Callum stood in the clinically sparse observation room. A metallic table and a couple of chairs were all that were present aside from the large monitor on one wall. On that monitor was displayed a monster. Fundamentally humanoid, but with grey, hairless skin, elongated limbs and vicious claws. The face had a muzzle and mouth full of pointed teeth. The eyes were completely black with no visible iris or pupil. It was snarling angrily, taking swipes at the wall, which bizarrely looked like orichalcum. The thought of wasting orichalcum on a cell for a single mana-touched beast seemed insane until Callum noticed that the beast was actually managing to leave scratches in it.
Callum turned to the gleeful looking head of research standing next to him, clad in a white lab coat and wearing a name badge proclaiming him as Edward Black. Everything about him gave the impression of a puppy looking for praise. Callum asked with some confusion, "what am I even looking at here? I'm not familiar with this variety of beast."
Edward's smile widened even further as he replied, "that is no surprise minister, for it is no beast. That is fully human."
Callum frowned. "That seems doubtful. It appears to be completely mindless."
"Yes, that is an unfortunate side effect of the process. Hopefully, one that we will rectify with a future revision, but for now the physical characteristics are more desirable. Watch."
Before Callum had a chance to respond, Edward took a radio from a pocket and spoke into it; "please begin the demonstration."
Sections of the wall slid open and the monitor lit up with bolts of prismatic light, fired by the dozen and most successfully striking the alleged 'human'. The monster screeched, swinging violently at the ports from which the weapons were being fired, but not managing to break through the containment. After ten seconds, the firing ceased. Although he didn't recognise the monster, Callum did recognise the bolts; they were shots fired from high-powered mana rifles. Perhaps they lagged behind the weapons produced by dwarfs, but nevertheless a single shot would vaporise an unshielded human. That monster had certainly been hit by more than a single shot, and while Callum couldn't see mana via the monitor, he saw no noticeable signs of shielding or protection. That barrage should have taken down even the strongest mana-touched beast, but this thing showed little more than a few patches of burnt skin which healed as he watched.
Callum realised that Edward was looking at him in smug satisfaction, obviously pleased by his surprise. Without waiting for Callum's response, he spoke again into his radio; "continue."
The room lit up again, this time with flames. The monster once again began to rampage ineffectually, but despite how useless its struggles were, the fact remained that it was able to struggle despite being in the centre of a raging inferno that should have reduced it to ash in seconds. The flames died away, and the process was repeated. Magical assaults of ice, earth and lightning just made it angry, poison gas was completely ignored, gunshots failed to penetrate its hide. The gunshots were particularly shocking, once Callum noticed that the bullets too were orichalcum. What the hell was that thing?
With the show apparently over, the monitor switched off. The demonstration concluded, Edward was looking a little more serious, and gestured for Callum to take a seat. Callum did so, watching in silence as Edward sat down opposite.
"So, I'll admit that demonstration was impressive, both the defensive capabilities and the ability it had to damage orichalcum. How do you intend to control it?"
"For now, we can't. As I said, we are hopeful that a future revision of the process will leave the intelligence of the subject intact, but even the current end product can still be used. Imagine dropping one of these into the middle of an elven city."
Callum imagined it and didn't much like the picture. It was painted with far too much blood. "So, you have developed a process to turn humans into... that. Now you are asking for more funding to further enhance the process?"
"Yes, but that's not all. As I said, I believe the current process is useful. We want permission to manufacture more and use them in deployments."
"What deployments? It may be fragile, but peace is currently holding."
Edward snorted. "You think we're the only ones developing new weapons? This exact same conversation will be playing out in an elven lab somewhere. It won't be in the dwarven camp, but only because they wouldn't need permission in the first place. And you can be sure that if they finish before we do, it will be them launching the pre-emptive strike."
Callum sighed, but had to admit Edward was correct. He'd seen the latest intelligence reports. This was not 'peace', it was more like half-time. A break while everyone repositioned and rearmed, ready for the next round.
"More funding won't be a problem, given the results you've shown me today. Scaling up production will be harder. We don't have sufficient condemned criminals to make a useful number, and it's not as if anyone will volunteer for this."
Edward showed a genuine look of surprise. "I know you're new to your post, but surely you've noticed by now? Just how many failures do you think we had before we managed that success? You think this development took place only with condemned criminals? Just what policies did you think were responsible for the steady decline of the homeless population since the ceasefire? Your fellow minsters certainly haven't ordered the building of more houses."
Callum blinked, and his expression went blank. "So, to clarify, that monster in there is someone you kidnapped off the streets and experimented on against their will?"
