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The Cryopod to Hell 009: The Labyrinth Core
What is the Cryopod to Hell?
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I will be reposting the full story at a rate of one part every day until I've reached the current part. During that time period, I will update the parts to edit them more cohesively as well. Once I reach the current part, new parts will be posted on HFY and RedditSerials, alongside my main subreddit as they become available.
Thank you for reading, and enjoy.
It was only yesterday that I fled for my life from a horde of monsters. Not only had I never seen such creatures in my life, but I'd couldn't have imagined they existed in such numbers.
And now, for the second time, my mind boggles at how many monsters stand before me. Amelia and I gawk at what must be tens of thousands of fantastical beasts and demihumans milling about in an underground structure twenty times larger than the Dodger Stadium. What lay behind the door was a question I'd been asking myself for hours, and now that I have the answer, I regret asking.
Amelia very slowly turns to me and whispers, "Any bright ideas?"
"Not even one," I mutter.
The room just inside the door descends fifty feet into a basin filled with glowing stones, and what Solomon's Crown tells me are portals to other places elsewhere in the galaxy.
A dozen platforms rise into the air, and atop each one are two metal pylons that curve around to form an open oval. Between the pylons are images of other worlds, other places in the Labyrinth, and scenes I can barely describe.
Computers unlike any I've seen before line up in rows, each one twice as tall as my body, stretching to just above Kar's height. The towers power hundreds of monitors all over the damn place, almost as if I've arrived at the New York Stock Exchange. Their design is somewhat alien in nature, giving me an otherworldly vibe.
As Kar climbs to his feet, every monster in the room stops and stares at us, mouths agape. Instead of orcs, goblins, and demons, all the monsters here seem corrupted in some way. Their bodies leak clouds of darkness, and all of their forms appear disfigured and disheveled.
One of the monsters, a gangly looking freak with half its face melting off, slowly raises a trembling finger toward us. "F-F-F.... Fleshbags! They're fleshbags!"
Amelia forces a smile. "We... come in... peace?"
The room erupts into chaos. A hundred smoky apparitions rush this way, another hundred rush that way, and everyone loses their goddamned minds.
"They've opened the doors!"
"Big scary alligator!"
"Someone get the boss!"
"Broodmother save me!"
A chorus of screams fills the room. Monsters frantically type values into their computers, while others charge through the otherworldy portals to flee from us. Amelia and I gawk in stunned silence at their ridiculous reaction. There must be a thousand times more monsters in the room compared to the three of us, yet they're scared? What the hell?!
Suddenly, a feminine voice booms from loudspeakers in the roof of the stadium. "SILENCE!"
The crowd hushes all at once. Tranquility replaces abject terror. All of the monsters, even those about to flee, stop where they're standing. They stand at attention and wait for further orders from their unseen superior.
The monsters turn to face the right side of the room. Amidst the walls of computers, a single being steps out. Its chest and clothing are decidedly feminine, but its head is birdlike, with a beak and pitch-black eyes. The monster's appendages taper into four-fingered hands and two-toed feet, but each ends in a claw-like talon.
The monster, a female of some sort, silently strolls over to us, not a care in the world. Whoever she is, she commands absolute respect over the monsters here, and her half-bird half-human body stands out like a diamond in the rough. She's beautiful, in a majestic sense.
"Intruders. Hee! You've made a mistake, barging into my domain. Vermin are unwelcome here."
The bird-lady's voice is simultaneously delicate and soft, yet her tongue clicks every few syllables, possibly because her beak makes it difficult to form words. She sounds like a parakeet; capable of mimicking human speech, yet imperfect to a fault.
Blaarjiim grumbles. "Vermin? Well, isn't she the polite one?"
I take a hesitant step forward. All the monsters in the room swivel their heads to look at me, nearly giving me a panic attack, but I manage to keep my cowardice in check.
"W-who are you? What is this place?"
The bird-person stops thirty feet away and lightly scrapes her spiked fingers across her feathered scalp. "I ask the questions here. How did you enter? That door has a hundred tons of mass. Furthermore, it opens outward. You appear to be ordinary humans, yet-"
Her eyes don't swivel around as a human's would, but instead, she tilts and turns her head to look in different directions. Cocking it from left to right, she examines the three of us curiously.
"That big one there, the alligator. You must be the one who hefted my door open."
Kar croaks under his breath, "Crocodile, not alligator."
"Close enough. In any case, if you could open the entrance to the Labyrinth Core, your strength must on par with the Demon Dukes, perhaps even the Emperors. I presume these humans are your slaves, then?"
Amelia starts opening her mouth to object, but I reach over and squeeze her arm, subtly shaking my head. There are too many monsters here. If they all attack, we'll probably die.
Kar barely even gives her question a passing thought. "Hah! Of course they are! Do you have a problem with that?"
