Chapter XLIV: The Event Horizon
Van Eltia - Night before reaching Zekson Port
Under the starry skies, the Van Eltia sailed onward into the horizon. Laphicet came out to the deck to take a gander at the moon. To his surprise, Avernus was alone at the bow of the ship, stargazing. Laphicet wandered to his side.
"Hey, Phi." His eyes were still fixated on the shining white orb in the night sky. "The moon always radiates pure light, even when I face away into the night's dark." Avernus said, his tone booming with a grand spirit.
Laphicet nodded. "Yeah, it's more beautiful than all the stars combined."
"My mother would always say "The moon brightens the sky to sing a soft lullaby, to ease her children into a star-filled night"." Avernus chuckled, turning to Laphicet. "Because of her, I always pictured it like a lone mother who shines over her children down below, giving them hope during their darkest hour." Avernus shifted his eyes back to the moon and smiled faintly. "But the only thing we can do is smile back at her from afar, forever out of reach of our hands." Avernus extended his arms and then coiled his fingers as if he wanted to reach to the moon.
The gentle wind billowed the sails and deck, making Avernus' untamable golden locks of hair dancing around in the wind. "That's nice…" Laphicet said, watching Avernus walking to his side.
"You've come a long way, Laphicet." Avernus' soft expression shifted, turning more casual and confident as his eyes clung to Laphicet's gaze with praise. "You've grown into a fine young man."
His compliment felt empowering, giving Laphicet even more determination. "Thanks. Even though we traveled all over the world, I feel that I still don't know anything."
"That's how life is. Adults never say enough to youths. They always have to fill in the blanks on their own." Avernus leaned on the mast with one leg up against it. "When I was fifteen, I already knew most of the tricks and artes people, and malakhim, could've taught me. I wanted to take on the world on my own. I couldn't wait to go out and be the hero." Avernus sneered, recalling his past time of being a Shepherd. "Little did I know that I wasn't ready, but it's not about being prepared. You make mistakes, you learn from your mistakes and grow. That's how life is; it's all about the journey."
Avernus' speech was lined up with his memories and experiences. Good and bad, sad and joyous, they shined like clear crystals in his mind, soothing and exciting."You're right. If it weren't for Velvet rescuing me, I wouldn't have this life. She gave me nothing but encouragement and kindness, and I'm grateful for that."
"Velvet wouldn't call that rescuing." Avernus chuckled when he remembered how she rephrased finding Laphicet. "Kidnapping was what she told me."
Laphicet laughed, eyes beaming. "Then, I guess I was lucky to be kidnapped by Velvet."
Avernus' cordial expression suddenly hazed as something bothered him deeply. Laphicet could sense a thousand knives piercing his heart, but there was also hope to power his words. "Velvet thinks she's living a selfish life. She'd tell you that she's the worst, miserable creature that ever lived. But I can see the glimpse of her true self, always."
Laphicet shifted his eyes intuitively to the moon. "Yeah. Like a bright light in the dark. That's how I always see Velvet."
Avernus heaved a sigh, mild expression of worry waving behind his eyes. "I wonder, what sort of future will all this give rise to when we deal with Innominat and Artorius?" Avernus shut his eyes, seemingly lost in his thoughts. "The cycle would end, but nothing at all may change. Prince Percival is but one man and words are nothing more than words. People interpret everything, even laws in whatever manner best suits their interests. Humans will lose their ability to perceive malakhim and daemons. There will be a bloodbath."
"Even so…" Laphicet murmured. His confidence mirrored Velvet's determination like they were from the family. "Even so, I know you will do what you believe is right. Just as you have done till now by protecting Velvet and the rest of us, even if you think we're not noticing it."
Avernus smiled widely to himself in satisfaction. "You have truly matured, Laphicet." He paused for a moment before opening his eyes. As Laphicet turned to Avernus again, he sensed an indomitable determination behind Avernus' gaze as his tone hardened. "I want to talk to you, man to man, Laphicet."
The young malak nodded firmly.
"Leave Innominat to me. He is mine, but after that, I need your help."
Laphicet gripped his fists in eagerness. "Anything!"
"Listen very carefully: If I remove Innominat, his throne will be empty. Without an Empyrean to act as the catalyst between the elements, the balance of the world will crumble. The world cannot endure the destruction that will ensue after that."
Laphicet could tell a mix of truth, and regret was waving in his serious tone.
"... A new Empyrean must take up the throne, a malak of outlandish strength and unbroken will."
Laphicet was sharp enough to understand his desire… no, his request, to be precise. "But I…" He lowered his eyes, breaking the gaze. This was nothing like helping with a fight or discovering new locations or deciphering a book. The weight of such responsibility was enormous.
"I always wanted to keep Lailah out of the world's affairs, as my mother desired for me to be away from being a Shepherd. Look how that turned out. Fate, destiny, whatever you want to call it, wouldn't have it any other way." Avernus stepped closer. "I know that what I'm asking is too much. It's a selfish request, after all, Laphicet."
Laphicet stood silent, pressing his lips and staying indecisive. His desire to help Velvet and his friends were unquestionable, but he thought: What if he wasn't up to the task? What if he would fail them and all Avernus and Velvet's efforts would be for nothing?
"Know this…" Avernus said, and Laphicet raised his eyes to meet his gaze once more.
"If you lose Velvet, the agony will be numbingly painful. The torment of failure will paralyze you. But right now, there is a chance for both of us to give her a second chance at life." Avernus raised his clawed hand, and a wave of Silver Flame danced around his fingers. "This power wasn't the true answer. It was just a fraction of the key." He closed his fist, and the light disappeared back into his body, eyes staring into the horizon. "The key that you possess, Laphicet."
"The key to what?"
Avernus calmly turned to him. "This is the key for a possibility, Laphicet. A possibility for the future, giving everyone a second chance to soar freely and not bind them to an ideal world that shackles their hopes and dreams."
Laphicet turned to the moon, watching the moon with his mind veiled with uncertainty.
"You want to help Velvet fly too, don't you?"
Avernus' tone pushed the dark curtains away, and the young malak's eyes glittered with determination.
Innominat's Celestial Body - Present time
The Menagerie stepped out of the wall of light, and suddenly, they found themselves standing on a massive labyrinth, surrounded by enormous floating rocks and crystalized walkways that reflected the sunlight around. The air was heavy with silence and a sense of emptiness.
Rokurou quickly wandered to the edge and leaned slightly to look down. "Wow, do you guys know how high up we are?"
Laphicet and Lailah ran to his side and joined him, staring with awe. "We're above the clouds! It's like we're flying! But I have a feeling that this thing hangs in the sky like a… uhh..."
"Like a chandelier." Avernus said.
Velvet seemingly ignored them as her eyes probed the platforms for possible threats. "It feels like everything's hollow."
Lailah nodded at Velvet. "This construction is white. Not like the color, but the absence of color." She explained as a worrisome feeling swept her innocent face. "An instinct void, and the white of a bleached bone."
"Suppression." Avernus said. "Anything around here will be devoured into his essence. We're at the center of his domain and his body."
Velvet and Eleanor whipped their heads in surprise at Avernus. "Body?! What do you mean?!"
"Innominat pulled his energy out of the earthpulse and condensed it into crystallized mana, creating this celestial mass." Avernus explained and turned to Magilou in disappointment. "You didn't brief them on the situation, did you?"
Magilou shrugged. "I forgot. Besides, it doesn't matter. It's too late to turn back now."
Velvet approached Avernus, shooting him a scolding glare. "Why didn't you tell me yourself?"
Velvet moved even closer with a few inches of his chest, frowning before he could answer her back. "Are you hiding something, Avernus?"
He raised a puzzled brow. "No. Why would I do that?"
Velvet would have always found out if someone wasn't truthful. But the sincerity in his voice was evident. Avernus gestured over at the top, pointing to the vast numbers of floating glass-like platforms that stretched a circular formation to the top, orbiting around the middle axis made out of light.
"Here's our plan: Innominat's link to the earthpulses has been weakened. He cannot draw malevolence from the planet any longer. But he has stored a considerable amount of mana in different crystals around in his celestial body. We need to find and destroy them to starve Innominat and weaken his domain. It's the only way I can call forth the four Empyreans here."
"How do you know all of this?" Velvet asked. Her voice was slightly packed with doubt and disbelief.
Avernus turned to her in total calmness. "Empyreans granted me access to some of the ancient knowledge. It's not much, but enough for me to plan a strategy." Avernus swept a glance over the team, quickly shifting the topic. "We may need to split up to cover more ground…"
Amid his speech, bright rays of the light beam in front of them, and several Innominat's minions materialized, twirling their staffs and brandishing their weapons.
Rokurou darted at the mobs in an instant, pulling both of his long swords out of their holders, a savage grin flitting across the swordsman's face. The blades flashed as Rokurou crossed them over his chest. "Final Judgment!" The swords hummed a low, swift whistle, slicing widely in front. The annihilation blades chopped the malakhim in half, carving a path into their ranks.
"17!" Rokurou shouted triumphantly, whipping his blades as the white liquid was dried off of them.
Eizen cracked his knuckles, grinning in anticipation. "Alright then, one last round!"
Eleanor readied her staff and scanned the area for more surprise attacks. "They're surely not taking this seriously as I thought. Why aren't there more minions attacking us?"
"For Innominat to fully awaken, he needs Phi and me." Velvet said, looking at Laphicet. "Which means they want to settle this once and for all."
Laphicet nodded agreeably at Velvet. "Sounds good to me! Bring it on!"
Magilou suddenly growled in frustration. "Haven't you been listening to Avernus?!" She scolded him. "This is what reckless idiots say before blindly rush into stupid situations and to their deaths!"
Laphicet quickly bowed apologetically after Magilou's berating. "I'm sorry!"
Rokurou rubbed his chin in wonder as he gazed puzzlingly at Magilou. "I think I heard Magilou giving sound advice for once."
"Or maybe she knows something that we don't." Eizen suggested.
Avernus ignored Eizen and walked past him, gesturing over a bright column of light behind the bodies of slain malakhim. "There should be a few more until we can get to the top chamber. I suggest we tread carefully. I'm feeling Innominat's sub lords present behind the gate."
Rokurou was the first one that strode to the portal eagerly, readying himself for another fight. As the team followed him into the next portal, Velvet yanked Avernus' arm, stopping him. He turned to meet her composed and brightened eyes. "I wanted to say goodbye."
"What do you mean?"
"When this is over… everything will be different." Velvet tried to dodge his question, giving him a vague answer.
"You are right. Everything will change." Avernus said and stepped closer, grabbing both of her hands. "...But on our terms."
Avernus' calm and serene response made Velvet hesitate. "I don't know what to say..."
Avernus brushed a hand over her cheek. "Don't say goodbye."
"Then promise me not to die. At least, not now." Velvet whispered to him with a pleading tone hiding behind her poor choice of words.
Avernus shifted his head back to check on the team; Laphicet and Lailah were the last ones to enter the portal, leaving the Lord of Calamity and her Shadow to themselves.
Unexpectedly, Avernus' hand drifted to Velvet's hip. It settled there and pulled her closer. Velvet inhaled sharply, her heart skipping a beat as she was trapped against his warm chest. Velvet pulled her head up to cling to his stare. She had a hunch it was coming. Avernus kept this surprise for this unique moment, together alone, on top of the clouds, and right in their enemy's lair. They shined brightly. Their love showered sparks of chaos into Artorius' ideal and frozen world. It took courage to walk into the light after living in the shadows for so long. So they dared for a chance in a love that would span far longer than one lifetime, with hearts of flame and passion without bounds, forever eternal. His gentle smile was the salvation she needed.
Before Velvet could ponder about it further, Avernus tilted his head and covered her lips in a gentle kiss. Velvet's hand slid behind his head and pulled him closer, deepening the kiss. Their lips imprinted themselves onto each other, reforging their bond out of roguery and freedom above the sky.
Still intoxicated in the taste of his lips, Velvet followed his eyes as Avernus pulled his head, his mouth curving into a smile before returning Velvet's question at her. "Can you promise the same?"
"You know that I can't." Velvet whispered to him truthfully. Such an oath in these circumstances was a fool's wish.
"There is your answer, Velvet." Avernus paused and glanced praisingly at her face, as one would bask in the beauty of their significant other to engrave the curves of her face, and the flame of her eyes in his mind for one last time before the final confrontation.
Velvet's lips parted as she wanted to tell him how she felt. But the magic words didn't come out, and they died in her throat. Velvet felt like a coward at that moment, clenching her teeth.
"Let's go." As Avernus walked to the portal, her hand kept on clinging to his arm for a few moments before they separated. Now Velvet was back; in reality, she immediately took off after Avernus and followed him into the portal.
After their bodies warped to the top, they both spotted a giant white statue kneeling before the leading portal with its head down. The rest were already inspecting the area for enemies, gateways, and traps.
"Looks like Innominat left us a present." Magilou beckoned at the statue.
Avernus scrutinized it; a 30ft white golem with several seraphic symbols etched around the hardened exterior with no visible facial features, except for a pair of horns, and two empty sockets in place of its eyes. Avernus raised a hand to sense its life force. "This thing is an ancient guardian. But I can't feel any life signs. It's hollow and empty for now."
Magilou bent on her waist, arms flinging and looking miserable. "That's just great. I'm sure it will rise and attack us as soon as we move."
Rokurou casually wandered to the golem and hit its rough skin a few times with the hilt blade before turning to the group, shrugging his shoulders. "Nothing. Maybe if we move further, it will attack."
"Probably." Avernus gazed at the top, tracing the flow of mana that linked floating crystal islands together like a shining thread. "I can sense three crystals in general." He pointed to a platform with an active portal. "Rokurou, Eleanor, and Magilou use that portal and find the first crystal. You can't miss it; it's a towering crystalline stone, hovering near the middle. Magilou can use her spells to destroy it."
Rokurou twirled his swords, shooting a disappointed glare. "Why, Magilou? Can't I use my swords to smash it into bits?"
"No, you can't. Only magical attacks work." Avernus raised his sword to the opposite side, gesturing at the other platform. "Velvet, Eizen, Lailah, and Laphicet will go through that one and search for the second crystal."
"What will you do then?" Velvet asked.
Avernus turned to the golem and placed the tip of Caliburn on the ground and wrapped his fingers around the handle, straightening his body to its full height. "I will wait for this one to come alive."
Lailah frowned and shook her head in disagreement. "But I want to stay with you."
"You can't, Lailah. Laphicet needs your help in destroying the stone."
