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“I screwed up,” Marisol admitted. “I made a horrible, horrible mistake.”

Gadiel looked up from his mountain of paperwork to regard the dark-skinned woman he knew so well. It was unlike her to enter his office unannounced, though she always had permission to do so. She stood slightly unbalanced, one arm clutching her opposite tricep so fiercely he’d worry about anyone else giving themselves a bruise.

“The talk with the girl didn’t go well, I take it?” he asked.

“What?” Marisol asked, briefly confused. “Oh, no, that was fine. She’ll walk to her death or she won’t and it works out for us either way. No, I messed up with Aelius, darling. Maybe worse than I’ve ever messed up before.”

Darling? Marisol had really lost her composure, then, if she was going back to calling him that. He hadn’t heard her call him ‘darling’ since… well, since Nuxvar.

“What happened?” Gadiel asked calmly, already preparing for the worst. The teleportation circle was finished; he had other business in Terranburg, but it would only be a moderate inconvenience to leave the rest of it hanging. For something so serious, she would probably need him.

Gadiel had always been amused at his position of commander-in-chief. He was a fine pencil pusher, though Marisol was better. He was an excellent tactician, but Marisol was the best. The only thing he had that Marisol did not was simply power. Gadiel was the heavy hitter of the Elpis National Army, which had never struck him as a good position for back-line officers to be in. The joys of nepotism in action, he supposed. That, or Marisol wanted to make sure he was the one doing all this paperwork.

“I… I thought we were ready,” Marisol stammered, “for the kinds of things Aelius could do. But I never imagined he’d casually slaughter an entire city. Thousands of people, murdered, and I couldn’t do anything but share their pain. I’ve been watching him for a century and a half and I never even dreamed he was capable of destruction on that scale.”

“How many, exactly?” Gadiel asked softly.

“Two-thousand, four-hundred, and fifty-six people, plus another half that of mine.” Marisol answered. “Dammit, it all happened so suddenly that I couldn’t even get my own people out of there, let alone any innocents. The only upside is how quickly he left; if he had chosen to stick around and torture anyone for much longer my cover may very well have been blown.”

A blown cover would have ruined everything, but that was hardly the major concern here. Two thousand. It would take Gadiel a very long time to lay those graves.

“How could we let this happen?” Gadiel asked solemnly. You don’t get to try ruling the world without being responsible for all the people in it.

“It’s entirely my fault,” Marisol conceded, beginning to pace around the room. “Aelius needs to die, that much is more clear now than ever. But shaking him out of his routine to do it was possibly the greatest tactical misplay of the entire operation. The goal was to get him to seek out and aggravate Neoma, who would advertently or inadvertently obliterate him with a cascade event. That is, admittedly, still a likely outcome. But I… oh, god, I’m just such an idiot. For crying out loud, he’s a titan. I should have jumped my estimates a few tiers up a logarithmic scale on principle. I’m taking over the damn world with less aura than he uses on accident!

“The cost of the plan has become too high,” Gadiel said, to finish her thought.

“Yes!” Marisol agreed. “But I don’t have another plan, not one that would work fast enough to matter. Neoma is still our only real check.”

“Did you try asking the Aletheian for help?” Gadiel asked. “About Aelius specifically, I mean.”

“The Alethe– Gadiel, we’re talking about a titan here. What’s she going to do, hit him with a sword?”

“Perhaps she could find emotional or psychological weaknesses,” Gadiel posited. “She also has Adgito, doesn’t she?”

Marisol sighed, frustrated.

“Adgito can only fight fire with fire, and he’s the one that would get burned. A copy of Aelius’ powers would not make Aelius any easier to kill. Look, just leave the Aletheian alone. She has a pet vrochthízo now too, and we don’t want one of those getting within a hundred miles of that man. No, we’d need to leverage the power of another titan if we expect to make a dent in Aelius, but there aren’t any options! Scylla’s not interested and we need to keep her that way. I don’t know what Dawn’s up to and I hope to never find out. Dorana is useless, Pacisa’s on another continent, and Vaylir could be literally anywhere. They probably wouldn’t help anyway. That leaves Neoma as our only real option and even then I have to hope she’ll end up helping on accident!

