Arlette sprinted along the wall, pushing her tired body to its limits as the ground around her darkened with startling speed. This was new. After over a season of siege warfare, Arlette had assumed that the Ubrans had run out of tricks, but she’d been wrong. In all her years of experience on the battlefield, Arlette had never seen projectiles of this magnitude. Boulders the size of mansions. Fireballs like miniature suns. Massive balls of ice that ruptured into smaller sharp fragments upon impact. Each area of the wall seemed to have its own flavor of giant missile headed their way. Her area was currently being slammed by the stone variety, each enormous rock slowly building in size far off towards the back of the Ubran camp before eventually reaching the desired size and launching towards the wall.
Nobody knew what had changed. The sites where the boulders and such came from were too far away for her or anybody else around to see clearly. All they knew was that yesterday things had been normal, or at least as normal as a siege can be, and that today everything was utter chaos. But none of that really mattered now. What mattered was not getting turned into paste.
With one final leap, she threw herself forward, bouncing and spinning across the hard floor and nearly bowling into a nearby skirmish. Some fellow fighters tumbled beside or in front of her. Others weren’t so fortunate. The massive boulder, wide as five houses, crashed into the wall behind her, crushing the slow or poorly positioned like a lizard beneath a garoph’s hoof. If she hadn’t already been on her ground, the tremor that shook the wall would have sent her to her knees.
The force of the impact was too much for either party to handle. A crack as wide as a man was tall formed on the seemingly impervious wall, which had stood unblemished for generations. Meanwhile the massive projectile shattered into many smaller pieces, sending shrapnel ranging from the size of Arlette’s arm to the size of a wagon hurtling outward in all directions. Arlette twisted as a chunk of rock twice her size flew towards her, but her already awkward position prevented her from fully avoiding the tumbling stone missile. Despite her best efforts, a piece of it clipped her on her right upper arm, sending a sharp pain lancing through it.
A litany of profanity bubbled up in her mind as she recognized the feeling deep in her arm immediately, having felt it several times before after being on the receiving end of a particularly heavy strike from a blunt weapon. A bone in her arm had cracked. Fortunately, she could still move it so it wasn’t completely broken, but every motion brought a surge of pain, especially twisting. Unfortunately, her longsword was a weapon best held in both hands. Given that she was left-handed, she could still manage to swing to some degree, but her strikes would be clumsier and weaker, perhaps dangerously so.
The explosion of the giant boulder brought a moment of pause to the battle going on around her, but it lasted only a fraction of a moment—long enough for her to realize what had happened to her arm, but not long enough for her to think of what to do about it. Arlette stepped back as the fighting resumed, hoping to stay out of the fray at least momentarily, but two Ubrans spotted her immediately and charged.
The man on the left carried a longsword much like hers, though he wore much thicker and sturdier armor than she did. He even wore a helmet that protected all of his head and face except for two large eye holes. The armor seemed largely unused, lacking the sort of dents and scratches one would expect from a suit that had seen many days of battle. On the chestplate, Arlette saw a crest of some sort, one which tickled something in the back of her mind.
The woman on the right lacked the fancy equipment of her comrade, instead donning thinner leather armor more akin to Arlette’s own, but her wicked-looking spear with a head curved like a waning moon marked her as likely the more dangerous of the two. Spear wielders were always a pain if they knew what they were doing. She had few ways of taking them down even when at full strength if they were good enough to stay out of her range, and now this one had backup.
Arlette swayed to the left, ducking out of the way on an incoming spear thrust, and raised her sword with a wince to redirect the man’s horizontal slash upward. A loud grunt of pain escaped her lips as her right arm screamed at her, despite her best efforts to bear the brunt of the force with her left. Returning the man’s strike with one of her own, she swung down and across her body, but the speed and coordination just weren’t there and the man avoided it with ease.
Arlette quickly strafed to her left and watched closely to how the man reacted. Bringing his sword up, he locked eyes with her and stepped forward. Arlette grinned. Perhaps there was more hope to be found than she’d previously thought. It seemed that the man was not accustomed to fighting alongside the woman. Arlette had purposely moved left to interpose the man between her and the spearwoman. If they had experience working together, he would have stepped to the side to give her a clear lane to harass Arlette with her spear as he attacked her from a different angle. Instead, he was almost serving as a shield, actively impeding his fellow Ubran as she tried to back him up.
In the chaos of battle, such actions could often go overlooked but they added up. Too many mistakes and miscommunications could end up in one’s premature death. Arlette felt like her opponents had been making more of these mistakes recently, as if the overall experience level of the Ubrans was on the decline. It made sense: as the battle-hardened veterans were slowly whittled away, fresh new recruits were stepping up to take their places. Not that Arlette was laughing; at least the Ubrans had bodies to fill those holes, unlike her side.
Stepping forward as well, Arlette executed her standard illusory maneuver, stepping both left with her real body and right with a fake one to keep her real body as far from the spearwoman as possible. That choice immediately proved wise as the crescent blade of the spear shot through her other self almost as soon as it appeared. Unfortunately, the strike served to show her target just how not real the right version of her was. After reeling back slightly in the initial shock, unsure which side to focus on, he recovered quickly and shifted all his attention towards the real her just in time to block her thrust.
Arlette ground her teeth, partly because of the pain and partly because at full health her blade would have pierced between the two plates that protected her target’s left side. Letting the last illusion vanish, she quickly spun away from the counter slash before immediately rushing back in. Her opponent likely understood something was wrong, but years of experience had taught her that there was still a little time before he would fully comprehend what she was doing. This window was her time to act.
Instead of splitting left and right this time, she stepped forward while sending her illusory self ahead of her and following close behind. The man slashed cautiously at the oncoming illusion, careful to not overextend and leave himself open. Fake Arlette avoided the strike with a grace that defied physics and human anatomy—one of the benefits of being made up—and lashed out, though not with her sword but with a lightning-fast jab at his helmet. Except it wasn’t a fist, and it wasn’t just at his head; she’d extended her pointer and middle fingers, and they were headed directly for the man’s eyes. Even though he knew the fingers weren’t real, Arlette’s opponent couldn’t stop himself from reflexively flinching, his head rocking back his arms rising to try to ward off the threat.
