The bedridden soul speaks, voice dead and without the slightest bit of emotion. But there were still words. And furthermore, there was a smile. Surely it was a shock for any who might have been present. This was not home, so someone would care. This prison for the sick and wounded was a paradise compared to home. If the lost youth was to return home this instant, all of the attention would vanish as it normally would. In this world, the only ones who ever cared were strangers. Family is just a waste...
Strangers are the silent sleeper's only true bonds. Strangers... And friends... And the one named Lira...
—No. That one is not a friend. She's your enemy.—
But despite the voice the sleeping youth continues to smile. There is no reason. There is not even a thought. It is nothing more than a reaction, but still...
—Eliminate the demon. She will destroy you if you don't listen.—
The sleeping genius' arm reaches out and grasps at something. A crimson staff carved from a strange material. It glows, it burns...
It can kill the strangers, the friends, Lira....
—If you refuse to listen...then I'll do it myself. Sleep.—
The youth's arm then falls limp, hanging off the bedside. Again, there is nothing. The only proof of any activity was the sudden noises from the nearby monitor. Will those eyes ever open?
Or is this an eternal slumber?
Chapter 12: The Last Terrace
Δ Scarab's Lakeside Starstorm
The key-shaped staff was raised, the sharp and sparkling end now aiming in my direction. Jeanne's expression remained completely blank. There was not life inside those eyes, not even hatred or fear. This husk was not the one who first tried to kill me. Instead it is a heartless shade being freely moved about like a puppet. And with that in mind, I ready my weapon for the upcoming clash.
"Hey, mind explaining what's going on?" Kastor asked suddenly, drawing my attention ever so slightly.
"I can't really give you an answer. I don't know anything anymore..." I replied with all my honesty.
"Lira, Kastor... What is this...? What's going on? The picture is... Acting up in a weird way..." Matilda was understandably shocked and worried, not just presented with a bizarre situation, but being pitted against someone who at least resembles an ally.
"Jeanne—or at least Jeanne's character—seems to be under the control of one of Folset's minions. How that works or how it is happening... I couldn't explain. But we need to fight, at least hold our ground. Okay?" I tried my best to reassure her, which seems to work at least a little.
Jeanne had been motionless for a moment, but then after a few seconds she suddenly kicked off the ground. Kastor is the first to jump alert, dashing to meet the key's wielder. Yet it proves meaningless when Jeanne's character vanishes and reappears behind Kastor. Every one of us shocked for a split moment at the ridiculous speed...and the power of the back kick that follows.
With enough force to break the stone walkway, Kastor begins flying across the ground. My mind quickly changes gears, urging me to swing my scythe as quickly as I can, my attack being blocked and parried quite easily. But before Jeanne could take another action I screamed out a skill. "Red as Roses!"
The skill's basic trait kicks in, causing a critical strike that breaks Jeanne's guard. With her defenses temporarily open, I use the skill again, scoring another critical and knocking Jeanne off her feet. Unlike my own reaction though, she flew a distance through the air only to once again blink out of sight, next seen in a battle posture on the ground below.
She took a step, and despite the large distance she was able to strike me in the gut and ripping across the ground until I crashed into the stone garden surrounding the courtyard. Jeanne's eyes were staring at me with no signs of ferocity. Yet even so, I was feeling unmistakable fear.
Jeanne once again prepared to dash, but before she did something struck her. A powerful shot. I turn to Matilda, who was holding a shooter's stance. She was in the middle of charging a skill. By the time Jeanne regained her balance, it was too late. A powerful shot blew her to the side, hurling toward Kastor. And with impeccable timing, Kastor used one of her skills and knocked Jeanne into the air before slamming her back down into the cobblestone.
This chance...Jeanne was quickly rising to her feet, but it was a chance. In my previous battle with TENEBRAE, SKEITH, and KABAL, I was in a frenzy, but I know that I was able to activate my Segmentation Fault skill. And by doing that, I could defeat them. So given that Jeanne's avatar is SKEITH's new body, I can likely beat her if I use that skill now...
But there's a problem with that idea. The ability I used is in the same class as the one that put both of us into our respective problems. While it certainly is within the game's parametres, the same bizarre glitches and programs that gave it to me only served to make the skill into a dangerous weapon. This might normally be fine, but the person in front of me is not just a roaming monster. This is a fellow player, and something resembling a friend. I cannot just recklessly use an obliteration skill like that...
