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Jake stood defensively in front of Carmen as the Monarch looked at him. The others would be arriving, but it would still take a bit. Carmen had closed her eyes, and Jake felt like her energy had become calmer, making him think she had passed out.

“You have no need for concern. I possess no desire to slay her or you for that matter; I merely need to win and make you leave,” the Monarch said casually.

“Yeah… don’t fault me for not trusting you,” Jake answered, totally fine with talking for now. “Also… you said earlier you sealed off the entrances to this realm. Does that mean no vampires escaped Yalsten?”

The Monarch gladly answered, for some reason not in a rush either, or maybe he genuinely wanted Jake to know the answer. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the gaping hole in his stomach with wriggling flesh trying to heal. “Some did make it out beforehand. Quite a lot, actually. Yalsten also was only one of many places where we vampires lived, just one more sealed off than most others, hence a great refuge and easier to defend from outsiders.”

“To be honest, I would find it odd if an entire race just died off like that. I have a feeling the system or at least interested parties wouldn’t want that.”

“I would agree under normal circumstances… but the vampiric race is not a naturally-occurring one. It is difficult to say to begin with if the system cares for the survival of any race, and as for allies and interested parties… the Malefic Order was one of them,” the vampire said as he shook his head.

“Yeah… again, the Order could be filled with vampires, and I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been there or met any members of the Order, for that matter. At least not any normal members,” Jake explained.

“…How has the Chosen of the Malefic Viper never been in the Order or met anyone from it?”

“Eh, it’s complicated, but as the universe is newly integrated and all that, I haven’t had a chance to go anywhere and have only met him a few times. We do speak quite often, though,” Jake kept explaining, not really caring that much about giving information out.

Jake wasn’t leaving the Hunt, so either he would kill the Monarch or the Monarch would kill him. Either scenario would end in whatever he said not mattering. Also… he didn’t really care.

“You speak directly with the Malefic One?” the vampire asked after trying to figure out who ‘him’ was, being more and more confused.

“On a regular basis, yeah. The last time we met in person, it was to do some alchemy and chill together with him and Duskleaf. We had a good time. The time before that, we had beers and talked about life and all that,” Jake kept saying, dealing mental damage with every sentence.

“…”

The Monarch just kept staring at him, Jake staring back. Carmen lying on the ground was apparently still conscious, and her pained face had changed to one very visibly saying: “what the fuck?”

Yeah, he had actually assumed she had passed out. Turned out she hadn’t. Well then… Nah, it should be fine.

It wasn’t like him, and the Viper being buddies was a secret anyway, and he didn’t see it causing any problems. Even if it did, he would deal with those problems whenever they arose. There was no reason to make things more difficult than they were. He would just keep things simple and take the complications as they come. Same as always.

Luckily he didn’t have to keep narrating about himself as reinforcements arrived.

Black lightning stuck down beside him as Caleb appeared, electricity running across his body. The Monarch regarded him as Caleb asked Jake: “What happened?”

“Curse.”

Jake didn’t need to explain anything more as Caleb threw him a glance. Jake nodded in response as they moved simultaneously. The brothers went in opposite directions, with Caleb picking up Carmen and Jake engaging the vampire. Not fighting was what Jake would have preferred… but they had both felt it.

While the Monarch may speak the truth about not caring about killing Carmen, he sure as hell did want to kill Caleb. At least his killing intent flared as he looked at the younger of the two brothers.

“Just a shot in the dark, but let me guess that the Court of the Shadows were on the anti-vampire side?” Jake asked as he appeared in front of the vampire. He only had his scimitar after the destruction of the Nanoblade, so that would have to do for now.

The Monarch responded by blocking his weapon and paused as he simply held Jake in a standstill. “The Holy Tyrant and her slaves, together with the undead, were our true enemies, but the Court of Shadows sure happily took payment from both to speed up the genocide.”

Jake was pushed back as the Monarch got free and tried to turn into mist again, but Jake quickly used Gaze as he froze the vampire for a brief moment. He engaged again, noticing that the Monarch took it relatively slow at the moment. Maybe because of that entire gaping hole-situation in his stomach.