That was all Arlette needed. Her real sword came thrusting up towards his suddenly exposed left armpit, the blade slipping into the crease and biting deep into his flesh. She couldn’t help but grin slightly at her success. It was almost comical how often that ploy worked, especially against the inexperienced.
The man cried out as she wrenched her sword out from his armor with a grunt of pain. Even though she was doing as much of the work as possible with her dominant left arm, every move still made her want to scream. She would never underestimate her right arm’s contributions ever again.
“No! I don’t want to die!” the man wailed, backing away with a look of sheer panic in his eyes.
Arlette froze for a split second at his lament, shock and horror running through her as she suddenly came to a terrible realization. The glint of a certain crescent-shaped blade hunting for her legs brought her back, but it was too late. Battle-trained reflexes kicked in and she jumped away, but not in time to completely avoid the blade. She let out a cry of agony as she awkwardly fell to the ground, a large gash running across her right calf.
Arlette knew a losing situation when she saw one. Desperately looking for help or a way out, she found neither. More and more Ubrans were surmounting the wall and entering the fray every moment, pushing the greatly outnumbered Eterians into smaller islands of resistance. Normally, this would have been an opportune time to unleash a jaglioth or two, but that sort of rescue would not come this time.
The boulder that had landed nearby moments ago was not the only one to strike down atop the wall. Another had landed on the far side of her section, closer to the gate. The resulting piles of rubble cut off the jaglioths stationed near the gate from her area. There would be no blood-soaked beasts tearing through Ubrans to save her today.
Nor, for that matter, would there be any beasts of the metal variety. Some of the Otharians’ terrifying creations—the smaller ones at least—used to patrol up atop the wall, sometimes holding down entire sections on their own. That had changed recently, as more and more of them were sent instead to stop the Monster’s rampage.
Towards the center of the penned in Eterians, Arlette spotted her final hope standing farther down the wall: General Khilran, the commander of her area and the strongest Eterian nearby. Sadly, she found little cause for hope from the sight. A large group of Ubrans pressed in on Khilran and her subordinate officers, overwhelming them with sheer numbers to such a degree that the General didn’t even seem to want to fight anymore. Instead, she was busy gulping down some sort of black drink in a tiny bottle.
The spearwoman didn’t give Arlette time to find a way out of her mess. With a bellow, she swung her spear down in a deadly arc towards Arlette’s gut. Arlette rolled away as quickly as she could, but for the second time in a row, she was too slow. She felt the blade slice across her side just below her cuirass and let out a hiss. Arlette thanked the stars that her roll kept the weapon from cutting deep enough to hit her internal organs, but that didn’t make it hurt any less.
The spear flashed down a second time, this time towards her neck. Given no other option, she held up the flat side of her sword with both hands to try to block it. This proved to be a misjudgment as soon as the blades met.
Arlette’s right arm gave in immediately and her left followed shortly thereafter, pinning her hands against her chest as the point of the spear gleamed less than a hand’s length from her throat. This was what happened when an Observer engaged in a physical contest with a Feeler. It was why other Observers always tried to keep a good distance between them and their enemies. Arlette’s injured arm only made the inevitable happen faster. Only her desperation and lack of options had forced her to try in the first place.
With a grunt, the spearwoman suddenly shifted her grip and torqued the spear to her right, catching Arlette’s sword with the inside of the spearhead and ripping it from Arlette’s hands. The blade clattered to the ground perhaps ten paces from Arlette’s feet, far too distant for her to retrieve it.
Arlette’s good arm flashed down to her leg, grasping for one of the throwing knives she kept strapped to her upper thigh. Just as her fingers wrapped around the hilt of one, something wet slammed into her side, knocking the knife from her hand. The next thing she knew, she found herself tumbling uncontrollably through rushing water with only half a breath.
Arlette tried in vain to swim against the powerful currents but found that she could barely move. It was as if the water was as thick as honey and fought her no matter what she did.
She’d first thought that the water had come from some bombardment like the giant boulders, though how it had fallen on them all without anybody seeing it she hadn’t been able to explain. That impression had gone out the window as soon as she’d looked around and realized that she wasn’t alone. The soldiers from both sides who’d been fighting nearby also floated in the water all around her. The water blurred her vision, making it hard to see more than a handful of paces away, but she thought she could make out fuzzy humanoid shapes writhing about as far as she could see. To be able to Observe so much water at once, with this absurd level of control, was impossible! Who was doing this, and how?
The answer came just a moment later, as a single figure seemed to slide along the wall quickly approaching Arlette’s position. As they did, Arlette saw the water roil about as they passed and suddenly people began to move. Some sank out of the levitating liquid mass and fell to the ground, while others flew out the side as if shot from a bow.
The people were getting sorted, she realized as the figure quickly grew closer. The Eterian defenders were falling out of the water and down to the safety of the ground below, while the Ubran attackers were being thrown off the wall to die! Since it seemed she couldn’t do anything other than hold her breath and pray, she did exactly that, asking the spirits, the stars, the moons, and anything else she thought might listen for her to be recognized as a defender.
Her moment of judgment came mercifully soon, as the figure zipped along beneath her. Arlette was surprised to realize the person was, in fact, General Khilran. The general looked up towards her, a bright golden glow shining from her eye sockets. There was a strange familiarity to that aura which beckoned, though she couldn’t quite remember where she’d it seen it before.
All at once, the hold on her body disappeared and Arlette mercifully fell out of the water. She coughed and sucked in a fresh lungful of air, turning around just in time to see the spearwoman plummet off the wall and fall out of sight. Arlette looked back towards the general, but General Khilran was already halfway down the walkway, somehow riding atop a small wave of water towards the other side where hundreds more waterbound people still floated off the ground.
Arlette could only sit and stare as the commander proceeded to dispose of the rest of the Ubrans. Nobody on the wall could manage to do anything else; they were all too in awe of the show of overwhelming power.
