As the missiles exploded in the skies, Victor watched a new sun in the heavens above. A sun of golden light containing a massive explosion, with a dragon at its core.
It flashed bright and then exploded into shards, the echo of the explosion spreading through the atmosphere, all glass for miles exploding at once. The sea itself rippled, and the skies were cleared of all clouds. The heavens turned crimson, as Crom Cruach's weather effect overcame Victor's own.
A smoking shape fell from the heavens, like a fallen angel.
For a second, it appeared that the world had briefly stopped. The battlefield turned silent, everyone in awe of the explosion, of Vainqueur’s sacrifice, and the dragon’s fall.
[Symbol of Hope] turned to despair! -6 to STR, VIT, AGI, CHA, and LCK!
“Go after him!” Victor ordered his horse, hastening his mount, and forgetting everything else. The horse switched focus and raced so fast, that Allison barely avoided being thrown off from it. Vainqueur would soon fall down on the beach. “Faster!”
“I’m trying!” his Nightmare complained.
“Don’t try, do!” Victor activated [Rally Minion] to make the horse accelerate, the world becoming a blur. Allison held on against his back, while the distant form of Vainqueur hit the ground.
Meanwhile, Crom Cruach continued its ascension, a colossal rocket aiming for the sun. The shock of Vainqueur’s fall dissipated, dragons and mortals alike returning to fighting. Grandrake rallied a flock of ancient, massive wyrms to attack the castle directly, followed by dwarven flying machines and Gardemagne’s pegasi corp.
Grandrake and mighty dragons fired at the fortress with their breath weapons, unleashing a devastating torrent of lightning, flames, ice, stones, and all elements known to dragonkind. Most of these beasts rivaled Vainqueur before he accessed the System in power, while Gardemagne’s pegasi riders assisted them with spells and buffs.
Their attacks bounced off the barrier shielding the castle, like water crashing against a mountain.
Nobody had the firepower needed to break the shield.
“Your champion has fallen. This is the end.”
Odieuse’s voice, coming from the castle. Her words, magically empowered, spread across the battlefield; a final speech before Armageddon.
“Within less than two hours, my castle will reach the upper reaches of this world’s atmosphere, and obscure the sun above your head. My Arrows of Light will rain upon all of your cities, all across Outremonde. Murmurin, Noblecoeur, Onogoro, Kukulcan… all will be wiped out by searing light. In a blink, they will be gone, leaving nothing but dust. They will never have existed.”
Victor ignored her insane rambling, even as many people around him lost hope, kobolds shuddering in dread, Gardemagnian soldiers standing still like statues, slimes gathering together in close groups in fear.
Others like Grandrake and the dragons, proved too stubborn, chasing after the castle and continuing their assault; but the flying fortress continued its ascension, and would soon outpace them.
The Vizier rushed towards the point where Vainqueur had crashed, ignoring everything else.
“The oceans will boil. The earth’s skin will be scorched until its molten blood overflows from all mountains of the world. The lesser races will scream at once, and then all will be silent; radioactive clouds will choke the survivors until the last pitiful life is extinguished. Cradle your loved ones, for you will soon join them in my belly. I shall feast on your souls and break the doors of Valhalla, while my kindred claim this world from your ashes. This will be the end of the lesser races… and a new beginning for the fomors.”
|Charisma check successful! [Terror] canceled!|
“We are the fomors!” Odieuse boasted. “We are the master race! The supreme masters of the world!”
Noirceur stopped abruptly, near the edge of a crater in the middle of the sand. Minions had gathered around it, from Charlene to Malfy, but none dared to enter it.
|Warning: You are taking [Nuclear—|
“[Mass Protection from Nuclear],” Allison cast on the group, Victor leaping off the horse just as the spell took effect. He rushed inside the crater, to his best friend’s side.
The sight horrified Victor.
The [Hoard Armor], as a mighty artifact, had survived the nuclear blast, even if it had heated up enough to turn the sand below into glass. The psi-stones and the crown the Emperor carried had been vaporized, the ring around his finger melted into the armor.
But the dragon beneath the regalia had been cooked alive. His scales had been vaporized, his eyes dried up. Festering flesh was exposed for all to see, alongside dried veins.
By Camilla, Victor could see the bones. Vainqueur’s bones!
Yet the cadaverous beast still breathed, too stubborn to die.
“He’s still alive,” Victor said, breathing anxiously, the dryad joining him alongside Malfy, Charlene, and a few other elites shielded from the radiation.
