Chapter 2:

Convergence: Conflation

Aria-Cherishment: My Final Performance

Trees blended in blurry images; a single footstep tapped their branches lighter than a feather—so light that the contact between the sole of the shoe and the tree’s branches was seamlessly inaudible. Not even the starlight could keep up with the breakneck momentum that Licht had garnered; the world around him had become an omnidirectional splotch of color that, ordinarily, was indistinguishable—reckless in approach.

The Halifers stored immense amounts of divine magical energy—an average person would promptly be consumed by the sheer volume, hence why the Halifers only chose to bestow such potential to those they deemed worthy. By some strange twist of fate, Licht had found himself tangled up in a complex web of physical and psychologically demanding conflict. With the introduction of the Halifer’s power, little doubt remained that the trials everyone else had faced up to this point would eventually come for him as well.

With Lacia trapped in a dream world, there would be no way to support her until she had Lucifero on the ropes or vice versa. Unexpectedly, this had caused him to backtrack, looping around towards a growing devilish aura. It was dense, almost like a fog on a humid night. The further into the forest he dove, the thicker it became, almost unbearably soupy as the air began to aggregate with deep plumes of moisture.

His heart pounded against his chest with a fervent desire to either put the Halifer’s strength on full display against whatever opponent was waiting for him or, simply, flee—regroup with Aria and Brendan on Chiipha and increase the odds of victory over Ahzef even though he knew this was a selfish approach. Even so, his vast array of knowledge would be the one thing that kept them all alive if that was even still a possibility. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what choice he made—the fight had finally come to him.

Something had joined him in the canopies of the trees, noisily banging against the trunks, shaking leaves from the attached limbs. He couldn’t make out its form; it was keeping near-equal pace with him but still slow enough that he was acutely aware he was being tailed. A vanguard of the main force perhaps? No—something about this enemy was off. If they had the capability to move almost as fast as he could, it was reasonable to think it could simultaneously attack—but it didn’t. Why?

He reduced his speed enough to allow whoever or whatever was behind him to make up some ground. This would make sure they remained unaware he knew he was being followed while he kept tabs on his pursuer.

The air continued to grow even thicker. Egregiously sweating, he deployed a mana-skin to counter the effects of whatever he was getting into. It wasn’t just uncomfortable, the air seemed to be siphoning off his own mana, bit by bit.

Engaging in battle here would be stupid,” he thought. “My own attacks would be underwhelming while an enemy’s would likely be bolstered—I’m at a clear disadvantage. Even if I were to create an alternate terrain, I would have to use an exorbitant amount of mana keeping it up to counter the siphon.

A large tree leaf just ahead of him had filled with condensation, creating a reflective surface; it was the perfect natural mirror and, just as he thought, whatever was following him had caught up and now he could make out its form, black and wispy. It was like smoke, but this thing seemed to be attempting an actual physical manifestation.

Light was beginning to filter through the tree canopy despite the relative blur of the world around him—he was approaching a clearing. Another aura began to manifest itself as he edged closer to the break in foliage. It was innocent but immensely powerful with the same divine resonance as his own which could only mean Hika was already there and prepared to engage whatever was behind him.

“A convergence point,” he mumbled. “Her aura is offsetting whatever the thing behind me is producing. It seems no one will have an inherent advantage here, unless…” He thought back to Halysian where he had received the Halifer’s power.

Remember, Licht,” Ethera had warned, “you have gained a tremendous power, but if you allow the Halifer to be stolen, you lose one of the keys between Earth and Chiipha. The battles that will take place on Earth and Chiipha cannot overlap with each other. The devils must remain separated as much as possible to ensure the security of the Halifers.

This seemed like a no-brainer. Most battles throughout history had implemented such tactics to confuse and weaken their enemy. The concept didn’t seem any different here, but there was more to it than he realized.

The Halifers will resonate with each other if they sense the hearts of their wielders seek retribution.”

Care to explain?” he’d asked, curiously.

There is no single being, not even myself, that doesn’t have regrets—that hasn’t done something they aren’t proud of and knew was inherently wrong. I’ve seen your past, Licht. You will have no trouble finding such retribution, but it’s what’s in your past that will test you,” she said. “The Halifer must sense that, and you must be able to overcome that which lingers in your heart.

He broke through the density and into the clearing where he caught sight of Hika, fully prepared for a fight. Beside her was a small floating cube. Without warning, his Leyliner flared to life, flashing a sequence of biological codes before landing on a matching DNA sample stored in the device’s memory for future reference.

