Vol 6. Chapter 20: Man Against God
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Western Continent of Hemel: 936, December 31st, Monday, 4:00 AM.

The hours passed, and the sun began to emerge from the horizon, bringing some light to the western half of the world with its gentle rays. Unaware of the conflict that unfolded within the deadly zone at the center of Hemel, the continent dealt with its own demons after the order’s actions against its people. Many lost their lives in the floating island known as Paradise, others at the hands of the young daughter of Heildin’s monarch Euthemia and her sadistic experiments, while the ones rescued thanks to Claire and Bloodhound’s efforts saw the end of the conflict after receiving refuge in the empire.

At the massive rampart that protected Heildin from the north, keeping the southern specters of the Deadlands away from the mostly abandoned capital of the kingdom, was a company of heavily armed soldiers from Hydra and Heildin. Their eyes were solely focused on the moving fog that shrouded the region with a screen of crimson, now slumbering peacefully after through the conflict.

Every cobalt and white uniformed officer expected the obsidian demons to suddenly emerge from the fog in large numbers, as despite the most recent reports about their sudden disappearance, the frightening silence and expectations in their minds instilled fear in the beating hearts of every man and woman stationed at the walls, trusted to give their lives before the beginning of a new year. What their nervous eyes would spot surfacing from within the hellish zone however, was the retreating platoon of brigadier general Benneth.

Happy to have finally arrived at safety’s door, the old general’s troops rejoiced at the sight of the enormous concrete rampart, sighing with relief and cheering with happiness. Once reunited with his comrades, Benneth wasted no time in explaining the arrival of The Golden Lightning with as much detail as he could, shocked to hear that the garrisoned troops had met the blonde knight themselves—information that was kept hidden from the reports he received while operating within the Deadlands.

The explosion from Lerna near the center became the next talking point of the old general, yet no answers were given about the subject from the old man’s equals and superiors, as the situation in the Deadlands had become a complete fog for those outside of the zone.

Center of the Deadlands, Ruined Castle: 936, December 31st, Monday, 4:00 AM.

“Haah… haah…” Sovereign panted with both pain and fatigue, down in one knee as he whipped the blood from his mouth with the back of one hand. “Your time… is near, knight.”

“Huff…” Loki huffed out the air in his lungs through pursed lips, holding himself with one arm and one knee on the floor. “Heh… you are not getting out of this alive, Specter.” He confidently stated with a smirk, however, a single thought entertained his mind while his battle with Specter transpired—unable to shake it off despite his best attempts. “I can’t feel Atalanta’s presence anymore…” he thought, narrowing his eyes with a low grunt. “Is this one of his tricks? He is not fighting me like he did before…”

Specter observed the pensive knight with caution, lifting himself from the ground slowly before stretching his shoulders. “Still holding back…” he said in his mind while gritting his teeth. “Is he trying to conserve his energy? I’ll have to force his hand further... Can’t have him running around my Deadlands with so much power…”

“What are you snarling at me for?” the order’s champion jumped back on his feet, cracking his knuckles while readying himself for battle. “Don’t tell me you are giving up already.” He said, retreating back into his own mind. “There’s something unusual about him… Tsk, I should probably end this quick.”

With both contenders back on their feet, the fight quickly resumed with Sovereign making the first move of the round. His torn black suit revealed the red dress shirt underneath, covered in dust like his black pants and shoes. He bravely rushed forward against the gladean knight, stretching the fingers on his left hand as a cluster of crimson fog assembled around it. Having gathered a large amount of energy in mere seconds, the fog in his hand quickly took the shape of a broken sword with the face of a lion at its guard, concealed inside a leather sheath that he clasped firmly with his fingers.

Loki scoffed at the god’s initiative, and quickly materialized one of his swords in hand through a display of azure lights. He crossed his right arm over the left shoulder while waiting for Specter’s fast approach, slashing at his opponent as soon as he stepped into range.

“Back off!” the knight roared while swinging his blade.

“Hup!” Instead of meeting the knight’s azure weapon with a strike of his own, Specter ducked under the attack and led his right hand near the grip of his sheathed weapon. He stretched his fingers with a quick motion, prompting the sword to propel out of its sheath with a flash of red.

Weapon in hand, Sovereign’s blade feasted on the power within him to extend itself with a blade of crimson energy—allowing its wielder to counter the champion’s attack. The azure sword of Specter’s opponent sliced the air above his head as he crouched under it, creating a wide opening for him to exploit with a swift uppercut of his own weapon.

“Tch!” the knight clicked his tongue at the fast response of the demon, vanishing from view in the blink of an eye to successfully avoid a critical injury.

Specter’s slashing uppercut split the air with a swoosh as his counterattack ended in failure, prompting his eyes to quickly slide to the side in an attempt to look behind them. “Bastard…” he cursed.

With his adversary still recovering from the motion of his own attack, the order’s champion reemerged in the battle from behind Sovereign while wrapping one arm around his neck—crushing the man’s windpipe with continuous pressure. To break free from his clutches, Sovereign quickly rotated his crimson sword to aim it directly at the knight’s face behind him, thrusting it backwards with all his strength in an attempt to pierce his eye.

