Chapter 077: Taking Hold [part 01]
I called Vaera to my office in the next morning. We were planning a reconnaissance foray into the still not controlled parts of the Hold later in the day. Before that… well, I hoped to be done with this thing as soon as possible.
He was quite optimistic. Willing to have the talk about mountain elven culture, and the times before the dragonbrides seized power. Why I’d like a nice and steady talk about history, it simply wasn’t the time for it.
“Vaera, no. Not now. I have another thing to talk about with you.” He immediately figured out something was going to happen soon. “I… alright, fuck it, there’s no good way to say it. Would you like to get a revenge on the dragonbrides?”
“What?!” That shocked him. “And how’s that even possible? I wasn’t very high in the ranks, there are a lot of dragonbrides stronger than me. Not to mention all the tribesmen. Within a week top I’ll be hanging from a tree, after being…”
I rose my hand to stop him. I knew how dragonbrides treated their captives. No need to get graphic.
“Yes, well, it just might be possible.” I took a deep breath. “You see, we have an imperial representative in the Hold. And he already heard about your… predicament. The thing is, the Imperium is plotting something nasty in the Saltrock Mountains. It’s just mine own theory, but I think they are trying to whip the locals into an attack on the Northern Aevaria.”
“This… could work.” Vaera nodded. “Mountain elves are dicks to everyone, sure, but the rest… there is a lot of goblins, orcs, ogres and even sharptalons living there. All tribes and clans, and very territorial. Though due to Northern Aevarian slave raids they hate the kingdom more than they hate each other.”
“Yes, the problem is precisely the mountain elven dickishness.” I could see his brow raising as he adapted a more ‘wtf are you talking about’ face. “None of the tribes will commit a significant part of their forces into the attack on the Northern Aevaria when there is a threat that mountain elves will attack their dwellings when they’ll be away. Now, if mountain elves were busy with a civil war... “ I paused, meaningfully.
“So, it’s something like that.” He sounded absentminded. “Let me guess, the Imperium already has something prepared?”
“Yes. A lot of mountain elven outcasts and prisoners that came to enjoy more civilized way of life.” I answered. “They just needed a dragonbride to serve as a symbol.” It’s hard to cause civil war in a theocratic community without sowing confusion as to which side is supported by their gods. His... case is even better than average due to the gender thing.
“I see.” He said. Then he looked at me angrily. “Useful way of getting rid of me, hmm?”
What?! Wait, seriously, WHAT?!
“Get rid of you?!” I managed to vocalize it only after a few seconds of searching for my lost tongue. “Is that really what you think it is?!”
“Yes. Face it, I’m the least useful member of the party. My magic, even after the curse dissolved is the weakest. I’m among those dying most often. I also told you the secret behind dragonbride training, and I remember the face you gave me.” YOU CAN’T BLAME ME FOR THAT!!! Average people would make much more heated reaction for that. Even the Crow said that the Imperium knew, just preferred to pretend that it didn’t. “You are just trying to get rid of me, that’s why you jumped on an occasion.”
Wonderful. He feels oppressed. Case closed. I can’t really persuade him otherwise, because it’s my words against his feelings. He will just start screeching about how I’m trying to justify/rationalize my own dislike and so on. Looks like people are the same, regardless of universe.
Then again, now that I think about it, he has a point. I did feel rather bad with the great reveal to the point that I subconsciously spent less time around him. So just as he is guilty for overreacting, I'm guilty of giving him the reason for overreacting and failing to defuse that in time. Or even noticing the bomb ticking. Shit. Let's try to defuse it now.
“No, it’s about trying to save as many people as possible.” I answered calmly. “If the tribes of the Saltrock Mountains attack the kingdom en masse, its eastern defenses will crumble quickly. The imperial forces pushing through the Iron Gate will have much easier time, will lose less people and the chances for annexing that godsdamned place will be much greater. And that's the whole point of us being here.”
“How noble.” He answered right after loudly clicking his tongue.