“He’s dying.” Allison paled, horrified by the dragon’s state. “The radiation…”
“Barnabas,” Charlene said, protecting herself from the sun with an umbrella. “When he designed the armor, he added hidden lead sheets below the gold, just in case. Maybe they reduced the [Nuclear] damage.”
Victor doubted that it had made any difference; Vainqueur was just so goddamn powerful, with so much HP and Vitality, that he had managed to hang on from this devastating attack. Just as he had tanked Wotan’s full-powered [Ragnarok] once.
But why didn’t the dragon regenerate? Victor approached closer, to activate his most helpful perks.
|[Master’s Shield] canceled by [Necrophobia] and [Anti-Heal].|
“Mell Odieuse cursed the missiles,” Victor panicked. “My Perks can’t heal him!”
“[Cybele’s Grace]!” Allison added, unleashing her most potent healing spell, but she, too, couldn’t bypass Mell Odieuse’s overwhelming power.
“Vainqueur!” Genialissime, Vainqueur’s cousin, flew at his family member’s side. The flapping of his wings cast sand in all directions, as his fellow wyrm struggled for his life. “Cousin! Minions, help me cast spells on him!”
Everyone capable of casting spells immediately did so, with as much determination as Genialissime himself.
To Victor’s despair, nothing worked.
Vainqueur exhaled slower and slower, like a great whale awaiting death on a shore.
Kevin the dark elf teleported in their midst, panicked. “Everyone, we don’t have time! You heard Odieuse, we have only a short window to crash that castle, or the world goes down in flames! I will teleport as many flyers as I can close to the shield, and if I get cover fire maybe I can open—”
“I’m not leaving my best friend to die!” Victor snarled back, interrupting him.
“He’s my world!”
The outburst caught everyone unaware, making even Kevin shut up.
“Most of it,” Victor added. He would still fight to protect his children and loved ones from the incoming apocalypse, but Vainqueur… “I’m not leaving him. Help or go.”
The dark elf glared back but said nothing. He understood that with Kia out of commission for a while, he couldn’t afford to go to the battlefield without all [Epic] level warriors available.
“[Disjunction]!” Victor cast the mightiest spell he had that could lift the curses.
|Intelligence check failed. You could not overcome [Mell Odieuse]’s spellcaster power.|
“[Magic-Eater]!” Kevin assisted him reluctantly, although careful to reduce his range to Vainqueur and not debuff everyone else. But even the anti-magic spell that brought Akhenapep to his knees couldn’t prevail over Mell Odieuse’s curse. “I’m sorry. She’s too powerful, even for me.”
“There has to be a way!” Victor panicked. “A spell, an artifact, a—”
Camilla’s voice interrupted the Vizier.
The goddess appeared before him, as did Mithras, Leone, Deathjester, Shesha, the Moon Man... titans overshadowing even dragons with their presence; Allison and Rolo bowed to Cybele and the whole Gardemagnian army to Mithras and Leone.
In fact, almost the entire pantheon had appeared, Victor recognizing the one deity he hadn’t met yet, the white deer Isengrim. Seng was present, and sober, with Sablar alone missing from this gathering.
Nothing like the end of the world for a miracle.
“Can you stop this?” Victor pleaded, but his hopes were immediately dashed.
“If we do or act directly, such as healing Vainqueur, Sablar will devastate Outremonde himself with quakes and radiations,” Cybele replied grimly. “He will cause as much damage as Odieuse, if not more.”
“This is in mortals’ hands,” Camilla replied, clearly distressed; even her prized undead would not survive the following nuclear annihilation. “We can’t do much but provide encouragement.”
“Speak for yourself,” Mithras said, glancing down at Victor. “Have you leveled up yet?”
Mithras didn’t let the Vizier finish, raising his hand. Instantly, a mark appeared on his and Allison’s neck.
Scratch that, it appeared on everyone’s neck. Every single soldier, every monster, every creature short of a dragon. Even Charlene, a vampire which Mithras loathed, received the Claimed mark.
“Damn it, Sablar, you made me agree with Mithras!” Deathjester said, reluctantly applying his mark to a few people himself, including Charlene. The other gods, after seeing the two nemeses agree on something, followed their lead.
“Roll me for my chosen!” Dice asked the Moon Man. “Pray for twenty!”
“The new one awaits,” the Moon Man replied cryptically.
“Sales for everyone,” Shesha said, clearly unhappy with this turn of events, but agreeing to participate.
“I should have done this long ago!” the white deer said, applying his own mark to Victor’s shoulder, as he did to Allison’s. “Protect my priestess and make her happy!”
Even Leone joined the group effort and granted her mark to Victor, although she clearly hated it.
They were that boned.