The command of the Criradan defense consisted of two ranks under Supreme General Erizio Astalaria: Major Generals and Generals. The Major Generals were the strongest of the strongest, the most powerful fighters that the Eterian Army had to offer. Arlette didn’t know how many there had been before the invasion, but four still lived today. They would usually hang back and reinforce areas in need, using their great battle prowess to bring the Ubrans to a halt long enough for the other defenders to rally and push them back. Though direct comparisons of power never captured somebody’s true battle ability, Arlette had always believed—with more than a smidgen of pride—that Jaquet was perhaps on the level of a Major General. Major Generals, for all their power, could never even dream of approaching the feats happening here.
General Khilran wasn’t even a Major General, merely one of the twelve lesser Generals who served under them. Their jobs were to manage their assigned section of the wall, coordinating and leading the defense. Even though they were not as strong as Major Generals, that didn’t mean they weren’t special. The general, for example, was a powerful water Observer capable of shooting out blasts of water that could bowl over a normal person with a single hit. But she’d never shown herself to be capable of something like this.
Then, somehow, everything became even crazier. Just as the general finished sorting the last people trapped within her floating lake, the appearance of a large shadow caught everyone’s attention. Another massive boulder, this time even larger than the others, arced directly towards the water Observer. Many turned and ran, but General Khilran only snorted.
The large mass of water hanging above the walkway coalesced into a large sphere twice the size of the boulder and hurtled up towards the incoming projectile with startling speed. The two massive balls of matter collided in the air with a mighty splash and the flight of the boulder faltered. Still not done, the general sneered and a torrent of water the size of a river manifested out of the air in front of her. The massive geyser of water shot forth with startling speed and power, blasting into the gigantic airborne rock and practically halting it in place until it plummeted down onto the field below.
Still not finished, the general held out her arms and the torrent ceased to be. Instead, a sphere of the clear liquid appeared, starting about the size of a man and rapidly growing larger and larger faster than Arlette could believe. Quickly it grew to the size of one of the boulders, then to twice the size, then three, then four, then five.
Finally, the flow of water ceased and the massive globe hovered above the wall, dominating the sky in its sheer size and majesty. General Khilran lowered her hands, bringing them down to point out at the area deep within the Ubran camp where the huge stones would manifest before heading towards the wall.
The ball quivered for a moment before shooting forward in a blur, streaking towards the camp. Arlette’s gaze followed as it traveled, its path almost a straight line, as opposed to the high arcs of the shots that would come in the other direction. The circular tsunami slammed into the camp with the roar of a thousand waterfalls, throwing tents and equipment all about like a toddler sick of their toys.
But General Khilran wasn’t satisfied with just that. Already a second sphere began to form, but then, for some reason, it stopped growing and began to tremble. Arlette’s focus shifted to the general herself. Khilran, who just now had been standing tall with strength and confidence, had fallen to her knees.
The water in front of her evaporated as web-like veins as black as a moonless night began to grow all over the general’s body. Her body shook and it looked as if she were screaming, though no sound came from her open mouth. The veins spread across her skin like a plague, covering more and more until Arlette couldn’t see a single patch of exposed skin devoid of corruption.
Arlette flinched as the general’s body erupted with a disgusting squelch, spraying those closest to her with bits of blood and gore. Arlette blinked. All that remained of General Khilran were the remains of her armor and weapons lying in a large puddle of crimson flesh.
A stunned silence fell over the assembled defenders, as the only sounds to grace Arlette’s ears were the sounds of the Ubrans retreating towards their encampments. Was it over? For a moment she looked out towards the Ubrans, searching for any more boulders growing, soon to be thrown her way, but found nothing. Now that her mind and body had nothing left to drive or distract them, exhaustion finally wrenched control and she slowly fell to the ground.
What in the world had just happened?! Arlette tried to wrap her head around it but couldn’t no matter how much she tried. Was it some secret Eterian technique that burned your life force for a burst of insane power? Did the small bottle she’d noticed the general drinking from moments before have anything to do with it?
Speaking of which, she spotted the vial lying up against the walkway’s inner lip just a few paces away. Grunting, she pulled herself back to her feet. The gash on her calf made it harder to stand, but she found that, if she focused on her good leg, she could still slowly limp and hobble her way around, and so she did, stumbling over to to the nearby bottle and picking it up. The tiny crystalline vial, complete with stopper, glimmered in the afternoon sun as she held it up for a closer look. A single drop of a pitch-black liquid still sat at the bottom of the vial. Looking around to make sure nobody noticed her actions, she tucked the vial out of sight. Maybe it would prove interesting later.
Sitting back down against the nearby wall, Arlette said a prayer for the fallen general who’d saved her and everybody else’s lives today, as well as the other fallen Eterians, and finally for the man in armor whom she’d heavily injured and who was almost assuredly dead. There’d been a small chance that, with immediate medical attention, he would have been able to survive the wound she’d given him, but then he’d been thrown from the wall. Nobody, other than perhaps the Monster, could fall the hundreds of paces from the top of the wall to the field below and survive.
She released a defeated sigh. The man’s crest on his armor had looked familiar from the moment she’d seen it, but it hadn’t been until he cried out for help that it had come back to her. For the longest time, Arlette, like everybody else, had given very little thought to the speak of those around her. After all, if the meaning was the same, what did it matter what actual words came from your lips? But ever since her conversation with Sofie about the matter, the topic had been more on her mind and she’d started taking note of the actual spoken languages gracing her ears. That was why, even in the heat of battle, she’d noticed the man’s speak.
He’d spoken Ofraxian.
That crest had been the family crest of an up-and-coming merchant family back when she’d been the princess. She’d even met several members of the family once, including two boys about her age. Had one of those boys grown up to be the man she’d killed? It was disturbingly possible.
Ofrax was dead and gone. Arlette knew that. She knew that her homeland had been swallowed up by the Ubran menace years ago. But for some reason, she’d never truly come to grips with the idea that Ofraxian people would be integrated into the Ubran armies. Now, the thought haunted her. How many other people from her home had she killed since the start of the siege?
