It never occurred to me until now just how lonely Eryn felt. Constantly weighed down by her past and fearing how temporary her connections seemed to be, her outward expressions hid it all from the public eye. But after spending so much time with her, cracks in her facade were there if one knew where to look.
Hints of sadness hovered in her eyes whenever she fell quiet in the presence of company. She hesitated to trust and accept unless the path forward was clear as day. I felt her keeping me at arm’s length, thinking that the Electi/Master connection was our unbreakable bond. But when that was jeopardized, she latched on tightly, desperation consuming her.
Her loneliness was probably why I felt attuned to her, an instant boost of endearment created from the vibe between us. I could sense a certain desire to be needed from someone, the same feeling that I so desperately craved as well. The wish to be accepted for who I was and what I wanted to be – at the very least, I threw myself into the endless fantasies of anime and video games. Those gave me an inkling of relief.
But for Eryn, she had no choice but to be a noble. She had to carry on her family’s legacy. Even her position as a Magic Knight became an objective to chase after the ghosts who killed her family. And as others around her shone in greatness, that triggered the thought that she had to catch up or be left behind.
She couldn’t be cunning like Cornelius, nor indomitable like Pietro. Brave like Ludmila, devoted like Saki, caring and wise like Katalina… or accepting like her Electi. It seemed like everyone else had something that shone about them, while all she could do was catch up in hopes to be on the same level.
And all this time, I had wanted to comfort her and tell her everything was okay. That I would do something about it, but instead, she was the one that wanted to make her mark. Rushing headlong into combat, that was all she could do. A self-created race to determine her worth and maintain her place in the world. And that had led to this very confrontation.
Our eyes remained fixed upon each other, essentially ignoring the rest of the world. Our dance of death in our little patch of land where no one would dare interrupt – that was what Eryn wished for. Perhaps, there had been a desire to live out her days with me, both as demons cut off from the world’s beliefs. But when that had fallen through, everything had become an excuse to create the very person I was now, the ‘hero’ that I had always wanted to be.
A hero’s rise required sacrifice. It required ordeals and conflict to set the stage for one’s ascension. I thought it was rather strange for the Demon of all beings to be purposefully manipulating our destinies. After all, it could have turned us into demons forcefully at any point. Why spend such effort raising an Electi in certain ways? But now, things made sense.
When I looked around the battlefield before this, humanity appeared united against a common foe. When I saw the lights of the other Electi shine brilliantly coming together… everything clicked into place. The Demon had created a grand play with the pure desire to know which way fate would swing. It granted Eryn’s desire to make her place in the world, regardless if she became the ruler of a new Dark Age or became the greatest evil defeated by mankind.
Those eyes of Eryn’s, shining with an anticipation for the end, they begged me to choose now that I had the will to do so. I knew what I had to do. For the first time ever, I decided to take a step forward into the unknown, but with utter confidence.
My left hand pulled out a knife from pocket space, swinging it right for Eryn’s side. Taking a hand off her sword, she swung her hand to block it. My own mana wasn’t enough to blow through her miasma like the mobs, but I wouldn’t give up.
“If my all isn’t enough, then I just have to go even harder! To go beyond what I am capable of!” I yelled as I spun around her, quickly tapping the Divine Mana Gate.
An instant burst of power coursed through me, doubling my abilities. At the end of my spin, I slammed my knife into her back with twice the energy from before. My knife sunk into her back, but then, she pulled away from me, dislodging herself from the attack. Her wound patched up almost immediately afterward, the power of regeneration from a demon.
“Finally getting serious, Claude. I like that. I’ll do the same as well. Veil of Strength!”
Eryn’s body surged with power, right before she disappeared before my very eyes. In a blink, a swift punch to the gut sent me reeling back and stumbling backwards. Her abilities had doubled as well, but unlike my temporary power-up, her ‘flash’ became a constant veil that was supported by the virtually endless mana from the Electi powers that she stole.
Several more punches came my way, appearing instantly upon me like time had essentially frozen between each attack. I couldn’t keep up with it all, even when powered up.
“Dammit, guess I have no choice but to use it. It better work as good as people claim.”
I reached into my Item Box and grabbed a bite-sized morsel, popping it right into my mouth. As soon as it hit my tongue, a giant wave of spice permeated through my entire body, and with that, power. Even more than I had ever felt before.
The next punch came into view, remarkably slower than before. I sliced at her arm at a speed surprising even myself, smacking a mana gate that was located in her forearm. Her rigid fist instantly became slack and lost the energy supplied to it, merely bouncing off my face like a paper fan.
“400 percent!” I hissed, the burning sensation of Hochi’s popper being exhaled with that breath. I knew all too well how risky experimental food could be, but at this moment, I didn’t care. I was just grateful that the buffs somehow stacked.
Eryn’s eyes widened. Though she had endless energy, there was a limit to its output. Becoming a demon and acquiring an endless mana supply made her base abilities high enough to repel most foes, so she had not considered that.
She clicked her teeth as she was forced to draw deeper into her repertoire. Backing up, she mouthed some words before fire gathered around her hand.
I quickly recognized that chant. It was her Explosion spell. But rather than make distance from it, I ran forward, hoping to cut her off before it was unleashed. Just as I got four steps from her, a giant shockwave shot out, forcing me to cut the fiery attack that could decimate a city.
My knife squealed in pain as it bent back from the sheer force of it. The wave broke through my mana barrier and slammed me backwards. Though my outfit blocked the flames from searing my skin, it nonetheless felt like one of Saki’s swings forcing me meters back.
Still, I wouldn’t give up. I jumped back to my feet and ran forward once again, seeing Eryn ready another Explosion spell. At almost nearly the same distance of approach, the shockwave struck once again. This time, I brought my arms down and hammered against it with my fists.
