In a way, the slow advance of the flaming bear was quite a bit less scary than the sudden appearance of the obsidian man. This was a threat that Ed could see coming, after all. If he had a mind to, he could turn and run with a reasonable expectation of escaping.
In another way, this was much scarier. Whereas Ed didn’t have time to move before, now he had no idea what to do. There wasn’t even a single idea for how to handle this threat that came to his mind.
The flaming bear raised a paw and swung toward the spectral lobster, which was rapidly backing away. Grimacing, Regina stepped forward and conjured a barrier in front of the apparition. But the shield only slowed the bear’s swing by a split second. Instead of being ripped in two, the lobster simply lost one of its forelimbs. Keening sadly, it continued to retreat.
Growling, the burning bear took several steps toward Regina.
I should help, Ed thought idly. Almost distantly, like what was happening wasn’t occurring feet away from him.
But before he could move, two figures cut across the square, slamming into the flaming bear. Surprisingly, the bear reacted quickly; it sent out two quick swipes of its paws. The figures responded to this threat differently.
The first hopped upward, touching the top of the paw and then spinning up to the torso to inflict several long scratches against the flaming ribcage. The second individual simply smashed into the paw, taking the force on directly. The impact was so strong that even Ed stumbled.
Roaring, the bear could only stagger backward several steps in order to regain its balance.
“Ohoho…. Truly sir, how remarkable. That you were only a hair slower than I…” A rather muscular man with elaborate gloves said to the other new arrival, stroking a rather large mustache. A very… familiar mustache.
“Tut… tut… to think you would mistake my impeccable timing for lateness… I suppose your lack of vision isn’t your own fault, but a result of deficient talent… As a fellow owner of a cafe in this area, I am concerned about the state of the neighborhood.” The other man replied as he hopped away from the burning bear and considered the surroundings, using one of his long knives to stroke his entirely identical mustaches.
The burning bear roared, drawing the attention of both back to it. Without a word, both surged into motion. For all that they were borrowing Ed’s mustache, they certainly knew how to fight. If Ed didn’t know better… it almost seemed like these two were even more powerful than the spectral beasts.
When they struck, bones cracked and shuddered underneath the assault. Likely the burning bear could overpower them, but the bear continued to try and protect the winged serpent, which had appeared some distance away and was now rapidly drawing runes onto the ground.
As those two steadily drove the giant bear backward, Regina took that opening to close the distance to the obsidian man and land another short blow on his body. Now that the winged serpent was distracted, the wolf and the brontosaurus circled around him as well, launching attacks at the obsidian man from several angles.
Very quickly, the entire square was covered in movements too quick for Ed to follow. With a cry, the brontosaurus that had been already slowed by the patches of ice on its body was struck down by the obsidian man. Groaning, the spirit collapsed and dispersed. Ed took several steps backward and would have likely continued to retreat if not for the sudden hand on his shoulder.
“Ohoho… is this perhaps a neighborhood association meeting for our ‘Breakfast Quarter?’” Ed spun around and found his own mustache busily twitching on another person’s face. Mrs. Hamilton winked at Ed. “To think I, Mr. Greene, a founding member of such a quarter, was not invited… truly, you new arrivals have no respect.”
“Apologies, Mr. Greene.” The muscular man kicked sideways off the back of the flaming bear and landed next to the pair of Mrs. Hamilton and Ed with an immaculate bow. “I don’t believe we have been introduced. I am Don White. I use they/them pronouns.”
“Of course, Don White.” Mrs. Hamilton flicked her hand and a bolt of something that Ed couldn’t even recognize shot sideways and slammed into the bear. Its roars had become decidedly less fierce under the combined assault of the two arrivals, and Mrs. Hamilton’s interference pushed things over the edge.
“Damnit…!” The obsidian man roared, shooting out several spears toward Mrs. Hamilton. Then he brought both hands down in a hammer blow on the head of the wolf, stunning it briefly. To Ed’s surprise, Mrs. Hamilton simply plucked the spikes out of the air and returned fire with several sharp bolts of energy.
“Retreat?” The serpent asked as it summoned a wall of ice that separated the burning bear from the man with the long knives. After a split second of hesitation, the obsidian man nodded. The serpent then began to wiggle strangely. “Step back. Commencing transfer-”
With an impossible amount of dexterity, the man with long knives scrambled up the sheer face of the ice wall and reached the top in a flash. Then he flicked one of his knives, end over end, until it sank deeply into the right eye socket of the serpent, even as a wave of cobalt energy covered the three enemies.
Then, with a pop and an infuriated hiss, they disappeared.
The knife-wielding man hopped down off of the slowly melting ice wall and began to brush the soot and dust off of his leathers. “Mr. Moon, here. A pleasure to meet you all. I suppose we should get this Neighborhood association meeting started?”