The thought filled her with a deep sadness. She told herself that those people had been trying to kill her, but it didn’t make the sadness fade much at all. She knew she would have to simply live with that knowledge for the rest of her life.
Once she finally regained enough energy to move properly, she sought out the leader of her new squad, which she’d been separated from thanks to the rubble, and got dismissed. Unlike the other squad, nobody invited her to spend time with them or associate with them at all. She could see the relief in their eyes as she made her way towards the stairways. They believed the rumors, just like many of the others.
Arlette’s identity had come out shortly after the night of Sebastian’s plan. Too many strange events had happened that night for the higher-ups to not look into everything. Everybody now knew who she was, and with that knowledge came infamy. Not only had she lost her entire mercenary band in a single day, but she’d also lost her entire squad in a single night. Rumors had sprouted from there. Some claimed that she’d betrayed her comrades both times for some devious goal. Others posited that she was cursed and brought bad fortune to all around her.
Either way, the result ended up being that nobody wanted anything to do with her, especially not those in her new squad. Arlette had no problem with this since it meant that people finally left her alone. Though Jaquet, Sofie, and even her own rational mind had told her that she wasn’t responsible for the loss of her band, Arlette still felt a great deal of guilt over their deaths. That was one of the primary reasons she’d tried to avoid befriending her first squad. But those friendly fools had persisted, worming their way into her heart, and now they too were dead.
Between Ofrax, the Ivory Tears, and her latest friends, it felt like anything she touched suffered a bad fate. Perhaps she really was cursed.
It was a shame that said curse didn’t work on General Astalaria. She wouldn’t have minded if he got offed somehow. His men had appeared the day after Sofie and Pari had left and dragged her still-healing body to the citadel. The investigation into that chaotic night had finally concluded, and that, combined with the sudden disappearance of their primary bomb maker, meant a furious general.
There were only two reasons she was still free and breathing. One was that Pari, given license to make all the explosives she wanted, had been quite productive before her disappearance. She’d left behind a large cache of bombs and preprocessed materials to make more bombs. Even when those ran out, somebody could always make more since she’d left the recipe behind.
The other had been that, to put it plainly, Arlette had been right. The general had laughed at her back then, but all the warnings she’d given had come to pass. The bodies of some of Sebastian’s minions had been recovered in the gatehouse, and that, combined with other corroborating evidence, had been enough to prove her claims of an Ubran plot correct.
Sadly, the one claim she’d most wanted to rub in his face—the existence of Sebastian—was the one she hadn’t been able to prove, as his body was never found. Struck by the flying gate, he had been thrown out of the tunnel and had mixed in with the other corpses from the subsequent battle. By the time anybody knew to look, it had been too late; he’d been treated like all the other dead and either fed to the surviving jaglioths or burned once the beasts had been satiated.
Strangely, knowing that the chief architect of the misery in her life no longer drew breath didn’t bring her the joy she’d expected. Perhaps it was because her homeland would never return in her lifetime. Perhaps it was because the other man responsible for her refugee status currently resided just out of reach to the west. Whatever the reason, the anxiety that had gnawed away at her insides since the day Sebastian had reentered her life remained even after he had left it for the last time. It left her feeling miserable both mentally and physically.
The whole starvation and the daily stress of fighting for her life didn’t help, either. As the largest, most important, most thriving city in the Republic of Eterium, Crirada’s supplies for a siege outclassed perhaps every other metropolis on the continent, but even it was finite. The rationing tightened more and more seemingly every day. The soldiers around her looked more like sticks assembled into a humanoid form than actual people.
Everybody looked to be on their last legs, both in body and in spirit. Willpower and soulforce could only maintain somebody for so long.
“I need a drink,” Arlette muttered to herself as she began the slow descent from the top of the wall. Of course, said drink was nothing more than a dream; the city’s stocks of alcoholic beverages had run out well before the food.
It suddenly occurred to her just how little alcohol she’d consumed since this parade of troubles had begun. Back in the ‘good times’, she’d relied on alcohol to fight off the ever-present pressure of command and the voice in her mind which otherwise never went away, the voice that told her that she wasn’t good enough and that soon enough the curtain would fall away and everybody would finally see what a fraud she was and had always been. But ever since the destruction of Zrukhora, she’d had little opportunity to drink away her doubts and fears. She’d been too busy running and fighting.
The walk to her “home” took longer than ever, thanks to her latest injuries. The streets were emptier now than ever, as the count of the living fell day after day. The repurposed inn felt empty too, the only sound in the entire building being the door’s long creak as she entered, the soft thuds of her feet as she walked into her room, pulled over a box full of boiled bandages, and sat down upon the straw mattress that served as her bed.
Still, it was better than the alternative. Arlette felt a good amount of relief knowing that Sofie and Pari had somehow managed to not only leave this place alive but also make it all the way to Otharia. They would be safe now, finally.
Sofie’s message sent via Many telling her of their success had brought Arlette no small amount of happiness. Weirdly enough, despite the many dangers involved with escaping Crirada and crossing half a continent before infiltrating another country and somehow meeting with its reclusive despotic leader, Arlette had found herself wondering when she would hear from Sofie, rather than if she would ever hear from Sofie. Somehow, deep down, she’d had a feeling that they would be alright and that she need not worry about them.
“You’re the one people should be worried about,” a familiar voice cut in, causing Arlette to drop the bandages and nearly fall off the straw mattress.
“By the stars above, Peko, I already told you, stop doing that!” Arlette hissed, giving her other self a nasty glare as he sat on a nearby chair, a mischievous smirk plastered all over his face.
“But it’s so fun and works every time!” the illusory man snickered.
“I’m not in the mood for your pranks,” Arlette informed him as she bent down and began to wrap the gash on her leg.
“I know, that’s why I’m here. You’ve been in a malaise for a while now. What’s got you so down?”
“What’s got me so down? You mean, besides the fact that I’m in pain and exhausted and starving and spending every day in a city surrounded by the army of a country I hate, just waiting for the day when I die?”
“Yeah, besides that.”
Arlette’s glare intensified. “Why are you asking? You already know the answer.”
