“What… is this?”
As I charge towards his waiting form, I sense something is horribly wrong. While Tascus himself hasn’t physically changed, his magical energy is rising quickly. Naturally, I wonder where all his power is coming from, but then I realise… he’s contorting the very mana stream running beneath the land. He’s drawing power directly from the World Stream, but unlike the pure energy that forms its ethereal waters, it’s a chaotic concoction with the same horrid sensation as my activated Pact. The injection of power continues to intensify, and within moments, two large rings of dark mana materialise behind him, hovering close to his back with one positioned inside the other. The mana is so thick that the rings are visible to the naked eye, resembling a pair of obsidian halos that make a mockery of the Path of Eden’s symbol. While it is certainly an ominous spectacle, I’m far more perturbed by the fact that his already impressive pool of mana… has increased threefold.
“So tell me, Brother Enbos, what is your impression of my <Pact of Piety>? In truth, it’s more of a support ability than an offensive one, but it is by far-”
I press the attack and thrust my sword towards his neck. Unfazed, he knocks aside my blade before reaching out to my vulnerable chest…
… and sends me flying dozens of feet back.
What kind of technique was that!? Did he use a skill? No, all he did was concentrate an absurd amount of mana in his index finger before releasing it all… in a simple tap. It’s an insulting gesture and yet my sternum would have been pulverised if I hadn’t reacted in time. I hate to admit it, but despite all the power I have gained, it’s entirely possible he could have destroyed me then and there.
Suddenly, as if further emphasising the gap between our powers, Tascus begins to levitate high into sky. I can’t say I’m surprised this self-proclaimed saint would know such a spell, but he’s making it harder and harder for my blade to reach him.
“Try not to die too quickly, Enbos. I seldom use my Pact, so it would make a poor show to God you were unable to survive the first move.”
“Damn you, Tasc- Huh!?”
All of a sudden, he instantly pools a monstrous amount of mana into his outstretched hand. Panic grips my mind as I anticipate the destruction he’s about to unleash, but contrary to my expectations, he pours the mass of dark mana onto the earth below. It disperses across the ground, infusing large tracts of land with his magical energy. I have no idea what he’s doing, but I’m now wary about stepping on the affected soil. Then, with a wave of his hand…
“Oh my god.”
… he animates the tainted soil into a huge, twisting spire as tall as a five-storey building. He proceeds to redirect the mass of dirt towards me, turning it into a torrent of mud and stone. I manage to dodge by the skin of my teeth as hundreds of tonnes of dirt come crashing mere metres from my body. The resulting blast sends gravel and mud flying with lethal force, leaving a trail of destruction as wide as a canal. The earthen flood eventually dissipates, but Tascus is hardly done as he rallies the scattered soil into a towering wave to bury me. I quickly cast <Kinetic Barrier> to weather the tide, but soon realise my folly as he’s enveloping my barricade and infecting the soil beneath my feet with his mana.
“<Equip Soul: Forest Drake>!”
<Synchronisation with Mellivorath discontinued. Full synchronisation lost. Synchronising with Forest Drake… 1%… 2%…>
“<Wind Blast>! <Wind Boost>!”
Deactivating my barrier, I proceed to blow aside the soil and launch myself through the opening in quick succession. I then switch to the Winged One’s soul and conjure <Arcane Wings>, and propel myself above the grasping earth. However, as the animated soil crumbles away, I notice an ominous change in the wind.
Hearing him utter that dreaded skill, I turn to find he’s filling the surrounding air with his mana. Binding the elements to his will, he compresses vast amounts of air into dozens of turbulent orbs and proceeds to fire them at cannonball-like speeds in my general direction. I can vaguely see the invisible projectiles contorting the curtain of rain and, with great difficulty, I manage to veer my body out of the way. However, rather than saying I evaded his attack, the dispersing air had blown me out aside as I struggled to tilt my body.
