There was a distinct golden crystal on the center of the dragon's chest, emanating solar radiance. It was shooting out a single vein of light that swept across the land like a searchlight, and on the top of the dragon's head was a human figure that stood, faintly discernible.
"The more I want to unleash my full power, the more I understand that the human form has its limits," Joshua mumbled quietly as he stood between Black's two cranial horns. "From the last few battles, I've become aware that the human form and soul has no way of unleashing my power.
"—Unless you give up on being human!"
Zero-Three, who had been sitting on a jutting scale on the black dragon's neck behind Joshua, suddenly whispered softly. She had been silent, staring blankly with the twin wings Mark in her hands, but appear unable to interject because she heard the warrior's mutter.
Joshua promptly turned to glare at Zero-Three. "Who taught you that?" He asked curiously.
With no hint of half-heartedness, the Artificial Intelligence girl considered the question seriously. "Many liches, druids, and Extraordinary adepts who could transfigure like to say that…" she replied, "but Joshua—those are words that evil villainous characters would say."
And you're already frightening. If you keep saying things like abandoning humanity, you would really become a great villain!
The girl had intended to add, but did not utter them in the end.
"Even so, they are not wrong on that account."
Joshua took no mind despite noting the extra meaning behind Zero-Three's words, realizing that the number of Extraordinary fellows who did not stay human were quite considerable after some thought. Comprehending the fact, Joshua did not delve deeper, shrugging and turning back to his stance over the black dragon's head, looking toward the clouds and horizon that stretched on infinitely ahead.
"That being said, Zero-Three, the most important thing is not to abandon humanity," he said quietly, "but to surpass."
"Surpass what?" Zero-Three became interested in what the warrior was mumbling; she rose and shifted to a position closer to Joshua. "Surpassing humanity?" She asked. "But had you not already surpassed human power… No—you have surpassed even dragons, are there even any creature in the world of Mycroft that could beat you in pure power?"
"Right. But it's not merely that definition of surpassing."
Nodding and then shaking his head, Joshua said calmly, "Objectively speaking, the flesh of humans is in fact, too perfect—a developed brain, innate nature to form partnership in social groups, great endurance, the ability to keep sprinting over long periods, digestive system that could dissolve most plants and animals, staying alive for extended durations with water alone, self-protection through memory loss or fainting when encountering overstimulation of the spirit, and born naturally with 'hands'—the most perfect tool of nature.
"It could be said that human could stand out from all things alone even in a dynasty without Extraordinary powers. That is a given—such ideal physicality and brain up to spirit and soul has no need of alteration. The presence of Extraordinary power is hence no more than empowering those fundamentals, and until Gold-tier, the human fundamental body is considered perfect."
As Joshua elaborated until that point, it was not just Zero-Three listening in—even Black had diverted her attention mid-flight, hearing him attentively. Joshua had always been a man of few words and spoke scarcely even in exchanges with friends. The warrior always pondered along, and if he was not thinking about sharing his own thoughts with them, he would rarely speak in such aspects.
"But that is a bottleneck—for battles above Gold-tier, the human body and size would be insufficient. Why is my combat form a Steel giant that was several hundred meters tall? That is because if my power was of normal human size, there would be completely no way it could deal blows on other targets, and would only 'pass'. It is therefore easier to understand the four-arms. It meant heaving double the rate-of-attack compared to two hands, and allows me to stay on guard in all directions. I might even add a few in the future."
Then, Joshua sighed. "Muscles driven by carbohydrates could never move mountains no matter how much profound strength is added to it. The body would be unable the majestic power that could vaporize lakes and rivers—therefore, to break through, the pioneers founded Strength Mastery to shatter that bottleneck, and that is what I mean by 'surpassing human'."
"Not just the body of flesh—it applies to skill and soul as well."
"A skill, however complex, is ultimately the way to drive the body and its energy. As long as one could perfectly control all organs and energy, and obtain reflexes compatible with one's own power, any skill could hence be plundered, with your own vision capable of discerning and imitating the energy signature even if the skill was a foreign race or inhuman one. To break through that checkpoint meant Strength Mastery."
"Exceedingly augmented spiritual prowess gained through meditation and cultivation could suppress the soul instead, while the overly sensitive senses could make men mad or radical unwittingly. To calibrate one's own heart and to balance the spiritual power, the pioneer considered many methods—be it becoming a lich, altering the soul, or permanent meditation. Even so, those ways could never be standardized given the difference between individuals, and only those who could transcend that bottleneck could be declared to have Soul Mastery."
"Therefore, all three Masteries were ultimately founded by humans to outperform 'humanity'. To be a Legendary champion is nothing less than to tread on that path to the utter limit and be refined from the human bloodline, becoming a superior being just like myself. As for the incarnations of liches and druids, as well as the secret techniques of many other Extraordinary classes, everything was done to move past the limits of one's own body by walking on a different path. I came here to investigate the Divine Dungeon Shroud precisely to search for the truth of Soul Mastery, and thanks to Gale, I am now clear on the Soul Mastery I need."
Joshua paused briefly then, as if falling into brief thought, before continuing after a moment. "Through mysterious spells," he said, "liches alter their body and soul to provide an absolute advantage in magic and spiritual powers. By imitating the various powerful beasts of nature, the druids also opened another path to exceed human limits. But all ways have a single similarity… Zero-Three, Black, do you know what it is?"
After a few seconds, Joshua did not receive any answer. He knew that the pair had yet to digest his message, and so simply smiled.
