Like a thousand-degree knife through a block warm butter, that name cuts through my veil of red. The two syllables resonate with my entire being and evaporate all my hatred and despair. It feels as I’m locked in an impossibly delicate embrace, and I’m too afraid to move another millimetre lest I lose that fleeting touch.
It’s a name from another lifetime.
A name only one woman would use…
“For the love of God, Tyler, snap out of it!”
“Huh, Lili!? Hachirou? What are you- Oh my god…”
I-is this really the same place? It looks as if an airstrike was called on the area, and yet I can remember every vivid detail that led to this hellscape. I can’t believe I contributed to all this devastation, and it scares me to think I still have that monstrous strength at this very moment. Worst of all, there are malicious energies - my energies – clinging onto Lili’s and Hachirou’s paralysed forms. Looking down, my eyes widen at the purple tinges laced in my spiritual flow.
“When did… How could I-”
Grabbing the immobilised Hachirou and Lili, I narrowly leap out of the way of Tascus’ attack. The resulting explosion propels us away as I cast <Gravity Field> and <Kinetic Barrier> to soften our landing. I immediately prepare to leap again, but after a second of silence, I realise it was just a pot shot from the smoke and steam. However, it won’t be long before things intensify again.
Pulling myself to my feet, I’m suddenly greeted with open screams from the retreating refugees as my presence urges them to flee faster. Only Minna and Norf seem to give pause to my appearance, with a still-breathing Sen on the latter’s back.
“Enbos! Have you got a hold of yourself again?”
“Can’t say, Minna. Can you two walk again? I-it should be gone from your bodies.”
“Y-yes Enbos, but what did-”
“No time to explain. You need to get back to the village and evacuate everyone as soon as possible.”
“I-I don’t think we can make it. With Tascus on the loose, he’ll kill everyone before anyone can run further than a field. Only hope is to take our chances by splitting.”
“But Minna, all of you are only barely able to move! None of you have enough energy to outrun the cultists, let alone Tascus.”
“I-I know, and you’re the only one who can ensure at least one us survives. I know this is selfish, but I beg you. P-please go with Sen and-”
“Don’t bother overthinking it. Just head straight to Kasseus Village… while I hold Tascus here. Alone.”
“What are you saying, Enbos!? You’re in no condition to confront Tascus again!”
“Minna is right! I don’t know what you’re thinking, but he’s far too powerful for you to face alone. I won’t let you throw your life away again!”
“Then all the reason. With his teleportation magic, turning our backs will be no better than suicide.”
“I-If you must stay then please let me fight with you, Enbos! I’ve grown. I can help! I can-”
“No, Hachirou! If you do… If you do, no one will make it out alive,” I say while keeping half an eye on Sen. “Not one of you can afford to stay behind, and as I am now, you’re the only ones who can lead the others to safety.”
“Now go… and thank you.”
Before they can say another word, I dash back into the fray with an earth-shuddering kick. As the smoke clears, Tascus ascends high above the scorched earth and begins bombarding my position. I narrowly dodge each attack and brace against the shockwaves, but unlike before, I no longer have the HP to weather even a grazing hit. His spells are more powerful than before and I can feel myself being physically and mentally cornered with every move. But as frantic as my movements may appear… I’m actually making my way to someone other than himself.
Suddenly becoming the target of all my murderous intent, one of the pursuing cultists freeze like a deer in headlights. Tascus realises my ploy and stays his hand before he decimates his own followers. Too terrified to scream, I grab the cultist’s head and smash it into the ground, ending his life in an instant.
S-so quick. So fragile. I crushed his head as easily as I would a rotten watermelon… No, now’s not the time!
Realising their immediate peril, the remaining cultists scatter in all directions. I grab the headless corpse and throw it at the nearest cultist with such force that it mangles both bodies, killing him in an instant. I immediately lunge at another, but before I can grab my next stock of HP…
“Just what, pray tell, do you think you’re doing to my flock?”
