"I have a question that I need you to answer honestly, without thinking a single moment. Promise me." Orisa was stiff, her voice tense.
"Of course, I'm always honest with you! What's going on, Orisa? How can I help you?" Rita's voice was a mix of worry and encouragement.
"Did you know that the time between the Waves is constantly decreasing?"
A kaleidoscope of emotions ran across Rita's face. Surprise, shock, recognition, regret, pain, and compassion swapped one another.
"Please, answer!" Orisa's voice was shaking.
"Yes. Everyone who has lived here for at least a couple of years knows." Rita looked away, trying to hide her pain. She turned back a few moments later, and Orisa saw that Rita's eyes were wet again. "I'm so sorry that you arrived at the moment when everything went downhill, Orisa. It is so wrong and unfair, I-"
"Rita, that's not the point," she said, settled closer to Rita and hugged her again. The woman's expression and behavior has shown that she was no part of some conspiracy, which made Orisa relax. At least Rita was still her mentor and friend. "I'm not blaming you or something. I only need to know the truth."
"What do you mean? What truth?"
"About the Waves. Everything you know about them, their origin. What the government is planning to do and your thoughts on the matter," Orisa paused and took out the book. "This was the only missing book from the library. I need to know why."
"My guess is as good as yours, dear. Probably to stop people from panicking until the Military decides to announce something."
"Isn't it kinda late already? I mean, less than half a year is left."
"How do you know that?" Rita's face became pale as she looked at Orisa with round eyes.
"Well, math? I can't guarantee a hundred percent accurate result, but from the dates of the Waves we got from some religious book, we extrapolated them and came to this conclusion. To make sure I'd need to study this," she waved Fantastic Waves, "but that's a general idea."
"I never thought that it was so close..." Rita shook her head with a bitter expression.
"Let's not get depressed while we still have time left. Tell me everything you know about the Waves, please," she took out her main notepad that was already wrinkled and dirtied from constant usage.
"There is not much to say," Rita let out a sigh and uncharacteristically slumped on the sofa. "There is a place called epicenter of the Cataclysm. The Waves presumably come from there, spreading across the land in all directions. The Beasts appear out of thin air the moment the Wave occurs. If there is no Mana source nearby, they tend to wander away from the epicenter."
Orisa was diligently writing everything down despite already knowing all that. She was still harboring hopes to find something useful.
"There is a chance to find a Mana core when you kill the Beast, like the one we gave you on that day. Unless processed, their corpses tend to dissipate rather quickly, which makes dismantling complicated. The Beasts can evolve after getting sufficient amount of Mana, generally from killing or eating. Some of them appear evolved already."
"Nobody has ever made it to the epicenter? No expedition, no attempts at spying, nothing?" Orisa asked after finishing another page.
"I'm sure there have been attempts to investigate, but I have never heard of any successful ones. As for other means, I saw it myself with a big spyglass when I was still serving. There is nothing worthy of note, only a tall white tower and the Beasts crawling all over the place. I have never heard of any books or other notes about its origin, too."
"Have you heard anything over the Military channels, perhaps?" Orisa squeezed her info source dry. "Some plans or ideas on how to end this? I mean, you are a war hero, you should have some connections."
"I... um..." Rita's smile pressed into a thin line, and she shuffled uneasily. A sorrowful expression slowly covered her face. "I'm a mere worker of the Tower now, since..."
"Rita, god, I'm so sorry!" Orisa swiftly embraced the now hurt and saddened woman. "I didn't mean... Our teacher told me about your endeavor. I'm sorry about you and TanYan..."
"It's okay..." Rita sobbed quietly, hugging Orisa back. She continued some time later in a resigned tone. "It's so strange, you know? I am no kid and understand life. I had family back in my world, too. When I came here and found myself almost forty years younger, I swore to spend my life studying and learning so that I'd never repeat the same mistakes I made back at home. But then I met him, and it all turned into a fairytale."
"He was..." Rita paused, collecting herself after a long bitter sigh. "He was everything. Smart, courteous, funny, handsome, persistent. He broke through my cold wall and stole my heart. I felt conflicted at some point, you know, because of the children, and even because of my late husband. TanYan slowly and patiently talked me through everything. He even wasn't repulsed by the fact that I was more than twice older before. Said it meant that I was wise enough to marry him..."
It was an endearing story with a horrible end. They kept talking until Rita regained her composure.
"Orisa, I still can't comprehend the whole situation. What are you planning? And first of all, why are you even planning something?"
"What do you mean? There is a tree that is about to fall on me; why would I stand still waiting for it to smack me?" She looked at Rita with a blank stare as she could not fathom what was there to ask. "I am no god and even not a superhero like you, but I... I can't sit and wait for someone to save me. What if nobody comes? What if the Military won't lift a finger until the last moment and then fail miserably in a pointless all-out charge?"
"I understand my limits and know how worthless I am. But isn't it stupid to stay still and wait? I absolutely can't stand sitting still." Orisa looked Rita in the eyes, and a devilish grin appeared on her face. "Above all, I honestly have nothing better to do in this world."