“Leria is leaving too.” That caught him off-guard. “We are going to send her for a meeting with the khardic church in Vassyria. Sure, for additional power-up, better gear and some important knowledge, but they will surely try to persuade her into leading their War of Symphony. It’s at least 50% chance that she will return only to help us finish cleansing of the Hold. If she returns at all.”
I won’t say that the Crows consider getting Vaera to cooperate a requirement for that (the worst people to ask for it, honestly, they dislike the monotheists badly). He would probably see that as selling him for Leria’s sake.
I feel bad for lying. I feel horrible for lying. Even when it’s closer to a white lie. Then again, I seriously regretted losing Vaera - I consider him a friend, or at least colleague of mine - but I just don’t feel like I can persuade him in a normal way that I’m not oppressing him on anything.
Yhrezerach is going to be pissed, doesn’t he? Unless he looks at me with all-seeing eye and decides that it was something done in a truly good intentions.
Though I should be more concerned with Inri. Ugh.
“I…” Now Vaera’s a bit lost. He went silent for a few seconds. “I’ll think about it.”
Time to leave, Avhar.
Leria and Vaera departed through the teleport station the next day. Leria looked unusually optimistic (she regained enough of her enthusiasm to whisper to me that she can’t wait to see the vasyrrian Grand Cathedral). Vaera was…
… I think I lost him. He didn’t even say goodbye to me. And only to me. First - and hopefully the last - of a long-term psychological mines I stumbled upon, even despite Yhrezerach warning me.
Maybe I should have openly apologized when I had an occasion? Now that I thought about it, I played the 'let's be professional' card while instead I should go for the OBVIOUS and COMMON card known as 'I'm sorry'. I should probably let Simea do the talking. from now on.
In a way, it was underwhelming. No massive arguments, no straight betrayals, just sudden cessation of a friendship (or maybe I was the only one who it was friendship?) and a loss of an important party members. No months-long buildup, just growing frustration at each other that barely anyone have noticed, and that finally erupted.
I could have noticed the signs. If I wasn’t so terrible in that. Ugh. Gods above, couldn’t you choose someone better!? Or just gave Leria some additional skills in intrigues and backstabbing?! I’m not even better than her enough to justify choosing me.
At least Vaera was furious only at me. He seemed to be ok with the rest of the crew.
The worst thing? I think I defused Simea, but both Leria and Lena were still bombs. And of much greater importance according to Yhrezerach. So, I presume, their explosion will be much worse.
Another day wasted, with the Hold overpopulated.
In the meantime, the Unmakers we took prisoner began waking up. Their return to consciousness was hard. You don’t just get out unscathed after getting hit by an archspell. And when it was either eldritch or holy in theme, you could as well become a completely different person.
They were… repentant, to say the least. We let the Crow interrogate them, and they practically flooded him with all sort of informations about the Unmaker’s operations. They were also almost sickenly willing to help us. There was also a growing tide of conversions, this time to inrithism.
Old question, forever unanswered. Did they truly experienced a presence of God that made them change their ways, or was that just a spell that forcefully rearranged their minds in a way similar to brainwash? You could find a lot of devoted inrithians/khardics/etc. thinking that spells like that were just magic made to look after their God’s. Not like polytheists were free from that.
This meant that our offensive potential was growing fast, while also meant that the inrithian part of the Flame just got strenghtened. I expected most of the former Unmaker’s to convert.
Direct meeting with a God does that to people. Especially when it’s intimate and composes of said God showing you all the evils you did, beating into you an understanding of how shitty a person you were… and then gives you a hand and points out that you weren’t the worst and He is still willing to help you become less of a dick in the future.
We decided to postpone the attack for another two days, to make sure that all Unmakers - and the few incapacitated militiamen, that mostly turned out to be slacking off and do a lot of minor bad things - woke up.
Finally, we were mostly prepared. The militia, the Anataelian adventurers and the former Unmaker’s on a search for redemption as grunts. My party, Kovacs’ party and Firewing as a main offensive power. Potions produced and redistributed, engagements planned and prepared for, everyone more or less ready.
We lacked Leria and Vaera, so we made up for it with Firewing. Also, most of the Unmakers’ decided to join the Flame. The search for redemption was a powerful thing. And quite admirable, even when it was a bit forced.