The bird-woman taps her beak. "Hardly. You may not have realized it, but this entire facility is mine, as are all the monsters here. I am Bahamut, the most powerful monster in the Labyrinth. Even the demons fear my wrath." She takes a step toward Kar and completely ignores Amelia and I. "Why have you come here?"
"Because I felt like it!" Kar doesn't skip a beat. "I am Kar, the second mightiest of Marie's Children. I fear no-one!"
"Don't you? Hmm? You must think yourself quite impressive, but from where I stand, you're little more than an insect at my door."
Ugh, she's painfully braggadocious, I think to myself. Does this broad ever shut up?
Bahamut and Kar go back and forth for a minute, verbally sparring with one another. After a while, she laughs, though it comes out sounding like a bluejay's chirp. "Hee! You're an interesting fellow, Kar! I will offer you a unique opportunity. Follow me."
Kar looks at us warily as she turns and walks away, but shrugs. "Let us see what she has in mind."
Amelia reaches over and takes my hand in hers. "Jason, I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Same, Amelia. Just smile like you always do, and if the worst happens, I might have a way out for us."
I'm not lying, either. I'll have to be creative with my Wordsmithing if Bahamut turns out to be a backstabber.
We follow Kar and Bahamut, glancing around nervously as the throng of corrupted creatures watches us silently.
My body perspires more than usual as we pass through hordes of monsters. Now that we've walked down the steps into the lower area of the bowl-like stadium, I can see the computers and creatures down here more clearly, and they seem very unusual compared to others I've seen up to this point in the Labyrinth. Some have skin covered in wood; many have loose hides, often disfigured by blemishes and sores, while others have tentacles instead of hair, and thousands of variations between those. One of the bastards grins evilly at me as Amelia and I walk past, his razor-sharp teeth on display.
He licks his lips and smiles. "A test. All who challenge Bahamut will lose. You'll be one of us, soon."
Bahamut and Kar don't hear him. Amelia sticks her tongue out at the monster and mutters, "Take a step closer, ugly. I'll knock your block off."
I pull her along, not wanting to start a scene. I'm sure she could tear the jackass apart with ease, but what about the other thousands of monsters? Doubtful.
Kar turns to Bahamut. "What is this place? Sure looks like an awful lot of fleshbag technology around here!"
Bahamut preens her feathers for a moment, then chirps shrilly. "Hee! You haven't a clue! The Labyrinth Core is the most valuable asset the demons have. It allows us to travel to various hunting grounds in search of food and energy. Maintaining control over fleshbags, as I'm sure you know, is a difficult task."
"Tell me about it! Bah, these worthless twig-limbs can hardly carry my supper to me every day. I beat them twice a week to keep them in line!"
I glance at Amelia and spot her glaring furiously at Kar's back. Yeah, keep mouthing off, fish-breath. I'll break you in half when we get out of this dump, her eyes say.
Honestly, after seeing Kar heft that door open, I'd be surprised if Amelia could budge him an inch. Bahamut said that opening those doors would require the strength of a Demon Duke, and they're the second most powerful beings in the Labyrinth. Kar is probably way stronger than Amelia.
Bahamut raises her hand, and the four of us stop. "Open a portal to Tarus II. On the double!"
The calmness of the monsters in the room breaks instantly as every being begins a mad scramble, dashing for their chairs and workstations, all of them trying very hard not to touch Amelia or I as they slip past. Bahamut continues walking up a walkway toward a portal. She stops in front of it, as do we, and I get a glimpse of the other side.
The portal appears to be a door to another world. It's as if we can look through a window into another plane of existence or a different dimension. The one we stop before shows an image of a river of green, and inside the rancid water, apparitions of humans rise over the low waves, scream wordlessly in agony, and fall back inside. Bahamut says nothing, but Kar strokes his chin.
"Hurgh. Is that the River Styx?"
Bahamut chirps. "Hee! Yes. A fetid graveyard, good for powering the demonic lust for fleshbag souls, but inhospitable to other life. Monsters steer clear of it, but we usually have to keep a dedicated gate open in case Diablo pops over."
Kar leans forward slightly to peer into the flowing green river. Its liquid bubbles and boils like lava formed of acid. "What happens if ya fall in?"
Bahamut's tone turns frosty. "Don't."
I glance back at all of the monsters and watch as they frantically check displays on their stations, gaze up at the ceiling to stare at numbers scrolling across the overhead screens, then look down to type commands and mathematical equations into their computer. Thanks to the Crown, I can easily keep up with them.
Five minutes pass. Kar crosses his arms. "What is the meaning of this? Why are we standing here, twiddling our thumbs?"
The bird-woman's head twitches spastically, as if Kar's impatience is irritating her. "Hee! My pawns are calculating a jump destination. Unlike demons, monsters are quite adept at technology and its practical applications. However, calculating the positions of planets in the galaxy is exceptionally difficult, so it takes thousands of us several minutes to make the necessary preparations. In any case, it's almost time."
The image of the river fades away, and the portal shuts off for a moment or two. I'm relieved that I don't have to see what looked like human souls screaming and writhing in agony, but at the same time, an odd sensation wells up in my stomach. Guilt.