"I think each group can handle this thing. Why don't you come with us?" Velvet wondered.
"I need to keep an eye on this one. The moment either of you touches one of those crystals, it will teleport itself and attack the intruders. For now, I can't say which group it will decide to intercept. It's best to stand guard here." Avernus broke his gaze and switched to the motionless golem. "Go before we waste any more time."
The rest exchanged glances before separating into their groups and walked a long way around the platform to the portals. Avernus waited patiently, unmoving as his hair billowed by the winds.
The portals flashed from afar, emanating electrical waves around the area, signaling that the teams had entered the portals and started their mission.
Then Avernus heard footsteps behind him, someone slowly walking towards him wearing high heels. But he was expecting his old comrade.
He heard a womanly giggle. "I see you have been waiting for me."
Avernus turned to see Tia wandering elegantly at him.
She smiled. "Always a gentleman."
"That's right, sister."
Tia's eyes gawked over Caliburn and its engraved scabbard before shifting her eyes back to him. "I see you've found the final artifact." Tia's brows slightly knotted in annoyance. "And made a pact with the four Empyreans. I've got to say; you have proved more resourceful than any other Shepherd that came before you."
"That's because they didn't have good companions."
"But you are an idiot." Tia sneered. "...The stupidest Shepherd in the entire history of humankind."
"Maybe." Avernus extended his hand towards Tia. "Stupid enough to offer the one responsible for the misery of eons a chance to let it all go."
Tia noticed a surge of power going through his left hand that held Caliburn. "You offer one hand in peace, but ready to attack with the other. You have changed, Avernus."
"Can't ever be too careful. But again, you and I were inseparable for six years, and I know despite plunging the world into a never-ending doom, all of us should let this hate go to give both humans and malakhim another chance to begin anew."
Tia's graceful posture began to change. She raised her hands and stared at them gloomy, only to coil her fingers in anger afterward. "I remember this vessel… She once was a woman, crying out in the lonely darkness for justice. Broken and left for dead by the very humans, you took their side." Tia growled, fixing a deathly and inhuman glare at Avernus. "A mother and a pure soul who worked hard all her life, providing for their children single-handedly, only to be cast out as an offering to an Empyrean." suddenly, Tia giggled maniacally. "I granted her all she wanted and more. A chance to seek justice that was denied to her ever since."
Avernus retracted his hand, resting it above the grip of his sword. "Those people that were responsible for her death are long dead. You can't even remember her name, and you destroyed Avarost a long time ago. There is no need for the entire world to suffer for the sins of a few."
Tia burst into mocking laughter. "You're a hypocrite, man. Haven't you seen what your so-called "few friends'' did to Midgand? Velvet blindingly put the continent on the brink of destruction for killing just one person. If it weren't for you, the malevolence would've engulfed the continent, and humans would beg me for their deaths!" Her eyes flashed as she blinked and shifted into a pair of yellow slit dragon-like orbs. "I have clawed and crawled my way through the ages, and I will see this world and its cruel and stagnant humans burned!"
Tia's strident voice echoed around them; A burst of anger and misery that was silenced afterward in the dark blue skies. Avernus remained unmoved and was in total control. "So, you want chaos for the sake of chaos."
"Without death, Avernus, everything would grow old, stagnate, and decay. Humans will never change."
Avernus maintained his stare with Tia. "Either way, I can't let you pass, sister."
Tia's eyes reverted to normal, and her tense posture melted back to her usual delicate and feminine stance. She waved a dismissive hand at him. "I'm not here to fight you. The reason that I'm here is to watch who will come out on top at the end, and take my throne back." Her body lit up and enveloped in a blinding light. she disappeared in a shining orb that shot back into the sky. "Know this that I'm rooting for you, my little brother."
Suddenly, the symbols around the golem's body lit up. Avernus turned to see the enormous statue rising on its feet. Its head turned to the side that Eleanor's team had entered and dissolved into a wave of light, flying to the portal. Avernus tapped his foot, and his body blinked into glowing streams of mana, pursuing the entity in a race of radiant rays.
A few minutes before - Eleanor's team
Eleanor along Magilou and Rokurou appeared out of the portal. They surveyed the new domain; the architecture was the same as the last area, but Magilou spotted a sizable glowing crystal twirling at the end of the long path. "There, that's our target."
"Hey, Magilou. When did Avernus tell you about Innominat and his plans?" Rokurou asked.
"A few nights back. We had a long conversation, full of philosophical debate and bargaining." Magilou explained. "And I got paid handsomely."
"What did he bargain for?" Eleanor asked.
"For acquiring my special services." Magilou giggled amusingly at their baffled face. "It was about my abilities as a scriber and a professional witch, you fools."
Rokurou stroked his chin in wonder. "But why did he pay you in advance?"
"I'm not going to sugar coat it for you guys. You are neither Laphicet nor Lailah." Magilou summoned her guardian paper, narrowing her eyes at a lone malak guardian in front of them. "Or Velvet." Magilou brought her opened hand to her lips and blew her paper. The paper enlarged and hit the leading minion, sending it skyward. "Good Grip!" The paper quickly multiplied, and all of them darted up at the same time, hitting the minion and blasting it into a firework explosion. "This plan is a big gamble to take Innominat out of the picture. If he can pull it off, then everyone has a chance. But it's a suicide mission."
"But he has to fight Velvet and Eizen over Innominat. They want a piece of the god too." Rokurou said.
"Avernus called dibs on Innominat first." Magilou's guardian cards returned to her and were shuffled back into a single sheet. "Since the advent."
Eleanor gasped in worry and lowered her spear and her head, hiding her eyes from her friends. Rokurou moved to her side and put a comforting hand on her shoulder."I'd like just to tell you not to worry about it, but I know that can't be helped. Just know that worrying too much can make you lose battles you should be able to win."
Eleanor pulled her head up to glance back at the swordsman. "I-I wish it could be that easy."
"It's easy, trust me. Just keep your mind calm and try to think about what you're going to do after this, like, what are you going to eat or where are you going to visit."
Eleanor closed her eyes and collected her thoughts. "All right, then let me ask you this: what do you plan on doing when this battle is over? With Lord Shigure and Lord Artorius gone, there will be no better sword fighter in the entire world."
Rokurou instantly burst into sudden laughter. "I don't need to look far! Haven't you seen Avernus in action? He is sneaky about his skills and knows a lot more about sword fighting than your average warrior."
"I hope you 'do' know you have to go through Velvet, Lailah, and Laphicet to get to him." Magilou advised.
Rokurou sighed, brushing a hand over his hair. "Ah, you're right. Besides, I still have a lot more to learn to get to Shigure's level of mastery, and most of Avernus' styles are unknown to me. If I want to win against him, I need more training. But what about you, Eleanor? What do you want to do?"
"I want to keep doing whatever I can to help people. Not as an exorcist, but as another human being." Eleanor said, raising a scolding finger at Rokurou. "A fair warning: if you attack humans as other daemons do, I won't hesitate to take you down."
Rokurou's brow darted upward in surprise. "Oh? I'm pretty tough, you know." His eyes suddenly caught two hollowed half-spider malakhim storming their position. Rokurou pounced towards the left one, drawing his swords. Eleanor and Magilou rushed to meet the other. The right one rose on its legs and aimed at Eleanor, firing a stream of mana silk. Eleanor rolled instantly over to her side, and the arte missed her. Magilou flew above them on her enlarged paper and crashed the paper into malak's face. She turned to Eleanor and beckoned her head at the disoriented malak. "Let's go, Eleanor!"
Eleanor gave Magilou a firm nod and gestured her hand in a circular motion, and a round blue sigil of magic appeared in front of them. She rushed at the floating glyph with breakneck speed. Eleanor winded and pulled back her arm, eyes trained on her target as she ran. "Nothing can stop my spear!" Eleanor hurled her lance through the rotating magic sigil, and the bolts of magic trailed into her spear and charged it up with magic, crackling with blue electricity. Magilou snapped her finger, and another glyph appeared on top of Eleanor's, sending a beam of powerful spell at the spear, giving it a double charge of devastation thunder magic.
The minion had no time to react as the spear pierced the chest of the malak and pulled its substantial body off the ground. Eleanor and Magilou both grinned in satisfaction and posed behind the glyph, controlling the spear and directing it at the crystal.
The crackling spear sizzled through the air and dragged the helpless malak into the collision course with the crystal before crashing into it, bursting the stored energy and breaking it into hundred pieces of solidified mana that shot around the endless space.
They covered their eyes for a moment, shielding it from the blinding light as the ensuing release of energy shattered the remains and the malak, obliterating it into nothingness before smiling at a job well done.
"That wasn't hard." Rokurou said.
"Don't jinx it, Ro-" As Eleanor was about to finish her sentence, the space in front of them distorted and glittering particles all formed instantly into a hulking figure, casting its shadow over them.
The ancient golem's body was illuminated with all new magic streams running around the cracks on its skin. It raised his gigantic claymore and brought it down instantly on top of them. As they all put up a guarding stance, the golem's sword hit something in mid-air, and the ensuing shockwave battered their eardrums as they covered their ears and shut their eyes.
They opened their eyes and saw Avernus clashing his sword against the golem, its glare fixating on him.
The golem seemed to acknowledge and recognized Avernus, calling him in a disembodied and unfeeling voice. It pushed hard onto Avernus' guard, and the crystallized ground beneath his feet broke, and his boots dug deeper into the glass texture, but his stance didn't flinch under the enormous strength of the ancient malak.
Rokurou quickly pounced at the construct and brought down his swords onto its head. "Take this!"
The eager smile faded from Rokorou's face instantly as his blades were bounced off of the golem's face. Avernus moved his head to the side and glanced over to Magilou. "Do it!"
She whirled on her heel and twirled her hand over above her head playfully. "Everyone needs the help of the witch, even the Shepherd of the wolves!"
A loud sound of a bell echoed above the golem, and a purple glyph appeared. "Time to test these forbidden artes!" Magilou giggled, and her eyes glittered in a bright ray of purple. "Power that moves the stars! Drain it dry! Envious Touch!"
With Magilou ending her performance that was comparable to a failed opera finish, the light began to emanate from the symbols on the golem's body and sucked into the purple portal. The joints on the malak started to crank and shudder, losing their strengths. Caliburn began to lit up, and the claymore fractured, weakening against its magic. Avernus pushed his sword and cut the hilt of golem's weapon in half, shattering it with an incredible force.
The gigantic malak stumbled to the back and lost its balance. Avernus launched himself at the staggered golem, and his sword engulfed in a blazing light as he sheathed his sword back into its sheath, charging Caliburn with the magic of the final artifact and unsheathing it in a blink of an eye. "Cut the world to the infinite! Crimson Flashfire!"
A vast wave of burning flame released from Caliburn and shot toward the golem.
Instantly the body of the ancient malak disappeared into tiny particles and flew away. The magic missed the mark and hit a large floating crystal behind it, disintegrating the stone.
"Damn it!" Avernus growled and sheathed his sword, warping after the malak as he vanished into a wave of light.
"What was that?!" Eleanor asked and whipped her head at Magilou. "What did you do?"
"An ancient arte that Avernus taught me. He couldn't do it himself, though." She tipped her hat to the top with pride. "Only a powerful witch like me can do it."
"That looked like you stole its strength." Rokurou observed.
"Close. The only way we're going to beat it is to suck the Innominat's power when it's flowing through its body. That's why we needed to activate it first. Avarostian spellbooks are full of these shiny forbidden artes."
Rokurou raised a brow in surprise as he sheathed his swords. "Then we'd better go back to the main hub and wait for the rest."
A few minutes before - Velvet's team
Laphicet sensed great distress in Lailah's face. The fire malak kept her composed posture, but her saddened eyes didn't lie. "Are you okay, Lailah? Is there something bothering you?"
Lailah lowered her head and stopped. "If we defeat Innominat, no one would be able to see me, is that right?"
Eizen pitched in. "The humans won't be able to see you. Except those who have strong resonance, like Avernus, Magilou, and Eleanor. Spiritual beings like malakhim and daemons will still be able to see each other."
"But no one else…" Lailah murmured to herself.
"Don't be sad." Laphicet said. "We'll still have each other, and we're going to meet more malakhim once Innominat is gone."
Laphicet's comforting words calmed down Lailah enough for her to look back at him with a glimmer of hope.
"But remember…" Eizen continued. "There is something we can never escape as malakhim, and that is our parting with humans is inevitable, for we live far longer than any of them."
"Nothing is forever. That's what Avenues said to me once." Lailah said.
Eizen gave Lailah a firm nod. "He is right, and parting is always hard. If you don't want that pain, the only way to avoid it is to shun all contact with humans." Despite his seriousness, Eizen managed a smile for both Lailah and Laphicet. "But to me, humans are an inspiration, living to their fullest with the limited time they have and you, Lailah, you chose to live with Avernus."
"That's right…" Lailah said in uncertainty.
"Then, moment by moment, give it everything you got and enjoy the time you have." Eizen sensed the ever lingering gloom that was still present in her eyes. "It's alright to feel lost. Let yourself wander for a while. But whatever you end up choosing, decide it for yourself. Even if it means leaving him."
"But why?" Lailah asked.
"We all should know what kind of fate is waiting for us. As once Aifread said; The wise man knows his fate. The fool merely finds it."
"Whether it's wise or not doesn't matter." Velvet interrupted him, walking pass towards the mob of malakhim that was guarding the second crystal. Her glare fell upon them like a wolf ready to tear down her prey. "Sometimes, you just have to do it and decide for yourself."
Velvet let loose of her luminescent blade, ready to storm the malakhim. "Because that's what we're here to do, living our lives and taking back what's ours!"
The Lord of Calamity charged at the minions, her sword left trails of red glow. Lailah's gaze followed Velvet. There was something else other than rage and fury behind her movements: The will to live no matter what.
Velvet's sword clashed with the scepter of the first minion. The malak's weapon glanced off her blade, and Velvet thrust her claw into its stomach. The minion's backside suddenly burst into flame as Velvet released a fireball from her hand, and the malak's lifeless body fell in slow motion, disappearing into a dark mist.
Eizen charged the rest with a mighty cry, winding up his arm and slammed his fist into the face of the second malak like a wild wind. The minion stumbled back, its golden mask shattering and breaking in half. They both dove back at each other immediately, and the malak hurled itself, jostling with its spear pointed at Eizen. He dodged the spear and threw his body's weight behind his second hefty punch and slammed it into the malak's stomach. The blow crushed the minion's ribs, and white blood erupted from their mouth. Eizen grasped his head with his two hands and brought his knee cap up to its nose. There was a blunt crack as more liquid mana leaked from both their nostrils, and the head was twisted right. The minion disappeared into a black goo before its lifeless body could hit the solid ground.