"You are amazing, dear. I'm so glad that we met." Rita ruffled her hair with a warm smile. "I don't know how I can help you, but I'll do everything. It's a promise."
Someone knocked on the door, and Captain peeked inside a moment later:
"Fine ladies, how are you doing?"
"Wonderful, Captain, thank you. Are you done with patrol?"
"Yeah, everything's quiet like in a tavern after a sunrise. No wonder, the Wave will hit soon."
"The Wave?" Orisa perked up, launching from the sofa towards the Captain. "Can I see it? Please?"
He exchanged confused looks with Rita before asking:
"Are you sure? I mean, real fighting there, not that Dungeon field trip. Can you lend a hand in combat for real?"
"Well..." Orisa shuffled uneasily. "I can cast barriers and shields, but if we are talking about killing the Beasts... There is a problem right now. I'll need either a Concentration potion or Enrage..."
"The heck is that?" His brows shot upwards. "I don't get it. Come outside and show it quickly."
They arrived at the furthest corner of the fort where nobody would get in the way, and Captain pointed at a hay training dummy:
"Here, hit the thing."
Orisa let out a sigh. She needed to find a solution to this combat problem, or it would kill her to show this defect every time for each new person.
"Hand of God!"
The dummy became a little heap of hay as a giant palm smashed it. Without further ado, Orisa pointed at the Captain:
"Hand of God!"
Before she was even halfway through the spell, something burst from the Captain's hand. He swiftly propelled himself a few meters to the side, rolling on the ground before he came to a stop in a kneeling position. ‘Wow, seasoned veterans are scary.’
"Idiot, what do you think you are doing?! The Wave is soon!" He was thoroughly enraged.
"Captain, please, trust me! I'm telling you that I can't properly fight without additional effects. It's easier to show than to explain, so please, let me do it quickly?"
He grumbled something indistinguishable but stood up and relaxed a little. After a minute of futile struggle, the Captain was left speechless. It was his first time seeing something that ridiculous. Orisa compensated this embarrassment with a showcase of her barrier skills, which left him more or less pleased. They were about to go back when the Wave hit with the familiar immaterial sensation passing through their bodies.
"Okay then, let's head to the walls."
"Are the Waves here tough?" Orisa asked as they were making their way towards the gate of the fort where she noticed a stone staircase leading up.
"Quite the opposite, missy. The Beasts here in the eastern region are few, especially compared to the western part. Not that I've ever been to the west, just heard from pals."
"And the epicenter of the Cataclysm is there in the west, too?" Orisa took her notepad to add a small clue.
"Well, yeah, it sure as hell is. I'm glad that with each passing year there are fewer Beasts here. But it kind of feels bad for the folks on the other side of the continent."
"With each passing year, you say?" She frowned and wrote it down. Orisa felt that these two facts were crucial towards the understanding of the Waves, but couldn't piece it all together. She was probably missing other pieces of the puzzle. They stopped by the stairs when the Captain turned around:
"Rita, what are you doing here?" His attention switched to a smiling redhead who was gradually approaching. "The Wave is here. It's not safe, y'know?"
"Since I already asked the girls in the Tower to let me out of the rotation for a few days, I thought it was nice to get back in shape." She slightly frowned, looking at Orisa. "The last time made it clear that I lost my touch."
Rita then pulled out of her pocket a small and mostly empty bottle and handed it to Orisa with a green:
"My spare bottle, so you can take it."
"Are you sure? Rita, you already-" began Orisa but was quickly interrupted.
"Don't be like that, Orisa. I will do everything for you, haven’t I said that already?" She pouted a little and added in an excited tone a moment later, "and more than anything, I want to see you in actions!"
Still skeptical, Orisa accepted the bottle and took a sip. The Captain already left to the walls, and the girls started climbing up, too. While they were moving, the first spells flew away, meaning the Beasts were slowly approaching. She swiftly dashed upward, and Rita followed her while panting heavily. The difference in their fitness was evident, but Orisa had already expected this much since she was training non-stop for the past month while Rita has lived a life of a traditional clerk.
Over the walls, Orisa saw around twenty beasts slowly making their way towards the fort. Among them were few long-range enemies, but the majority consisted of melee foes. There was even one flyer, but it was quickly focused down. Ultimately, the situation was laughable at best, so Orisa relaxed.
When the first barrage of ranged attacks flew towards the walls, she made a few barriers. To her shock, however, each Force Wall withstood no more than two hits before breaking. Concentration potion's effect finally dawned upon her.
As her mind gradually cooled down and turned all rational and brilliant, Orisa started pondering the issue. She clearly remembered Tiana saying that the Beasts were similar to the foes from the eighth floor of the Dungeon. 'Under the Lantern,' she muttered inwardly, slapping her forehead. Long-ranged Beasts were too far away to be affected by the weakening effects.