Damn it, this can’t go on. The Winged One’s <Arcane Wings> is a basic rank skill meant more for gliding. My speed and manoeuvrability are poor, and if I get any closer, he can easily destroy my wings. Worse, I can’t maintain the spell for much longer. I have to get above him!
“<Equip Soul: Forest Drake>! <Wind Boost>, <Wind Boost>, <Wind Boost>!”
Temporarily deactivating my flight, I propel myself well above Tascus’ elevation. I then switch back to the Winged One’s soul and enter freefall in a seemingly suicidal attack. Ready to intercept me, he gathers the winds to create a miniature twister from the tip of his staff. However, before it can hit, I use <Arcane Wings> to conjure a layer of mana along my arms and legs… in the style of a wingsuit. With my newfound manoeuvrability, I scrape past the whirlwind and continue to accelerate towards him. I can see the surprise in his eyes as I deactivate my skill and thrust my sword towards his golden face.
All of sudden, I come to an abrupt stop before his outstretched hand… without being touched. Every bone in my body rattles with crushing force as all the accumulated momentum comes rushing back to me. It feels as if I’ve crashed into an invisible wall, and yet I can detect no such barrier around him. It’s almost like he’s grabbed me from mid-air.
How did his <Divine Sovereign> stop me? As far as I can tell, his skill allows him to telekinetically control anything that is imbued with his mana, which is a dangerous combination given his blessing. Did he use the surrounding air to stop me? No, he hasn’t released anymore mana since he activated his skill, which means… Damn it, I’ve already been marked! He’s using the residue mana from that tap to hold me in place!
Unable to reach him, he points his staff to the heavens and projects a beam of mana into the sky. It reaches the clouds above, and to my disbelief, I notice a brief flash amongst the grey.
Turning the very heavens against me, a blue bolt strikes my airborne form, sending me spiralling to the earth in a trail of smoke. However, I manage to cheat death as I do everything in my power to redirect the electricity into my blade. As millions of volts circulate inches from my smouldering robe, I decrease my gravity and throw my lightning-cloaked sword back at Tascus. However, he simply teleports past my blade and reappears high above me, with a <Shadow Lance> in his hand. I land with a splash on the ravaged terrain and immediately cast <Kinetic Barrier> as he drops his explosive package. Instead of using the barrier for protection, I kick off it with all my might, sending me sliding away from ground zero. However, his skill is much stronger than before as the empowered shockwave sends me rolling like tumbleweed in a storm.
Not good. Every bone in my body is beginning to crack. I may be incapable of feeling fatigue, but there is no denying I am spent.
Sensing I am near death, Tascus descends from his rainy throne, looking down on my battered form. I lunge at him with unchanged ferocity, but he simply teleports to my flank and swings his staff. Unable to dodge, I raise my arms and activate <Fortify> before his attack connects.
“You are weak…”
“… and far too excitable. You reveal too much with your unrestrained bloodlust.”
With no concerns about expending his mana, he continues to teleport to my flanks and bat me about like a baseball. By the time he stops, I find myself laying in the remains of the wrecked carriage. Several indicators are flashing next to my status bars while Tascus is largely unscathed. To my frustration, I realise that even his mana has fully recovered. I could have sworn he used more than half of his magical power, but his Pact must have recovered everything in an instant. Any hope of killing him is now a bad joke, and yet I find myself straining my cracked spine just to face him once more. Unintimidated by my tenacity, Tascus watches patiently as I brace against my knee.
“And yet, still you refuse to yield. Despite being driven to the brink of death, despite being unarmed, despite being outclassed in every way… your determination has not waned. Your persistence treads the definition of insanity, and while many would describe you as such… only I understand just how remarkable you truly are.”
“Shut up! You nothing of me.”
“Perhaps, but I know a weapon when I see one.”