… the hierarch teleports to my flank and swings his golden staff. With nothing else at hand, I quickly raise my scabbard to block his attack. The force of his swing sends me skidding on my feet, and to both our surprise, the sheath remains intact. I have no idea what it’s made of, but I’m almost thankful to Sepesh it can withstand Tascus’ might. I immediately recover and thrust the sheath at his head. He deflects the spiritually-infused edge and retaliates with a downward swing. The force of his strike literally pushes me back, but not a moment later, I immediately jump back into the fray.
CLACK! CLACK! CLACK…!
Back and forth, again and again, we continue our fierce exchanges as Tascus strives to land the finishing blow. Every swing dodged is a moment I’ve cheated death. Every attack made is a moment he’s not casting his monstrous magic. It’s almost ironic that the safest place is on the razor’s edge between life and death. Each and every second already feels like a staggering achievement… but regardless of how much time I buy for the others, my own fate is all but sealed. The feeling of dread is almost palpable, but not as much as the weight of everybody’s lives, and the precious soul waiting within.
He uses my skill to summon two walls on either side to constrain me as he raises his staff for a downward swing. To my alarm, he’s concentrated a massive amount of dark mana at the head of staff. This is bad. Even if it hits the ground, the funnelled force will be enough to destroy me in an instant!
“<Hammer of Heaven>.”
I quickly submerge into the darkness just before his swing makes contact with my head. Tascus’ staff connects with the ground and unleashes all its destructive energies, leaving a trail of churned earth. My black mist instantly disperses from the shock, forcing me into the confines of his shadow. However, as I look up at the world above, my marrow chills at the sight of his impassive eyes… staring straight at me from the other side.
Pointing his staff at his feet, he conjures a blinding blast of light that destroys my shadowy refuge. I’m immediately forced back into the outside world, and to my horror, I reappear right in the path of his supercharged punch.
“<Fortify>! <Spell Shield>!”
Forgoing <Kinetic Barrier>, his attack passes through my <Spell Shield> with ease. However, it prematurely triggers the volatile energies concentrated in his fist. His mana erupts before it can touch my bones, blasting me a fair distance away. I manage to land on my feet and-
“Oh, goddamn it!”
My right ankle has completely shattered! I can’t recover in time!
Desperate, I take to one knee and ready my impromptu blade. I can’t let him know I’m immobilised. If he decides to pelt me with magic, I’m-
“I see… You’ve reverted to your previous state of self, haven’t you?”
To my surprise, I find Tascus isn’t approaching or attacking me at all. He’s just standing there, looking at me with relaxed shoulders.
“If you were as hostile as before you would have crawled towards me baring your weapon instead of taking a defensive stance. I’m shocked you could salvage your mind so quickly, and I must say I am thoroughly… disappointed.”
“Disappointed? So what if you’re disappointed? It’s not like I’m looking for your approval.”
“Enbos, I’m not disappointed because you dared to face me with less fervour than before. I’m disappointed because you’re much weaker for it. As you are now, you are no longer a threat to His grand designs.”
“Don’t you dare underestimate me, Tascus! You may be leagues above me, but I still have the power to kill you!”
“Sigh, you poor foal. Do you still not understand? I’ve fought opponents twice your calibre, and yet you stood out amongst them all. Why? For none other than your peerless ferocity that transcends mortality and ability. It was the one thing that truly warranted my due care. But no longer…”
All of sudden, Tascus looks to the skies before vanishing into thin air. He’s teleported hundreds of metres into the air, and he’s quickly gathering a massive amount of dark mana. Having bought enough time to mend my joint, I jump to my feet and prepare for his imminent attack.
With that much power, he’s undoubtedly going to cast <Divine Sovereign>, but on what? His skill is so versatile that it’s hard to predict his next move. Is he going to rain thunder and lightning? Or is he-
He’s not targeting me, he’s targeting the retreating party! I have to stop him!
