have heard from my follower here of your abilities, appearance and mannerisms, but to see you in person-”
“Leave now with all your minions,” I say as I raise my bloodied blade, “and no more lives will have to be lost this day.”
“… I see. You’ve killed all the lookouts, including the ones I ordered to stay in hiding. Regardless, you must already know the hollowness of your own words. You do not have the power to endanger me, let alone our entire Order.”
“Perhaps not, but what about an army bearing down on all fronts?”
I take out Lili’s amulet from within my cloak and raise it for everyone to see. Tascus becomes fixated by its azure light, seemingly recognising the magical item. A hint of life returns to each of Sen’s and the others’ eyes upon seeing the pendent.
“It was a good idea to destroy the communication item, but it was too much for you to assume it was our only way. I already contacted Catorrem last night, and soon the entire countryside will be scoured by the kingdom’s knights! You know as well as I do it won’t be long before the cavalry arrives, and if you don’t leave now, you won’t have time to evacuate all your followers.”
“Hm, so you claim to have informed Catorrem of all our operations. How could you have learned of such information?”
“The same way I learnt of your name; I borrowed your “facilities” and kindly asked one of your brothers.”
I sense a surge of bloodlust from some of the cultists, but worryingly, Tascus is not among them. he appears completely unperturbed. Of course, I only managed to contact Catorrem this morning, which means help will arrive much later than I would like. Worse, our rescue has no idea of the real situation, so they may not even be enough to faze Tascus. Fortunately, it seems “Mr Kell” accidentally dropped the crystal ball during my sudden attack, leaving the item broken and unusable. My entire plan is banking on their lack of knowledge as I continue to speak in a tone wholly unrepresentative of my inner anxiety.
“Now choose, Tascus! Every moment you waste is another moment the army draws closer. Even if you doubt my words, the light in my hand is no lie!”
“… Heh. Hahahaha…”
Hearing his quiet chuckle instantly sinks my heart to my boots. Although I maintain my act, we both know he’s seen through my bluff.
“While you may bear a light, the one truly in the dark is you.”
“What… do you mean?”
“My child, do you honestly believe I wouldn’t have prepared for such a thing? I have eyes and ears everywhere in these lands, especially in the very cathedral you claimed to have sought help. And I’ll tell you now… I have not heard of them receiving anything.”
With that final revelation, my hopes come crashing down as I stare blankly at the glowing amulet in my hand.
No, that can’t be right. The mana stream should have run directly to the nearest church which is in Catorrem. However, as much as I want to deny his words, there is no malice in his voice. He doesn’t even have a reason to lie. But if Catorrem didn’t receive our signal…
“Even if what you have said is true,” I say with gritted teeth, “it doesn’t change the fact we have reached somebody and that they have responded. The fact that you’ve heard nothing else means they’re outside of your surveillance. You could still be facing a lord’s army at any moment!”
“Sadly Enbos, you put too much faith in the Church of Eden. Your prayers are most likely lost in its treacherous bureaucracy. Regardless, even if everything you have said is true… I will not be swayed, and neither would the rest of my loyal children. I need only finish the ritual before they arrive, and I’ve had more than enough time for the chantless invocation.”
“Chantless- Oh no.”
“<Soul Flaying Ritual>.”
To my horror, he activates the enchantment on the scroll, resulting a round of anguish cries from Sen and the others. I immediately check their spiritual energy, and while the ritual isn’t outright killing them, they’re losing their life force at an accelerating rate.
<… 99%… 100% synchronisation achieved. 30% of Mellivorath’s stats have been added.>
Using the Mellivorath’s skill, I collapse the entire half-hill atop the people below. Hundreds of tonnes of earth bear down upon them, and while it may look like an act of madness, I’m well aware Tascus is capable of stopping it.
Unfazed, Tascus conjures a dark magical dome to shield everyone from the falling soil. Seconds later, he detonates the barrier outward, levelling the entire vicinity in one fell swoop. I can feel every bone in my body rattle from the shockwave, but I’m largely unharmed as I manage to escape underground by the skin of my teeth. Taking advantage of all the airborne dirt above, I swim through the earth towards the cultists maintaining the trap.
Damn it, he spotted me, and w-what’s with this ridiculous amount of magical power!
Alarmed, I immediately use <Shadow Step> to retreat via the tunnel I made. A deafening sound soon follows, and upon emerging from the earth I witness his thunderous barrage on my prior position. A magic circle overhead is firing thousands upon thousands of black needles at bullet-like speeds, piercing the earth and leaving a pockmarked mess. My spine turns icy cold upon realising how close I was to dying then and there.
“Hoh, so you managed to evade that.”
Close! His voice is too close!
