MORE OF THE SAME
Previously: I Give You Everything
Themesong: Wide Awake by Katy Perry
Let’s clear something up from last time. Bleach filler arcs may be less likely to kill you than normal arcs… but they’re never easy and seldom pleasant. And speaking of unpleasant… that’s the shock that faced me when I stepped out of my front door on the third day back in the Warehouse after the end of my Shinigami Tour of Duty. “DEMON’S SOULS?”
“Shhh… keep it down…” RayRay groaned from where she was hovering a dozen meters up. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”
“Yeah, well… you can sleep later, snakegirl,” I snapped. “Demon’s Souls is the next jump.”
“Yeah? So?” She asked, drifting lower. “You just did stuff with souls. What’s wrong with this one?”
“Demon’s Souls is the first of five games that I know of by a manufacturer / studio that thinks Nintendo Hard is for pussies. These are the kind of games where you walk out the door… and die. Then you respawn back in the first room, walk out the door… and die. After about the fifth try, you make it out the door, down the hall, past some undead, and encounter the first boss… and die. That’s the central mechanic of the game… unrelenting hardness. It’s a dungeon delve, city exploration thing where you die a lot. You collect souls as currency and as experience… and lose any you haven’t absorbed into yourself to level up when you die. You also lose your living body if you had one and darken the worldstate.”
“Darken the what?” Dyna asked from where she was crouched atop the machine’s hutch.
“Worldstate,” I repeated. “The worlds… areas… zones of the realm in which the game takes place have a scaling level of menace. Full Light to Full Dark. Certain things only happen at the extremes, but in general, the world is nicer and less hostile under Full Light than Full Dark.”
That explained, I went over to the machine and brought up the overview, reading it to my audience, which was growing by the second… though at that point it only consisted of RayRay, Dyna, Ziggy and his ‘Daughters’, and a dozen or so of the pet brigade, including three howls and a giant spider: “On the first day, man was granted a soul and, with it, clarity. On the second day, upon earth was planted an irrevocable poison, a soul-devouring demon. Welcome to the Kingdom of Boletaria, once the home of many valiant heroes, led by the wise King Allant XII, who led it to glory and prosperity with the power of the soul arts. Allant, tempted by power, he pledged himself to the Old One, an ancient demon that hungered for souls. Soon, a colorless fog covered Boletaria, isolating it from the rest of the world. Your soul has been bound to the Nexus. Upon your inevitable death,” I stressed those two words for the benefit of my listeners, which now included AJ and Toph, then continued.
“You will return there as a phantom, leaving behind your body and souls. As a phantom, you will be much more vulnerable to physical damage. Should you die again before you regain your souls or fade away due to intense despair, your adventures end and you will be sent home. Fortunately for you, no demon of this realm shall consume your soul and any curses placed upon you here will be removed at the end of the jump.” That provoked a number of shudders from those of my audience to process what any of that meant while I stepped to the kitchen to get some coffee. I was going to need it.
This was all bloody lovely. I remembered playing a bit of the game back in the mists of time, and doing a spectacular amount of dying. I also remembered watching my cousin playing (and getting much further), all the while thinking, ‘ugh… grim, foreboding, and unfun… so why did I buy Demon’s Souls again?’ Insanity. Also insanity was that I’d bought the quasi-sequels ‘Dark Souls’ and ‘Dark Souls 2’ despite never having beaten the more than the first few bosses of the first game.
Some of the names sounded vaguely familiar — Boletaria, Allant, Old One, Nexus, Colorless Gray Fog, The Maiden, The Monumental — but I didn’t really have any context for them, nor could I readily separate what parts of my memories were from which of the three games I’d seen my cousin playing on my PlayStation while I read or played pokemon on my Gameboy. Shaking my head to clear the next to useless jumble of half-experienced non-sense, I figured that I might as well spin for my starting location, a pointless exercise because, as far as I could tell, all the choices sucked and, as far as I knew, none of it would make the slightest difference since they were all within a few dozen kilometers of each other. I ended up rolling the Nexus… the underground fortress beneath Boletaria that held the souls of would-be demonslayers in the hopes that one of them could succeed in lulling the Old One back to its slumber. That was nice; at least I wouldn’t have to find the Nexus on my own… That might have taken an entire hour or two… unless the Fog jammed Starfleet sensors.
More names were smattered throughout the document: The Lost Queen, The False Queen, the Maiden in White, Ed… but I knew none of them Well, I guess this means I won’t have to find it on my own. A roll of the dice and I was twenty-five again… how many times did that make it? Never mind, it didn’t matter.
There were four Origins: Wanderer, Knight, Magician, and Priest but, after long and hard consideration, I settled for the role of Wanderer. First of all, it was free, while the others weren’t, but (more to the point) it was also the outsider option, the Drop-In, as it were. I don’t want memories of this place. I don’t want a sense of belonging here… and what’s more, I don’t want the sense of regret and despair that might come with seeing a world I had known so well brought so low.
No… Wanderer it was. Safer to have no connections than an additional source of pain and despair. From what I knew of this place, despair far more likely to end a hero’s quest here than actual violence… especially considering that violence did little but transform a living hero into a shade that was no less dangerous.
