He could not sit idly by and stay indifferent—such was his indisputable and honest wish—but would helping the survivors banish the Death Shades reverse the destructive decline of this world? Would helping these warriors fight and kill their foes save these diverse lives?
No. All men had their own paths, which was why the warriors that fought bravely in the Holy Cities did not need such shallow help. It would merely obstruct them as they seared their very own hearts, and the reason why Joshua did not have to do a thing.
What he had to do was head for the source—Guetard, the former capital of the Ulan Empire as well as the origin of the Death Shade calamity, and find the truth of everything in that place.
Still, the ranks of the Death Shade army were simply too multitudinous that even the field of vision up front would be blocked entirely. Whenever that happened, Joshua would move and lash out with a blade of light from either greataxe or greatsword. The flash would only be for an instant, but Death Shades that stood across several square kilometers up front would be wiped out, their countless soul mark absorbed by the Pool of Souls and no longer able to be reborn in the fog.
Such was Joshua's thought. The Pool of Souls could not absorb complete souls and only soul shards of those that died by Joshua's hand. Nonetheless, at that very moment, the endless Death Shade army meant endless soul shards. The warrior himself did not know what would the outcome be after drawing in such an incredible amount of souls, but it remained a necessary step to enter the depths of the Death Shades' lair.
On the other hand, deep within the dark Pool of Souls, the innumerable shards that resembled crystallizations were wailing curses, screaming in a noise that had no hint of logical thought. Then, more soul shards were surging inside incessantly, piling up together with the shards there were there before and shaping into a towering peak.
These soul shards had been the smallest parts of the soul, but at an accumulation of such speed and substantiality, the peak itself began to compress and condense autonomously layer by layer, before crumbling to form a little black core.
That deathly black ball floated in the heart of the Pool of Souls. As if a bottomless grave, it automatically drew in all the soul fragments within the Pool of Souls, turning them into a part of its own body.
At the same time, in the star observatory in the city center of Fort Corolla, an elderly man who possessed a constructed body and assimilated himself with the city was looking out towards the distance where the radiance glinted.
"A power… approaching Divine domain." He muttered to himself in disbelief. "But how is that possible?"
It had become impossible for new Divine-domain tiered existence to appear on Grandia in the last twenty-seven years. Even the former Divine-domain champions must seal part of their power and suppress themselves into Heavenly tier, because the entire world was slowly dying and fading into nothingness.
Divine-domain ability was linked to the entire world—perhaps even connected the very fundamental energies within Grandia. As it approached destruction, the existences that were tightly tied to the world would definitely be affected, and to continue combining with the dying origin power would mean condemning oneself to death.
The influence was much more obvious to champions. Because he was one step behind, the elderly man was infected by the deathly scent, and was forced to use a construct to replace his dying body and make himself a half-machine lifeform. The other Divine-domain champions had faced similar problems, although they used all sorts of methods to solve the issue.
Even so, it did not mean ascension into Divine-domain was impossible by being present on Grandia. It merely meant that using a Divine ability or ascending to that level was the arrival of death, given this deathly environment.
Joshua did not know that.
However, he would not mind in the least even if he did.
70%, 71%, 72%, 73%... the numbers were rising little by little. As he absorbed the energies adrift around the atmosphere due to the shattered Death Shades from the air around him without stopping, the progress bar was incessantly advancing towards hundred percent.
At the moment, Joshua was only baffled by another problem. He had been walking amongst the Death Shade legions for more than half a day and cutting them apart by the tens of thousands, so why were there no champions like Armand who came to stop him?
Where were the Death Shade commanders?
Meanwhile, by the southeastern edge of the continent surrounded by clouds and sea and endless peaks, there was a majestic mountain range that resembled a sleeping giant slumbering upon this land.
The formidable swordsman who ranked third amongst the Death Shade commanders closed his eyes as he stood between the clouds, his entire body wrapped in shadows and darkness. Beside him, the winds appeared to pause while the air seemed frozen. There was not a hint of sound in the world here, just deathliness.
The swordsman was not concealing his face at the moment; his features that used to be shrouded in darkness was now visible.