They're suffering. It's not my fault, but every fiber of my being thinks it is. I'm not responsible for the plight of those poor people. The demons control the universe. What could I, a single man, do to stop them? Nothing. That's the answer. Resisting billions, even trillions of demons, is pointless.
A crack of electricity in the air jerks me back to my senses. The gate begins arcing bolts of energy from its rounded pillars into the center, and a terrific explosion of lightning erupts, creating a hole in the air that rapidly expands to the edges of the gate. Once the hole finishes forming, an image of a beautiful, green, grassy field appears. The grass sways softly as the wind sweeps across it, and sunlight beams down, lighting the clearing up, as well as trees and a stream in the distance.
I want to cry.
I've been in this Labyrinth for only a few days, but I hadn't realized until just now how homesick I've been for Earth. The dark corridors, fear of demons attacking at any moment, and trepidation I feel from knowing one wrong turn could mean my death has been plaguing my mind.
Bahamut clicks her tongue. "Excellent work, slaves. You opened that portal twelve seconds faster than usual. Double rations for everyone. Crocodile, bring the two rats with you and let's visit the world I call Home."
A great sigh of relief fills the room as the monsters quietly murmur to each other about Bahamut's praise. Her words mean everything to them.
Kar tilts his head back at Amelia and I. Smirking; he says, "Come on, rats! You heard the boss!"
I can just barely make out the sound of Amelia popping her knuckles as her saccharine-sweet smile lights up the world. "Oh, of course, Master Kar! Anything you say!"
She's going to kill him later, I muse to myself.
While I feel nervous about entering the portal, it's not as bad as I expect. The stadium's stale oxygen and murmuring of its monsters vanishes behind me. One second later, a whoomph of air hits my face, dazing me for a brief second. The sensation makes me imagine jumping from a vacuum-sealed bag into a windstorm. I take a moment to yawn and pop my ears. Amelia does, too.
The harsh brightness of a midday sun beats down on me, making me see spots and blink my eyes rapidly. I raise my palm to block the light, but it doesn't help much.
Something about this world irks me. After a moment, I realize what it is. The color is wrong. This world's sun is yellow, like Earth's, but its hue is just off-color enough that it doesn't feel right. I can't put it in words, but there's a faint orange tint to the world around me that makes the grass and other Earth-like features appear somewhat fake.
Amelia casually glances around. "Wow, pretty."
"Yeah," I mumble, as I stare at Bahamut's back. "Something seems off."
We arrive on an elevated platform identical to the one in the Labyrinth Core, but to my disgust, this world's gate sits in the middle of a field of grass. It appears that whoever built it cared little for its aesthetics. The gate's blackened stonework stands out against the bright, cheerful colors of nature like a bloodstain on a nurse's uniform.
"Wonderful, just wonderful," Bahamut says. She chirps cutely, then turns back to look at Amelia and I, making a chopping motion toward us with her free hand. Another whump echoes behind us, and when I turn around, I'm stunned to see that the gate back to the Labyrinth has been disabled.
"What the heck? Is this a trap?!" I pivot to face Bahamut, and she chirps again.
"Hee! You've seen too much, I'm afraid. Fleshbags who have seen the Labyrinth Core must be disposed of, by decree of the Demon Council. Luckily for you, I am a merciful host. Your owner, the fine specimen known as Kar, can save you if he deigns. Speaking of which, the midday sun is already in the sky. We haven't much time if we wish to get this over with by nightfall. Come along, now!"
Amelia shrugs. She doesn't care at all about this turn of events. Kar looks somewhat distressed, but he tries to smile and laugh it off. "Gwaha! You're an interesting one, Bahamut! I can only guess at what horrible torture you have planned for me!"
"Hee. Torture? I'll do nothing of the sort. Tell me, though, Kar. Do you like to play games?"
She begins walking down the steps of the portal, keeping her back to us, while Kar quickly falls into step beside her. His form dwarfs hers, yet he appears more nervous around her than vice-versa.
"Games? Hurgh, I have little time for those."
"Oh, you don't like them? Unfortunate. You see, by entering the Core without permission from me or obtaining a permit from the Demon Council, you committed a high crime against our people. If I killed you, that would solve the problem you created, but I'd rather not. I see potential in you, after all. You're not like the other vermin working beneath me."
Kar slowly scratches his arm. "Uh, thanks."
"You are most welcome."
...I guess Bahamut doesn't understand sarcasm.
The four of us walk along, and a warm breeze blows across the plains, cooling our bodies while the sun warms us up. To say this planet has the perfect climate would be an understatement. It's exquisite.
It doesn't take long before we arrive at the forest. Bahamut stops and holds a finger up. "Kar, I should warn you that the two weaklings behind us will be quite vulnerable in the Shrieking Woods. Don't let them stray far. The creatures here have all manner of poisonous fangs and barbed quills. Despite its tranquil appearance, Tarus II has a fauna predatory threat level of four stars. The plants are all deadly too, so don't eat any colorful berries you see, or you'll meet a swift end."
