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Soon, Sylvester realized he couldn't feel Saint Scepter's presence anymore. Since it was pitch black darkness, he had no idea where the man was or where he went. But he felt some solace in the fact that Miraj was still tightly tucked on his chest.
"Maxy, I can't see."
"Me neither," Sylvester replied and tried to sense the solarium around himself with the help of Elder Magic. It was a great tool to map the area, so he hoped it would guide him.
As usual, he tried to broaden his senses. The abundance of solarium in the air made using magic feel as simple as flinging his hand. However, to his dismay, he only found emptiness everywhere around him, no matter how far he tried to look.
"Chonky, don't you have cat eyes? You should be able to look around." Sylvester asked his little friend.
Miraj widened his eyes and tried to look, "Umm… I can't even look at you, Maxy… Am I blind?"
"Not unless I'm blind too." Sylvester found himself at his wit's end. However, he remembered the words that echoed in the air not too long ago. "It talked about Trial by Will… I don't know what that means."
"Maxy, I see the ground!" Miraj abruptly exclaimed.
Sylvester looked down and noticed something too. Dark, gray brick paved floor. But he wasn't falling towards it. The ground itself was coming to him. It was mostly shrouded in darkness, with a speck of light illuminating it. It seemed as if a world was forming around his body, and he was at the center, as he soon noticed a dark ceiling as well.
'What's this trial about? I didn't ask for it.' Sylvester wondered and tried to remain as calm as possible.
Eventually, he felt his feet rest on the hard surface. But the ceiling kept coming down until it almost touched his head. That immediately told Sylvester that he wasn't in a corridor but likely in a sewage passage of sorts.
With the appearance of something around him, he lost the feeling of weightlessness, and the world began to feel real, albeit with the same immense solarium density. He sensed an airflow in the tunnel and began to walk towards its source, hoping to find a way out into the open.
But after walking for a few minutes, Miraj's ears twitched. "Maxy, I hear noises—it's like people are screaming… a lot of them."
Sylvester's ears weren't that sensitive, so he continued and soon enough began to hear the same things. But there was a slight difference. "No, Chonky, these aren't screams—they're shouting with delight… Like roars of victory."
Missing his spear, he took out a high-grade sword and held it in one hand. He also had the previous Pope's staff but avoided using it as its abilities were still unknown to him. With that, he carefully inched closer toward the source of the voices.
Soon, he also sensed an increasing warmth enveloping him, its temperature rising steadily. It alerted Sylvester, expecting there to be something related to fire in front. But he wasn't ready for what truly appeared.
After walking for an unknown length of time and distance, he finally saw the end of the tunnel. An opening appeared in the dimly lit tunnel, but it was so bright he couldn't see anything beyond the exit. So he went closer to the exit and, with it, began to hear the loud roars of a massive crowd.
"Cut cut… burn burn!"
"Cut cut… burn burn!"
"Cut cut… burn burn!"
The same chant echoed.
Sylvester, holding his heart, cautiously peeked outside. But even that couldn't steady his tension, as the view resembled a descent into hell itself. Everything was red. There were fountains, waterfalls, and lakes of lava everywhere. The landmass inside what seemed like a massive cavern was full of tall stone houses. There were tens of thousands of goblin-like, almost demonic creatures with red glowing bodies full of cracks, red eyes with no iris, and horns on their heads.
The space was huge as if he had arrived in a subterranean world. But just then, his eyes noticed something in the middle of the vast demon crowd. There was a cross, and on it was Saint Scepter, caught and tied on. His arms and feet spread apart, his armor completely removed—naked, basically.
He was being continuously stabbed by the demons with long spears, and sometimes drenched in fire, burning patches on his body. Surprisingly, despite being a Supreme Wizard, he sustained wounds.
Sylvester looked down, and the descent appeared steeper from where he stood. He calculated how long it would take him to go down and come back up with Light Steps. 'Given the abundance of solarium, I can go all out—ten long jumps per second. But returning will be slower with added weight—eight steps per second… The distance is at least a kilometer from here if each step is a fifty-meter jump. It'll take two seconds to reach down there and a little more than two to return.'
"We go and save him?" Miraj asked, taking a stern look. "I can eat the demons."
