“Things rarely happen according to your expectations.”
***The Eternal Battlefield***
“This is the perfect opportunity! We have to attack now!” Janice yells at Nova, losing her composure. I helplessly watch the confrontation, wondering how the argument started.
When we arrived at the battlefield, the uncontrollability of the situation was obvious. Nonetheless, Nova kept refusing to share her plans with us. Her determination to keep her plans a secret, it borders on paranoia.
It doesn't help that Janice went berserk as soon as she saw the Imperial Flagship, demanding that we throw everything we have into the battle.
“No.” Nova shakes her head, looking tired. “Just do as you were told. We hold position and don't join the battle. Why are you suddenly so eager to join this fight?”
Janice crosses her arms in front of her chest. “Jules, that bastard Emperor is down there. I can feel his presence. I will probably never again get this close to him. I want revenge! Not only for you, or my daughter. I want it for my husband.”
“You said that he was killed in a duel,” I interject, not sure if it's my place to interrupt her. It could end up making the argument worse than it already is.
I just happened to be on the bridge of Illum's war-section, when Janice stormed into the room. Aside from me, most of the other adventurers in Nova's service are also present.
Tristen and Brian are here to represent our infantry. Fae is coordinating the civilian crewmen who are in charge of maintaining this part of Illum.
The bridge itself is a small, round room without any controls, aside from a few fixed chairs and communication equipment. All of Illum's controls are in Nova's hands. Inside her huge command chair, she looks like an empress on her throne.
“My husband was the leader of a nation. Who else would he duel than the leader of another nation?” Janice glares at me with hatred in her eyes. Her eyes are glowing in an eerie, green light. If she wasn't talking to us, I would think that she had lost it. The necromantic energies which are being released by the battle must be overwhelming.
Maybe that’s why she is suddenly so emotional.
I glance at the large screen which is facing Nova, where several ships are battering the huge chimera with spells. For some reason, the pyramid stopped shooting after taking out some airships. Now it's just hovering above the hordes of undead.
“It doesn't change anything. Illum won't launch its fighters, just because you are seeing red,” Nova answers calmly.
The Sovereign crosses her arms in front of her chest. The muscles of her jaw are working relentlessly, showing that she is trying to keep her emotions in check. “They will notice that something is wrong if we don't attack. At least a part of our forces should engage in battle. Whatever you want to achieve with this show, your words will be empty if we just hover outside their reach.”
Nova furrows her forehead and looks down at her knees. For a small moment, I see something like sadness in her expression. But it could have been just my imagination. She seems to deflate. “You are right. You may take a battlegroup of your ships into the fray.”
Janice turns to storm out of the room, but Nova holds her back. “Don't forget that those who seek glory in battle often end up as legends.”
I glare at Nova and quickly follow Janice out of the room. I am well aware that I am leaving my post, but it seems like Nova doesn't have any intention of using the stockpile of corvettes in our hangar.
Luckily, I manage to catch Janice on the corridor. “Janice, stop! Where do you think you are going?”
She whirls around. “Who do you think you are talking to!? I am the Sovereign! Don't forget that! Just because I allowed you a little more leniency than others, doesn't mean that you can look down on me.”
Realizing how my voice and my words must have sounded, I raise both hands. “Sorry! I didn't intend to sound condescending. I just want you to reconsider your actions. We both know that we wouldn't be here if Nova hadn't asked for it. If she wanted you to go, she would have said so.”
The green light in the Sovereign's eyes lessens a bit. “She told me to go.”
I snort. “She did, but you seem very determined. You and I have known Nova for long enough to tell that something is taking a lot of her attention. The last month, she mostly sat around, presumably playing with Illum's functions, but there must be more behind that. Nova's plans must have reached a critical point. Right now she doesn't want - doesn't allow - any distractions. Whatever or whoever it may be!”
Janice tilts her head but doesn't say anything.
So I decide to press the point. “She called you a legend! My bet is that whoever enters that battlefield is unlikely to leave alive.”
Janice straightens herself, trying to look every bit of the Sovereign she is supposed to be. “I still have to go. If there is the tiniest chance that my presence ensures the Emperor's death, then I am willing to take the risk.” She turns and walks away, leaving me alone in the hallway.