Put like that, it did seem they were low on options. Gadiel had another one in mind, but he would exhaust other possibilities first.

“If I recall correctly, you judged Neoma’s main priority to be not hurting anyone with her powers, yes? But she also places limited effort into learning to control those abilities?”

“That’s correct,” Marisol confirmed. “An endlessly frustrating trait of hers. If she put half as much effort into teaching herself as she did into trying to kill herself she’d probably be having a wonderful life by now.”

“Why not reach out to her?” Gadiel asked. “Become her friend. If you reveal how your abilities work to her, at least in part, she won’t have to worry about accidentally slaying you. From there, you become close and and convince her to take the offensive against her father.”

Marisol stopped pacing, thinking quietly for a moment.

“That… may have been a good plan, at least a few months ago. We’re on too much of a time limit for it to be worth trying to worm my way into her life now. But ultimately I still would have rejected it, because I’m not convinced I would survive a cascade from the Titan of Annihilation. She obliterates aura alongside physical form. Perhaps it would carry, like her father’s power does.”

Gadiel frowned. That almost certainly wasn’t true. If Neoma’s power chained across entire auras like Aelius’, a person would die from having any part of them affected. This, in all recorded instances, was not the case; her power annihilated only the things it contacted and never any further. It wouldn’t damage Marisol beyond any direct injuries she ended up sustaining, same as any other attack, and if Gadiel figured that out Marisol certainly had as well.

“It has been a noticeable concern of mine,” Gadiel commented, “that the more difficult you make yourself to kill, the more irrationally afraid of death you seem to become.”

“It is hardly irrational,” Marisol countered. “The last time I assumed a titan was only capable of feats I’d observed them perform, we lost two thousand people. Our ability to tolerate careless mistakes has ended.”

“Not quite,” Gadiel said solemnly, rising from his chair. “There’s still one more to make. The coordinates, please.”

“What?” Marisol started, eyes flashing towards him. “No! No, are you crazy? There’s nothing you can do to kill him.”

Gadiel walked calmly over to his former lover and dearest friend, placing a reassuring hand utop her head in a gesture of affection they had sworn off long ago.

“Then I shall not kill him,” he said simply. “Containing him should be possible. I haven’t been wasting away on nothing but paperwork, you know. I have a few tricks to try out.”

He swiftly exited his office before she could object, motioning her to follow. Out in the embassy proper they ran the risk of prying eyes, which would force Marisol to stay in character. It was one advantage to his position as commander, he supposed.

“Prepare the coordinates for me immediately,” he commanded as Marisol fell in behind him, any trace of worry gone from her figure. “As a peacekeeping force, the Elpis National Army cannot tolerate Aelius’ actions. I will lead the engagement myself.”

“Yes, sir,” Marisol acknowledged without hesitation. “I’ve already taken the liberty of preparing your horse. Your squire has been notified and your armor is ready. The trip will consume an estimated four-point-six conduit charges, and we will not have enough for a return voyage.”

“Acceptable,” Gadiel asserted. “Leave the scribes in charge of my remaining duties in Terranburg. I will join up with the forward army after my engagement instead of returning here.”

“Understood,” Marisol nodded. “Godspeed, commander.”

She would get him back for this, he knew. Though his beliefs had forced them to divorce, it was reassuring to know the spark of love between them never faded. To still be so precious to someone that they would go the lengths she had was truly a thing to be thankful for. Some punishment or another would no doubt be cleverly waiting for him when he returned, as revenge for making her worry.

Titan or no, he would not fail to receive it, when the battle was over.



“Oh, yes, Hanno! I would so very much like to bump uglies with you!” Aelius mockingly squeaked, waving Claudia’s head around in one hand as he forced her jaw open and shut in time with his words.