No sooner had I locked in my choice of origin than I was presented with an ethical quandary in the form of the perk ‘Soul Gathering’. It was free for everyone but by no means mandatory. If I took it, whenever I killed someone ‘worthy’ (i.e. powerful) their soul would drop nearby for me to pick up. The souls of the unworthy would simply be automatically picked up.
Did I want those souls? What would I do with them? Was it permitted to collect the souls of those I had deemed worthy of my blade if not my respect? Was it permitted for anyone to break the cycle of life and afterlife? Did I have any right to take more than the lives of my foes? Could I really lay claim to their… everything? Wasn’t that fundamentally wicked? It seemed like a source of nothing but corruption to me.
I didn’t know… and talking about it with my companions led to a symposium that lasted nearly six-hours as each voiced their opinion of, or disinterest in, the subject, but no resolution. Ultimately, and still very much uncertain of the rightness of my action, I decided that, yes, I would take the perk. At the very least, I could do my duty as a Soul Reaper and perform a Soul Burial on those lost and confused spirits… and I might just find a use for this… ability?… down the road. One that wasn’t reprehensible. A tool was only as evil as the use to which it was put… even if some tools were more suited to evil uses than others.
Wanderers also got ‘Stable Movement’ as a freebie, the ability to run on stuff like ice or wooden beams without falling down. It was, by far, the least useful perk I’d ever gotten. I could have done that in my original lifetime back in my prime. Now, after spending decades in the PokeVerse, InfamousVerse, RanmaVerse, MetalGearVerse, and AvatarVerse I had little trouble with terrain much nastier than ice or tightropes… and that didn’t even count the various means I had to fly, levitate, or teleport across such obstacles that might have stymied less mobile individuals.
The utter blandness of that freebie made me briefly reconsidered my choice of Wanderer, but after reading through all the capstones… I didn’t think I could, in good conscience, take any of them. They were, to a one, fundamentally evil, using the souls of the slain as power sources. The Wanderer one stripped powers and abilities off of powerful souls for implantation into others (at the cost of contaminating their persona). The Knight one allowed one to forge those souls into weapons and armor. The Mage and Priest ones allowed said souls to be transformed into spells or miracles respectively. Good lord, this world was horrific.
Of course, I wouldn’t have taken the Priest line in any case. The God of this world was not my God… Not that I was pledging myself to any higher power besides myself. Not after Supernatural. Which left me in an interesting position.
I’d never before faced a jump where I didn’t spend a single point on perks. I considered rejecting ‘Stable Movement’, since it was all-but-useless in the face of my other abilities and capabilities, but decided, in the end, to keep it. It couldn’t hurt and rejecting it would just be being petty. Maybe I’d do better in Gear?
Wanderers began with Leather Armor, a Falchion Dagger, and a Wooden Shield. I resolved to burn them all just to get the newb taint off me… petty I know, but… eww. For one thing, Falchions are swords, not daggers, you unspeakable machine! I sighed at the mere idea of a dagger-sized machete… then blinked as the machine updated.
“Comma added, oh pedantic one,” it snarked.
I looked again, then chuckled. It now listed the starting equipment for a Wanderer as ‘Leather Armor, Falchion, Dagger, and Wooden Shield’. Excellent. So much better. I ignored the machine’s petulance and moved on. I was still going to burn the armor and shield, and melt down the weapons… even though I was pretty certain they’d respawn within a day at most. The only other option was to import some of my better gear as newb equipment, but there wasn’t any practical advantage to doing so, so I decided against it.
Still, there were a few items I would not turn my nose up at, even if they weren’t the best. I plunked down my first two-hundred for a regenerating supply of ‘Full Moon Grass’ and ‘Old Spice’. Each came with ten uses, with the Grass being a potent healing item (for both the living and dead) that refilled every other day, and the Spice being a powerful mana restorative that could be used in cooking and refilled every three days. If nothing else, I could alchemy either supply into useful potions and tinctures.
Part of me wondered if Old Spice was more hot or spicy, more woody, pungent, earthy, nutty, or piney, more sweet, sour, bitter, or cooling, more fruity, sulfury, floral, or herbaceous… each spice had a number of different characteristics and each could be useful in different dishes. For instance, Oregano was both bitter and herbaceous, making it excellent for tomato dishes, where the bitterness of the tomatoes could hide the bitterness of the herb while allowing the savory flavor to shine. It was not suited for sweet dishes, where the bitterness would clash unpleasantly.
Moving on, I skipped over ‘Turpentine’, which I could freaking make if I needed it… it wasn’t like it was a rare and magical substance. Of course, I wouldn’t need it for the primary purpose to which it was put to in this world… and no, not thinning paint or for medical purposes. This was clearly Gum Turpentine, a thick and highly flammable gel typically referred to as pine rosin… and it was used for setting weapons on fire to make them all the more damaging. If I needed a flaming weapon… I’d just use raw firebending.
Also skipped was the ‘Grindstone’, which promised to restore the durability of a weapon and reduce wear and tear… my weapons didn’t wear out. Artifacts are good that way. The Throwing Knives (infinite supply) was cheap enough to be tempting… but not that tempting.