"To combine skills that cultivate the flesh from generation to generation and compile a way to exceed limits, to categorize one technique after another to ascertain the most perfect energy usage… imitating beasts, learning from nature, refining what is available and discovering new things—that is intelligence."
"Human intelligence is also the greatest weapons human wielded from the beginning. Its existence itself is to surpass the pass and exceed limits. It is only because of it that there were countless attempts in the past, and the thousands of outcomes in the present.
As Zero-Three and Black looked on, Joshua raised his finger and pointed to his brain. "I may not be competent at official duties or burdensome matters, but I am confident in wisdom of such aspects. His Majesty Gale had blessed us, saying that He eagerly waits for us successors to surpass Them… that does not mean in terms of pure strength, but to stand upon their shoulders and allow wisdom to journey further. Zero-Three—you carry Gale's legacy. If you could link with the contents of the Mark and create something that belongs to you, it would mean that you have surpassed Gale even if your powers would still not equal His at that moment."
"And that would also mean you have become an AI that surpasses deities," he smiled. "Doesn't that sound great?"
"It's the same for civilization. As long as successors stood on the shoulders of their predecessors and never stopped researching and improving, civilization would not cease improving, surpassing their own self and advancing."
Not knowing how to answer, Zero-Three could only reply with a short laugh. Even so, after receiving Gale's Mark, her rather puzzled heart suddenly felt a slight drive. It was an emotion without reason, but she sensed a mysterious impulse in her that wished to never stop advancing, just like how Joshua put it.
Holding back the sensation in her heart, Zero-Three looked toward the warrior who once again fell into deep thought, but was unable hold back from asking, "Have you made a breakthrough in Soul Mastery?"
"Not yet," Joshua shook his head in reply to her question, but added with a relaxed tone, "but it would be soon. I already understood what it is that unsettled my heart."
He stared at the land that they were zooming past below, as lights appeared and vanished without end in the night. Joshua scrutinized the northeastern plains, mountains, and cities of the Northern Empire—though his heart had calmed, divine power remained throbbing in his body, but the warrior could now view that thing which was both incomparably powerful and dangerous with composed demeanor.
—I now understand.
It is completely unnecessary to endure and suppress the state of being powerful.
There was no need to be concerned about whether his own power would damage other things or if it would influence his friends and kin, and there was completely no need to subjugate his own desires.
"Divinity is part of me," Joshua spoke softly. "The desires it invokes are my desires, hence… Those influenced by their own desires and allow their own power to exceed their own control—all that they say are excuses of the weak, a display of incapability. There is only one reason I was influenced by divinity and thought about how to resist it before this, and that is I had been so weak I could not even accept part of my own strength."
"Now, I am willing to accept the effects divinity would cast upon me—I accept that power, and view it as part of myself."
"And thereby act according to my own thoughts."
Having seen the form of Zinsen, Gale and other gods, Joshua had a deeper understanding of divinity.
Thought They were 'gods' who rose amongst humanity and Avian people, they had maintained their own heart and was never consumed by divinity. Gale did not turn into a tempest or the sky, while Zinsen was no lunatic who executed 'Justice' by might alone. Under the condition that they fulfill divinity, they had all achieved their own ideal and wishes by treading on their own path.
All of it was because 'divinity' was just a single attribute of Theirs, and Their conviction and will was great enough to accommodate and control that power.
Once he thought about Gale, Joshua turned and looked toward the Mark in Zero-Three's embrace. "I wanted to ask, but since we were in a hurry to leave, I did not…" he started with a curious tone. "Zero-Three, are you not going to put that thing away?"
"What? Ah, this… Mark?" Zero-Three blinked and looked toward the complex runic Mark that resembled 'spread wings', pausing for a moment before adding hesitantly, "Actually, Joshua… don't be angry, but I find that Gale is right. I'm no Avian person."
At those words, Zero-Three closed her eyes as if afraid of Joshua's scolding. "I'm definitely just an ordinary Artificial Intelligence, the control hub of the Third Moving Fortress. There were still a dozen beings identical to me, but only I alone was lucky enough to survive… And this Legacy left by His Majesty, I have no real body to train with even if I took it."
Joshua, however, was not angry, shaking his head and smiling with his eyes amidst Zero-Three's surprised gaze. "You're no ordinary A.I. You are one and only—Zero-Three, my great assistant."
"A dozen identical beings? Your soul is distinctive, just as the souls of all beings could never be the same, you do not need to be concerned over race or identity. You are you, just as I am Joshua."
Joshua then shook his head again, slightly impatient in his anticipation of development. "You clearly had not heard what I just said. Unable to train without a body? You are underestimating the Legacy of a god. Didn't I say before? The essence of Extraordinary is in surpassing the three aspects: soul, body, and skill. Even if you don't have a body, you could try Soul Mastery and Skill Mastery—when your soul has ascended like me, creating bodies out of thin air is a triviality. I would help you with that."
It was extreme for Joshua to console and motivate to such extent, given the warrior's personality. Knowing how the warrior trained Black and his knights before, Zero-Three could not hold back a little laugh at the warrior's mild words. But soon, she sighed deep inside her heart.
Suddenly, as Black let out a long cry, both Joshua and Zero-Three looked together toward the ground. Golden-red lights illuminated the plains brightly, the Magel Unfrozen River shining in a crystalline radiance beneath its light like golden satin.
The lamps of Moldavia were now visible.
They were home.
On the northeastern skies high above the Northern Empire, the ink-dark clouds of the night were torn apart by the black shadow of a dragon, dragging out a long trail amidst the massive cloud layers.