Yeah, that was probably it. Carmen’s ultimate attack had left quite the injury, and Jake had to admit it was powerful. Likely as strong as a fully charged Arcane Powershot with an Arrow of the Ambitious Hunter, if not stronger. Which made sense, considering it was a skill that had clearly left her severely drained afterward, while for Jake, it was just a bit of mana and stamina gone.

The wound left by Jake firing an arrow through the guy’s head had already healed like it was never there. Probably still did some good damage, but the vampiric race’s durability and natural regeneration skills were honestly quite insane.

“It has been a long time, not sure it makes sense to judge the current factions for crimes of the past,” Jake argued, mainly just trying to waste time. He had left a Mark on Caleb and Carmen both to keep track of them.

The Monarch held out his hand as blasts of blood magic was released, Jake dancing in between them while the boss answered: “Perhaps, but just as the Will of the True Ancestor echoes true so many eras later, so does the will of Umbra, the Holy Tyrant or the Blightfather. While the mortals may have changed, perhaps even the Pantheons underwent a transformation… those ancient gods are still in command. Their power is unshakeable because their will is unchanging in principle. Their paths are set in stone, so to not blame someone for choices made in accordance with their path only shows your inexperience.”

Jake frowned as he dodged the final beam as Jake stopped up. “People do change, no matter how ancient. The gods you know of are now more than tens of times older or something like that. That should be plenty of time for at least minor character developments.”

“Hah, truly words of naivety. It surprises me you know so little of how the world works. They became gods because they followed their paths. They remain the most powerful because they keep following their path. Their path is the deepest creed they follow, their very fundamental principle of life. Their meaning. If your dedication to your path was so weak that something such as time could change, they would have never become gods or stayed powerful, to begin with,” the Monarch explained.

“Even if a basic principle does not change, so can many other things. There is nuance to everything,” Jake countered, more just to argue than anything else. He was out of his depth, and he knew it. He had never understood that entire paths thing entirely… he was just argumentative.

“The Malefic Viper is a god that believes in freedom through power, that the pursuit of progression and improvement is the only true path of the multiverse. He is uncaring towards most, sees little value in nearly all mortal life, and views those who he deems unworthy as less than insects, not even worth acknowledging the existence of. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, and while he may show kindness towards those he has shown interest in, that kindness only extends to them and not anyone else he does not view as valuable. I would bet that even as his Chosen, the Malefic Viper has no interest or sympathy towards your family, friends, or anyone else. To him, they are insects that will become dust in the blink of an eye, forgotten by both of you. You say he is a friend… if that is so, the only reason is that he genuinely believes you will become a god, hence worthy of being seen as someone of value. Anyone that does not at least strive with all of their heart to attain immortality is but blips on the canvas of time. Beings that only exist to be forgotten. That is the Patron you serve. You said a long time has passed… but you also know that every one of my words was as true then as they are now,” the Monarch said as he went on a lengthy speech.

Jake stood there, taking it all in… and he couldn’t really outright dispute anything. He didn’t know if what the vampire said was true or not, especially the second half… but the first half sure was spot-on. The Malefic Viper did seem to care little about mortal life, he viewed killing as natural, and he did treat Jake as equal to him in some ways, and Jake had no delusion to think that wasn’t in large part due to his bloodline and potential.

But this did make Jake think… what exactly was his path? What was something so fundamental to him it wouldn’t change? For the Viper, it was apparently all about getting stronger all the time or something like that, and while Jake was on board for that, that wasn’t really something he would call his path. In fact, just thinking about his path felt like a waste of time. Because while he did like having some conversation once a while… well…

Caleb was far enough now.

And another person had just arrived.

The old man’s hair whistled in the wind as he seemed to almost skate across the landscape. His stance was strong, and some faint energy from the slain clones still remained on his sword. Jake felt Sylphie was also not that far behind… but the Sword Saint was faster.

What was even more surprising was that clearly, the old man had heard their talk. Either his perception was stronger than expected or… well, actually, the Monarch did kind of project his voice all-over. The Sword Saint addressed the vampire’s words as he stopped right beside Jake.

