Pressed for time, Shroud instantly moved to action.
Through his Glass Field, he spread the Master Mirror Hack to the cathedral’s windows, turning them into portals to other worlds. Sea monsters from other planes, fish the size of elephants, and tentacled abominations, crossed the frontier and populated the abyss. The creature spread around, as Blackcinders descended towards them.
He hoped it would delay the great dragon, but it would only afford him mere seconds.
Creating a Doppelganger and leaving him behind, Shroud rushed to the elevator and activated it, fleeing the doomed cathedral with a decoy inside. He immediately looked at Network, hoping that Melusine had stopped interfering with it.
She still did.
“Ace, Ace,” Shroud repeated. “Ace. Are you there?”
His teammate didn’t answer either. Either she refused to, or more likely, Melusine interfered with her the same way she did with his Network.
Even from a large distance, she still could make his life hell; and while she wouldn’t raise her hand against her own son, she was fully willing to sabotage him and his team. Just like she did against Toshiyami.
Had she escalated so far into madness? Or was the seed of his mother’s callousness always there, and power only brought it out? Shroud decided it didn’t matter. She had to be stopped, family or not. The end.
In the middle of the elevator ride, he attempted to contact the administrator, only for a quake to shake the base. A flash of light illuminated the abyss, and the corpses of summoned monsters fell into the darkness below.
A ray of bright red light fell from above like holy judgment, blasting the underwater cathedral. The elevator shook but kept going up, Shroud witnessing the wreckage falling into the darkness.
Far away, the sorcerer noticed Blackcinders swimming among the corpses of summoned creatures like a shark. The titan was just as terrible as he expected, a monstrous being more metal than flesh. She was fast, she was deadly, and she was hungry for blood.
Fortunately, she hadn’t noticed Shroud yet, swimming down towards the cathedral’s wreckage. Melusine must have informed her of Aster’s death.
The leash was off indeed. No more mercy. No more calculating plans. Just war.
Why didn’t she just blast the base from orbit though? He had seen the destruction the great dragon could wreck. In the face of previous events, the answer became obvious.
She wanted to see him dead, to savage his corpses with her own hands. His luck had allowed him to prevail too many times, and she wanted to take no chance he faked his demise.
He couldn’t take Blackcinders down. Not alone, and especially not kilometers deep underwater.
But he wasn’t alone.
As the elevator kept going down, Shroud glanced at the spot where the tower had trapped the giant salamanders, Poseidon and Cleito, draining them of life. He interfaced with the ancient machinery.
— Release soul batteries? —
The abyss trembled, as the infrastructure answered his command. By now, Shroud was too far away to see the result, but he hoped it worked.
As the elevator reached its uppermost level, bringing Shroud back to the experimentation corridors, the sorcerer tried to contact the Administrator.
ADMINISTRATOR: Mathias. Have you found the answers you sought?
SHROUD: Yes, and I didn’t like them. At all. Blackcinders is after me, and Melusine partly interferes with my Lock.
ADMINISTRATOR: She interferes with everyone’s. I believe she can hack into all artificial Locks to a degree, hence why she cannot access Magik Online, who is partly powered by my natural Distributor. I will guide you to the best escape route I can. Continue to the end of the corridor.
SHROUD: Are the others fine?
ADMINISTRATOR: Outside. Continue to the end of the corridor.
As Shroud obeyed, using Glass Field to fly, the base began to tremble, and flashes of light began to illuminate the underwater darkness outside; explosions resonated below. Blackcinders was fighting something below them, probably the escaped prisoners.
ADMINISTRATOR: Open the door to your left, then take the stairway to the right.
As he obeyed the instructions, meandering through the metal maze, he noticed the air, the very world getting heavier, his flight speed hampered by an invisible but escalating force.
As he passed through an observation room, giving him a view of the underwater area, he saw one of giant salamander get propelled against the base, causing it to shake. The creature had lost half of its face, its eye clawed out of its orbit by a bigger predator.
Of course, Blackcinders was winning. And savagely so. The creatures were malnourished, drained of their Flux by the tower’s infrastructure.
But still, the deities quickly recovered and went back to battle without a word.
Shroud was tired of running. Tired of relying on outside forces to make his way through life, tired of leaving his fate to fortune. So very tired.
He eventually reached a closed, circular hall covered with screens showing parts of the base, a control center of a sort. Multiple feeds had turned black, the areas destroyed or sunk. Five circles of light, almost identical to those used as teleporters in Taiyougami, waited for him at the center.