Right now the Ardent Flame had two main parts: the militia, and the ‘penitents’ - that’s how someone referred to the Unmakers’ and I think it sticked. Adventurers were pretty much an affiliated group. We were slowly - and almost against our own choices - rebuilding the Flame of the old.
First target was the ‘agriculture’ section. It was dangerously close to the mines - Yhrezerach confirmed that the attack came from there - but the presence of our enemies was smaller there than in both the mines and the Flame’s main base (that we were yet to uncover).
The attack was simple. Mine and Kovacs’ parties landed on the ‘shore’ and secured it, by taking two spawns (I still can’t pronounce it). Tactic was simple - keep them occupied while Firewing casts her powerful magic.
Then she used a barrier magic to block the entrance into the agriculture section, to prevent the defenders from charging at us.
We were joined by the Penitent’s necromancers and some adventurers that knew some summoning magic. For half of the day they continuously summoned things - together with Firewing - and had them storm the section. Then, after the enemy was softened, we finally charged in. Together with some adventurers and militiamen.
The defenders were mostly further Spawns of Zhrhrhrjlglegoiebgp, and some undead. Few were our old Devoured friends, but most were ‘Devoured Slaves’. Malnourished, partially dissolved by a slime, and in chains. Their main method of attack was firing slime projectiles from their mouths in a rather creepy way.
The entire agriculture section was essentially one wide corridor, with rooms on both sides. The first on the left seemed to have been an old food storage, where harvested food awaited transport via the boats. Now, it was filled with rotted - and broken - crates, with the Spawns devouring everything that was left.
The first on the right was much more disturbing. It was filled with cages. Small cages, some where merely one per one meters, other a bit bigger. For a while I thought they were made for animals, but then I understood that we just encountered the source of the Devoured Slaves.
There were writings on the cages, describing the reason for the treatment. Murderers. Rapists. Slave traders. Drug dealers. Paedophiles. One or two still had occupants. Some seemed to commit suicide before the spawns got to them, but several were just Devoured, banging at the cage in hope for release for who knows how long.
We wiped out everything in side. Another thing that I’m not sure if I wanted to remember.
Next room was the guard’s quarters. Someone had to keep the slaves in order. Then, problems began.
On the left side, there was another simple door, hiding a room that I presumed to be a storage room for tools and what seemed to a bunch of fertilizers. The other two doors remaining, in the same time…
They were different. Reinforced, and closed. Firewing took a while to decipher the magic.
“Looks like somebody used astral cores to expand the space inside.” She finally broke the silence. “Makes sense, agriculture and animals need a lot of space, too troublesome to do that in a confined spaces underground. You can use a magic to make plants grow, but there are still limits to how fast it would grow.”
“So, like the Halls in the Dungeon.” I concluded. “How much of a spatial compression?”
“I don’t know. Probably quite a lot. Yhrezerach is most likely the power source.” Yeah, I can’t imagine a spatial distortion of this scale without a power source on the level of a powerful artefact, demigod or a Dungeon Core.” But this also means a larger scale combat. Closer to to an open battle in size. We should probably wait for more soldiers to come here. And make some preparations.”
I wasn’t going to ignore this advice.
In the end, preparing ourselves turned out to be a good idea. Not charging blindly at the enemy tends to be a good idea in most cases. Especially when enemy remained in that very place for hundreds of years. An hour would change nothing.
The first room we stormed (after Firewing finally managed to unlock the door and its complicated defense mechanism) turned out to house animals. Cows. Bulls. Sheeps. Goats. Chicken. Several species unique to this world.
They were all Devoured. And there were SEVERAL. DAMN. HUNDREDS. All of them walking around the large, fake meadow (with some ruined buildings in the background) under an illusionary sky. The whole thing was maybe one per one kilometre wide, with the ground boosted with a lot of fertilizers and powerful nature magic to produce enough grass to feed the animals.
They adopted quite simple tactic. I expected a lot, but not a stampede of undead, eldritch beings-infested farm animals. Everything, even chickens, formed one massive horde - while we were busy reacting to the sight and deploying our own forces - and then charged at us.
