Ludmila didn’t expect to see him again, the mountain that was somehow classified as a man. The last time, she broke his defenses with the full extent of her speed in a single attack. But now, missing his core was her regret.
That was understandable. Normal people didn’t survive after having a large chunk of their body carved clean away. And they certainly didn’t regenerate and grow even more powerful afterward.
On her way here, Ludmila noticed how the demonized people would simply restore themselves if a blow didn’t destroy the core. The miasma that they possessed reshaped them time and time again, not fully organic but corporeal, nonetheless. Miss after miss. Blood spilled was merely replaced by the miasma. Wounds were sutured by purple threads before sealing up. An endless amount of stamina. Those were what made demons so difficult to slay.
Chen Shi Yuan would no longer simply give up, even if half of his body was gone. Where there should have been gaping sections ripped away was now filled with purplish flesh. The resulting aura that Chen gave off made Ludmila lose confidence that she could execute the same victory again.
After all, her strikes felt incredibly feeble now. The mana barrier that Chen was so proud of was much sturdier than before. Surprise came with how much farther away her palm strikes stopped. Even in her ascended state, his defensive power had gone up tremendously.
Ludmila huffed as she contemplated her options.
‘Instant Acceleration’ wouldn’t complete the job like last time. There was no guarantee that she could overpower him, unlike before when the gap wasn’t so apparent.
‘Clock-endspiel’ was worthless as well. The mana barrier covered his entire body. Even a surprise attack using stopped time wouldn’t penetrate someone that prepared.
It was all she could do to swarm around him with her superior speed, keeping him busy so that he didn’t attack others. Fortunately, she had a teammate that could help her this time.
A mallet slammed into the side of Chen as his eyes tried to follow the speedy little girl. The sound of a shield cracking echoed, but even though layers of the barrier shattered like tinted glass and dissolved in the air, many more were underneath it. More than enough to completely halt the head of the mallet in mid-swing.
Saki’s eyes widened as she jumped back to avoid a counter punch, Chen pivoting to follow up with a massive hook with his other hand. He continued to chase after her with another leaping straight punch. This time, Saki swung her mallet to bat it away.
However, the sharp vibration of a metal mallet being crushed shook Saki’s left hand and traveled up her arm until it became numb. The sheer ability to repel her attack power in such a direct way was a first. It caught her off guard.
As Chen raised his arm to deliver a miasma-laced claw swipe, Saki panicked and did the only thing that came to mind.
“Aura de Gracia!”
If physical power wasn’t enough, then she would try a mental attack in which barriers couldn’t be erected. Saki backpedaled away from the man, her skill giving her a few precious moments to make distance while he was in a trance.
But then, Saki noticed a grin upturned on Chen’s face.
“Did it not activate?!” she cried out, looking over to Ludmila. They had hoped this would buy them time to formulate a strategy.
“I-I see darkness around him… but his own, his darkness stands firm against it.” The young maid could detect mana and miasma like they were scents given off to the nose of an animal. “We must strike quickly!”
What the two couldn’t see only lay in the vision of Chen. The people he defeated, fellow warriors slain – an army of them stood before him, all with eyes containing revenge.
This was far from a scary sight for Chen, unlike normal people. These were all people that he conquered with his sheer might, not those that he defeated using underhanded tricks. In fact, Chen was thrilled to see them again, to fight them again, and to crush their bodies into a pulp once more. His smile was like a return trip to a buffet of his favorite options.
Immediately, Chen charged forward to slay his once-rivals, tearing through them like they were nothing.
Since Saki’s skill called up a person’s memories for ‘judgment’, that presented a limitation. The people that materialized before the opponent were a conglomeration of once-existing incarnations. They were only as powerful as their last encounter, with sheer numbers normally able to bring down the afflicted person. Because Chen had defeated them in combat as a normal person, they were all undoubtedly inferior to his demonized form.
Still, Ludmila and Saki used what precious time while Chen was distracted to chip away at his barrier in between his attacks against imaginary foes. But even as their own strikes smashed through ten layers and then twenty, it seemed like any progress made was almost immediately restored as soon as the pressure was taken off Chen.
Despite seeming hopeless, the two Ascended Electi knew what they had to do. They would keep fighting until the tide turned. Because the two of them knew that opportunities always came when one persisted.
Meanwhile, another veteran Electi fought in pace with an old ‘friend’. Their timings were in sync, their attacks devastating, but that still only made the situation ‘manageable’ when it came to fighting a monstrous nest of poisonous snakes made completely out of miasma.
The sight of a demon using Sanshiro martial art secrets was enough to unnerve just about everyone. At least, anyone that hadn’t seen nearly everything in their ripened lifetime.
Pietro launched a mana slice, just as a few of the snake appendages slithered through the air toward him. Beside him, Lau swung a polearm with one hand, pushing his mana into a similar projectile launched from the tip.
But as he did so, Pietro peeked over and noticed a hint of hesitation in Lau’s swing. Faint and subtle, but to a sword master, even that was a clear sign of a morale difference. His gaze fell to Lau’s left arm, where a wound protruded from his sleeve.
When Zura momentarily ensnared his arm, miasma eeched into his skin. Lau shaved off that charred skin without delay, as the residual dark energy would continue to poison him otherwise.
Pietro watched Lau’s motions out of the corner of his eye, and he could tell that something else was wrong. Lau had fought bravely even with much harsher injuries. But this aura was different… more like that of a-
“What has you all flustered, Sir? Getting rusty and senile against true demons? I thought a Sanshiro warrior never truly retired?”
