No, I couldn’t have heard that right. There is no way he would really want such a thing.
No matter how insane, how fanatical or how ignorant he may be, he can’t have described such a hellish state as “perfect”. It would be one thing to desire power, but judging by the elation in Tascus’ voice, he had meant it in every sense of the word. All I can do is stare at him in soundless bafflement as he notices my disbelief.
“You may think me mad, but if you were to wholly consider the prospect, to become an undead is actually a blessing. Of course, one would need to retain their consciousness and possess a stable core, but those are no longer objects of concern. Don’t you see, my child? Once my Ascension is complete, I would be unageing, unrivalled and unbound from all of life woes.
No longer will I be assailed by pain, weakness or the need to sleep. Instead, I will be able to serve God with every moment of my existence. No longer will I be swayed by primal emotions or earthly desires. Instead, I will be free from the weakness of the human heart and see the world with unclouded eyes. No longer will I slowly decay from the height of my power into a living husk. Instead, I will only grow more powerful with every soul I partake. Don’t you see, Enbos? What is my own flesh and blood when compared to the wonders of living bone?”
“You mean a living hell! Between ceaseless emptiness and teetering on the brink of insanity, you have no idea what it’s really like.”
“And you do, Enbos?”
“More than you know, Tascus… Please, for your own sake, you have to stop. You know as well as I do what will await you in the end. Even with an elder lich’s core, you may not last a decade before you turn. D-do you really want to destroy everything you have built with your own hands? Do you really want to see yourself slowly become a monster!?”
“I could not ask for a more magnificent death.”
“I do not wish to escape the cycle of life and death, my child. To die is to be delivered to our beloved God, and when the time comes, my soul will have grown into the ultimate offering. There can be no greater honour, especially when said passing could become the impetus of His return. After all, the truest goal of the Prophecy is not the rise of the Order, but to orchestrate Maleosis’ rebirth… and I will do everything in my power to see it through.”
Damn it, there is no reasoning with this lunatic, and quite frankly, every word he’s saying is grating my ears. To be honest, I would like nothing more than to let Tascus damn himself to this fate. However, I refuse to allow him to sacrifice those I care just to entertain his madness!
Speaking of which, what’s taking those two so long? Any minute now, people are going to start dying! I might as well take things into my own hands, but even if I use everything, I don’t know if I can break free. Of course, there is a much simpler way of escaping his grasp, but that would mean…
“Your act is slipping, Enbos. You’re forgetting to struggle.”
Huh? N-no, don’t tell me…
“Please Enbos, did you honestly believe I hadn’t realised? Their spiritual energies are as visible to me as they are to you. Sadly, I can’t say the same for my followers, even “Mr Kell” who is normally very perceptive. I suppose I need to take care of them myself…”
“Like hell you are! <Lightn->!”
“… but right after I deal with you.”
In a flash, he raises my sword and points it at my forehead, ready to impale my mask in one stroke. I immediately grab the blade in response, but I know if he exerts even a fraction of his monstrous strength, I won’t be able to stop it. Time seemingly slows to a crawl as the blade inches millimetre by millimetre towards my ceramic face. Finally, it scratches the surface and I can feel something breaking inside me.
“I must confess that I am now deeply curious of your true identity, Enbos. Because for as long as you have been in my grasp, I have only ever held you by your mask, and yet, you refuse to expose yourself even as your friends’ lives are withering away. It’s almost as if you value your secrecy more than their livelihoods.”
“DAMN YOU, TASCUS!”
“Of course, we’ll see just how far you’re willing to uphold it. Your life is forfeit either way but our encounter has been an enlightening step on my path to perfection. For that, I thank you.
Rest in peace… Enbos the Black.”