Kar grunts. "Noted."
Not a creature stirs in the forest, causing an eerie silence to linger in the air. The only sounds I hear as we climb over branches and limbs is wind whistling across the treetops above. Despite Bahamut's warning, not a single animal bothers us.
An hour after entering the forest, Bahamut cocks her head again. "We're almost at the test site."
Kar sniffs the air. "Test? What test?" Evidently, he didn't hear the monster mentioning a test to Amelia and me earlier.
"Hee. It's more of a game than anything else. You will see."
Amelia and I share a look of worry with each other. Bahamut has been very vague this whole time, and frankly, I'm thinking about taking her down. I'd rather not kill anyone unless it's my last resort, but her hordes of monsters aren't around here. She's defenseless.
Up ahead, the forest parts away to reveal a barren, rocky clearing. Mountains of dirt and stone form a bowl, and the path narrows to perhaps a hundred feet wide. A staircase carved into the mountainside leads to the top, while a cave to the right ominously beckons for us to enter. Ten heavily armored guards, their bodies encased in steel, patrol the entrance to the cave. All of them stop and swivel to salute as Bahamut approaches.
I decide to ask the question on my mind. "Bahamut, are we going underground?"
She flicks her head back to look at me. "Quiet! I have nothing to say to piss-ants. If you enter the depths of Tarus II, it will be as a prisoner under forced labor, mining and toiling for the rest of your life. Hopefully, your master will pass the test, and that won't happen." She chuckles. "Hee! Or at least, it would be lucky for you. I'm hoping for the opposite."
Bahamut resumes walking, and soon, we arrive at the steps leading up the mountain. She ignores the guards outside the cave, and begins ascending the steps. Due to how narrow they are, perhaps six feet wide, Kar falls into line behind her, and I let Amelia go in front of me.
Since my position is in the rear and the only view ahead of me is Amelia's long black hair, I end up gazing at the tops of the mountains as we climb. The sheer canyon walls rise a few hundred feet and flatten at the top, making them nigh unscalable, yet perfect for building on. Indeed, several structures resembling Egyptian pyramids, huts, and other such designs are scattered across the tops of the mountains for dozens of miles, indicating a primitive culture.
Kar notices them. "Bahamut, what are those odd, triangular buildings? They are quite large."
Bahamut chuckles. "Hee. I am an ancient being, one who lived long before the fall of Earth. Fleshbags and monsters have worshiped me for my entire life, and the architecture you see here are from an ancient civilization on Earth known as the Egyptians."
"Earth? What's that?" Kar questions her further, and I suddenly remember the surprise Blaarjiim and Hoarhiim showed when I mentioned it. Most monsters and demons don't know of its existence, or they've forgotten. I wonder why?
"Earth is an ancient world, one destroyed long ago during the Energy Wars. It is the homeworld of humans, demons, and monsters."
Kar grumbles something guttural. "Hurgh. Homeworld? Are you daft? Sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me."
"It's true," I say aloud. "Earth is where I come from too."
"Oho?" The entire party stops as Bahamut turns and cranes her head around to look at me. "Now there's a fib if I ever heard one. The fleshbag thinks he's special."
"Stop calling me 'fleshbag.' My name is Jason, and I'm a human."
"Yeah! And I'm Amelia!"
Bahamut eyes us suspiciously. For a moment, she gazes at the crown on my head, then toward the light-source in my belt pouch. "Your slave is talkative. Why does he wear that gaudy band on his head?"
"Uh." Kar pauses for a moment, then raises a finger. "Turtle is a king I enslaved from one of the human worlds! The frilled one is his sister."
"Hee! A king and queen. I see. Royalty. You must value your property tremendously, keeping them so close." Bahamut immediately swivels around and continues walking. "Perhaps after we finish, you should give these mouthy rats another beating. I could teach you some tricks if you'd like."
Kar doesn't reply.
Several minutes later, the end of our climb comes into view, and I can finally see our destination. Monsters of all sorts roam around, and a large, elevated platform rises ten feet above the ground. It stretches fifty feet in every direction and has several dozen green squares painted side-by-side at one side, while the other end has a stand elevated another foot up. It looks like a stage meant for giving a speech, sort of, except without any comfy chairs or anything designed explicitly for speech-giving.
Bahamut climbs up the stage, and as she does, she claps her talons together. "A crowd, please! Give me a crowd!"
Immediately, all the monsters in the area drop what they're doing. Most walk toward us, but several of them dash away, likely to tell others of Bahamut's arrival.
This bird-bitch certainly wields a ton of authority. We can't trifle with her.
Bahamut walks over to the elevated stand and smoothly plants one foot atop it, then lifts herself the rest of the way. She does it effortlessly, as though it's a ritual she's performed a million times.