The ‘Fragrant Ring’, a magician’s toy, was a slow mana regen item, which, honestly, wasn’t that bad a choice… but the ‘Thief’s Ring’ would make it difficult for enemies to notice me. Both not half bad… but did I really need either? I had stealth fields and an invisibility cloak… I highly doubted the ‘Thief’s Ring’ could improve on that combo and I seldom ran out of mana since a lot of my ‘magic’ was powered by physical endurance or spiritual / mental power. I didn’t exactly have a character sheet showing me how much health, mana, stamina, willpower, or other forms of power pools I actually had or had used. Franky, to be honest, I was kind of glad of that fact. Having actual metrics would be… weird. It would feel too much like I was in an RPG rather than… I dunno… living an adventure?
I didn’t know. Maybe I was just splitting hairs. Maybe if I was offered such a status screen I’d take it. Information was seldom a bad thing. Anyway, I passed on the rings. Maybe if I found them I’d keep them. Were they Items in the game? I couldn’t remember. However, there was an item that was far more tempting. It was called ‘The Stone of Ephemeral Eyes’ and it was an extra life. That… that… was very tempting indeed. The relatively low three-hundred Choice price-point made it all the more attractive… even if it was only usable once.
Still, it wasn’t as if I’d ever actually died… yet. Did I really need the safety net? For one thing, there were six-hundred point items that had actual utility rather than merely being a failsafe. Take for instance, the ‘Northern Regalia’ which was a suit of armor and two powerful soul-rending swords named ‘Demonbrandt’ and ‘Soulbrandt’. Of course, I already had a Zanpakuto and had no plans to return to the BleachVerse any time soon. How often would I be fighting Demons and Ghosts? How soon would it be before I ate those words?
The ‘Nexial Shard’ could be used to make a great underground fortress, with archstones to teleport to the Nexus… and a new shard would be granted ten years after using the last… But did I really feel the need to build a series of underground megabunkers in every jump? I… kinda did… but not six-hundred points worth… and none of these fucking things were discounted!
But then there was the ‘Storm Ruler’, a powerful weapon that, when swung, would cause the very winds themselves to tear my foes asunder. It didn’t require ancestral spirits or a monolith forest to be at full power (as, I assumed, the in-setting copy would) and said ‘full power’ could grow over time (as, I assumed, the in-setting copy couldn’t)… and its power could be applied to any melee weapon in my collection.
“Oh that’s just greedy that is!” came a petulant protest from behind me. “You could spend those points letting us import!”
“Zane…” I growled. “I will bop you. This setting is bleak with a capital yerg. You’re welcome to come along of course, but I don’t want anyone being tainted by this place.”
“What about Ahab and Joy?” he asked, shifting into puppy mode and pouting at me adorably. Thankfully, I am immune to Zane-based cuteness.
“I can’t stop them…” I pointed out, then added, “but at most they’ll get a freebie. Do you actually want any of those creepy ass powers?”
“Nooo…” he allowed, then picked up Ziggy and (holding the limp Zig in front of his face) pretended that Ziggy was talking, shifting his voice into a higher register. “but… but… mommaaa… The three-hundred pointers aren’t terrible.”
“But-” I tried to protest.
“And Soul of Ice doesn’t need a wind attack,” Not-Ziggy added.
“But-” I tried again.
“And do you really want your SOUL BLADE corrupted by this place?” the world’s least convincing Ventriloquist’s Ferret pressed.
I was trying very hard not to get cross. These were all good points. “No, but-”
“But what?!” Ziggy chose that moment to yawn hugely even as Zane’s voice cracked at how high he was pushing the falsetto. It made it seem like Ziggy was yelling.
“Soul of Ice has that Mjolnir form!” I fangirled. “It would be perfect!… wind and lightning.”
“Can’t Mjolnir already do that?” AJ asked from where he was wrestling Francine for the last Snicker’s bar. Shopping day wasn’t until tomorrow.
“It can call up storm winds…” I allowed, “but not winds that cut enemies apart.”
“Right…” Zane said, draping the Zig over my head as he reverted to human form and stepped up behind me, pushing me out of the way and accessing the VMoD’s controls. “You want that power, you’re going to have to disadvantage for it. You can import us with those six-hundred Choice. Look, it even says we don’t get origins so no corruption.” He was pointing at the ‘Demon Slayers’ item, which came with the standard (but not universal) eight companion slots with four-hundred choice each.
“But that’s highway robbery!” I yelped, pushing him away from the Machine, even though he couldn’t actually lock in a purchase. “It’s too expensive.”
“What are we, chopped flarn?” he said, grinning down at me as I pushed at his chest in vain.
“You are not a Centauri!” I snarked, wagging a finger in his face.
“I know…” he anti-preened. Running his fingers through his silky black hair, he added, “My hair isn’t quite that fabulous.”
“Look…” I began. “I’ll think about it.” I held up my hand to forstal his dance of glee. “But no promises. Maybe I’ll do ‘Fellow Slayer’ and bring just you along instead. But six-hundred for a crap package that doesn’t include background discounts? That’s twice as much as I’m willing to pay. For that price, I’d expect you each to get eight or nine-hundred Choice… and be able to buy items. Even ‘Fellow Slayer’ is pricy. This game world is meant to be claustrophobic and isolating.”
“Fine…” he grunted, “but if you don’t import me-”
I cut him off, finishing for him. “You’ll come along anyway and annoy me just the same. Importing just makes you fit in better, it doesn’t limit who comes and who doesn’t.”
With that in mind, I looked at the Drawbacks. I really did. ‘New Game Plus 7’ would allow me to take both the import option and the Stormlord’s Power… but did I really feel like an unrelenting challenge of darkness and despair? I did not.