Desperately switching between souls, I propel myself to the skies and fly to Tascus with all my might. Nevertheless, I’m far too late as he fires a beam of mana that cuts across the land. Instead of picking them off as I had feared, he carves a border in front of the retreating group, causing them to stumble back in fright. Although unharmed, Tascus is far from done as he continues the motion to draw a vast loop around the retreating group. Uttering <Divine Sovereign>, the scarred earth begins to rise, shaking the ground and driving the terrified civilians towards the centre. By the time he’s done, Tascus has conjured a towering enclosure of solid dirt, saving everybody for the slaughter.
T-there is no way they can break out of those steep walls! I have to save them right-
“Truly disappointing indeed.”
Like the whispers of death carried on a cold wind, Tascus appears behind me and grabs hold of my fragile wings. He then delivers a powerful kick to my spine, tearing my wings and plunging me to the earth below. I land on my chest with a loud crunch as more pieces of my body sink into the marsh.
Damn it. I’ve suffered far too much damage, enough so that I’m haemorrhaging spiritual energy. On top of shattering my spine, he’s even damaged the mana links to my legs. If I try to stand now, I will surely lose my lower half. I’m now well and truly incapacitated, and Tascus will never give me the time to recover. Ironically, as I am now, I can probably fake my death by suppressing my magical and spiritual energies, but I can’t stomach the thought of watching everybody be led to the slaughter.
“Good Lord, I’m amazed you are still alive,” he exclaims as I turn over my broken body. “You may have lost your focus, but your fortitude is as impressive as ever. So much so that I’m beginning to wonder if you also have Maleosis’ divine protection. Nevertheless, it is clear to me now that I must be more thorough with your deliverance, even if it means losing such an ideal vessel.”
Pointing his hand towards me, Tascus conjures a massive spell circle with almost half his vast reserve of mana. He’s preparing to deal the finishing blow, and judging by the design and symbols being used…
“Oh sweet mother of…”
“Our battle was a most memorable one, Enbos the Black. Your <Oxy Fireball> was a fine display of composite magic, and as such, I believe it’s only fair I demonstrate one of my own. Although I loathe using more of my blessing than necessary, this is my respect to you…”
He’s combined his <Black Rain> and <Shadow Lance> into a single skill! With that much mana, the magic circle will fire hundreds upon hundreds of explosive spears until I and everything around me is vaporised from existence!
“[A thousand tips to fill the sky. A thousand tips to mark the earth.
The peasant prays for drops of life, to wet the land and beget more life…]”
Think Enbos, think! He’s about to drop the equivalent of a hundred tonnes of dynamite right on top of you! None of your barriers can save you from the blast and <Shadow Step> would unravel in an instant. I have to seize the initiative!
Unable to stand on my own, I control the earth to hoist me upright. With the last of my energies, I conjure a <Shadow Spear> in my right hand.
“[… God hears his sincere pleas, and delivers to him a single tear…]”
“I won’t let you! <Great Throw>!”
Concentrating every ounce of my strength into my arm, I throw my only hope directly at his array. I collapse to the ground as it leaves my touch and I crane my neck to watch its flight.
I know it’s unlikely to work, but please god, let it…
“[… When wolves arrive, he prays once more, to cleanse the land and preserve his life…]”
No, That’s impossible… How could I have my skill have fallen so short? H-how could I have misjudged so…
“[… God hears their desperate pleas, and mixes His trimmings with a single tear…]”
… I see. My <Pact of Power> has just worn off. “God” has abandoned me once again. I used everything I had, and more, but in the end, it was all useless before him. Heh, to think I could stop this monster when he’s been playing with me from the start.
“[… A thousand tips to fill the sky. A thousand tips to mark the earth.
Wolves and fields become no more. The peasant returns to his hoe and pail…]”
… His incantation is almost done. Is this really how my life will end? With my companions dead and everything plunged into an age of darkness? With Hachirou tortured and Helena never to grace this world again?