"The three of you, go find one of the squares to stand on. Once the crowd is big enough, I'll begin the test."
Kar mutters under his breath, stupid test, I shoulda torn your head off while we were alone, ya dumb bird-brain, grumble grumble, but Bahamut doesn't hear him.
More monsters fill the area around us, and I hear a few of them whispering conspiratorially.
"Think they'll pass?"
"Of course not. Nobody passes. It's impossible."
"The humans'll go to the mines, but what about the big guy?"
"She wants him in a position of authority. Easy enough. It's always the same."
"Silence!" Bahamut chirps shrilly, and the sound pierces the midday winds. The crowd hushes and waits for her to speak. "Finally, we've arrived. Welcome, Kar, along with your two servants. Are you ready to begin the test?"
Kar looks anything but ready. His expression flattens, and he sighs. "What's this test all about, anyway?"
Bahamut stabs a clawed finger at him from across the stage. "I have chosen you as either my successor or as my new second commander. If you pass the test, you will take my place and lead the Labyrinth Core. If you fail, I will enslave you under me forever, just as I have every other monster you've seen up to now."
Kar sighs again. "What if I don't want to take the test?"
Calmly, Bahamut examines her claws. "Then you will die right here and now."
I nudge Kar. "If anything happens, we've got your back."
This seems to cheer him up. As if he's only just remembered our presence, Kar puffs out his chest. "Hurgh. Very well! I accept your test! You will find that I am impossible to stump!"
Bahamut reaches into the pocket of her coat and pulls out a small hourglass. "We shall see."
This is Bahamut.
The Cryopod to Hell 233: The Dukes' Onslaught
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Bael, Artorias, Vepar, and Orias join hands with countless other demons. They walk down the blood-soaked corridor leading to the Labyrinth Core, all while passing the bodies of thousands of dead demons and monsters. Kar's golems, each wielding only a quarter of his power, still possessed more than enough strength to handle the weakest dregs of demon society.
The Duke of Pain sweeps his gaze past dozens of dead friends he barely recognizes. His expression turns grim as he sighs. "Damn shame. Should've sent me in from the start."
Artorias shakes his head. "No. The humans managed to capture Beelzebub. Ose can gather intel behind enemy lines via her Astral Form, but she can't be everywhere at once. Who knows what devious capture methods they've planned for you?"
Bael chuckles. "Let 'em try. Humans have nabbed me lots of times. Can't ever keep me locked down, though. Can't torture me for intel. Can't hide me. Can't kill me. They're better off aiming for you or miss Ice Queen."
"Yes. That's what worries me."
Artorias falls silent. The black-metal-clad Duke of Steel walks side-by-side with Bael, leading their troops forward without hesitation. Soon, they arrive at a point where the bodies thicken to ten times their previous density. Six powerful golems stand at the ready, each one mirroring Kar's appearance. The stand with their arms and legs spread apart, as if taunting their enemies and daring them to attack.
Bael yawns. "Ahh, geez. Arty-boy, you take care of these things. If I get any more bored, I'll fall asleep."
"Hmph. Everyone, stay back," Artorias says. "You heard the Duke of Pain. These clay sculptures are mine to kill."
Kar's golems leap toward the demon army, making several of the weaker demons tremble with fear. They know they wouldn't stand a chance against these earthen creations, since not even the vanguard could handle them.
However, Artorias doesn't flinch. He presses his boot against the ground and rushes forward while weaving magical signs.
"Once, I was known as the Baron of Earthquakes. My earth manipulation was unparalleled across all of creation. Now, my powers have only strengthened after merging with my brother, foolish Monster King!"
Heaps of dirt jump from the Labyrinth's floor and attach to Artorias's arms, before hardening and solidifying into stone. Thanks to the power of transmutation, Artorias shifts their elemental structure into a far more durable and resilient material.
Artorias's fist strikes the nearest golem. He pulverizes Kar's doppelganger into powder, spraying its body over a hundred feet into the distance.
Again and again, Artorias punches the golems, using his overwhelming power to crush them with ease. Each strike turns them into mud, rock, or granite fragments.
Within less than a minute, Artorias finishes. The remains of Kar's golems lay spread out all over the Labyrinth floor, making his allies whoop and cheer.
"Hell yeah! That's Artorias for ya!"
"Damn, isn't he overpowered? He might be the new strongest Duke!"
"Don't be ridiculous. Artorias is a badass, but he can't win against Bael."
"Eh, I don't know... Bael seems invincible, but if he has to fight the Duke of Steel..."
Several demons lower their voices, not wanting to piss either of the Dukes off. However, Bael and Artorias both possess incredibly sharp hearing. They ignore the ranting of their younger comrades who can't help but feel excited when witnessing Duke-level strength.
In the end, all demons desire power, Artorias thinks. It is in our blood to envy the strong.
Artorias kicks aside the remains of the final golem and marches down the hall once again. After hopping over the mounds of dead monsters blocking his path, he finally draws close enough to see the Monster King and Queen.