The last malak charged at Velvet, and she sidestepped its attack. The minion flapped its wing and gained altitude, ready to dive unto them from above. Velvet's senses suddenly flared up. She turned her head at the crystal to see an enormous glyph forming underneath it.
"Let's do it, Velvet!" Laphicet signaled her, readying himself for their ultimate arte.
A set of burning guardian papers hit the diving malak right in its forehead, and the minion lost control, twirling aimlessly in the air. The papers scattered around, and Velvet jumped up, using the sheet as boosting platforms to get to the malak. "This fight is over!" She released her wrist blade, her blood bubbling with fire, empowering her movements as she slashed the malak, bouncing around fluidly like a lightning wolf clawing its enemy. Her repeated flashing assaults sent the malak screaming to the top, correctly aligning it above the mana crystal.
Fire swirled around Velvet's body, and she whipped her arm, dispersing them around, materializing them into eight blazing swords pointing downward.
Velvet descent on the falling malak and pierced its heart with her blade, sending it down on the crystal. The flying swords circularly fell to the ground, landing around the glyph's border, and at the same time, the malak crashed on top of the crystal, the piercing tip tearing its spinal cord and coming out of its chest, impaling it. Velvet pulled her sword out and executed a somersault as the glyph began to charge with void power.
A column of dazzling light enveloped the crystal and, along the malak, was disintegrated into tiny particles, Velvet and Laphicet's ultimate arte purging it out of existence.
Lailah clapped her hands excitingly, eyes beaming at Velvet and Laphicet in pride. "That was aweso-"
The air abruptly disoriented, and the giant golem emerged. Now wielding a Morning star, Lailah nearly screamed as the hulking behemoth raised its chained weapon. Velvet and Eizen dashed to take the young malak away, but the air rippled around the ancient titan, and Avernus materialized in a blink of an eye, charging at the golem and shouldering it out of the way with tremendous strength. The old titan faltered and tripped on its back. It went down flat on the ground, the platforms rumbling like an earthquake under their feet.
Avernus landed on its chest and raised Caliburn. He pointed at where the heart was and stabbed it in an instant. Avernus gritted his teeth and moved his sword to the sides, widening the crack as rays of light began to shine from the fissure. The malak raised its clawed hands, but before he could wrap them around Avernus, he teleported away to safety, appearing beside Velvet.
Avernus turned to his friends puzzlingly but appraisingly at the same time. "You guys were quick in destroying the second crystal. I reckoned I had more time to take him out."
Velvet scanned their colossal enemy as it raised on its feet. She spotted the nasty gash Avernus inflicted on its chest. Something was lit up under its opened skin. "What is that?"
"The crystal." Avernus said and nodded at their confused faces. "That thing is the third and last crystal we need to take care of."
The ancient guardian picked up its chained mace and spun it at its front in a full circle.
"Direct assault is a suicide." Eizen observed.
"True." Avernus turned to Velvet in haste. "You and I will attack it together. I'll warp behind it and distract him. You need to stab it in the crystal with Caliburn." He threw his sword to Velvet, and she effortlessly caught it. She hefted its weight from hand to hand. To her, the sword felt right, not too heavy to be a burden, not too light to feel underpowered.
"Pretty much looks like it was made for you." Avernus said, grinning.
Velvet nodded. "Maybe I'll borrow this later." She whipped the sword around her side. "Let's do it."
Avernus and Velvet stormed the guardian. Laphicet, Lailah, and Eizen summoned their artes, and each hurled shards of light, fire, and wind at the golem. Its yellow eyes were tracking Avernus until the magical projectiles hit the spinning chains, and they exploded, blocking its view in smoke and explosion. Avernus' body shifted into waves of bright lights and teleported behind it, levitating above the ground. Crackling magic began to swirl around his arm, and his eyes turned white. Avernus gestured his hands at the malak and fired the pent up electricity in two bright beams at the titan's exposed backside. The area was illuminated with blue and white rays like a thunderstorm in the night.
The attack barely scratched his back. The golem growled and turned to Avernus in anger, throwing its spiked mace at him. Avernus quickly disappeared into thin air, and the mace missed, smashing the empty ground below. Velvet used the distraction and took off, scrambling toward the preoccupied malak. Velvet jumped on its leg and traversed its back. Her movements were fluid and without apparent effort. Velvet's smooth, shiny, and long hair was dancing around. The golem flailed his hand around, trying to bat Velvet off, but she swiftly moved around its body like a nimble squirrel on a tree until she reached its chest. Velvet pressured her feet and bounced off of its torso, somersaulting into a precise position to attack. She whipped her bandaged hand, and it changed into its demonic form. Those deadly claws radiated burning malevolence, steaming dark corruption. Her Spirit outfit burned in a great fire. "Moonfang Fury!"
An enormous visage of her transformed arm appeared above Velvet, and as her arm scythed down the empty air, the gigantic claw mimicked her movement. It came down and clipped the golem's hardened skin like a sharp and giant rake. Shards of white stones were torn out of its chest, exposing the mana crystal underneath. But the ancient malak pulled its morning star out of the ground and hurled the mace at the Velvet in an instant. Caught off guard and having no room or time to escape, She put up her arm in defense in the last effort. Suddenly, Avernus wrapped his arms over her waist and dashed to the side as the spiked mace grazed Avernus' shoulder, tearing it open. Avernus slowly hissed in pain but managed a smile for the Lord of Calamity as they stopped. "Don't be careless now, Velvet. Okay?"
Velvet checked his bloody back in worry. "Have Laphicet heal you. Quick." Velvet ordered.
Avernus tilted his head at the ancient guardian. "Not yet."
The malak spun its morning star in front, advancing at them slowly like an autonomous being. The rest began bombarding it with devastating artes to no effect. The duo was cornered at the end of the path. Lailah shifted into an orb and shot into Avernus' body. "Now, brother!"
"Alright… Fethmus Mioma!"
Velvet felt the immense heat as Avernus armarized with Lailah. He raised now, transformed Caliburn, and moved his hand around the handle, using his thumb to grasp the shaft like a spear. He held Caliburn up to his ear and aimed the sword at the unprotected crystal.
"Think you and Lailah can be faster than those chains?" Velvet asked.
"Let's find out. Shall we?" Avernus said in confidence, with his red eyes beaming with anticipation. He trained his sword at the crystal and hurled it with a near sound-breaking speed. Caliburn became a meteor and whistled through the air as a bullet fired from Siegfried, leaving a trail of blazing fire behind and passed the rotating chains. The ancient guardian was shoved back as Cailburn dug deep into the golem's heart. The ancient malak stopped, strange disembodied echoes came out of its body with mana oozing out of a crack in its core. Avernus took off and reached his sword in an instant, gripping the handle of Caliburn. His armatus resonated with fire magic, and his power swirled like waves of flame into the sword, lighting it up. "You're finished! Crimson Flashfire!"
The torso of the malak shuddered, flames, and beams of light emanating from the seraphic symbols and fissures as blazing heat filled the golem's inside. Avernus let out a wild battle cry and slashed skyward, cutting the chest and the head together in half as a pillar of fire was rushed to the top.
Avernus pounced back to the ground, joining Velvet as immense energy erupted the torn body of the malak. "Use your arm, Velvet! Devour that power!"
Velvet compiled, opening her demonic hand and holding toward the top.
The loosened energy sought her arm like a beacon, diving into the palm of her hand. Velvet gasped, her hazel eyes flashed as the lifeforce of the malak was entirely consumed by her arm. Then a deadly silence fell upon them.
"What happened?" Eizen asked.
Velvet clenched her fist, and a satisfied smile lit her face, feeling satiated like never before. Avernus heaved a sigh of relief, and Lailah materialized beside him, his body reverting. "Velvet devoured malak's ancient life essence. Now we have the key to Innominat's main chamber."
"You could've briefed us on your plan, you know." Eizen said.
"Magilou was supposed to do that. But you guys didn't need a plan. We never do. We just dive into the battle, and everything suddenly works in our favor." Avernus stated, gazing Eizen in seriousness.
"You're right. Brute force solves everything. It never failed us." Eizen said.
Laphicet and Lailah turned to check the lifeless husk of the ancient malak. All that remained was a ruined statue that its chest and head were torn in half, and hot steam was coming from its wrecked torso, standing motionless.
The team traveled back to the crossroad and was met with Eleanor's group as they were anxiously waiting for them.
Avernus gestured at a glass plate in front of a vast open space. "Use the power, Velvet, and release the lock."
Velvet waved her hand, and golden particles appeared and flew to the pedestal, charging it up with magical energy. Their eyes widened in awe as a transparent bridge made from pure mana began to form, linking the main walkway to a faraway portal. The team headed straight to the entrance, crossing the bridge. A pillar was stretched to the very top from the gateway. "Next stop, Innominat's heart." Avernus said.
"What can we expect?" Velvet asked.
"Artorius and a spoiled, angry little god..." Avernus swept a glance over the team. "And probably a few dragons too."
Gods, dragons, and Shepherds. It didn't matter to Velvet. She nodded in confidence and marched at the portal with the rest following her to the final battle.
The Heart of Innominat
The scene flashed before their eyes as Menagerie teleported to the top of the construct. Avernus stepped forward and gazed at the long set of stairs that continued above to a vast faraway arena underneath the most massive magical glyph that they've ever seen.
Laphicet pressed a hand over his chest. His link to the Empyrean flared up. "I can feel him. Innominat is just up ahead."
Avernus turned to Lailah. "The moment of truth is fast approaching. How are you holding up?"
Lailah glanced at him with apprehension. "On one hand, I definitely want to stop this for good. On the other, is it bad that I kind of wish we were back on Merichio, playing with Kamoana, Orthie, Russ, and Griffin?"
Avernus chuckled lightly, letting one hand rest on her shoulder. "You're right. There're quite a few places I'd wish all of us, away from here, but this has to end, tonight and once it's over… well. We won't have to wish anymore, will we?"
"Light at the end of the tunnel, right?" Lailah said, setting her gleaming gaze on the top of the stairs.
Rokurou chuckled and stretched his shoulders in eagerness. "Finally, time to repay my debt."
Velvet rolled her eyes in frustration, crossing her arms and shooting the swordsman a glare. "How many times have you said that?"
"Is it a bad thing?" Rokurou asked.
Magilou moaned in annoyance. "Because nobody here is going to do anything for anyone but themselves. Especially you."
Rokurou grinned and scratched his head guiltlessly. No one could mask their real intention. Not in the Menagerie. "You got me. I'm here to find good fights and cut things down."
Eizen nodded. "Your wheel is yours alone to hold."
"And no one else's." Avernus said. "Team. Let's move. It's going time, gang."
They moved up the steps. Avernus looked over to the sky. They were at the border of the dark blue, where the sky ended, and the road to the stars began. It fitted for the end of an era. Avernus started this journey with a shimmer of hope for a better tomorrow. Everyone needed a reason to live and be found in the strangest places and strangest people.
Avernus would be the Shepherd for one last time.
The team finally reached the top. Avernus spotted his adversaries, eagerly and patiently waiting for their arrival.
A dome of invisible magic surrounded the area. The core of Innominat was beneath their feet. Deep down the polished floor, there was a set of giant golden crystals, fueling the Empyrean's domain with suppression.
Avernus and Velvet both leveled challenging glares over to Artorius and Innominat.
Magilou moved to the side, beckoning at the team as if they were on the stage, ready to perform their show. "Sorry to keep you waiting, gentle Shepherd! The Lord of Calamity and friends are here to see you!"
One by one, they stood side by the side of their comrades. Each to their own goal, but for that moment, they united to form a fist.
"It's a pleasure to fight another swordsman." Rokuruo expressed.
"You've decided to pick a fight with us. Now we're here to pay you back!" Eizen said, keeping Artorius under his reaper gaze.
Eleanor readied her spear. This time, everyone, even Artorius, sensed her newfound purpose and determination."Lord Artorius, I'm following my path and my decision. I will stop you, no matter what!"
Artorius raised his sword. His cold and unfeeling eyes remained icy as ever, and his stony face, devoid of emotions. "In my sword lie the hopes of humanity. The potential for a perfect world." He slammed the tip of his blade, and a wall of raw power rushed from it and swept the area, racing towards the team and hitting their body like a wild storm. The invisible force began to push each of them back, their boots and shoes sliding over the ground as they shielded their faces against the unstoppable force.
"Do you believe that will without reason can break it?"
Amid the storm, Avernus marched forward and mirrored Artorius' act, slamming the tip of Caliburn into the ground. An otherworldly power raced out of his body and pushed Artorius' domain back with a greater force.
"Your perfect world and your sword are both flawed, Artorius." Avernus said, his resolve empowered his tone of voice. "Your perfect world is as dead as a tree trunk, and your sword is nothing but a jagged metal that lacks flexibility. In my sword lies freedom and possibility for not only humans but for malakhim and daemons too. Mine will break your false hope and shatter the deceitful prison you call ``World."
Artorius's brow knotted as he took a glance at his previous master and father-figure's sword resting in his enemy's hand. A small wave of anger bubbled for a second behind his chilled blue eyes. "Do you even know what your father truly wished for? He tried all his life for a world that, one day, humanity has a chance to thrive in peace. Claudin spent all his life trying to purge the evil of this world, fighting injustice and cruelty. But one thing he couldn't do was purify the human heart. Your power was given to you by your father and yet…You've become the Shadow of evil and the Shepherd of the damned."
"Ironic, isn't it?" Avernus said in a mocking tone. "That what you call evil and damned is a better alternative to the world you're trying to force on humanity and malakhim. Just because you've seen hell with your eyes doesn't mean you can force that hell on others. My father desired to give the world a possibility and a second chance at living. He even gave you one, didn't he?"
Artorius let out a silent hum. His face contorted slightly in annoyance.
Avernus sensed the anger in Artorius' eyes. "My father said it's wrong to close off your heart because there are too many sad and painful things out there. As a Shepherd, he didn't want to forget the sadness that people were feeling. He became the sort of man who could live with that and give people hope, but look at you, doing the exact opposite. Shepherd or shadow, it doesn't matter to me. I will finish what my father began and put on end to the birdcage you're trying to jail humanity in." Caliburn glowed with his power. "We have nothing else to say. Let our swords do the talking."
Artorius squeezed the grip of his sword."Then come and see who's resolve is more adamant, Avernus!"
