Day 7. It turned out that my blowing up the Royal Guard with all my [Nova]s on day 5 had basically lit a massive beacon, and what remained of the army had seen it. When Hunting had shown up, they were able to point him in roughly the right direction. Brave man, charging into the horde, having complete faith that we were still there, and would help him make it the rest of the way.
Also, there was no more defensive line. The Formorians had breached it, and were busy pouring into the countryside. The army was hunkering down wherever they were, keeping themselves safe in little pockets, like we were, hoping the flood would slow down enough that they could regroup, reseal the walls, and purge all the Formorians that had leaked in.
Given the situation, I had my doubts that the “usual” methods would work, especially now that the Formorians had demonstrated an ability to breach the walls themselves.
Not terribly much happened today. I finished healing Katastrofi, and Hunting declared that she needed the day to finish healing, and there was no sense in switching up the working method. Brawling also had the day off, which he used to perform stretches and exercises, “making sure everything still worked”.
I didn’t point out the obvious. I didn’t want him making sure EVERYTHING still worked.
Had to be quite something, getting sliced in half and surviving.
Day 8. Brawling was back in action, although he mentioned if there was another Royal Guard, he wanted to be the one holding down the fort. Losing everything below his belly button seemed to have shaken some core belief of his, cut his personal illusion of invincibility in half.
I kept an eye on him. Being a healer wasn’t just giving him a new pair of legs. Right now, I was willing to be an ear as well, listening to his concerns and fears.
Katastrofi took one of the large entrances, happily chomping down on Formorians. Snack, snack, throw, snack.
Hunting was hanging out, carefully watching her throughout the day, making sure she was back in peak physical condition. On one hand, it hurt a bit to think that he thought I’d do a subpar job. On the other – I’d seen their bond; I’d seen how they worked together. In my shoes, I’d also be carefully checking my companion over to see if there was anything wrong.
Arthur pulled me aside once the day was over, and Night had taken over. He still looked terrible.
“Elaine, can – can we talk?” He asked, hesitantly. Not at all the strong, confident Arthur I remembered.
I wrapped us up in [Veil], since there was absolutely no room in the grove in the first place, not with Katastrofi settling in happily. She’d eaten probably a third of her weight in Formorians, and the glutton was now settling in for a long snooze.
“What’s going on?” I gently asked. Arthur had been avoiding me every time I visited the frontlines, had been avoiding me ever since we got here, and now, finally, seemed ready to talk.
“I – promise you won’t tell the others?” He started off asking.
I weighed the request in my mind.
“If it’s not causing immediate risk to us, I won’t say anything.” I promised after a moment. “Although if it’s medically related, I’m [Oath]-bound to keep your secrets.”
I really really hoped that it wasn’t a medical secret that threatened everyone’s health. No idea what one could be, but hey. Weirder things had happened.
“Ok. Um. It’s not. Um. How do I put this…” Arthur trailed off. I kept my silence, not wanting to spook him here.
He closed his eyes and visibly steeled himself, confessing his sins.
“Elaine. I’m killing people.”
The words tumbled out of his mouth explosively. I caught myself from saying anything, from immediately blurting out accusations or recriminations. Arthur was clearly being tortured by this, he obviously wasn’t gleefully murdering people in their sleep and bragging about it, like some of the Classers we’d handled when we were on a Ranger team together.
I forced a smile on my face, and nodded at him, encouraging him to keep going.
“It’s the poison. We designed a slow poison, one that would persist and stick, one that would poison water, that would poison the ground. Working off your food chain idea. Working off how heavy metals work, how they poison people. I studied people, studied cases, and with a few other poison experts, we made something new. Poison has a habit of back blowing onto us, and we guessed this might do the same. It’s why we brought you to the frontlines initially. We wanted, we needed, to know if this was going to cause the same problem.”
I nodded, not letting the horror I was feeling show on my face. I saw exactly where this was going.