Kar stands upright, with one hand casually gripping the back of Laharl's neck. The unconscious demoness hangs limp at Kar's side like a sack of groceries.
"Hurgh. Metal-mouth," Kar growls. "We meet again."
Artorias pauses to allow the other demons to catch up. Bael hops the heap of bodies, as do Orias, Vepar, and the other demons following them.
"Last time we fought, I broke your body worse than I broke your spirit," Artorias says. "That was a year ago. It seems you've become stronger since then."
Kar nods. "I have. Hurgh. If you fight me here, I will not go easy on you. I will crush you, just as I did to Hotface, Peaches, and Cricket. Turn around and leave, little Duke."
"You might have gained a modicum of strength," Artorias says, his eyes tightening into a glare, "but against me, you'll still fall. My control over the earth will always exceed yours."
"So you say," Kar growls. He flicks his wrist, sending Laharl flying forward. The unconscious demoness crashes to the ground at Artorias's feet. "Here. I had to pick up your trash. Don't make me do it again."
Artorias's glare dims. He nudges Laharl with his foot. "Oh? You didn't kill the Baron of Misery. That seems very unlike you."
Kar crosses his arms. "Hurgh. Killing a defenseless female, especially one who is so weak, just doesn't sit right with my heart. Next time, I will not show such mercy."
Artorias nods. "Noted, but I'll make sure there is no next time, Sphinx. Warpers, send Laharl to the healing pits."
A demoness emerges from behind Bael. The beautiful young woman clutches her hands to her chest as she stares at Kar with trembling eyes. "Y-yes, Artorias. You! Monster King! Where is my sister?! What did you do to her?"
Kar's gaze lowers to the demoness wearing a Chinese-style dress. "Ah. Blossom. Do not worry. Peaches is uninjured. I merely captured her. I would never kill a woman if I didn't need to."
"Captured?! You gave my sister to the fleshbags?!" Ying-Ying exclaims. Her expression turns pained. "Bastard! Those animals will tear her apart! They'll rip her clothes off and defile-"
"Warper. Silence." Artorias says. His voice cuts Ying-Ying off mid-sentence, preventing her from speaking. Immediately, Ying-Ying remembers her place and bows her head. "Yes, Duke of Steel. I'm... I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Be efficient. Follow my orders and get out of the way."
Ying-Ying's anger disappears, replaced instead with fear. When her eyes meet the fierce, glowing red orbs of the Duke of Steel, any thoughts of protesting vanish. His demonic aura, strengthened after countless millennia of struggling against the Archangel Uriel, proves even more overpowering than Bael's.
Without another word, Ying-Ying opens a portal, grabs Laharl, and drags her inside. The portal closes, leaving the invaders to finally face off against their monstrous enemy.
Bael chuckles. "We'll stay back and let you have some fun, Arty-boy. Take this punk down a peg."
Artorias shakes his head. "No. We will crush the Sphinx today. Operation Stormbringer hinges on his death. Everyone... attack at once! Just like I drilled you! Hold nothing back, and kill our enemies!"
A series of battlecries bursts out behind Artorias. Countless demons and monsters pound their chests, summon fireballs, and ready themselves for battle.
Bael sighs. "Cripes. Ain't no fun attacking all at once."
Kar's body transforms into a tornado of terror. He spins forward on his heel to swing his foot down like a hammer into the Labyrinth floor. A bomb-like explosion detonates in front of him, flinging a maelstrom of earthen bullets at his enemies.
Artorias offers a retort. He jumps toward Kar while thrusting out both of his palms, using his powers to halt Kar's earth manipulation in its tracks. Kar's bullets freeze in midair and fall harmlessly to the Labyrinth's floor.
Behind Artorias, dozens of Burner grunts lob fireballs overhead, aiming to scorch the Monster King to a crisp. Harpies fly to the ceiling and attach their clawed feet to the ripped-up, jagged remnants of what was once its smooth surface. They fire demonstone arrows at Kar, each one capable of penetrating a tank's steel armor.
Kar, unable to protect himself from the incoming onslaught, relies on his wife. Blinker summons an illusory wall above Kar's head and uses her projection abilities to solidify it. Despite her magical prowess, the arrows still manage to rip through her projections, but she slows their speed enough that they bounce harmlessly off Kar's scales.
Over and over, the enemy monsters and demons combine their strength to attack the Monster King and Queen from all directions. Kar trades blows with Artorias, only for Bael to join in. The two Dukes, each the pinnacle of power for non-Emperors, assault Kar relentlessly from his left and right. The Sphinx deflects punches, dodges kicks, and shrugs off projectiles, all without batting an eye.
Vepar transforms into poison fog. She swarms the Monster King with highly corrosive, acidic gas, forcing him to retreat. Kar coughs violently, vomiting blood as he tries to blink the mucus out of his eyes.
"Kah! Shitty demons! Pathetic cowards!"