Their domains subsided, but Avernus noticed Innominat and Laphicet were glaring at each other. Innominat touched his cheeks, remembering their previous encounter when Laphicet punched him in the face. "Ever since you hit me, I have had this annoying feeling in my chest. But I can't figure out what it is."
"Then, I'll have to hit you again right in the jaw and see if that helps."
Innominat jerked his chin at Laphicet. "This time, I'll eat you and your friends." He chuckled. "I'm sure that will make me feel better."
In a blink of an eye, Avernus stood in front of Laphicet and raised Caliburn, pointing at Innominat. "The only thing that you will have in your stomach today is this."
Velvet placed her hand on his blade, and Avernus lowered it. "Brother… I finally have an answer to your question."Why do you think that birds fly?" She turned to Avernus, and he nodded at her. "They need no reason to stretch their wings. They need no permission from anyone to fly. They don't fly for anyone's benefit. They don't fly because they were ordered to. They fly because they want to fly, and they're free!"
"So that's your answer…" Artorius groaned in disappointment. "You were always like this… foolish, with your emotions uncontrolled and running rampant. This is what creates the daemons and plunges the world into tragedy and despair."
Velvet raised her clenched fist, her hazel eyes burning with determination to finish the fight. "Then try and drive us out, Shepherd Artorius!"
Artorius pulled out his sword slowly and whipped it to his side. "This was my intention all along."
The hour of judgment was upon them. All the decisions that they took and all the roads they traveled had finally reached this moment. Artorius and Innominat charged at them, raging with godlike powers. Avernus didn't waste any time and dashed at the two to meet their onslaught head-on. His hand went for his sword and slashed it widely at them. They both dodged his attack to the sides forcing them to separate. Avernus swiveled in Artorius' direction and thrust his sword forward, clashing with Artorius' blade. Both swords met in the air with a resounding 'clang.' From behind, Velvet charged Artorius with a mighty cry and threw a broad slash of her wrist blade. Artorius dodged to the side in a quick and fluid motion. Velvet instantly followed up her attack with an upward slash from her foot blade, and the attack bounced off of his swift guard. Avernus used Artorius' distraction and slashed his sword back and forth. The blue and gold hints of his blade shined as it tore through the air, but Artorius put up his guard quickly, and the blunt of the attacks was deflected.
Artorius pivoted backward, gazing at Velvet and Avernus as they stood side by side, brandishing their blades. In that standoff, his eyes flicked from Avernus to Velvet. Their faces hid no fear. "I shall sever our ties! With my family and even Claudin!"
Rokurou entered the fray. He jumped and brought down his swords on top of Artorius, but he effortlessly sidestepped and kicked Rokurou in the chest in mid-air, pushing him back.
Avernus turned to see the rest of the group were engaging Innominat in a battle of magic and mayhem. Orbs of wind and fire were raining down around the area. Explosions made the distinction from friend or foe difficult. Avernus suddenly spotted Innominat waving through the magic attacks, summoning his white and rapier as the Empyrean flew towards Laphicet and Lailah. At the same time, Avernus caught Artorius from the corner of his eyes as he was rushing at him.
In an instant, he hurled Caliburn at Innominat and summoned his spirit blades in time to cross them and guard against Artorius' sword, trapping it between his elemental blades.
At the far side of the arena, Lailah and Laphicet charged up their spells, and together, they fired two balls of light and flame at the Empyrean. But Innominat vanished, and the artes missed their target, flying aimlessly into the floor.
Suddenly Laphicet and Lailah watched Caliburn fly above their head and hit something behind them. As they turned their heads, they saw the sword holding Innominat back, clashing with his rapier as if some invisible hand was holding it, pushing the Empyrean back. Innominat's face twisted in anger as Avernus had robbed him off of his victory. Even when Avernus was fighting Artorius, he was glaring with deadly intent from far away at Innominat, which sent dread and shivers over the Empyrean's body. Innominat had Avernus' full attention. While he was wrestling against Caliburn's immense power, Lailah sent strings of burning guardian sheets to him, and they burst into a spectacular explosion that engulfed the Empyrean, forcing him to retreat.
Eizen took advantage of Innominat's disorientation and punched him hard in the waist, sending him twirling in the air. As Innominat leveled his body, he spotted Laphicet charging him with a clenched fist. Before he could react, Laphicet threw a punch, and his small fist connected with the Innominat's jaw, throwing him to the ground, and his body slid over the smooth floor.
"Feeling better?" Laphicet taunted him.
Innominat's gritted his teeth, his body shaking from anger. "Stop messing with me!"
His scream shook the arena, and a blinding light shone from beneath their feet.
Laphicet turned to see the Innominat's eye glittering, and his lips curving into a malicious smile. "You're just a little snack." He sneered and opened his arms as he levitated high above the ground. Then a pair of golden dragon heads rose from the borders of the arena. The serpent heads glared over the team and screeched, their skin shined blindly and made distinguishing their features impossible. Avernus gazed at the new threat as he was holding his ground against Artorius' relentless attacks.
"What do you think you can accomplish with this?" Artorius said, repeatedly slashing at Avernus, trying to break through his guard. "Who will understand the sacrifices we make? Even when humans witnessed a miracle, they didn't even try to understand its true cause." Artorius' hits began to crack Avernus' conjured blades. "Humans will never change and never will unless they're saved by force. And people like you and me get carved up in the middle. That's why I need to wipe the slate clean!"
Avernus felt the tension and heard the intensity in his tone. There was a great deal of emotion behind his words. Not what he expected from a cold and calculated man.
After another broad slash, the phantom blades shattered, and Avernus bent completely backward as Artorius' sword missed, tearing the air above his chest. He extended his hand, and Caliburn warped back in his hand, in time to swing it at Artorius, forcing him to retreat. "They will learn. I'm not impatient, and not like you. I won't let fear compromise who I am. But in the middle of it, giving people a second chance is the best I can do. It's the best a Shepherd can do!"
Suddenly a thrumming came from Innominat's dragon jaws, and a ball of immense magic began to charge up in front of each. Velvet slashed Artorius from the side and clashed swords with the Shepherd. "He is mine! Go and help Phi and the others!"
Avernus quickly darted away, making straight for Innominat as Velvet and Rokurou crossed swords with Artorius. The Empyrean sensed his approach, and one of the heads turned towards him. Innominat smirked at Avernus, and at the same time, the dragon heads sent two devastating balls of pure lightning at him. Caliburn flared up in its sheath, and Avernus slashed away, sending a wave of wind cutter that obliterated Innominat's orbs in a single hit. The Empyrean snarled, his magic rushing from his fingertips. The Innominat's spells twined together and fired a bright beam right at Avernus. "I'm tired of your meddling!"
Suddenly a burst of blue aura radiated from Avernus, and he vanished before Innominat's magic could hit him. The Empyrean gasped and conjured his rapier, putting up a guard as Avernus materialized near him, throwing a massive slash that broke Innominat's defense and hurled him a few meters back.
Innominat's face twisted with rage, A yellow aura beginning to flicker around him, and his draconic heads slithered at Avernus like flying snakes. "You are nothing!" The Empyrean screamed like a little brat that was denied his prize.
As Avernus put up his sword, several golden chains rose from the floor and wrapped all around the draconic heads and tightened, trapping them against the ground. Avernus turned to see Eizen, having his hands on the ground, and fueling his magic to hold them tight. One of the heads whipped at Eizen and fired a beam of light. Laphicet, quick as silver, teleported in front of Eizen and waved his hand, conjuring a wall of silver light and absorbing Innominat's beam attack.
Avernus gave them a praising nod and raised his sword. "Fethmus Mioma!"
Innominat frowned and gritted his teeth in fury as Lailah eagerly armatized with Avernus, sending a shock wave through the arena as his body transformed brilliantly.
The Empyrean commanded one of its heads and let loose a wide beam of lightning from its jaws at Avernus. He pushed hard against the ground and launched himself at the beam. His sword sparked and flared with Lailah's power. Avernus slashed Caliburn at the beam, shooting off a large arrow of flame. "Feel the passion that never dies! Melt the coldness of suppression! Blaze Swarm Ultima!"
The two magic slammed into one another, and a burst of an explosion shook the area, sending burning flames and sparks of electricity around. Avernus' arte ate away Innominat's beam and push onward into the dragon's mouth. Innominat yelled in pain as he held his temples, and the draconic head burst into an explosion. The headless neck wiggled around aimlessly and, along with the other, retreated beneath the arena.
The team's faces beamed in hope. Avernus bolted toward Innominat and pulled away from his sword, his body wrapping up in a blazing flame. Innominat leveled a hateful gaze and whipped his arm, summoning a large number of guardian papers as they combined and formed into his sword. "The world's pain and malevolence. The culmination of true reason…" He dashed at Avernus and thrust his sword forward, his blade erupting with colorless and swirling magic. "Primal Kill!"
Meeting Innominat head-on, Avernus gripped his blade with both of his hands and transformed it into a majestic greatsword, fire whirling all around it. The area intensified with a great heat as Avernus threw a wide slash. "My scarlet blaze will burn your reason! Annihilate! Crimson Flashfire!"
Avernus hurled a wave of condensed fire magic at Innominat. It blasted against him in a spectacular explosion. But the Empyrean flew out of it unharmed, advancing at him relentlessly. "Got you!"
Avernus scowled and put his greatsword up, bracing himself for the attack.
Hearing Velvet's cry, Innominat turned to see a giant red claw coming down on top of him. He disappeared in time before Velvet's arte could clip him off the air. Velvet had managed to break her fight with the Shepherd and joined Avernus along with Rokurou. The signs of wariness were apparent in their eyes. Laphicet sent a massive healing wave over the group, and their wounds began to heal.
Innominat reappeared beside Artorius and glared over Laphicet with hate. "He's the reason… right there."
Innominat gestured his hand over to them, and his eyes glowed brightly. The arena quaked, and three draconic heads rose behind them. As the team turned, each of the heads fired a beam of magic directly at Laphicet. Avernus quickly scrambled and pushed Laphicet away, but the beams hit him instead, blasting him away. Two of the heads immediately resumed their attacks and swooped down on Laphicet, sending concentrated rays from their mouths. He instantly released his papers and formed a magic bubble. The rays impacted his shield and began to fracture it. Velvet pounced at one of the heads and sliced its neck, disrupting it from attacking. But the Laphicet's guard broke into pieces, and the single remaining beam hit beside him. The ensuing explosion sent Laphcet over the edge, and one of the heads slithered towards him, jaws yawning to the limit to devour the boy.
Suddenly Velvet's memory of advent rushed back in her mind; the moment when Innominat's draconic head devoured her brother that night. Velvet raced at Laphicet at a breakneck speed. "No! Not this time, you won't!" Out of the blue, Innominat himself appeared between her and Laphicet, wearing a malicious smile. "You can't save him, Velvet!" Innominat jumped and thrust his sword at Velvet "I won't let you!".
Velvet frowned and gritted her teeth, but there was no way she would stop. Before the tip of Innominat's sword would reach Velvet, she pulled out her comb and held it over her face. Innominat's sword hit her comb instead and shattered it in half. The Empyrean's eyes widened in shock as they followed the broken pieces that dropped to the ground, triggering Laphi's long lost memory. "V-Velvet, why do you have my comb?" He mumbled to himself, oblivious to the fact that she slid past him.
As the Empyrean was distracted, Velvet swiftly sprinted toward Laphicet, jumping over the edge of the platform. Their hands intuitively extended towards each other, and their fingers wrapped around each other. Velvet gripped his hand firmly, and she extended her other hand towards the top, confident that Avernus would come and catch them both. Like a blazing hawk, Avernus flew and homed in on them in time to catch Velvet's hand. "Not letting you go!" Avernus pulled them up, flying away to the top as the dragon heads pursued them.
The Empyrean growled in anger and darted after them, along with its three draconic heads swarming the three. Laphicet spotted Innominat, and his hand pulsed with magic. He pulled his head up to Velvet and nodded, transferring his energy through to Velvet. She felt a fresh, soothing but powerful wave of energy surging through her body. Velvet directed the power over to her bandaged arm and Avernus's grip.
His body was suddenly gleamed with the newfound power, boosting his core beyond the limit. A flickering aura flared up in his heart, reaching to his sword. The Caliburn charged up like never before, radiating a blinding light that made glancing at it impossible.
"Use it!" Laphicet yelled.
Avernus aimed at Innominat and pulled Caliburn away before hurling the build-up magic at the Empyrean. "Eat this!"
As he swung his sword, a burning white flame surged toward Innominat like a supernova devouring stars. The wave hit the draconic heads first, disintegrating and purging them from existence in an instant before slamming into Innominat himself, pummeling the Empyrean. He clutched at his face, bellowing in agony.
His small body came crashing down onto the arena, tumbling to the ground.
Avernus carried them back to the ground, and they saw Innominat writhed in pain as he struggled to his feet. The Empyrean clutched his chest, moaning in misery. "A-Artorius, I'm hungry. My stomach is empty. My chest is empty. My body is empty… It hurts so much."
The Shepherd wandered to Innominat's side, slowly. Avernus knew their strategy paid off: Innominat had exerted himself to his limit, and with no backup supply, he would starve and leave Artorius and him vulnerable. Without despair, he was just an annoying brat. Avernus could put the last phase of his plan in motion. But not everything was easy.
Artorius heaved a breath calmly and met Velvet's gaze. "It looks like we won't be able to harvest "despair" by eating you anymore. In that case…" Artorius shifted his attention to Avernus. "Your father asked me, "Why do birds fly?", and I could never give him a full answer when he was alive. But I'm telling this to you now: Birds must fly because they possess strong wings. Humanity must be suppressed because it possesses great sin." He shut his eyes, and suddenly, Avernus felt a faraway power surging around Artorius. "Malevolence, tragedy, war, anger, tears, even love must be suppressed. With the grace of my beating wings, I will grant humanity the tranquility it deserves." Avernus and Velvet suddenly gasped in shock; Artorius's body radiated malevolence. Dark swirls of corrupted magic swirled around his body. "Innominat! Come and devour my despair!"
The Empyrean rose from his agony and bit Artorius' neck in an instant.
"No!" Avernus yelled and prepared to storm Artorius, but a massive flare of light burst from Artorius and Innominat, pushing him away. The Shepherd raised his sword to the sky.
"Nevn Hiw Ejuam!"