My hesitation delayed my actions, in the midst of my thoughts Jeanne had already managed to rise to her feet. And despite my allies launching new attacks, she simply vanished before they could strike. And once again, Kastor was knocked back with considerable force. With speed resembling teleportation, Jeanne moved over to Matilda and delivered a devastating blow to her as well. Only once she slammed against the shrine ground's inner wall did I finally regain control and launch a new attack while the Punisher's back was turned.
As expected though, she was gone before I reached her. A sharp pain then shoots up my spine when she stabs her weapon into my back, making me cry out on both sides of the screen. No one was around me in the real world, something I am quite thankful for all of a sudden.
Dashing away at full speed, I quickly heal my injuries and turn to face my opponent, I begin to speak the name of my favoured skill once again. My teammates had made a recovery and had proceeded to attack. Like me, Kastor and Matilda were using their skills on the target. But with ridiculous constitution, Jeanne was able to not only deflect Matilda's shot, but also parry Kastor's rush. She was still rebounding from this one as I kicked off of the ground in her direction. By chance, the opening was enough to land a strong hit and knock her off her feet.
"Don't let her recover!" I scream, already swinging my scythe to strike at her to keep her from getting a chance to take action. "Just keep attacking!"
Kastor and Matilda both confirm their understanding by unleashing skills one after another, ensuring that Jeanne would be trapped in the hail of attacks. This was my chance... I can't risk using my Segmentation Fault, but I sure as well can try to get through to her somehow. Something I can do or say to wake her up...
What memories, want actions, what words? Everything that might have helped call out to her was now rushing through my mind like a comprehensive video collage. Anything would have been fine. All I need is something to speak to Jeanne, even through the entity now using her as a puppet. Then it came to mind, something that I was sure would give some kind of reaction.
In the middle of the chain of combos, Jeanne still managed to find the slightest opening to break free. Then with a full swing she was able to knock Kastor and me back. I managed to catch my footing just in time for the next attack, however, raising the Cat's Scythe up and barely blocking the swing. Her face was close now, without any trace of emotion, but close enough for me to see at least some vague reflection in her eyes.
"Tsundere..." The word comes out finally. "You're always so cruel and violent...but even so..."
I manage to spot a twitch in her eyes, the first bit of movement aside from basic maneuvers. Maybe, just maybe. "Mean and insistent one second, then almost pleasant in the right moments. You really fit the definition of a tsundere..."
A smile sneaks across my face just a little, managing to knock her away from me and take a renewed stance. Her face looked like it was changing colours, as if she were somehow insulted like those times before. Her eyes adjusted slightly, almost making a face of disgust and fury in one. Was it working? I must be.
"Summon: Shadow Kitten!" I call out, manifesting the prize I had won from the Scarlet Tiger quest. And immediately the small creature attacked Jeanne, adding a fourth opponent. Matilda seems to notice this and do the same, summoning her Dragon Puppy. While the little pets were weak, this still made the battle five against one. The more attacks we can land, the better.
"Don't..." A weak voice leaves Jeanne as she renews her assault, the words and actions not quite matching up. "...ever..." Kastor and I renew our own offense, taking and dealing hits to the furious girl. "...call me something..."
Once again, she clashes with our attacks, however, with two against one, we break the attack and send her spinning away and slamming into a tree. Finally, the face I had expected to see had returned to Jeanne's face. "...so degrading!!"
Even if she might have been awake before, she certainly was now, and seemingly with some control over her actions. As she unleashed more attacks once again, it became eerily apparent that she was taking multiple strategies and mixing them into one. Some attacks seemed normal, others bizarre and impossible. It was as if SKEITH was making sure that for action Jeanne does not make, he would make one as well. Two players in the same character. However...because of this obvious split in focus, Jeanne's actions were sluggish.
Even with her speed from before, Jeanne was still moving with impossible speed now and then, but for every action it seemed that the two controllers had to exert their own force of will to dominate. As strange as it was, I preferred this violent rage of Jeanne's style far more than the cold and ruthless style of her puppeteer.