ADMINISTRATOR: Concordia locked the teleporters leading outside, but Nathaniel Stitch’s purchase of the Metalmesh spell allows him to control the system. Take the center-left.
He did, just as flying became impossible under the ever-increasing gravity.
In a flash of bright light, the underwater grave was replaced with an underground cove, near the sea. A copy of the teleporter laid on the sand below his feet, a secret entry hidden from sight. He could hear the sound of the sea outside, and the light coming in.
The gravity had somewhat diminished, but the air still remained heavier than normal. How far could Blackcinders’ range extend?
“Sir.” Stitch welcomed him inside, alongside Sol, Kari, and Maggie. “You are back.”
Before Shroud could answer, Sol immediately hugged him. “Mathias, you are alive! When you stopped answering our calls… I thought you gone…”
“We saw your messages, nerd,” Maggie said. She tried to act uncaring, but her voice betrayed some relief. “The Administrator asked us not to answer yet. Said you were ‘not in the right state of mind’ and that it had to check.”
That was an understated way to put it. “Sol,” Shroud said, breaking off the hug. “It was Mom. She’s Melusine. She was with Concordia all along.”
The priest took it somberly but didn’t seem surprised at all. Just disappointed. “Do not hate her, Mathias,” he advised. “She has been through tough times, as you did. But do not condone her either.”
“She has to be stopped,” Shroud agreed. “What she and Wyrde are planning, it’s inhuman.”
“So it was true, Mathias-san, you were under Aster’s control?” Kari asked with a worried gaze.
“He’s dead,” Shroud replied. “I turned the tables on him and had his own fleet shoot him dead.”
“That is great news,” Solomon nodded, trying to cheer him up. “It is a great blow to Concordia.”
“We have to go,” Kari said, her face strained. “My Doom Sense, it is torture.”
“Blackcinders is down there, fighting creatures I unleashed,” Shroud replied. “It will buy us a little time, but not much. She is too strong, and they too weakened. Where are Ace and Mur?”
“Outside,” Kari said.“Trying to contact the Midnight Market. Mathias…”
“We will talk about it after we escaped the giant dragon of mass destruction,” Shroud said, running out of the cove with the other Dragonslayers in tow.
As it turned out, the cove was located on a small island, in the middle of an endless ocean. The Neurotower, a purely bluish construct unlike Mammon’s multicolored one, rose from the watery depths nearby, reaching all the way to the heavens. More worryingly, Shroud could see Blackcinders’ cursed flagship, the Vanguard, surveying the area miles away.
One of the giant salamanders had risen above the waves… or rather, its savaged corpse did. Blackcinders had mercilessly clawed through its torso, leaving a gaping hole in the chest.
Ace and Mur were busy talking to hand communications, trying to contact Mammon, Manah, or whoever would listen. The imp glanced at Shroud with disgust, then looked away, at the bloodied, giant salamander corpse floating. “Weaklings.”
“Hello, handsome,” Ace said, but there was no mirth on her face. “So. You’re yourself again?”
“You figured it out,” Shroud said with a nod. “Back then.”
“I’m sorry handsome, but you are rather deeply prejudiced against dragons. You being enthusiastic about meeting one? Very un-you.”
If anything, what he had seen had only reinforced it. Loctis and the Golden Prince might have seemed personable, he couldn’t forgive anyone supporting the horrors he had seen below, nor what Wyrde planned.
“There were two,” Shroud said grimly, his eyes set on the giant salamander. “She is still fighting the other, but it won’t hold her off alone.”
“I cannot teleport out,” Ace replied with a grim face. “Wards interfere with the Teleport Spell and Taiyougami’s transportation, while Melusine interferes with my Lock. I tried looking around for her but to no avail.”
“She does not need to be close to activate her ability.” In all likelihood, like Network, once his mother established a link she could sabotage from any range. “She’s probably a world away right now. What else are we up against?”
“I tried to contact Mammon, but we are running against interferences.”
They were trapped. Shroud had networked Mammon, and even if a week had passed, if he could reactivate the connection… “I refuse to die here,” he said. “Not after all of this.”
“Nobody wants to die,” Ace said. “That’s why we try to live our life to the fullest first.”
Shroud still had too much to do to die. “We must establish a defensive perimeter,” Shroud said. “Mur as the vanguard, Maggie behind—”
“Is that your plan, or Aster’s?” Mur rasped, challenging him.