“Oh, Claudia,” he continued in a laughably deep voice, shaking Hanno’s head around in his other palm, “I, too, would be a very big fan of slamming my gross sack of mortal flesh into your gross sack of mortal flesh and making everybody in a thousand yards vomit uncontrollably! This is very appealing to me!”

“Oh, Hanno!” Aelius squeaked again, “Let us perform a publicly indecent amount of sloppy smooches! Which is to say, any number of them!”

“Oh, Claudia! This is a great idea that nobody around us will hate!” Aelius rumbled.

Clutching both heads firmly, he then proceeded to repeatedly slam them face-first against each other hard enough to fracture their skulls.

“Muahmuahmuahmuahmuahmuahmuah!” he mocked, making a kissy noise each time the two beheaded thiro smashed into contact. Blood and shards of bone splattered the ground, staining the flora that bloomed forth where Aelius walked.

“And that, my little doe and kitten, is what sex it like,” he told his captive audience, turning them to face him as his powers knitted their faces back together. “What do you think? My daughter’s sixteenth birthday is coming up soon, you know, so I figure it’s past time I gave her ‘the talk.’ Normally mommy would do it for the daughter, but my little baby had to go and blow hers up.” He sniffed up a fake tear. “I’m so proud.”

Hanno and Claudia couldn’t actually respond beyond blank stares of abject horror, but he had them nod and pretended they were agreeing. Most of the time, the two of them bounced around in his pack giving each other mild concussions as he skipped along, but sometimes he would bring one or both of them out when he got bored or forgot which way he was supposed to be going. Idly, he tossed Claudia’s head up and down, trying to see how many times he could get her to spin before accidentally dropping her. She couldn’t vomit or anything, but her head could still experience crippling vertigo, a special kind of discomfort to spice up the usual dose of simple pain. He made sure to hold Hanno at an angle where he could watch.

Unfortunately, it would seem he couldn’t play for long. The sound of heavy hoofprints thundered through the air, heading towards his position. Begrudgingly, he stored his second and third favorite heads (first being his own, of course) back in his sack and turned to face the incoming rider.

Aelius let out a low whistle as the horseman crested over a nearby hill and into his field of vision. Adorned in gilded armor from head to toe, the rider’s radiant form gleamed in the sunlight as it charged, sword drawn, directly towards the titan.

Aelius was completely, yet pleasantly, flabbergasted. This was an attack, right? He was being attacked? By one apparently rather rich guy with a stick of sharp metal and a smelly animal? This was… well, he didn’t know what this was. What should he even do in a situation like this?

He could just drop a thorndrinker and be done with it, he supposed, but that seemed rather boring. He could just take the hit, probably shrugging it off without too much effort. At worst, he’d have to grow something back. Still, those seemed almost too… Aelius. Variety is the spice of life, after all, and if there was one thing Aelius had an abundance of it was life. So he did something very un-Aelius like and dodged. The rider’s steed sprinted forth, muscles heaving, as the horseman swung his blade down towards Aelius’ retreating neck. It wasn’t until he was about to smugly congratulate himself for his expert evasion that Aelius realized he was only feeling the distinctive bite of a single life form: the horse.

As Aelius moved to avoid the illusory sword swing, a crack of immense power erupted from far behind him. Slamming into his back, the raw arcane energy devoured a massive hole in his barrier and kept going, tearing a hole through his torso so massive he was only held together by skin on either side of his waist. He was already regenerating as he started to fall over backwards, but an instant later a massive stone spike shot out of the ground to plug the hole before his organs could do it themselves. It continued growing, pushing him up into the air as his body strained to try and heal around the massive protrusion but finding itself unable to budge the rock.

“Well isn’t that clever,” Aelius muttered to himself. Reaching for a seed in his pouch, he dropped one to the rapidly retreating ground below. It burst into a massive, thick vine when it hit the dirt, thrashing around wildly and smashing the stone spire to bits. Twisting in midair, Aelius dropped the remains of the shattered stone out of his torso and restored his body before even hitting the ground.