“Because I want to hear you say it so we can deal with it,” Peko insisted. “You’ve been moping ever since that night with Sebastian. I’d thought we’d be over this by now, but apparently not, so it’s time to talk this out.”
Arlette gave her counterpart a sullen frown. She wasn’t in the mood to talk about this sort of thing, but she knew that Peko wasn’t going to let it go. Once he got something in his head, he never did.
“...I’m weak,” Arlette finally sighed.
“No, you’re not. You’ve been fighting most of your adult life. I would think a weak person would be dead fifty times over,” Peko scoffed.
“That’s because I never needed to fight anybody really strong. If I had trouble, I could always use my illusions to escape and let Jaquet handle them.”
“So you’re weak because you’re not stupid enough to fight a losing battle?”
“That’s not what I’m saying-”
“Then what are you saying? How many people have you killed just since you came here? Dozens? More? You walk into the grinder every day and maybe you don’t come out unscathed, but you do come out! Weak people don’t make it through everything you’ve been through.”
“Fine, then I’m not weak. But I’m not strong either. I can’t stand against the real threats—the special people like Sebastian or the Chos or General Astalaria or Jaquet or...”
“Why does it matter so much to you all of a sudden? What’s wrong with being pretty great instead of amazing?”
“Because I’m not strong enough to have control over my fate, that’s why. My whole life has been an endless procession of me watching things happen to myself and everybody I care about, all the while being unable to do anything about any of it. This whole thing, this whole stupid idea where I came here with the thought of finding Sebastian and stopping his plans and all of that foolishness, it was all just a vain attempt to prove to myself that I was good enough. That I was strong enough to live my own life. Look how that turned out.”
“You foiled his plan and saved the day?”
“Stop patronizing me. We both know that was all luck. He could have killed me at any time, he just wanted to enjoy it like the sadistic fuck that he was. Surviving because the Monster killed him does not make me strong, it just makes me fortunate for once. He could see through my illusion, Peko. You remember that, right? What am I supposed to do when that happens? Without them, I’m just a mediocre swordfighter with nothing else going for me. I’m nothing more than a single good trick. If that gets taken away, I have nothing left.”
“You’re a bit old to start branching out now, wouldn’t you say?” Peko replied with a ponderous frown.
“I need something to fall back on when my tricks stop working,” Arlette asserted. “I just don’t know what that could be. You’re right, it’s pretty much too late now for me to master another discipline.”
“Maybe you just need to get better tricks,” Peko offered. “The problem, in my view, isn’t that you had nothing left when Sebastian saw through your illusions, it’s that he saw through them in the first place. Perhaps we need to do some training, try to boost your illusions somehow. Make them better, increase how much you can do at once, change how you use them, all of that. What if in the middle of battle you could make two fake Arlettes at once instead on only one? Or what if you had been able to make a fake boulder like the ones falling on everybody today? Imagine how much the Ubrans would have dropped their guard as they ran.”
“I don’t have the mental capacity to handle more than one fake me at a time,” Arlette retorted. “And everybody would know the boulder isn’t real if I made it nearby. It would need to manifest hundreds of paces away from me at first, and you know I don’t have the soulforce to pull off something like that and stay conscious. Remember when I tried something like that back in Zrukhora? I was out for days.”
“But that’s what I’m saying. You plateaued years. When is the last time you could say that you focused on improving your Observing? Who says you couldn’t handle two fake Arlettes if you trained harder?”
“That would take forever, and might not even yield any results.”
“The same could be said for any other path you take,” Peko argued. “You know full well there’s a reason everybody isn’t chucking fireballs and ice shards at the same time while lifting wagons over their heads. It’s going to take time regardless. If you’re going to spend that time, do it on something you know works. And whining aside, illusions have worked wonders for you over your life.”
Arlette sighed again. “I guess. But what do I do right now? How can I get stronger today?”
Peko shrugged. “Maybe start using all the candles Pari left you? More than the few you take with you every battle. Really go all out.”
“That sounds like a recipe for suicide,” Arlette shot back. “One stray flame and all that’s left of me is a massive crater.”
“Well, then I’m out of ideas. You’re going to need to think about it on your own. But the important part is that you think,” he informed her, pointing at her forehead. “Thinking yes, moping no. Make a plan, carry it out. That’s how to get things done.”
“That’s what Sebastian used to say,” Arlette reminded him.
“Well he was a massive jerk, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right sometimes.”
“Alright, I’ll try,” she conceded. “I just-”
Arlette’s sentence came to a sudden halt as she heard the sound of boots on the floorboards down below. She looked downward in the direction of the noise, and then back up to tell Peko to scram but he had already vanished.
“You sure this is the place?” a voice asked.
“I think so, looks like the same place we found her the last time,” a second voice responded.
“If you say so... ARLETTE DEMIRT! GENERAL ASTALARIA REQUIRES YOUR PRESENCE IMMEDIATELY!” the first voice boomed.
“Yeah, yeah...” Arlette called back as she opened the door to her room. “What’s he want this time?”
“That’s his business, not mine.”
“Well, tell him I’m busy,” she replied. “I have to make a sling for my arm and I’m still all bloody from the battle.”
“That’s not our problem. He demands to see you at once. Either come down or we will seize you by force.”
“...hold on, give me a moment,” she sighed.
“Told you this was the right place,” the other man said as Arlette closed the door.
“Jerks,” Arlette grumbled to her self as she pulled off her blood-soaked outfit and changed into a clean one as quickly as she could manage with only one good arm, which was not very quickly. The clothes didn’t fit perfectly; she’d lost nearly all her clothes in the Severed incident while ago, and most of her current wardrobe consisted of garments taken from others around her size who’d died. Still, they would have to do. Grabbing her weapon both for protection and to use as a makeshift cane, she left the room and hobbled down the stairs to join the two men below.
“Demirt,” Supreme General Astalaria growled out, his mouth curled down into his trademark scowl as always. The man sat beside a table covered in what looked to be a map of Crirada and its surroundings. Various pieces were placed around the map marking the main concentrations of Ubran troops ringing the city.