Artorius's shout resonated and shook the pillars of the sky. The arena illuminated in a brilliant flash. Avernus sensed a high weight of power tensing the air around them as if two worlds began to collide. The large sigil above them changed its shape into a fast rotating glyph and shot a massive orb of yellow light at Artorius. They covered their eyes, shielding it from the blinding flash that enveloped the Shepherd.
"Innominat's armatus!" Laphicet yelled.
The illumination suddenly ceased, and Artorius' body transformed: His hair turned golden and loosened over his shoulders. His outfit became one with his body and covered him from neck to toe in a white pierce with golden symbols. With four pairs of wings stretched from his back, he rose and whipped his blade as Innominat empowered with his strength, changing it into an enormous greatsword with seraphic symbols glittering over its hilt.
Eizen glared over Artorius bafflingly. "Artorius was filled with this much despair?!"
"How's that even possible?!" Rokurou wondered, brandishing his swords.
Magilou summoned more papers, and they shuffled around her. "One wrong move and he would have become a daemon."
Eleanor clenched her spear in doubt, "That's the power of his determination…"
"...But also proof of his true nature!" Velvet said, turning to Laphicet and Avernus. "Let's go!"
Laphicet and Avernus both nodded. "Yes! We won't lose to despair!"
The menagerie prepared themselves for the confrontation as they gaze at Artorius' godly figure. The Shepherd swept a contemplating glance over them. "Now, with the full might of my armatus, I shall suppress all of creation!" He looked over to Avernus, narrowing his eyes. "Starting with you!"
Artorius brandished his sword and stormed him in haste. Avernus mirrored his movement and thundered towards him, meeting his onslaught head-on.
Artorius swung his giant sword and hit Avernus' blade in a loud clang. Avernus felt the might and power of Artorius' armatus as his sword bounced back, his body twirling to the side. Avernus landed on the ground and collected his stamina before jumping back up in time to evade another wide slash from Artorius' blade. Velvet leaped forward and clashed against Artorius, her glare falling on the Shepherd with bloodlust in her eyes, pushing against his sword, but he shoved her away and flew after Avernus. Velvet swiftly landed back on the ground and turned to see the two Shepherds resumed their fight high above the arena.
Outclassed and underpowered, Avernus held his ground against Artorius' massive swings. He sensed Lailah was suffering against Innominat's aura, and her life could extinguish at any moment under Artorius' unrelenting assaults. "Lailah! Separate!"
"No! I'm staying with you!" She screamed.
"Don't argue with me! I'll be fine!"
Then suddenly, Artorius' sword flared up. "This, I claim! Right of Rule!"
With his shout, Artorius slashed his sword unto Avernus' guard and flung him away. Lailah cried in pain, her disembodied voice echoing in Avernus' head. His armatus flickered as their bonds grew weaker. Avernus spotted the energy building up in Artorius' armatus. "Lailah! Separate! Now!"
Artorius charged his blade and speed towards them in a flash. Avernus gestured his arm over to Velvet and forced Lailah out of his body, sending her safely over to his friends. Lailah extended a hand towards Avernus, her face darkened by fear of his life, but Lailah flew away from him as she had no more energy to fly back to him.
Artorius' sword connected to his shoulder and slashed through it. The excruciating pain enveloped his body, and he fell towards the ground. As he hit the floor, he rolled over, stabbing his sword into the ground and held onto it. Caliburn curved the radiant floor until his slide came to a halt. His headband snapped, and his golden hair loosened all over him. Avernus' sight grew hazy as he saw Artorius through his hair, diving in for the killing blow.
"Your sins are deep. Now suffer for them-"
Suddenly Velvet, Eleanor, and Rokurou rushed and cut Artorius off, interrupting his attack. Velvet's battle cries filled the area, flaunting with flurries of kicks and slashings that held Artorius' armatus at bay. Artorius waved his free hand and commanded the remaining four of Innominat's heads to rise from the back of the arena. Avernus turned to see Laphicet helping the Lailah off the ground with Magilou and Eizen battering Artorius with barrages of artes, which he barely seemed to notice. Avernus struggled to stand up. He groaned in pain and kneeled back on the ground, gripping the handle of his sword and leaning on it firmly. Avernus pulled his head up to see Velvet fighting fiercely, but her wrist blade suddenly broke away and swirled through the air, landing beside him. As Artorius shifted his attention back to Avernus, she dashed and placed herself between him and Artorius.
"You've grown strong, Velvet." Artorius said, his voice rhythming with a gloomy but praising tone.
Avernus glanced back over to the rim of the arena and onto the earth. His heart suddenly filled with light, and he sensed warm presence engulfing him as voices whispered across the sky.
Avernus swayed unsteadily on his feet and shot Artorius a challenging glare. "If you want to see what birds can do, Artorius, then I'll show you how one can fly!"
Avernus raised his sword skyward. "Himy Dwuzu! Wavrim! Ketibu! Dimou!"
Every face turned to stare at him. The dark space behind the rim of the arena illuminated, and light columns raced to the top. The time and space bend to Avernus' will, and the flow of the hour halted. Distant powers heeded his call, and four columns of red, blue, yellow, and green lights surrounded the arena, towering over it.
"The four elemental Empyreans!" Magilou shouted.
The pillars merged into one shining orb and landed on top of his sword. The four Empyreans began to settle in his body, each giving him a share of their powers. Avernus' body transformed: The gold in his clothes turned into armor, moving to cover his fingertips that ended in long sharp golden nails. His coat was divided into three longer pieces, and a pair of gigantic, silver wings spread from his back, and a golden crown with metallic wings covered his head. Avernus opened his eyes, and they flared with silver light. Determination and power burned inside of him; all the elements were surging their aid into his being. The rest of the magic transferred into his sword and scabbard. Caliburn morphed into a majestic silver greatsword, and its sheath transformed into a duplicated Caliburn.
Avernus crossed his swords and whipped them to the side, sending a final shockwave across their battlefield.
"The god… armatus?" Laphicet mumbled, eyes clinging into Avernus' angelic pose.
Artorius growled in anger and pointed his sword at Avernus. The draconic heads slithered forward, and Innominat built up his power, and all of them fired a beam of light at the same time. Avernus' blades glittered in a silver light and slashed them towards the incoming attack. Two elemental cuts sped up and carved the beam in half, tearing through the energy until they reached the heads and sliced them all up in an instant, beheading Innominat's draconic heads.
Artorius clenched his chest in pain, and Innominat's disembodied cry echoed around them. Avernus streaked in his direction. The flow of the world was in his hand; he could see Velvet lunged towards Artorius with her foot blade ready to strike the Shepherd, and his friends resumed the fight with newfound confidence. Avernus watched it all in slow motion with a sense of calm and serenity. He slashed his swords at Artorius, but this time. The force of his attack sent Artorius flying backward, the Shepherd's face contorting in anger. Without giving Artorius more ground, he dashed towards him and landed blow after blow with his swords onto Artorius' guard. They both flew to the top. Their flying speed was swift, and their slashes relentless—God versus gods, with humans as their ambassadors.
Artorius' sword charged up. "Claudin tried to make a pact with all four elemental Empyreans, but their destiny denied him the chance."
"Ironic, isn't it?" Avernus said.
"Yes. But it doesn't matter. I will save everyone." Artorius thrust himself at him. "I have to!"
The inscription on Avernus' blade glittered, his eyes fully enveloped in a silver light with crackling magic swirling around and his hair levitating above his shoulders. "With the power of creation, my blades will cut through the stars!"
Avernus stared into Artorius' emotionless eyes. The elemental Empyreans seared their magic into his swords. At that moment, he knew he could do anything. He crossed his dual swords and lunged at Artorius, his body trailing fire like a meteor. "Witness the apocalypse! Terminus Armageddon!"
"Right of Rule!"
The blades slammed into one another with each, carrying a weight of a mountain of the magic behind it. Both Shepherds locked their blades, grinding their metal as their godly power crashed into one another.
The infinite energy of their armatus burst into a blasting shockwave, and Avernus' magic prevailed, crashing into Artorius' chest. The Shepherd fell toward the ground, his wings steaming from Avernus' blow. But his injuries healed instantly as he swiftly rose to his balance before reaching the ground.
Avernus landed beside Velvet and threw Caliburn for her to grab. "There is one way to end this." The giant sword transformed into its original form, and Velvet caught it quickly, nodding at him. "You have the lead, Velvet. I got your back." Avernus said, and they both brandished their blades at Artorius. If rage were visible, the air would've been scarlet.
"The Lord of Calamity and her Shadow…" Artorius said, his glare shifted from Velvet to Avernus. "Let us settle this once and for all."
Velvet and Avernus rushed at Artorius, and side by side, eyes glowing with determination and fury. Artorius threw a wide slash with his sword and was instantly met by Avernus' quick counter, and his attack bounced away. Velvet slid beneath Avernus' wings and lashed at the Shepherd, slashing Caliburn into his sword. "Shepherd!" Their blades crossed horizontally. Velvet pushed him back, teeth-gritting, and her glare was falling on Artorius like a berserk.
"Give up your fight! I will end the world's sadness!" Artorius shouted. "I have to end it!"
The Caliburn surged with Velvet's fire magic, and she shoved against his guard. "I will devour all this hatred and despair!" Velvet yelled, and Caliburn pulsed with her burning magic near Artorius' face, blinding the Shepherd and pushing him back. "Arthur's forgotten maxim!" Velvet shouted, her power transformed Caliburn into a flaming sword for a second as Velvet slashed fiercely, and the Shepherd's sword broke in the middle as Velvet somersaulted out of the way, making way for Avernus.
Suddenly, Avernus thrust his sword from behind Velvet. Artorius opened his eyes in time to see the tip of Avernus' blade pierced through his chest. Artorius' armatus flickered back and forth, and Innominat yelled in pain as Avernus pushed on, separating Innominat in a blinking speed. The armatus disrupted, and Avernus hauled Innominat away like a flaming spear and slammed him into the floor, shattering the glassy ground and pinning the Empyrean with his elemental sword.
Without his armatization and his sword, Artorius raised his head to watch as Velvet threw a heavy slam with her transformed fist into his chest. "Don't despair..." Velvet yelled, battering the Shepherd into the ground with a blunt crack. "...No matter what!" Velvet raised Caliburn and, with one fluid move, brought down the sword. The sword that saved his life more than ten years ago was now resting in his chest.
Crimson leaked from both of Artorius' nostrils and his lips. "Spoken like a true hero… like Claudin…" He mumbled.
Velvet's rage suddenly extinguished. Those fires in her hazel eyes calmed. Velvet glanced at the Shepherd, the way she did for sixteen years, like how a proud sister looks at his brother. "It's what you told me once, a long time ago, Arthur."
"I-It feels… so long ago. Like it happened in another life… to someone else." The Shepherd's eyes clung to Velvet's stare. "You must know. On the day of the Opening, the Arthur you knew died. Gone with his wife and child." He heaved a breath, and more blood poured from the corner of his lips. "I always thought that if Celica and my child didn't die that day… If only it had been you two instead…"
Tears streaked on Velvet's cheeks. "I thought the same thing, so many times. If it had been us, then I knew you would have fought to save the world for us."
Artorius titled his head towards Avernus as he was kneeled, keeping Innominat pinned against the floor. "Before Claudin died, he said to me that he had a son, that he would go and bring him back after our mission was over. I promised I would find him. To bring him up as he did for me. But I couldn't… I wanted to save you." Artorius coughed, bringing his attention back to Velvet. "…to save everyone."
"I know, Artorius." Avernus said. "I wanted to do that too, for a long time, but I have found there is no answer. People live their lives to escape the sadness. There is always tragedy and misery, but there are happy memories too. If we let despair swallow us, then we're as good as gone."
Artorius smiled, closing his eyes. "You talk like your father… both of you… such a pity."
The Shepherd's head fell to his side. Tears streamed down Velvet's face, falling like rain on Arthur's face. "Goodbye, brother."
Avernus lowered his head. "Rest in peace, Shepherd."
Silence fell heavily on them. After a few seconds, the team sobered up. Caught up in the moment, they glanced at Artorius, each sensing the pain that passed and disappeared into the time. Laphicet stepped closer to Velvet as she pulled out Caliburn, gazing at Artorius. "May you find eternal comfort, Shepherd Artorius." He whispered and joined up with Lailah as she shot a comforting glance at him.
Then a bizarre mumbling broke the peacefulness. "I'm hungry… I'm hungry…"
They turned to see Innominat staring manically into Avernus's eyes. He pulled himself up through his blade and screamed in Avernus' face.
"I'm so hungry!"
His body pulsed a devastating wave and burned like the sun. Avernus held his elemental blade firmly, but the energy consumed the cloth on his right arm.
"His power is running wild!" Eleanor said, covering her eyes and keeping herself balanced as waves of magic battered their bodies.
Rokurou put his arms up against the force, moving forward. "No one is keeping his power in check anymore! This is bad!"
Eizen took off and ran at Avernus. "Kill him while there is still time!"
Velvet dropped Caliburn beside Laphicet and scrambled towards Avernus hastily. "Get away from him! I'll do it myself!"
Avernus looked over his shoulders to Velvet and grinned in sureness as their eyes met. "Leave this one to me."
The elemental blade shone brightly. Caliburn's sheath and the final artifact overloaded with the power of the four elemental Empyreans, bursting into a spectacular explosion as it engulfed Avernus and Innominat, pushing Velvet and the rest away with its grand blast wave.
Then the flow of the time stopped.
A chilling breeze billowed through Avernus' hair and grazed his skin. He opened his eyes to find himself on the cliff beside the shrine of tranquility near Aball under a clear sky. His eyes spotted Innominat's lone figure near the edge of the sea, looking down the ocean. At the button of the cliff, waves were rolling into the stones like a drumbeat. Avernus stepped closer. Innominat turned toward him, narrowing his eyes. "You… What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to talk."
Innominat scrutinized Avernus, eyes lighting up as he recognized him. "I know you… from a long time ago."
Avernus nodded. "I think you are right. Laphi knew me, and you met Sussanoo several thousand years ago."
The Empyrean gripped his fist, anger bubbling behind his eyes. "It's you! You always hounded me! Everywhere! All the time! Why can't you leave me alone?!"
"I will if you listen to me."
The Empyrean sized him up and jerked his chin. "Why should I listen to you who bullied me every chance you had?! You and those other four?!"
"Because if you don't, all this pain you went through and caused will be for nothing." Avernus said, leveling a confident glance.
Innominat snarled but remained silent.
