One moment I glimpsed my old life.
My awareness briefly was at my core, staring at swirling black threads that were tracing their way through the crystalline lattice like minnows in a lake. Focusing was hard. The little chamber my core rested in looked normal. the little door was shut, the traps in the hallway one would need to crawl through undisturbed.
I tried to stretch my awareness out, to see what was going on, but trying to do so caused my head to ache. Instead I looked to my core, watching the flecks of black. Something about what was hapening seemed important. I needed to think. To focus. I needed to-
I could feel myself drift. Without any sense of what was going on, or ability to focus, memory started to take over and fill the gaps lack of sensation left behind.
My mind drifted through the ages. After my falling out with Ishida and the others I did what I could, but it was always and only a matter of the first mistake catching up to me at that point. My friends, those kids dumb enough to follow me, held a wake for Shinji when he fell. No grand gestures. No great battle. Fuzen simply pointed, and his heart stopped. I had told the rest this was on my head, This is why I had made them write those letters when they first wanted to step up, to try getting them to understand this wasn't a game and there was a very real chance they would die.
They told me I was a fool for insulting them by acting like they weren't smart enough to have agency in thier own lives. If i was willing to risk my life, they had the same right to risk theirs.
I couldn't argue. To tell them that I hadn't gotten in this to be a fighter, that I was only supposed to be there as support and a reminder so the heavies don't end up getting high on their own power and going 'All Shall Love Me and Dispair.'
"It's Alright boss." Akio smiled, patting my shoulder. "We've got this."
Time passed. Memory shuffled. I was dead. I wanted to say I went out doing something meaningful. Covering someone's escape, buying time for help to come, something. You'd think you'd remember details like that, but I didn't. I was just a bit of awareness that stubbornly held onto just enough mana to drift through the world rather than move on.
"What do you want?!" Ishida there, angry when I managed to manifest. It was after Ami had twitched her fingers causing the court that had formed after the world went to hell. She'd taken the title of First Minister. It was supposed to be a parliment. In reality it was a royal court in all but name, and Ami was the power behind the throne. So, she pulled pupept strings and Fuzen had been officially pardened.
After all he had done. Including not just taking Uchiumi from her, but puppeting her corpse about to torment her, all the people he'd killed, maimed, hurt. After all that, Ishida was supposed to bend the knee, kiss her ring, and play nice?
I tried to speak. My mouth moved, but she couldn't hear me when I said I knew what she was feeling. that she was right. Instead I stood there, spending what mana I had to cry tears she refused to shed.
It was only then I noticed the teacup, and that Ishida had stopped moving. I was too late and could only hide when Ami came for her.
Ami there, in the center of a magical circle with the others at the edges. She knelt in front of Fuzin's body, short cropped blue hair blown by an unnatural wind. The others couldn't move. Not after they had been drugged. She had made sure of that. Leaving their minds clear, but their bodies sedate. Pliant. Able to follow her command as she had lain out the ritual for this moment. For extracting all of the power Fuzin had stored within himself.
The air in the circle thrummed with energy as runes and glyphs lit. Ishida looking at me, unable to move to stop this.
The runes flared, the circle closed, and power began to leech from the people Ami had called friend up until that moment. Outside of this place was pure black. No wind. No stars. Nothing. Were we in a bubble of Dark, or we a pinprick of reality in the void?
All that mana concentrated into one place. Ami's hands started moving. Building.
I saw her eyes, solid black, as a wide grin formed. Her hand twitched. A tremor. The grin too wide. I could feel her skin growing cold.
It was only in that moment I understood this wasn't the crowning moment of a megalomaniac. This was the final play of something that had puppeted her like a meat suit.
All that mana in one place, and I was a creature of mana directed by will.
I reached. Willing my fingers to close around the knife planted in Fuzin's chest.
Everything hurt. There was pressure crushing around me. My awareness barely able to extend past the marble that was my core. A voice. familiar. I forced myself to listen. Forced the pain into the background.
"I've got him!" Jen's voice. I could hear shuffling. How'd she get past the traps? There was movement. Running.
Finnal's voice was somewhere between fear and excitement, "Great now c'mon!"
Why couldn't I feel anything? I pressed with my awareness.
And hit a wall. No. Not a wall.
Ami saw me as I advanced on her with the knife. This is the moment I stopped her. Forced her hand away from Creation and allowed what would be to stand on its own.
Ami's black eyes blinked. Her body moving, forearm blocking the knife, twisting, yanking it out ofmy hands. "This time it won't be so easy."
Not Ami's voice. Kronos's. Fuzin's.
"So we're supposed to what, just put him on the alter?" Jen sounded skeptical.
There was the sound of papers. Finnal's voice. "Keystone's notes about the group that killed Damala said something about a throne where mana gathered, says it should be enough to bring him back."
"But," Worry in Jen's voice, "What if he's already gone?"
A pause, the sounds of movement. "Notes say if the core were 'dead' then it would have turned to powder. Not go black. We can only try."
I punched not-ami with everything I had. Grabbing hold of the pain in my hand. Grabbing hold of any sensation really, and using it to anchor myself here. This wasn't a memory anymore.
Ami's body twitched, a smile, if you were to try asking something that only vaguely knew human anatomy to try making a smile. "Not as stupid as I took you for." Her own movements sluggish as she reached for me. "When they place your shell back in my throne I will have to remember that." The not-smile widened to show rows of razor teeth and an unending black maw.