"Well, it wasn't us doing the kidnapping, obviously. The city guard handles the provision and distribution of test subjects. Plus, he was kept sedated the whole time. We do have to get things past our ethics panel, after all."
Callum sat there fuming, doing his best to keep any expression from showing on his face. And to be perfectly honest, he was largely angry at himself. Edward was right; it was obvious. He had known the city guard had taken to arresting people on the streets for minor or completely invented charges. In his naivety, he'd assumed they were giving them a bed and food for the night. He knew the homeless population had been declining despite the lack of any official policies being in place to achieve such a goal. He'd assumed that people were taking them in. Why had he made such foolish assumptions? The evidence was all there; he'd just been blind to it, not willing to acknowledge the truth. The truth that humans were, at heart, no different from demons.
A couple of hours later he was back in his home, having signed off on the experiments. What else could he do? He'd used the long-distance communications to raise his complaints to the king, who had looked at him like he was some sort of idiot and made it perfectly clear that any further incidents of wasting his time would result in Callum being the next experimental test subject. What exactly was it that he was trying to protect here? Wandering around his home in a daze, he saw the communications array. An idea crossed his mind. A doomed, insane idea, and one he would no doubt be executed for even contemplating. At least, if he was caught. He knew he wouldn't be; no-one policed this sort of thing, for pretty much the same reason that they didn't police gravity. It was unthinkable that they would need to.
He sat in front of the device, fed it his mana and pointed it towards the nearest elven settlement, in the forest to the west. "Is there anyone over there still sane? Because I'm pretty damn sure there isn't anyone left here."
Ri'kizza Ironbeard stood on a gangway, looking down at the furnaces below with pride. They were impressive enough to regular sight, massive structures of pure adamantite, glowing white hot and pouring a continuous stream of molten metal onto the conveyor that snaked through the centre of the factory. To mana sight they were even more spectacular, the enchantments to contain the heat and to precisely control the output and the mixing of different furnaces being just the start. The most impressive was the mana forge that overlaid multiple enchantments into the mixed alloy as it solidified, locking them into place far more firmly than would be possible if they waited for the metal to cool. There was a complex pattern of affinities flowing in every direction, but even an apprentice would be able to see at a glance that the whole thing was ordered. This was no tangled mess or haphazard construction; it was a work of art and beauty.
This factory was producing armour plating. It was one of Ri'kizza's greatest inventions; an alloy of adamantite and Hihi'irokane with additional enchantments that made it well nigh indestructible, as well as completely immune to any incursion of mana. After the small example batches, there was no question about moving to full scale production; coat their halls and tunnels in this and no tunneller could breech them. Their underground cities would be rendered utterly immune to assault. The crown had put in an open-ended order before production had even begun, and several batches had already been shipped to the city of Stonedeep. Soon the foolish surface world and the eternal wars would be shut off, a thing of the past. In fact, it had already been several days since the first shipment. They should be done installing the first segments by now. Ri'kizza was struck by a sudden desire to view the final result of his work, and smiled as he headed to the shuttle terminal.
His shuttle pod shot along the transport tunnels at speed, and it was not long before it deposited him at Stonedeep's great hall. An enormous arched chamber, three kilometres long, a kilometre wide and a hundred metres high in the centre. Walls and ceiling were reinforced with mana-compressed stone, its smooth, white surface lit up by a thousand magical lamps. Which was strange; at least some parts of it shouldn't be visible by now, after being covered in impenetrable plating. Where were they using it? Surely the great hall should have been the first area protected. No matter, wherever it was, he could simply ask. The delivery address wasn't far from the terminal, and he would enjoy the walk.
The delivery address was an enormous factory, the crown seal prominently displayed on its frontage. The entrance was tightly guarded by half a dozen heavily armoured guards. Neither fact daunted Ri'kizza, who was already used to high-level military dealing. He simply walked right up as if he owned the place, and sure enough the guards immediately began looking uncertain. If a spy ever confidentially walked up to the front door instead of sneaking around, these guys would be in real trouble.
"I am Ri'kizza Ironbeard, supplier of the new style armour plating. I've come to inspect the installation and make sure it is functioning as planned. Please could you direct me to the work site."
It was phrased as a statement, not a question. The guards were paid to stand there and look imposing, not to think. Thinking was the job of dwarfs like Ri'kizza. It shouldn't be hard for them to point him at whatever hall or tunnel the plating had been redirected too, and yet they were all standing around looking uncertain. Eventually one of them headed inside, causing Ri'kizza to frown behind his beard. What was going on?