I stay there for several long minutes, trying to make sense of the situation. Janice is my only real ally. Why is she suddenly so eager to risk her life? A few moments before our fleet arrived at the Eternal Battlefield, everything looked to be fine. I should have paid more attention to her back at the World Assembly. The duel bothered Janice, but it didn't look like it would flip a switch inside her.
I should have had a word with her earlier.
Sighing, I return to the room which functions as Illum's bridge. Damn, this gets confusing. If Nova splits Illum into even more pieces, we really need distinct names for all of them.
A quick glance at the tactical display shows me that a part of our fleet has split off to close in on the pyramid. Janice is acting very quickly. “Did I miss something?”
Nova shrugs and gestures at the screen. “They refused my peace offering and now they are charging the pyramid's main-weapon.”
The heads of everyone inside the room whip around to look at Nova. “What!?” “How did they get into the pyramid?” “You negotiated with them!?”
I don't get the chance to complain about Nova's hidden games. I knew that she can manipulate Illum's controls with her mind, but it seems like that ability has more facets than I believed.
The green light on the pyramid gains intensity and a lance of energy shoots at us, wiping out a Mirai airship which happened to be in the way. Then, the ray of energy hits us and the whole room shakes. The screen in front of Nova turns white.
***The Eternal Battlefield***
The undead flood over our position. My comrades are simply overrun as I scream and hack wildly at everything that comes too close. This is it then. This is how I die.
An undead barrels into me and I am thrown onto my back, bodies piling onto me. Raising my armoured arm, I shove it into the monster's mouth to stop it from finding the soft flesh of my face.
Above us, the battle between the airships doesn't look any better. It long since devolved into a fight without clear lines. The Sociocrathy's battle platforms are fighting undead wyverns. The Alliance and the Empire are fighting each other and the undead.
Something bites into my thigh and I scream as dozens of hands attempt to rip me apart.
My gaze is fixed on the sky and falling airships when the pyramid shoots its energy weapon at the huge, leading ship in the Mirai formation far above the battle. The green light burns my retina, but I can see a pulse of power leaping back and forth between the two vessels, a strange interaction taking place.
***The Eternal Battlefield***
The pyramid is shaking as if it's building up power. “What's happening!? A feedback loop? No!” Rufus feverishly manipulates the spell projector. “No! The spell matrix is collapsing! I can't...”
“A trap!” Sirra jumps towards Rufus, reaching for the device. “Give me the crystal!”
“Time to go!” Fin reaches for the amulet around my neck and crushes it, doing the same with his own. The spell activates and both of us are pulled into a portal, leaving behind the rest of the group.
The Emperor's enraged scream follows us as we land on the bridge of our flagship, the Pariah. Fin is back on his feet before I can even make sense of the situation.
“All energy to the barriers! Now!” he bellows.
When the man at the controls just stares at us with wide eyes, the king shoves him aside, sliding down all controls to their minimum, while powering the defence systems to their maximum.
I look up at the screen which shows the pyramid. The energy barriers around it flicker, as the pulse of energy, hits it a final time. Finally, the complicated spell structure around the pyramid collapses and crushes the pyramid, forming a new, complex system, the fragments of the original spells falling into a new place. A moment later, all the energy bursts outwards in a flash of brilliant white.
The chimera and most of the combatants simply disappear.
Without warning, the bridge's ceiling suddenly jumps into my face and the roar of an angry god batters me as the room seems to stretch. As quickly as it happened, I am thrown back to the floor and my world blacks out.
***The Eternal Battlefield***
Pain. My world consists of pain, but I force my eyes open. Relying on the power of my will, I blink, trying to focus my vision. The room is tilted sideways, not a good sign. Concentrating, I call up the tactical screen. When Illum's observation systems don't respond, I switch to the data feed of one of the observation platforms; re-purposed corvettes which are permanently stationed around Illum to provide additional data.
Some of the platforms which were stationed further out are still intact. A few moments later, I finally get to see what happened.
My calculations must have been a little off. Despite the safety grid, some of Illum’s energy sinks blew up, which caused us to lose most of our energy fields. The sphere with its surrounding rings fell out of the sky and tore a new valley into the mountain range north of the Eternal Battlefield. Luckily, the dampening fields didn't give out entirely and kept us alive, though not unharmed.