“Y-you… YOU… UnFOrGiveAbLe… I sWeAR… I wILl-”
<Allocate 100 skill points to Maleosis’ Pact of Power?>
<100 skill points allocated. 210 skill points reserved. Maleosis’ Pact of Power: Active.>
This isn’t good. It was painful at first, but now I’m starting to lose my sense of touch. I don’t even know if I’m holding Minna’s hand. Worse, I can barely keep myself conscious as my lifeforce is drained into that despicable scroll. I won’t last much longer, and I dare not think about the condition of the emaciated captives. Trapped and quickly losing strength, I should be in the depths of my despair… and yet, I’m not. Because right now, while straining against my magical restraints to look up, I’m watching Enbos fight for our lives against the insurmountable opponent before him.
Tascus has blown away a hill, shredded the earth and left craters in his wake. His strength is far greater than anyone I know, and despite Enbos’ best efforts, he remains unfazed. However, as imposing as Tascus might may be… I feel far more inspired by Enbos’ determination. Time and time again, he’s been knocked to the ground, and yet he always rises without fail. Even now when Tascus has him by the antler, Enbos is still showing a shocking amount of vigour.
How can he face such a powerful foe without a hint of hesitation? Is Enbos incapable of feeling fear? Why did he still try to save us knowing full well how powerful Tascus really is? He’s the one who tried to warn us in the first place!
“… You think the worst is death? It’s nothing but a release! You have no idea what it’s like to risk your life, only to lose so much more… and live. I knew a man no different from any of you. In the end, he succumbed to despair… and I’m little better…”
No, he’s not doing this because he’s fearless or strong. He’s doing this because he can’t live with himself if he doesn’t. But unlike my blind desperation, he’s well aware of what is at stake, and yet he still chooses to fight. I can’t believe I ever succumbed to Tascus’ pressure while Enbos is facing him like an adventurer- no, a true man.
Really, I feel ashamed for dragging Minna and Norf around when I was always this weak… but no more. I can’t let them down now. Even if I end up dying… I will do so without regrets.
Turning back to look at Minna, I give my biggest smile before letting go of her hand to grip my spear. Despite her deathly pallor, she responds with a quizzical look before suddenly widening her eyes. Seriously, she really is my best friend to have guessed what I’m thinking, and I’m glad her final memory of me won’t be my apology.
(S-sen, don’t tell me-)
“Oh, is our friend ‘ere hain’ funny ideas? Kinda obvious by da way ya keep glaring at me.”
Damn it, I need “Mr Kell” to look away. I need to find something to draw his attention for-
All of a sudden, as if answering my prayers, an eruption of dirt and rain occurs at Enbos and Tascus’ position. I have no idea what either of them did, but it seems “Mr Kell” is deeply unsettled.
“I-impossible, this sensation is… I-I can’t believe Enbos was actually-”
Summoning every last speck of my strength, I tear out of the binding shadows with a pained roar. I can feel my life slipping away as I overreach my bounds and spend what’s left of my energy. My sight is blurry, there’s no feeling in my legs, and I can faintly hear Minna screaming out my name.
If I fail now, I will be dead on the spot. But even if I succeed… it may very well be my last stand.
Screaming with all my breath to retain focus, I throw my spear straight at “Mr Kell” just as he’s turning around. He notices at the last moment and… quickly…
… Huh… I can’t stay…
… I’m not sure… if…
… So… this is it, huh?
I’m glad… I bought you more… time…
T-thank you for… sticking with… idiot for all…
Goodbye… you guys…
With a soft splash, I watch in horror as Sen falls forward. I can feel myself on the verge of fainting from shock, but a lifetime of adventuring has deprived me such a convenient retreat. Instead, I’m left with a growing void in my heart as the full impact of what has transpired gradually sinks in. My lifelong friend and most cherished soul is on the ground… while “Mr Kell” is still standing.
“Haha, by da spirits, dat was close! I comletelee fergot he could do dat, but it seems it was all fer nought.”
“N-no. No, no, NO! Don’t you dare die on me, Sen! Y-you can’t leave me like this, not after all we’ve been through. I… I…”
I-I still haven’t told you how I feel. How can you show off t-that dumb grin and then set out to die!? I-I didn’t stay with you just to see this. I was supposed to protect you.
