A gargantuan metal pad rests beneath my feet, circular in shape and three hundred feet in diameter. Hovering amidst the vast inner space of Camael's Cube, the magically summoned platform sports a complex holographic imaging interface, one which I'm currently using to render a chunk of Tarus II's surface in extreme detail.
The holographic emitter, a combination of technology and magic, is something my mind-wife, Phoebe, crafted. She designed it so I could visualize the situation on our world, all so I wouldn't have to return to the planet ahead of time. Instead, I can devote my energy to guiding the Cube to Tarus II, where, once it arrives, its vast and all-but-limitless mana will enable me to pull off planet-shaking feats of magic.
However, were I to return to Tarus II without the Cube, I wouldn't be able to tap into its power over such a great distance. Given the size and scope of demonkind's assault on my world, I'd end up like a kitten before a pack of ravenous wolves. No matter how desperately I wish to return to my friends and family, I must maintain a rational mind and do what's best for humanity's survival.
I hover in the air, using my innate levitation powers to suspend myself above the holographic imagery of Tarus II's surface. Innumerable red, green, yellow, and purple dots strike against one another, the different colors representing various factions on the battlefield. Green dots indicate my fellow humans, while yellow dots reference the various monsters and demons on our side. Red dots mark the enemy demon forces, while purple ones indicate enemy monsters. Finally, black dots signify the enemy undead, allowing me to contrast their harsh coloration with the brighter colors of the living.
My hands dance around before me, manipulating the planetary hologram with Phoebe's assistance.
"You teleported Beelzebub away," Phoebe says, a ghostly version of her body hovering in the air beside me. "But he'll return soon enough. You should take this opportunity to kill him."
I nod. "You're right. However, that's easier said than done. Beelzebub's regenerative abilities are far greater than any other demon, except for possibly Satan. Even if I rip him apart multiple times, he'll still come back to life."
"Why not try nullifying his powers?" Phoebe asks.
"Power nullification only lasts a short while," I reply. "Even if I erase his regenerative powers and kill him, his cells will eventually regain their self-healing abilities. Instead, I'll restrain him and deal with him later. Burying him a few thousand feet underground, suffocating him in a restraining suit, and making sure nobody can find him; that should work for now."
After making my decision, I speak several words of power.
"Capture. Envelop. Suffocate. Bury.
A single red blip amongst a horde of green ones vanishes, jumping to another spot elsewhere on Tarus II, thousands of miles from the battlefront.
This single dot of red, Beelzebub, dives deep into the planet's crust, where nobody will find him. After I evaluate his condition and ensure he's fallen completely comatose, I return my gaze to the battlefield.
"Next, I'll heal the soldiers Beelzebub attacked."
I spend the next few minutes communicating with and regenerating the wounds Beelzebub etched into the bodies of my troops. My heart aches when I see all the dead the Duke of Inferno left in his wake.
"There will be a reckoning," Phoebe says, reading my thoughts. "Even if, for whatever reason, you can't kill Beelzebub, you can certainly punish him to the extent he'll wish he was dead."
I nod. "Let's hope that will be the case."
Thanks to Phoebe's brilliant mind, a telepathic link connects my brain to the holographic projector atop the platform. This allows not only Phoebe, but Sir Lorent, Shana, and the Archangels to assume ghost-like holographic forms. All of them hover in space within the platform's confines, smiling as they examine the 'real world' they haven't seen for over a hundred thousand years.
Shana and Sir Lorent stick together, with the little girl riding piggyback on his shoulders. The man formerly known as Mordred's Butcher strolls around, gazing at the holographic representation of Tarus II's surface with wide-eyed interest. He and Shana talk about various things, while the Phoenix bounces along beside them, just wanting to be a part of the fun.
Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, all stare with focused eyes at the Tarus II battlefield. They scrutinize the demon's movements, muttering to one another about their predictions for the battle. Their innumerable years of experience battling demons give them a keen eye for how their blood enemies might act during a brutal melee.
However, Phoebe stays off to the side with me. My mind-wife, as real to me as her flesh and blood counterpart, smiles as she looks into my eyes.
"You don't really want to kill Beelzebub, do you?"
I shake my head. "I don't want to kill anyone. But if I have to, then I will."
"You say that," Phoebe says, leaning her head against my arm, "but accidentally killing Samson isn't the same as deliberately ending someone else's life. You're still inexperienced, Jason."
A bitter taste fills my mouth. "Unlike Hope. He's been killing for a long time."
"You and him aren't all that different," Phoebe cautions. "You could just as easily have walked down the path of violence, all the same as he did."
I frown. "Speaking of which, where the hell is
Hope? You'd think he'd have shown up by now, but I can't even detect him with my Wordsmithing. Is it possible he died? Did the demons somehow kill him?"