“I see… So, Hika has Millee in the cube, then. That means whatever is behind me must be…”

A small fireball quickly grew from his palm as he thrust his hand forward. The fireball expanded into a fiery cage, encircling the perimeter of the clearing. Majestically, he came to an immediate stop and, without turning around, sent an uppercut into the chin of his pursuer. The force of the uppercut was so strong it thrust them into the uprights of the cage in a flurry of smoke and fire. Amplified by gravity upon the descent, Licht sent them spiraling into the ground with an aerial kick, crashing down at Hika’s feet.

“It’s so nice to see you groveling so humbly, Kuria,” Hika said, revealing the identity of Licht’s pursuer. Between clenched teeth, “How nice of Licht to put you under my foot! This is for Millee,” she said, stomping Kuria’s face into the dirt “and this is for Mana.” She kicked the devil’s head into a dizzying three-hundred-and-sixty-degree whirl. The sickening crunch of bones ground in her ears as Kuria’s head twisted into knots.

“Sorry, Licht. I know you’re eager to test out the Halifer’s power as well but let me get one more hit in and then she’s all yours,” Hika shouted up at him. She returned her attention to Kuria, face caked with mud. “You know, Kuria, I didn’t really like that the shoes with this new outfit were white while everything else were shades of magenta and red—it just doesn’t match. Also, these shoes are super uncomfortable, so I think I’ll paint them red with your blood first and then use them to—”

The devil swiped at her neck, aiming for a quick kill, but Hika grabbed her hand, expecting the attack. The devil recoiled upon making eye contact with her petrifying stare. Hika whispered in her ear, overcome with fury: “I wasn’t done speaking yet.”

The ground froze over in a beautiful frost. Icy, blue blades of grass seemed to indicate a momentary lapse in time as the tips of their frozen shafts had reversed direction, yet they remained frosted over. There was a momentary flicker, like the flipping of a light switch. Not even Hika could explain what she had done.

Her rage was deep, thirsting for the vengeance of those who had been nothing but kind to her. She snapped, causing a microsecond of confluence in time; she had inadvertently merged the past and present together for that microsecond of a second, but it was enough as indicated by the direction of the tiny icy blades.

Kuria’s now-frozen body stood rigid and frosted over like the grass beneath her feet. Even her eyes had frozen in their sockets, retaining their glimmer of surprise. It wasn’t victory, but it was an arguably better scenario than banishing the ravenous, wrath-driven creature from existence permanently. Still, there was no time to wait around and ambush the abhorrent thing with incriminating question after question. She didn’t look to thaw anytime soon, anyways.

Hika’s breath shimmered in the air as she spoke. “Sorry, Licht, Millee. I’m not really sure what happened, but Kuria is no longer a threat for the ti—” She quickly realized her mistake as Millee could only watch, helpless to provide assistance.

“You forgot this one can shapeshift!” she shouted up.

Licht was already in motion, moving at light-speed. They had the strength to obliterate Kuria if necessary, but the potential information and insight into Ahzef’s plans for Nertiia’s revival were too valuable to pass up. “Sadly, you can’t freeze shadows,” he gritted as a pixelated blade tore into the damp soil where the devil’s shadow had stood a moment prior.

Even the tiniest illumination could provide enough light for a shadow and that very shadow was what Licht now found himself chasing as it slithered across the ground like a serpent atop a pond. Until the devil reassumed physical form, her attacks would lack force, but that didn’t make her any less of a threat. She was fast and it was that very speed that sent Licht into a small panic—he couldn’t catch her.

Gradually, his attacks homed in on the devil’s serpentine shadow, grazing the edges at first as he continued to adjust his aim; a minute more and he’d be able to land an attack. Unfortunately, that was time he didn’t have the luxury of. Kuria’s shadow was mere feet from Hika who had initiated an incantation—a last-ditch attempt to keep the devil from Millee, Chiipha’s princess. If he told Hika to move, it would disrupt whatever she was trying to cast.

The stakes were exponentially high; a single slip-up would mean complete failure of the entire objective and thus, Licht let up on the offense and pulled back. It would be up to Hika to keep the small cube she had sealed Millee in, safe. The volume of the incantation began to rise, indicating she was nearing the end.

Licht’s stance was poised like an Olympic sprinter, prepared to be the dominant athlete who took home the gold, as he fixed his gaze on the cube, bobbing up and down in the air. If Hika’s spell was unsuccessful, he would take Mille and the cube and run. The idea of leaving Hika behind in such an event seemed cruel and selfish, but he knew she wouldn’t change her mind, regardless of how he felt. Even so, the moment of truth had arrived.