“I like your moves!” Aelius called out to the plains at large. “Get out here and let me see your face!”

“That seems like it would be a rather poor decision,” the illusory rider mused, “so I’ll decline.”

Aelius had figured as much. That’s why he had been expanding his aura to catch the telltale feeling of another life form this whole time. He quickly found a figure hiding in the grass from (surprise, surprise) the direction he had been shot from. An instant later, vines erupted and ensnared the figure from below, pulling him closer to Aelius as they peeled off layers of his armor.

The crooked-nosed face of an old man glared at him as the grinning Aelius drug him out of the grass. Aelius had to admit, he had not been expecting such a frail-looking specimen. The strength of the man’s aura was nothing to sneeze at, of course, easily ranking in the top five percent of mortals Aelius had met, but ‘impressive for mortals’ was like a human saying ‘impressive for bees.’ Just because one stung extra hard doesn’t mean it was any more than a honey factory.

“I haven’t been injured like that in a long time,” Aelius mused. “What’s your name, ya old fart?”

“Gadiel,” the old man responded. “And in the name of the sovereign nation of Elpis, I demand you release your captives and submit to prosecution immediately.”

Aelius laughed at the old fool, hanging at his mercy and demanding spare change.

“Release my captives? Are you sure? The poor things’ll die if I do that.”

“Then heal them to as they were before, and release them afterwards,” Gadiel insisted.

“Huh. I’m gonna go with ‘no’ and also kill you instead. Like, seriously, where did you expect that to lead? You got stones, old man, I’ll give you that, but boy are you stupid.”

Gadiel inclined his head in a noncommittal manner.

“Less than you’d think,” he said, and exploded.

A blinding flash of light overwhelmed Aelius’ senses mere instants before what felt like an entire glacier fell upon him, sucking the heat from his marrow. In a snap of ice and cold the very air solidified around Aelius’ body, locking him in place and freezing his cells completely. Still blinded from Gadiel’s living flashbang– and no longer able to sense Gadiel in his aura’s range, the tricky bastard– Aeilus was stunned, deafened, bound immobile, and comprehensively frostbitten.

Please, Aelius thought to himself, irritated. This one isn’t even hard.

Revving his few living cells into overdrive, Aelius burned. Little by little, bit by bit, the combined power of his healing magic and the heat of his body’s chemical reactions thawed out more and more of his flesh, in turn increasing the amount of heat his body put out. Fed by pure magical aura, his cells were undaunted by the limits of physical energy stores and could cycle, react, and burn indefinitely without overheating or running out of fuel. His temperature skyrocketed, sublimating the frozen prison after mere seconds.

“Alright, you scrote-faced wiseguy!” Aelius roared the moment his lungs started working again, “What the hell do you take me for? You think you can contain me? I am life itself! You know what that means? It means I’m a bitch, and then you die.

Flexing his power, Aelius had his vines pick up Gadiel’s horse, ripping it in half and tossing each end out of his healing field so it wouldn’t give a false positive when looking for that slippery old man.

“Well, that was just unnecessary,” Gadiel commented, stepping into plain view with sword drawn. “Now I’ll have to walk home.” It was a fake, of course, it had no aura, but it still moved and talked like a man.

“You won’t be walking anywhere, when I’m done with you,” Aelius growled, ignoring the illusion and looking around for other movement. Aelius had expanded his healing field to its limit, causing him to detect hundreds of various animals, monsters, and potential Gadiels. He couldn’t tell the auras apart, and so had to resort to tearing them each open with swarms of vines and visually confirming the resultant bloody mess.

Six more Gadiels stepped out of the grass, each fake. They lunged, but Aelius paid them no mind. He wasn’t going to fall for another petty trick.

Or at least so he thought, until one of them stabbed him through the throat. At the last instant, Aelius felt life suddenly appear in one of the illusions, its thrust already too close to avoid. The blade crashed into his barrier and forced its way through, severing Aelius’ spine and lodging metal in its place, forcing his body limp. From Gadiel’s lips tore out a spell incantation, which he finished with the spell’s common name.