“Your blessing may be strong, Enbos, but it is not where your true strength lies. Fear, pain, doubt, anxiety, compassion, guilt… the human condition is an ever-present burden. Whilst others overcome their weakness through faith or experience, you are different. You didn’t overcome your faults so much as discard them. You’re far too lucid to be lost to rage, and yet far too aggressive to be anything but. I have fought many in my lifetime, but none with so little hesitation whilst retaining their will. By cleansing your heart of all but your hatred, you’ve detached your spirit and turned your body into a cold blade. An unerring edge for the sole purpose of my destruction, albeit one still too dull to pierce my flesh.”
“What are you saying, Tascus? That I’m a fool for trying?”
“No Enbos; I’m trying to say you’re an inspiration. Because despite all your rage, all your efforts and all your disapproval… you’re living vindication of what it means to transcend your humanity.”
… HOW DARE YOOOU!!!”
With a silent roar, I pull myself upright and shamble towards Tascus with unbridled rage. My entire spine is groaning against the strain, so much so that it’s almost audible in the rain. Even with <Life Tap>, I’m well aware I shouldn’t be moving as I can’t keep pace with my loss of spiritual energy… but the sound of his beating heart is too much to bear!
Letting out a sigh, he shakes his head at the futility of my actions. He then hovers back at the same pace as my pathetic movements, remaining just out of reach to taunt me.
“Of course, as remarkable as you may be, I would much rather you use that devotion for God than for these forlorn souls. A vengeful blade you may be, but deep down, you must already know you have lost. There is nothing you can do to harm me. I haven’t even demonstrated my true blessing, while yours has faded away. All it would take is a single tap to deliver you to His embrace…”
Unable to resist, he pours his dark mana over my shambling form and uses <Divine Sovereign> to suspend me in the air. It feels as if I’ve been encased in solid rock. The only way I can break free is to overwrite his mana with my own, but I can no longer do so in my perilous condition. True to his twisted word, Tascus walks up to me and readies his finger for the dreaded tap.
“This is my final mercy, brother. Lay down your arms and reaffirm your allegiance to God, and you and your disciple may yet see the advent of Eden.”
“Go to hell! I don’t need your mercy. I only need your life!”
“Sigh, so be it. To be truthful Enbos, I had considered capturing you to “extract” all your arcane knowledge. I have learnt much from our encounter and I sense there is so much more you could offer. Sadly, you’re far too tenacious to stop and far too hostile to be reasoned with. For what little he may know, I can only pray your disciple will prove more… obliging.”
“Rest in peace, En- Hm?”
Drawn to the faint light in my hand, he notices the small object I’ve been trying to hide up my sleeve: a small glowing urn filled with spiritual energy. He immediately realises I managed to snatch the jar of souls during his flurry of attacks, and before he can react, I crush the clay container and drain its ethereal residents.
Magic Perception (Greater) has evolved to Magic Perception (High)>
Flooding every bone in my body with my mana, I break free of his <Divine Sovereign> and grab his outstretched hand. He instantly unsummons his gauntlet, using the small gap to slip out of my grasp and teleport a fair distance away. He then reactivates his <Blessing of Piety>, all while staring at me in blatant shock.
“How did you… A variant of <Life Drain>? But to recover so much from the energy of the dead-”
“What’s wrong, Your Holiness? I thought you said there was nothing I could do to harm you, so what’s with the hasty retreat?”
“It seems regaining your strength has inflated your hubris. You lost your one chance to strike while I was unaware, and even then, you would not have scratched my blessed form.”
“Is that so? Then let’s see if your divine protection is really so absolute, because I’m going to fry you with my strongest spell!”
<Allocate 100 skill points to Maleosis’ Pact of Power?>
<100 skill points allocated. 460 skill points reserved.>
Base Blessing Total
Attack: 44 170 214
Defence: 32 140 172
Magic: 129 110 239
Resilience: 61 20 81
Agility: 64 20 84
Reserved Points: 460
Dumping a hundred points into magic, I raise my hand and begin to gather a large amount of mana. From a tactical standpoint, it’s a terrible skill to use on an opponent with instantaneous movement. However, through a twisted sense of mutual understanding, I know Tascus will stand his ground. He will take my attack both to glorify his god and observe more of my unfamiliar magic. Shaking his head in a knowing manner, he takes up my challenge and spreads his arms as he waits for me to finish pumping oxygen and mana into a ravenous flame.