I scarcely react in time as I turn to find Tascus swinging his staff towards my torso. Out of pure reflex, I cast <Kinetic Barrier> to impede the crushing sweep. He manages to shatter my spell with ease, but not without losing momentum in his attack. I manage to back step in the nick of time, but as the sheer force of his sweep hammers rain and air into my light body, I’m sent hurtling back like a rag in the wind.
W-what the hell!? Was that a skill or just a typical attack!? He moves so damn fast for his size and he has enough mana for another hundred of those <Black Rains>. Damn it, I have to think of a way to get past him before everybody dies!
Watching patiently as I recover from from my fall, he beckons for “Mr Kell” to tend to him.
“Yes, Your Holiness?” answers the backstabbing guide.
“I shall entrust the care of the scroll to you. I will not risk it being damaged in my deliverance of Enbos.”
“B-but Your Holiness, would it not be better if I were to face him instead?”
“Unfortunately, I sense you would not be a match for him. In any case, I highly doubt Enbos came here alone. Protect your brothers and the scroll with your life.”
“By your will, hier-”
In a desperate move, I fire my skill at the scroll while it’s being passed, but to my dismay, I find he’s cast a <Spell Shield> beforehand. It strikes harmlessly against the barrier as Tascus turns to give me his undivided attention.
“Ah, that’s right. Fire magic is in your repertoire as well. Truly, you are a mage of great versatility, and for a greater rank skill, that barrier you cast beforehand was rather impressive. Is it a custom skill or one of the secret magics of the Novuseus line?”
“<Shadow Spear>! <Great Throw>!”
Ignoring his words, I throw my explosive skill over Tascus’ head and towards “Mr Kell’s” retreating back. However, it collides with another <Spell Shield> as Tascus softly shakes his head.
“You cannot spare them from deliverance, Enbos. Not with your current level of ability.”
“Damn it! <Shadow->.”
With an earth-shaking stomp leaving a wave of mud behind him, Tascus launches himself forward like a charging ram. I hastily deactivate my skill as he brings down his golden staff. Mud erupts from the point of contact and pelts my body as I side step his attack. He immediately follows with diagonal sweep, which I manage to duck beneath by the tip of my antlers. While it’s preferable to outright oblivion, the wind pressure of his swings is so great that I can feel my HP being chipped away with each dodge. Worse, he leaves absolutely no openings as he follows his one-handed sweep with a downward fist. I drop onto my back to evade his punch, but the resulting shockwave sends me rolling a dozen feet. Orientating myself mid-rotation, I land on my feet and quickly ready my blade as he comes charging towards me once more.
Damn it, I’m no match for him in close combat! My only saving grace is that while he’s quick on his feet, his swings are relatively slow, but that’s not saying much. I have to make some distance and hit him with- no, that won’t work! He managed to tank my <Shadow Spear> like it was nothing, and <Oxy Fireball> takes too long to cast. <Lightning>, and by extension <Storm Cloak>, are also useless in this weather. There’s only one viable skill left, and even then, I don’t know if it will work.
Snapping out of my split-second planning, I activate <Parallel Thought> and <Life Tap> to recover my HP and restock my spiritual energy. An instant later, Tascus is upon me as he strikes with an air-churning thrust. Steeling my resolve, I bob beneath his attack and brave the wind-pressure to deliver a low drawing technique, a move I picked up from Hachirou.
My skill connects with his ankle, severing his spirit link and causing him to brace against his staff. Taking advantage of his surprise, I dash past him and make a beeline for Sen and the others. At this range, I can sense their spiritual energies reaching dangerously low levels. They’re not going to last more than five minutes if I don’t something-!
Hearing that ominously calm voice, I look back while running to a harrowing sight. To my stupefied awe, he’s conjured a pitch-black pilum out of a staggering amount of dark mana. It looks like a high rank- no, master rank version of <Shadow Spear>, except it’s as refined as any blacksmith-made work. He then pulls back his arm before throwing the construct with herculean strength. The falling rain reveals the turbulent force surrounding the projectile as it flies as straight as arrow towards my back.
“Damn it! <Fortify>!”
Pre-emptively activating my defensive skill, I drop to the ground just as it flies over my head and lands not but ten feet in front of me. And if it works anything like <Shadow Spear>…
… The resulting explosion was far greater than I could have anticipated. The entire world is a blur as I’m launched further away from my companions. I land on my back with a grinding halt, and to my dismay, I realise I’m right beneath Tascus as he raises his armoured boot.
With a deafening thump, his sole makes contact with my barrier as immense amounts of kinetic energy is redirected to the earth. In the precious few seconds of borrowed time, I use <Command Soil> to sink below the ground just as foot comes crashing through my spell, leaving a deep imprint in place of where my head once was.