One of the tables that had been knocked into a haphazard pile of debris wobbled and then toppled forward, revealing a singed and bleeding Slugworth. He staggered forward, barely keeping his feet. But the entire while, he straightened his sport coat. “As Mr. Jones, a fellow cafe owner-”
“Please, Slugworth, this isn’t the time,” Mrs. Hamilton said curtly. Ed twitched and turned around, only to see that his mustache was gone from all three of the other people’s faces. They looked serious as if there hadn’t just been several jokes made here. But there was a distinct twinkle in Mrs. Hamilton’s eye...
But her face was creased with lines. She turned to Paolo and Kayle. “Did you speak to Alana?”
“Yes,” Kayle answered. “This was the distraction. Or they had multiple goals and this one stalled out when it encountered Regina. Thank you, by the way. We wouldn’t have been able to catch up otherwise.”
“No worries.” Regina’s face was pale, but she grinned at the other two. “After all, I couldn’t just let Ed get turned into roadkill, could I.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Hamilton said. Then she cocked her head to the side with her eyelids half closed. Listening to messages from others, likely.
“Alana stopped Thea, who appeared to be heading toward the teleporter. Perhaps to interfere with the ambassadors from Zone Seven? Luckily they left so quickly that even we weren’t ready for it. No way the Nemesai could catch them out. Gods, that would have been a political disaster. As for the third group-”
There was a breath of wind, and then a gentle looking young man was standing next to them. When his gaze met Ed’s, Ed was slightly shocked for several seconds; the young man’s eyes were completely white.
“Simon, you are awake. What a pleasant surprise.” Mrs. Hamilton said.
Simon made a cutting motion with his hand. “I know I messed up. Now’s not the time for it. That Nemesis from Zone Seven, the Winged Serpent, is a master wizard. There is a large array set up for teleportation some distance from here. I cannot track Thea, but I can sense that it is gathering power right now to send them far away. I’ll delay them as long as I can, but-”
Mrs. Hamilton shut her eyes. “Shit. Kayle, Paolo? Take your Squads, follow Simon’s lead. What are they waiting for, I wonder? Why strike….?”
Her words trailed off to mumbles.
All eyes turned instantly upward. Another flare had emerged, this time to the East of their position, toward-
“Shit. The Orders?” Regina muttered.
Mrs. Hamilton grimaced. “Shaking their faith in us would be hurtful but not-”
Then Mrs. Hamilton froze. “Faith…”
Ed literally had no idea what was going on. He spared a glance for the disheveled Slugworth. The other man was clearly out of his depth and was looking between the other people like a drowning man looking for a neon orange floatie. Ed coughed into his hand and stepped forward. All eyes turned to him.
Even if what he said wasn’t exactly right, just to make Slugworth know his lack of worth…! Ed needed to speak decisively here. “They never bothered with many guards… in the Religious District.”
“...and assuming they don’t just want to destabilize us… there is only one person with… tactical relevance in the Religious District.” Mrs. Hamilton had real fear in her eyes. “Fuck. That stupid, fool girl. Regina-”
“Glendel’s already there. It’s… the cathedral is collapsed. It was in the middle of the service…” Regina trailed off, panic in her eyes.
Suddenly, Ed very much regretted interfering with the conversation.
“What did you just say?” Zuek Tuan said, gripping the belt of the frogling in front of him and dragging him closer. Their eyes were only a hair apart from each other. Furious, Zuek peered into this fool’s soul, attempting to sniff out any subterfuge.
But the frogling in front of him just trembled in fear. It was a young thing, talented but less than twenty rainy-seasons old. As if it were the only lifeline it had, the frogling repeated its prior words.
“Nirfik is dead. And as far as we can tell… the Demon Prince walked out without a scratch. No one saw how it happened… but-”
“Fuck.” Zuek tossed the frogling to the side. Then he stormed out of the longhouse and into the rain. Almost unwillingly, he raised his head and looked at the ominous castle on the mountain, high above their current position.
Even through the rain, a palpable aura of death radiated off of the stone ramparts. They hadn’t realized it at first, but the longer they spent in the shadow of the castle, the deeper the darkness it was able to cast over their hearts. Especially when the Demon King within was so inscrutable. Zuek gritted his teeth.
Nirfik wasn’t one of the strongest Toad Lords… but he was old and wily. He would not have acted without sufficient preparations… so why…
There was a possibility, one that Zuek didn’t want to admit. His master believed that the hyper-aggressive demons were acting this way because they were deeply afraid of the Frogpeople. Therefore, this was a perfect opportunity to allow them to run wild and observe their capabilities.
Why did Toad Lords keep dying?