It was a feigned scream of strength. There were no extra power-ups, no hidden abilities that I had yet to apply. I gritted my teeth as I threw out a larger number, simply to match the determination that brewed within me.
Once again, I was thrown back. Once again, I got up and ran.
Even though I was beaten back, the urge to prevail simply grew and grew. When had I ever become so determined for anything? I couldn’t think of a single time in which I did. My actions were always grounded in reason, calculating the risks and shying away if they looked too hard. I took an easier path, compromising on my own wishes.
But as I learned from the other ‘Claude’, there were times where no compromises existed. There was no other way than to push myself far beyond any of my capabilities. Because only then, something unexpected could happen. A Claude that instantly acquired all the powers that took me so long to discover – he had done it through sheer will. He had changed himself through the pure desire to protect Eryn, to be her hero.
If I wanted any chance to do the same with this Eryn, then I had to put forth the very same will to overcome!
A scream of desire from the very depths of my core. That was how it began. Suddenly, light burst forth, white and majestic. My senses were flooded with a different sensation that wiped away any fear and doubt in my mind. Fiery hot, like lightning in my veins, this new power beckoned me to hurl it forward as not to burn myself for holding back. The Gods had finally accepted me. With the added strength of an ‘Ascended’, I struck the shockwave of fiery energy coming at me.
This time, a deafening boom emitted as the spell was blown completely away, like it was a mere smoke cloud swept away by the wave of a fan. Normally, I would have been surprised by the outcome, but I didn’t have time for that. I charged right through that and straight toward Eryn, rearing back with my arm for an attack. Of course, I had to yell out the attack name, anime-style.
“Take this! Soul Rending Slash!”
Eryn brought her arms up, fully prepared to block the strike with all the concentrated miasma that she could muster. But then, her eyes widened.
It was because I kept rotating back, making the swing too telegraphed. The look of confusion on her face told me that ‘I couldn’t possibly have made such a dumb mistake.’ Her mouth opened in surprise before looking down, noticing that I had shifted my weight instead.
“A kick, not a slash?!”
She had no time at all to guard downward for a dropkick that slammed into her legs. It was a foolish attack coming from anyone but me, but Eryn rarely ever saw me kick since I focused on mainly attacking with knives. That was the whole reason I did it, the element of surprise broke through the last of her defenses as my feet collided into her thighs. That point of contact was enough to send a critical attack that sucked all the mana from her legs, causing her to topple over.
As I rebounded from the ground after bouncing off her, I tackled her to the ground. We tumbled for a moment, only to end up pinning her on the ground with me on top.
One hand had tapped her in the neck, causing her entire body to shut down, but not likely for long. It was enough time to make one critical strike though. My other hand was digging against her navel, right above where the core was, the source of all her powers. I recalled how I had nearly shattered the Electi of Mana’s core, only for Eryn to swoop in for the kill instead.
Eryn seemed to realize her predicament, but still she simply smiled at me. “What are you waiting for? This is what you wanted, right? To end my existence. To take revenge for all the terrible things I’ve done… For stealing your loved one.”
Eryn could see it in my gaze, my choice to end it. To be rid of the Demon forever. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, as if savoring her last moments before my hand plunged right into her torso. A single critical strike to the core, and it would shatter. Even the Electi of Life would be unable to survive an instant kill deathblow dealt by the power that I possessed.
A sharp pain shot through her abdomen. But then, her eyes popped open. The end hadn’t come. The pain lingered. She looked down, wondering why she still clung to life. Why an explosion hadn’t rippled through her senses. And that was when an expression of surprise overcame her.
“When have you known that I would make it easy on you, Eryn? After all this time, I still want to keep causing trouble for you. That’s what partners do for each other.”
My hand hovered over her gut, where she could feel it fondling her core. An extension of my hand was created by mana and lightly touched it. I had refused to simply destroy Eryn along with the Demon. The words of the God I met left me with a determination not to do so. At least, not until I confirmed it for myself. And the only way I could find out was if I touched her core directly.
“No wonder I couldn’t separate my feelings for you from the Demon. It all makes sense now. That ‘other me’ was telling the truth, damn him.”
A strange look swept over Eryn – of curdling fear and ominous anticipation, like her worst secret had been revealed. “It can’t- don’t tell me you-”
I shot a pulse of mana into the hand that was touching the core, sending a tremor through Eryn’s body. She squirmed, trying to get out of my reach, all the while clutching her head. I would too if the feeling of two existences inside one body ached at once.
Only after touching Eryn’s core did I realize how similar the two life signatures felt. I had given up any hope of separating the Demon from Eryn because I was told that the Demon had taken over. That Eryn’s presence was gone forever. But the dual mana signatures in sync spoke otherwise. They were working together in tandem, and one would not know unless examined closely. That was trickery and lies to keep me from hesitating.
The Demon was Eryn all along. Or at least, it was the version of her that fell into despair, that lost Claude. The alternate world I was shown actually happened, but on a different timeline. And once Eryn discovered that fact, she truly believed that there was no saving herself.
The truth was more painful than anything. Katalina and I spent minutes in disbelief, wondering what to do. And then, an unrestrained desire arose to save her, every bit of her. Katalina simply nodded and embraced me, understanding that I had made my decision.
Eryn clawed herself away from me, like a scared little girl. Opening a portal to who knew where, she scrambled into it.
I wouldn’t let her get away. She no longer had to suffer alone. Without a single thought, I dove into the portal after her, with the determination to make no compromises this time. It was our future that was at stake.
“I will come for you, Eryn. No matter where. You are not alone anymore.”