Arlette’s first thought when she came face to face with the pompous ass for the first time in days was to take not of just how worn down the man appeared. Erizio Astalaria looked very much like everybody else in the city: gaunt and disheveled. The dark bags beneath his eyes and the patchy beard on his face spoke volumes about his condition. As much as Arlette wanted to see this man humbled, the sight unnerved her. If even the top commander was this badly off, the outlook was even more dire than she’d thought.
The man was working himself to the bone, Arlette realized. She’d known, as had everybody, that the general was fighting a second front beneath the ground every day largely on his own. As the most powerful earth Observer alive, the task of fending off dozens of Ubran earth Observers and tunnelers trying to create passages beneath the surface into the city largely fell to him. Just the thought of trying to defend the entire city from underground threats by herself left Arlette feeling wiped out. The fact that he had managed to do just that for over a season now showed just how capable he was.
But Erizio Astalaria’s capability had never been Arlette’s problem. She’d always respected his power and ability. She just wished he wasn’t also an arrogant prick.
“I had hoped I would never need to see you ever again, Demirt, but as always you continue to be a thorn in my side,” the General said, giving her a scathing look.
Arlette returned his gaze, refusing to back down. “I could say the same thing,” she replied. “So why did you drag me in here before I could even finish treating my injuries?”
“My alchemists tell me that your child’s bomb recipe is a fraud. They have been attempting to replicate the process since the munitions and materials that were left behind were exhausted several days ago and have come to the conclusion that the girl hid something important from us.”
“And? What does that have to do with me? Did you just call me here to complain?”
The general’s scowl deepened. “Those traitors were your charges. The responsibility falls on your shoulders.”
“Fuck off,” Arlette snarled back. “Sofie and Pari aren’t my fucking kids! They are their own people with their own lives and decisions. It was their choice to come to Crirada and their choice to leave, and if you have a problem with that take it up with them. I don’t control them and I don’t bear any responsibility for their actions. If I did control them, I would never have allowed them into this city in the first place! So you can take your fucking lectures or whatever and fucking shove them up your ass, assuming you can fit them past your neck! I’m leaving!”
Furious at the man’s pettiness, she turned to leave, only to find her path blocked by two guards. They glared at her, their weapons gleaming in the torchlight.
“You leave when I allow you to leave,” General Astalaria said, his voice frigid with anger. “Might I remind you that those two supposedly independent people lived with you, associated with you, and sold their services for your freedom? Only my benevolence kept me from locking you back up the day they disappeared. I am feeling far less generous these days.”
“Then what do you want from me?” she demanded, whirling back to glare at the man with every ounce of hate she had for him. “Are you just going to throw me into a cell to make yourself feel better? Because that’s about all you’re going to get from me. I can’t help you with your little bomb problem. I don’t know how it works.”
“Oh, am I interrupting something?” a cold, almost metallic voice asked.
Through the door scuttled a bizarre contraption, followed by a smiling woman in her mid-to-late twenties. Its eight long legs making sharp tapping sounds against the stone floor as they moved. The arrangement reminded Arlette of some of the insects that she’d run across during her treks through the Stragman rainforest, with each of the legs emerging from the central body slanting outward and upward into a sharp joint before then extending out and down to the floor. Unlike the creatures of the forest, the central body here was a large upright cylinder composed of a cage of sorts made out of thin strips of metal. Inside that cylinder stood a woman, her eyes glazed over. A Many.
The most notable thing, however, was the likely source of the voice: the projection of a man hovering in front of the Many, dressed in a suit of armor that concealed his body entirely from view. Arlette had never before seen anything quite like the suit he wore. The level of detail, the complexity, the massive frame, and, perhaps most memorably, the unnerving red eye holes that glowed ominously in the man’s mask, all combined to create an imposing aura of deadly competence. This could only be one person: Lord Ferros, the conqueror of Otharia and man from a different world.
“I’m told you wanted to speak with me, General,” the man stated, though his tone was decidedly lacking in warmth or interest. “What do you want now?”
“Greetings, Lord Ferros,” General Astalaria replied, rising to his feet. Arlette noticed how suddenly more uptight he seemed. “I am just concluding another matter. Please give me a few moments.”
“I’m a busy man, General. If you can’t talk now, then I’ll check back in a few days when my schedule opens back up.”
“Ah... my apologies,” Erizio conceded. “This is a matter of vital importance which must not be delayed.”
He waved for the guards to take Arlette away. They grabbed her by the shoulders and started ushering her from the room, but Arlette suddenly had an inspiration. The arrival of the leader of Otharia was exactly what she needed to get General Astalaria off her back. She dug in her heels.
“Wait!” she cried as they slowly dragged her past the floating illusion. “I ask to speak to you, Lord Ferros!”
The armor’s head turned to stare as her as the guards pulled her by. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“A person of no consequence,” General Astalaria assured him.
“I request only a moment of your time,” Arlette pleaded.
“Alright, you have my curiosity. Let her go,” the armored man ordered the guards. They looked over at the Eterian general, unsure if they should listen to the instructions of another, no matter how authoritative he sounded. The general only sighed and waved for them to release her.
“Make it quick,” Lord Ferros said.
Arlette gave the figure a small bow. “I simply wished to thank you for helping my friends. I appreciate your kindness.”
“You must be that woman who Sofie was talking about, the illusionist. The one who protected her after her arrival. Arlette, was it?”
“Yes, my name is Arlette Demirt,” she stated.
“The more I get to know her, the more impressed I am that you kept her alive for so long.”
“It was a... unique challenge,” Arlette agreed.
“Yes, it speaks wonders for your competence,” the Otharian said with a nod. “Stick around. I want you here for this.”
The sudden turn of events caught Arlette off guard. All she’d wanted to do was link this man with Sofie and Pari in front of General Astalaria so he would shift his ire from her to the Otharian ruler, leaving her free to hobble home and finish dealing with her wounds. She hadn’t expected that it would backfire, forcing her to remain instead when all she wanted was to get the general off her back and go back home. The general hadn’t even made the connection she’d assumed he would make!