I considered ‘Sudden Surprise’, which, at two-hundred, wasn’t half bad, seeing as how it would ensure that my foes were not complete idiots, giving them a modicum of cunning and making them prone to ambushes or attacks from above. I could put up with that. I could also put up with ‘Barred Entry’ which would make every door & window unbreakable (walls too, for that matter) and every entry would be locked. Thus, I’d have to find a key… or pick the lock… the drawback didn’t say they were unpickable… no… never mind. In retrospect, ‘Barred Entry’ sounded like a recipe for frustration… and an ungodly amount of backtracking as I had to search every open area for key #1 then repeat for every other damned key. Fuck it.
“Storm Ruler’s Power on Mjolnir of Ice… how I want you… but I can’t do that to the others…” I over-dramatized, pretending to be heartsore and near fainting. Ziggy licked my nose.
“So Demon Slayers it is,” I sighed. “Too damned aspensive, especially without the ability to buy items. Never say I don’t give you anything.” I commanded, then made my picks. The slots went to Zane, Joy, Velma, Toph, Kendra, Bao, Francine, and… sigh… Cirno.
I had offered the last to Ahab, but he begged off, saying, “I think it would be interesting to import to this world as a Priest. I’m willing to take the risks. It sounds fascinating.”
I raised my eyebrow and then shrugged, not pointing out that with the import he’d be a better priest, only without the unpleasant memories. It was his call. Then again, subsuming himself into the role he was inhabiting was kinda Ahab’s shtick. He routinely went so deep under that he ‘forgot’ who he actually was for a while. Thus, his slot went to Cirno.
As for Joy? She begged off the jump entirely. “I… think I’ll avoid this one.”
“You sure?” I asked, not blaming her but not wanting her to miss out.
“Nothing I want actually,” she said, shrugging. “Want nor need.”
“Thief’s Grace?” I suggested.
She quirked an eyebrow, then chuckled. “I’ve already got that, don’t I?”
“I… yeah, honestly…” I allowed, then shrugged myself. “But a boost is a boost, right?”
“Give it to one of the others. Petra Maybe. Or Ziggy.”
I considered. With Joy begging off entirely, I had an additional slot to fill or the Choice Points would be wasted, since they couldn’t be banked. At least I was pretty sure it couldn’t. The screen of the VMoD flashed that no, they couldn’t when I asked, but it had registered that Joy had forfeited her slot, giving me a full slot to do with as I liked. So that meant I could and should invite two others.
I settled on Ziggy and AJ, suggesting the Wanderer’s basic and mid-tier perks for AJ and actually just selecting them for Ziggy. ‘Stable Movement’ would be good for both fuzz face and swordboy, and the stealth boost of ‘Thief’s Grace’ (as well as its boost to agility and dexterity) would be invaluable for both kleptomaniacal weaseloid and one who was the second best swordsman among my crew.
AJ glowered at me whenever I said that, but he knew it was true. Perhaps it was the fact that I fought for my life every time I bared my blade, perhaps it was merely the Choice, or maybe the fact that something in the diminutive Gallade kept him from going all out against me. It was hard to say, but he seldom gave less than his best in our daily bouts and was constantly inventing new flourishes with which to try and trip me up. It was otherwise a toss up which of us had more experience with the sword.
I’d heard, once upon a memory, that it took ten thousand hours of practice to become a master of anything. Ten thousand hours of drawing, ten thousand hours of kata practice and bouts, ten thousand hours of working on cars. Of course, that was a massive oversimplification. Inherent talent played a huge part in how well one did, and the degree of challenge experienced in those hours mattered as much if not more than the dedication applied to that practice… but in the end, the more time spent trying to improve, the better one got.
If ten thousand hours was a decent approximation for being world-class… twenty hours a week for ten years? What was twenty hours a week for ten-thousand years? Because that was how much time the pair of us had put in… Sure, I had had far more absolute time, what with always being incarnate and always being active in every jump, but if I practiced between sixteen and twenty-five hours a week, AJ practiced at least sixty and always sought out the best fighters wherever we went. In fact, it was he who was always came up with the new techniques for me to use, the new variations of training routines, programmed the sparring drones for us to fight.
Not that I wouldn’t have done it for him as well, but there simply wasn’t time to do everything I had to do. There were always more books to read, always more games to play, gamenights to plan, techniques to practice, skills to work on, meals to eat, meals to cook, things to build. Even with twenty-hours a day and another twenty-four hours inside my own head to work on purely mental things… Only a mortal could ever think an immortal could grow bored with all the astounding variety of things to experience and do.
Three-hundred-and-eight hours a week was just not nearly enough… and that was factoring in that I had glasses that let me read effectively as fast I could turn the pages… or (these days) scroll whichever way the text ran. Generally speaking, I figured it was simpler to just have a VI scan the texts I wanted to read, then project the text on a virtual display that scrolled past just slow enough that the glasses cancelled out the motion blur. This allowed me to read a staggering nine-hundred pages an hour (a thousand words a second) of dry text and three times that much of ‘light reading’… i.e. novels or comics. My companions tended to look at me as if I was mental when I complained that I couldn’t read faster.
