654 No Pain, No Gain

 With a dull boom, translucent Void energy began pouring out of the Black Dragon's wings, pushing it forward.

However, the dragon's forward momentum did not last long, as it was then easily pulled from behind by an invisible giant hand.

Hum, hum... A saucer-shaped Void Ferry with a diameter of more than 300 feet slowly drew closer to it. It finally came to a stop 50 miles away from the dragon's massive body. A tall, red hologram then appeared on top of the vessel.

The image stood approximately 10,000 feet tall. The Void Ferry hovered beneath it like an insect hovering in the dark expanse of the Void. After a while, the shimmering image finally solidified into the serpentine form of the God of Destruction.

From the Naga's hologram came a voice which resounded through the white mists dispersed in all directions across the Sea of Void. "Link, you're trapped. Surrender and swear your loyalty to me, and I will help you."

Link's wing thrusters were still at full blast as he desperately tried to pull himself away from the negative-energy pitfall. He replied, "I'd rather die."

"The way I see it, you don't really have a choice," said the God of Destruction with a hint of glee in her voice. She watched as Link struggled against the pitfall's gravitational pull. "In the realm of Firuman, I may not be able to deal with you personally, but here in the Sea of Void, you are no more than an insect before me. You've killed many of my lieutenants. Things have been smooth sailing for you so far back in Firuman. I would like to see you being slowly ground away by despair for a change."

The Void Ferry slowly continued its approach towards the negative-energy pitfall. The God of Destruction silently observed Link's struggle against imminent death from her perch.

Boom! Link swept his wings back in an attempt to put even more distance between him and the pitfall. However, it was all in vain. He was now like a bug trapped in spider's web. Any further attempt to break free from this invisible web was pointless at this point.

Every new burst of Void energy from his wing thrusters simply shaved off a huge chunk of energy in his body, pushing him closer and closer towards his demise.

However, dragons naturally possessed high stamina. Though it could be said with certainty that he was now on a one-way path towards certain destruction, the process would be extremely slow. It would take more than four hours before Link would start to show signs of fatigue.

The God of Destruction continued silently observing the dragon's struggle against death. To a deity like herself, the span of four hours was nothing. She would receive a surge of pleasure as the look of desperation on Link's face intensified with each passing moment. It was an experience she would not mind savoring for another eight hours if she had to.

When it looked as if Link was about to fall into the negative-energy pitfall, the God of Destruction languidly held out a hand, which stretched out rapidly until it reached the dragon's body.

"It's been fun... Wait, you're not Link!"

The moment she held onto the dragon's body, the God of Destruction immediately sensed that something was not right. It was merely an empty husk!

The body she was holding still retained its flawless dragon scales, sturdy muscles, and skeleton. From afar, it looked exactly like the real thing. However, upon holding the body in her hand, she immediately realized that it was completely devoid of a soul.

To a god, life's true essence resided in one's soul, whereas one's physical body was merely the result of an amalgamation of various energies. Any god worth their salt would be able to bring into existence a mortal's physical body without breaking a sweat.

"Well played! Ejecting your soul from your physical body and leaving an empty husk behind to fool me, well played indeed! You certainly have spirit, mortal!" All that the God of Destruction was feeling right now was pure, burning anger. Energy now surged into her fingertips in waves. Bang! There was a sudden sound of an explosion. The dragon's body had burst into pieces like a balloon between her fingers!

Link's dragon body might be nigh indestructible to most mortals. However, in the face of a god's power, it was just as fragile as a piece of tofu.

When the dragon body exploded, the God of Destruction's anger subsided somewhat. All that was now left in her was an odd sense of disappointment.

The dragon body that she had decimated was considerably more powerful than most Legendary bodies. Not only did it possess a Level-18 magical resistance, but a highly-refined perpetual spell also seemed to have been cast on it as well. Such a body would have been of incomparable worth to a Level-13 Legendary master like Link. She never would have thought that Link would give it up so easily.

However, Link had managed to deceive her by leaving his dragon form behind. Her more outstanding subordinates had shown the same spirit as displayed by Link moments ago.

If she were to have someone like him working under her, she would already have brought all of Firuman to its knees a long time ago. It was truly a shame to have Link slip through her fingers once more.

He must already have fled the place four hours ago. There won't be any point in chasing him down. The God of Destruction then withdraw her enormous figure from outside the Void Ferry back into the vessel's interior.

"Almighty one, congratulations on finally killing Link." Glyn, the demon Magician, stepped forth to extend his congratulations to his master. He had only seen the dragon's body explode into pieces in the God of Destruction's hand.

Shooting a sideways glance at him, the God of Destruction coldly spoke, "Go, back to Firuman!"

Link had made quite a home for himself in Firuman. To make matters worse, he now had more than 3000 Legendary demons under him. She could do without taking the entire realm for herself. She just could not allow Link to continue existing in this world!

Glyn was confused as to what was going on. However, the God of Destruction did not seem to be in a mood to be pestered by anyone at the moment. For his own life's sake, he decided to keep his mouth shut, lest he say something that might incur her wrath.

Outside, Link was already hurtling through the Sea of Void at top speed. Soon, a hazy ball of light began growing before him. It was the realm of Firuman, his second home.

In order to buy himself some time, Link had abandoned his dragon form, as well as a huge portion of his dragon heart. All that was left was his human form, covered by a layer of magically immune dragon scales which prevented him from taking any damage from the Void energy outside.