“Speak for yourself! Monitoring that Demon for decades without taking care of it! Now, look at the mess left behind to clean up!”
“I’m not the one with all the powerful Electi abilities that aren’t being used. I’m simply a butler.”
Lau gnashed his teeth together at the verbal jabs. His attacks hadn’t been as accurate as he wanted them to be. Part of the reason was that he was using a weapon, rather than touching his opponents directly as he normally did. In that case, his Dexterity stat didn’t come into play. He was simply no stronger than the seasoned fighter he was normally.
But it was safer than touching the miasma that oozed from every slippery attack from Zura. If he lost focus at all like he did earlier, the miasma would invade him again. He couldn’t let it happen. Not again. Not like before.
Lau flinched and swung early, overly anticipating a few snakes that dove for an unguarded spot. One snake head got through and snapped toward his throat. But before it could, a compact swing sliced the end off. The severed snake head fell to the ground before erupting in a puff of purple fire.
“Unable to touch a demon now, are you? Just what are you so afraid of?” Pietro pointed at him with his sword. There was not a shred of doubt in the butler’s eyes.
Lau growled at him. “Nothing wrong with being a bit careful. You see how crazy men have become after accepting the darkness. Just imagine if anyone else- if I succumbed and turned on everyone!”
The memories from decades ago still haunted him. The sight of his master, Jiro, slowly lost to the darkness. The same bitterness ran deep within, preventing him from using his abilities at their best. If only he hadn’t become distorted, he could have kept Jiro safe. He wouldn’t have died. And he would have been here to return that support when a situation like this arose.
Pietro could tell exactly what Lau was thinking about. After all, those same expressions were exploited long ago, when they fought each other for the first time. But now, what he needed was not an opponent that sulked, but a partner whose abilities never waned throughout their rivalry. A man that kept in step with him throughout the years and the decades, refusing to let him have the upper hand.
“Look around you, Lau. Do you see them? The young voices of the strong. The battle charges of those who won’t give up. And the changing of times where power is no longer everything.”
Lau knocked a few more snakes away as he scanned the horizon.
Young’uns going toe-to-toe with demons far stronger than ever known. An army of different nations unified under a common purpose against the demons. Weaponry, magic, and tools that were unheard of during a time when his hair was still black.
“Do you honestly think that we wouldn’t be a match for you if you became a demon as well?” Pietro smirked smugly.
He was right. He had always been.
Banding together with Narika. Facing Sanshiro to do something about the Demon that threatened the world. Spending decades to keep tabs on it to keep everyone in Sanshiro safe.
Lau knew what Pietro had committed himself to do. And that Narika had done so for the same reason.
But Lau had been afraid. Fearful that he would lose yet another person to the darkness. For it had already claimed him enough. The taste of power that he gained always tempted him, so he wanted to make sure no one else succumbed to its allure. He had to remain strong by his own terms.
That was why he chose to oppose Pietro- no, Pythagoras at that time. That name, the name that nearly fell a nation all by himself. It made him bitter to think about it. It carried a weight that Lau didn’t want to shoulder, tossed aside so that he wouldn’t ever have to think about it again.
But a name held strength. It held the aspirations and beliefs of the one its syllables called upon. A single name could at times invoke courage like nothing else.
Lau tested it on his lips, smacking them together to get the feeling right. And then, he hurled the polearm in his hand like a javelin at Zura, who quickly batted it away in surprise at the sudden projectile. Putting mana into his arms, it looked like Lau was getting ready to bust out his fists once more.
“Alright, Pythagoras Tromaine! This is it! Like hell if I’m going to let you beat me today!”
Pietro fiddled with the slim beard upon his chin, and then he sighed. Removing his overcoat, he tossed it aside. And with his free hand, he loosened the black tie and popped off the top few buttons of his undershirt. Despite those subtle attire adjustments, the aura around Pietro became very different.
Rich, unfocused, overwhelming – the mana that came from the former captain of the Royal Guards was flaring like it did long ago. It attracted the attention of the whole battlefield, especially those that were old enough to recall the power that was expelled decades ago.
How long had it been since Lau felt that signature? He had nearly forgotten it, those decades hiding away in his home, unwilling to face the world where the Demon had escaped to. But seeing it before him again, his heart pounded with anticipation. Lau couldn’t help but want to chase after it again. The urge to throw himself fully into the battle and forget all hesitation made his belly warm with glee.
The skills that toppled a nation’s decision. The might to keep in check the very demon that led to Jiro’s death. Lau wanted to see these two heights play out again, but this time, as allies.
It didn’t matter anymore that he had to tap into his core, a power which he had consciously kept contained, in fears of it going wild. If not for this moment, then when? Would he keep it all caged up forever? That wasn’t Lau Ki Young, and Pythagoras knew that. His old ‘rival’ would keep him in check. He had never turned down a duel. The dances of death were what they lived for.
Gradually, a stream of miasma flowed out from Lau, mixing with his mana and combining with it. Only then, could he match up to the amazing power of Pythagoras. With that, they could stand equal. He should have done so from the very start.
With a burst of renewed energy, the two long-time warriors launched themselves at Zura. A glowing fist and glowing sword ripped through the air as the two men dove forward in tandem. The snake heads were no match for these unstoppable forces, heroes that once blasted away countless demons. The writhing masses of dark energy withered away like the sun’s glow upon the night.
And despite losing his one advantage, Zura couldn’t help but stare at a single light cutting through that massive energy looming towards him. A speck of white light, blinding and pure amidst the darkness.