“Well, usually poison acts fast, and we see it back blowing into us within a week. We decided to be extra-conservative, and basically have you stick around as long as possible until your graduation came up. Six months. Six months without a single problem, without a single notification that the poison was hitting us. Figured that was good enough, and with how sensitive the System can be on kill notifications, we were cautiously optimistic about it.” Arthur continued.
He closed his eyes, and his voice became strained.
“The gods have a sick sense of humor. I got the notification that I’d killed a soldier the same day I got a notification that I’d killed a level 180 Formorian. Obviously, the poison was now in their hives, and it was working. At the same time, it was now hitting us.”
Arthur paused, and the haunted look came back to his eyes.
“Night and I met and discussed it. Eventually, he decided that it was ‘acceptable collateral damage’, and that I was to continue on.”
I couldn’t keep my face entirely straight and smiling at that. Heck, my supportive smile had been fading the whole time.
“Come on Elaine. Please don’t give me that look.” Arthur begged. “Night’s logic was that we lose soldiers all the time. Now we were trading them for potential, real gains. And. He. Was. Right.” Arthur said that last part in a depressed triumphant tone. “Spitters started to die, then Shooters. Some other variant we haven’t seen. But the kill notifications on people started to speed up.”
Chemotherapy. Arthur had been effectively performing chemotherapy on a grand scale. “I’ve got poison, and I think the poison will kill you before it kills us.”
Of course, it could go horribly wrong – like it was now – but as a grand scheme, I had to admit it was exactly like treating cancer.
I disapproved. Strongly. Vigorously. The chemotherapy analogy broke down almost immediately. First, people with cancer had almost no other options, besides “just die”. Second, people with cancer chose to have chemotherapy. Nobody had chosen this, besides Night and Toxic. For all I knew, Night hadn’t even told Ranger Command about it. It was also being kept under wraps, kept secret.
And speaking of. Nobody had told the people here, on the frontlines, that it was happening. A slow poison like Arthur was talking about? It probably looked like natural causes half the time, or just slowed a soldier down enough that they were eaten by a Formorian, the kill credit and experience split between Arthur and the Formorians. Heck, it might not even register as an army kill in that situation.
Or if it did, it might just be put down to another brawl or something. I didn’t know enough about self-kills like that. “Your army has slain one of its own” probably wasn’t a System concept.
Argh! Where was Maximus when I needed him?
Arthur was here, and he needed my help. Needed my absolution at least, which I could give him.
“Hey, listen, listen, you did the best you could.” I said. “What’s done is done. What matters is how we tackle this going forward. We’re either going to win or lose. If we lose, what does it matter, we’re all dead. If we win, I’ll declare the area a disaster zone or something, and we’ll just pack up and leave. Shouldn’t be too hard to handle from there, especially since it’s a slow poison.”
I stood up to pat him reassuringly on the shoulder. Damn he was big.
“Worst part is, I feel this is all my fault.” He said, gesturing round to the walls. I know what he meant though.
“It’s not your fault!” I protested.
“It is.” He said, looking at me with a steely gaze. “I managed to kill a Queen.”
Well then. That explained a bunch. Like why they were now all-out attacking.
My repertoire of comforting maneuvers was weak. I patted him on the shoulder again.
I quickly checked Arthur’s level. [Ranger]. Wow. I didn’t have Artemis around to compare, but he was giving her stiff competition, if not outright higher than she was. That must’ve been, what, 80 levels in three years or so? And he’d only get stronger the longer this fight went on.
Rapid leveling in dire straits. It was a well-known phenomena, although one only the most desperate voluntarily went through.
“Good job! And hey! Now we’ll get the rest of them! By the way, what level were they?” I asked.
“The one I got was level 1021. Three classes though, not one. They’re clearly smarter than straight up monsters, even though they’re tagged as monsters.” Arthur explained to me. “Mist, Forest, and Decay. I got the impression that Mist was their combat class, Forest was their production class, and Decay was a recycling class for them.”
