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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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It started with scouts. Even before I could see the four huge floating fortresses, monsters came ahead to spy for their masters. Mostly it was flame elementals, little balls of fire that jetted through the air like tiny rockets. I would call them will’o’wisps, though the overlay just reported them as [Candleflame Elemental]. Unfortunately, being made of fire, my LAE couldn’t do much to them. I had to resort to other forms of defense, which was to say, making a strip of Glacier Climate and turning the blizzard to maximum.

It didn’t generate any mana that way, and probably even consumed it, though since it didn’t outpace my regeneration it didn’t much matter. The freezing wind and snow stopped abruptly at the borders of the Climate and extended a few hundred meters into the air, somewhat below my weather towers. That seemed to be high enough, since none of the [Candleflame Elementals] went higher than about one hundred.

“So that’s why Blue took over the whole country,” Bel Aci said, sitting in what was clearly a war room. It was covered in glyphs and full of magical items, one of them showing the floating heads of his companion mage-kings. The chair he sat in was a glowing red crystal, a level thirty core. “That’s a lot of defensive depth.”

“Potentially, yes.” Sen Rii said. “Practically, he can’t transform the entire thing into a storm, and even if he did, we have Storm and Ice Affinity monsters ourselves.”

“It’d be easier to just fight core to core,” Tem Irn sighed.

“Not unless you want to walk home,” Bel Aci replied acidly. “We want to take the cores intact, not turn them to dust.”

“Just see how far your flames get,” Vok Lim ordered. “Tem, we’ll send yours in at the same time.”

My worst fear was that they’d just drop directly onto me and force me to deal with fighting a high-level ANATHEMA core directly. I’d never thought they would, since I knew they wanted to capture me and dungeon combat had the potential to destroy, but it meant I didn’t need to try and throw everything at them immediately to try and drive them off. Since they were looking for a more mundane method of conquering, I could just try and force them to waste all their resources until they were easy to deal with.

Relieved despite the forces arrayed against me, I stayed focused on the elementals. They gathered up at the shoreline, momentarily stymied by the blizzard, before suddenly flooding inland. I wasn’t sure if they had reached some critical mass of their own or their master had sent a signal, but they all zipped into the storm at the same time. It wasn’t a good idea for them, since the shards of ice and heavy wind ripped them to shreds. I didn’t think any of them got further than fifty meters into the five-hundred-meter strip of snowstorm.

The slimes and oozes were a little different. They came from under the water, almost invisible [Adaptable Slimes] that swapped from being nigh-transparent spheres to white shards of ice that tumbled easily across the defensive line. If I didn’t have the overlay and [Genius Loci], it would have been difficult to notice them.

It had been some time since I’d had to deal with it, but ANATHEMA rage still existed. I really wanted to squash the slimes the moment I saw them, but I could control it. Either the slimes didn’t trigger it too severely, or expanding as I had diluted the issue. Watching them shift so effortlessly between elements, I decided that it wasn’t likely the slimes would be stopped by any of the Climates, weaponized or not. Fortunately, the LAEs had no elemental Affinity whatsoever.

Aiming was still a problem, since I had to do it manually, but considering I knew exactly where the slimes would be, it wasn’t a problem to set up a nice long killzone and pop them as they emerged from the storm. They fell out of the storm as large chunks of ice and I vaporized them by the dozens. Chunks of ice and molten slime flew into the air as the LAEs practically detonated them, steam rising along a ten-kilometer swath of invading monster.

“What is he doing?” Tem Irn scowled, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his own core-chair. “I can’t even see what Blue is killing my slimes with.”

“The light weapon Tor Kot mentioned,” Bel Aci said absently, his hands on a set of runes inscribed in front of his chair. “Have them switch to darkness Affinity.”

Forewarned that they’d be trying to counter my LAEs, I stretched a high-powered Light field across the border. The slimes went from ice to dark fuzzy blobs as they hopped out of the storm, only to fall into a pool of honey-thick light. It was more effective than I had imagined, the slimes simply puffing into bursts of radiance. I was pretty sure [Bane] was to thank for that.