Congratulations! You earned the [Claimed by Mithras], [Claimed by Isengrim], and [Claimed by Leone] personal Perks!
[Claimed by Mithras]: When you level up, you have an additional 10 percent chance to gain a Charisma or Strength point. You are also immune to all [Fire] and [Holy] effects, except those caused by Mithras or his servants.
[Claimed by Isengrim]: When you level up, you have an additional 10 percent chance to gain an HP or Agility point. You can speak to and understand [Beast] types, and they are always well-favored towards you.
[Claimed by Leone]: When you level up, you have an additional 10 percent chance to gain a Vitality or Skill point. You gain a 30 percent experience bonus whenever you finish a quest or slay a monster.
Congratulations! For proving yourself to be the Outremondian pantheon’s collective whore and defeating Akhenapep on horseback, you earned three levels in [Chaos Rider] and two levels in [Fiendish Rake]! You earned the [Pale Rider], [Hades Rider], and [Witch Mark] class perks!
+150 HP, +10 SP, +4 STR, +5 VIT, +4 SKI, +5 AGI, +3 INT, +5 CHA, +3 LCK.
[Pale Rider]: You and your mount become immune to [Insta-death]; while you are mounted, every hostile creature looking at you must succeed a Charisma check or suffer from [Necrophobia]. You can increase your stable of monsters by two.
[Hades Rider]: While you fight mounted, your mount does not die if brought to 0 HP; instead, they remain fueled by your lifeforce, with any additional damage they take being transferred to you. If you dismount while the mount’s HP remains at 0 or if you perish yourself, they die instantly. You can mark an unlimited amount of monsters as your mounts.
[Witch Mark]: while in an act of passion with a willing creature, you can mark them with a demonic crimson mark. So long as they wear the mark, the target gains a Charisma bonus equal to your [Fiendish Rake] level and access to the [Diabolism] spell school. A single creature can only have one [Witch Mark] active at once. As long as the effect persists, you can communicate telepathically with the target across any distance, and use [Dream] and [Emotion] spells on them with no check allowed. The mark can only be removed by powerful [Prayer] spell or your own will.
Not enough. Not enough!
“What about dragons?” Victor asked, noticing none of the wyrms had been granted the mark. “Claim them!”
“We… can’t,” Mithras admitted.
“It’s forbidden,” Camilla added.
“By whom?” Victor asked, the gods remaining mute. He turned to Shesha. “You can heal Vainqueur and stay within your silly divine pact’s boundaries!”
“Victor, the cost—”
“Everything I have!” Victor declared. “My life! I will sell my soul!”
Shesha shook her head with grim resignation.
As much as it terrified Victor, the gods had done everything they could.
“Everyone,” Kevin cleared his throat, while Genialissime prepared to reluctantly take flight. “Time is running out.”
“I… everyone, prepare for emergency teleportation,” Victor told his elites. “I’ll… I’ll stay with him.”
“Victor...” Allison trailed.
“I’ll join you,” the Vizier said, his eyes set on Vainqueur. “Go!”
|Charisma check successful!|
Everyone exchanged glances, before dispersing; either to take flight after the Crom Cruach or to prepare for teleportation. Even Genialissime left, although he sent one last glance at his cousin, leaving the Vizier alone with the dying Vainqueur. The gods vanished into thin air, perhaps to check on Sablar, although Camilla briefly put a hand on Victor’s shoulder to comfort him before returning to the heavens.
Victor collapsed on his knees, remaining at his dying friend’s side.
Vainqueur was dreaming.
It was a dream of pitch black darkness, like a night without stars. It was freezing, a cold more chilling than the meanest of the Winter Kingdoms. It was a dream without sound, without pictures, without warmth.
A dream of lead.
The darkness called him. A cold emptiness awaited the dragon at the end, the promise of annihilation.
Was this… death?
That was how death felt like? Awful? Lonely? Empty?
To think his minion had gone through this more than once… yet, as his mind faded into nothingness, the dragon felt strangely at peace.
Two years ago, the old Vainqueur would have snarled and roared in anger; not that he would have risked his life to save his servants, nor would he have cared about Odieuse’s cruelty. He would have slumbered, gathered gold, and watched the world burn while only missing the cattle.
Some part of him thought his minions had made him soft.
The rest thought it had made him better.
For instead of feeling fury at this turn of events, Vainqueur felt... nothing? Like that brief moment before he entered hibernation; a brief moment before his consciousness switched off.
Except there would be no awakening afterward. The dragon knew it, deep within himself. And he was alright with that.