Speaking of them, Velma took the first two mage abilities, ‘Heightened Capacity’ (improved intelligence and mana capacity, plus the ability to cast the Flame Toss, Soul Arrow, and Water Veil spells) and ‘Acolyte’s Knowledge’ (a basic grounding in the local magic system, with improved damage capacity when casting spells of any kind). It wasn’t much… but smarts and mana-cap are always good to pick up.
Zane, Toph, Bao, and Francine took the priest abilities ‘Simple Belief’ (a resistance to attempts to sway them from their goals once set, thus boosting both willpower and determination, plus the ability to use the Heal miracle.) and ‘Faith’s Reward’ (another willpower improver that doubled as a mana reducer for miracles and a potency booster for all divine blessings placed upon or used by them.) It was hard to argue with double boosts to willpower and improved efficiency.
Unfortunately, then Kendra took both ‘Heightened Capacity’ and ‘Faith’s Reward’, leading me to bang my head against a wall. Whyyyyyy? Why would she do that? What was the point of splitting the bonuses? In Demon’s Souls, spells and miracles were not the same thing and she had pretty much no other magical abilities besides the ‘magic’ of Fairy Tail, which didn’t use mana at all, nor did any of it amount to divine miracles or blessings. Still, I didn’t bother asking, as I’m sure she had her reasons… even if they wouldn’t necessarily make sense to me.
Cirno alone took the first two knight abilities ‘Move Set’ (the knowledge of how to handle and use many weapons, but rigidly, as if following a book, yet able to be innovated and improved) and ‘Knight’s Honor’ (an ‘incredible’ strength boost, enough to allow one to move in heavy armor as if it were little more than light cloth). Knight’s Honor also came with a lifetime’s training in a single weapon. She picked ‘Big Smashy Hammer’. Oy.
Ahab did as he’d promised to do and imported himself as a Priest, one trained in the way of miracles and blessings from the Lord Above and able to maintain his faith even in these bleak times. That got him which got him ‘Soul Gathering’, ‘Simple Belief’, and an equipment pack that included ‘Mirdan Armor’ (whatever that was), a halberd, a talisman of Fog-God (or whatever he was actually called), and a heater shield. How very D&D Cleric.
After the imports, I had four-hundred Choice left, and since I really had nothing left to buy from my ‘OMG! Must Have!’ list, I snagged Thief’s Ring and Stone of Ephemeral Eyes, which had two different uses, depending on what reality it was in. In the Demon’s Souls Jump, it could be used while I was in Soul Form to allow me to revive my body. Outside of this horrid world, it would allow me to cheat death once before crumbling away forever… hopefully I wouldn’t need it at all… but if I did, hopefully I wouldn’t need it more than once. That ran me out of points and, with no small amount of unease, I locked in the jump settings.
How to describe Boletaria? Imagine Victorian London without all the charm, at two in the morning, in the fog. It had the kind of ridiculously overbuilt and convoluted defenses one sees in fantasy art that would cost a fortune to maintain, require crippling taxes to build, and serve ultimately no purpose because the threat either comes from within or cannot be stopped by walls. Or (in this case) both, for Boletaria was full of zombies and demons and mutants… and the Soul Mist that had made them.
It was beyond unpleasant. The game failed spectacularly to tell you just how horrible everything smelled. It smelled like a rancid sewer full of decomposing bodies… because that’s exactly what it was. It was a crumbling ruin, populated by the mad and the dead and by feral beasts feeding on both. The term ‘Fetid Mire of Misery and Despair’ sprang instantly to mind.
Everywhere there was danger, and if the monsters didn’t respawn in the reality of the setting, more always seemed willing to move in to take the place of the dead… and there were phantoms, black and horrible and vicious, that appeared from out of the fog from time to time. When they did, they always moved towards the nearest slayer, be it me and one of mine, or one of the few remaining heroes, and once within range, they would attack ruthlessly and relentlessly. The only place free of them was the Nexus.
Then there were the Great Demons, the ‘Boss Monsters’, which could be lurking around any corner, waiting to catch the unwary, as much prisoners to their own wicked natures as those they hunted. It was a sick arena of dread, an unending spiral of decay. Almost nothing there was reasonable, everything wanted you dead. Me dead. It was as if our very aliveness was an affront to them.
And so I stayed in the Nexus and sent my followers out into the world to explore. I only ventured forth when they needed me, when they called upon me for evacuation or to take out a boss or a dragon. I was Captain Deus Ex Machina, arriving just in time to deliver the righteous smiting of an unjust and uncaring god.
And I didn’t. That world… or at least the parts we saw, was so far past saving it wasn’t funny. The existential ennui, the bleakness of the tragedy that had unfolded there served no purpose, and I could find no way to make things better. All I could accomplish was to stop the darkness from spreading… but to what end? Who was I saving? Who was there to rescue? The last Monumental? Those few half dead survivors? What world would they inherit if I ended this plague of evil once and for all?
Still, thanks to my restraint in not taking Barred Entry, my team had been smashing through doors and barred windows and sometimes walls to find anything anomalous. Books were especially prized, but sane or semi-sane refugees were also welcome. I wanted more information on what happened here, and why.
What I knew was that Boletaria’s King, Allant the Roman-Numeraleth, made a devil’s deal with the Old One to grant his kingdom limitless wealth or some goofy shit like that. It hadn’t worked and everyone had died and most of the defenders had become corrupted, transformed into demons themselves. I knew all this because The Maiden in Black, an eyeless ex-demoness in the form of a young woman, and the Monumental, the last of an order of batshit insane monks, told me so.