My god, that was too close for comfort, but what do I do now? If I move away, he’ll just cast another barrage of-
What the hell!? He’s casting it on his own position! I can’t dig away in time!
Unable to burrow elsewhere, I take refuge in the shadow of my dreaded opponent. Agonising seconds pass as several dozen or so needles skirt my figure. However, the instant his <Black Rain> subsides… I feel his hand punch through the wet earth and grab me by one of my antlers.
My marrow runs cold as he pulls me to the surface with ease. I’m dangling off the ground as my mask remains affixed to my skull and my left-hand wrestles with his iron grip. Miraculously, my right hand is still holding Bloodletter, but as I coat it with spiritual energy and prepare to stab him, he drops his staff and pulls my sword out of my grasp.
“Hm, how surprising. I had my suspicions, but your broadsword really was cursed after all. Moreover, you managed to weaponise your spiritual energy, an unprecedented achievement in the history of Aren! Even now, I can see you restocking your spiritual energy by drawing it from the area itself. Your magic may be subpar, but your spiritual control is truly something to be admired. Indeed, it would be a shame to destroy one with so much knowledge.”
“Like I would tell you a thing! Let go!”
I continue to beat relentlessly against his arm and kick his abdomen. My bones threaten to fracture with every blow as I use enough force to shatter stone. However, even with the borrowed strength of a Mellivorath, he doesn’t so much as twitch in response. I even coat my fists in spiritual energy, but it seems he’s already learnt to concentrate his life force to resist my attacks. Damn it, I feel like an infant struggling against an adult!
“I respect your tenacity, Enbos, both your courage and your constant vigour. However, your actions are futile. We are guided by prophecy and nothing will stop us on the eve of the Ascension. You can sense it, can’t you? One of them is already on the verge of being delivered to Maleosis’ loving embrace.”
“Damn you, damn you, DAMN YOU AND YOUR GOD!”
“Ah, such blasphemous words, and from one who has also been touched by our beloved lord.”
“What… did you…”
“To be truthful, I’m not entirely sure as you disguise your soul well. However, from what little I can gleam, I sense a certain… affinity. Moreover, the anti-detection spells on your cloak are unmistakably similar to our own. While I have nothing but assumptions of your true character, I must sincerely ask: will you not consider aiding us on our path to true Eden? Will you look past your mortal ties for the greater good?”
“Drop… dead… Tascus! I won’t let you get away with this!”
I can still make it if I break out now! I may as well use my “blessing” to-
Wait a minute, isn’t that…
“Tell me Tascus!”
“What are you hoping to achieve? I know that gem in the rock is an Undead Ravager’s core, but how the hell is raising that monster supposed to lead to any kind of Eden!?”
“… Heh… Haha… Ahahaha.”
Clearly amused by my words, he gives a hearty chuckle as he slowly shakes his head at my ignorance. It’s aggravating and time is short, but I’m genuinely curious of his mad plan.
“Oh my child, you greatly misunderstand. I don’t intend to raise anything. Also, it is not just an Undead Ravager, but the Undead Ravager. What is important is the base that formed that infamous creature.”
“W-what do you mean?”
“Enbos, Undead Ravagers are not a kind of risen, but a state any undead can fall into upon reaching the bounds of their sustainability. There have only ever been three recorded in Aren’s history because they are the only ones significant enough to be noted. The last was a forsaken dragon that destroyed vast swathes of forest and farmland. The second was a risen chimera, but it only wiped out a few rural villages before expiring. But the first… Ah, the first was by far the most dangerous due to the power of its original form, and it is that power I wish to claim for myself.”
“A-and what was that first Undead Ravager?”
My question causes him to pause as he stares at me in stony silence. Rather than the hesitation to speak, he seems to be lost in admiration judging by the look of his pale eyes behind his mask.
“My child, the undead that destroyed the grand city of Tiel… was an elder lich.”
“… No way.”
“I do not lie, Enbos, for it is that reason that the Church of Eden hid the truth. After all, what would it imply if an undead existed since the golden age?”
I can’t fathom it. Could it really be true? The core of an elder lich, an item that housed a soul for thousands of years. I-if I could have that artefact for myself… I could reconnect Helena’s soul with ease! I would already be one third of the way to bringing her back, and…
“… You still haven’t answered me. Tascus. What do you intend to do with that core?”
“What else but to fulfil the destiny He has designed. I wish to “ascend” above apostlehood and become Maleosis’ one and only champion. I wish to rise above my humanity and become a guiding light for all of mankind. I wish to achieve the state of perfection that is… being an undead.”
“… Excuse me?”