No, I refuse to let things end like this! I can’t! Even if I have to come back as a forsaken spectre, I swear to God- no, to everybody, that I will stop him!
“Tyler, to your left!”
“Huh, my left? Who said that and how do you know my-!”
I instantly spot the small item half buried in the watery soil, and although I pause briefly out of disbelief, I immediately begin clawing my way towards it.
I see it, a way out of this mess! It’s now a matter of time against Tascus’ incantation. Never has ten metres felt so far as the soggy earth crumbles beneath my touch and my lower body anchors me down. I don’t even know if I’m moving as I grasp at its distant sheen again and again.
“[… O mighty Maleosis watching from beyond…]”
Come on, come on! All you have to do is grab it! Just a little bit more-
“[… let fear and reverence be instilled once more.]
Despite completing his incantation, nothing falls from the imposing magical array. Instead, Tascus is staring in dumbfounded shock as I lay on my back with my arm in the air. I can feel the similarly gobsmacked gazes of the surviving cultists as their world comes to a grinding halt. Because resting in the palm of my raised hand… is the prize Tascus has so desperately sought.
“T-the core. The elder lich’s core… H-how can you, an Acolyte…?”
I have no idea myself, but looking back, the barrier must have been down for a while. When Tascus had sent me flying from the smoke, I smashed through a rock which could have only been the very pedestal that held this gem. It seems the core has entered a dormant state, which is why neither of us noticed until now.
But active or not, what matters most is that I have all the leverage in the world!
“Don’t any of you move a muscle! Don’t any of you dare think of ticking me off. If you so much twitch in a way that I don’t like, I’ll reduce this core to dust, and believe me, I’ll find no small amount of joy in turning you all into miserable wrecks!”
Like a dagger pressed to theirs throats, my words paralyse cultist and hierarch alike as they give me their undivided attention. While I’m relieved they’re taking my threat seriously, Tascus still hasn’t deactivated his magic.
“… Give me the core,” says Tascus, seemingly regaining his composure. “Give me the core, and I won’t erase your friends from the face of Garea.”
As he speaks, he realigns the angle of the array to face the trapped villagers and adventurers. I tighten my grip in response, giving pause to his actions.
“Do you honestly think I can take your word, Tascus?”
“I’m not some unreasonable monster, Enbos. You already know what kind of man I am. The only reason I needed their lives in the first place was to undo the barrier, but now that is no longer necessary. If you will just give me the core, I swear on the name of our Holy Lord that no one else will die this day. You will all be free to leave without reprisal.”
“Like hell you will. If I give you core, you’ll cast your shadow over the entire country for generations to come, and then none of us will truly be free of your reach.”
“No one is beyond God, and compared to certain death, it is surely preferable. While you yourself may be resolved, do you really think you can speak for-”
“Enough, Tascus! I do not like being short-changed. Do you really think what we have to offer are of equal value!? Compared to the lives of me and all my companions, I hold the meaning of your life, your Prophecy and your entire order in the palm of my fist. Here is my ultimatum: get out of my sight or else I WILL break it.”
“… You wouldn’t dare. The unleashed energies will destroy you and all your companions and curse this land for a hundred years. You would never harm them, willingly.”
“Try. Me. Drag them out, torture them, kill them one by one, and then see just how wrong you really are. I may not be able to kill you, but if it means filling every waking moment of your miserable existence with regret, then I will gladly do it. You already know what kind of man I really am…”
For what feels like an eternity, we stare at each other in stony silence as we silently weigh our options. While Tascus is stalwart, the other cultists are well and truly flustered by my grandiose statement. If they take anybody hostage, I’ll destroy the core on the spot, but even if they let me go, there is no guarantee I won’t destroy it later. They think I’m acting out of spite, but in reality, I’m not as blinded by hate as they think.
