King stood on a rooftop, clutching Shade’s head in his hand.
“You can hear me through this vessel, can’t you?” King asked.
“Yes,” Jason’s voice came from Shade.
“I am going to find you and kill you.”
“Probably, yes,” Jason said.
“You do not fear death?”
“Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
“You are a fool,” King snarled.
“Yes,” Jason admitted. “I’m sorry for the circumstances in which you came into being. You were doomed to a short and tragic life from the very start.”
“You don’t know what my life will be.”
“Yes, I do. This world has the magic to keep you alive but the one you will soon find yourself in does not. You will rapidly grow weaker until it becomes bad enough that the humans can kill you. Hope that they do it quickly because they will study you if they can, in ways that strip away dignity and leave only pain. I’ll do my best to stop them if I am still alive but I can make no promises. I fight for the humans but I cannot speak for them.”
“You speak like you are not one of them.”
“I was. Now I’m something else. Not to say that I’m better than they are, because I’m not. I just convince myself I am, sometimes. If it were up to me, I’d give your people a patch of land and leave them be. Let them see to one another when the time came. Do you understand how your kind end?”
“I do,” King snarled.
“I’m sorry for that,” Jason said. “I respect the desire to escape what others tell you is inevitable. My choice would be to give you a place for you to find your own way but the humans would never tolerate that.”
“I have known this from the beginning,” King said. “Only by purging the humans from it can we claim a place for ourselves.”
“There is no place for you except here, and soon even that will be gone. Only you have the strength to withstand the humans on the other side and that strength will leak from you like blood from a wound. The only questions are how ugly your demise becomes and how many humans you take with you.”
“As many as I can.”
“I thought as much,” Jason said. “I imagine I’d feel much the same in your situation. I can’t even offer an alternative. When you appear on the other side, they will try to kill you, use you or both. I’ll do my best to stop you but we both know I can’t.”
“Then until this world ends, we will try to kill one another.”
“Fighting you is a gamble I don’t want to make,” Jason said. “Come for me if you want but I'm coming for everyone else. Do you have a name?"
“They call me King. You?”
“Whatever my fate, Jason Asano, you will die before you see it.”
“That seems a likely order of events. I can’t stop you, King. But you can’t stop me, either.”
“I’ll kill you.”
“That won’t be enough.”
Still dangling from King’s hand, Shade’s body self-destructed, dissolving into nothing.
Jason still had a lot of mana from draining the monster corpses with Blood Harvest, so reconstituting one of Shade’s bodies was not too draining. He had Shade self destruct the one body in the proto-space with him since if the monster could catch Shade there was every chance he could track him back to Jason.
Not wasting time in getting back on the move, Jason started putting distance between himself and the gold-ranker. The broken and overgrown city offered shadows aplenty and even across stretches of open ground, Jason was far from sluggish.
“If he knows that you are avoiding him and hunting the others, he may collect the other intelligent monsters together,” Shade said. “From what we’ve seen, they seem to be small in number.”
“If they all cross over together, I can live with that,” Jason said. “Asya said that the Network is mobilising the magically-enhanced heavy weapons and you’ve seen the details of that program, the same as me.”
“The weapons are far from discriminatory,” Shade said. “If they are targeting the gold-ranker, any silver-rankers will likely be caught up in the destruction.
"Exactly. If they're all in one spot, that's fewer missiles the Network has to throw around.”
"King may be wary of an attack of this nature," Shade said. "This may be why the intelligent monsters are not gathered together."
“Or it could just be that they’re trying to get as many monsters under their control as they can. I’m doing what I can here but this whole space will last another few hours at best. I’ll barely make a dent in the numbers in that time, so most of these monsters are going to cross over. If they’re all gathered up for the Network to drop magic napalm or whatever on, all the better.”
They had already seen signs of dimensional collapse in the form of blank, white void spaces that were the natural apertures forming as the proto-space collapsed. The voids were plain and empty to the eye but Jason’s magical senses warned him of dimensional forces within, of such wildly destructive might only transcendent damage could surpass it. Jason and Shade had watched an entire building collapse when a large white void appeared over key structural points, instantly annihilating them.
Only a fraction of the apertures were safe to pass through. Jason experimented with exerting influence over the voids, having only used his ability to affect proto-spaces passively in the past. He could only actively affect a void when he was relatively close, within a few dozen metres. It was a useful range, but far less so than the passive effect that impacted the entire proto-space.