“Lord Ferros, we are about to discuss matters of the gravest importance,” the general objected, “matters far too sensitive for someone like her to be present.”
“No, I want another independent observer here for this. Her record shows that she at least has a good head on her shoulders.”
“You do not know her as I do,” the general pressed back. “She is not Eterian and should not be trusted!”
“And what does it say, then, that I trust her more than I trust you? She stays.”
The two of them engaged in a staredown, each too willful to give in.
“You seem to have forgotten who needs who here,” Ferros continued after a moment. “I can always leave.”
Supreme General Erizio Astalaria seemed to slowly deflate. He lowered himself into back into his seat and wearily propped his head up with his hand. “As you wish,” he sighed. “The rest of you, leave. Nobody comes within fifty paces of this room, understood?”
The guards nodded and exited the room as Arlette looked on. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, but this man from another world had forced the most prideful person she’d even known to bow to him. Did Lord Ferros even know how humiliating it was for the general to acquiesce to an Otharian? Probably not, but she was relishing every moment of it. The only problem was that her presence also meant she was now getting roped into whatever ‘important matters’ the general was talking about, something she wasn’t sure she wanted to be involved in whatsoever.
“Alright, get on with it then,” Lord Ferros demanded. “What’s so important?”
“The defense of Crirada will end, one way or another, within days,” the general admitted sorrowfully. “Our warriors are on their last legs.”
“I already told you that I will not be providing more units than what I already send each day,” the metal man sternly replied.
“We are past that point now,” the Eterian solemnly stated.
“Then what, you want my help retreating?”
“There is no point in running. The Ubrans will chase us down and slaughter us all. This is our best defensive position. If we cannot hold here, we have no chance anywhere,” Erizio Astalaria replied. Lord Ferros glanced back at Arlette and she nodded her agreement with the general’s statement. “That is why we must instead attack. It is our last hope for victory.”
Arlette’s ears perked up, and she suddenly understood why General Astalaria didn’t want her, or anybody else, around to hear. He wanted to attempt a surprise attack.
“What could you hope to accomplish when you are already so heavily outnumbered?” the armored man wondered, skeptical. “There’s no way you’ll win. Even my units can be brought down eventually if sufficiently overwhelmed, especially once they run out of bullets.”
“We don’t need to kill them all, we just need to break them and send them running,” the general asserted.
“And how would you do that?” the still unconvinced Otharian asked.
“By killing the Emperor,” Arlette stated, putting two and two together. She glanced at her current nemesis and he nodded begrudgingly. Arlette’s heart began to beat faster as she contemplated the thought of killing the one other man who’d done so much to rob her of her childhood. Outside of Sebastian, there wasn’t anybody she hated more than the Emperor. Even her loathing for the man in front of her couldn’t compare.
“The Emperor is the closest thing the Ubrans have to a god,” Arlette continued. “Take him out, and they will likely crumble.”
“The fool holds court in the camp to the west, commanding his armies personally instead of relying on his commanders. Probably to show the brilliance of his command or his untouchable power or some such nonsense,” the general spat.
“I see, so he wants to be the conqueror,” Lord Ferros mused. “Or he fears that his top general would lay claim to the continent and declare his own empire if he stayed home.”
“Regardless of his motives, his presence is their weakness,” Astalaria said.
“But how do you propose to accomplish this?” Ferros asked. “I’m sure they know he would be a target. In fact, if he is the person I’m thinking about, they built several protective emplacements for him out there. The stone is so thick that my snipers can’t do anything to punch through. You’d have to fight through a whole army just to get to him.”
“That’s why I propose an all-out assault from every angle,” the general stated. “Our troops will attack from the west gate, hitting them from the front. Meanwhile, your... creations descend upon them from above, as they did the night you first arrived. My troops will occupy the main western force, at least for a time, while yours will create chaos and panic within their camp. Meanwhile, I will lead my best soldiers underground and emerge from the rear, striking them while they are occupied and distracted.”
“Hmmmm...” the Otharian replied, deep in thought, before continuing several moments later. “The biggest problem I have with this is that you can’t hide a zeppelin. As soon as it starts acting differently than normal, they’re going to know something is up. If they see it heading for the Emperor, they’ll know what’s happening and they’ll implement some sort of countermeasures. So I’d have to start my move later so as not to warn the Ubrans that you’re coming. But lowering my units takes time, and I’d be late to the battle already... and that’s not even considering that damned woman. I don’t want her wrecking my airship by chucking rocks at it or whatever before it even gets to the Ubran camps... Oh, I know! Change of plans. I’ll send my units out to fight with the rest of your troops. That way the Ubrans will be forced to respect them and my skitters can engage with the Monster when she shows up. That would keep her busy. Then instead of sending down units, I’ll fly my airship higher out of that woman’s reach and drops bombs on them. That will create more than enough chaos. Any problems?”
“Yes, I have one,” Arlette chimed in. Both turned to look at her. “General Astalaria’s abilities are well known to the Ubrans. When the attack begins, they’re going to be looking for you and the other generals among the attacking troops and it will be very apparent very quickly that none of you are present. Once they realize that you are missing, it will not be hard for the Ubrans to figure out where you really are and prepare for your sudden arrival.”
“That is a risk I must take,” the general replied. “Or did you have a better idea?”
“I think so. First, it is my belief that the Ubrans have people who can see clearly for long distances. Many times, it has felt to me like they could target individual people up upon the wall even from a great distance. Today was the starkest example. At one point, the area of the wall where I fought was almost completely obscured by a wall of water, and yet the Ubrans were able to precisely target General Khilran with a massive boulder. Such a thing should not be possible with normal eyesight.”
“They likely have some Feelers who specialize in enhanced senses for scouting and things of this nature, yes,” General Astalaria stated. “We Eterians had several, but they all perished well before we arrived in Crirada.”
“Or maybe they have some sort of telescope,” the Otharian offered.
Arlette didn’t know what a telescope was—something about glass and tubes, apparently—so she just shrugged. “My point is, I believe they have this capability. If so, then I would wager that they also watch each time your airship loads and unloads and track its movements as much as possible.”