My mind-wife pulls away from me. A contemplative look appears on her face. "Hmm. I'm not certain. From what we've learned, Hope has been killing demons for quite a long time. The odds of him running into the Labyrinth and dying now of all times seems too coincidental for my liking."
"After we wrap up this war, I'll need to immediately set out and find him," I say. "If he died, that would be tragic enough, but with soul manipulators around, it could be worse than a minor tragedy for humanity if the demons get their claws on him."
After putting aside Hope's matter for the moment, I turn my attention back to the battlefield. Phoebe hovers after me while I start flying around, altering the battlefield to humanity's benefit.
A legion of troopers, attacked from behind by Scythers. I summon force-fields to protect my side's injured while healing the wounded.
Felorians, injured and under the threat of imminent death at the Northern Front. I jump in and save several lives, reviving dozens of warriors from the brink of death.
Yamir, my personal chef. He combats the Baron of Stars and several Brutes all by himself, nearly falling during their pincer attack. I save him, too.
"Shield. Protect. Push! Regenerate. Heal.
Like some sort of God watching over humanity, I act as a tactical barrier against the demons, greatly increasing my people's strengths while diminishing their weaknesses.
All the while, Phoebe says nothing. However, after the tenth straight minute of watching me interfere, she sighs.
"Jason. Whether you kill the demons or assist our troops in doing so, the result is the same. Many enemy demons will perish as a result of your actions. Using such a roundabout method is..."
"Cowardly?" I ask.
"...Impractical." Phoebe replies, her tone solemn. "Everyone is out there fighting for their lives, while you get to sit back and ease your conscience by playing the role of a long-distance support unit."
Slowly, I nod. "I know what you're saying. But, think of it this way. There are already medics out there who don't engage in combat. Belial, for example. Don't you think Belial would be far more effective on the frontlines than sitting inside the Hospital, healing our injured?"
"Maybe, but your situations are different," Phoebe says. "Belial isn't the same as you. She is incredibly powerful, with a body that can bend, stretch, and change its shape as she requires. Her strength can sunder mountains. But that's all she can do. Your Wordsmithing is at a tier far beyond hers. With Camael's Cube assisting you... you could end this war in minutes."
"By killing all of the demons," I say, turning to my wife. "That's what you mean."
Phoebe lowers her gaze. "Yes. This is not the time for compassion. That moment has long since passed. Every second you delay, more of our friends, more of my
friends will perish. It's kill or be killed. Why must you continue hesitating?"
This time, it takes me several seconds before I can elucidate my thoughts.
"Phoebe. Killing the demons, for me, would be easy. Too easy. I need only speak a few words, and they will perish. For countless millennia, the demons, humans, angels, Titans, and all the other species have gored one another to death relentlessly, leaving mountains of dead bodies in the wake of their wars. If I walk the path of genocide, this war will turn out like all the others. Humanity will achieve a win, but not a victory. I can't bring myself to cast aside potential peace in the future. I want to change the status quo. I want to right the wrongs of my ancestors, and of the demons'. I may fail, but even if I do, at least I'll have tried."
"The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result," I say, continuing my line of thought. "If the angels and their bloodthirstiness only caused more hatred among the demons, and if humanity only managed to incense the demons with our violence, then perhaps violence isn't the answer. Instead, I should try a new tactic. I should try to become a beacon of light, a shining example of goodness capable of turning both sides away from the path of hatred."
"But how will you achieve that?" Phoebe counters. "You're not the first person to seek out peace with the demons. Remember Solomon? Remember how they betrayed him?"
I nod. "Yes. But I'm not Solomon. I'm me. I need to demonstrate to the demons that my might far exceeds theirs, but that in spite of possessing absolute power, I don't seek their annihilation. I need to show them a different path forward."
Phoebe sighs. She crosses her arms and gazes vacantly at the holographic display of Tarus II. "I love you to death, Jason, and I won't ever pressure you to commit an act as heinous as genocide. You're a good person. Better than me. That being said, I wish you'd be more decisive. People are dying as we speak. Now is the worst possible time to act with reservations."
"I know. Trust me; I have a plan. That's why I was so excited when you completed this holographic projector."
Turning my attention back to the Tarus II display, I fly toward Raphael and the Archangels.
"I need everyone's help for this next part," I say. "I'm going to seal the portals to the Labyrinth and eject all of the demons from Tarus II. Once I start, you guys will point out clusters of demons wherever they appear. As for Mephisto's minions... well, they're already dead. I'll simply kill them again, permanently."
Phoebe looks at me. "Killing the undead just isn't a problem for you, huh?"
"I think of it as doing them a favor," I reply.
Raphael, listening to our exchange, chuckles. "Well, thou mayest do as thou please. We shall assist thee in thy pursuit of defeating demonkind. Our goals align here, after all."