“Metamorph object.”

Metal spines shot out of the sword, stabbing into Aelius and clutching him in place. The metal lodged in his neck pulled and separated the vertebrae, weaving intricately around and through the inside of Aelius’ skull. All the while, Gadiel’s armor– which was also somehow back on him, apparently– leapt from his body to create a gilded cage around Aelius’ form, holding him in place. Vines whipped down to crush the impudent human but Gadiel was suddenly a different one of his illusions, his true body standing elsewhere as the enraged flora swung at a now-false image. Gadiel formed a sword of wind to replace his lost metal blade, sweeping it up to fell another vine that attempted to crush him. The metal in Aelius’ body finished tearing his head from his neck, sealing off the gap between them.

“Marisol told me of what you did to your victims,” Gadiel told him, cutting down more vines that the enraged Aelius sent his way. “And you will not go unpunished for it. When you separated the head from the body, only the head remained living, even though the body remained within range of your magic. You heal via a person’s aura, not by affecting cells directly, and the aura remains with only one part of you when you are split. You may be unmatched in your element, Aelius, but even you have to follow your own rules.”

Aelius wanted nothing more than to snark back, but he couldn’t speak. His body was completely trapped, encased in some ridiculous enchanted metal that wouldn’t even melt right.

With another spell, Gadiel shot the armor trapping Aelius high into the air. His healing field no longer reaching the ground, the aggressive, massively oversized plants were unable to sustain themselves and quickly died. Aelius couldn’t drop any more seeds since his body wouldn’t move, and they’d simply fall inside the armor if he tried anyway.

There was also a limit to the degree he could affect his own body with his powers; his own healing was accelerated to the point of absurdity but he lacked the fine control over the repairs and growths he could act on things like his plants. Every angle had been covered, and Aelius had nothing but himself to blame for the arrogance required to have allowed a mortal to make it this far. The titan had been well and truly trapped.

Or at least he would have been, if not for his best buddy Hanno.

Trapped inside the reformed armor alongside him, tucked in his bag with all Aelius’ precious seeds, was Hanno and Claudia. And while Aelius couldn’t heal his own beautiful face in any way other than its natural, radiant appearance, he could sure as hell make Hanno into whatever nightmare fleshmonster he wanted. After all, Hanno’s aura knew its head needed a body. It practically begged for healing. Aelius just needed to encourage it to heal in the right direction.

It took some doing. As Gadiel stoically carried Aelius’ prison off towards who knows where, Aelius filled Hanno and Claudia with life. A direct and careful application of power allowed him to “heal” extra tissue around the area blocked off by his sealing plant, piling flesh on flesh on skin on skin. He cared for nothing but mass, gleefully budding an impossible wretch of a lifeform from the disembodied heads of his two captives. The mass of skin and muscle grew and grew, the sheer strength of Aelius’ prison being used against it as pressure built up inside to unimaginable levels. By the time Gadiel could see the shell of his trap bending outward from strain, it was too late. The armor cracked and exploded, a mound of mutant thiro flesh ballooning into a mountain as the pressure released, sending gore scattering in all directions. The contents of Aelius’ bag were spilled across the countryside, and Aelius wasted no time growing each and every one of his seeds into a menagere of death, directing one to grab and tear out the metal blocking his own recovery.

The sheer variety and volume of death-plants tore into Gadiel, catching him off-guard and shredding him limb from limb. Aelius felt them take an arm and a leg, plus add countless other wounds before Gadiel managed to teleport outside Aelius’ range. He would no doubt bleed out without assistance, and since he’d just declined the services of the world’s best healer Aelius was feeling pretty skeptical about Gadiel’s chances. Reforming into his full-bodied, radiant glory, a naked Aelius clothed himself in self-knitting grass robes, twisted Hanno and Claudia’s heads off their makeshift mountainous “bodies,” and resumed his trek northeast.

“That was fun,” he muttered to himself. “I should really slaughter cities more often.”

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