“So far so good,” I told Shayma, who was sitting in a chair off to the side of the actual throne. Iniri’s throne room wasn’t actually empty but wasn’t seeing its usual business. A few nobles gathered on the edges, those not in the various cities and towns relocated to the Caldera, and the few foreign representatives that had refused to leave mingled with them. Iniri’s Queensguard screened her from the rest of the room while Iniri stayed on the throne itself.

It definitely wasn’t an Artifact, but the throne was connected to all the light Iniri had created that had been threaded throughout the Palace. Combined with the Source gems and additional runes Iniri had added into the throne, it was definitely a magical item, the whole Palace acting as one enormous amplifier. From what I understood it wasn’t necessarily more powerful than any other properly constructed tool, but the scale lent itself to larger and longer-distance things. Such as protecting a city with [Shield of Tarnil]. At the very least the palace. She’d even moved poor comatose Yamal into his own room, though since he was already completely Depleted, he was probably not in any real danger from the worst weapon of the mage-kings. Of course that meant he was probably more susceptible to the more prosaic magical weapons the mage-kings could bring to bear.

Iniri didn’t need to do anything yet, especially since the fortresses were only barely visible from my towers, but she’d probably be needed soon. I didn’t think I’d have any problems dealing with their monsters. It was the mage part of mage-king that worried me, and the clear evidence that they had enormous resources for magical weaponry all tied into some sort of magitek control room.

“That didn’t work.” Tem Irn said, glaring at Bel Aci.

“Blue obviously has experience with dungeon combat,” Bel Aci replied. “And he’s not a complete idiot. If you have a weapon defeated by darkness Affinity, couple it with something that attacks that Affinity. I’d say the scouting has been pretty successful.”

“I don’t hear a counter-strategy,” Vok Lim said, tapping an impatient finger on his core-chair.

“Those initial defenses have got to be costing Blue a lot of mana. We could just go around them – they don’t cover the whole coast of Tarnil – but I suspect that’s the point.” Bel Aci didn’t seem particularly disturbed by Vok Lim’s annoyance. “Go over them or just punch a hole through them before sending any more forces. Either way we don’t want to play to this attrition game.”

“You think Blue can destroy hundreds of thousands of monsters?” Sen Rii looked skeptical.

“If we’re stupid, yes. Don’t be stupid.” Bel Aci waved a hand. “I’ll cut you a channel when we’re closer. Here.” There wasn’t any accompanying map, but Sen Rii seemed to get the point and turned back to his own console, reclining in the core-chair.

Even if I didn’t see what Bel Aci was referring to, the [Waveskipper Gillborn] who appeared from the ocean told me exactly where I needed defenses. They were aimed at the canal, which no longer was a shortcut to Meil with the spatial compression removed. Really, I figured that they’d think it was trapped, but maybe they felt it’d be easier for water-based creatures to deal with it. It wasn’t like I had any water monsters myself.

“Okay, Shayma? I’m going to need Iniri to deflect some kind of magical attack at the canal front fairly soon.”

“It’ll be my pleasure,” Iniri said, barely waiting for Shayma to finish translating. She got to her feet, and I opened a portal to one of the weather towers that flanked the canal head. Two of her Queensguard went first, and she swept in afterward, followed by Shayma and another two Queensguard. From that perspective, the four floating islands were visible as smudges, though maybe it was clearer with their Skill-boosted eyesight than whatever standard [Genius Loci] had.

“So that’s them?” She looked out at the islands, her face a hard mask.

“That’s them,” Shayma said, looking through the window.

“Bel Aci is going to do something to clear the weather out along the canal, but I don’t know that I’ll have forewarning of it,” I told them. The glacier Climate actually started behind them, a solid sheet of white maybe fifty meters back of the outermost weather towers. Shayma and Iniri took it in stride, but the Queensguard was quietly gawking at the wall of snow.

“It’s kind of cheating that you can scry them at all,” Shayma said, grinning.

“I’ll take any advantage we can get,” Iniri said grimly. A bracelet of silver-blue metal unfurled itself from her wrist, rising into the air as the manipulated the conjured metal. It twisted into runes on the ground around her and on the ceiling above, and she took a small stellar Source gem out of her pocket and placed it into a thin socket that formed in front of her.