The Maiden in Black said it would all be made well if we lulled the Old One back to sleep, but she did not say that all who have died or been driven insane will be restored. I did not trust her, and suspected her motives for helping us. My distrust stemmed in no small part from the fact that her thoughts were hidden from me… ~Have I forgotten how to trust those I cannot scan?~ I wondered.
The Monumental said much the same thing as the Maiden, but added that she was once a Demon, explaining that that was why she was so certain that she could could put the Old One to sleep if all the other Great Demons were slain first.
Five archstones linked the Nexus to five parts of Boletaria or neighboring kingdoms (The Palace, the Stonefang Mines, Latria’s Penitentiary, The Shrine of Storms, and a fucked up place called the Valley of Defilement). A shattered Sixth Archstone also stood in the Nexus, apparently leading to the Northern Lands, grave of (so the locals say) hundreds of thousands of knights sent by Alant to conquer the native Giants that lived in that frozen land… but if Boletaria could have fielded an army of knights that vast, it already had limitless wealth. So, I was sceptical.
From being lectured by my cousin — I’d asked why he kept disconnecting my PS3 from the internet… apparently there were were occasional online events that shifted one or more realms to their darkest setting — I remembered that World Tendency was important, but I had no idea how one would judge the lightness or darkness of a world… or where the boundaries of each ‘world’ actually lied. Neither did I have any idea how to influence the World Tendency for that matter… aside from dying while in a living body or killing one of the few humans who still lived.
I did remember (thanks to the fact that Demon’s Souls shipped originally with a small player’s guide slash walkthrough) that there were something like twenty boss fights in the game, though in playing I’d only ever beaten Phalanx, Tower Knight, Armor Spider, and Flamelurker… the four easiest of the lot… and that only by using an exploit that gave me functionally unlimited Souls. Without the cheat, I’d been unable to even defeat the five story tall Tower Knight. Hell, even with that cheat, I’d found the game so unrelentingly gloomy that I’d given up beating it at all, always promising myself that I’d get back to it.
In addition to the normal bosses, there were two Dragons in the game that I knew about and (supposedly) a Primeval Demon in each of the five regions. But who the other bosses might be, or how to find any of them, or the Primeval Demons, I had no idea and that meant scouting and research. And I wanted to know what lay beyond the sixth Arch, which meant repairing it.
One by one, my followers brought me the Demon Souls of Phalanx, Tower Knight, Penetrator, Armor Spider, Flamelurker, Fool’s Idol, Maneater, Adjudicator, Old Hero, Leechmonger, Dirty Colossus, and the five Primeval Demons. I knew the names because that was what the Monumental called them. They left the Dragons and the Vanguard (the ‘unbeatable’ tutorial Demon… that of course expert players had figured out how to beat) to me, as well as the five Great Demons whose power blocked access to the Old One. And, of course, the Black Phantoms that kept stalking my companions.
I tackled the second gate first. It was the one that led to the Stonefang Mine, an area fundamentally limited in scope by its very nature. Beyond the gate, in the dark depths of the mountain, I fought a Black Phantom of a wanderer named Scirvir who had managed to kill Velma and Cirno as they’d searched the area, and a giant pink whale-blob thing that, apparently was the Primeval Demon… it was not so much a fight as a slaughter.
Upon my return to the Nexus with my newest Souls, I noticed that the Arch Stone that I’d passed through to Stonefang was now pulsing a definite white, while all the other stones were dark and inky. Huh. Apparently that was how one could tell what the World Tendency of an area was… if only the borders were clearly marked.
Now that I had my hands on one of the Phantom Souls and a Primevil Soul, I figured that it was time to figure out what I was dealing with. One by one I studied the Souls, trying to determine what had happened to them and if a Soul Burial would fix it or if I had to Spiritbend them first. They resisted both processes, as if shielded somehow from giving up their corruption. The same was true of all the weaker souls that had been collected.
We steadfastly ignored the entreaties of the Nexus dwellers to trade them our collected souls in exchange for their wares… though more than once I found Cirno trying to sneak off with some of our gear to try and sell it to the other would-be adventurers. I wasn’t certain if I should be annoyed or pleased. Still, I wanted to encourage proactivity and initiative, so I gave her limits on what she could sell and a cookie… then, after she applied the puppy-pout, a head pat.
Unfortunately, there was only so much stalling I could do, and only so much leveling I could accomplish as long as I was unwilling to allow the corruption of this world into myself. I found my curiosity growing, tempting me to experiment upon the Demon Souls, but I wouldn’t. Not yet. Not until I knew more about them. But first, I decided that I needed to complete the collection.
The dragons then. Great beasts, surely. I had to know if their souls would be different from the humans or the monsters. It felt like… putting down a pair of rabid dogs. They could not match my maneuverability in the air, could not catch me with their claws, and the fire of their breath only served to empower me. I let them spend themselves, not wanting to cause them pain when I did what had to be done. After they’d exhausted themselves, all it took was a flash of Soul of Ice and I could add the souls of the Red Dragon and the Blue Dragon to my growing collection.