“Makes sense. Do you think we should tell everyone else that?” I asked. It was skirting the line if he said no – the information seemed relevant.
Arthur hesitated a moment.
“Let’s get Night to tell everyone. Nobody will question him how he knows. I just. I don’t think everyone else would understand, you know?”
Privately, I disagreed. All of us had been tasked with defending humanity. We had all been Rangers, gone through trials that proved we were in it for the mission, not for glory or money. I couldn’t even see Sky being so callous as to make jokes and poke fun at Arthur for accidentally killing people – then being told to keep going.
“Yeah, sure, that sounds good.”
“Also, I’m sorry for avoiding you.” Arthur looked down, shame-faced. Didn’t mean much when I was still at belly-button height on him. “Night ordered me not to tell you, because you’d go ballistic, and probably end up causing problems. It’s why I was avoiding you.” He said, and a huge weight seemed to lift off of him at the confession.
I patting him reassuringly. “I’ll do what I can to make it right. I promise.” I said, mind already whirring with what would need to be done to fix it.
We made some more small talk, then rejoined the rest of the group.
Day 9 rolled around, and we had a good rotation going, to the point where Brawling was helping Night during the night.
Also had a good rotation of warm bodies to feed Night. I hadn’t been on the menu yet, and I was making myself far too useful and busy in the mornings when Night went looking for dinner.
We were also comfortable taking on a single Royal Guard at a time, although knowing the Queens were coming was filling me with an existential dread.
Early morning, and we were all in position, doing our thing. I was focusing on refilling my gemstones with [Nova], just keeping an eye out on things. The gemstones still weren’t full, because I kept needing to do minor healing things. Honestly, now that so many of us were here, it was getting easier as the pressure was reduced on us.
Brawling called out. “Look! The Pegasus!”
Most of us snapped our heads to look, and yes, high in the sky, barely a dot, was a little brown smudge.
Cripes. Just how much perception did the dude have? Did he have additional vision skills, something like [Eagle’s Eye]? Or was it raw vitality that was letting him see it?
And with perception linked to vitality, and vitality linked to toughness, and Brawling undoubtedly having skills to make himself tougher – I wasn’t going anywhere near a Royal Guard’s jaws.
“Dawn! Toxic! Sealing! On me!” Hunting yelled, getting on Katastrofi. The rest of us climbed on, as Hunting shielded his eyes, keeping an eye on what was going on.
“Bulwark’s unlikely to land directly here, so we’re going to go out and grab him.” Hunting explained to us. “I want us ready.”
“I’m going to use [Shine] to let them know we’re here.” I said, giving Hunting a chance to strike down my proposed move.
“Good call. Do it.” He said, and I gave everyone a moment to look away before turning the light show on [Shine] to the max, along with flickering bright Radiance. I was almost impossible to miss.
Instead of seeing a tiny figure though, the Pegasus started to get larger and larger, drawing a massive amount of anti-air fire from the Formorians.
Absurd amounts. I thought we’d gotten it bad when we dropped in on them, but obviously, the larger the object, the more Formorians noticed and started shooting at it. At the same time, the hull of the boat formed an armor of sorts. Either way, the Pegasus was dropping like a rock, straight down.
“The idiot’s going to land on us at full speed! Sealing! Dawn! Barriers! Brawling! Prepare to catch!” He called out.
I hopped down off of Katastrofi, and made my way to the edge of our defenses, putting my back to the wall. My barrier and Sealing’s didn’t play terribly nicely together.
Sealing put up his barriers, wonderous multi-layered things that you could still see through. I added mine on top, a single layer of Aurora Borealis, looking like a way too thin coating of chocolate icing on a massive vanilla cake.
I missed icing. And vanilla. And chocolate. And raw sugar. And so many more foods. [Pristine Memories] let me know exactly how good it all tasted.