“Seems likely,” Ferros agreed.
“I assume also that you will be taking your people into the airship before the attack begins?”
“Yes, that seems prudent. I cannot just leave them here to die if everything falls apart.”
“That will most definitely be noticed as well. The Ubrans will know something is afoot the moment they spot your people boarding the airship. I suggest we use this to our advantage.”
“How so?” Erizio asked.
“You will need to enter the underground tunnel before any of the rest of this begins, correct?”
“Then create your tunnel entrance somewhere here in the citadel, somewhere deep where you can all enter without being seen from outside. After your group enters, the Otharians will board their ship. Then I, along with fake versions of you and your strike force, will board after them. The Ubrans will see this and believe that you are boarding the ship.
“This works for us in two ways. First, it will give the impression that you are running away. Massing all of your forces means pulling them off the wall. This is unavoidable, and will also be noticed. With this ruse, however, they will expect us to emerge from the east gate, or maybe the south, in some desperate last attempt to retreat farther into Eterium. They definitely won’t expect an attack from the west gate. Second, they will still believe you to be on the airship once the attack begins, as they witnessed you board it. They will believe that you are coming from the sky, not from beneath the ground.”
“Aren’t you glad I told her to stick around?” Lord Ferros smugly said.
“Indeed, loath as I am to admit it, your idea holds merit,” General Astalaria agreed.
“There is one other item of concern,” the Otharian stated. “What do you know about those... those things that the Ubrans started using today? The siege weapons? Do you think they might be able to hit my zeppelin? What’s the maximum height of their shots?”
Arlette and Supreme General Astalaria shared a puzzled glance.
“Are you referring to the mechanism by which the Ubrans were able to fire such mighty projectiles at us today?” the general inquired.
“We know nothing about it,” the general admitted. “A bombardment of such power is unheard of. We were caught completely unprepared.”
“They were too far away to see, even up on the wall,” Arlette added.
“Well then, let me show you what is behind your sudden troubles,” Lord Ferros said. Arlette heard a series of clanks and clacks from somewhere outside of their view. Then something flat and dark moved in front of the Otharian, blocking their view of him.
Suddenly the dark object lit up, revealing a horrifying sight. It was an overhead image of an atrocity made flesh, a fusion of tissue and bone which made Arlette’s stomach roil just from the sight of it.
“W-what is that?” she gasped out through dry heaves.
“That is one of the abominations that was hammering your walls so hard today,” Lord Ferros replied. “I think that one, in particular, was throwing giant balls of fire onto the east wall. Sofie thinks that they’re Manys. Does this help?”
“This... I’ve never seen anything like this before. It is unfortunately beyond my understanding,” General Astalaria admitted.
“Damn,” Ferros swore. “Is there anybody over there who can tell us how they work, their limitations, or anything at all that might be useful?”
“No,” the general said with distaste. “Were Crirada not under attack, there would be several scholars who might be able to offer an explanation, but they are obviously no longer here.”
“A shame. I guess we’re just going to have to find out. Can you hold the city for a few more days?”
“Likely, though I ask that you move as quickly as you can. If the Ubrans continue their bombardment, only sacrificing more of our best with chimirin will stop them, meaning every day you delay, the weaker our final strike becomes.”
“Understood,” the metal man replied with a nod. “I’ll get on the munitions creation the moment we are done here.”
“Lord Ferros, I assume that you will be having Pari create your explosives?” Arlette asked, seeing another opportunity to get the general off her back.
“Yes,” Lord Ferros confirmed. “Actually, is there anything you might be able to do to get that catgirl of yours to focus and make me as many bombs as she can as fast as she can? Maybe put in a word for me? She’s not being the most cooperative right now, even with Sofie keeping her in line.”
“You shouldn’t need to push her too hard,” Arlette advised. “Just tell her how you want to make the biggest explosions ever and that if she helps you she’ll get to watch it all go boom. Do that, and I bet you Sofie will have to tie her to her bed at night to get her to stop.”
“Y-you possess the bomb child?!” an irate General Erizio sputtered indignantly. Arlette suppressed a small smile as her plan finally worked.
“What of it?” Lord Ferros shot back.
“That child was an important component of our defense, and you stole her from us!”
“Do you really want to speak of stealing when I just witnessed your people using my chimirin today?” the Otharian growled.
Arlette wasn’t sure what that meant, but the general must have as his protests immediately came to a halt.
“I do not like it when my property is stolen, and I especially do not like it when that same property is used to try to kill me,” Lord Ferros continued, his voice dark with malice. He looked back at Arlette. “Are you Eterian, Arlette?”
“I am not,” she replied.
“Good. Do you believe that General Astalaria would have anything to do with an Eterian plot to assassinate me?”
Arlette still didn’t exactly understand what he was talking about, but she shook her head. “I despise this man with all my heart. He is an insufferable pompous ass who is convinced of his own superiority and loves to lord his abilities over everybody else. He has personally made my life miserable more than once. But I do not think that he would do something like that.”
“Yes. While I doubt the Eterians as a whole would attempt to kill you already, given that they would be more likely to try to strangle you economically first, I can imagine such a thing occurring. But I cannot imagine General Astalaria ever being involved. I think he believes such activities beneath him.”
“I see...” Once more, Lord Ferros fell still. It was hard to tell what was going on beneath the man’s mask, which was surely the way he liked it.
“Very well,” he finally said. “I will overlook this for now. Let it be known that if I do find you or anybody involved in the defense of Crirada to be in any way responsible for that attack on me I will not hesitate to let you all suffer miserable deaths by Ubrans blades. If I didn’t want access to your city for my own purposes, I would have already left you to die. Remember that when we speak again.”
Before anybody could respond, the projection vanished into thin air. Without a word, the woman and the Many transporter walked out of the room, leaving only the two soldiers to stare at the open door.
“...an insufferable pompous ass who is convinced of his own superiority?” Supreme General Erizio Astalaria finally asked.
“Just be happy that I didn’t tell him what I really think of you,” Arlette shot back. “Now leave me alone. I have to go heal before this all starts.”
Without looking back, she hobbled from the room.