Life always seemed to happen the wrong way. Maybe it was all a big hoax, this talk about being optimistic. Maybe there was some dark, evil being out there that obtained its sustenance from the mishap and misery of the mortal race, and so it had moved its vassals to go out there and tell people to hope. Hope, because there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. Hope, because after the rains, or the harsh winter, the sun would still shine, and spring would return. Hope, because every cloud had a silver lining, and the darkest hour was the closest to the much desired dawn. They would speak so inspiringly, and the one who was on the verge of giving up would take another deep breath, and push forward. Perhaps with the next one, she would strike gold. Perhaps the next relationship would be the right one. And thus, mortals would base their entire future on sheer, fickle probability.
And surely, the evil being would laugh.
It would laugh, because while it is true that tunnels don’t go on forever, sometimes, the tunnel would open into blackest night, a pitch darkness that would make the claustrophobia inducing tunnel walls seem to be a bastion of refuge. It would laugh, because once upon a time, when people hoped for the sun, winter came and refused to leave until the world burned to death, to be born anew from the blood of slain gods. It would laugh, because mushroom clouds were still clouds, and yet they offered no silver, only a fiery death. And it would laugh, because the darkest hour was not the one closest to dawn, but the one when the nightmares came in all their wild terror.
The evil being was probably laughing now.
Goethe struggled to keep his head, but he knew that the coming of the Diophage had violently thrust a spanner into the cogs of his plans. If everything had worked out as he had expected, the Devil Butcher would have been defeated, captured, or maybe even killed, and he would have only one more issue to worry about. He was starting to come to the conclusion that as far as he was concerned, nothing ever happened the way he expected it to. Perhaps his inability to sense the Devil Butcher with the Eyes of the Claviger should have been the first note of warning, but it had been an opportunity too tempting to let slide. It had been “too tempting”, because it had probably been a trap.
In hindsight, Goethe could see how well thought out the snare he had danced into had been so craftily constructed. At some point, the “god hunters”, as they liked to refer to themselves, had begun to realize that he was making plans to move against them, or they had always been expecting this day. They had most likely understood that now that he was becoming stronger, he would attack soon enough. So, they had decided to separate themselves and go in separate ways, for the time being. This would force his hand, cause him to take advantage of this ‘favorable’ turn of events, as the god hunters had been hardly ever seen apart before now. And so he had come, like a mouse into the mousetrap. Despite the overwhelming pain, a part of him reluctantly admitted that they had played the better game.
With a grunt, he pushed himself up onto an elbow. He dared not attempt to rest on his knees, because of the amputation of his left leg. His elbow slipped on the stone floor, slick with blood, and he fell back on his face. He bit back a cry of anguish. Taking slow, deep breaths, he tried to clear his mind and focus. The worst thing for him to do now would be to panic. If he could get himself back under control, perhaps he could still activate his powers one last time, and bury the three of them down here. No, that would likely not work, because it was certain the Diophage had somehow teleported herself back to this dungeon. There was no other way to explain how she had covered such a large distance very quickly, and the only entrance to the dungeon had been in Goethe’s vision during the interrogation, so she had not sneaked in.
The clacking of high heels began, and drew closer to his head. ”You look quite beaten up, Ivan. That was unexpected. He had help?” Her voice sounded chiding, but there was a tenderness to it, like she was worried for his wellbeing. He heard Ivan cough. ”Actually, he did this by himself, Luna. I underestimated him. Besides, as you know, I didn’t bring my full kit.” There was a bit of silence. They were probably looking at him. It still felt odd; Goethe could not pick them with his extrasensory power, which was already clearing enough for him to pick all the corners of the dungeon. His Spirit Arms were still too weak to be employed effectively, so he waited, and hoped he had the time to do so.
”He looks weak. I mean, I just cut off one leg...” Ivan’s voice came from a closer position. ”Anyone would go into shock if they lost a limb the way he did. I’d say he’s rather stout for his age. I expected him to be screaming at the top of his lungs. Besides, I think he’s still conscious.”
The clicking of heeled shoes stopped right in front of his head, which was turned away. After a second, Goethe felt something slip beneath him and lift him off the floor. It felt like some sort of fluid, but it was not wet. Realizing that his eyes had been screwed shut due to the agony he was undergoing, he forced them open, and saw that the same shadows that had wrapped themselves around the woman at her arrival were holding him aloft. She was staring into his face, a frown of curiosity on her face. Her hair was long and black, and it, as well as her black clothes, seemed to dissolve into the shroud of shadow that extended from her to him. She had an attractive face, but there was something about those dark eyes that Goethe found unnerving.
”Oh yes, he’s awake.”