“Now is not the time, Mur! Blackcinders will—”
“Mathias-san.” Kari’s face had lost all colors, and she held her head. “Doom…”
An immense shape suddenly emerged from the waters, a winged titan of flesh and metal. A true dragon of legends, a monster rising from the abyss to deliver death and punishment to mortals. Her claws were still red with the flesh of her victims, and her immense eyes shining with a burning hatred.
Shroud immediately began to calculate a plan of action, his mind working so furiously time seemed to slow down. Ace, he and Mur were the closest to the dragon, while Sol, Maggie, Kari, and Stitch were farther behind. “Take covers in the cove!” he shouted, activating Glass Field.
The Dragonslayers immediately began to cast spells; Sol created a red force field barrier around himself and those in range, while Maggie aimed with her guns at the titan from behind it; a golden shroud surrounded Kari, and Mur began to transform. Ace, too close to Blackcinders, glanced at the water around, perhaps to teleport out of range; only Stitch listened and retreated into the cove for cover.
With a calm kind of fury, Blackcinders opened her palm, revealing a crimson, miniature sun within. Ace, reacting on instinct, rushed to grab Shroud, as if they could teleport out of the way.
“Accel Big Bang!”
The universe exploded into a blast of fire and light. Through the Network bond, Shroud heard a ghastly, psychic wail, and it all went white.
Shroud couldn’t see.
The world had turned white, molten glass embedded in his eyes and his glass too damaged to serve as a relay for Glass Field or Master Mirror. He couldn’t hear, his eardrums ruptured by the blast. His touch was hot, his skin fused to his glass armor. Once again, he was a prisoner of his body, but in a more literal way than before.
Kagutsuchi’s blessing. Were it not for the deity’s achievement, that one spell would have all incinerated the whole team to death in an instant. And the blast still hurt like hell.
Blackcinders was no Smokefang. She struck to kill and didn’t give them any chances.
Ace, he tried to speak, but his mouth was bound by glass. It was a miracle he could still breath at all; the Powersurge spell probably enhanced his ability to hold his breath. She hadn’t been able to reach him in time before the detonation, and he hoped, prayed, that she could get out of the path.
‘Heal,’ Shroud thought, the spell activating.
Words couldn’t describe the pain he felt in this very moment, as his healing body ejected the glass fused to his skin. He grew a second layer of skin and eyelid beneath the old one, pushing it out. Within seconds, he could see and hear again, but the melted glass kept him still. A few shards had fallen off, allowing him to breath, albeit with difficulties.
As his vision acclimated back to the light, his hands fumbled around, looking for anyone. After some searching, he found Ace’s arm near him. He grabbed her and held her still, as he tried rising up. She was so feathery, so light, reminding him of their date in the Midnight Market. Things had gone to shit since, but it seemed like yesterday…
As he regained his sight, watching the world through the twisted lens of molten glass, Shroud found himself among the blasted ruins of the island; the very sand had turned to glass, and stone melted. Mur, mostly transformed but critically injured, was kept anchored to the ground, crushed under a powerful gravity well. Sol’s barrier had mostly held, but the strain had knocked him out, with only Maggie firing madly at an approaching Blackcinders, who casually tossed her aside with a backhand. Kari, who wasn’t fully protected by Sol’s protection, laid on the ground, bleeding and critically injured. Only Stitch was partly unharmed, but buried beneath stone debris and desperately to get out.
“We have to… get out of here…” Shroud rasped, struggling to breath, as he turned to face Ace. “We have to…”
But Ace wasn’t here. He glanced down at what he held in his fingers, lifting it up until he could see clearly.
Just the bloodied arm.
Her blood was on him. On his armor.
His mind froze at the horrifying sight, and his eyes wandered off, until they found the other parts, laying in blood—
A notification hammered it home.
Ace account destroyed
The sheer shock and horror interrupted his thought process, his young brain unable to process what he had in front of him. He was taken back to his father’s death, back to his darkest moments, back to the Conquest and the moment he saw that meteor falling
She… she could have teleported… but she tried to reach him. She tried to reach him. She tried to reach him and she… and she…
Senseless… all senseless…
“Graviforce,” Shroud heard. The world became a thousand times heavier, some of his bones squeaking under the pressure.