After a little practise, Jason could render the aperture safe or turn a safe one dangerous in only a moment. Most of the voids he encountered were dangerous and the ones that weren’t, he made dangerous. He was not going to leave gateways out of the proto-space open behind him if he could avoid it.
Such apertures were the normal means by which monsters escaped a dissolving space. Jason was familiar with the process from his time shutting down proto-spaces for the Network, at which he was now an old hand. He knew that more and more apertures would appear, more and more of which would be stable. By the time the space was in the final stages of breakdown, safe apertures would be everywhere. Until that happened, Jason would buy what time he could.
After the talk with King, Jason skipped over the next two clusters of monsters he encountered. Moving past them undetected, he put them between himself and the gold-ranker hunting him. He and Shade then encountered another large group led by one of the intelligent dino-men. This one had discovered a stable and very large aperture capable of taking in two of the giant monsters at a time. He was pushing his monsters through in a rush, like a drover sending cattle across a ford.
Jason moved forward as swiftly as he could undetected, suppressing his ability to affect the void. It meant a few more monsters crossing over but if he got his timing right, that would be a cost worth paying.
The dino-man was caught up in herding his monsters through the aperture, pushing them faster and faster. He had packed them tighter than he really should, straining himself to push their aggressive instincts away from fighting each other in close confines and towards rushing the aperture.
When the two monsters currently moving through the aperture were torn to ribbons by the dimensional forces suddenly churning within he was startled. About to urge his monsters to stop, he was instead sprayed with leeches from a figure moving out of the shadows and struck with beams from afar.
The animals he had pushed into rushing the aperture kept going as the dino-man’s concentration was lost. They too were shredded by the aperture, even as the dino-man was shredded by Jason. Eventually, the monsters, as dim-witted as they were, grew wise and stopped charging forward but not until around a dozen had run in with results akin to a giant, dimensional wood chipper.
The dino-man controlling them had fallen quickly to the combined onslaught of Jason’s more attack-oriented fighting style that rapidly loaded afflictions with a multitude of dagger strikes before following up with the powerful spell combination of his affliction, drain and finisher.
With Colin piling on, it went even faster. The ambush had been effective in cutting the dino-man off from using its abilities as it fell to panic under a pile of leeches and it lacked the physical fortitude of its larger, less intelligent brethren. At the peak of bronze, Jason had reached the stage where he could blitz physically weaker varieties of silver-rank monster.
With the one controlling them dead, the other monsters were freed to follow their instincts, which were aggressive at the best of times. With the danger of the aperture and the close proximity they had been pushed into, they immediately attacked one another.
Jason joined in the chaos to clean up the remaining monsters. He went largely unnoticed as he made minor attacks on the giant beasts while they violently crashed into one another. Even so, he was hammered more than once, more by accident in the crush than by deliberate strike. The shield power of his amulet, his stacked-up health and his drain and recovery powers kept him fighting.
Once it was over, he drained the remaining life force from the monsters with Blood Harvest and left Shade to loot as he moved on. He took a fresh direction, knowing that the gold-ranker would likely find the battle site. He didn’t want to leave a discernible path for him to follow.
Jason was feeling the mental strain as he continued his unrelenting battle through the proto-space. His nerves frayed, knowing the gold-ranker could find him at any moment and that every monster he failed to kill likely meant lives lost once it crossed over. He was painted red with his own blood while his robe looked as bloody and torn as Colin’s rags.
In the hours since he had spoken with King, the proto-space degradation had accelerated, leaving it an obstacle course of white void spaces. It was past the point where Jason had time to destabilise every safe aperture he found. He knew the effectiveness of his stalling was almost at an end as monsters would already be pouring through myriad apertures across the proto-space.
Jason's presence continued to slow the dissolution, though, even this close to the end. Every minute there was no portal strong enough to allow a gold-ranker to cross was a small victory. It also brought Jason and King closer together as the proto space shrank, the void devouring the proto-space from the edges in. The sky was no longer overcast with ash but a blank white as the sky literally came down on their heads.
King stepped back from the aperture, his simple proximity causing it to lose stability.
“It was the strongest portal we could find,” Chesh said. King’s other two cohorts had already crossed over.