'I don't think I have a choice. If this is a trial of will, then giving up would mean failing.' Sylvester tried to guess what the dead Elder God wanted from him.
"Let's go." Sylvester didn't think twice and jumped out. He tried using some air elemental magic to propel himself to lessen the time. However, covering a kilometer was impossible, so at an appropriate height, he began walking on Light Tiles and running the rest of the way until he was right above Saint Scepter.
"Miraj, get out and fly away from me. Keep watching from a distance." Sylvester ordered, preparing to retrieve Saint Scepter and make a run for it swiftly. He readied his sword and used magic runes to turn the blade's edge into sharp ice, as he reckoned it was a weakness of the fire demons.
'Two seconds.' Sylvester made doing it all in that time a target.
Taking a deep breath, he leaped down like a rock from space. He didn't shout at all to avoid alerting the countless demons. With great precision, he aimed right behind the cross Saint Scepter was held on and cut the locks holding him.
Finally, he landed and swung the blade with full force. The maddening sound reverberated in the subterranean dwelling and caught the attention of every demon around.
"Darn it!" Sylvester vocally cursed as his blade broke in half, and the locks remained unaffected. The two-second plan had failed miserably, leaving him with no choice but to fight the demons now.
"More cut cut… burn burn!"
"More cut cut… burn burn!"
The demons shouted in a frenzy as if fresh food had arrived. They raised their spears at Sylvester, ready to strike. Sylvester also held up his broken sword to fight them all. He reckoned that since their population was so massive, the possibility of them having a long lifespan was small, akin to real goblins. That meant their individual strength was probably limited as well.
So he raised the broken sword, "Let this man go!"
"Hehe… Cut! Burn!" The demons shouted and thrust their long spears toward Sylvester.
Sylvester swung the broken sword to deflect each oncoming strike. However, something crazier happened, as he found the blade breaking further. And the next thing he knew… his eyes went dark, and he couldn't see anything.
…"Cut cut… burn burn!"
"Cut cut… burn burn!"
"Cut cut… burn burn!"
Sylvester's eyes slowly opened with a sense of heaviness in his head and a sharp pain coursing through his body. Blood oozed out of various spots from his arm, legs, and stomach. Unsurprisingly, he was now tied to another cross right beside Saint Scepter—also as naked as the day he was born.
"It didn't turn out as expected," Sylvester mumbled awkwardly while the spears persistently stabbed him, and the flames continued their futile attempts to burn him. "I forgot to consider that these demon goblins are likely the Elder God's creations—To think each one of these little pests could be on par with a Grand Wizard… I had no way… There's almost a million."
'What do I do now?' Sylvester stared at the countless creatures in front of him. 'It's impossible to defeat them.'
Stabs continued to pierce their bodies the entire time. It actually hurt as well, and the wounds didn't heal for some reason. The whole ordeal lasted for almost an hour until the crowd of demons began to part and allowed a taller demon-like goblin to come forward.
The demon had a crown on his head, likely being the King of them all—a Supreme Wizard in all likelihood. It also held a spear, but was much more regal and golden in color. It stared at Saint Scepter and Sylvester, revealing his sharp teeth and a growling voice.
"Only one goes free—decide," King stated.
Sylvester and Saint Scepter immediately glanced at each other. Considering the human psyche of self-preservation, Sylvester wondered what the man would choose.
"Let him go." Saint Scepter shouted abruptly. "Let Sylvester leave."
'This doesn't feel right—The trial of will can't end like this.' Sylvester felt his years of experience subconsciously shaping his thoughts. 'That means there's only one option here…'
"No!" Sylvester roared before they could free him. "We're going together, or none of us do."
"Sylvester Maximilian, you are the future of the struggle against 'them'… You must not die in this realm." Saint Scepter argued while bleeding profusely.
But Sylvester shook his head and looked around, "Saint Scepter, you spoke of fate earlier. But I don't consider it to be real, and even if it is, I would never allow such a thing to enslave me—I choose my own path, and I make my own plans—You can follow, or watch me…"
"RUN!" Sylvester boomed and leaped away from the cross. His hands and feet abruptly came free, as did Saint Scepter's. He flew in the air and caught up with Sylvester. The demons beneath threw their spears at them, and the King tried to fly as well. However, the creature found the ground beneath him turning into a sweltering pit of mud, keeping him stuck to the bottom for a few seconds.