Avernus looked over to the horizon as a flock of birds raced to the clouds. "Before I met Velvet and Laphi, I always thought that my destiny was a curse. That the decisions I made meant nothing. All those pieces of my soul that I lost along the way will be gone forever. But then fate brought me here." He smiled, eyes beaming with bright memories. "Who would've thought you could find happiness in this tiny corner of the world?"
Avernus raised his fist. There was something inside it. "Then that night happened, and I questioned myself: What was the point of all this? Nothing good ever came of it in the end. Velvet and Laphi suffered terrible fates and endured so much pain. Why? Why did Velvet have to suffer so much? If it's a life of nothing but pain that's waiting, why even bother? What are we even here for?"
Avernus extended his hand and opened it. Innominat's furious eyes calmed at the sight of the broken pieces of Velvet's comb.
"Laphi never wanted for Velvet to suffer." Avernus said. "He wanted his sister to live in a world without pain, without sadness. But he didn't know that he was her reason to live. That if they communicated, things would've gone better for them and all of us."
Suddenly, Innominat was overwhelmed with the buried memories of Laphi and Velvet. His hand went to take the pieces, but Avernus pulled away, frowning. "But all you're doing is hurting her. That's not what Laphi would ever do!"
"Hurting… Velvet?" His eyes darted aimlessly around as he remembered Velvet's warm embrace, and all the love she showed to Laphi. I'm… hurting her..." Innominat mumbled to himself, eyes staring blankly with his hand starting to shake mildly.
"Now listen, if we all have a reason to be alive, Velvet's pretty much my reason." Avernus said.
Innominat pulled his head up. "Your reason?"
"Yes. I promised Laphi to look after Velvet, and you'd be damn right that's what I intended to do." Avernus firmly spoke, his eyes beaming with confidence.
He succeeded in digging into the Empyrean's memories. Each word shook Innominat as Laphi's memories stormed him. The time he and Avernus shook hands and when he pledged to look after his sister.
Avernus extended his hand again. "Humans deserve a second chance. If you truly understand Laphi and Velvet, then you know that the right thing is to let go."
Innominat glanced back at Avernus bafflingly. "Let go?"
"Join me, and I will get you home." Avernus offered. "This world doesn't need you anymore."
"But what about humans? Without me, malevolence will envelop the world. There can be no ideal future…" Innominat said, but doubt hazed his mind and words now, Laphi's memories were unfolding inside his mind.
"Trust them." Avernus said. "They are stubborn, but I'm sure they'll find a way. Maybe not now, not tomorrow, or not in a thousand years, but breaking this cycle is the first step."
Innominat moved his hand toward the comb. It glittered, turning into an artifact.
Innominat's eyes dimmed. "I'm hungry…" he whispered.
Avernus nodded and pressed his hand against his chest."You don't need to worry." A sudden burst of dark energy steamed out of his heart. "Here. Artorius wasn't the only one who held on to his despair. I had it buried in my heart for a long time."
Innominat placed his hand over the comb, and his body enveloped in a blinding light.
"Nevn Hiw Ejuam!"
As Avernus shouted Innominat's true name, the area brightened in a white flash, and he found himself back in the arena. He looked at his hand. The sheath of his sword was turned to ashes. Avernus used the final artifact to penetrate Innominat's mind and made the final pact as the last Shepherd. With the holder gone, there was no other way for anyone to take control of the Empyreans. Ever.
Avernus' body was fully empowered with all five Empyreans, shining in a godly light. The final form of god armatus.
Velvet and the rest gazed over him, staring at his majestic presence.
Velvet stepped closer and caressed his face "What did you do?"
Avernus smiled, his eyes gleaming in a golden hue. "I did what I had to do."
Then the sound of clapping resonated around them, breaking their moment.
"Bravo, my little brother."
They turned to see Tia elegantly wandering to their side. Alarmed, the team readied their weapons and artes.
"Tia-san!" Lailah said.
"Happy to see me, Lailah? Or should I say, Lady of the Lake?" Tia said and gazed over the team, noticing their battle-ready stances. "It seems everyone is happy to see me." she giggled and wandered to Avernus' side. "I always knew you could do it. You are the one and only true Shepherd."
"I'm not finished yet." Avernus said.
"Of course, you are not." Tia stepped closer, gazing favorably at Avernus' armatus. "I have a proposition for you: help me remake this world in my image, and you can stay as my trusted advisor and companion for all eternity."
Lailah and Laphicet joined Avernus and Velvet, stepping protectively in front of them.
Avernus frowned, "Of course, you need a pact keeper to give you the authority since you can't do it yourself." He shook his head. "Not a chance."
Tia raised her brow. She was surprised at his quick response. "Then please, by all means, indulge me. What do you intend to do with all this power? Remove the curse? Turn back the time? Purify Velvet? Rebuild the world? Destroy all the daemons? You know better than anyone than those gifts will be wasted on these humans, and no one but me can remove this curse."
Avernus raised his arm and gestured over the horizon. "This." He clenched his fist, and suddenly the air disoriented and a tear through time and space began to widen. Tia and the rest turned to see the scene unfolding.
The tear expanded, and a long set of stairs appeared. On top of them, a rainbow gate materialized.
The Menagerie gazed in awe over its iridescence aura.
"The Heavenly Gate?!" Tia snarled, her playfulness faded. "What are you planning?!"
"Sending Innominat back to where he came from." Avernus said.
Tia burst into laughter. "You think seraphim will open that gate when malevolence runs rampant in humanity's heart?!" She scowled. "They will open it when you are all dead."
"We'll see." Avernus turned and walked toward Artorius, picking up his body from the ground. Velvet and Lailah dashed in front of him. "What are you doing?"
"Finishing what my father started."
Velvet reluctantly let him pass, and Avernus marched to the gate. "Hey, seraphim! I know you've been watching us all this time. I know that you witnessed our struggle, sadness, and tragedies in silence. How we fought with tooth and nail to live our lives." Avernus lowered his head at Artorius' face. "...And we bled from our hearts and made so many mistakes." He raised his head at the shining gate once more. "I'm not the Shepherd you're looking for, nor I don't know what's best for humans and malakhim. Even so, as one human being, I want to make sure that they will have a chance for a tomorrow and the possibilities they possess."
Tia giggled, bending her head backward and crossed her arms. "Ah, it's amusing. Your words mean nothing. They know how corrupt and insignificant humanity is, You-"
Amid her speech, they all felt a distant power storming in, and the gate lit up. Suddenly, Artorius' corpse levitated from Avernus' arms and flew to the gate, glowing as all of his features were indistinguishable, and it rested in front of the doors.
"We hear your words… Pact keeper." An otherworldly voice resonated in different tones.
Tia's brows knotted, her serene and calm face twisting in anger. "No, no! We all have seen their true wretched nature! We all know what they're capable of! They don't even spare their kind! They know nothing but sin!"
Avernus turned to Tia. "A seraphim who never believed in the world's future has no right to judge us."
"And you know what is best?!" Tia asked in outrage.
"If I don't break the cycle, humanity and malakhim will go on living, in reality, they have always known: Fear of the possibilities, and fear of a better tomorrow. This is exactly why our fate does not belong in the hands of someone who only views the world as something insignificant that is easily replaceable."
Tia whipped her head at the gate, eyes bubbling with anger. "This isn't why I have spent all eternity here, waiting to purge this world clean!"
"Hear us, Tiamat. The world will enter a new era. This is no longer time to ignore the potentials. It may be unthinkable that the times have changed. We have decided to consider their decision and turn over the reins to them completely."
Tia lashed out furiously at the Seraphim. "You believe they deserve this chance?!"
"That is of no consequence. They followed their own path here, despite the hardship they went through and made their decision. We intend to abide by their resolve."
Tia swallowed her anger in the hope that Avernus would listen to her. She glanced at him pleadingly. "Avernus, listen to me. I'm your only chance. If you send the power of Innominat back into the heavenly realm, the balance of powers will be lost, and the world will crumble beyond recovery."
"If this power exists, the others will come to conquer it for their own ends. Especially people like you, Tia." Avernus said.
"Don't be shortsighted. My goal is to make the new utopia at any cost. A place that people like Velvet won't have to go through what they endured, and I've never hidden that from you. Imagine the lives that would live in peace if you lend me the power and imagine the lives that will continue to live in misery if you don't."
"No, Tia. I've seen these utopias you talk about, and I know: it's not worth it."
"Avernus, you've sacrificed your life many times for what you believed. I never left your side and brought you back from the brink of death so you could keep fighting. Look what you accomplished at the end. I didn't abandon you because I appreciate your worth. Don't be so hasty to discard this power."
Avernus quickly turned away from Tia. "We'll live without it. I won't let fear compromise who I am."
Tia gritted her teeth and marched after him. "Avernus! Think about what's at stake! About everything I have done for you!" Her hands flared up, and magic swirled around her palm. "You ungrateful man!" She let loose of an orb of void at him. The magic balled through the air, but it hit an invisible wall and splashed around it.
Tia looked to the other side and saw Lailah and Laphicet gesturing their hands as they erected an invisible barrier. "We won't let you hurt Avernus!"
Tia clenched her jaw. "You little nuisances!" She raised her hands, aiming it at the malakhim. "Crosswind Embrace!" Two streams of powerful wind magic surged from her hands and spiraled toward Laphicet and Lailah.
In a blink of an eye, Velvet jumped in between and slashed Caliburn, sending a wave of flame in the collision course with Tia's arte. The fire prevailed and burned the wind out of the air.
Furious, Tia whipped her arm, charging another spell, but Avernus grabbed her wrist, holding it.
"I have ignored a lot of things that you've said about what you've done. but attacking my family… those who were kind to you for so long…" Avernus said, power roaring in his tone. "I can't forgive this savagery."
Tia turned to see Avernus' body was blazing in a blinding light. "Farewell, sister."
Tia's eyes widened as Avernus threw a massive arm at her. "Infinite Howl!"
Her shout disappeared into the booming sound of the burst. The arte connected to her chest, and the ensuing explosion blasted her body and hurled her over the edge of the arena, plummeting toward the earth as Tia disappeared beneath the clouds.
The team heaved a sigh of relief and turned to Avernus. His body was still radiating in a golden aura. But the plan was far from done. Suddenly, more powers converged around the gate, and four columns of light rose around the arena.
"The four Empyreans." Eizen said. "Where's Innominat?"
Avernus placed his hand on his chest. "In here. Sleeping."
"How? Innominat needed malevolence to sustain himself." Velvet wondered.
"I had some stored away on the back of my heart." Avernus said and hummed in pain. "But I miscalculated, and he's eating like a pig. I don't have much time."
Then the disembodied voices of the four elemental Empyreans resonated.
"The pact keeper is right. But without a catalyst, our powers will collide. The elements will clash in violence and ruin. The world will take millennia to recover from the destruction…"
Avernus' gaze fell on Laphicet. "To save the world from annihilation, a new Empyrean must take Innominat's place."
Velvet noticed their meaningful glances."You want Phi to become the new Empyrean?"
"No. I don't. But he's the only one who can do it." Avernus said.
Eleanor shook her head in dismay. "But wait! You can't ask him to-!"
Rokurou raised his hand, interrupting her. "Let them talk it out."
Laphicet glanced back and forth between Velvet and Avernus. He recalled their talk earlier back in the Van Eltia and looking at Velvet, was all the reason he needed. To make a safe world for her to live in.
"I'll do it." Laphicet said, pulling his fortune apple from his satchel. "I'll fly!"
"Phi…" Velvet mumbled and walked to him.
Laphicet glanced at Velvet confidently. "I told you, I don't want to be called Phi! I'm a grown man, and I can think for myself. You said you trusted me, didn't you?"
Velvet smiled and nodded at his adamant resolve. "I do."
Laphicet turned to Avernus. "I'm ready."
"You are part of Innominat, and you are not lacking in strength. But the question here is one of your intent. What do you wish for this world? What will you bring to its inhabitants?" The four elemental Empyreans asked, waiting for his answer.
Laphicet looked at Lailah, and she nodded beaming. He raised his apple above his head, gazing confidently. "I want people to have another chance! A chance for them to right the wrongs! To give those who dream of flying the time they need to rest their wings! And for those flawed humans to one day stretch their wings and soar the sky!"
Avernus's face beamed and cocked his head proudly, raising a hand towards Laphicet. His gloves radiated, streaming the portion of the Shepherd's power that he carried all his life into his hands. "Then, as the last Shepherd, I crown you the Empyrean of the Empyreans, Maotelus. Make your dream a reality and watch over our world in vigil."
The four surged their power through Avernus, and along with his own, A large beam of light enveloped Laphicet, his body radiating a soothing white light.
Suddenly, the hinges on the gate cranked, and the light came through from the crack between doors.
Lailah pointed at the heavenly gate. "It's opening!"
Avernus coiled his hand and looked over his shoulder as the entrance to the seraphim realm unlocked. A calm and serene feeling washed over him. It was his cue to leave the stage.
"It's my time to fly." Avernus said, his body barely visible through the light.
"What are you…?!" Velvet put up her arm over her eyes and advanced towards the steps. "Stop speaking in riddles and tell me! What are you doing?"
"I have to go with him."
Velvet felt her concerns, and her suspicions were coming true. Lailah also raced beside Velvet. "But you promised!" Lailah screamed.
Avernus raised his hand in return, and they both stopped. "I did, and I'll be back as soon as I can." Avernus slammed his chest slightly. "I need to get rid of this dead weight and give it back to the seraphim to keep him locked away."
"What if I forbid it?" Velvet said.
"Then I can't comply with that order." Avernus said, leveling a confident glance with Velvet. He looked over his companion one last time. "Until we meet each other again, live your life to the fullest, my friends. "
Rokurou chuckled. "You'd better be. After Artorius, there are no swordsmen worthy to fight, and you are a perfect challenger."
"Rokurou's right." Eizen said, pointing his finger at him. "And you owe Edna and me a cure."
Magilou lowered her head, hiding her eyes against her character. "I'm bad at goodbyes. I hate to lose one of my performers and my bet." She raised her head and glared. "Do what you have to do and come back."
Avernus nodded. "Count on it, all of you."
Eleanor stepped beside Lailah and Laphicet, slamming her lance on the ground. "I will stay with Lailah and Laphicet. We will help rebuild the world until you're back."
Lailah nodded, but she held a lot of tears, and a great deal of sadness waved behind her beaming face. "Eleanor-san is right. I will do everything I can to help until you can return and rest your wings… I promise!"
Avernus smiled proudly. "You've grown, Lailah. Thank you." He turned to Laphicet as the malak's body was swirling up with power. "I leave them in your care, young Empyrean. Protect them. Protect our world."