It was a plain and unremarkable face. But even if it was a face that would vanish within the crowd, the presence he exuded could penetrate and tear apart everything. Despite his eyes closed tight and his body not moving, the sea of clouds amidst the mountains were constantly being cut apart by a formless blade, turning into sheets of fog and drizzle.
Through it all, the swordsman remained on his feet, seemingly waiting for a certain person's arrival.
Not long afterward, a moving light darted out from a summit that appeared to have been cut off diagonally.
Jarien, the ancient Heroic Spirit, thus stood amidst the clouds too, leveling his gaze against the Death Shade commander.
"Brother." The statuesque black swordsman's deep voice, so cold it had not a hint of emotion, echoed throughout the skies. He finally moved, slowly raising his right hand to touch the sword hilt to his left. "Being shackled like that to this village is an affront to your blade."
However, Jarien shook his head, and the elderly swordsman replied just as expressionlessly.
"The reason I train, learn the way of the blade and draw my sword was to protect those I love. Unlike you, my brain can be stubborn. I've never yearned for the greatest of sword arts, and neither my village nor my people are shackles—they are my everything."
"Stubborn, just like in you were in life," the Death Shade commander said softly, his eyes narrowing. "It appears that you won't fight, right? Just like the last time you've finally acted only after I killed master… Even if the final battle has begun, you would never consider using your own strength to save the world, merely staying your ground, unmoving like a hen guarding her nest."
Jarien kept silent for some time. He looked towards the Tomb of the Saints where black clouds swirled while more than half the continent descended into darkness.
Then, the old swordsman looked behind him at the peaceful little town where countless citizens nervously looked up at his confrontation, even as they kept alert at another direction.
There, right beneath his feet were numerous Death Shade soldiers, enough to take the mountains. They were slowly moving forward to encircle the town—the Death Shade swordsman had led his troops to the very ends of the continent to confront his brother.
Noticing the Heroic Spirit's gaze, the Death Shade swordsman turned towards the southwestern direction of the continent, staring together with the other towards the darkness gathering at the edge of the continent.
"Look," he said, as if mocking. "The living is fighting for the future, while you shrink to a corner in the continent, scheming to protect those weaklings while you sit and wait to reap the rewards after both sides destroy each other."
"And for those weaklings, you don't even dare to draw your sword before me—what right you have to call yourself a Holy Swordsman? Despicable, feeble, revoltingly shameless."
Still, despite his many words, the Third Commander could see that the other spirit had no reaction, and so sighed in extraordinary disappointment.
"It seems that I have to force your hand," he said dully and pressed on the hilt of his sword.
The old swordsman, who had been silently listening to the other's insults, felt a jolt in his body and exclaimed in surprise the moment he saw the black swordsman hold his sword. He, too, gripped his own sword hilt and swiftly turned as if to tell the citizens something.
But just as the words were about to come out, he was unable to speak in time because an angry bellow rang from the ground below.
In the town of Jarien, an elderly man had heard the Death Shade swordsman's words from above, immediately glowering livid at the undead in return. As old as his ancestor himself, the old man angrily pulled out the saber he wielded in his youth from his scabbard in return.
"Silence!" he roared indignantly. "Don't you insult our forefather's honor!"
Cries of angry rang out from the little town too, rippling as if waves.
"Don't mind us, lord forefather! Fight!"
"Do our lives even matter?! Being protected by the forefather for so many years, this life is already forfeit!"
As if a dynamic that had its fuse ignited, the frightened townsfolk that had been panicking due to the approaching Death Shade army bellowed in a manner that was impossible before this.
Leading them was the female knight Darwion, whose body was laden with scars and stood beside the elderly man while she glared at the sky. "There are no cowards in the Astoria family!" she declared. "Dead one, draw your sword! We would never back down in death!"
In the very next moment, the elderly man beside her shook off the supporting hands of the others around him, and walked towards the edge of the city walls.
"I am the seventeenth-generation descendant of the Holy Swordsman—Jarien Astoria!" He proclaimed in a virtually exhausted but devoutly sonorous voice; his fingers clenching as he held his sword aloft before himself. "Light of the blade, glory never-ending! Long as I breathe, my blade shall never bend!"
