The surroundings were full of yellow smoke reeking of death. In the barren lands not even a single blade of grass can grow, the color of the sky was turning closer into the color that he desired.
The leader of the Seven Heroes, Desfort. He was dying on a nameless island.
He was critically wounded during the rebound from when he struck the volcanic crater with all his strength. And while he was down and unable to act, he was surrounded by the air of death and couldn’t help but breathe in a lot of it.
The lungs were already corrupted and the poison was spreading throughout his entire body. Struggling to stay alive would prove fruitless and he did not have much long to live. But he could not feel more satisfied than now. He knew that he would not be the only one to suffer the consequences of his actions, that his action could result in the end of the world. This was why he was able to laugh so freely while facing his imminent death.
A magic formation appeared in front of him and a familiar person appeared. Desfort who was laying on the ground with his arms spread wide turned to speak to his long time ally and comrade.
Vestiare was a woman born with just as much blessings and fortunes as Sajators. Furthermore, she was even blessed with a nearly unparalleled bewitching beauty and the gift of a precious bloodline.
By the time Desfort left on his adventure, Vestiare was already widely known throughout the continent. But Desfort knew the moment he saw her; that the Echo Mage Vestiare was missing the most crucial element of a human being.
She lacked any emotions.
Because she lacked emotions, she neither grew angry nor flustered nor uneasy. In some ways, she was closer to a living doll rather than a living organism.
But Vestiare changed after meeting Desfort and his comrades.
“There’s a good smell here.”
Vestiare walked unsteadily in his direction. Her skin was pallid and there was a thin stream of blood dripping out of the corner of her mouth. Desfort smiled brightly upon seeing her state.
“What a sorry state, Vestiare.”
Vestiare managed to make her way towards Desfort and sat down to rest her back upon a stone close to him. Desfort made an effort to open his mouth to speak to her.
“Did everything go well?”
Vestiare smiled bitterly and shook her head at his question.
“He was a being beyond our imagination. As you have foreseen.”
Desfort didn’t seem fazed by anything. The mark of death steadily piling up deep inside of his lungs were bringing him both great pain and a sense of relief.
Vestiare breathed heavily as she spoke. Desfort instinctively knew that Vestiare’s final moments were drawing near. He lifted himself up to grab Vestiare’s frigid cold hands. Vestiare gave a faint smile as she closed her eyes.
“I thought of it suddenly. The best moments of our time as the Seven Heroes.”
Desfort smiled even as he coughed when he heard this.
“The high point in our lives. Do you mean that time we put Emperor Brunghast in his place? Or perhaps when we defeated the King of the Devils?”
Desfort muttered as he searched his memories. But Vestiare shook her head.
It appeared as though Desfort could not remember. As if to rebuke his inability to remember, Vestiare gripped his hand back.
“Do you not remember that time at the Summoning Palace?”
“The Summoning Palace you say…”
“Yes. Before we embarked on our quest to defeat the King of the Devils, we left our mark in that place.”
“Ah, that’s what you mean?”
Desfort’s eyes revealed a moment of nostalgia. It was back before they became cynical. They were still innocent and pure at the time because there was still a great deal they did not know. In the world afflicted by the Curse of Extinction where no more babies could be born, the Seven Heroes left their mark in the Summoning Palace which represented the last and final hope for salvation. So that in the event even the Seven Heroes were to fail, the newly arrived Summoned could inherit the powers of the Heroes and perhaps bring an end to the Calamities plaguing the lands.
“If at all possible… I want to go back to those days.”
Vestiare said in melancholy. Desfort squeezed his eyes shut and listened to her carefully.
“Back to the days when we still deserved the titles of Heroes…”
Her body was slowly growing colder. Desfort wrapped his arms around the dying lady and spoke softly.
“We’ll go back soon. No, we need to go back. The ones who went first are waiting for us already.”
The faces of already-dead comrades appeared and disappeared in Desfort’s mind in sequence.
Daltanius, Sajators, White Phantom.
He shared so many moments and experiences with them that a day was not enough to discuss them all. But even that was now over. When he came to, Vestiare was already no longer there. The one person who understood him had already turned into bubbles and vanished. The curse of Oom Bruuk had finally dragged her into the abyss.