"I will." Laphicet said, swallowing up his sadness. "Safe journey, Shepherd."
Avernus' arm radiated, and he waved it around. Suddenly, the body of Innominat quaked, and the polished floor began to crack.
They checked under their feet in surprise. "What?!"
"Fly!" Avernus said. Under each of their feet, the ground broke away, and one by one, they flew back to the earth, each surfing on a broken piece.
The light from the gate intensified, and Avernus went up the stairs. But the Lord of Calamity would have none of it. She clenched her fists, head down, and eyes were hidden behind her hair. "You always rush into things! I don't want an outcome like that. Just having the possibility is enough!" She pulled up her head, her hazel eyes burning in untamed emotions. "You and I still have a lot of things left to do in this world!" Velvet jumped before the ground under her feet broke away. "I'm going to drag you back here!"
Avernus stopped and turned to her, watching the defiant girl jumping over the chunks of platforms from one torn piece to another as they cracked and came apart, tears streaking from her eyes as she made her way to him. "How are you supposed to keep your promises?! I will never forgive you!"
Contrary to her expectation, Avernus lept from the stairs and flew to Velvet. Their arms wrapped around each other as their bodies spun around weightlessly. Avernus pulled her face for one final kiss. But Velvet's tears didn't stop.
"Look what you made me do." Velvet mumbled.
"Don't cry." Avernus raised her chin, glancing her eyes wantingly. "I love you, Velvet. I always will. That's why I have to go. But nothing will stop me from coming back. There is no way I'm going to let you go. You know that, don't you?" He whispered in a soft and comforting tone.
Velvet caressed his face, to feel his skin one last time. Glancing at his eyes to make an image of him burned in her memory. "I know."
Avernus pulled her into his embrace, resting his face against her silky hair. "I'll be back before you know it. We'll only be apart for a short while."
Velvet held on to his golden collar as she glanced in his eyes. "You'd better be, or I'll come and find you myself."
Avernus nodded and flew back, their hands holding on to each other until they couldn't. "Farewell, Velvet."
Velvet's hand was still extended toward him. As she wanted to say how much she felt the same way, the gate burst into a rainbow light, just like what she saw in her dream. Velvet gasped at a familiar face coming out of the gate: Celica wearing a white apron over her casual dress. Artorius's lifeless body molded into the light and turned to Arthur, wearing his casual clothes with his innocent and kind face. He rose on his feet and saw his wife. A wide smile cracked on his face and took off towards Celcia, as Velvet's tears streamed down in happiness: the two long lost lovers embraced each other and sank into the light. It was Avernus' one last gift to their family, reuniting what had been lost for so long. Avernus, looking satisfied and fulfilled, opened his arms, and his wings of light began to expand as another figure, enveloped in light, left his body. The figure mimicked Avernus, growing in size until its wings stretched all over the area.
Among those wild, magical energies running around, Velvet felt a significant presence behind her, and two draconic hands gracefully cupped around her from behind. Velvet raised her head to see a dragon of light, towering over her, but she immediately recognized him. "Phi?"
"It's time to go, Velvet." Laphicet said.
The Lord of Calamity turned to see the figure closing its wings over the gate, and Avernus' beaming face disappeared beneath its wings.
Like a curtain fall after a grand performance.
Laphicet carried Velvet as the Celestial body of Innominat disintegrated into the light, flying away back to the earth. His silver wings spread over the clouds, and Velvet climbed up to his neck and joined Lailah. "We're flying, Velvet-san!"
Wind billowed their long hairs away. They scanned the sky for their friend.
"There!" Lailah pointed to a batch of clouds. Rokurou was diving to the ground with Eizen following him closely. Both yelling in excitement. Behind them, Eleanor held on to Magilou as she was guiding their descent masterfully. Laphicet flew near them, and they noticed Velvet and Lailah riding on his neck. One by one, they landed on his back, grabbing on to his silvery scales.
"We're flying. We're actually flying!" Rokurou punched a victory fist into the air. "Yeehaa!"
Velvet looked over to where Innominat's body was. Only a blinking star remained, signaling that Innominat's presence was removed from the world and sent back to the heavenly realm.
But like always. Nothing was simple.
The cloud beneath them darkened, and familiar screams of a madwoman boomed in their ears.
"You will all pay!"
The clouds were torn apart, and a vortex of void and chaos raced towards them. The dark arte enveloped them in a wide shade of nothingness, and the air around them changed from pure to tense, choking their throats. Laphicet rolled over and crashed into a hard surface. Velvet hugged Lailah, and they both smashed into the ground, rolling over dirt.
Velvet opened her eyes and spotted Lailah, lying unconscious beside her. She hurried to her feet. "Avernus! Lailah needs Help-" She called him out of habit, but Velvet remembered that he wasn't there anymore. She gasped. A sense of suffocating gloom, like a lump in the throat, choked Velvet for a moment. But she collected herself and went to Lailah's side and woke her up. Velvet scanned the dark area around her and noticed flying crystals and levitating rocks orbiting around. "Are we inside an earthpulse?"
Lailah opened her eyes and struggled to her feet. "Yes… it seems so. It seems a void teleportation arte has hit us."
"Tiamat…" Velvet whispered. "Where are the rest? Where is Phi?"
"We're here." Rokurou called. Velvet whipped her head to see the swordsman carrying Eleanor on his shoulder. With Magilou and Eizen tagging along behind them. "It was a rough fall!" Magilou said, dusting off her dirty clothes. "Laphicet needs to work on his landings."
"Where is he?" Velvet wondered.
Eizen groaned in annoyance. "We don't know."
Magilou balanced her hat, sighing. "How can a big dragon even get lost?"
Velvet gripped the handle of Caliburn that was hanging from her belt, squeezing it in worry. "We need to find him fast."
Before they could move, several pebbles fell off the cliff above them, and someone quickly slid down.
They turned to see Zaveid, jumping down on the ground.
"Zaveid. What are you doing here?" Eizen asked.
"We all saw the light and that dark magic. Those malakhim used their artifacts and made a portal for me to follow you guys."
"What about Prince Percival and others?" Velvet asked.
"Medissa and Orthus escorted them back to the safe vicinity of Loegres." Zaveid scanned the group, looking for Avernus. "Where is he?" Suddenly, his eyes fell on Caliburn that was hanging from Velvet's strap. He sighed and stroked his forehead, shaking his head. "Damn it…"
"He'll be back." Velvet said. "But there are more important matters. Laphicet is lost, and Tiamat is lurking around here, somewhere."
Zaveid pulled Siegfried and cocked it beside his head. "Good grief...That crazy woman is still here?"
Lailah nodded. "Definitely. I can feel her presence. But there is something… wrong with her domain." She pointed over the long path down the hill. "There."
The menagerie headed down the trail. A short walk later, Velvet gazed up at a vast field, illuminated by floating crystals that spilled light over the ground. Velvet's therion arm buzzed like a live wire, reacting to an enormous amount of malevolence nearby.
Bienfu darted out of Magilou's body, glancing around in terror. "Bien! It's so frightening! We're trapped!"
Magilou smacked the back of his head and sobered Bienfu up. "You'd think "Evil HQ" would be in a rundown castle or something, lightning rending the sky."
"I bet Tiamat planned surprises around here six ways from Sunday." Zaveid said.
Eizen groaned, narrowing his eyes at someone further down the path. "Speak of the devil…"
They saw Tia, standing motionless with her eyes staring blankly. Her beaming and friendly gesture was no more. They glared at her with tense and trepidatious faces.
The gang readied their weapons and marched towards her. A cloying, almost palpable aura of menace pressed in around them from all sides.
"It's like we stepped into a weird world, one that's all twisted around." Eleanor expressed. "It doesn't feel like an earthpulse."
"Looks like the hot lady has lost her charms." Zaveid said and pointed Siegfried at her. "I'm tired of you gods playing with our fate." He squeezed the trigger, and the gun charged up. "Get lost." Siegfried fired a crimson ray at Tia, but she vanished, and the arte hit the ground. Just then, they heard a scoffing sound echo from above. Their gaze flew up to a platform above them, where Tiamat stood glowering down at them.
"Like a vermin, you infect this world. Scurrying to feed off one another." She raised an arm, concentrated water power whirling around it. "Riptide Blade." Tia swung her arm widely, and the arte shifted into a wave of slicing water, surging towards them. They dashed to the sides, and the magic cut through the ground like a knife cutting down butter and the land divided in half.
"All these eons… All the things that I've sacrificed… was all for nothing." Tia summoned a large amount of water in the palm of her hand and let it loose. Leviathan's Rampage!" The streams transformed into an elemental snake dragon. It screeched, streaking towards them.
Velvet pulled Caliburn and whipped her therion arm, readying herself for the attack.
Then, a beam of silver light hit the elemental serpent from above, cutting it in half. As Velvet gazed up, they felt enormous wings beat the air around, and the area was enveloped in a cloud of dust. "Phi!"
The dragon of light approached the ground from the top and landed, the ground shaking slightly under his enormous weight. Laphicet spread his majestic wings, illuminating their surroundings.
"Let's do this, Velvet. I can sense everyone's resolve to finish it once and for all."
They nodded at his godly figure and turned to Tia, readying themselves to protect the world once again, like the people before they did a long time ago.
"Avernus trusted us with the safety of this world, and I will not let anyone, especially you, threaten our land." Laphicet's voice resonated firmly all around.
A full, sadistic smile spread across Tia's face. "Well, then… it's my pleasure to tell you puny insects that his sacrifice was 'entirely' in vain." She narrowed her eyes at Laphicet's draconic eyes. "I still can take my domain away from you, weakling."
Zaveid fired another shot instantly. The arte hit an invisible barrier and streamed around it.
Tia gazed down pitifully on him. "Insolence creature." She raised her hands, and magical beams surged, storming towards them.
Laphicet wrapped his wings around the team, and Tia's artes bounced back. "Everyone! Hit the crystals around her!"
Laphicet opened his wings, and the team fired all their artes at the two crystals floating beside Tiamat. The artes connected, and the crystals boiled up. A series of clashes broke out violently, igniting the magic in fiery balls of yellow flame, billowing, and enveloping Tiamat in orange smoke and intense heat.
As they watched the explosion, Tia darted up from the cloud and flew up, levitating above the blast. Her features were changed. Small cracks appeared around her elegant face, eyes crimson with hate, her pupil slithered like a dragon, and her hair darkened.
"So, the Lord of Calamity and the young Empyrean oppose me? Me, the goddess of creation, the vessel of the world and will of the universe?!" Tia screamed.
"Goddess of creation? Vessel of the world? Have you gone mad? No goddess wants to destroy the world!" Laphicet said.
Velvet brandished Caliburn. "Enough talk, Tiamat! My last act as the Lord of Calamity will be to devour all your hatred! Spit out everything that's under that lying face!"
Tia smirked manically. "Very well, I accept your challenge… Lord of Calamity!"
Tia's hand surged with magic, and she dived down. "Forgotten children! Eat away their wretched souls! Primordial Split!" As Tia howled the incantation, the ground suddenly bucked beneath their feet. A dark portal yawned on the ground, and sharp claws began to rise, eldritch screams echoing from the dark pit.
"This is not good!" Zaveid pointed his gun at the drakes and draconic, imp-like creatures that crawled out.
Rokurou streaked towards them, eyes crimson with excitement and bloodlust. "Perfect! I shall bath my blades in your blood!" He unsheathed his longswords, grinning widely. "Let's go!"
The swordsman tore up the horde's ranks, cutting and slashing away the demonic creatures. Eleanor followed him closely, striking the ones that crept up behind him. Across the other side, Zaveid fired two glowing artes in quick succession, each one hitting the demonic creatures in the eye sockets. "Bullseye!"
"Don't get cocky, Zaveid." Velvet said, cutting down an attacking dark minion.
Zaveid grinned as he reloaded, sending another glowing bullet streaking across the battlefield. "Come on, girl. There's always time for fun."
Eizen, Magilou, and Lailah provided long-range support, battering the area and the minions with the devastating wind, void, and fire magic.
Laphicet pinned the two massive dragons that flew out of the portal with his eyes and streaked at them, conjuring dozens of glyphs around himself that fired an unrelenting barrage of solidified and piercing crystals. Eizen sprinted at another horde, cracking skull after skull with his fist. Guarding his back, Lailah bombarded another wave with her fiery papers.
"Thanks, Lailah." Eizen said.
"I promised Avernus to keep a watch on everyone!"
Smiling, Eizen sent another daemon flying with a casual, backhanded strike of his fist. "You talk like your brother."
Lailah blushed. "Brother…? No one's ever said that we're… family."
Another minion lunged at them, emitting a hollow, rasping rattle through its sharp teeth. Velvet darted between its reaching arms and plunged Caliburn under its chin. The daemon's gaping maw fills with pulsing light. Then its head melted like tallow around the glowing blade.
Another minion suddenly surged up behind Lailah, its bony claws scything down toward Lailah's back.
"Lailah!" Without pausing to think, Velvet hurled Caliburn with both hands. It flipped end over end, shining and deadly with Velvet's fire magic, and hit the minion square in the chest, burrowing deep as it released the magic inside its ribcage and burst the monster into flames. The daemon dissolved into a clattering pile of bones and ash. Eizen plucked Caliburn from the wreckage and tossed it back at Velvet. "Thanks for the save, Velvet. That was strangely gallant from you."
Velvet remembered Avernus' face, smiling and nodding at her. "Probably his influence…". She said and her gaze suddenly fell on demonic creatures swarming Laphicet as he was locked in combat. Velvet rushed forward, releasing her foot blade and hooking it around the attacking minion's ankle as it advanced on Laphicet. Velvet swept the creature's legs out from under it, sending it tumbling to the ground. She leaped onto its chest, pinning its arms down with her knees as it thrashed under her, screeching hoarsely.
Her blood zinging with adrenaline, Velvet hefted her blade high up over her head, then brought it down with all her strength, burying Caliburn between its glowing red eyes. The blade cleaved through the daemons' skull, splitting in half.
Laphicet blasted the remaining daemons away with his magic and turned to Velvet. "Thanks for having my back."
Velvet smiled, rising on her feet. "Anytime."
She went back into the fray, and amid all mayhem, she stalked the field looking for her prey. Her gaze flew between the crowd until she saw Rokurou and Eizen had cornered Tia.
Rokurou twirled his blade, grinning. "It's time to settle which of us…" he charged forward at Tia.