“P-please, don’t go, Sen. I know that you think I’m capable and that I’ll be alright, b-but the truth is… I don’t know how to live without you. I need you in my life, I really do. S-so please…”
Nothing. Nothing but falling rain and distant combat greet my ears. Whether it be the ritual or my tears, everything except Sen’s figure has become a blur. I can’t tell if he’s still breathing, nor do I have the strength to pull myself to his side. All I can do is pray that he is still alive… and that his spear met its mark.
… CURSE YOU, YOU BLASTED HEATHEN!”
Stirring from my thoughts, I look up to find Sen’s spear has landed behind “Mr Kell” with the tip squarely embedded in the scroll. The parchment then ignites itself in purple flames before crumbling away, and as it does, the horrible sensation that’s been leeching us suddenly disappears.
He did it. He saved us all. But if the ritual has been undone… Oh god, please tell me he’s alive! I still can’t crawl closer to check, but that small hope is the only thing keeping me going.
“H-how dare you… HOW. DARE. YOU!!! That scroll was entrusted to me by His Holiness himself, but n-now that it’s been destroyed, the Hierarch’s Ascension has been delayed! Even a thousand deaths won’t atone for what he has done!”
“That’s what I wanted to say to you! Once Enbos undoes this ensnarement…”
“Insolence! Do you seriously believe that two-faced mage can best our saviour just because Sen has spared you all a slow death? Even without the scroll, you are all…”
His voice abruptly trails off as we both notice something mixed amongst the rain. It seems to be a stream of countless specks of light, and the way it’s drifting around us reminds me of…
“Everybody, cover your eyes!”
All of a sudden, the entire excavation site is flooded in dazzling light. The warmth of her magic beats against my skin and extinguishes the black tendrils holding us down. As the radiance fades, I crack open my eyes to find all the cultists have been blinded by the skill, unable to cover their eyes while channelling. All except for one.
“No! I won’t let any of you escape!”
In a fit of rage, “Mr Kell” draws two knives and charges towards us. I try to reach for Sen to pull him out of the way, but all I succeed in doing is falling forward.
I-I can’t move! The trap may be undone, but I don’t have the strength to stand!
Somehow, without anybody noticing his approach, a short, darkly dressed figure intercepts “Mr Kell” with his sword. While I do not know how he got so close without notice, there is no mistaking that canine mask and curved blade.
Regaining his composure, Norf open fires over Hachirou’s head, driving the guide back. With a groan, I pull myself to my feet and prepare for combat as well.
“A-are you alright, Minna? I’m sorry we took so long to- Wait, is that Sen laying over there!? D-don’t tell me he’s…”
“I-I don’t know, Hachirou, but he needs Lili right now! We have to get him to her before it’s too late!”
“I agree, b-but I don’t know if we can.”
Taking stock of our situation, it seems half our group was also blinded by Lili’s spell. Worse, the cultist mages are beginning to recover. We should split up, but I don’t think me or Norf will have the strength to carry Sen and escape. Moreover, Lili is in hiding and has no one to protect her, so she can’t show herself carelessly. Our only choice is to finish off these cultists while Enbos keeps Tascus at bay.
“Enough! Kill them all, my brothers! We will have to make do with their deceased souls. If need be, we will offer our own lives to break the barrier! For Maleosis! For His Holiness Tascus!”
“For Maleosis! For- Watch out, brother!”
All of a sudden, a large, black mass comes flying over our heads before crashing into the wagon. The mobile cage is completely demolished by the heavy projectile as it kicks up a cloud of dirt. However, as the light shower clears away the airborne soil…
The shocking reveal throws all the cultists into a panic as they converge on Tascus’ position. On the other hand, we are equally confused as we stare at his prone form with slack jaws and renewed hope.