I hadn’t noticed a huge difference in her Skills since I’d given her stellar Affinity, but she assured me that they packed more punch. The only change I could see was that her pseudo-starfield for [Blue’s Armament of Light] looked more like a real one. [Shield of Tarnil] looked completely the same, but considering it was a Lineage Skill I had doubts that the new Affinity would do anything for it.

Shayma stepped outside the bounds of the runes, so she wouldn’t interfere, and conjured her own. Again, while Iniri took it in stride, the Queensguard were having trouble keeping up. It amused me to see my Companions getting such reactions. I was pretty sure Shayma’s conjurations were mostly sensory runes, so she could see further, but I hadn’t really made any headway on understanding them. It seemed parsing them was not the same as a language, requiring some degree of Skill to understand the rules, so I hadn’t really worked too hard on figuring it out.

It probably wasn’t necessary for Iniri to stop whatever they were doing. The wall of winter wasn’t actually a drain on my resources and I was planning to change it around soon enough anyway, but if I could get them to spend a bunch of their resources against [Shield of Tarnil] I’d consider that time well spent.

The minutes ticked away as more [Gillborn] gathered at the estuary, though considering the canal was frozen over I wasn’t sure if they intended to swim under it or go overland. Maybe whatever Bel Aci had in mind was intended to melt the ice. The thermodynamics of that would be impressive, but magic made such considerations irrelevant more often than not.

“Ah, something’s stirring,” Iniri said, and flung up her hand. An enormous [Shield of Tarnil] appeared outside, stretching from tower to tower and rising almost the full kilometer of height. My mana pool dipped a bit as she leaned on me to make up for her expenditure, but I had a big mana pool and lots of regeneration, so it wasn’t much of an issue.

I was glad Iniri could tell what was going on, because I didn’t have any warning when a massive plume of volcano Affinity mana shot from Bel Aci’s island and smashed into Iniri’s [Shield of Tarnil]. I didn’t know how much mana the bolt represented but it hammered against Iniri’s Skill, all the complicated structures roiling inside it as it raged against the unyielding bulwark of [Shield of Tarnil]. It took a good five seconds for the entire thing to collapse into one massive ball of superheated rock, and a second or two later the heat boiled the ocean beneath it, sending [Gillborn] fleeing away from their rally point.

The volcano bolt flared against the shield in midair, still trying to push past it as it grew smaller, though no less energetic. The thing was probably thirty meters across, a truly massive amount of pyroclastic fury, and didn’t show any signs of losing energy. At least, not until I realized I was being dumb and applied [Temperature Finesse] to it. My Skill ate away its energy incredibly quickly, and it dropped into the ocean as a sphere of blackened pumice less than a minute later, bobbing on the waves. The steam from the ocean simply condensed back to rain or joined the blizzard.

“What was that, Bel? I thought you were going to punch through Blue’s defenses.” Vok Lim said sourly.

“That was not a normal Skill. That looked to be a fifth-tier or Lineage Skill.” Bell Aci, frowning himself. “Tor Kot mentioned a fortress like that. We’ll have to blanket the area with Depletion first.”

“Incoming Depletion,” I told Shayma, opening the portal again. Not for Shayma and Iniri, who were immune, but the Queensguard, who weren’t. The word was enough for Iniri to order her Guard back through the portal doubletime, and I closed it again just in case whatever they tried to do with Depletion could leak through it. Really, Iniri didn’t need the Guard, not at the moment, but she and they weren’t taking any chances they didn’t need to since the assassination attempt. Besides, she had a lot of Classers with useful Skills in her Queensguard.

“We don’t care about Depletion,” Iniri said thoughtfully. “How about we return fire. If you open a window I can see if I can hit them with [Blue’s Armament of Light].”

“I don’t know how much that’ll affect them without my [Bane] mana,” I cautioned her. Though the islands were still slightly outside the offshore part of Tarnil I controlled, I could still grow a pillar up from the seafloor near them. Or rather, a narrow spike, with a portal aimed at Bel Aci’s island. The other half of the portal opened in front of Iniri, giving her a clear view of what she was about to hit.