He then turned and raved at the townsfolk too. "What are you waiting for?! Heirs of the Holy Swordsman! It's us who are dragging our ancestor's leg!"
"Draw your swords!"
Up in the air, the old swordsman who was prepared to help them escape stared blankly.
Soon, every person in town—whether they were middle-aged, teenaged, old, man, woman or children, all who felt pride as descendants of the Holy Swordsman had drawn their blades!
Save the immobile infants, of course.
"Light of the blade, glory never-ending!"
"Long as I breathe, my blade shall never bend!"
Everyone thus roared out the motto carved upon their family crest.
These villagers, even after having toiled to survive in the post-apocalyptic world for almost thirty years, never once forgot their sword training even for a single day how hard things become.
And they felt nothing but genuine pride at the depths of their heart over the name they bore.
And so, to safeguard that honor, they drew their swords. They had even opened the main gates, dashing out on purpose against the Death Shade troops that were almost numerous as the sea.
Not one of them backed down, not one of them fled.
Pausing in the sky, Jarien witnessed the heirs of his bloodline charged into the battlefield and death, while he was stopped by his own fellow apprentice, unable to hold them back.
It was their courage and honor.
The villagers of Jarien were not frail—as pale mystical radiance emitted from their blades, thunder and wind roused, shattering the atmosphere. Under their assault, the Death Shade army had even fallen into confusion as streaks of white blade light weaved and glinted amidst the darkness. There were clanging sounds of air breaking as thousands of Death Shades were pulverized into dust and returned to the dirt.
Nevertheless, how could hundreds—not even thousands of villagers ever quell the swirl of the oceans? After a brief ruckus, the innumerable Death Shade troops moved again, drowning those swordsmen and cut off the escape route they never would have used anyway.
After fighting hard and long, swinging his sword and blowing out incessant gusts of air, a swordsman finally became exhausted under the Death Shade's encirclement and fell to the ground. However, facing the enemies that kept swarming towards him, he promptly rose and swung his sword for one last time, cutting dozens of Death Shades that dashed towards him in two.
Still, he was devoured by the endless shade and vanished in the darkness.
—My forefather. We're your descendants, and the blood of an indomitable hero flowed in our veins.
A voice suddenly echoed in the old swordsman mind. It was the voice of a man who had devoted himself to the Heroic Spirit that watched over them for thirty years since the apocalypse arrived.
A female voice quickly followed. It was another swordswoman who perished—despite sounding youthful, she did not sound regretful over her demise, merely filled with apology and hope.
—That's why there's no need to hold back, for we wish to behold your heroic overture.
"Ah, ah… I see… I see."
I know that tears are meaningless. No salvation exist in this cruel and hopeless world.
Tears of the soul dropped.
Fingers over the sword tightened.
The Heroic Spirit of the former Holy Swordsman, Jarien Astoria gripped his sword forcefully. Facing the Third Death Shade commander—his fellow apprentice with a menacing presence who would attack at any moment, Jarien closed his eyes and stopped his tears while calming his troubled heart.
I know that the world is as temporary as a dewdrop and that this battle is meaningless—it would be a futile death. I also know that fleeing is alright, for if I refrained from fighting, it would be just fine if I remained one of the last hundred and three thousand people who survive in this world.
That was enough.
Even so, there are things that are greater than death, inescapable and never to be denounced.
As Infinite power surged out from his heart, Jarien opened his eyes.
His body, formed of countless luminescence, rippled rapidly as if the light particles themselves were swiftly exploding and splitting. Then, a majestic power that surpasses volcanic burst, as well as eclipsed typhoons and crumbling heavens, erupted from Jarien's body, spreading swiftly in all directions across the skies.
The old swordsman held the hilt of his sword too, drawing out the sacred blade that had hushed itself for a long time from its scabbard.
The Death Shade swordsman who had watched everything unfold quietly exclaimed in surprise, before bellowing angrily.
"How dare you?!"
"Why wouldn't I?"
Under the blood-soaked rain and above the sea of corpses where the crimson of his kin flowed rampantly, the Holy Swordsman laughed once, drew his sword and slashed!
Then, hills crumbled while the ground split down into the abyss.
Joshua had once said he wanted to turn things around.