Now, the thing is: it would normally not be a problem. Stronger aura manipulators reach levels of combat power and resilience normally reserved for a particulary overpowered anime characters. Stampede? An atomic warhead wouldn’t kill them. They were all physical gods, far beyond human standards.
Leria - if she was here - could probably tank an M1 Abrams anti-tank round if she went into a full defense mode. Compared to that, an army of animals…
… was actually a problem. Their numbers were great, and we lacked any sufficiently tough warriors to just solo them all. The best warriors with us, now that Leria departed, were all around the level of Lena and Kovacs’ group warriors. So they could tank a minigun fire for a short while.
Enemy could - if we went retarded - just swarm us. I could easily imagine this. A wave after wave, repeated hits slowly battering their way through our tank line, covering them in bodies. Some of the Devoured animals even had some combat skills, even if pretty weak!
It was a tiring battle. We brought our warriors inside, thankfully. Due to the supposed size of the battlefield I also told them to bring spears - we had a lot of them in store, because they were easy and cheap to make. We had them form a sort of an improvised phalanx, aura-strengthening their spears and shields.
While they held the line, our better combatants - Kovacs group, my group, Firewing, remaining undead - fought on the flanks.
It was an interesting thing to remember. Our warriors were relatively weak. Leria would beat each one of them with a snap of her finger. However, when they fought together, they easily formed an impenetrable wall that even the massive army of Devoured animals couldn’t beat.
While they held most of the ground, repelling wave after wave (with minimal casualties to both sides, but weakening them both), the stronger combatants decimated the horde by attacking it at the flanks. Each time they overdid it and charged too far, the waves almost overwhelmed them… but they had a place to retreat to.
Also, Firewing. I don’t even have to go deeper into that. Interestingly, big part of her usefulness was countered by the fact that enemies were fast and felt magic currents enough to mostly avoid any large scale magic. This degree of coordination was almost uncanny, I suspected some degree of hive mind in the work. Each time she tried a big blast, she ended up burning few chickens. After few attempts, she turned into a machine-gun equivalent, just with fireballs.
In short, it was a battle that was executed almost flawlessly. Mostly because enemies was a horde of mutated farm animals, with nothing but KILL MURDER MAIM as tactics. And bit part of them were chickens. Chickens couldn’t do a lot to us, even mutated.
We managed to avoid losing anyone, but most of soldiers were wounded to some extent. Even something as simple as an impact of the animals hurling themselves at you, relayed through the spear, could end up as wounds. You had to be a aura manipulator on the level of at least Lena to be able to dampen the impact of this magnitude… and do so repeatedly for three hours.
Six soldiers broke an arm (or a two), a lot more of them had lot of bruises or were just beaten up and tired. It would be worse, but we had enough reserves to be able to replace soldiers that were too beaten up or wounded.
In short, if enemy was twice as numerous, we would be beaten. By farm animals. Mutated farm animals, right, but still a bunch of cows and chickens.
Are Gods making fun of me? Of us? Is that some sort of divine joke I’m too mortal to understand?
Chickens. Fucking chickens.
The victory was incomplete. We managed to secure almost entirety of the agriculture zone… but the word almost was a problem. I was NOT going to risk that we’ll settle people here, only for the last hall to suddenly burst with Spawns or Devoured.
There is a reason why most decent Gods around are very vocal about patience, responsibility, and finishing the things properly.
We retreated for a while, leaving sentries in the retaken area of agricultural district. They should warn us if something phishy was happening.
Another day passed, and the Hold’s population still haven’t exploded in violent rebellion. We still had to keep anaetalians away from the former Unmakers’, to prevent a riot. And Yhrezerach was as enigmatic as always, totally not helping us at all.
With most of the soldiers fixed - save for those with broken bones, healing alchemy has its limits - we were ready to finalize the conquest of the agricultural zone.
We had Firewing open the gate up. Took her a while. Leria could probably open it up with a simple vocal order.
Damn, do I miss her? I probably do.
Then we walked inside. Powerful first, grunts second.