The now-solitary Desfort stared up into the sky as if drunk. The ground shook and beyond the yellow colored sky, he could vaguel see the miasma of Calamity spew out of the ground.
Desfort noticed someone watching him so he turned his head.
“What is this. Were you watching the whole time?”
A book was floating in the air. A book that looked identical to Bertelgia. Desfort made a slight grin as he threw a question.
“How was it? What did you think of the final moments of the woman you liked?”
The book gave no response. It simply floated in place. But this was no longer important. Desfort stood up and pulled out his signature twin blades before glaring in the direction of a portal that was open not too far away.
“Look there, Vestiare. A guest has arrived for us.”
In that moment, Sungchul stepped through the portal. He was immediately greeted with a thick yellow sky and toxic air.
Marakia covered his nose and made dying noises. Bertelgia spoke while propping up the flailing Marakia.
“What should we do? It looks like the air here is too dangerous for him.”
Sungchul wordlessly grabbed Marakia and chucked him into the portal. It was a bit crude but it was for the best, considering the fact that the air filled with dangerous substances worse than sulfur could prove fatal for the newly born Marakia.
The nameless book led the way. Sungchul and Bertelgia slowly made their way through the island covered in the Miasma of death.
There was a sound as loud as thunder along with a strong quake that caused more deathly Miasma to be spewed forth.
Sungchul Fly to rise into the sky. Once he was past a few clouds in high altitude, Sungchul was able to see the developing disaster in one view. The Miasma of Death was covering not only the entirety of the island, but also all surrounding areas, and were in the middle of being carried west by the wind.
‘This is worse than I thought.’
It was a good idea to come here, Sungchul thought to himself as he descended.
“Where is he?”
Sungchul hurried on his way. The book wordlessly but quickly moved to guide Sungchul. After passing several ridges and large stones, Sungchul came face to face with the man who caused the current predicament.
Beyond the thick yellow colored fog was a man standing his ground wielding two swords. Fal Garaz appeared in Sungchul’s hands.
This battle was fundamentally different from the battle against the Lesser God. Bertelgia shrunk herself and flew into Sungchul’s pocket. Sungchul who finished his preparations walked slowly towards the leader of the Seven Heroes. Desfort stood as still as a statue as he waited for Sungchul to get close. Once Sungchul was clearly visible, Desfort opened his mouth.
“The Destroyer. Sungchul Kim.”
Sungchul glared at Desfort without replying.
Dignified height, with a refined beauty. With eyes glowing like stars of the sky, he carried himself with inordinary brimming aura of confidence that was difficult to ignore.
‘So this man is the leader of the Seven Heroes.’
As Bertelgia said before, he looked fine on the surface. In fact, he felt a baseless sense of friendship in him.
‘It’s clear that he has at least a several hundred times more charisma than I.’
But he was an enemy that must be killed. Sungchul spoke succinctly.
“Defort. It’s time to end all of this.”
Desfort nodded. And as if he was accepting his fate, he shut both of his eyes.
“I have one question.”
Desfort asked. Sungchul fixed his grip on Fal Garaz as he nodded.
Sungchul also needed a moment to check the condition of his body. Even though he carried a god-like power in his body, he only just finished a brutal battle with the Lesser God Sidmia. While Sungchul checked the condition of his body, Desfort began to speak with a low laughter.
“It appears you have stood before a god.”
Sungchul neither confirmed nor deny. He bent his arms and legs as ne replied calmly.
“Whether that was god or not I do not know.”
“That’s an even more believable answer. Then I’ll ask another question. Did you climb the stairs to the end?”
Sungchul felt his sides. There was a stinging pain. It appeared as though a rib had broken and reattached without his notice. Sungchul rubbed the area around the bone as he replied.
“You speak as if you know about the stairs.”
Desfort nodded at Sungchul’s words and pointed at himself.
“I, too, have once climbed those stairs.”
Sungchul looked surprised. But Desfort gave a soulless laugh before continuing.
“I gave up halfway. Like the others.”
“A wise choice.”