The nice rings which I used to control the rebound effect are in pieces. One is sticking out of the mountain like a chakram. The sphere itself is battered and dented, which is probably the reason why I don't have any external sensors.
Someone touches my shoulder and shakes me. Looking to the side, I find Zane and Fae looking at me. Their mouths are moving, but I hear nothing. Tristen and Brian are also alive. The undead paladin is tending to his friend.
Fae closes her eyes and touches my temples. A few moments later, I feel the prickling sensation of a healing spell. I shudder in relief when the mind-numbing pain fades away.
“... hear me!?” The elf screams at me. “One of the communication panels broke off and hit you on the head.”
“Not so loud!” I reach up and wipe a drop of blood from my eyebrow. “The resonance effect must have built up, or there was an unknown factor which I didn't anticipate.”
“Are you alright?” Zane touches my shoulder, sounding genuinely worried. Then he tries to control his expression. “What the fuck did you do?”
“Hah.” I gesture at the tactical screen and it zooms out, giving us a nice view of the carnage. The centre of the Enternal Battlefield, where the pyramid was, is a glowing crater. Gathered around it, are the wrecks of countless airships, laid out like corpses.
The Mirai fleet also didn't get off unscathed. Several of the weaker ships are gone, but most of those who kept their distance with us are still afloat. I pull down the corners of my mouth when I realize that Janice's battlegroup is gone.
Stupid bitch! Why did she have to get so emotional at the last second? The plan might have worked without sending her and the others to their doom. I bite into the flesh of my cheek. But seeing the Mirai advance might have been exactly what caused Rufus to press the switch.
Janice will hate me for this.
“I ended the war,” I explain. “This explosion took out most of the trained armies in this world. When the pyramid's barriers collapsed, combined with Rufus's device, the whole spell matrix collapsed, forming into a new one. Each component seen by itself was utterly harmless. Combined under the right circumstances, they formed a new whole.”
Before Zane can complain about nuking a battlefield, I continue. “The explosion sent out an energy wave, carrying the instructions to reprogram most of the slave collars on this world.” I smile at their gaping faces. “Right now, everyone with a slave-collar is rebelling against his masters, killing them indiscriminately. Even if the Empire still had most of their troops, they would have trouble regaining control.”
Zane shakes his head, looking away from me. “You just killed millions. How can you look so happy?”
I nod. “And I ended the Empire, hopefully together with the leaders of the nations which stand against Illum.” They are done for. “At least it will take them a lot of time to rebuild. Time which I can use to make sure that their idea of how things should be doesn't come to fruition.”
“I think not.” Brian points at the screen, where a huge longship rises from behind a large hill. The wooden frame is battered and one of the leaf-like sails is charred, but it seems to be functioning.
A signal in the corner of the screen indicates that someone is aiming the signal of a communication crystal at us, so I open the connection. The doomed landscape is replaced by a bridge which looks very much like it belongs to an old Star Trek movie.
Three battered crewmen are at the controls and Fin is standing in the centre of the room. Next to him is Alias, whose face looks like a smith mistook it for an anvil and gave it a work-over with his hammer.
Fin isn't in his best state either, but he looks indefinitely better than me. Clapping his hands together, the king of the elves smiles. “You must be Nova. Alias told me so much about you. We finally meet in person. Well, not exactly in person, but you get the idea.”
I smile. “You are alive. How unfortunate. I really hoped that your plan of using me to get rid of your competitors wouldn't work out. But, there you are! That sucks. Especially since we promised not to interfere with each other.”
After a short pause, I add, “At least not intentionally.”
The elf nods. “Yes! It seems like that worked especially well. You see, I tampered a little with the spell matrix I got from you. Did you really think that I wouldn't realize that the papers were coming from you? I hid a few small instructions among the spellware. They should have made it impossible to teleport in and out of the vicinity of the device. I only left a single frequency open, the one for my own amulets.”
So that’s why Illum’s energy sinks blew up. He meddled with the spell. The fool didn’t intend it, but he did something that turned out to his benefit. Nodding, I acknowledge the bravery of his plan. “I didn't think of you as a man who would get his own hands dirty to achieve his goals.”