While hiding behind the wall's frontal part, Orisa glanced around the whole fort. What she failed to notice before was that attacks followed in all four directions, so there were more Beasts than she thought just now. The situation was still under control as she had not heard any screams yet, but Orisa wanted to take an active part in the defense anyway.
She prepared mentally, took a few breaths while repeating everything she just thought of, and then got back on her feet:
An upgraded version of her Force wall was twice thicker and contained eight times more Mana, making it that much harder to break. By the look of it, she could now block more attack with her... block. 'Pun intended.'
Rita finally caught her breath and went behind the Block, opening her tome.
"Tomecraft: Greater Thunderstrike!"
"Tomecraft: Greater Firebird!"
"Rita, if you are here, buff us first," the Captain switched gears into a governing mode, ordering both Rita and Orisa. "Girl, you run over the wall and place your shields."
She conjured twenty blocks before taking a small break. A quick peek over the wall revealed a few crawling spiders. They deftly moved along the wall until Orisa decided to intervene:
"Wall Rush!" - "Wall Rush!" - "Wall Rush!" - "Wall Rush!"
While far from lethal, the Walls were at least humiliating; they slowed the spiders' advance down considerably until one of the archers picked them one by one. Orisa made a return trip to where Rita and Captain were, replacing broken blocks on the way.
"Not half bad, little missy, I think-" his speech was interrupted by a loud crashing noise coming from the fort's ward. Orisa saw something resembling a grasshopper eating a horse' head in the ruins of the now crushed stable. That spot was more than fifty meters away, so no spell would be able to get the Beast, and archers were busy with other foes to take their chances with hitting such a faraway target.
"Fuck, so hate them damn jumpers. It's too far away, won't make it on time," the Captain grumbled, moving to the stairs with a lantern in his left hand.
An idea flashed in her mind, and Orisa urged him to wait for a moment while she finalized the plan in her head.
"Captain, just stand straight and face your target. Might hurt a bit," she said, placing her palm on his back:
She adjusted its form before launching the spell so that it would enclose the Captain around the waist, preventing a premature departure from its surface. The spell's command was altered to slow down after four seconds and dissolve a moment later.
And so, the first successful Mana launch of human soldier has happened. It was probably not the first launch ever, but that fact was irrelevant to a rejoicing Orisa. Her celebration quickly died out when a giant toad landed not far away from the grasshopper. It took her three more seconds to rethink the spell and change its direction before she was able to launch herself.
She was plastered over her flying Force Wall, unable to lift a finger from the sudden acceleration. When her ride began to slow down, Orisa tried to create another spell to let her hover in the air, but something failed horribly in the process, and she came crashing down. Thanks to her Thickness barrier, the incident left her only with bruises and blinding pain but saved from broken bones or something even worse.
Orisa was slowly getting back on her feet when something hot and sticky grabbed her around the waist and yanked away.
"Palm Push Strike!"
Her life was saved by the Concentration potion's focus yet again. She was halfway towards the toad's maw when her spell sliced the Beast's tongue. Orisa lost momentum and rolled forward, stopping a few meters away from the roaring Wavespawn. It noticed its target and jumped forth in hopes to crush her with its weight.
The Captain has finished his opponent by that moment and crushed in the Beast's side, thwarting the jump's trajectory slightly. The toad landed a mere meter away from Orisa and lost its balance, falling to the side. It gave Orisa enough time to jump on her feet.
Seasoned veteran quickly read the situation and hit again, this time managing to push the toad on its back. The previously acquired reflex clicked inside Orisa's head, and she quickly launched a cascade of spells:
"Hand of God!" - "Hand of God!"
"Wall Press!" - "Wall Press!" - "Wall Press!" - "Wall Press!"
The first two spells nailed the toad deeper into the ground while the Wall Press helped to fixate it in this pose.
Orisa was too afraid to lose the moment, so she swiftly moved to the Beast and slammed a pair of Palm Push Strikes in its side. A nasty surprise awaited her when she looked at the spot as there was almost no damage to the toad's skin.
"Blazing Slash!" - "Blazing Slash!"
"You need to hit it with fire first!" The Captain added while chomping the toad.
"Yeah, I know. I just..." She was sure that her most damaging and penetrating spell would be enough to break through its protective layer. 'Was it because of its slippery surface? No, the first strike blasted this slimy coat. It leaves only one possibility - my most damaging spell is not sufficient to pierce the Beast's skin in one strike.'
While the Captain kept slashing into the toad's side, Orisa tried a variety of spells and they all yielded the same result. Even under the lantern's effect, the Beast's resistance was way higher than that of the summoned foes she fought before. She had to strike four times before its skin gave up and let Orisa see its blood.
The rest of the Wave was uneventful to thoughtful and slightly depressed Orisa's delight. She listened halfheartedly to the Captain's praise and was about to leave the battlefield when panting Rita finally arrived at the scene. She gave Orisa a thoughtful look before grabbing her arm:
"How about we eat and rest a bit before our training?" She said with a cheery voice.
"Training? What are you talking about?" Orisa replied sulkily.
"Isn't it obvious? The Sealcasting training, of course!"