It was all Sylvester needed. He ran into one of the many cave openings in the crude walls of the subterranean world. Saint Scepter followed behind at a similar speed. None of them spoke as both attempted to make their way out.
Sylvester led the charge as he tried to feel the airflow. But this time, he followed the stream out instead of locating its source. Since the subterranean location was full of lava, and hot air would always rise, Sylvester was confident that there would be an exit vent somewhere.
Taking many twists and turns on what seemed like an infinite labyrinth took them nowhere for hours. But as they felt the air getting colder and colder, they knew they were getting further away from the demons behind.
"I can feel it!" Sylvester exclaimed. "We're near a vent."
Sylvester picked up his pace and ran like his life depended on it. Shamelessly, since both of them were still naked. He could have gotten clothes from his portable bank, but now wasn't the time.
"STOP!" Just then, Sylvester shouted, and he abruptly halted. He also widened his arm to stop Saint Scepter from going further. "We're here!"
Just a few more steps forward, they noticed something frightening. They could sense that they were looking at the world outside, as there was the sky, stars, and a distant moon. But when they looked around and down, all they saw were dark clouds and absolute darkness below.
It seemed as if they were standing at the edge of an entrance for a towering pillar that extended upward into the sky. They were clearly on some planet, but what sort of planet, they didn't know.
"Catch them! Must cut cut… burn burn!"
At that moment, faint voices of the demons came from behind. The enemies were getting closer, and they had to make a decision. As far as they could see, there was no other massive tower like theirs, and the only way out was the sky or down below.
"Leave me, Sylvester Maximilian. I have lived a long life and have seen things most can only dream—"
Sylvester looked behind himself and smacked Saint Scepter's shoulder. The lack of flesh on the man's lower face was almost jarring. "This is a trial of will, Saint Scepter. Do you not understand? We're not here to die—we're here to suffer and flourish, with an unwavering will to live."
"I know, but we can't defeat these demon-like creatures." Saint Scepter replied, arguing. "Your little friend can only save us once."
Miraj grinned proudly, being the one who chewed the locks on the cross before.
Sylvester shook his head and looked behind them. The sound of approaching footsteps grew heavier by the second. Then, he glanced at the open sky and the almost infinite darkness below, "We're not supposed to fight, Saint Scepter. We're here to take a leap of faith without feeling frightened."
Almost speechless, Saint Scepter looked at the view outside, "We can't predict what's down there or what this tower is."
Sylvester nodded but remained unwavering, "I have a vague notion of what this place is, but we can only confirm it after we jump. Let's do it in three… One! Two!…"
"Let's think aga—"
Long before, Sylvester had realized that Saint Scepter was very strong and smart, but he wasn't the best to rely on as he left too many things to fate. So, without warning, Sylvester went ahead and jumped.
With his back to the void below, Sylvester made sure he could see the strange pillar-like tower's peak. His heart skipped a beat when he didn't notice the top of it. Furthermore, after every few kilometers up on it, there was an opening to enter or exit the place.
After seeing Saint Scepter also jumping, Sylvester turned his body and looked below, noticing more openings to enter the tower after some distance. That cleared some doubts and sternly made him believe in his theory.
'Seems like a tower meant to test people. But if each level represents its difficulty, how high were we, and what comes above the floor we were in?' He wondered and almost didn't want to find out. Would there be beings of Supreme Wizard strength only? Or beyond? He could only wonder.
"Meeeooow!" Miraj kept crying in fright. The dark clouds shrouded them soon enough, so even the smooth-surfaced, black-colored tower was hidden from their view.
"Sylvester Maximilian—Our bodies are healing." Saint Scepter dived down closer to Sylvester and informed him. "These dark clouds seem to possess… healing properties."
Sylvester noticed it, seeing the stab wounds fading away and Saint Scepter also returning to his peak. 'Did we win?'
To his luck and dismay, he didn't have to wait for long as the voice reverberated once again.
"Trial by heart—Begins!"
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