U-unbelievable! How did Enbos send Tascus flying all the way over here? He was on the backfoot the entire time! If he can keep fighting Tascus like this, we might be able get Sen and everybody to safety!
Naturally, we all turn towards Enbos for solace in his extraordinary strength. However, with just one look at his mud-covered form… I soon realise something is horribly wrong.
With an unearthly howl, Enbos sends shivers down everybody’s spines. While he is physically unchanged, his aura is wholly unrecognisable. Admittedly, he has always been an intimidating figure, b-but the dread I’m feeling is on a completely different scale. Rather than a warning of his might, it feels almost like a promise of certain death. I finally understand what Sen had meant by Enbos’ bloodlust was unnatural, and w-while I’m glad it’s being directed at Tascus… I don’t think anybody can see his current self as an ally. Actually, I can’t even see him as human. Even Hachirou is frozen rigid as he looks at his master with horrified eyes.
“N-no… Please, Enbos, remember who you are! Y-you promised you would do better! Think of all of us! Think of Yuki! T-think of Hel-”
“I see. So, I was right after all.”
Hearing that ominous voice, we turn back to find Tascus has extracted himself from the wreckage. He’s leisurely brushing off the mud on his clothes with nary an injury or sign thereof. With a wave of his hand, he calms his followers before facing Enbos head-on.
“Truly, our Lord works in profound and mysterious ways. Wouldn’t you agree… Brother Enbos?”
<Maleosis’ Pact of Power: Active.>
Base Blessing Total
Attack: 86 120 206
Defence: 70 40 110
Magic: 138 10 148
Resilience: 94 20 114
Agility: 79 20 99
Reserved Points: 210
… I used it. I finally used it. This accursed blessing.
If I ever had anything resembling a trump card, it would <Maleosis’ Pact of Power>. However, it couldn’t be more of a double-edged sword. While impossible otherwise, this ability allows me to directly allocate skill points to five of my main stats. The result is a staggering boost in power that doesn’t reset with future uses… but it’s also temporarily, and the modifier only applies when the ability is active. Using this “blessing” means permanently sacrificing my potential whilst allowing something… foreign to encroach on my soul. As such, I’ve tried not to rely on this accursed blessing…
… but it will all be worth it if I can kill this unforgivable fiend!
Upon breaking free of Tascus’ grasp, I proceed to throw him to the ground with all my might. The resulting impact sends soil flying everywhere as I jump atop his prone form and begin raining blow after earth-shattering blow into his body. In this state, I have more than twice the strength of a Mellivorath, and it shows as every hit is forcing Tascus deeper into the ground. However, even with all my newfound might, the damn hierarch remains as unperturbed as ever. Not a hint of desperation or anger can be found in his impassive, grey eyes.
Annoyed, I stop my flurry of attacks and pull him upright…
… before ramming my shoulder into his torso. The force of the slam fractures my own bones and sends Tascus soaring dozens of metres away. However, I immediately realise my folly as I have just sent him careening back towards the excavation site. As he crashes into the carriage with a satisfying crunch, I look over the area to find both the ritual and the ensnarement has been undone.
Oh, thank goodness, those two made it in time! Everybody seems to be… be…
N-no, this can’t be right… How did his spiritual energy get so low!? He should have as much lifeforce as the rest of them! Damn it, from this distance I-I can’t tell if Sen is still alive. H-he’s…
S-sen is dying… dying… dying… fault… dying… dying… finger… dying… everybody… dying…. blessing… sooner… dying… dying… hierarch… dying… dying… d-dy… die… Die. DIE. DIE!
<Allocate 50 skill points to Maleosis’ Pact of Power?>
<50 skill points allocated. 260 skill points reserved.>
To hell with my potential! To hell with Tascus! If my strength isn’t enough, I’ll just keep dumping points until it is.
“I see. I was right, after all. Truly, our Lord works in profound and mysterious ways. Wouldn’t you agree… Brother Enbos?”