There was a difference there, and it allowed me to see clearer what the difference between the others was. The Primeval Demons’ Souls had no coloration. They were dark as night and without variation. These were the Souls of things that had never known mortality. Others, the Souls of corrupted beasts, were murky, full of emotions without form or edge. And the largest group, the Souls taken from what had once been Men? They were the most beautiful and most distressing, full of sharpness and twisted desire. I had no desire to have them within me… but I was growing to understand why I’d been unable to purify them or give them a soul burial.
They were not singular souls… Rather, they were like the souls of the greater Hollows of Bleach, composite. Legion was, for all intents and purposes, a Gillian. A collective of mostly equal parts. All the others were Adjuchas, a single powerful consciousness driving something comprised of thousands, often tens of thousands, of souls.
Taking them apart would not be easy. But I needed the rest of the demons out of the way and this god awful mist gone before I could have the time I needed to work in peace. Vanguard fell first. I don’t know why I remembered him being imposing or difficult.
I took down Old King Allant in an assassination long overdue. Since he wasn’t the Real Allant, I sent in a duplicate me to face him, to draw him out and hold his attention. False King met False Slayer of Demons. It was a good fight. I almost felt bad interfering. But I did anyway, beheading the fake sovereign just as he ran my clone through. I took from that fight the legendary Soulbrandt weapon, which I sealed inside a guarded block of ice within my warehouse. I need a secure weapons locker. Cirno’s tried to steal the thing four times, even in spite of my rules.
Since I had that, I figured I might as well get the other one. Old King Doran, the founder of Boletaria, was haunting some shrine in the capital and would only hand over Demonbrandt if a slayer proved themself worthy. He wasn’t a demon, so killing him was out, but it was nice going up against someone who had some real skill. No one else in this world offered me much of a challenge, though I suspect that someone with less combat experience would have been in a world of hurt. Dude was fast, but then again, what else would a demigod be? Once I’d driven the old man to his knees and backed off enough to let him gather himself, he passed over the Demonbrandt.
It was then I presented with a special temptation. This guy, Blacksmith Ed, offered to fuse Soulbrandt and Demonbrandt together… but doing so would take giving up The False King’s Soul. I was considering it, probably more than I should have… But then Ed pointed out that what I had was a copy of Soulbrandt, not the original. Which pissed me off waaaay more than it should have. I took out that anger on the Dragon God.
Firebreathing Dragons, Man… not as fireproof as they should be in this world. DG and me, trading fire, back and forth. Good times man, good times. He burned real good, in the end, and I claimed his soul, along with a big old blunt sword called the ‘Dragon Bone Smasher’ according to the Nexus Dwellers. It wasn’t fake. Unfortunately, its special properties were that it protected the wielder against fire. Which was about as useful as kevlar on a tank. Two down, three to go.
The Old Monk turned out to be another simulacrum, though I have no idea who created him, but his attacks were highly predictable, and knocking him off his balance made defeating him extremely easy. In fact, it was so easy that I went right from there to fight the giant Storm Beast they called the Storm King. Flying creature… surrounded by smaller flying creatures. Honestly, if I didn’t need to kill it to get to the Old One, I’d have left the flying monster to fly to the ends of the Earth… But I did, and I couldn’t, and I felt bad about that… Right up until big flappy hit me with his tail and sent me crashing into the forest far below.
Zane was there, holding the Stormruler, clearly mocking me with the weapon.
“That thing is useless until we figure out a way to re-empower it,” I pointed out.
“Yeah?” he agreed, then smirked as he added, “You look silly with twigs on your head.”
“Zane…” I asked, rolling my eyes at his silliness, “Is there a reason you’re here?”
“Yeah,” his grin faded into a grimace. “Cirno found some magical katana in a pit, then got attacked by a crazy guy demanding she hand it over. She’s in pretty bad condition, but we got her back to the Medbay so she’ll be fine.”
I growled, “Where is this… man?” I may not care much for the Ice Fairy, but she’s one of mine and no one attacks one of mine, especially not to steal something from her.
“AJ and Ahab are trailing him.” Great thing about teamwork. I dropped by the Medbay to pat the wounded fairy and pass over some healing grass, then made my way to where AJ and Ahab were. Counter to what you might think, the Medbay actually took time to patch the wounded up. It was far from instantaneous.
The guy turned out some kind of wannabe ninja, dressed all in grey, and had a mind like razorblades and poison. Confronting him, I learned that his name was Satsuki and the sword was Makoto. I squared off, ready to read him the riot act and claim a pound of flesh or two… when he dropped, dead, right in front of me. What the hell? I picked up the sword, then dropped it almost at once. Fucking thing was vampiric. I could feel it pulling the lifeforce out of me… fast. Like… How the hell had Satsuki lasted even the ten minutes carrying the fucking thing, fast.
I sealed it away with a sign saying, “Warning, Vampiric, not in the good way.”… right after I nailed Monsignor Sky Flappy with it and waited until he fell out of the sky. He was dead by the time he hit the ground. Good thing about being able to fly? No longer being afraid of falling off of high things. Bad thing about being able to fly? Having to fly down to pick up the soul of a dead demonically corrupted Sky Flappy out of a bog.
That left one final bar to my path to the Old One… which was a problem, since that one was the Maiden Astraea… who was a healer and appeared to be a genuinely good person. She, and her bodyguard, Garl Vinland, tended to the sick and ill who resided in the Valley of Defilement. Not only did they seem like decent people, but Garl was covered from head to toe in Dark Silver, a metal said to protect the wearer from malice and all magics.