Vainqueur had gathered the greatest, most beautiful hoard in the world, and died to protect it. Like a true dragon should. He had saved his kindred and servants from death and given them a chance to carry on the fight.
Vainqueur had long accepted the possibility that he could die. He no longer feared death, so long as it mattered.
He hoped his niece, cousin, and chief of staff were alright. He hoped all his minions could make it. They were strong; they were his.
His minion’s voice.
It was but a distant echo, faint, yet clear.
“You’re supposed to be invincible!”
He was! Vainqueur ate thousands, and in the end, none truly bested him in battle. Even Wotan Dragonbane couldn't finish the job.
“Please don’t go…”
If Vainqueur were to vanish now, sinking into the dark, it would be without regret. The pull felt stronger with each passing second, his life slipping away. Death was awful but strangely peaceful.
“You made me something,” his minion pleaded. “I was a loser before I stumbled on your cave, and if you hadn’t been there… I would have stayed the same. You saved me so often… you saved so many people, so many times…”
Vainqueur’s body long felt numb, but he briefly sensed a warm liquid pouring down his nose. It smelled salty.
His chief of staff was crying for him.
“Please…” Manling Victor pleaded. “I don’t think I can make it farther without you… I’m… I’m just the sidekick. No matter how many people think otherwise… you’re the one always driving everything forward.”
Well, yes. That was a dragon’s job.
“I should have died instead…”
Minion, you died too many times already.
It had cost Vainqueur a fortune each time!
“We made a promise to reach Valhalla together… please…”
The absolute apex of the world. The highest honor the dragon-made System could grant.
He had promised his minion that they would become gods together true… and Vainqueur was no liar.
As his friend’s pitiful words echoed in the void, Vainqueur’s memories flared up. They brought him back to his first personal encounter with death, back in Nagastan. When he had faced the vile Odieuse in battle.
A true dragon didn’t cower in the face of death.
A true dragon looked at it in the eyes, and then breathed at her sorry face!
No, no, he couldn’t allow himself to fall into this dark abyss! He was Vainqueur Knightsbane, First of His Name, Great Calamity of the Age, Defender of the Hoard! Emperor of Murmurin, Ishfania, and the Albain Mountains! Conqueror of Port Vainqueur, El Goldorado, and the Teikoku!
Vainqueur’s memories flared up, from the moment when Manling Victor had woken him up. He remembered the destruction of the Scorchers, and the War of the Hoard; both of his duels with Brandon Maure, and the conquest of Ishfania; his battle with a golem in the Winter Kingdoms, to the destruction of Batling Lavere; he had overcome Wotan Dragonbane, tamed a Tarasque, and sent Mell Odieuse packing!
The very land bowed to his will!
Even if he could die… he refused to!
He had made a promise, and so many people counted on him!
|[Dragon Honor] activated. [Necrophobia] and [Anti-Heal] canceled.|
The darkness slowly receded, replaced by a strange white expanse as Vainqueur willed himself to life.
|[Master’s Shield] activated! You gained the [Regen] positive status!|
Sensations filled his body again. First of all, a sharp, indescribable pain; an itching far, far worse than anything he had ever experienced, everywhere! Even his eyes felt terrible!
Speaking of his eyes… the whiteness slowly gave way to dark grey shapes. The sun, the shadow of a castle; an armored face.
“You’re blocking the sun,” Vainqueur told his minion, as his eye regenerated enough to see colors.
“Fuck!” His minion held his neck, tears pouring down through his helmet. “Fuck! I thought you were done for!”
“Friend Victor, this world’s history is my story,” Vainqueur boasted with great pride. “Of course it cannot end this way!”
“Don’t joke about it!” His minion held against his scythe, wiping away the tears.
For tanking three nukes to save your subjects and willing yourself back to life, you earned three levels in [Fisher King]! You earned the [Avalon] Class Perk.
+90 HP, +60 SP, +2 STR, +6 VIT, +3 SKI, +3 AGI, +2 INT, +3 CHA, +1 LCK.
[Avalon]: Technique, 100 SP, ten minutes duration. You emit a one-hundred feet wide veil shielding you and your ally from all negative ailments.
“I am not joking, Victor,” the dragon replied, flesh reforming over his bones. He started forcing himself back on his feet, his claws stomping the ground.
His manling marked a short pause as he stood back, confused. “You forgot the manling, or minion, Your Majesty.”
“I did not forget,” Vainqueur replied. “Victor, you have been more than a minion, or even a chief of staff. You have been my truest friend. One half of V&V. The two of us are but halves of a greater whole; formidable on our own, invincible together. No one made me prouder than you.”
“Vainqueur,” the dragon replied. “With a V. I can tell the difference.”