Honestly, I missed food that wasn’t live and murderous 20 minutes ago. My standards were in the mud right now.
Sky came in like a meteor, Bulwark clearly having worked his magic to reinforce the hull. It was covered in layers and scales of overlapping stone, spikes mostly bouncing off, shattered. A few embedded themselves into the rocky exterior, but none penetrated. They weren’t slowing down in the slightest, and I refrained from wincing as my barrier was instantly shattered.
Sealing was a certifiable monster, but then again, so was I. I’d just healed a person who was bisected. Sealing only lost two of his barriers to Sky’s stunt, leaving them an awkward height, with the boat broken in half.
I looked up, and refrained from groaning.
“Brawling, careful when you catch them.” I said, starting to head over.
It turned out, even superhuman bodies didn’t do well going from 200 to 0 in about half a second. Extra-not-well when your name was Sky, and you were a magical Classer.
Sealing released the barriers, and Hunting and Brawling caught Bulwark and Sky respectively, extra supplies raining down around us along with all manner of wood and broken stone.
I used [Veil] on myself to shelter from the raining debris, then walked over to Sky and Bulwark and touched them, healing them back up. I kept a poker face as I heard their bones crack back into place.
“How does freaking Dawn land better than you Sky?” Brawling demanded. “You’re Sky. Doing dumb shit like that….?” He trailed off, shaking his head as Sky wormed out of his arms, floating in his aggravating way.
“I was fine! Honest! I just didn’t expect some idiot to put a blasted barrier between me and the ground! I’m Sky! I totally could’ve stuck the landing!” He protested.
“Yeah, but you’d have killed half of us if you goofed. Including Priest Demos. We couldn’t take that risk.” Hunting pointed out, looking somewhat grumpy. “As-in, you only showered us in crap.”
“Yes, but I brought food. Good food!” Sky protested.
All of Sky’s sins were forgiven in an instant. At least by me. He could’ve broken half the walls if he’d brought good food. I tuned out the argument, and started rummaging through the bags he’d brought. There had been enough time, and Sky had clearly made a pit stop at the capital. The Quartermaster, given more than 15 minutes notice, had properly managed to get everything settled and ready, and we had a heck of a lot more stuff now.
I grimaced as I opened a bag, and a bunch of freshly-broken Arcanite was revealed to me. Like. They’d still work, and still hold mana, but two small stones didn’t quite hold as much as one stone twice as large. Sure, it was possible to fuse them together, but it was a time-intense activity.
Like the bag, that was irrelevant. I kept digging, as some of the others went back to defending the choke points. Bulwark had already started to work. He first went up to Priest Demos, and layered additional protections around him, both in stone and in glowing inscriptions. I figured that Demos was the most vulnerable of us all, and Bulwark was making extra sure that he would be fine. Bulwark was relentless. As soon as he finished that task up, he was already circling our defenses, stroking his chin and muttering under his breath.
There was a bag that literally had my name on it, obviously meant for me. I opened it and started digging through it, to see what was meant for me.
At last! I found it! The Grail, mana almost literally from the heavens! Salvation! Redemption! I was blind, but now I can see! I was lost in the barren desert, but now I am found! The sun had risen, chasing away the dark time of Formorian for food! Through many toils and dangers we preserved, only to arrive at the holy land that was in front of me! My wretched self was saved!
It had been smushed flat, wrecked by the massive forces placed on it by Sky’s abrupt stop, followed by a second insult from the fall to the ground. Its skin was rendered, flesh spilling from the insides to form a sticky, gooey mess inside the bag, smearing itself over all the other vittles in the bag, and yet, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The one object that would make me forgive Sky all his slacking off, which would have me singing the Quartermaster’s praises – and making sure I donated extra to his coffers.
I grabbed it quick, holding it to me like it was the most precious thing in the world.
A lone, solitary, slightly mashed mango.