Iniri summoned the Skill, a starfield haloing her, the stars twinkling in the deep blue of a late evening sky. Condensed starlight flashed through the portal and lanced into one of the arcane bits of machinery lining the walls. At first it just splashed against invisible wards just outside the wall, and if it had been a normal Skill that would have been it. But the silver starlight crackled suddenly, and my mana dipped as she poured thousands of mana into the Skill. The now-empowered Skill smashed through the ward and sliced right through the magitek device. Molten metal splashed as the beams cut through and then bounced off the inner brickwork, the reinforcement there so strong that even the overcharged Skill didn’t leave more than scorch marks.

She strafed the beam along the wall, bisecting four more artillery pieces or whatever they were before a wave of magic burst outward from the mountain citadel inside the walls of the floating island. It didn’t do much to deflect Iniri’s beam but when it hit my portal, the connection snapped and both sides fizzled. Iniri, thankfully, realized what was happened and stopped channeling the Skill before she punched through the wall of the weather tower. Whatever he had done to disrupt the portal didn’t do much else, the wave of mana dissipating as it rolled outward, making me think that was the whole point.

“Great, at least we wrecked some of his stuff!” I would have liked to hit monsters too, but if they were out in the open, it wasn’t like I could get Iniri an angle to hit them. “I’ll open another one.” The island fortresses had about forty kilometers of separation, so I needed to push up another needle. That fortunately didn’t take too long, and this time Iniri supercharged it from the start, cutting a swath of devastation across the outer wall. Again a magic pulse closed the portal, but the damage had already been done.

“Blue’s got some weapon that punched through my outer wards,” Bel Aci reported, still calm. “Also light-based, seems like a fourth-tier Classer. Adjust your defenses accordingly.”

“Mine too,” Term Irn grumbled. “Now I’m down six thaumoprojectors.”

“Start the Depletion bombardment already,” Vok Lim said, ignoring the other two.

I was braced for whatever the bombardment would entail, but the sheer number of beams that erupted from the four islands was staggering. They were an eye-searing color, an inverted black that reflected off the ocean waves as they plunged down into the water, starting at the point where I’d been projecting Iniri’s beam and sweeping in toward the shore. The individual beams merged into one solid line of Depletion, raking the water and the land beneath it.

Kind of.

There wasn’t anyone in the way of the bombardment, so I couldn’t judge how potent it was, but it certainly looked nasty and went right through water and earth. When it actually hit my mana field though, the land that I’d claimed under the waters, it simply wilted. The solid line fizzled out, bubbling and then vanishing less than a meter under the ground. When the beam got to the actual shore, the same thing happened in open air, the depletion bombardment failing to even make it past the towers.

I could feel a sort of push against my mana, not my mana pool but the gigantic framework that I’d dropped on Tarnil to keep it going, but the power involved absolutely shredded the beam. That might have been [Bane] as well, but I wasn’t sure. This was pure magic, albeit an awful type of it, and it didn’t really set off my ANATHEMA senses. Regardless of the reason, my mana shredded it so fast that Iniri’s Queensguard would have been perfectly safe where they’d been.

“Hahaha! Take that!” I had to laugh. It still wasn’t anything to take chances with, but it kind of made sense. My mana was what made people immune to Depletion, so whatever caused it was something my mana protected against anyway. “Turns out that their Depletion stuff doesn’t do too much inside my mana field.” We still didn’t want to get anyone else near the mage-kings, but it cut their most terrifying weapon down to almost nothing.

“Oh, wow!” Shayma grinned and told Iniri, who nodded with a vicious smile.

“So that’s what that was. Let’s hit another one,” she said, [Blue’s Armament of Light] appearing about her again.

“Bel Aci seems to think they can adjust the wards against the Skill specifically, so it might not work as well now,” I warned her, even as I pushed another needle up from the seafloor.

“Even if it doesn’t, I doubt any of those things I destroyed were easy to make.” Iniri waited until I opened the portal once again and immediately struck. This time the beam didn’t punch through the wards, but splashed along them, crackling and spitting and superheating the air. Another chunk of my mana meant she was pushing the Skill even harder but when nothing happened Iniri let it go. I closed the portal before the mage-king did it for me. “Damn. Still, those wards are intimidating, I’m surprised that I managed to get through them at all. I’ll have to figure out how to take down the wards directly next time.”

“In the meantime, there’s a bunch of Gillborn in the area and they sure aren’t warded,” I suggested. Iniri rubbed her hands together eagerly.