Thus, I resolved to see if there was a way to resolve things peacefully. I froze Garl in place, wrapping the water of the swamp around his armor and massive hammer. “Stay there. I just need a word with the lady,” I told him, and I’d meant it.
Unfortunately, Astraea didn’t see it that way. She didn’t give me a chance to explain that Garl was merely immobilized, instead assuming I’d killed him. She took her own life. I was a moment too slow, failing to realize what she intended, and for all my speed, I’d never tried stopping someone from suiciding before.
Her soul was unlike any of the others, pure, bright, and brimming with hope, with the desire to create a better world. I stared at it, there in the darkness of that unhallowed place, weighing what I’d done and what she’d done. And then I did what I’d sworn not to do. I partook of this world’s evil. I had to understand what had driven this woman to this place, this Saint to become an Archdemon. I raised the soul to my lips and breathed in the essence of the Maiden Astraea.
Memories flooded through me, lifetimes of concentrated emotions, every drop of concentrated spirit energy a bright or dark, bitter or sweet, experience. So many souls, so much life, the lives of nearly fifty thousand mortals, most of them slain by the Maiden’s followers, travellers come to the valley for immoral purposes, set upon by the madmen who worshipped the Maiden as a living goddess, a saviour… and through it all the power of the Maiden, her desire to do good, her feeling of abandonment by an uncaring God.
I knew it all too well. I drank it all in, held it for as long as I could, communing with the Maiden, trying to understand why she’d willingly become a demon, the first mortal ever to survive the transformation with mind and will intact. And, I realized, no longer the only one.
The Archdemons had been a trap. A clever one. The Old One had given his power to five others, counting on them to gather souls for him… or to be taken out by someone powerful enough to defeat all five of the Archdemons… someone greedy enough to absorb all those souls… and to make a deal with the Old One for even more power.
For that purpose, I had now proven myself willing to do the second and able to do the first. The portal to the Old One’s Domain, hidden in the floor of the Nexus the whole time, finally opened. I felt like I was holding my breath as I stepped through.
The Old One was a blimp, an overblown version of the Primordial Demons, and the Maiden In Black, having followed me through the portal, kind of waved him over and he opened his mouth, inviting me inside. Certain it was a trap, but relatively confident I could escape it any number of ways, not the least of which would be giving Old and Gruesome the mother of all brainfreezes, I stepped inside… only to face the disfigured flailing blob that was all that was left of the real King Allant.
It took me longer to stop laughing than to kill it… and I wasn’t in a laughing mood. This idiot had killed millions and nearly destroyed the world for greed. I scooped up his soul as well.
The Maiden in Black asked for the Old One’s Soul, saying it would allow her to put him back to sleep. And then I understood. “This is all a power grab to you, isn’t it Demoness? No. I’ll not do that. All that means is the cycle will repeat. Again and again. Forever. No. Stay where you are, Maiden. I won’t destroy you just to destroy you, but I didn’t come to this world for power. I came for knowledge. And to set things right.”
At last I knew all I needed to know, and there, on that beach, I worked my magic. One by one I shattered the Demon Souls, allowing the lesser souls they contained to fly forth, binding them around me in a swirling vortex, hundreds of thousands of them. I faced the Maiden in Black and said, “Watch Closely, Demoness. I shall teach you a Greater Miracle.”
Then I exhaled, pushing out all the souls I’d ingested, cleansing myself of the taint of this place. That done, and with the Maiden in Black staring hungrily at them all, I pulled the water of the bay up into a spirit crafting, a dance of purification, as I released my Bankai slowly, focusing it down so that every tiny snowflake was a tiny me, holding a tiny Zanpakuto, and then, in the moment of purification, before the mists could bind those souls again, I performed the Soul Burial and sent the population of Boletaria and its neighbors to their final rest.
When the snow cleared, The Maiden stared at me with her eyeless gaze. “What have you done?” she asked, voice trembling.
“I have broken the cycle,” I explained sadly. I felt no triumph in this. “The Old One is no more. You are now the only demon in the land. I cannot cleanse all of it, because my time is too brief. If you honestly would do good, teach those who come after me to help cleanse those souls. I have taught you the way. Go now. There is work to be done.”
And there was. Some other time I shall tell you of the work repairing the sixth archstone and my sojourn among the Giants of the North. Of forging the Northern Regalia, and of purifying the lands as best I could. But that is for another time. For now… We returned to that beach at the end of ten years. The world had improved… but it was still vastly empty, the phantoms and insane, the twisted of the valley of defilement long cured or destroyed, the valley itself cleansed from the world through acts of bending and stranger magics.
As it turns out, I had not purged myself of all the souls. Astraea herself had refused to go. Two things bound her. One was the fate of Garl, the second a lack of desire to see this world’s God face to face. Garl, we found, kneeling over Astraea’s body, unmoving, starving himself. He resisted medical attention until I called forth Astraea’s presence and she told him not to be ridiculous. This was, after all, a world where death had less meaning.
I brought Garl and his sister, the holy knight Selen Vinland, back to the Nexus and made them an offer. “Come with me. There are worlds beyond this place. Worlds perhaps worth saving. I cannot promise much… but you might be able to do some good.”
I offered my hand and hospitality… and they accepted.
Next: World 39 – Traitor’s Fury
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