Michael struts around, poking the holographic dots with a look of interest. "If my people had such a useful device during our battles against the demons, I doubt we would have perished. Knowledge is power, and this battlefield-viewing-tool is far beyond anything I've seen in all my years. Thou art lucky to possess it; Thy victory is all but assured."
"Let's not count our chickens before they hatch," I say. "Pay attention. I'm going to begin, now."
After focusing my mind, I take aim at the portal to the Labyrinth, as well as Mephisto's Death Gates.
"Seal. Seal. Seal.
Twenty seconds later, the portals shut down and disappear, preventing any other demons from traveling to Tarus II.
"That's step one," I say. "Now for step two."
The holographic display changes visibly as the demon's forces momentarily 'stutter,' their movements turning hesitant. By tapping into the spiritual energy within the projector, I can summon a crystal-clear image of any position on the battlefield in my head. I scan the faces of dozens of demons, taking a minute or two to observe the looks of surprise and panic on their faces.
"Return. Return! RETURN!
I tap into the Cube's power, grabbing hold of demons in groups of fifty to a hundred with wide-area magic. Various Scythers, Brutes, Burners, and other grunts vanish from the battlefield, leaving visible gaps in the enemy ranks. These sudden disappearances cause clear signs of alarm to ripple throughout demonkind's forces, making them much less steady on their feet, and causing their morale to plummet.
Phoebe watches me, nodding as she, too, observes their reactions.
"You're doing well," My mind-wife says. "The demons are starting to fall into chaos and disorder. Our troops are pressing the advantage. On the Southern Front, many demons disappeared right when the undead pressed forward, leaving them vulnerable to a pincer attack. If this keeps up- hm?"
Phoebe frowns. She glances to the east, on the opposite side of Hero City.
"Jason! Over there! Look! A portal just opened up!"
I pause my Wordsmithing to follow her gaze. "What? Ah, I see. A Warper summoned that one. No matter. Seal. Return.
I utter two words of power, close the portal, and return the Warper to the Labyrinth. Then, I return my attention to the main demon army. "RETURN! RETURN! RET-
"Jason! Another portal, this time, just north of Hero City!"
I follow my wife's finger. Just like she said, a second blip of energy reveals itself, allowing a flood of demons to tear onto Tarus II's surface from the Labyrinth.
At that moment, I remember a crucial detail. When I first saw Ose while flying around, she was chatting with a small group of Warpers on Hero City's eastern outskirts, far from the battlefield. Now, it occurs to me that she may have planted Warpers in multiple locations, all so she could encircle the city and imprison humanity in an inescapable death trap.
Chills go down my spine. It occurs to me just how far ahead she planned. If I hadn't sealed off the Warpgate's portal, she wouldn't have had to accelerate her plans. Luckily, I caught her in time.
Phoebe, keep an eye out for other portals. There are sure to be many Warpers lingering around Hero City's outskirts. Your Environmental Shield will prevent them from opening portals within the city's limits, but outside of that invisible bubble, they will have free reign."
I explain my thoughts to Phoebe, and she nods. "That sounds plausible. However, I think you might be underestimating Ose. You say that closing the Warpgate forced her to take action, but I'm not so sure about that. She might have been waiting for you to do this all along."
"What makes you say that?" I ask.
"Ose already had all these Warpers in place," Phoebe explains. "But she didn't order them to open any portals. Why not? Surely, she could have surrounded Hero City hours ago in the dead of the night. Once Warpers acquire a triangulation point on a planet, they can open portals there repeatedly for many months afterward. Something tells me... Ose is counting on your disinclination toward violence. She knows you're a kind soul, so she's going to use these Warpers as pieces to confuse you."
"That... sounds a bit outlandish," I reply. "Why wouldn't she just have them open up portals to attack immediately? Once all those portals open, she could quickly overrun our defenses. What's the point of playing these stupid mindgames?"
Phoebe shakes her head. "You don't understand, Jason. You've never fought in a war. Psychological warfare is just as important as putting bodies in graves. Ose isn't stupid enough to reveal her hand in full to you. She's waiting to catch you offguard. She has other plans beyond merely killing humanity. Hell, I doubt she wants to kill our people. She needs humans for their souls. Souls give demons the power to evolve. As long as that's true, they can never truly eliminate us. More likely, her ultimate plan is to capture as many of us as possible, wipe our minds, and turn us into obedient slaves."
My mind-wife's explanation unsettles me. I fall silent for a minute, opting to massage the roof of my mouth with my tongue.
"Slaves. Christ, sometimes I forget how evil the elites of demonkind can act. Right, so if exterminating us isn't Ose's primary goal, then her reasons are probably more intricate than we can immediately determine. Keep thinking, let me know if you can come up with anything."