An invisible force, stronger than anything he ever faced, pushed against him from every direction, lifting him above the ground like a puppet. The other Dragonslayers followed, lined up like soon to be executed convicts. Only Mur was kept anchored to the ground.
Blackcinders flew in front of them, her left hand opened upward. “Martel.” Her voice was that of death itself. “The day I laid my eyes on you, I knew you would strike against us. You were given too many chances. No more.”
“Ma—” The invisible gravity dislocated Shroud’s jaw before he could finish the spell, making him bit his teeth. Blood overflew into his throat, making him cough.
“You are weak, Martel. You, Aster, your color is that of trickery. But mine is energy. Power. Trickery was invented to make up for lack of power… but there is a gap so great no amount of intelligence nor skill can overcome. With enough of it, power trumps everything. I am power, and you can no longer run. Problems are not used, tricked, or avoided, Martel. Problems are shot.”
The black dragon’s eyes were set on Shroud alone. “I did not love my son. He was a failure. But he was mine, Martel. By killing him, you struck against me. Against dragonkind. And you will learn your place.”
She moved him afar from the others, until he faced them.
“Look. Watch.” Blackcinders’ eyes narrowed with a cruel gleam. “And choose.”
“Which one goes first?”
Shroud attempted to use Network, to attack the dragon’s mind the same way he did with Aster. A last, desperate attempt to turn the tide.
— Terminal Melusine blocked connection —
“No choice? Then I will choose for you, Martel. The priest, your oldest companion? The imp? Powells?” Blackcinders’ eyes turned to Kari, whose golden shroud had receded. “Or the woman who blinded my son?”
Kari… Shroud tried to rasp, but the artificial gravity kept his mouth unable to move.
“Her it is,” Blackcinders said, isolating the Yellow Sorceress from the rest. “I can see it in your eyes that you care more about her than the others. She was the first, was she not? The first rebel to follow you. Fitting that she will be the first to die.”
‘Ashmal,’ Shroud called in despair. ‘Ashmal! Ashmal!’
“Any last word, traitor?” Blackcinders asked Kari.
“Mathias-san…” Kari rasped through her throat, struggling to say any word. “Do not—”
With a look of cruel satisfaction, Blackcinders slowly closed her palm before she could finish. With a sickening sound, Kari’s jaw dislocated, her bones and skull pushed inward as if they would implode. Pure torture.
Blackcinders could have made it quick, but didn’t. Yet Kari didn’t give her any inch, refusing to scream. She just stared at the dragon with a cold, steely gaze.
“Do you understand now, Mathias?” Ashmal’s voice echoed in his mind. “This world holds nothing but despair.”
“Blood for blood, Martel,” the dragon said with a venomous tone, as she increased the pressure on Kari, “Blood for blood. One by one, and you for last. And afterward, I shall kill more of your rebel kind. Let that despair be your last thought before you die.”
“Do you accept the Black, Mathias? Will you open the path to Pandoria?”
His hopes dashed, and without any other recourse to save his comrade, Mathias gave up.
Like the judgment of heaven, a ray of red light fell from the skies, hitting Blackcinders. A pillar of fire crushed her under its weight, melting the sand below, and pushing her down a crater.
The Graviforce spell weakened, and Shroud and the others fell back on the ground. Above, a golden, distant star had appeared in the sky.
Shroud tried to move, his body and mind still sickened by gravity sickness. All he could do was move his head, as a rift in space opened near him, Ox-Head, Horse-Face, and Amaterasu stepping outside it. The goddess glanced at Ace’s remains and Kari’s broken body, her face twisting in anger, before focusing on Blackcinders. The two Zodiac silently moved to grab the dragonslayers, Ox-Head grabbing Shroud.
The heavenly pillar kept firing down, keeping Blackcinders deadlocked… but it couldn’t harm the dragon. If anything, the draconic juggernaut began to rise up, slowly crawling towards the group, shouting, “Martel!”
Afar, Blackcinders’ ship approached and began to bombard the island. Amaterasu created a barrier of crimson light to protect her charges behind it. Blackcinders eventually escaped the beam, cleaving at the protection with her claws.
They couldn’t put her down. None of them could. Not even the gods. It was hopeless, all hopeless.
Ox-Head carried Shroud through the rift, and then the sorcerer couldn’t take it anymore. He closed his eyes, and all went dark.
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Due to the sheer number of newcomers and lack of time on my end, most of their accounts will be updated on the 25th, alongside the Hack and dot upgrade for the end of volume II on chapter 64.