Goethe tried to look as brave as he could, and struggled harder to find his voice. ”You fight dirty,” was the first thing he managed to say. It surprised him, even. Luna laughed. ”Yes, he is a stout one, Ivan,” she said over her shoulder. Then her expression became more menacing. ”I have never been a patient person, so now that we have the brat in our grasp, we may as well begin.”
Whatever it was, Goethe was sure it would end up with him dying, but if it involved the Imbalance of Despair Ivan was talking about, then their ingredients were not complete. Goethe was suffering, yes, but he was not dejected. He felt a little at peace even, because his friends were not here to be threatened. And now that he was sure that his death would not bring about the introduction of some laughing, otherworldly evil being, now was the best time to ultimately atone for his sin. Goethe had gained some clarity of mind. He ought to be able to use his powers now...
”Let’s torture him,” the woman suddenly said, as a tendril of shadow sharpened itself and plunged into his right thigh without warning. Goethe made a sound in his throat, but it refused to build up into a cry. The tendril writhed and pushed, but Goethe bit back on his pain and did not make any more sound. She tilted her head to one side, watching him, a sudden look of delight appearing on her face. ”Oh? How long will you last like that? How long until you scream and beg me for mercy? I haven’t started anything, you know?”
”Restrain yourself a little, my dear. Exsanguination is still a cause of death nowadays. He will be of no use to us dead. And seeing as he somehow managed to sever the direct link he had with the Metropolitan King, his death would be a grievous loss.”
The woman frowned, obviously displeased, but the piercing tendril withdrew itself. ”You can really be a spoilsport at time, you know?” she complained. ”So, how do you want to create the Imbalance?”
Ivan shrugged. ”Well, he has friends, as you know. So, if we laid his hands on one of them...” Luna’s eyes brightened. ”Beautiful! And those ones, we can kill, right? Right?” Ivan stepped up closer to her, and cupped her chin in a hand. He smiled back into her eyes. ”With as much imagination as we can afford, my dear.”
”You guys are one sick couple.”
As one, they looked at him, then were abruptly thrust away from him. Goethe fell, but managed to balance himself on his remaining leg. It was a good thing he did not slip and fall again, because not only would it be disgraceful, it would be very disadvantageous. He was awake, and he could still fight. They would want to beat him into submission. Maybe he would battle them until they were left with no choice but to kill him. That way, he would not end up fulfilling their evil plans. That was it, then.
A fight to the death.
Luna pointed at him, as her shadows whipped out against him. His Spectral Shield sprang up, blocking the relentless onslaught from one side. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the Devil Butcher skirting along the wall, trying to get out of his line of sight. He was getting desperate, fighting against two foes, and desperate times called for desperate measures.
The both of them stopped when the black ball appeared above Goethe’s open hand.
”I’m glad to see you guys remember this little fella,” Goethe said. ”But of course you would. This was what obliterated the entire village.”
”Aren’t you being a little hasty?” the woman asked, her eyebrows raised. She looked calm, but Goethe knew she was worried. They were underground, and if there was really anyone alive who knew of the destructive capabilities of the Oblivion Bomb, it was these two: Ivan and Luna. The Devil Butcher and the Diophage. Quite frankly, Goethe had not conjured it because he was interested in a standoff. This was going to be the end. However, he wanted to be sure that if he was going down, the both of them would be coming with him. And since he was worried that the Diophage could teleport, he needed her to be here when this bomb went off. He considered that the temple might be destroyed, but if it killed the two of them, he was sure that would be a bit pardonable. Besides, no one was in the temple any longer. All the cultists that had been knocked out had been sent to the X-Dimension, to prevent them interfering in any subsequent fights.
But Goethe did not detonate the bomb. Not yet.
Instead, he reached out as quickly as he could with his Spirit Arms, grasping the Diophage and the Devil Butcher at the same time. The move seemed to surprise them somewhat, catching them off guard, and this would increase his chances of getting them hit by his bomb. However, he had watched enough vids to know that if he started any cool speeches or last words, he would only be giving them the opportunity to break free.
Under his breath, he said: ”Friends, thank you for everything. Sorry I couldn’t say goodbye...”
Ivan cursed as the Oblivion Bomb flickered, then suddenly expanded, engulfing the entire room in a magical conflagration that explained why the spell was named such. The explosion was over in a moment, and there was just a fraction of a second, before tons of earth came collapsing in on whoever was unfortunate to be in the dungeon.
That fraction of a second was enough for Baynard to appear suddenly, grab Goethe and vanish, leaving the Diophage and Devil Butcher to be buried in the earth. There was a flash of light, and Goethe appeared alone, in a room he couldn’t recognize. He could barely recognize anything, anyway, as he rapidly slipped into unconsciousness, the stress and injuries of the day taking their toll on him.