However, despite his complaints, Kar can't help but notice Artorias's attacks weakening. Driven back by Vepar's poisonous gas, Artorias hesitates to join the fray, while Bael ignores the acrid gas entirely. His immunity to poison allows him to shrug off 100% of Vepar's most lethal toxins with ease.
"Having trouble breathing?" Vepar cackles, her voice emanating from the gas. "Perhaps you need a breather? Pahaha!"
Despite the pain in his lungs, Kar smiles. "Cough, cough. How fearsome! It seems I'll have to use half of my strength against you bullies!"
Suddenly, Kar lunges toward Bael, startling the Duke of Pain. The crocodile's muscles explode with power, allowing him to deliver a mighty uppercut to Bael's chin. The First Duke screams in disbelief as his Sphinx opponent pounds him into the ceiling, knocking the Harpies loose. They yelp in surprise before reorienting themselves and reattaching to the roof.
Artorias's heart skips a beat. So strong!
Just as Kar turns to face Artorias, a mysterious figure appears in his blind spot, crouched down with a fist at the ready.
The shadow-shrouded demon blasts Kar in the ribs with a mighty punch, sending the Sphinx tumbling to the side. "Aargh!"
Kar crashes against the side-wall, kicking up a cloud of dust.
Artorias smiles. "Excellent work, Orias."
The Baron of the Stars, Orias, clutches a blood-red Ruby in his fist. "If that Sphinx lands a punch, I'll die. This is all I can do."
Artorias nods without replying. He dashes toward Kar, using his earth manipulation to glide along the ground like a roller-blader. Artorias scoops his hands into the ground and grabs two balls of dirt. They transform into tightly compacted pebbles, adding a tremendous amount of mass to Artorias's arms.
Artorias punches Kar's body, sending a cataclysmic tremor throughout the Labyrinth. Behind the Core's entrance, the assembled humans howl in fear as chunks of the ceiling plummet down and crash against the floor, killing dozens who couldn't evade the falling debris.
Thanks to the pebbles, Artorias manages to exert far more strength than usual. He puts enough power into his strike to pulverize the Monster King into bone-paste.
However, as the dust settles, Artoria's eyes widen.
"What? He's not here? I know I struck him!"
The Monster King no longer lays against the wall. His body, having somehow disappeared, leaves Artorias stunned.
"An illusion? Did the Monster Queen turn her husband invisible at the last second? Was the body I saw merely a projection?"
"What are you guys waiting for?" A voice yells out from behind Artorias. The Duke of Steel whirls around, only to see himself standing a short distance away. The false Artorias points at the real one and shouts, "That damn Monster King is trying to trick us! Hurgh! Get him!"
Artorias blinks in disbelief. "What? No! You're a fake! You're- ulp!"
A hail of demonstone arrows and fireballs suddenly rushes toward Artorias, startling him. He raises his hands to summon a barrier, only to blink in confusion.
His arms, no longer coated in blackened demonstone armor, now appear green and scaly.
"Spawn of a broodmother! That fairy must have used her illusion magic to make me- aaaargh!"
Countless fireballs and demonstone arrows blast Artorias, engulfing him in flames and armor-piercing projectiles. Unlike Kar, who had Blinker's barrier to slow the arrows' speed, Artorias has no such protection. Most of the arrows bounce off his demonstone plating, but several find the gaps in his armor and drive deep into the Duke of Steel's flesh.
"You- you fools!" Artorias howls, his voice a perfect facsimile of Kar's. "That fairy is tricking you! Stop shooting!"
"Keep shooting!" Kar yells. "Hurgh! We've got that handsome crocodile on the ropes!"
Artorias summons an earthen wall in front of himself, but thanks to the Burners' fireballs, it quickly melts to slag and offers little resistance against the harpies' arrows. Frustrated, the Duke of Steel dives underground and uses his earth manipulation to swim toward Kar.
Bael, the Duke of Pain, watches as his idiot comrades attack the so-called Monster King.
"Huh. That's weird... Arty went over there to attack the Sphinx, but then only the Sphinx was left, and Arty-boy popped back over here again. That don't make no sense."
A dull sensation appears in the back of Bael's mind. Groggily, he tries to reactivate the thinking centers of his brain. However, the long-underused areas take a while to warm up, making his mouth loll open and drool.
Suddenly, Bael snaps back to attention. "Huh. Wait, doesn't that mean this Arty-boy over here's a fake?"
Bael turns his attention to the fake Artorias, who continues to yell and pump his fists like an idiot. "Hurgh! We've got that gorgeous reptile on the run, boys! Good work! I'm proud of you!"
"...nah. Sounds exactly like Arty-boy. How could he be a fake? I must be imagining things."
Suddenly, Artorias bursts out of the ground. Having disengaged from Blinker's line of sight when swimming underground, his illusory appearance vanishes, revealing the appearance of two Artorias's.
Bael takes a step back in surprise. "Wha...? Oh! Shit! Everyone, one of these Arty-boys is a fake!"