“No, it was the worst possible decision.”
Desfort shook his head.
“I needed to have climbed the stairs to the top at that time. Even if death awaited me.”
A scene entered Sungchul’s mind as he listened to Desfort’s mournful voice. Two snow capped mountains piercing high above the clouds. Between them were invisible stairs. The stairs that led into the sky had many names, but the most apt title was that of Stairway to God. According to legend, those who climb the stairs to the end gain the right to stand before god. And those who stand before god are given a mission in return for unlimited power. The one who informed him of the location for the meticulously hidden and forgotten stairway was a woman he both loved and hated, Ryze Hymerr.
She passed on all the knowledge she gained from deciphering the Letter of God to Sungchul. And the Stairway to God was just another one of those things. Sungchul risked his life and climbed the stairs until he finally stood before god, or something that was convincingly a god.
“How bold and fearless, being able to traverse back and forth on those stairs despite knowing why those stairs were sealed away. It’s impossible for most people. That is, if you were aware of the tragic event where several million people challenged the stairs and none returned.
Desfort crossed his two blades until they touched as he spoke in a voice of admiration.
Sungchul asked. He did not know about this.
“Do you not know why the Stairway to God was sealed off?”
He heard about this story in passing from McRaed. It was not something relevant at the moment so he let it slide. But it was a completely different story if it was coming from another person who once challenged the stairs themselves. Sungchul remembered clearly the letter he received from Ryze that explained about the stairs.
-Chance of success is about half, maybe a bit lower. But you will be able to climb to the top. Because it’s you, you know? If it’s the black wolf of the colosseum, then there’s nothing to fear!
He was already vaguely aware that the chance of successfully traversing the stairway was much lower than described.
“A very long ago, shortly after the god died and the world fell into chaos, a king of a powerful race gathered every man woman and children of his kind by the stairs in a bid for world domination.”
Desfort said. Sungchul was checking his intestines last. By the time he confirmed that there didn’t appear to be anything wrong externally, Desfort continued his story.
“They numbered in the millions. The king thought to himself. If just one of these many were to be successful in standing before god, then no matter how few of his people remain, then their race of people would be able to conquer the world.”
Sungchul had a feeling he knew where this story was going. And as Sungchul predicted, Desfort confirmed his thoughts.
“Not a single one of them returned alive. At the very end, the king of the now-forgotten race was overcome with grief and climbed the stairs himself, leading to the complete extinction of their kind. No one ever attempted to climb the stairs ever since.”
He knew the chances were low. He understood it full well. It was unthinkable to think that it was possible to obtain a great power without any risk. But if what Desfort was telling him was true, then what Ryze said to Sungchul was something she should have never done. He clearly remembered the indescribable pain and anguish as he climbed the stairs.
‘Ryze Hymerr. Just what…’
What he was being told was shaking him to the core. More accurately, he began questioning his belief. Sungchul heard Desfort’s voice in the midst of his shocked revelation.
“No matter what kind of an idiot they are, it is difficult to find anyone willing to bet their lives on something with several million… no, tens of million to one chance.”
“It turns out that I am that idiot.”
Sungchul said in a bitter voice.
“There is one other aside from you.”
“You speak of Eckheart?”
Desfort grinned upon Sungchul’s question. It must have been the answer.
“He was an apprentice Alchemist. A pathetic fool you can find just about anywhere.”
Desfort’s eyes traveled back into the past, back when he first met Eckheart. Desfort remembered. The three hundred or so warriors that departed to the Demon Realm to defeat the King of the Devils. The many fluttering glorious flags of various nations. Vestiare, the apple of many men’s eyes. Arrogant genius Sajators. The ambushes that drove the expedition to the brink of annihilation. And the face of a youthful and naive boy.
“He didn’t know his place and had a crush on Vestiare. Of course it goes without saying that Vestiare didn’t give a single glance to such a worthless man. And so in the end, he ended up being just a thing that followed us wherever we went. Yes, a person no better than a pet animal.”
Preparations were finished. There was nothing especially wrong with his body and his god-like strength as intact. Sungchul was fully capable of killing Desfort at any moment.
But he did not attack.