A puppeteer, yes, this was not over yet. SKEITH still had some say in her actions. She was still dangerous. And as if to prove it, Jeanne eventually doubled back and raised her left arm. A chill rubs through my body as a vague silhouette of the crested form began to build over Jeanne's body. Her arm though, being especially so. A large array of strange geometric shapes all orbiting one another around Jeanne's forearm.
"This skill...don't let it hit you!!!" I scream out, but really I should be the one to run. As soon as I give my warning, Jeanne had already aimed the skill in my direction and was set to fire...
The game has a pretty solid system. Skills cannot be 'dodged' by any means. By hitting the guard button, one can be blocked, parried, or possibly repelled based on the blocking weapon's skill level and the individual player's reaction time. If I try to dodge, even as a Twin Blade or Dancer, it will always hit. This still likely cannot be blocked since it is a long range ability, so not even trying that option would make a difference.
The moment is too small for tears, but I feel my body start to hurt. My heart feels on the brink of explosion. I cannot breath. Kastor starts to say something, but my adrenaline makes even the slightest sound move at a snail's pace. Another possibility...
Using a skill now would initiate something known as a Hangeki. A Counterattack. If one uses a skill in the small moment between a Player Character's use of a skill and its activation...this advanced tactic will negate the attacker's skill and let the interceptor deal more damage. It even breaks their guard and stuns them so that the team can unleash an all-out attack.
But a normal skill interrupting this one might not have any effect. And if it does...then what? We continue to battle until one side falls? Will that be enough? Can anything be done?
Actually...there is one chance. Segmentation Fault. The ability meant to be used to delete character data.by first changing it into a breakable object. Not unlike the ones that are broken for simple items. It worked immediately on the others, and it even stopped SKEITH. However, the last time SKEITH had stolen Jeanne's character data. That's why she has become the new body. The reason she has only slight control over her own design.
By countering SKEITH's skill with my own...with MATILDA's skill...
I raise my arm, my armour evolving into an even more demonic form, the large wings manifesting on my back, the mask now covering my face. My intent to use that skill has changed me. My lips begin to move. All around me, the surrounding area's data becomes visible. I can even see the stats of my teammates, the pets, and Jeanne. Her data though is nothing but corrupted code now.
My arm is raised, I take a single forward step. The two of us have now begun to use our skills. Powers dropped into the game by madmen with a hidden agenda. The collision of those forces is just about here... How will it end?
"Data Drain!" Jeanne cries out, the shapes orbiting her arm rapidly.
"Segmentation Fault!" Not even a second later did I scream out, the bizarre mask radiating and the claw-like blades reaching out.
Just like the system declares, the followup skill takes priority and strikes with its game-breaking force. The sound of a tuning fork rings in my ears, then a noise like breaking glass...
I watch as the veil covering Jeanne begins to break down into basic data. Not just SKEITH, but the Virus Core responsible for the skill is now being slowly reconfigured. But...Jeanne seems...to be...
A forced logout makes Jeanne's character vanish from sight, leaving only the familiar core of the entity known as SKEITH in the new, compressed form. It was done...there's no other threats around me. Kastor's voice finally gets through to me, but I am too dazed to understand her.
Those tears suddenly reach me, if not because of sorrow, but because of stress. It was still in shock at the possible danger of my actions. But for some reason, I feel like everything was fine for the moment. How would I know though? Even if she's fine now...Jeanne would have to send me a mail to make me feel certain. So, there's nothing to smile about...
"Lira? Are you okay?" Matilda's words are the first that make sense to me. But I do not pay attention to her and walk toward the core. In my previous rage, I had destroyed the others. But for this one, I had the urge to examine it this time. If not on a whim...then because the Debug Mode I had activated told me there was something there.
And sure enough, there was. There was an item in the core's inventory. "Key of the Twilight." An item with a name so legendary that it has been referenced since The World's first version. However, unlike the one from the rumours, this one had a very quantifiable use.
"The key to open the book of the twilight." I read the effect alloud, immediately thinking about the item I had obtained at the altar of the Burial Relic. Kastor asked me if I was alright. But again I put aside idle thoughts and quickly look around my inventory. Inside of the Book section of my inventory was the item mentioned. The one that had a distinct seal on its surface.
The Book of the Twilight. The Key of the Twilight. Two items that were now in my possession. What purpose do they serve? I was going to find out in just a moment.