“[Spirits of Fire and Spirits of Air, I call upon the blazing trinity of fuel, warmth and sky.
Let your flame wreathed brothers feast on your unseen fruits.
Let the humble spark become a raging inferno.
Let the son of the sun be birthed within my palm, and soar like a blazing swallow…]”
Making full use of my time, I inflate my fireball to its absolute limit, resulting in a blazing sphere that truly resembles a miniature sun. Despite the unfavourable weather, I can feel the difference from my pact as the intense heat threatens to ignite my clothes. The temperature is so great that it’s evaporating the falling rain and filling the area with a white haze. It’s undoubtedly my most powerful attack, but as I continue to feed the raging flames, Tascus is also preparing.
Unfazed by my growing missile, he calmly observes my spell with an air of fascination. He then envelops himself in an unbelievably powerful <Mana Shield> with his near limitless energy. The spell should only be a high rank skill at best, but he’s overcharged it at least a dozen times. He might as well be inside a concrete bunker. Regardless, even if I can’t break through his barrier… he can’t stop what will happen next.
Enbos the Black… Truly, you are a most intriguing man.
There is moment in everyone’s lives when one questions the meaning of their existence. It is that pursuit of purpose that elevates man above beast, servant above thrall. While many are content living for kin or for king, there are those who devote themselves to a higher power. As misguided as they may be, the Church of Eden has introduced many to the nobility of selfless service. However, only Maleosis can truly provide enlightenment, as those who have been touched by Him are recognised for their undying devotion and are bestowed a part in His grand designs. This promise of fulfillment is an unequivocal truth among all who bear His mark… and yet the brother standing before me challenges that very fact.
There is no mistaking the divine aura emanating from his form, and yet there is not an ounce of piety behind his words. I do not know what aspect of Maleosis he worships, but I find it hard to believe an Acolyte would lambast our God so openly, even if it’s solely to antagonise me. For what reason could He have blessed Enbos? What fate could God have laid for this lost lamb who has stumbled along the path to enlightenment? I feel a modicum of unease in the back of my mind, but in the end, only God knows the true meaning of his life, even if I must end it with these very hands.
Enbos’ spell connects with my barrier, and in a deafening blast, the immediate area turns to scorched earth. My entire field of view is filled with blazing light, and I must say, the coiling flames make quite a spectacle. As they scour every inch of my barrier for a weakness, my <Mana Shield> shudders with violent force as the temperature quickly escalates within. I begin to wonder if his true goal is to roast me within my own sealed space, although I am safeguarded from such conditions. As the pyre of fire finally extinguishes, I stand unharmed within a circle of wilted grass on a smouldering land of steam and smoke.
I see. So this is Enbos’ most powerful spell. I never believed he would know composite magic, and although it’s only a combination of two greater rank skills, the power is on par with any master rank spell. While I was informed his forte is fire magic, the source of this power must be in those mysterious runes. Indeed, with all his exotic knowledge, I’m going to find his death all the more regrettable. I sincerely wish we had met under friendlier circumstances, but sadly, he has clearly expressed his disdain and I cannot delay the Ascension any longer. Paradise awaits and all that stands in my way is…
“Hm? Ah, I see now. Or rather, I cannot. So this was your plan all along…”
He never intended to finish me off with that blast: he’s true intent was to create this thick smokescreen. I can’t see more than a foot from my nose and the residual mana in the air is hiding his magical power while impairing my ability to dispel it. In fact, it’s almost as if…
“Did you figure out my skill?”
“That’s right, you damn jumper,” he says in a cold voice from within the shroud, “I figured out your teleportation. You always look to where you will reappear, which means you need direct line of sight to use your skill.”
“And hence the steam to cover your advance. You’ve even deactivated your blessing and suppressed your spiritual energy, while mine is like a shining beacon. Indeed, it’s a cunning tactic… but a hopeless one nonetheless.”