"I'm sorry Ami." I headbutted the meat-puppet in front of me. "I'd taken you for a heartless souless creature that wanted only power." When she caught my right hand I lashed out to kick at her knee. "I hadn't realized he'd already eaten your mind."
Not-Ami hissed. Black oozing from the corners of her too-wide mouth as she gave no reaction to her knee folding backward. instead of pained screams or incoherent howls, there was a mad sort of laughter there mixed with inhuman, almost insectoid squeals.
I'd dodged her lunge, grabbing her in a headlock, pressing my forearm hard against her throat. She made a gurgling sound. Bones broke, her arms twisted behind her as she clawed at me. Talons raked at my sides and back as I squeezed. Red blood mingled with black ooze as I felt her talons slide between my ribs.
Unwillingly, my hold loosened. I couldn't breathe.
Not-Ami's neck snapped as her head turned to face me. Her maw now wholly inhuman. Circular and lined with razor-teeth as she lunged for my face.
A second set of hands reached, grabbed not-ami as she hissed, rotating maw only coming within a hair's bredth from my face rather than sinking into it. The parasite, now more a fat tape-worm thing with many stubby limbs, hissed and shreaked, the human shell discarded as its jaws twisted to face its new attacker.
"All that was misirable in my life." Ishida hurled the thing that wore Ami as a meat-suit against the black marble that represented what remained of our reality.
A hiss from the creature as it darted for me again, jaws rotating, grinding as blind eyes sought my flesh. "You made my friends become monsters!" Her grip solid as she pulled, raising it high. Her voice now a whisper. "You made me shut out people that were important to me."
Its ruined body was smote upon the rock that bore us through the void and an armored boot slammed down on its head casting it to ruin. It was dead now. Dead. Gone. the steam that came from its shell as its remains were cast into the black already dissolving. I should have been happy, elated not just of crisis averted, but that Ishida had come to save me.
Unfortunately in that moment, I couldn't breathe. Air wouldn't come in. My vision contracted to a dark and greyed out tunnel.
A woman's voice from everywhere and nowhere. "It'll be OK. Just hang on."
I felt a hand press against me. I reached for Ishida. Her features blurred and grainy. Her hand clasping mine. "I won't let go." Her voice and mine. I could feel the life leaking from me as we held each other as she knelt beside my body when darkness claimed me.
I breathed deep. My awareness expanded out past my core. Soft blue light pulsed from it. Not a fleck of black to be found. I looked around. This wasn't my chamber.
High vaulted ceiling. A wide room with myself near the rear in a too-large cradle on top of a raised plinth. A king presiding over court. I could feel the inrush of mana. Quickly I spiraled my mind back to my holdings, crafting the rooms I had removed, replacing the chests I had eaten.
Then I noticed that I was on the fifth level down. Three levels down from where our assault failed.
Wha'd I miss? Talk to me.
Not until verification you are uncorrupt. Spiders have been sent to sever your connection to the network.
Considering what happened. Can't fault you. I'm beat. I'm also very... Very confused.
Jen was there, sitting on the edge of the raised bit of floor my core's receptical rested on. "Whatever you're paying Laginn, he deserves bonus. He'd somehow managed to get all the way down here while we were all tied up in the bottleneck upstairs and ate the core down here. We all thought it was over. Except Bonehead and all the others were still out of it."
Briefly I'd checked. Their respawn timers were ticking down. but the timers on them made little sense. Why so long? Then I noticed the progress already made.
"Hey." Jen tapped the bowl my core was in. "It's OK. We'll get this sorted out. You'll get declared safe, and we can get back to normal." I started to wonder how she knew what I was thinking, then mentally shrugged. More likely than not, if she were in my position she'd have those questions.
Which.... had my awareness cast about. Most of my minions were on long respawn timers. Days instead of minutes, and no credit card slot in sight to deal with the mobile gaming nonsense. Still, the numbers were moving.
There was a timer I was searching for, but I didn't know where to look. Uchiumi was gone. Ditto the six others that attacked us. Yet she'd been transferred to me.
I searched through the part of my dungeon that had been mine before, and mentally raised an eyebrow. Jjaro and Arin, Finnal, a bunch of the other regulars were all there with camping gear. Fires were lit outside, and I suspect latrines dug somewhere, thankfully we were far enough away from water that could be used for intake that the location wasn't all that important.
Jen soon joined the group. Sitting out beneath the stars as they told tales to eachother, of what they each did during the rush to contain the horrors. All of them put on a brave face, but the common thread is all of them were on their last legs when Kronos went up in smoke.
Where are you?
Everyone was accounted for, save for one. Please don't do this to me. God, whatever's up there don't do this to me. Not when we just started to reconnect. I breathed in. Don't focus on the monsters. Don't focus on the timers. Focus on Her.
My awareness spiraled downward, guided by the music of her laughter. Deeper, following the beat of my heart when Uchiumi said Yes when the ring was presented. I even followed my heartache when she handed me her sword and leaned against its tip, telling me to finish her after my desperate gamble failed. All these and more were moments that guided me to the very lowest place of my new expanded domain.
It was a cavern. Yet there was also light. Limestone rock covered in irridecent moss, glowing mushrooms. and fireflies casting fitful light. At the very center of this was a perfect circle of black marble. Once glowing lines and runes etched through its surface. the last remains of a now dead world.
At its center a woman stood. I dared not hope. It may only be an empty shell. Then I saw the respawn timer bar. I would have to wait far longer for her than for anything else. But an active bar meant I would see her again.
Then we could have that talk on what to do from here.
Main Story Index
Current Arc Index