“DON’T ASSOCIATE ME WITH THE LIKES OF YOU!”
With an ear-rupturing roar, I pick up Bloodletter and charge straight at Tascus. I hardly notice anyone else as brush past their bodies and leap a dozen feet in the air for a downward swing. He conjures a <Chaos Ward> to protect himself, but I cast <Gravity Field> to accelerate my descent in conjunction with <Fortify> and <Kinetic Barrier> to protect myself. His barrier explodes with concrete-shattering force, but instead of blowing me back, I weather the shock and emerge swinging at Tascus’ neck. He immediately crosses his arms to block me, but as my sword makes contact with his limbs…
… he soon realises I’m even stronger than before. Seeing the trickle of blood on my blade, I enter a frenzy and begin slashing without reserve, to which he starts backstepping at great speed.
Yes… Now he shows caution. Now he knows I can kill him!
“I see. Maleosis’ Pact of Power, I presume? To be honest, this is the first I’ve had to face one with your blessing, but I’m truly astonished by how much power our Lord has bestowed onto you. It seems I will have to treat this with some seriousness. <Heal>.”
Damn, so he’s able to recover himself, and it seems Bloodletter’s curse has no effect whatsoever. No matter. Every drop spilt is a drop lost, and I won’t ever stop until this stain on all life is gone!
Raising a wall of magic behind him, he bumps into it mid-retreat, giving me just enough range to-
He raises his arm to block my attack, but to my utter confusion, he’s now wearing silver gauntlets with matching vambraces over his forearms. In my split second of surprise, he pulls back his remaining arm and throws an armoured punch, to which I raise my arm to-
Once again, I’m sent tumbling back as I come to a sliding halt. His punch almost snapped my forearm in one blow, and there are even signs of a curse that weakens the opponent. Shrugging off the curse, I begin channelling <Life Tap> to mend the damage, but it’s a rough fix as I’ve lost chips of bone… and I don’t have the luxury of time.
Reducing my weight, I propel myself out of the way and grip the ground as I’m battered by the resulting shockwave. To my alarm, he conjures a <Shadow Lance> in each hand and begins throwing them one after another, replenishing them as they leave his grip. Again and again, I dodge his spells as they leave gaping craters in the earth, but my margin of safety is quickly shrinking with every shot. Realising this, I dash forward and under the next projectile, using the resulting explosion to hurtle myself towards the hierarch. He stops throwing spells and lunges forward for an overhead punch.
Increasing my gravity, I fall short of his reach, resulting in a missed punch that traps his arm in the earth. I immediately seize the chance to aim for his eye, but he uses his monstrous strength to upheave the ground. In reaction, I use <Burrowing Strike> to split the wall of earth, but on the other side, Tascus is already throwing another <Infernal Fist> towards my head. A second before oblivion, I use <Heavy Strike> on the side of his arm, diverting the blow by mere millimetres. I proceed to swing my sword at his chest, but he deftly catches the blade with his other hand.
Instead of firing my skill, I wrap its harmful energies along the blade, shredding the spiritual links in Tascus’ hand. He immediately realises my ploy and pushes aside my sword before casting <Black Rain>, forcing me to retreat several steps. As usual, he emerges physically unscathed but his left hand is now trembling from my spirit art. Encouraged by this sight, I coat my blade in <Phantom Edge> once more and leap back into the fray. He continues to parry my strikes, but with every touch, I’m slowly but surely chipping away at his spiritual energy.
“It doesn’t matter how much armour you wear. It doesn’t matter if you can heal your own wounds. I will maim your soul until you’ve haemorrhaged all your lifeforce like what you did to Sen!”
“Fearsome words, but it will take about a thousand strikes before you can best me, while I only need one…”
Suddenly, he grabs my sword hand and pulls me in to use his armoured elbow to crush my ribs. I can’t dodge in this position… nor do I need to.