“That’s very true.” She didn’t even need me to spot for her, since [Queen’s Insight] told her exactly where she needed to direct the beams. I didn’t want to open portals that were actually underwater, but since all the Gillborn were nearby I didn’t need to. Iniri could reach them directly by simply having me open a window.

Shayma used [Liminality] to shield the operation from both the mage-kings and the Gillborn themselves, invisible bolts slicing them into bloody chunks. She didn’t do any killing herself, which was a shame, but most of her talents were based on closer combat. Besides, based on the comments the mage-kings had made, there were hundreds of thousands of monsters about. It wasn’t worth the risk to get a little extra experience.

We’d decided that she shouldn’t use her illusions directly on the fortresses, at least not yet. When the time came, she could do a lot to mislead the mage-kings, but they weren’t as moronic as Vok Nal had been, so I didn’t want to tip our hand early. Despite the fact that we’d completely blocked their scouts and reached out and bopped them on the nose, none of them seemed particularly bothered.

I wasn’t really hoping for more of a response and so far, things were going great. They seemed to think that I was spending a lot of effort on the defenses, and I wasn’t. In fact, I was about ready to wrap the blizzard up and change that Climate into a volcano. The shoreline was already a lost cause, and I’d have to pave it over with a shore and forest or grasslands Climate, so there was no need to hold back.

Bel Aci could send his little [Candleflame Elementals] through after that. All they’d find was a lot of empty land and Meil itself, though they probably already knew that much by scrying. It was easy enough to hide troops from scrying, but less so to hide cities, although apparently it was possible. I was glad there were at least some natural counters to divinatory magic, otherwise the mage-kings would know as much about what we were doing as I did about them.

Actually, I found it a bit odd that my invocation didn’t seem to be blocked by any of the normal divinatory rules. It was very specific in how it functioned, but after what I’d seen Ansae do and her discussion of the Akasha, my guess was that it wasn’t normal divination at all. It was something like my [Genius Loci] was connected to the akashic information, so when my name was invoked it pulled my Skill over there. I still hadn’t filled even Shayma in on the details of how it worked, but it was pretty obvious I could spy on people to some extent, so nobody really questioned it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get any glimpse into what they thought of me crippling their depletion beams, if they noticed at all. It wasn’t as obvious as blocking a huge lava burst had been. The best-case scenario, in my mind, was if they didn’t realize their anti-Classer weapon was all but useless and I didn’t need to do anything to counter it. Not that there was any real target aside from Meil, but the more they relied on that the less they’d use actually effective weaponry.

“Do you want to pretend that worked or keep blocking their incoming shots? That’s assuming I even know where they’re going to hit.”

“As much as I’d like to stay here and thumb my nose at them, there isn’t all that much I can do without getting some of my Classers to work on wardbreaking. You’re sure you don’t need shields though? They’ll probably target these towers, you know.”

“Eh, I have mana reinforcement and I can always rebuild them. I’m hoping they’ll try to break the blizzard again.” While I could keep it up indefinitely, it was ultimately less destructive than the volcanic Climate, which was in turn less effective than a massive [Lost Woods] Field coupled with some directly damaging traps or Climates.

To be honest I was saving the volcanoes for the fortresses themselves. I was pretty confident I could wear down even elite monsters over time, and Shayma, Iniri, and the other Classers could target any that were an issue. Even if the mage-kings had hundreds of thousands of troops, most of those had to be grunts that I could slaughter in job lots, much like I’d done to their scouts. If they had thousands of things like Miriam they wouldn’t bother with scouting and artillery fire.

I opened a portal back to the Palace and the two of them went through. Iniri’s reappearance made a bit of a stir among the few people still gathered in the audience hall, but that quieted when she turned to face them. Her smile was victorious, and she waited for a few moments as she surveyed the crowd.

“So far, I have not been impressed by the mage-kings,” Iniri said. “Their floating fortresses may be large, but nothing they did got past our shores. My attacks were far more effective, even as far away as they are. We’re just trading jabs at the moment, but it doesn’t seem we have too much to worry about.”

The news seemed to be taken favorably, but I didn’t spare too much attention for Iniri’s speech. I was keeping an eye on the fortresses in case they decided to take a potshot somewhere I needed to care about. Mostly my towers, since they were kind of important even if I’d been rather flip about it to Iniri.