“I don’t think any will be strong enough to let me leave until this world’s final moments,” King said.
“We never found the unknown being slowing it down.”
"Jason Asano no longer matters," King said. "This world's end and our passage from it are inevitable. I can still sense the effect he has on this world, which will deliver him to me eventually unless he flees, which he will not."
“You seem certain.”
"Like you, I came into this world with knowledge I do not understand the origins of. One of the things I know is arrogance. I felt it when I spoke with Jason Asano, enough to know that he will struggle to the bitter end."
“Do you think he truly can come back from death?”
“I was given just enough knowledge to understand how much more I do not know, so I cannot speak to what is or is not possible. If he truly can rise from the dead, I will kill him as many times as it takes.”
Jason and King both had been pushed together as the void closed in until they found themselves at either side of a rubble-strewn city block where patches of void had collapsed all the buildings. They stood, looking at one another, down a long street where rubble rested in grass grow through the cracked surface of the road. The world around them was silent as the void made no sound and King was the last remaining monster.
The others had flooded out of the apertures, with even the encroaching void becoming stable enough to serve as a giant aperture, closing in on them. It was almost stable enough for even King, which both Jason and King could sense.
“You cannot stop me,” King said. “The void itself is already becoming the final gateway.”
Jason and King walked towards one another as the void continued to close in on them. It was tight enough that Jason could exert his will to destabilise the entire void around them. He couldn’t seal the passage but he could trigger the lethal roil of uncontrolled dimensional forces, turning the giant aperture into a mouth full of gnashing teeth.
- The proto-space you are in has reached the final stage of dissolution. You are no longer able to directly transition out using [Nirvanic Transfiguration]. You will need to exit through an aperture.
- The final aperture of the proto-space is extremely stable. It will consume increasing amounts of mana to enforce an unstable state.
It didn’t matter that he was locked into the space with King. Only by staying could he maintain the instability, which was the only weapon he had against the gold-rank monster. He only needed to hold on for moments as the void continued to encroach. King and Jason moved toward one another as the space went from the size of a block to a warehouse to a cottage.
“I am faster than you can imagine,” King said. “The moment you open a space for yourself to escape, I will go through before you’ve realised I moved.”
“That’s why I’m not going to,” Jason said. “This space will close in on us and send us to the other side. After we pass through the dimensional forces, I doubt there will be enough of us left to spill onto the ground when we arrive.”
“You seem certain you will come back from death,” King said. “Are you just as certain that you won’t be dragged off into the afterlife when you pass from this world to the other?”
"No," Jason said, "but stopping you is worth the gamble. If I die forever, there are others to take up my responsibilities. You may be the only hope for your people but I am not the only hope for mine.”
The two continued to walk forward as the void closed in, arriving face to face.
“My brethren are slaughtering the humans as we speak,” King said.
“I guarantee they are paying the price,” Jason said, his voice not aggressive but sad. “So much death, and for what? It accomplishes nothing.”
“If we truly are as doomed as you say, then we shall write our story across the soul of the human race in blood.”
“Death is a poor legacy.”
“We shall see how you tolerate your own.”
Jason didn’t even feel the blow that killed him, clawed fingers burying themselves in his head. His body dissolved into darkness, taking the form of a large bird filled with sparks of stellar light.
- [Nirvanic Transfiguration] has protected you from death.
- You have taken the form of a star phoenix. All equipment has been returned to your inventory.
- Your current form is impervious to non-transcendent damage. You have a short time to move to safety before returning to your normal form.
- This effect has been expended until you increase in rank.
Jason’s starlight phoenix form hovered in front of King. Jason’s aura and the instability of the space around them was undiminished.
“I’ll kill you as many times as it takes!” King announced, then opened his mouth to give a magically-empowered roar. Sonic forces that would have annihilated Jason’s ordinary form passed harmlessly through his phoenix state.
The void closed into to the size of a large room, the dimensional forces starting to wash over them. King conjured a sword and started pouring the magic he had been reserving for the other side into it, causing it to glow with transcendent light. As he brought it down, Jason’s aura turned the transcendent light blue, the same as Gordon’s disruptive-force damage. Again, it would have killed Jason in an instant in his normal state but was harmless to the phoenix.
King howled as the void crashed in on them and the proto-space came to an end.