The guard returned with a rather more official looking dwarf, wearing thick gloves and with smoked goggles perched atop his head. He looked Ri'kizza up and down with obvious derision. "There's a proper procedure to follow for visits, even for you Mr Ironbeard. I would be grateful if you followed it in the future. Nevertheless, I was about to begin an inspection myself, and the foreman here was overjoyed to hear of your arrival and insisted you be added to the tour. You may follow me, but don't touch anything."
Ri'kizza entered the facility in a state of confusion. What were they doing with the plating inside the factory? Plating individual buildings would be far less efficient than plating the hall. His questions were answered immediately as he followed the bureaucrat through a heavy metal door and onto an enormous factory floor, bustling with activity. Flashes of welding, heavy banging and bursts of mana echoed around the room, in the centre of which stood an enormous tank, bigger than any Ri'kizza had seen before. And the finished sections were quite clearly clad in the missing armour plate. Or at least some of it; far more had been shipped than was required to cover just this one tank, no matter how oversized.
Another dwarf, with a foreman's symbol on his helmet despite not looking a day over sixty, took advantage of Ri'kizza's daze, grabbing hold of his hand and pumping it enthusiastically.
"It is such an honour to finally meet you. You were my inspiration back when I was still an apprentice, and I've always wanted to become a great inventor like yourself. And now look. I have my own factory, and Ri'kizza Ironbeard himself wants to inspect it!"
The bureaucrat huffed impatiently. "Let's stop your fanboying and get a move on, please. I don't have all day."
Ri'kizza plodded along behind the two, doing his best to pretend that this was what he had intended all along, and listening as the foreman enthusiastically described the various innovations that made this weapon possible. For weapon it was; the plating was supposed to keep the surface races out, but here it was being used to aid in the creation of something to bring the fight to them. He felt confident making a guess at where the rest of the plating had gone, too. "So how many are completed already, and how long until they're ready to deploy?"
"We've finished seven already and have three factory floors working through the night to make more. The finished units are ready to deploy at any time. Isn't it great? With your new plating that rejects mana incursion, we can drive straight through any magical shielding. With a tank of this size, we can drive straight over or through any physical wall. We can finally put an end to the surface races!"
Really? This is what he had inspired? Ri'kizza had never wanted to end the surface races, just the fighting. Fortunately, the sheer volume of dwarven facial hair made hiding expressions easy, and no-one noticed the dissatisfaction in his heart. His best work, supposed to save lives, was being used to end them. What was worse was that no-one here had considered that maybe he didn't already know. As if it was obvious that was what it would be used for, despite the completely opposite sales pitch he gave when he sold it.
It was a quieter, less confident Ri'kizza that returned to his own factory that evening. He just wanted to get away from the fighting. Despite the confidence of that young foreman, he didn't see those vehicles as being enough to single handedly win the war. It would never end, and there would never be a winner. If his inventions would only be used to prolong the fighting, what was the point? He needed a holiday. A long one, possibly forever. Grabbing a map from a locker, he tapped at a mountain far to the west. There were no dwarven settlements there; it contained no useful resources that would attract them. It was just a big, boring lump of rock. In other words, it was perfect. He had a tunneller that would take him there safely underground. He could siphon off enough resources from here to build an impregnable home there, and get away from all the damn fighting.
Mihell stood firm as peals of riotous laughter echoed around the throne room. By far the loudest was the three metre foot tall construction of muscle, horn and chitin that sat upon the oversized throne. The sixty-seventh demon lord, and supreme ruler of all demons. Struggling to get himself back under control, he looked down at Mihell and asked, "I don't think any of us have laughed quite enough yet, so would you care to repeat that?"
Mihell smiled faintly in response, and replied, "you aren't going to beat me down with laughter you know, but if you're too scared to fight me, you're welcome to just walk out of here and leave the throne to me."
The laughter stopped dead. The demon lord stood up from his throne, red skin gleaming and eyes glowing, towering almost a metre over his challenger. "So be it. But before we begin, indulge my curiosity. Why is an imp like you challenging me?"
"Since you took power, the population has declined by over half. This isn't sustainable."
"The weak perish and the strong prevail. Why should I care?"
"When all demons are dead, will you stand alone against the humans, elves and dwarfs? The last and strongest demon."
"If I must. And if I die, it simply means that I too was not worthy. Such is the way of the world."
Mihell shook his head. "I disagree; it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak. Now you have my answer, so come."
