The initial flow of light split into five and kept heading toward them. Joshua vanished from sight and entered his soul world. It was pretty obvious what their mysterious host was trying to do. There's no way he would let that happen.
He appeared in an originally empty spot of his world and snapped his fingers. Suddenly, what resembled the brig from a sci-fi spaceship manifested around him. Five giant screens connected by randomly useless twinkling lights surrounded him. Each screen was showing a transparent image of a brain, including the Luna Network rune Catherine and him had inscribed in everyone. Two smaller screens were also present under the big one, projecting what every eye was seeing. As for Joshua, he was dressed like a Star Trek captain.
"Rune date 1 2 7251… whatever! Everyone, stay near Catherine and brace for impact!" he said, sitting in the captain's chair.
Catherine appeared next to him and looked confused.
"Please, tell me you have an actual plan," she asked, clearly worried.
"I do!" he replied stoically. Although, I'm not sure it will work. He gulped as the floating runes appeared on the screens streaming everyone's vision.
A few seconds later, they slammed into the five living humans of the party. Joshua had obviously been omitted from this strike as he had no physical body. Everyone had tried to dodge but to no avail. The Catherine next to Joshua groaned in pain and fell to one knee as the run hit her. Undoubtedly, this was happening to everyone in the real world. Joshua bit his lip, took a deep breath, and waited for the screens to begin showing the result of the attack.
He didn't have to wait for long. The skeleton of a rune began to manifest in everyone's head. Soon, the brain-limiter would be back where it used to be, ruining all of Joshua's work. Worse, based on what happened to the other teams, his friends would fall under that madman's control. That was, of course, unacceptable for him.
"Luna, initiate the emergency repair procedure," he calmly ordered.
The Luna Network rune in Catherine's head activated, soon followed by the other four. Joshua's plan was very simple. You cannot simply override a rune. When he designed the removal of the brain-limiter, he also left the networking rune in its place. Ergo, as the new brain-limiter was trying to incrust itself in everyone's head, they ran into the current resident.
Of course, this was dangerous. Back when he served as Catherine's guinea pig, whenever the inscription failed, pure raw energy began leaking all around his brain, forcing Joshua to dismiss his body, a luxury the others didn't have. Fortunately for them, despite what appearances would tell about him, Joshua was an extremely careful person when it came to designing runes. He had years the years of experience of developing Luna after all. When you work on an implant for someone's brain, failure is not an option. It has to work properly or you risk killing the host.
As the runes made contact with one another, the brain-limiter began to grow unstable, as it was unable to properly install itself. Soon, energy began to leak from it. However, instead of causing everyone irreparable brain damage, the networking rune began absorbing the surplus of energy. It was designed in such a way that in case of a leak, it would safely absorb the excess of energy.
Joshua let out a sigh out of relief. What he had ordered Luna to do wasn't exactly how the absorption normally worked. It was supposed to clean leaks from the rune itself, not from a foreign entity that was forcefully being placed. Of course, Joshua had never imagined someone could draw a rune from a distance and forcefully inscribe it into someone's head like that.
He looked at Catherine, her expression was still pale but she had managed to stand.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'll manage. Your quick thinking saved us again," she replied, forming a faint smile.
"We're not out of the woods yet. . ." he answered.
Since the absorption process was intended for self-maintenance, it couldn't get rid of the whole foreign rune. The displays were currently showing the absorption capacity was reaching its limits while the brain limiter was still half-present.
"I need to go back outside to get rid of the rest, keep an eye on the screens and tell me if you see something abnormal popping up."
She nodded and turned towards the monitors.
Joshua appeared back next to the party, a rune-inscribing pen attached to each arm. Without delay, he pointed one pen towards Catherine and the other towards Eric and began absorbing the leaking energy. After about ten seconds the immediate leaks had vanished so he switched to the twins, then to Boris and back to Catherine ten seconds later et cetera. He kept following Catherine's instruction as she told him where leaks appeared and on whom. A few minutes later, the rune had been completely neutralized.
"Phew, how's everyone doing?" he asked.
"This felt horrible, but I'm fine I guess," Eric answered. The rest nodded, it seemed to have worked.
Of course, everyone's expression was more or less saying: 'That's all good and well but now what?'
They didn't have to wait long, as the figure watching them slowly began clapping his hands.
"Bravo. You managed to prevent the rune from being inscribed in their brain. I have to admit, this is rather impressive. You have the making of a true runemaster," the man calmly stated.
"Which is exactly why you must be stopped now before you commit something irreparable," he added.
As he spoke those words, he traced another rune with his hand. It wasn't the brain-limiter, even though some parts were similar.
"I'm rather curious how you'll deal with this one."
Again, he launched the rune, again it flew toward the party. But this time, it didn't split. Joshua gulped as he realized this time, he was the intended target. He flew up in the air hoping to throw it off but it was clearly aiming for him. For a moment, he thought about hiding in his world and vanished. Unfortunately, the rune then set a course straight for Catherine.
Right before she was hit, he appeared in front of her. He would be quite the failure of a guardian if he let her take blows aimed at him in his stead. He took the blow, he had no other options.
This feeling. . . It felt so familiar. It reminded him of when Diana intruded in his world and tried to take over. It didn't hurt, at least not yet. He had a bad feeling so he jumped back into his world. Catherine was still there, keeping an eye on the screens.
[WARNING!!! Intrusion detected!]