"Kastor, Matilda. We'll be finishing up this quest, finally." I say, a bit proudly. The others seem to have a bit of relief, but there is something missing. It was obvious as to what. Obvious because I lacked it, too.
Certainty. Even with these key items in our grasp, there was no certainty in our voices. Yet even so, the clarification we needed would be here in just a moment. I click the item. Then select the "Use Item" option. And then, right before me the book opened up before me. And as soon as it did, normal words appeared before me. No glitches, no bright red text.
A keyword. However, I did not even need to return to the town. Without any warning, my character was forcefully transported to the new location.
∞ Hidden Forbidden Paradise
==/== Airceltrai, the City of Dawn
There are many views of heaven, some as fields of flowers or grand mountain peaks and others as a divine kingdom or a singularity of existence. The location I found myself standing in was among these depictions, a great and highly advanced city run both by machines and magic. However, as large as it was, I only needed to go one way.
Directly in front of me, at the base of a tower, was the massive body of the great Old God of Law, the Judge of Mortals, Folset. The great monster that exceeds the system. The reason I had to suffer, the reason Jeanne had to suffer, and the reason other nameless ones had to suffer. It seemed to be waiting for me to arrive. And only me.
I knew it the instant I arrived, but I was alone. The book had only brought me to see the great God. Not Kastor, not Matilda, not Jeanne, not Kiros. Only Lira, no one else. I began walking forward, unable to feel my real body anymore. Like before, I was now Lira. More than the player. I could feel the armour only, instead of the casual clothes I had brought along. I felt no cold winds, only a soothing warmth of the city's air. And my body, much taller and stronger than my true self, stood and walked with the greatest of fortitude.
Samantha is sleeping right now. Only Lira exists here to be judged by the last of the Old Gods.
Matilda, my kind and peaceful. Jeanne, my determined and forceful. Kastor, my sly and talented. Kiros, my lawful and diligent. All of them are not here, but at the same time they were close in my mind. Each of us was like a different aspect of youth. With this last trial before me, I could easily close my eyes and imagine they were with me.
The last stairway before Folset was long, easily thousands of steps high. But in my determination and hopefulness, the walk felt like merely a moment. And by the time I reached the top, only the massive beast god himself waited. He stared at me for a moment.
"My masters gave me a job. To destroy the binding that holds the world of men together. The networks that allow those mortals to speak with one another. Do you wish to know why?"
"Sure, why not? I'd like to learn why all of this happened..." I reply, raising my arm up slowly. According to Debug Mode, Folset was Level 45. Far beyond by abilities. But that did not matter. Unlike with Jeanne, I had no fears regarding the destruction of this great enemy. And like the monsters that served him, Folset was corrupting the system. Now that I could see the numbers for myself, I understood perfectly that should this monster remain too long in this world, it might actually cause another net crisis.
"They believed that humanity would destroy all life, just like how they destroyed the Gods. They believed that the only way to stop this is to end human activity. This means that all networks must be destroyed, along with progress. However, it seems that at the last moment, they gave up and left. However, I have not given up. My fellow Gods are now gone because of humans and beasts. So I have no sympathy for them. I waited for my revival, and for someone to defeat my messenger and gain her power. The seed of her abilities has grown into a fine tree. One that will allow me to complete my goal. The destruction of the Machine Gods, of Monsters, of Man, and of Beasts."
"I have no intention of allowing that. In fact, with that very same branch, I intend to end this." I then use the skill once again, the name spoken so often in my mind that it needs no readings.
Before me, just like those others... Folset breaks down into a glowing golden core high in the sky. It then begins to fall... slowly... faster... And with a crash, it impacts with force enough to shatter. And when it did, everything began to go mad. The graphics, sound, and world itself began to rip apart. Even my character, which had been so close to the epicenter, began to disintegrate. Much like the first time I was beated by MATILDA, everything was going a deep and starry black.
It was painful. I could feel my real body spasming violently. My heart was racing...my lungs contracted less and less. The Great Old God of Law was gone, the corrupt Artificial Intelligence having met the fate of his minions. However, it seems that I, too, will meet that fate. Not just Lira, but Samantha was dying...
Come to think of it...lunchtime is coming...
What will happen when Mariah comes to find me? Will she be sad? What about Matilda? Kastor? Kiros? Jeanne....?
It's fine though... Even if they miss me... I was able to do something about my problems... Thank you... All of you...