Sensing that the fight was finally going to start, the other occupants of the massive throne room backed away, standing against the far walls and leaving Mihell alone with the demon lord. The demon lord blurred, his fist piercing through Mihell's chest faster than any eye in the room could follow. But there was no sound of impact, no blood, and Mihell's expression did not change. Instead, he grabbed the demon lord's arm as veins of blinding white snaked across his skin. The demon lord had barely a chance to express surprise before Mihell exploded in a detonation that shook the whole castle.
The spectators remained impassive, one or two throwing up magical barriers or shields, but most just ignoring the shock wave and staring into the cloud of smoke. A few seconds later the booming voice of the demon lord resounded once more, conveying a not insignificant amount of anger. "So you predicted my first attack and displaced it with a portal, but then you self destructed? What a joke! And after I was starting to respect you a little, it turned out that you didn't even believe in your own victory and went for a suicide attack instead. Just another coward after all."
The cloud of smoke cleared, revealing the demon lord with one arm torn off above the elbow, along with a number of bleeding wounds, but having no trouble standing. Mihell was nowhere to be seen, with a number of sizeable chunks of flesh scattered around the room providing evidence as to his fate. The demon lord held up his remaining arm as mana built up around him, a magic circle forming around the largest clump of burnt flesh.
"No, I will not permit you to get off that easily. I condemn you to continue living. RESURRECTION!"
Flesh, blood and bone danced across the floor into the magic circle, where it flowed together and over the course of a few seconds rebuilt the body of Mihell. His eyes snapped open, and he gasped for breath as he lay on the floor.
"Get lost. I banish you from my lands. Live out a long life elsewhere, and every single day remember your pathetic failure here."
Mihell struggled on the floor, unable to stand or speak. The spectators formed up into two rows, leading a path from Mihell to the door, sniggering and whispering among themselves. The demon lord looked down without pity. "Didn't you hear me? I said get OUT!"
He kicked Mihell, who went flying through the air, landing heavily half way to the door with the crack of broken bones. Still unable to stand, he dragged himself on hands and knees towards the door, the spectators jeering, spitting and kicking him as he passed. The sniggering around him grew into mirthful laughter, even louder than when he had first entered to challenge the demon lord. Making it outside, he fell back against a wall as the doors closed behind him. The guards outside joined in the laughter upon seeing his pathetic state, one of them needling, "didn't he even think you were worth killing?"
Mihell ignored them. He'd done what he could to try to save the demon race, but if they didn't want to be saved, what more could he do? He hadn't expected to survive the day. Truthfully, he hadn't expected to be able to kill the demon lord either, but it was worth trying just for the possibility. Since he'd been permitted to live, live he would. He sat in silence as his natural regeneration knitted his broken body back together, before standing and leaving the castle, ignoring the still chuckling guards. So he was banished from demon-held territory then. That was fine; there were plenty of regions in the human territories that were too hostile and barren to actually be populated. Such land would be acceptable for a demon. He set his sights on a mountain range to the north and began to walk.
Shawadrina sat on a branch, strumming at a lute and looking down over the slave pens below. There seemed to be less of them of late, which was concerning. The elves relied on their labour force of human slaves so that they could get on with more important pursuits, like arts, music and magic. The ceasefire wasn't the cause; it wasn't like they needed to go and raid human territories for more slaves. They bred plenty fast enough on their own. Where were they going then?
She saw a group of elves in discussion at the entrance, a couple of slaves with them, but the slaves' mana sounded wrong. Concerned that there was some sort of disease spreading among them, Shawadrina dropped down to listen in.
"We've got the hang of it at last, and this batch were a perfect success."
A success? A success at what? This close, it wasn't just the mana that was wrong. Their faces looked completely blank, and they were just standing there, staring at nothing. She would have thought them unconscious, if not for the way they were still standing. It wasn't something that she would have qualified as any sort of success.
"Oh, Shawadrina. Nice of you to join us. Are you interested?"
"More concerned. The slave population seems to have declined substantially recently, and those two do not look at all well. Did something happen?"
"Oh, these two are perfectly well, I assure you. You two, kneel to your betters."
The pair of slaves dropped to their knees, but their emotionless faces remained unchanged.
"See? Still perfectly capable of following any instruction we might care to give them. I admit, it took a little while to get right, and we lost quite a few slaves to the experiments. But no matter, now that we have it working, we can easily get more."
"Got what working? They look completely mindless."
"That's the beauty of it; they are! Well, it would be more accurate to say soulless. No will of their own, just mindless drones that can do nothing but follow our orders."
Shawadrina blinked. "Soul magic? That's banned, and for good reason!"