Fin stops smiling. “Now that we are talking about goals... I am afraid that ours no longer align. With so many reincarnated dead, the world is ripe for a major restructuring. I know that we have an arrangement, but the chance is simply too good! My ship's main-weapon array is still working and you are lying there like a sitting duck with your barriers down. Not even your ship's size will matter. It's just too bad that Fae is with you...” He shrugs. “Just a distant relative.”
Zane reaches for my shoulder, pressing it. Not looking at me, he whispers, “You are mad. A crazy mass murderer, but it was a good attempt at doing something good.”
Fae straightens, expecting the end.
I shrug and look at Fin. “I guess that this ends our bargain.” Then I close my eyes.
And open them, standing next to Fin. I pull the dagger from my belt and ram it into Fin's back. The thin blade blooms from his chest, the metal glistening red with blood. The king of the elves arches his back in shock, trying to breathe.
I turn my attention to the crewman at one of the control panels, concentrating on this body's ability. “The main weapon array is damaged. You have to shut it down and deplete the ship's energy reserves.” As the man's eyes glisten over, he turns to manipulate his controls.
Pulling the blade out of Fin's back, I launch myself at the other two crewmen. They didn't even realize what happened, concentrating on their controls and damage reports. The dagger slips neatly into the spine of the first man.
Grabbing the head of the second elf, I hammer it into his console. Once, twice, thrice, and something cracks, giving me the satisfaction I sought. Oh, it feels good to do something with my own hands... borrowed hands. I let go of the body, allowing him to slide to the floor.
Turning, I find Fin looking at me with wide, unbelieving eyes. He stumbles backwards and falls heavily into the command chair behind him. His hand raises feebly in an attempt to cast a spell, but drops. Black lines spread like blood vessels beneath the king's skin. The hex on the dagger is disassembling him cell by cell.
I walk over to the crewman at the weapon station and reach up. He is still in my ability's thrall, staring dreamily at his controls. Placing one hand on his chin, the other on his head, I snap his neck in a single, smooth motion.
The body slackens and drops to the ground. Turning to the controls, I hammer my fist into the console until I am sure that it's useless. They won’t fire their weapon any time soon.
When I look at the screen, I see my battered body on my throne and frown. I really don't look so well. The others are staring in utter shock out of the screen. Sighing, I close my eyes.
And open them, once again in my own body. On the screen, Alias looks around, utterly horrified. “What did I do? What did I do!?” He screams and starts rambling like a madman.
Fin forces his eyes away from his subordinate and coughs up blood. The curse inside him is working fast. He has a handful of minutes at most. The king of the elves looks at me. “How? When?”
“Alias?” I smile with a smug expression, gloating in my victory. “Since his eye got wounded by the dagger. It seems like you forgot about my specialty. Crafting cursed blades is one of my passions, but I had my ears at your court for far longer. Ever since you took a certain lover to your bed. Women are your weakness, Fin. Gwiaha Finguld, your newest consort. She was mine all along.
“Did you really think that the stupid little girl had the brains to petition for your protection? If I hadn't influenced her thoughts, she would have run straight back to her family and gotten herself killed. It's called reverse psychology. Now I still have one of my agents at your court. One who happens to be carrying your descendant. She can do whatever she pleases, including taking care of other possible successors to your throne.
“It was so easy to gain your attention. Upturned, hopeful eyes. A little ‘ahing’ and ‘ohing’ at your magnificence. Then slipping at the wrong moment and landing in your arms. Seriously, Fin, I played out a textbook romance story for you and you fell for it.”
Fin grins and coughs up more blood. “I wondered about her mood swings.” His skin is now paling and taking on a necrotic sheen, but he grins. “I won’t forget that lap-dance… those hip movements… Well played. Well...” His head slumps backwards and his body shudders one last time, then the king of the elves is no more.
Several guards burst onto the bridge, alarmed by Alias's mad ranting. They look at their dead king and the corpses, one of them with the spymaster's blade in his neck. There is no doubt who will get the blame for this.
I switch off the connection and look at Fae, who is gaping at me, just like the others. “Do you want to be queen? We can kill off the others and you will be first in line. Maybe I don't even have to interfere. I doubt the elves will accept a baby on their throne. They will be busy with intrigue and hire assassins until most of the possible successors are killed. That always happens when such a powerful man leaves a vacuum of power behind.”