Wow. It wasn’t a meadow, it was a farmland. It was also bigger than the animal section, but the fake sky looked similar. There was something akin to a hill on the other side of it. Ground elevation had some effects on certain plants, especially those of magical properties, so I presumed they could have been using it like that.
So, yeah, certainly a magic-intensive agriculture was done here. Not awfully cost-efficient (quite the opposite, in fact), but when you are a secret religious order on a crusade, and you have a DEMIGOD supplying you with cheap money, situation is a bit better.
No enemies in sight. Suspicious. The whole place looked… dead. No grass, no plants, no animals, no Devoured, no Spawns...
Firewing suddenly stopped.
“Ah, shit.” When archmagician is going ‘Ah, shit’ on you, that’s when things get serious. We all paused in an instant, and looked at her. “No plants in sight. And the Spawns grow by absorbing biomass.”
“Get the soldiers out, NOW!” I barked to the nearest ‘officer’ of the militia. He had no idea what was happening, but he was a khardic zealot. Discipline and obeying orders were a religious duty to him, as long as I didn’t tell him to murder some random women and children. He immediately started relaying the orders.
This wasn’t a battle where they were going to be useful. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be useful either.
“What is happ…” Lena began her question. I wanted to answer with a paraphrase of a certain classical quote about a moon from certain sci-fi film… but then the hill acted faster.
It was no hill. It was a Spawn. A gargantuan in size Spawn of Zhkrkh. It must have covered itself in a dirt to avoid the sun causing it pain and discomfort - even fake sun caused that, as long as it was ‘true’ enough to have plants grow.
Massive Spawn of Zhkrkh
Threat Grade: Platinum X
A massive, oversized spawn of Zhkrkh, created by a single, minor spawn devouring - over the course of months - everything alive in the main agricultural hall. Then waiting for it to regrow… and assimilate it again. It stopped growing only after the lack of care - and regular, thorough harvests - ended up erasing all signs of life from the hall.
Understanding what was going to happen was one thing. Being able to immediately react to the thing happening was something else. We spent several seconds in a state of shock and awe, just looking at the size of the thing emerging from the hill.
Firewing reacted first. She began casting some powerful barrier spell. The Spawn noticed it and tried to fire Newborn Spawn - with a speed of a machine gun - at her. Too slow: the barrier was erected. The fires exploded, creating a wall of fire (that also prevented passage via some sort of kinetic negation field).
The machinegunned spawns hitting the wall (and being set aflame) created a wonderful spectacle of fireworks that managed to mostly pull us out of the shock.
“Firewing, what are we supposed to do?!” I shouted to her. I, for the first time in a while, had absolutely no damn idea.
“I hope you are ok with high temperatures.” She answered. While I was busy trying to comprehend what she just said, she cast another powerful magic.
Second later the fake sun suddenly bursted with flames. Temperature immediately jumped up. I started sweating terribly.
Spawn trembled. It was pain. I could see it.
Of course! It was hurt by the sunlight. So when you were in a place where the power of sunlight (artificial, but almost perfectly copied) could be amplified… It was like a constant rain of fireballs on it.
TOO BAD IT WAS ALSO A CONSTANT RAIN OF FIREBALLS ON ME, OH GOD
It had to be… like… 40-50C!
“Protect me!” Firewing shouted. Once again I didn’t understand what she meant. Second later a tidal wave of burning slime hit the barrier with an earthshattering kaboom. Fire exploded everywhere, together with a burning ‘children’ of the gargantuan Spawn.
I immediately understood it made a mistake. It tried to hit Firewing directly, but wall-like barriers were always the strongest right in front of the caster. It had something to do with the mechanism of the Dark and their consciousness strengthening the reality-warping effect of magic, but I wasn’t really good with technical details.
Spawn - despite being in horrible pain and vomiting its own burning children in every possible direction - understood it as well. This time, the wave hit near the edge of the barrier… and broke through. A number of lesser Spawns - in every possible size - bursted through. After the main body recoiled in pain, the barrier returned.
Spawns on our side immediately charged at us (or, to be exact, at Firewing). Battle began.