23 – [ Memory Gambit – III ]
I stood in front of the World Tree, my body stained in blood.
A somber silence filled the air. Yggdrasil and Alvheim hidden within had lost its guardians.
I stepped forward, holding my faithful companion in my right hand. Blood dripped to the ground where I stepped, but Information Concealment erased it the moment I took another.
Power. I had stopped seeking it because I forgot a single fact: the titles, the skills, and even the status screen I obtained in this world were strings to pull me along to the Goddess’s whims.
Leveling up? That was just the Goddess reinforcing her brand on my soul, giving me power at the expense of my will.
Titles? They gave benefits but decided a ‘Fate’ of the owner, forcing them down a predetermined path.
Aria’s Savior. Legend. The Nameless One. The Karmic Anomaly.
I had countless titles to my name, and only now realized that they were the Goddess’s way of giving me just enough rope to hang myself.
But it would be different from this point onward.
A puppet… if the Goddess wanted one. If she wanted someone to play the role of a ‘protagonist’ she could have it. ‘That’ version of me would play the role well enough. In the meantime… I would gain the strength needed to cut her down.
Power… I needed power. Power to oppose the Goddess. Power to find the truth behind my death. Power to return home.
A splitting headache. Something inside of me rebelled at that thought, but I forcibly crushed it.
I scowled and kept walking, following the path I remembered that led into the heart of Yggdrasil.
The halls were different. Instead of the ashy husk I traversed in the future, the current walls were living wood, pulsing with life and mana. But at the same time, it remained a husk; a land of the dead.
Corpses of elven warriors were roughly strewn across the halls. Mostly male, for obvious reasons, though there was an occasional female warrior. None of them were in a complete shape, as if their killer found it amusing to desecrate their corpse.
You can save them.
I let them be.
I continued to walk along Yggdrasil’s winding halls. As I did, I reflected on my decision.
Aria. Saphira. Alvheim.
With my strength, I managed to save those three. But the strength I had was false. Borrowed power, one where the debtor would come calling any day and time.
I couldn’t live like that.
Even if Aria wanted to devote her life to me out of gratitude. Even if Saphira wanted to serve me with everything she had due to pulling her back from being the Wrathful Sin Dragon. Even if Alvheim treated me as their benefactor.
If the Goddess still had me wrapped around her fingertips, there was no point to this life. Even if I could restart it at any time, even if I could undo everything, that didn’t make it disappear. Not for me. So to prevent it from happening in the first place, I needed power. Power to break free of all bonds.
You’re being irrational.
A splitting headache.
I clutched my head with my left hand and kept walking.
Immoral. Giving up everything, sacrificing countless lives, throwing away those that I saved. Was it a bad thing to play to the Goddess’s script if it meant people wouldn’t die? If you could save people?
The headache intensified, but I grit my teeth and kept walking.
I was never a hero. Trying to act like one would only drag me down.
I arrived at the chamber. The inner depths of Alvheim where I met Aria in the future.
It was well hidden, judging from the fact that the imperial soldiers didn’t manage to find it even ten years in the future until they summoned another Brave.
A holy sanctuary. That was the atmosphere that the chamber exuded. It was a primal location, like a womb. Roots wound all around the chamber, and the only light came from the center. There, a swirl of roots wrapped around a glowing orb, pulsating with a soft green light.
“So that was what she guarded.”
A sword. Cradled in those roots and hovering in the light, it rested, as if waiting a proper owner.
That… was not me. But I would still be taking it.
I stepped forward.
As if sensing my intentions, the roots making up the chamber swirled. From the ground, a few steps in front of me, a figure began to form. Humanoid.
I drew my faithful companion. “I don’t care if this makes me the enemy of the world, or if this is ‘evil’. But that power… I’m taking it.”
The figure formed. A knight, glowing with green fire. It raised a sword and charged towards me, swinging his weapon at my neck.
I dodged to the side and slashed at the figure’s wrist.
The wooden knight’s arm shifted, and it staggered, but it didn’t get severed like I intended.
I changed my strategy and ran towards it, my left hand outstretched.
Roots writhed on the knight’s body and pierced into the ground, perhaps as a countermeasure to my attack. Settled into the ground, it swung its sword again, aiming at my outstretched left hand.
I clenched and the knight froze.
I could feel something in my hand, a pulsing core.
The knight shuddered, turning its head to stare into my eyes.
I completely closed my hands and the core shattered. With it, the knight fell to the ground, a lifeless husk.
My faithful companion warmed, as if congratulating me.
I smiled, but then focused.
“…It would probably be a bad idea to reach inside there.”
Although I had beaten the knight guarding the sword, that did not mean I had the qualifications to possess it.
However, I didn’t need those qualifications.
I raised my left hand again, blocking out the light with my palm.
My mana flared, and the pattern for Dragon’s Grasp was recreated, but separated from the Goddess’s brand.
I clenched my hand, using the skill as an extension of my body.
Yggdrasil shuddered. The roots writhed, countless wooden limbs whipping towards me.
I couldn’t block them. Yggdrasil’s resistance was fiercer than I expected, and I felt Dragon’s Grasp beginning to fail.
A sea of roots opened, as if to swallow me whole and prevent my actions.
But before it could, my faithful companion flared. Shining an ominous black light, a surge of energy swept across the chamber. Everywhere the energy touched, the roots froze and then fell limply to the ground.
I mentally thanked it, and then redoubled my efforts.
“I refuse to believe that I can’t acquire you!”
I tried to close my left hand but me huge resistance. It was like trying to crush a rubber ball, always expanding back against my grasp.