<Allocate 100 skill points to Maleosis’ Pact of Power?>
<100 skill points allocated. 360 skill points reserved.>
Base Blessing Total
Attack: 86 170 256
Defence: 70 140 210
Magic: 138 10 148
Resilience: 94 20 114
Agility: 79 20 99
Reserved Points: 360
Boosting my physical defence, I withstand his otherwise fatal attack with but a few fractures. While he’s taken aback by my sudden change, I take advantage of my proximity to conjure a <Shadow Spear> and ram it at his eye. He manages to turn his head aside, but it still connects with his temple, resulting in an explosion that sends me flying back while leaving Tascus staggered.
Aside from the self-inflicted damage on my left hand, my right hand is also mangled from Tascus’ grip, causing me to drop my sword. However, I refuse to let him recover as I knock him down and pin his arms and torso. I then grab his mask and press it against the ground before increasing gravity fivefold. Once I’m certain he cannot escape, I collect a vast volume of rain with <Command Water> before forcing it over his head.
“You wanted to know what it’s like? Welcome to my world. Savour the feeling you so badly desired!”
I continue heaping water into his mask while he attempts to hold his breath. It doesn’t matter how powerful he is. All living things need to breathe, and it won’t be long before he involuntarily gasps for-
No, that’s not enough! For everybody he has ever harmed, he needs to suffer more. To do that, I’ll use <Conjure Water> to create a solution with the strength of an industrial-grade acid. That way, his eyes will burn and his respiratory system will become a bloody mess. Even if he casts <Black Rain>, I won’t budge until he’s coughing out streams of red!
“DIE IN PAIN, TASCUS!!!”
… Huh, where did he go. For an instant, I had him at my mercy, but in the next, he seemingly vanished into thin air. There are only traces of his dark power left to prove his presence. Did he <Shadow Step> to safety? No, the area is too bright. It’s almost as if he-
Hearing his voice behind me, I turn to find Tascus standing a dozen feet away, suppressing his spiritual energy. My suspicions become confirmed as he uses dark magic to teleport his golden staff back to his hand. Damn it, with a skill like that, I can’t trap or hold him. On the other hand, it seems to use an absurd amount of mana, enough so that there is a noticeable dip in his reserves.
“<Breath of Death>.”
With a wave of his staff, he conjures a black wave that envelops my entire field of view. I can immediately tell it’s a ranged version of <Decay>, only ten times stronger!
I quickly conjure a protective bubble as I’m enveloped by the pitch-black miasma. All the grass around me instantly wilts before crumbling to dust. Even the ground is being broken down, mixing with the rain and turning the surrounding into a quagmire. By the time his <Breath of Death> passes, my barrier is gone, along with all trace of my corpse. All that remains is a black haze stretched across dozens of feet of desecrated earth.
Suddenly, from the mist-covered ground at his feet, I sprung forth and thrust my sword at his throat. However, he readily parries my ambush and proceeds to block all my spiritually-charged attacks. To my ire, I notice an insulting change in Tascus’ eyes from indifference… to amusement.
“Magnificent, Enbos. Truly magnificent! You actually used my own skill to <Shadow Step> closer for a surprise attack! In fact, if it had been anyone else but me, it would have surely connected. After all, they would never have imagined you would stare in the face of death and endure the pain of melting flesh to pick up your sword and deliver that attack. Few have that level of judgement or resolve, which is why your inevitable defeat is going to be all the more regrettable.”
“SHUT UP! <Phantom Edge>!”
I fire my skill at point-blank range, but he calmly teleports a significant distance away. Wary of another bombardment, I immediately begin closing the distance. However, he doesn’t conjure anything and instead spreads his arms to the heavens.
“Sadly, it is time to bring this to a close. Each of our paths are unique and profound, and whatever we do is in service to Maleosis. You have made a resplendent show of our Lord’s might, Brother Enbos, and for that, I think it is only fair to end it by reciprocating in kind.
O Maleosis watching from beyond… I invoke our <Pact of Piety>.”