"Yeah, no shit. . . Catherine, leave, this is about to get ugly," he told her.
She slapped him.
"Didn't you promise me we would face adversity together? I'm not leaving you."
"Right, I'm sorry. Let's head where the anomaly is."
[Unknown foreign rune detected. System Hardware is being corrupted.]
"He's able to inscribe something straight into my soul? How do I deal with that?" he said out loud as they came into view of a ten-meter tall rune that was gradually forming against one of the walls of the world.
"Didn't the Hydra have a rune inscribed in its world?" Catherine reminded him.
"Right, and we just damaged it by attacking it. . ." he replied and shot some lightning towards the rune. It seemed to have some minor effect but the rune quickly self-repaired.
"Screw it, let's use the big artillery!" he yelled and began to concentrate. A moment later, the wall in front of them exploded, leaving a giant gap. Of course, blowing up a part of his own world caused some serious damage to Joshua who fell on his knees and held his head in pain.
"Are you crazy?" Catherine yelled as she began to close the hole with a wall of ice.
"Well, yeah, but you already knew that," he answered. One cannot be a true mad scientist without blowing up stuff all the time.
"True," she grinned.
A moment later, Catherine had fully plugged the hole with ice.
"Thanks, you were right. I couldn't have done it without your help," Joshua told her, breathing rather heavily.
"You're welcome," she answered as she helped him up, "but we can't continue like this. That man will just keep throwing runes at us until we're done for."
"I know. . . but I'm really clueless about how to stop him. I'm sorry."
"Don't be, you're doing everything you can already. Just focus on recovering. I'll try talking to him once more."
Once again, Joshua appeared in the real world. The others seemed relieved and worried at the same time.
"You actually blew up a part of your soul world? While it does indeed work, I can keep throwing those runes all day, you know? You're just a spirit, do you want to permanently be erased from existence?" the man almost sounded amused.
Catherine looked worriedly at Joshua, stepped forward, and asked: "Sir, please, we mean you no harm. How can we convince you to halt your assault?"
The figure's head tilted sideways as if he was gauging Catherine. He then responded: "Audacious, aren't you? You barely managed to block two weak assaults from me so you think you can convince me to change my attitude? No, no, no this is not how this works. Now, let me see how you react against a real assault."
A real assault.
The man had spoken those words casually, almost as if had something better to do, and was getting bored of tormenting the party.
No, he's not tormenting us. He sees us as rat labs. Or maybe, a curiosity and our novelty had run out. . .
"Don't worry, I'll stick to soul-limiters. If you mess up removing brain-limiters you might actually kill one of them. I'd rather avoid pointless deads. Just don't blow up your soul world and you'll be fine."
For the third time, he drew a rune with his finger. It was the same rune had thrown at Joshua, a 'soul-limiter' as he had called it. For the third time, it was launched in the air. When it exploded in over fifty pieces, Joshua's heart sank, and he slowly turned his head toward the people he had been traveling with ever since he had been summoned in this world. He had seen them fight bravely several times but today, they all seemed lost and afraid. Who could blame them? What they were facing was beyond comprehension.
"You're out of ideas, aren't you?" Eric said, sounding resigned.
"So, this is it. . .", Cynthia whispered, "We made it further than most people, I guess."
Lydia remained silent but her eyes seemed to say 'What are we even doing here?', an excellent question.
As for Boris, he looked at the incoming runes and took a fighting pose. As useless as it sounded, he wouldn't go down without making a last stand.
Finally, looking at Catherine, the conversation he had with her earlier came back to his mind.
How would you describe staying?
I would say it's a beacon of hope surrounded by whirlpools of despair. The probability of failure is very high and whether positive or negative, we'll know the end result fairly soon.
So, you describe it as a high-risk, high-reward situation?
Pretty much, of course, if everything gets too dire, we can still abandon ship and run back to the surface.
What a joke. There was nowhere to run. Catherine had trusted his advice and they had remained here. A sensible person would have turned back immediately after discovering this place wasn't an ancient ruin as they were told.
If only he had told them to turn back, he wouldn't have dragged down the whole party with him.
If only he had a better understanding of runes, he would be able to counter those attacks.
If only. . .
If only. . .
Joshua suddenly punched himself, surprising everyone.
Seriously, Lockman, since when are you such a whiny bitch? If only this, if only that. . . 'If only' is one of the most useless expression of the human language. The only people who use such statements are losers who have given up and can't get over a past event. There has to be something you can do! Think!
Yet, nothing came to mind. There was no conceivable way for him to protect everyone.
Everyone, huh. . .
One way. There is one way. Not to save everyone, that's pretty much impossible at this point. But, there is a sliver of a chance he can at least protect her.
That's the whole reason he had summoned him, after all.
Luna, what are the chances of success of that idea?
[Calculating. . . Less than 1%. Consider finding an alternative.]
What alternative? I got less than a minute to put it into motion.
"Do you people trust me?" he asked.
"Without hesitation," Catherine replied.
The others looked at each other and nodded.
We wouldn't even have reached this place without your help, Boris told him.
"Then please, no matter what happens protect Catherine as long as you can."
Lydia grinned and replied: "Isn't that why we're here in the first place?"
"Hold on! What do you have in mind?" Catherine asked him, clearly worried.
"I'd like to explain but we're out of time. You know what they say, a true hero can turn 1% into 100%."
"What, you think you're a hero suddenly?"
"Of course not!"
But, you definitely are!