Yggdrasil’s shuddering intensified and I could hear a faint cry in the air. It was feminine, like a young girl crying out in pain.
I ignored it and focused on maintaining Dragon’s Grasp.
“Vile spirit! You dare to lust for Yggdrasil’s heart!”
A voice called out from behind me. A male’s. But I didn’t have the attention to spare.
“Faithful companion. I’m leaving it to you.”
It warmed in my hand and then shone with that black light again.
“What?! This… Chaos? How could such a vile thing appear here?!”
I heard the sounds of energies clashing, of armor being carved apart. But I didn’t turn around, my gaze only for the sword before me and the light encasing it.
It was condensing. Slowly but surely, my Dragon’s Grasp was binding it to my will.
The young girl’s crying turned into a full scream, painful and agonized.
At once, the ground shuddered again.
My footing started to slip, but immediately darkness emerged from my faithful companion and stabilized my footing.
In the edges of my vision, I saw the floor fall out from beneath me. But in its place, countless bones emerged. Skeleton warriors… Elven skeleton warriors. Roots writhed, forming countless bows, and equipped each of the elven skeleton warriors.
I grit my teeth. Even with my resistances, I felt a clear sense of danger from seeing them.
A dozen of the closest elven skeleton warriors knocked a mana arrow to a bow woven by the roots.
At the same time, I heard the male voice from behind me call out. “Vile spirit! I know not how you possess the taboo Chaos, but it’s useless against I, Hraesvelg! Nature, aid us in Yggdrasil’s plight!”
A surge of mana swelled behind me. At the same time, countless arrows fired.
My faithful companion surrounded me with a dark barrier, stopping the attacks.
But then it cracked.
My eyes widened and I glanced at the stick in my right hand.
A clear fracture had formed in its body.
I started to send it mana to reinforce it, but my mana was sent back to me. As if telling me not to worry and to focus on my task, a tendril of darkness stretched from my faithful companion and pushed my head to look at the sword.
I couldn’t fool myself now. That act… “You’re alive?”
My faithful companion thrummed with power and reinforced the barrier.
“You skeletal fools! Imbue your arrows with mana! Yggdrasil is in danger!” That male voice boomed, and countless arrows flew again.
Another crack formed in my faithful companion.
I grit my teeth and focused on the sword. If I wanted to save it, I had to hurry and bind the accursed sword. I tensed my entire body and condensed my mana, feeding every last drop into Dragon’s Grasp. Immediately, the light around the sword shrank, only a finger’s width around the entire blade.
That male voice roared. At the same time, I heard the sounds of flapping wings and something surging through the air towards my body.
I grit my teeth. “Almost have it…!”
A heavy impact.
Something cracked, and the resistance I felt in my left hand vanished. As if it always belonged to me, the sword flew free of the roots in Yggdrasil and landed in my hand.
Something cracked, and the comforting and nostalgic warmth in my right hand disappeared.
My eyes widened and I looked down towards it.
My faithful companion had shattered, turning into dust.
At the same time, the sword in my left hand flared, surging with mana.
“You!” The voice called out. “Nidhogg!”
Gone. My faithful companion. The one who had been by my side this entire time. The only one who had gone through all of my experiences with me. The one who I could rely on time and time again.
I roared and lashed out with my left hand. Mana flared and white light covered everything.
And then I knew nothing else.
In a dark void above the world of Asifant, a goddess sat before a wooden table. Her beauty was indescribable and far exceeded a level that mortals could hope to achieve.
Sighing, she leaned on the table and tapped her chin with her delicate fingertips.
Before the goddess, upon the table top, there was a gameboard. To anybody from Earth, it would have been familiar. A square board divided into eight columns and eight rows, each cell alternating light and dark. Scattered throughout the board, various game pieces stood.
Serena stared at her white pieces and, after an indeterminable amount of time, said, “I hate to admit it, but you’ve got me stumped.”
Her opponent smiled and said, “Of course I do, Serena. If you weren’t, I wouldn’t have needed to come here in the first place.”
Serena’s gaze turned towards the opposite side of the board where her opponent had placed the pieces Serena had lost. There, a bishop, a knight, a queen, and eight pawns stood.
The Goddess’s gaze shifted to her side of the board, where she kept the pieces that her opponent had lost, a mere two black pawns.
“You’re cheating,” Serena said. “There’s no way you could have taken so many of my pieces and lose only two pawns.”
Her opponent smiled. “You never said we couldn’t. Besides, isn’t the game more interesting this way?”
Serena sighed and her king moved forward. In response, her opponent’s own king moved forward.
“It would be,” Serena said, “If I hadn’t bet my world on this game.”
“Well,” her opponent said. “You should have thought that through before accepting.”
“I guess. Still, I didn’t think that you would get this far.” Serena’s eyes flitted towards her opponent’s pieces and focused on one in particular: a knight seated at the corner of the board. “To think that a single knight managed to disrupt the board so much… I never thought that would happen.”
Serena’s remaining bishop flew across the board, placing her opponent’s king in check.
In response, a pawn stepped forward and cut the bishop down.
Serena sighed and said, “If only I stopped you two turns ago…”
Her opponent smiled. “Yes. If you were a bit more aggressive, it would have been over. But you weren’t, so here we stand: you missing most of your pieces and destined to fall in three turns.”
Serena gazed into her opponent’s eyes. “Well then, since ‘cheating’ is fair game, changing the rules would be too, wouldn’t it?”
“…What are you saying?”
Serena smiled. “You know, in Japanese chess, captured pieces can be brought back into play under the other player’s control. You can also place it on any open square.” She picked up a pawn and set it down in the middle of her opponent’s forces.
“Check. Your move, Nameless One.”