After returning my attention to the holographic map, I frown. Four more portals have already opened up during the time I spent chatting with Phoebe.
"Shit. It's like I'm playing whack-a-mole. Seal. Seal. Seal. Seal.
Oh, goddammit, another one. Seal!
Over the next ten minutes, I close off dozens of portals and teleport the Warpers who summoned them back to the Labyrinth. Eventually, when those Warpers simply return again, I resort to capturing and burying them all over the planet, hiding them in restraint suits so they can't escape.
Even so, the damned bastards just keep coming back! After sealing twenty more portals and placing the Warpers in makeshift underground prison cells, where they'll sleep for eternity, or until I grab them in the future, I still can't slow down the flow of portal creation whatsoever. The speed actually increases, pissing me off.
"Motherf- how many Warpers does Ose have?! Every time I seal a portal and bury its summoner, another one opens up!"
Phoebe chews her lip. "Warpers are quite rare among demons. Only one in a hundred thousand might have the bloodline necessary to evolve into one. That being said, there are trillions of demons living within the Labyrinth. Ose will have more than a hundred thousand at her disposal on any given day."
"A hundred thousand?!" I shriek, becoming more enraged by the second. "You've got to be kidding me! With that many Warpers, Ose could capture Tarus II in an hour! What the hell is she thinking? What's her plan? It's like she's just trying to distract me, like her real plan is..."
I trail off, bringing my words to a halt. After a moment, I frown.
"A distraction? But why would Ose need that? Is she trying to confuse me? To make me unable to direct my gaze toward a specific location?"
"You're a Wordsmith, Jason," Phoebe answers. "Technically speaking, your power and versatility, even without the Cube, far exceeds Ose. However, you're neither omniscient nor omnipotent. You're a human, suffering from human weaknesses. Ose prepared for this war expecting to face you and Hope at the same time, but she got a lucky break when, for the first few days, she could attack humanity without either Wordsmith interfering."
Phoebe continues. "If Ose's goal is to conquer humanity, she wouldn't need to go to all this trouble. Killing us would be even easier. I think you're her real goal. She wants you and Hope, both Wordsmiths, to bow to her might. If she can take your power for herself, then she can completely take over the Labyrinth. We don't yet know about the power dynamic between demonkind and the Volgrim, either. It's likely Ose has her eyes set beyond Hell's borders..."
"The Volgrim," I mutter. "I haven't even started to wrap my mind around those guys. We can only hope they don't figure out who I am. The last thing I want is a super-advanced alien civilization pointing its guns at me."
"They already destroyed humanity once," Phoebe says. "They can do it again. I'm honestly more scared of the Volgrim than I am anything Ose might pull."
I return to sealing and suppressing any Warpers who open portals to Tarus II. After half an hour of flitting between the portals, teleporting demons back into the Labyrinth and healing any fallen troops, my head starts to hurt.
"This is harder than I expected," I groan. "I'm starting to go cross-eyed. I've never had to continuously Wordsmith this much since I first awakened my power."
Phoebe sighs helplessly. "You'll have to keep at it, Jason. Until we know Ose's true goal, we can only try to suppress her. Unless, of course, you just kill her."
"Not gonna happen. If I must, I will. For now, though, I'll keep playing hands-off."
Suddenly, Raphael cries out in alarm. "Jason! Over here, to the west! Just south of the Warpgate Encampment. Look! Two powerful mana blips have emerged!"
I follow Raphael's gaze.
"Fuck. Barbatos and... Mara? Right, yeah. Mara. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to see her here, but... still."
The Duke of Steel climbs out of the dirt, having recently escaped the Tarus II prison system. Mara, the Baron of Games, trots out right behind him, eager to get her blood pumping and join the fray.
My expression becomes complicated as I debate how to deal with these newcomers.
I don't feel any animosity toward either of them. Barbatos saved Phoebe when I fought Satan six years ago. He returned her safely to the Core. Mara, too, didn't seem like a terrible, irredeemable demoness. She and Ying-Ying seemed like decent people, for the most part.
"What are you thinking?" Phoebe asks.
"I don't know what to do," I immediately reply. "It would be so simple... I could just kill them all. Speak a few words and end the war. But should I? It doesn't feel right."
"Barbatos and Mara are likely to wreak havoc," Phoebe says, her voice low. "Many of our friends will die if you do nothing."
"I know. For now, let's just... keep an eye on things. We'll see how this all plays out."
Phoebe shrugs. "You're the Wordsmith."
I nod. "Sadly."
....................................... FOR RETURNING READERS FROM CLASSIC: Please use spoiler tags when commenting on anything that might ruin the story for new readers, especially if that information is based on your knowledge of Classic! This is what a spoiler looks like! Click it to reveal the text! owo?
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