Ignoring the direction of his voice, I thrust my staff backwards just as Enbos is sneaking up from behind. He sidesteps my attack before it can hit his mask and withdraws into the haze once more. However, before he can get close, I continue to intercept his movements, driving him back with pinpoint thrusts.
“I’ve told you before, Enbos. Your spiritual energy is as visible to me as it is to you. Try as you might to hide it, but you can’t hide your soul from my sight.
Raising a ball of earth, I fire the heavy projectile towards his head. He instantly dives to the side, but I anticipate his manoeuvre and charge forth to swing down my staff. He quickly raises both arms in self-defence, but alas…
“Deactivating your pact was a grave mistake.”
In a single, decisive blow, I crush both his limbs and mangle them beyond recovery. Moreover, my swing follows through and connects with his chest, resulting in a chorus of broken ribs. Incredibly, he ignores his injuries and steps on my weapon to pin it to the ground before launching a kick towards my head. I singlehandedly catch his foot and proceed to throw his entire body to the ground, sending ripples through the earth. Enbos immediately rolls back onto his feet…
… only to fall to one knee as his body finally succumbs to all its tribulations. His foreleg has completely cracked and I doubt he can ever stand given its unnatural angle. Nevertheless, I immediately pull back my staff to deliver the finishing blow. Even now I’m wary of his unflinching aggression and undying tenacity. Although I can only see a silhouette, I know he is glaring at me with hateful eyes.
“Farewell, Enbos the Black. I hope you found meaning in your mortal coil.”
Before he can finish his spell… I decapitate Enbos in a single swing. Blinded I may be, there is no mistaking the sound of shattered bone, the smell of iron mixed in the smoke, and the sensation of pulverising flesh with a blunt weapon. As stubborn as he was in life, his body continues to sit upright before eventually collapsing into the mud. I offer his final rites as his soul leaves his fleshly form and drifts into my open palm.
And so ends the life of one of the most enigmatic foes I’ve ever faced. Save for his disciple, his identity and his secrets, along with his head, are now but a spray of blood. I can’t help but sense that our encounter was preordained by God, but only time will tell this encounter means for my Ascension. Regardless, it is only fitting I welcome him into my personal guard for the valour he has shown. Maybe in death he can serve Maleosis with all his-
This soul… doesn’t belong to Enbos.
Having realised my trick, I release control of my undead puppet along with all the spiritual energy I had pumped its core. I had hoped the decoy would last for longer so that I could attack in the chaos, but it seems I will have to bide my time in this soundless abyss.
As the haze continues to clear, Tascus looks about in bewilderment as I’ve completely disappeared from his senses. Although the airborne mana should be thin enough to use <Magic Perception>, he can’t find a single trace of my presence. I feel no small sense of satisfaction from fooling this arrogant behemoth, especially when I’m right beneath his nose… hiding within his shadow.
<Shadow Step (High): Allows user to remain in shadow.>
Laying at the bottom of this abyssal pool, I gaze at the surface above which has become a silent and monochrome world. There is nothing but darkness in this small realm as the contours of the “pool” shift with the shape of the shadows outside. The implications of this skill are staggering, but without my blessing I would not have the magical control to remain for long. According to Hachirou, it’s a cold, crushing and suffocating void, but for an undead like me…
“…what it means to transcend your humanity…”
Grinding my teeth, I continue to watch Tascus like a hawk. He suddenly stops to conjure a <Mana Shield> around himself before summoning a small orb into his hand. I know that item; it’s the same item the innkeeper tried to use to detect me. Tascus must think I’m hiding somewhere outside his barrier, but now that his focus is afar…
I draw my hunting knife strapped to my belt and infuse it with <Phantom Edge>. I only have a single chance, and just as Tascus activates his magical item, I deactivate <Shadow Step> and allow the void to propel me back to the other side. I instantly reappear behind my him with nary a sound. Even if he’s noticed, he can’t react before my blade has reached his neck. Even if it doesn’t pierce, the attack will sever his spiritual links and paralyse him from head to toe. I will have all the time in the world to kill him, and moreover, he will still be able to feel pain.