"Is the better fighter!" Eizen did the same from the other side. Both Rokurou and Eizen unleashed barrages of slashes and punches on Tia. All their attacks covered the area in smoke, before charging towards each other, and it appeared they smashed Tia between their clash. "But first, she has to die! Last Laugh!"
The dust settled, and Velvet saw Tia unharmed and looking haughty, was holding their fists and sword with her hands. "Gentlemen, if you act like you're trying too hard, you'll look like fools!" Tia burst into laughter, eyes darkening as void power rushed to her fingertips. "Begone to the depths of the eternal nightmares that never ends! Boundless Nightmare!"
Tia's body blackened with a dark aura and enormous, massive pillars of void energy unleashed under Rokurou's and Eizen's feet, blasting them to the top.
Velvet leaped through the cloud of smoke and dust, carving a path towards the ancient malak.
"Tiamat!" Velvet screamed.
"Lord of Calamity…" Tia barked a harsh humorless laugh, and her nails extended into claws. She streaked towards her, and they hacked at each other. Velvet transformed her therion arm, and they were hand locked, gazing into each other's eyes with gritting teeth and bloodlust.
"You and your kin are vermins, a sickness preying upon this world, and I won't rest until I burn you out!" Tia cried.
"I'm not Avernus. I will not show you mercy, wretched woman!" Velvet somersaulted, clipping Tia's chest with her foot blade. But her wound instantly healed. Tia surged forward, grinning, smoke and fire billowed from the corner of her lips. "Burn in hellfire!" Tia opened her mouth, and a stream of intensified flames rushed towards Velvet. The Lord of Calamity raised her sword and put her guard up. The flow of fire washed over her as Velvet's figure disappeared beneath the flames. The fire stopped with Tia smiling in satisfaction. But to her surprise, Velvet whipped her blade, and the fire diminished. Tia frowned as she gazed on Velvet's shining figure.
"Spirit outfit?!" Tia howled.
Velvet had absorbed all the power, empowering her abilities with her long dark hair now beaming in a red hue.
Velvet heaved calmly and darted at Tia. Transforming her therionized arm and slashing Tia repeatedly with Caliburn and her claws. "No mercy! If you think this is hell, I'm just getting started!" Tia's battered body crashed into the ground, and Velvet jumped high in the air, conjuring a ball of void energy from her claws. "I'll drag you down and grind you into the earth! Impulse Desire!" Velvet descended like a meteor and slammed the ball down on Tia's chest. The orb burst into an explosion, rupturing the ground beneath them.
Velvet stood breathy above where Tia's body was supposed to be. But as the smoke cleared, there was no sign of her.
With the horde defeated, Velvet scanned the area hastily. "Where is Tiamat?"
Laphicet moved toward Velvet, his enormous claws resting beside her. "She is still here. I can feel her presence."
A frenzied giggle reverberated around them, coming from all sides. "I suppose I forgot how persistent you were. No matter how much you try, or powers you combine, it doesn't change your destiny!"
The earthpulse rumbled with activity. A pair of giant red orbs pierced the infinite void and slid closer. Sharp talons of the darkest tore through the gloom and landed on the edge of the cliff. They didn't know her exact size until her head pushed through the darkness. Her horns were all drawn all the way to the back, like a dark crown, void magic illuminated the veins purple. The air thickened with chaos, and her domain pushed on everyone, crushing their spirit. Even Eleanor sensed the amount of chaos her aura produced, completely opposite of Innominat's suppression. Tiamat gazed over them and spread her wings as they glowed red with chaos. The black dragon was at least three times bigger than Laphicet. "Gaze upon your goddess, trifling creatures. Before I bury your souls."
Magilou sneered. "Hey, Tia! Can't we still be friends? I mean we had a good run, why ruin it now?"
"Oh, darling Magilou. All I did was for my benefit. You were nothing but a means to an end. A small cog in my grand scheme of plans."
"Until Avernus ruined everything." Velvet mocked her, wearing a cocky grin.
Tiamat raised her claw and smashed the ground near the team, sending shockwaves around. "I shall not be denied! I will devour your beloved Laphicet and gain my rightful place as the Empyrean of this world before erasing your kind from the face of history as I did with Avarost!"
Velvet whipped Caliburn to her side and reversed gripped it, like how Avernus did. The bandages burned, and her therion arms gleamed in fire magic. "You have to go through us first, you wretch!"
"Then I'll see you to hell, Lord of Calamity, where you belong!" A dark purple mist rose from all around, and four pairs of eyes gleamed behind Tiamat. "Powers which the universe was born from, Chaos and Void! Grant them the smoothness of oblivion. "Alpha Phantasm!"
Four orbs of darkness sphere around Tiamat until they crept closer to reveal four other heads were charging their spells. "Begone!"
The beams intensified and swirled like raging torrent toward Velvet. Laphicet quickly wrapped his wings all around them, and the artes battered his silver wings. His body shuddered under the might of the magic.
"Phi!" Velvet yelled.
"It's nothing! Hold on!" Laphicet ensured.
Then Tia's crazed scream echoed, and she lunged onto Laphicet. Her talons raked Laphicet's wings and pushed him over to the other side. The team scattered around to avoid Tia's paws smashing the ground. But Velvet quickly jumped back into the fight and pounced on Tia, climbing her scales as the two titans battled each other. Lailah joined the fray and pounded Tia's heads with swarms of energized papers. On the ground, the rest unleashed whatever they stored in their trump card at the Empyrean. Like a firework, their colorful magic lit up the sky of the earthpulse.
Tiamat pushed Laphicet into several platforms behind him, her heads raining down void beams. Velvet swiftly made her way up to one of the heads and buried Caliburn into one of the eyes. The elemental head shrieked in pain and wiggled around, trying to throw Velvet off, but she dipped her claw into Tia's scales. "Get your hands off Laphicet! Raging Hellfire!"
Velvet cumulated her fire magic and fired it through her therion arm. The backside of the burst into an explosion and began to wither away like a burnt branch.
Laphicet used the window of distraction, and his body pulsed with suppression magic. Suddenly, all of Tia's magic silenced.
"Innominat's power?!" Tia screeched. "He transferred his power over to you… Damn you, Avernus!"
Without her magic, the other three heads crept and bit Laphicet's arms and neck, carrying him off the ground. Velvet made her way up and jumped around, like a wolf to reach the second head that was chewing Laphicet's neck. She jumped up and spun around. "Moonfang Fury!" Velvet brought down her claw, and it tore away the second head.
Suddenly, her draconic eyes caught a glimpse of Lord of Calamity and raised a fast claw, batting Velvet out of the air.
Rage bubbled inside Laphicet, and his body glittered in a blinding light. He let out a loud roar and pulled his right claw from the jaws of Tia's head. He coiled it and smashed it into its skull, grinding the head into particles of darkness. Laphicet switched his gaze to the other left and gnawed at its neck, digging his sharp teeth into the scales and ripped the head clean off.
Tia's claws suddenly wrapped around his arms, and she held Laphicet in his place. "Such anger and rage for a dragon of light, Laphicet!" Tia giggled. Her voice returned to the soft and kind tone. "And powerful. So, young yet so talented. Avernus wasn't wrong at all." Abruptly, their bodies both began to shine in a rainbow hue. "You exert yourself for these mortals. You give them a blessing, but nothing will ever change. Look, Laphicet!"
The air around the dragons flashed, and they both fell through the rainbow tunnel. Their celestial bodies danced around and twirled. Laphicet looked around him and noticed they were flying at the speed of sound above the oceans and continents. Laphicet could make out a massive armada of ships, armies bearing blue and red flags marching to war and a city on a lake. Tia appeared in her humanoid form.
"So, you can see it as well. All you see is the future of this cursed land. In that case, let us travel together to the end of time in this universe, Maotelus!"
Tia opened her arms, and they sped up, darting forward in the speed of light.
Then everything blackened and they stopped. Laphicet appeared as his malakhim form, hovering above his draconic head, shining in blue light, and a few meters, Tiamat was floating.
"Complete nothingness." Tia said. "Devoid of light. Even the passage of time has stopped. This is how the world ends."
Laphicet's heart was aching in pain. Coldness and void pierced his soul.
"A world which has reached the end of time." Tia said.
"How do you know?" Laphicet asked, flinching in agony.
"I have used some of my free time to travel across the universes. Until I reached this point." Tia explained, nodding at him. "Listen, Laphicet, humanity may struggle all it likes, but the outcome will not change. Surely an Empyrean like you can understand this. Hope and possibility are nothing but fleeting dreams glimpsed at the doorstep of this nothingness. Illusions that offer no comfort. What you offer will lead people astray and create meaningless conflict. One shouldn't place unwarranted hope in life that merely exists and then fades away."
Laphicet pulled his fortune apple from his satchel, and it glowed. "Even so… You cannot stop living because there are sad things in life." He sent the apple as it illuminated the area around them like a flying lantern. Tia caught the apple, and memories flooded her mind. The time they all spend together as a family. Their adventures, their stage performances, and their beaming faces when they were together and when they were happy. A single tear streaked on Tia's cheek. "Warmth... Light… Heat… Happiness." She mumbled but scowled and tossed back the apple. "Gather up as many of these as you like, it will change nothing!"
Tia growled, her body reverting to her dark aura. "If you do not give the power willingly, I will imprison you under the earthpulses for all eternity. Forgotten and weak, and you will pray for a swift death that I will never grant!"
Then suddenly. Tia's chest burst and the blue hilt of Caliburn pierced through her ribcage. She screamed in pain, and a pair of hazel eyes appeared behind her, creeping closer to Tia. Velvet had held on to Laphicet as they hopped into Earthen Historia, waiting for a perfect chance to strike like a wolf encroaching in the dark. Velvet brought her lips closer to Tia's ear as the first seraph gurgled in her throat, white blood streaming down her lips. "I have given Laphicet time to persuade you even after the things you put us through. But I won't let anyone who threatens my family gets away." Velvet thrust the blade even further, and Tia bent on her back and moaned in pain, eyes widening in terror.
Tia's body abruptly enveloped in a blinding light and flashed, illuminating the area, and they found themselves back above the earthpulse in an instant. There was no sign of Tia, but her draconic body was turned into the stone, and it shuddered, beginning to crack. Velvet quickly jumped on Laphicet's back, and he flew away as they watched the goddesses' celestial figure decaying fast, crumbling into large chunks of solidified stones as they fell into the depths of the earthpulse.
"Let's go back, Velvet!"
Laphicet cupped his claws over each other, and an orb of silver light formed. "Hold on tight!"
The orb expanded and teleported them away.
Rays of blue light shined over the empty yard of the Empyrean's Throne, where the whole gang materializes. They breathed in the fresh air.
Laphicet brought Velvet to the ground, carrying her on the palm of his hand.
"What happened? Where is Tiamat?" Eizen asked.
"Gone." Velvet said.
Rokurou sheathed his swords. "Is she dead?"
"I'm not sure, but I can't feel her presence anymore," Laphicet said.
Eleanor looked over to Laphicet with praise. "You look matured."
Zaveid nodded, grinning at his imposing form. "I'd say you can go and have as many female malakhim as you want now."
"That's his Empyrean form. It's his proof of determination and oath." Eizen explained.
Magilou giggled silently. "Guess Avernus' gamble paid off…"
But Lailah suddenly broke down in tears. Velvet went to her side and embraced her. "He… he's gone! I don't have anywhere to go back to!" Lailah pulled up her head. "Where can I go?"
"Your place is here, with us." Velvet said, and Laphicet bowed his head slightly.
"Velvet's right. We're in this together, and there is one thing I need to do for the world." Laphicet said.
"True. With exorcists nearly wiped out, and malakhim getting their free will back, the world will be bathed in chaos." Magilou said, dropping her shoulders in misery. "Ah, darn it. Things are going to be tough."
Velvet lowered her head, a pained guilt flitted behind her eyes. "It's all my fault, and he paid the price for it."
"No. It's exactly what he wanted." Laphicet said. "Avernus still believed in his duty and granted me the means to face the future."
"You mean the Silver Flame? Have you fully mastered it?" Eizen asked.
"Yes." Laphicet turned to Velvet. "Before I do it, I…"
Velvet looked at her therion arm. "No, Laphicet. Avernus acknowledged me for who I'm now. I'd bet he will be angry if you do that."
"What will do then, Velvet?" Laphicet asked.
Eizen stepped forward before she could answer. "The Van Eltia still needs a captain, and the crew can see me no longer. They got used to your commands and I don't think they'll have any objections."
Velvet looked over to the sky. "I'll think about it, but I want to travel alone for a while. Avernus wanted me to live my life. And to be honest, I don't know how." She pulled Caliburn out of her strap and offered it to Eleanor. "Here, Eleanor. I think it suits you better than me."
"But he gave it to you, Velvet," Eleanor said.
Rokurou crossed his arm. "Might as well take the mantle of the next Shepherd, Velvet. I think it fits you better than the Lord of Calamity."
"Shepherd or Lord of Calamity, I'm neither of those things. Not anymore." Velvet said.
"Free as a bird, huh?" Zaveid said.
Eleanor accepted Caliburn, and Rokurou slid to her side. "I can be your master if you want to learn the way of the sword."
Eleanor blushed. "No, thank you very much! I'll keep it for when Avernus comes back."
Velvet smiled and turned to Laphicet. "You know where to find me. Don't be a stranger."
"Absolutely. I hold you to your cooking promise, Velvet!"
Velvet giggled and nodded. "I will cook for you every day from now on, anywhere."
Laphicet blinked his draconic eyes in satisfaction and lowered his body. "Lailah, get on."
The silver-haired malak jumped up, and Laphicet spread his wings, flying towards the sky.
Laphicet flapped his majestic wings and sent a pulse of Silver Flame all over the continent. Then, they all heard his voice, resonating in the sky. "All the residents of the world. Discern the truth with your eyes!" His power washed over the plains and land, purifying daemons and cleansing the malevolence wherever it touched.
"Just as people did through centuries ago, I'd like you to usher in the next millennia with goodwill in your hearts. Believing in yourselves, called "possibility" that lies dormant within us all, humans and malakhim!"
A Few Months Later - Avarost Cathedral, Far Continent
The calm skies of the far continent tensed up, and clouds filled the air. A bright flash thundered over the temple and destroyed the ceiling as a meteor hit the hall, punching a hole. The priests flooded the castle in panic. One of them leaned over the large opening and saw a man with his long blond hair fanned all over the ground. His eyes were awake, and he slowly raised his left arm, and a ring glittered on his finger.
His lips began to move, and he mumbled a name in a hushed tone.