I should have just taken Tascus’ initial deal. From what I can fathom, he won’t turn back on his word out of spite, so why am I so intent on keeping the core? For the sake of a country I don’t care about, and would care even less about me? For Sen, Minna, Norf and Lili who wander these lands? Because I’m afraid an evil god will really descend thanks to this maniac?
No, the answer is because I want the core for myself… for her. Even if it means running this risky gambit…
As the stalemate continues the silence is suddenly broken by the sound of a bird. A messenger pigeon lands on “Mr Kell’s” arm.
I see. Since the communication orb is broken and all the lookouts are dead, it seems Tascus’ men had to resort this method.
I give a small nod to Tascus, and then from Tascus to “Mr Kell”. Carefully, “Mr Kell” removes a small note attached to the bird’s leg and begins to read under watchful eyes.
“Huh!? T-this is…”
“What has happened, my son?”
“Y-your Holiness, the neighbouring outposts to Kasseus Village are under attack!”
“Hm, it seems Enbos’ reinforcements have arrived after all. No matter. Send more forces from our base to-”
“P-pardon me, Your Holiness, but there is more! The attackers are a unit of the Lysium Theocracy’s Order of Holy Knights! T-they cannot hold!”
“Holy Knights? Here? But the closest unit can only be…”
For a few moments, Tascus falls silent as he tries to process everything that has transpired. Likewise, I’m trying to take in the bombshell that was just dropped.
Forget a lord’s army, Lili’s beacon is equivalent to calling the national guard! Even a few Holy Knights are as strong as an A rank party. I can’t possibly ask for better support, but just what in the world is Lili-
“Heh… Haha… Ahahahahaha!”
All of a sudden, in a fit of seeming madness, Tascus begins laughing in a hearty manner. He’s jovial mood stands in such stark contrast to before that I become even warier when he curbs his hostile aura. He’s even deactivated his blessing and erased his magic circle before descending from the skies. Although he is masked, I can tell he is looking at me with a smile.
“I see, I see, I finally see! So this is what Maleosis has decreed! I finally understand the meaning behind our encounter, Brother Enbos! Why He has led a person such as you to this very moment. Truly, fate has delivered once again!”
I have no idea what he’s saying, but the look in his eyes are not those of madness but absolute assurance. There is a sense of knowing, a hint of whimsy, to his voice that unsettles me to my very core. This is the first I have ever heard Tascus so elated, and apparently, it’s a first for his followers too.
“Ah, forgive me, my sons. There is no time to waste. Once we return, tell the defenders to retreat immediately, then inform all our remaining outposts to begin evacuation procedures. We’re returning to base as of now.”
Although it’s the best possible outcome, I can help but exclaim at Tascus’ sudden change of heart. Shocked but unwilling to question to him, the surviving cultists gather around their hierarch as he places a small wooden idol on the ground and conjures a pitch-black portal.
“A-are you seriously- Tell me, Tascus! What are you planning!? What the hell do you think you realised about me!?”
“You will see. I do not know how much has transpired according to your plans, but know that everything is ultimately according to His grand designs. I pray you will awaken to God’s truth in time, brother.”
“Godspeed, Enbos the Black.”
One by one, they march through the magical gateway until only Tascus remains. With a final bow, he enters the portal and closes it behind him, leaving not a trace of his monstrous figure. For a few seconds, I stare silently after the space he left before looking up at the dreary sky. I then stare in disbelief at the elder lich’s core in my hand.
… I’m alive. Hachirou, Lili, Sen, Minna and Norf are safe, and the core is in my possession. Reinforcements are arriving, and while they may be Holy Knights, I would rather deal with them than cultists any day. The battle is over… and yet I can still feel his spectre hanging onto me.
… if it means filling every waking moment of your miserable existence with regret, then I will gladly do it…
“It was a bluff. A bluff…”
I let the rain wash over my cracked face as I hold together what’s left of myself from the ordeal. I eventually get up and shamble towards the great earthen wall. Rubbing the gem in my hand, I look about the ravaged land… and find not a single living soul in sight.