“…and I offer all that I am, my solemn duty, to protect what matters most. Consume this soul as acceptance of my payment.” Hika finished the incantation. A brilliant light emanated from her body, whiter than snow—she looked content, almost relieved. The light grew until she was a mere silhouette juxtaposed against the backdrop of shimmering white. Even nature itself seemed to respond to the sudden influx of mana into the environment: trees bent backward in a simultaneous wave, clouds parted like they’d been sliced with a heavenly blade, and the rainwater that had soaked the plant life was called forth, emerging from the leafage.

“What did you just cast?” Licht shouted. “There are bigger devils to fry! What has you so compelled?!”

“Watch and find out,” she echoed.

Licht turned away, shielding his eyes as the light grew to an immeasurable lux. While they may have gained an untold level of power from the Halifers, there was no telling if or when that reserve might run dry, turning Hika’s incredible illumination into a daring danger. Millee was priority number one, though, and they knew the risks. He felt his heart sink a little at the realization that everything had derailed in just a matter of seconds.

He had two choices: wait until the light dimmed and fight with Hika or, rush in, grab the cube, and flee with Millee. Even though the idea of leaving Hika behind left him nauseated, if they left Millee to the devils, their efforts would be in vain—there wouldn’t be any appointing someone to take her place in the event she died, yet Hika’s death would leave a significant power vacuum in their ranks.

As if the potential end of the universe wasn’t enough, he was now faced with a life-or-death decision as his eyes darted between the cube, Hika, and back. Like an ominous foreshadowing portending danger, a single thought crossed his mind: “All three of us could die here, tonight.”

With the same swiftness as before, he rushed into the light, squinting. The luminescence of Hika’s spell had stripped the color from the surrounding environment now awash in dull tones of grey and white. He was fighting a losing battle with his eyelids that wanted nothing more than to block the gleaming brilliance from his eyes.

The further he forged ahead, the thicker the air grew. She had cast a powerful spell, there was no telling how wide the radius of the light field was or if Hika was even still alive. There were always strings attached to such tremendous power; he hated to think that perhaps such power could even demand her life.

Suddenly, a mangled voice rose from somewhere in front of him. “You shouldn’t have assumed you could kill me after expending every last ounce of mana you had. See, the what-if-scenario here is the very thing I am now laying out before you. You sold your soul, and for what?”

Two silhouettes juxtaposed the white backdrop before him. One was upright. The other was being held by the neck, head tilted back, arms at their side. Judging by the short conversation he just overheard, he assumed it was Hika in the latter position.

“That was part of the plan,” Hika’s voice came, but it was raspy. “I knew he was dumb enough to follow me in.” She laughed. “You’re so fu—”

The gut-wrenching sound of tearing flesh made Licht’s blood run cold. As the light finally began to dissipate, he found himself standing before Hika’s ragged body, drowning in a pool of her own blood. He stooped down, placing a hand on her bloodied face. He was aghast, but it highlighted the harsh reality of their situation: one mistake was all it took to jeopardize the entire operation.

Sensing the warmth of his hand, Hika opened her eyes and smiled. “I’m so glad I met you, Licht. You offered to show me your world, giving me a place to call home when I had none. I was afraid, so afraid,” she sobbed, “I wouldn’t get the chance to see such a beautiful place and the chance to say thank you.”

Words caught in his throat before he found the ones to say. “Reality is cruel—I’m so sorry,” he said, shaking his head. His tears diluted the blood on her face, running down her cheek as if they were tears of her own. “You are what kept me going after everyone became separated and I know it’s selfish of me to say that, but I don’t want you to leave.” He shook his head even more fervently.

Cruelty had overtaken reality. He refused to let Hika go, to watch her life flicker out like the flame on a candle. “No. Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Lacia gave me the opportunity to see a world other than my own. Fighting alongside and spending time with you, albeit short, was wonderful.” She raised a hand to his cheeks, wiping away his tears. “I’m giving you my life, Licht, as a final token of the bond we shared.”

With a shaky finger, she drew a small star-like sigil under his eye. “Please take good care of Lacia and tell her not to miss me too much. Finally,” she said, finishing the sigil, “take care of yourse—”

Licht watched on in horror as shadows grew from under Hika’s body, shooting through her like arrows. Blood spattered in every direction, painting the forest an eerie shade of splotchy red. Small trickles became modest flows of crimson as they spread out from beneath her, defrosting the remaining frosted terrain in warm blood.