Vepar materializes beside Kar. "Which one, Duke of Pain?"
Bael glances at the Artorias on the left. He summons dirt to coat his arms and fires a devastating punch at the Artorias on the right. The Artorias on the right laughs like an idiot. "Hurgh! Now we're having fun!"
The Artorias on the left scowls like the Devil. "You damned face-stealer! I'll make you pay!"
"I liked you better when you had scales," The Artorias on the right says. "Now you're as ugly as me!"
They continue trading blows, making Bael sigh.
"Not a clue. They're exactly the same."
"What?!" Vepar screeches. "The one on the right is the fake! How can you not tell?!"
"Dunno. You're pretty smart though, so I'll just go along with what you say."
With a shrug, Bael lunges toward the Artorias on the right and punches him in the shoulder. The Duke of Pain strikes Kar so hard that his brain rattles in his skull, sending the Monster King crashing into the debris field blocking the Core's doors.
"About time!" Artorias snaps. "How did you fools not realize he was a fake?!"
Bael shrugs. "He sounded exactly like you, Arty-boy."
"He sounded nothing like me!" Artorias bellows, exasperation in his voice. "You're just an idiot!"
Bael nods. "I get that a lot."
Both Dukes turn to look at Kar's body, laying in the debris field. Suddenly, from behind them, a quivering in the ground makes both Dukes whirl to face an unexpected threat. Kar bursts out of the Labyrinth's floor with two fists raised.
The Monster King pummels both Dukes, flinging them toward his 'body' laying in the rubble. It disappears as they arrive, vanishing into mist.
Artorias and Bael crash into the collapsed ceiling fragments, but the impact barely hurts them.
"Again, that fairy caught me with her illusions!" Artorias yells. He leaps out of the rubble and lands on his feet a short distance from Kar. He searches the sky for Blinker, but she hides herself with invisibility, making her impossible to locate.
"Fairies... grr! I hate tricksters! I hate cowards who hide behind- hm?"
In the back of his mind, several gears click into place.
Something's not right. Illusions can make people disappear into their surroundings, but they can't teleport people from one place to another.
I struck the Sphinx earlier and sent him crashing into the sidewall. How could he have disappeared when I had my eyes on him the whole time? Even with the dust obscuring him, there's no way he had enough time for the Monster Queen to hide his body, replace him with a fake, and allow him to slip past me.
That can only mean...
Artorias's gaze grows cold.
Temporal Magic. The Monster Queen must possess high-level temporal magic, just like the reigning fairy queens. Whatever method the Sphinx used to strengthen himself, it must have broken his wife's limiter.
Artorias glances toward the ceiling, as anger clouds his vision.
Tricky. I underestimated the Monster Royals. They're stronger than I ever could have imagined.
Kar stands with his back to the demon army. He faces the two Dukes as they climb out of the rubble blocking the Core's entrance and dust themselves off.
"Hurgh. At this rate, I may have to use all of my strength if I aim to make you weaklings vanish."
"Cut the crap," Bael grunts. "Stop holding back. I'm not even having fun, bub. Are you going to use your Sphinx Form or what?!"
Kar's eyes ignite with a fierce hunger.
"Hehe. No. I won't waste my trump card on trash like you. Instead, how about something better?"
Kar takes a step forward, causing Bael and Artorias to flinch. Then, he slams his fists into the ground and rips up a massive chunk of dirt. Artorias readies himself for the Monster King to fling the one-ton boulder at him and Bael, but Kar doesn't.
Instead, the Sphinx uses his earth manipulation to liquefy the boulder into mud, covering his body like a gooey syrup. Seconds later, it hardens into a rock-like substance, mimicking Artorias's feat from earlier.
Artorias snorts. "A little extra armor, hm? What could you possibly hope to achieve with such a pathetic layer of defense?"
Kar doesn't answer. Instead, he further refines the rock-armor, hardening it to a level beyond Artorias's expectations.
Artorias's smug smile vanishes, and a look of disbelief replaces it. "Crystallization? How has the Monster King achieved such a legendary level of transmutation?!"
"Huh?" Bael grunts. "Wassat?"
Artorias's eyes widen. Kar's crystalline armor eventually turns transparent as it becomes solid and diamond-like, allowing his enemies to glimpse his reptilian scales underneath.
"Adjusting the earth's elemental bonds to such a level... I thought it wasn't achievable! The amount of control needed to tighten the molecular structure was supposed to be only theoretically possible!"
Kar smiles. He finishes covering his body in diamond armor and flexes his muscles. "Hurgh. It may not be demonstone, but it's the next best thing. Come at me, if you dare."
Artorias jerks his head toward the gawking spectators. "Burners! Harpies! Don't just stand there! Launch everything you've got! Don't hold back!"
His orders, absolute, cause a wave of attacks to fire at Kar once again.
The Sphinx shakes his head. "Using all of my power... it will result in a boring victory... but at least I will protect my pet humans. Hurgh."