“I cannot argue with your view of a path, but to make meaning so static shows a rigid mind. Freedom has many forms, and while I do not know this Viper myself, far less what impact of having walked a path for time immemorial can have, then I do know a bit of having walked through life with a single path from start to end. While the fundamental drive and motivation may not change… the person walking it can. His perspective may shift… and his dream be realized through achieving other goals than originally intended,” the old man said as he smiled.

Jake looked at the old man and vampire, who stared at each other. One, a vampire with age at least in the thousands, and on the other side, an old human who, even if he was the oldest on Earth, couldn’t be more than a hundred and some change.

Yet the Sword Saint gave off the aura of a wise old man far more so than the Monarch. Guess his looks as an old man ain’t all for show, Jake joked a bit with himself.

“The goal is always immortality and godhood. It is power. That is the root of all progress. Protecting your clan or the survival of your race, trying to better the world or bring it to ruin, attempting to become known as a saint or a calamity… in the end, it all returns to power. Without power, nothing can be achieved. All else is merely a justification. Power is the ultimate goal, always. At least it is for gods or those who reach the truly high grades, for if you do not pursue power for power’s sake… what happens when you achieve your goal? When you do save your clan and ensure its safety? What if it dies out due to something you failed to stop? Does that mean you perish with them? Or do you wish to protect your race forever? An impossible path is a way to ruin just as much as a too unambitious one is. No, in the end, the only true path is the pure pursuit of power for power’s sake. In your mind, you may view this as false… but my words will only ring true to you when you fail your breakthrough and hit the wall that is your limit,” the Monarch argued with the Sword Saint.

“Perhaps a path you do not view as worthy is merely one not properly explored. Power comes in many forms… do you merely quantify it as levels? Skill rarities? Is there no power in the growth of a group? In the prosperity in your family? In what you build and the legacy that is made to further empower the new generation after you? Perhaps this may not be the path to godhood for the individual… but it may make you a god in spirit when your child, grandchild, or many generations later achieve it, and you will be the one whose shoulder they stood on to reach there,” the old man said with a grandfatherly smile.

“I myself have walked this path… for to me, death was merely a fact. In the end, we all die in body, but our souls can attain immortality through history. To become a name that would never be forgotten as long as humanity existed… was the closest to immortality a human could ever come. Some achieved this through good or bad, but all had an impact on the world. They were not remembered for their own power but for what they built, for what they shared, or what they destroyed. Some were monsters, some heroes… but in the end, is godhood not the same? A god has many faces, for, ultimately, they are people. A god that has not left an impact on the world to be remembered by is far less worthy of being viewed as immortalized than a mortal man who will be eternally remembered.”

The Monarch looked at the Sword Saint, as Jake also just listened. Through it, he kind of understood the old man’s philosophy.. or perhaps his path. At least somewhat.

“Words of someone who will forever stay a pathetic mortal.

“Spoken by he who died as one.”

The Monarch’s smile instantly faded as Jake just smiled under his breath. That was a damn good burn. One the Monarch really didn’t appreciate.

“I think it is time to stop wasting any more time.”

With those words, the wound left by Carmen healed nearly instantly. The vampire had clearly focused on getting himself fixed up during the conversation. Sylphie, Casper, and even Eron had also arrived during this time, with Caleb still a good ways away, towards the direction of the Mistless Plains to place Carmen somewhere safe.

The Monarch spread out his arms as the dark red celestial object hanging above began glowing more than before. The light descended towards the many towers spread throughout Yalsten as something was pulled to them. Soon enough, he felt a large blob of blood begin condensing far up in the sky, making Jake guess the Monarch had another trick up his sleeve.

Jake cracked his neck as the old man wryly smiled as he chuckled and readied his sword.

While the Sword Saint may have won in the battle of words, it was now time to begin the battle of killing, Jake thought, instantly regretting what his own mind made up.

Alright… that was bad, and I should feel bad… I suck at this…

For some reason, Jake was fairly certain being a wise old master filled with sage words wasn’t ever going to be part of his path.

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Zogarth

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