A hand still free to use however, Loki caught the crimson energy sword of Specter merely a few inches away from his face—enough to feel the burning heat of its energy crawl into his skin. Not letting up in his own assault, he continuously tightened the grip around the god’s neck while struggling to keep the crimson sword away from his glowing azure eye, as both fighters wrestled for control of the battle.

“Give… up…” Specter managed to speak through gritted teeth, as the veins in his neck began to surface on his pale face.

“There’s no giving up in this fight,” replied the champion. “Only one of us will leave this place alive… and that won’t be you.”

Sacrificing a portion of the power reserved within him, Loki’s pathway activated with streams of azure energy that flowed from head to toe inside every artery in his body. The sudden burst of strength that the knight received quickly eclipsed the god’s efforts in fighting him off, as the crimson blade of his broken sword shattered into particles of light at the sheer pressure of Loki’s fingers. With a golden opportunity now in front of him, the order’s champion lifted Specter in the air with a tight grip on his neck, slamming him back against the floor with a powerful throw.

“Ough!” the god cried in pain as his back shattered the spectral floor of the throne room, bouncing off it once before dropping flat.

“Say goodnight,” Loki said with a wide smirk as he repositioned himself on top of his foe, rematerializing his sword in hand, and plunging it down against the knocked down demon.

Its strong azure glow rapidly approached Sovereign’s heart, yet it felt as if time itself had stopped for him to enjoy the moment. He watched the sharp energy blade fall with a gleam in his eye, as it carried the force of one of the strongest knights alive. His lips curved upwards with a devilish grin, sensing the absurd amount of energy behind Loki’s attack, all of it compressed within the azure blade created by the divine power that flowed within the order’s champion.

“Can I see the ring Sebastian gave you?”

His own voice suddenly resonated in his ears, a strange echo from a past that he failed to remember.

“Wha—how do you know about it?”

A different voice replied, yet he could not recall the owner despite its familiarity. His breaths began to quiver slightly, and his body shook with a strange shill that crawled down his spine. He was caught up in the bizarre feeling that struck him suddenly, one that swallowed every thought in his mind as he failed to realize the abrupt shift that his surroundings had taken.

There was no longer a ruined castle, gladean knight, or azure sword ready to take his life. He had fallen into an empty void of darkness and pure silence, left to wander on his own with no idea on what had just happened to him. Not a single whisper could be heard in the desolated emptiness that surrounded him, and even his voice was absorbed by the shadows that shrouded his vision. He could not hear, see, smell, taste, or feel, yet he was anything but unconscious. There was no sadness or happiness, all he could do at the time, was dwell in his own mind.

“Does it look familiar to you?” after what felt like centuries of pure nothingness, his own voice suddenly broke the silence.

“It doesn’t, no.” the familiar voice of a young woman replied once again.

“I see… to tell you more about me… Like any other specter, I too have a core myself.”

“Stop!” the young woman screamed, a different tone that shook his thoughts and broke the dark void that had devoured his world.

As if recovering from a gigantic explosion in a deadly battlefield, Specter’s foggy vision cleared slowly while his ears adjusted to the gentle sound of the Deadlands’ traveling winds. His single crimson eye widened in shock at the sight of an azure blade, coming down against him with enough power to cause critical injuries to his body.

“…!” A gasp escaped the god, who rolled to the side with a strong push in an attempt to avoid Loki’s attack.

The loud clank of the champion’s blade colliding with the floor bounced off every wall of the broken throne room of the castle, emitting azure sparks of light on impact. Sovereign crawled back to his feet with clumsy and hasty movements, panting heavily with startled breaths as he grabbed his chest with a strong grip of one hand.

“What was…” he whispered.

“Hmph…” Loki scoffed with an angry frown. “So, you do have some fight in you.”

Specter looked at this left hand, protected by the black armored exoskeleton of the demons. The glowing fissures crawling all over it displayed a faint blinking light, a phenomenon he attempted to fix by pressing his fingers together into a tight fist—an attempt that would meet its end with failure, as the unresponsive arm refused to gather energy from the slumbering Deadlands.

His twitching eye quickly spotted the amber ring incrusted deep in his index finger, failing to recall when and how it had made its way around it. No azure steel by any means, the item was small and fragile, crafted purely from a fairly common gem, yet despite its insignificance in value, that single piece of jewelry incrusted in his finger served to seal whatever power he ever had over the Deadlands.

“Can I see the ring Sebastian gave you?”

“Can I see the ring Sebastian gave you?”

“Can I see the ring Sebastian gave you?”

“Does it look familiar to you?”

His own voice echoed in his mind once again, as the recollections of his own hand touching the divinity of Claire’s azure ring quick settled themselves back into his memory. The brief touch of azure steel on his skin was immediately met by the purity of the amber ring that now held him down like a cluster of chains, infuriating Specter beyond words. His brows twitched and his fists shook, finally catching on to the ploy that he had prepared for himself from the very beginning.

“I… did this…” the god muttered with a contracted pupil. “I can’t… I can’t die here…”