… N-no. That’s not possible…
“Welcome back, Enbos. I’ve told you before but you reveal far too much with your bloodlust.”
“H-how did you…?”
“Did you honestly believe I would misread your movements? I already understand you’re not the kind of person to retreat, even momentarily. Moreover, to have controlled that undead so well, I knew you had to be close. Still, I could not deduce your location, which is why I lured you out with an open-”
“Don’t mess with me! You know damn well what I’m trying to say! This draining sensation, those sigils, that mana structure… HOW THE HELL DID YOU CAST MY <KINETIC BARRIER>!?”
“Oh, you mean this? As I have said, I have learnt much from our encounter, especially this spell you are so fond of demonstrating. I must say it’s quite a specialised yet elegant skill. You’ve even laid foundations for future modifications. Foundations I will take my time to perfect in your place…”
I can’t believe. H-he mastered my custom skill from observation alone. The spell I’ve been improving since the Dellmore Forest. The final spell I made with Helena before my world came crashing down… and this piece of human scum is using it against me!?
“DaMN YOu, taSCUs!!!”
Using the Winged One’s <Piercing Blow>, I shatter his barrier and begin swinging with reckless abandon. It may be the effect of <Parallel Thought>, but my thoughts are no longer in line with my actions. I don’t know what I’m doing, where I’m swinging or even if my attacks are connecting. All I can think of is carving up this monster until he’s an unrecognisable sack of flesh, and until then, I cannot- no, I REFUSE TO STOP!
“Ah, such ferocious and unrelenting attacks as always. Indeed, you embody what a man without fetters can truly achieve… or so it would seem. While you are willing to take my attacks without a second thought…”
Though half-cognizant of my actions, I instantly become aware of a golden object moving towards my head. I desperately jump back to avoid his sweeping staff, but in doing so, my back collides against the <Mana Shield> he had cast earlier. The barrier was never meant to keep me out: it was meant to keep me in. Cornered, he reaches out to my torso and… taps it with a single finger.
“… you always dodge in a desperate manner whenever I target your head, or rather, your beloved mask. In the end, you lost because you couldn’t let go of the final vestiges of your humanity.”
Releasing all the mana concentrated in his finger, he blasts me away with enough force to shatter the thick <Mana Barrier> behind me. I manage to activate <Fortify> and cast <Kinetic Barrier> within my own ribcage to soften the blow, but even then, shards of bone are falling from my robe. Flying back at great speed, I smash through a rock before coming to a grinding halt along a shallow slope.
My entire sternum has been reduced to dust and a third of my ribs are but jagged stumps. More than a simple mana discharge, he had infused the attack with properties of his <Shadow Lance>. For more times I can count, I wonder just where all his power coming from. His Pact must have some condition or requirement like mine, but I can’t figure it out for the life of me.
How do I kill this goliath? What must I give in order to have the slightest hope of-
For some reason, compared to all the gruelling sounds that have come from my body, that quiet fracture chills me to my very core. That sound didn’t come from my torso or my other bones. It sounded almost like…
With an unsteady hand, I reach out to my “face” to scour the surface. My fingers brush over an emerging gap and several chips of clay fall into my lap. For the longest seconds in my life, I quietly stare at the broken pieces as the rain washes them into mud. I claw at the soil, but the shards slip through my cold grasp and sink deeper into the devastated earth.
“…-bos sn… out of…”
… I don’t care anymore.
<Allocate 60 skill points to Maleosis’ Pact of Power?>
Be it my sanity, my potential or even my rage…
“Ple… you ha… to…”
… I will give all that I am to destroy all that he is. I may lose sight of myself forever, and his death may never give the reprieve I need…
<Warning: You are about allocate all your skill points. Do you still wish to proceed?>
… but I’d rather forsake everything myself than to let him chip me away, piece by agonising piece.