He still retained his Level-13 Midstage power level. However, the scale of his power had been reduced by more than 80 percent. His power recovery rate had been halved as well. The loss he had sustained this time was simply unimaginable.

However, the loss of his dragon form was a price that Link was willing to pay if it meant escaping eternal servitude under the God of Destruction.

Time seems to work differently in each realm. I wonder how much time has passed since my departure from Firuman? Are the High Elves still proceeding with their plans for realm reunification? If so, how much progress have they made by now? Has Orida Fortress finally engaged in battle? How's Celine doing right now?

All these questions began popping up in Link's head. However, as he had lost his dragon form, he could only inch bit by bit across the Sea of Void towards Firuman.

Gradually, the realm of Firuman expanded in his field of sight. A warm, irresistible power radiated from it towards him.

As soon as it hit Link's body, something strange happened.

Link felt a sudden surge of warmth enter his body. This current of warmth began circulating in him, intensifying with each round it made inside his body. He could feel even more power swirling in him as he approached Firuman.

"Where am I getting this much power? This is incredible." Link pulled up the game system's interface before him and saw that his power level was increasing by one point every 20 seconds. Moreover, it seemed to be increasing even more as Link came closer and closer towards Firuman.

Hum... Link had hit the outer membrane of the Firuman realm. He then noticed something odd. He did not feel any resistance acting against him as he passed through it. Like a mother welcoming the return of her child back into her embrace, Link was able to easily slip into the Firuman realm. At the same time, huge amounts of energy began flowing into his body. He was now feeling completely at ease as if he was lying on a patch of soft grass beneath the gentle rays of a springtime sun without a care in the world.

His power level was now increasing by one point every ten seconds. At that point, Link felt as if sunshine had now filled his very soul, clearing away the despondency he had felt over the loss of his dragon heart.

The first seeds of self-confidence had sprouted inside him.

"Simply incredible!"

Even though he only still had Level-13 Midstage power, even though his enemies ran rampant still across Firuman and beyond, even though there were still formidable presences in Firuman like the Shadow Stalker Morpheus and the World Tree that could erase him from existence any time they wanted to, Link now believed from the bottom of his heart that no one could defeat him and that he was now capable of taking on anyone who stood in his way.

Link was somewhat surprised by this newfound confidence in his own abilities. Where did all this confidence come from? This is such a strange reaction to have, especially for someone who had just barely escaped the jaws of death.

As he puzzled over what was happening to him at the moment, the Ode of a Full Moon sword who had remained silent all this time suddenly spoke.

Congratulations, Link.

"What are you congratulating me for? I just suffered a terrible loss," said Link, frowning.

Aren't you feeling like you're now the king of the world? asked the spirit of the sword.

"Yeah, just a bit," replied Link.

That means you have received recognition from the Firuman realm itself. You are now truly the Avatar of the Realm, the sword explained. I witnessed something like this back when I was still in the Soul Dominator's possession, so I'm quite familiar with what you're going through now.

"Avatar of the Realm? Why now?" Link was stunned. He closely felt all that was going on in his body. It really did feel like he had just received the realm's blessing.

Maybe it's because you've regained your independence by freeing yourself from the God of Light's control?

This sounded logical. A message from the game system appeared in Link's field of sight as if in response to the sword's answer.

Examining entry of foreign energy inside player's body... Examining energy composition... Examination complete. Player has received the realm's blessing.

The game system's confirmation immediately cleared away all of Link's suspicions concerning the matter at hand. He let out a sigh of relief. This was quite the reward to make up for the terrible loss he had suffered back in the Sea of Void.

Suddenly, there was a flash of light before him. As the light subsided, Link soon realized that he had now appeared in the middle of Girvent Forest.

The sun shone brightly above him. All around him were trees, tall and green. Not far away, Link could also see the remnants of Creekwood Village that had been razed to the ground by the fires of war. Curiously enough, none of the villagers passing by him seemed to have noticed his presence in the forest.

"What's going on?" thought Link, frowning.

Just then, he suddenly noticed a woman standing in the shade of the forest in front of him. She looked to be around 30 years old. Even though she was dressed like a simple village maiden, there was something about her that Link could not put a finger on.

There existed people in this world capable of leaving impressions in one's mind that would last a lifetime. Weak-willed individuals had starved themselves chasing after memories of these people, haunted by them even in their sleep.

The woman was smiling at Link. Her eyes sparkled like constellations in the night sky. There was a beseeching look on her face. Link was about to say something to her, who seemed to be the only person in the village who was able to see him. All of a sudden, the scene before him changed. The villagers had disappeared. So too did the woman. All that was left before him were the empty remains of Creekwood Village in the middle of Girvent Forest.

What he saw just now was merely an illusion.

Now standing near the ruins of the village, Link tried to recall the woman's appearance. She must have been the will of the Firuman realm in human form.

In the previous game world, the Will of the Realm's presence had never been officially acknowledged by the developers, but there had been written records of it scattered throughout the game. Some traveling poets had even named this female personification of the realm's will "Freyar."

According to legends, Freyar had a soft spot for heroes. She would always offer them her blessing when they hit rock bottom, encouraging them to keep fighting the good fight.

He must have seen Freyar herself just now.

Squatting down, Link pinched a bit of soil from the ground. He then smiled. "Are you telling me to save the world? I've been doing this for a long, long time, you know."