Sure enough, a minute later an entire spread of giant lava bolts came hammering in, spaced over about a hundred kilometers of shoreline. It was impressive and horrifying, the sort of devastation that would flatten cities, and at least six of those bolts were aimed right at my weather towers. I pulled on my mana pool for [Structural Mana Reinforcement], hardening them just before the bolts hit, but I let the rest fall where they would.

I underestimated for one of the towers, and the impact stove in the side of the thing, nearly toppling the tower before I could fix it, but the rest had enough toughness for the volcanic mana to part over the surface and splash to either side. The other spells hammered into the blizzard, shredding the glacial mana and melting the ice with explosive result. They weren’t just bolts of lava though. Now that they weren’t blocked, the complex threads of mana spun outward, digging into the land and the air and converting everything they touched into smoldering ash and pools of magma. It was like a miniature Climate, but it was definitely hostile and throwing that sort of spell at anything inhabited would be nightmarish.

While in general it just seemed like blanket destruction, there was some evidence of finesse when it came to the canal and other rivers or estuaries. Instead of the lava boiling and evaporating the water, or leaking toxins into it, ash mounded along the shores of each body of water. That at least answered how they expected to get water-based monsters past my defenses while using fire-based weapons.

Of course, I didn’t care that it broke up my blizzard. I wanted to convert the area to volcano anyway and this was a good way to do it where they wouldn’t even notice. I swapped the Climate over before it could start reclaiming area from the volcano spells and let the blizzard fade. Interestingly, it took my Volcano Climate a little bit to chew away the spell remnants itself, even if they were of matching Affinities. It seemed my mana found something objectionable about theirs regardless.

Even though the mage-kings hadn’t succeeded in completely breaking any of my weather towers, there weren’t any follow-up strikes. Apparently the destruction of the weather system was sufficient for their purposes, since they sent another flood of scouting monsters at me. It’d be a while until they hit the shores, but they were coming.

While I waited, I figured I’d relay the news to Ansae, in case she missed it. I figured she was interested enough in the battle, but there was a difference between seeing what was going on within a couple kilometers and seeing what was going on over two hundred kilometers away. Plus, she was still busy doing complex magic things to the tower I’d built her.

“Hey Ansae, just kinda vaporized their first scouting party, then Iniri blew up a bunch of thaumoprojectors on their islands. They’re still kinda far out but I’d say the first exchange went all our way. I let a couple of their attacks through just to see what would happen.”

“Dangerous, except you have an entire country to soak damage,” Ansae murmured, adjusting a dragon-sized sculpture in the highest room of the tower. It was of someone nonhuman, a vaguely lizard-looking specimen in ochre and rust, reaching upward toward a rendition of the largest moon which hovered just out of their reach. Actually hovered, unconnected to anything else, as the sculpture was clearly magical and lit as if it were sunrise no matter where Ansae put it. “What happened?”

“Well, their Depletion beams just fizzle out when they hit my mana, so that’s great. The lava stuff did eat my blizzards, so it can overpower Climates, but it doesn’t take long for my Climates to take it back.” Ansae paused, then slowly slumped down on the floor in a very feline gesture of relaxation.

“Oh, goodness,” she said, in a sort of soft and wondering tone that was completely at odds with her normal razor edges. “I’m completely safe here.”

“Well, yes?” I was a little taken aback by the reaction, at least until I realized that she meant that she wasn’t just safe from random environmental depletion but also anyone trying to attack her with it. She let out a long breath, stretching out and closing her eyes.

“Uh, Ansae?” She didn’t respond. So far as I could see she’d just dropped off to sleep. I was a little worried for her health, but maybe I just hadn’t considered how much stress she’d been under. Considering her depletion numbers, I could see why she’d have trouble sleeping, regeneration issues aside.

I turned my attention to Taelah and the Village. I kind of felt guilty for not paying them overly close attention the past few days, even if the reason was my preparations for war. At the moment though, there were no monsters due, so I could give Taelah some well-deserved time. They were settling in nicely, having nearly completely moved out of the farming chamber and spreading out across the rich fields and dense forest I’d provided. It was a welcome contrast to the wholesale destruction occurring on the other side of Tarnil.

If things went well, they’d never even notice it was happening.

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