Her lungs gasped for air as she simultaneously bled out. Her skin faded from toned ivory to a ghostly white. She dug her fingers into the soil, toiling in agony, waiting for the release of death. Small canals dug by her fingertips pooled with blood; they glinted in the final rays of starlight. Her ears rang and her head grew fuzzy from the continued loss of blood. She was on the verge of blacking out, after which death would surely sweep her away. Licht’s cries sounded like they were miles away as her vision delved deeper into the inky depths of black. She could feel tears forming in her eyes, remembering the promise she made with him. She wanted to see the human world and experience all there was to it. There was little room for playtime and exploration though, having been prohibited from venturing beyond the realm of the Aurei and her assignment to Lacia.

Faint murmurs rose from somewhere nearby, but her vision had degraded to a point she could no longer make out their location as her head rang with a violent fervor. The subsequent splashing of blood gave her a temporary moment of awareness. Salty tears dripped onto her face only further enhancing her own. She reached up and managed to wrap her arms around Licht’s neck as she pulled him close.

“Don’t cry for me,” she whispered hoarsely. “Cry because you helped me live the rest of a life worth living.” Her hold on Licht began to weaken as the final traces of life escaped her dying body. “Be with me here when I go,” she pleaded, drawing him in until his head rested against her breast.

With a weak snap, she released the warding on the cube containing Millee, desperately vying for a line of communication with Hika and Licht. Several excruciating grunts later and Millee’s form emerged from the cube. She rolled over onto the damp grass, breathing heavily. The cube hadn’t fully disengaged, leaving her semi-stuck in the inner machinations of the dimensional object as she had struggled to free herself the rest of the way.

After several long moments of exhaustion, she finally realized the gravity of what had happened: Kuria had managed to catch Hika off guard, thus overpowering her. The blood-pool had grown to encompass a mass nearly equivalent to that of her body—it was only a matter of time before she passed.

Licht removed his head from Hika’s chest, carrying her over to a nearby tree, leaning her against the base as he said his final goodbyes, though it was unclear if she heard anything.

“I used to be nobody until Brendan and Mana picked me up that day, just after Lacia’s initial abduction. I never really felt like I was the most useful in the trials everyone has faced up to now and, honestly, it still scares me beyond imagination, but meeting you, having the chance to fight alongside you, gave me a sense of purpose,” he paused. “Although, the real purpose you gave me was that of a brighter outlook on life.”

He wrapped a jacket around her, providing comfort in her final moments before continuing. “Yet, having made a friend in you back at the Gila crater made me feel like I had something to return to once this was all said and done. I was so excited to show you the world and teach you about being human.” He pulled her forward, giving her one final hug. “You’re free now, Hika. Go see the world for yourself and when we meet again, tell me what it was like. Thank you for giving me a sense of purpose again. I finally know what I must do and what my role in all of this is.” He laid her back against the tree as dawn broke on the distant horizon. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to share in the coming sunrise with me, at least one more time.”

His bangs covered his eyes as he sat on his knees. The chirping of birds, scent of pine, and tickle of grass filled his senses. There was so much life despite the prominence of death before him. The interplay between life and death was incomprehensive, an irony he never imagined he would be forced to realize.

Abruptly, the sigil on his cheek flared to life. Orange hues illuminated the dried blood splattered across his face. Through a small pool of freshly collected blood, he watched as the star grew with fervent haste. Oddly enough, he felt calm, without worry or fear—a sublime sensation.

Hika’s voice resounded in his mind. “Now, face your past. I’m afraid the gifting of an Aurei’s power and possession of my Halifer comes at a cost, but I know you’re strong. You can do it.” For a brief moment, he was elevated to a mysterious other ethereal plane where Hika was waiting, surrounded by a shimmering halo.

“This is the last time I can assist you, so listen carefully. You have the power of two Halifers as well as the blood of an Aurei now coursing through your veins. I have no idea what’s going to happen next or if my death inadvertently created a new kind of power, but you must now face the past you’ve been running from—that is the trial of the Halifer as I’m sure you already know. Depending on your success, you may even be able to use my powers to their full extent as well.”

“How did—”

“The sigil under your eye—it acts as a carrier for all kinds of magical power and allows the recipient to use any kind of magic they wish, so long as they’ve been exposed to it. In your case, because my blood made contact with your skin, I was able to transfer the remaining traces of my Aurei lineage over to you.”

Licht opened his palm as two small, golden bands gleamed in the ethereal light. “What are the stipulations to use this kind of power? What do I have to give?” He was equally uncertain what it meant to use an Aurei’s power, or how, for that matter.

“Like I said earlier, you will have to face the demons that haunt your past to garner this power. You must be honest with yourself and understand that what makes you strong isn’t the power you hold, but the compassion you have for others and the dreams you hold so tightly, all for the sake of your friends.” She smiled before she dissolved into a golden dust, carried away by a subliminal force. “Thank you for showing me compassion, all of you, when no one else would. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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