His friend looked up, floored by the honor, then nodded. “Vainqueur, are we flying towards the castle?”
“Yes and no.” Vainqueur shook his head, when at long last his scales had regrown, bringing him back to full health. “Today will be our last battle, one way or the other… so let us fight as one, as we were meant to be.”
Vainqueur extended his wings, as soon as they had regenerated enough to carry him.
In her throne room at the heart of Crom Cruach, the fairy Mell Odieuse rested on her throne in human form, chaffing from the disappointment. Screens above her head showed each city of the world, each target for her final rampage. Soon, she would watch the end of all life on Outremonde but the fomors personally; just as she had watched Knightsbane’s suicidal fall with delight.
This should be a moment of delight and triumph. Thousands had fallen, their souls fueling her spiritual core. Every life taken had filled her with renewed joy, and she shuddered at what she would feel when her arrows wiped the lesser races from the face of her world.
It would be a perfect moment of pure bliss. A milestone on her path to personal happiness.
Nothing else gave her pleasure. She felt no love for anyone, not even her fellow fomors; the fairy queen was proud of being a member of the master race, but her kindred were tools, to be sacrificed and discarded should they prove wanting. She needed no friends, nor thralls, nor gold nor luxury. She enjoyed no other activity, treating them as chores.
The murder of the apes, the elves, and all these meowing children would satisfy her, but only for a time. Odieuse would never stop shedding blood; never wanted to stop. She would carve a path of murder across the very stars until nothing remained. Only when all had become pitch black and no one remained to satisfy her, would she stop.
Mell Odieuse suffered from a void in her heart, that only death could fill.
Then why did she feel robbed of her triumph?
Each bomb sent the souls directly to her. The dragonbinding bottles had been harvested of their content, allowing the Fomor Queen to swallow the souls of countless wyrms and thralls. All this power should have catapulted her straight to Valhalla already, allowing her to pursue greater happiness as the thirteenth goddess of Outremonde.
Even the System agreed with her, as she consulted her stat screen.
|By feeding on the souls of dragons and harvesting their magic, you have reached level 99. You can now access [Valhalla] and attempt [Apotheosis].|
“Open the path,” Mell Odieuse rasped for the tenth time.
|Access to [Valhalla] denied.|
The same message, over and over again. “Why?” the fomor asked angrily. “What will it take? Why am I denied the eternal happiness that is rightfully mine?”
|YOU ARE UNWORTHY.|
Unworthy? Her, the ultimate being who transcended fomors and dragons alike?
Who decided this? The force making gods out of apes and worms?
She had been ready to settle on devastating Outremonde before pursuing happiness on Earth, but the System’s response infuriated her on a primal level. Mell Odieuse was born a creature above all others and had killed countless on her way to the apex of the world. Certainly, she had bypassed the usual channels by harvesting souls, but this only proved her cunning and strength.
None would deny her happiness.
The would-be goddess turned to a pile of [Black Crests], manufactured to empower thralls. She had stockpiled them instead, believing they could have helped her cheat to level 99 had her other plans failed. Perhaps now was the time.
“Enemy incoming, Your Majesty,” the voice of one of her commanders echoed through loudspeakers.
The lesser races mounted a pitiful final resistance. How droll, but she would delight at watching the light of hope leave their eyes, before ripping them out. “How many?”
“Th…” the voice marked a short pause, as if new information entered the picture, “Thousands, but… one dragon is leading the charge so fast, it will collide with us long before the rest.”
Already, Odieuse knew whom, even before she ordered one of the screens to show her. All of them showed a massive shape chasing after the Crom Cruach, piercing through the clouds at a speed even the fomor had to admit was impressive.
A crimson dragon wearing armor of gold.
And as always, he carried Victor Dalton with him; but not in his hand, as he usually did.
Instead, the dragon carried his human slave on his back.
They alone, through spells and agility, managed to catch up to the Crom Cruach while everyone else lagged behind. They were the tip of an arrow, to make a crack in the shield while dragons and fools followed.
Always them. Always these two, every step of her way. Always preventing her from succeeding. Always getting in the way of her happiness, turning it to bitterness and emptiness.
Mell Odieuse would never feel whole with these two around.
The [Dracolich]’s mind cleared up, as the path to Valhalla became clear.
“Send our remaining troops after them,” Odieuse ordered, as she prepared her transformation into a mighty [Dracolich] and her consumption of the [Black Crests]. She would force her way into Valhalla, whether the System liked it or not. “Initiate the countdown for the missiles’ launch.”
“How many troops do we send, Your Majesty?”
“All of them.”