"Ha, hardly. Using it on other elves is banned. Using it on beasts is fine, and that's all that humans are. And the best part is that the extracted soul can be used to further power the magic. By sacrificing a couple of our slaves, we could cast this spell over a whole human city. Hence how we can easily replace those we've lost. Great, isn't it?"
Shawadrina shuddered at the thought. No wonder the mana of those slaves sounded so wrong, and now that she knew what to listen for, she could hear the discordant undertones in the mana of their masters, too. Soul magic was banned for good reason. You couldn't perform a spell like this without twisting your own soul, too. No-one could actually cast this over a whole city and maintain their sanity. And what would an insane mage with that much power do with the souls of a whole city other than boost their power further? It wouldn't end with one city. It probably wouldn't end with humanity.
"You couldn't possibly cast this over a city and maintain your sanity! This is far too dangerous. I dread to think of the consequences should the spell go out of control."
The mages frowned. "High elf you may be, but you can't just butt in on an already developed plan. We already have approval from the elders, and I can assure you we've taken appropriate precautions. This will protect us from any side-effects."
The speaking mage held up a wrist, on which he was wearing an enchanted bracelet. Some sort of soul magic protection from the sounds it was making. But it obviously wasn't working, at least not completely; Shawadrina could hear the wounds to their souls.
"That's not enough; your souls are already damaged. I can hear it! If you cast something on that scale..."
"Enough! You might pride yourself on your ability to hear mana, but that doesn't mean we'll take your word over the elders of the council. The first ritual casting will take place as planned."
Shawadrina opened her mouth, but found nothing else to say. If the elders had approved this, and their mages were already watching out for side-effects, there was nothing to do but trust in their judgement. Nevertheless, it made her nervous. If this went wrong, it could literally be world ending. She nodded to the mages and jumped back into her tree.
She turned towards the nearby human city, situated to the east not far outside the forest, which would undoubtedly be the target of the first attack. It was far out of sight, but still close enough to listen to the sounds of mana. There was the usual grating and screeching, the humans abuse of mana with their tools of metal sounding like nails of a chalkboard for any elf who dared to listen. But in the discordant noise was something else. A message, loud and clear, obviously directed here deliberately. "Is there anyone over there still sane? Because I'm pretty damn sure there isn't anyone left here."
Shawadrina smiled despite herself, and sent back, "no. I'm afraid that it's no different here."
Callum toured the sickening facility once more, Edward walking alongside him and rubbing his hands together in glee as they walked past hundreds of mythril containers. Banging and scratching came from many of them, and it didn't take the screeching from one or two for Callum to know full well what was inside. He recognised the form of the containers too; rounded capsules designed to be fitted to the heads of missiles, enchanted to penetrate the type of magical shielding typically used around elven settlements and installations.
Those penetrating warheads had previously been a laughing-stock of the defence department; expensive to develop, and even though they worked, strictly speaking, they had a rather fatal flaw. Even if they could make it through, they did nothing to protect their interior from the shock. Explosives detonated, enchantments unravelled. Even poisons degraded in the heat. The best they'd done were some simple acids and other harmful chemicals that remained stable at high temperature, but did barely any damage to the target. Now they had something that would survive passing through the barriers. As long as they fired quickly; orichalcum wasn't available in the quantities needed for this many missiles, and the weaker mythril warheads were already sporting dents as the monsters fought to escape.
He knew the plans; a pre-emptive strike on a dozen elven cities was planned the following week. Each city would be struck with a few of these... things. They were neither man nor beast, and Callum found it hard to think of them as anything other than weapons. His thoughts on the subject were not welcomed by anyone, so he signed the inspection and headed for the exit, eager to be gone from the place as quickly as possible.
"Excuse me. Do you have a minute?"
Callum turned around to see a senior researcher standing behind him. As much as he didn't want to be here, it wouldn't do to make a scene, so he plastered on a fake smile. "Yes, how can I help you?"
"Umm..." The researcher looked around furtively, as if checking there was no-one else around. "I hear you expressed disapproval of this plan to the king?"
Callum's fake smile turned into a frown. "I'm sorry, but I can't comment on private ministerial matters."
The researcher glanced around again quickly before talking even more quietly. "You misunderstand. If you have some way to stop this, I'm offering to help."
Callum smiled again, and this time it was real. There was no way he could trust this person, not without any evidence. But that would be easy enough to find, one way or the other. "Are you free this evening? I have a friend who would be interested in listening to you."
The researcher nodded, took a written address and time, and scurried off. If he was some sort of spy, he wasn't very good at it. He was looking far too furtive. Even if his offer was legitimate, acting like that he'd likely be more of a liability than a help, but Callum didn't want to abandon someone who might legitimately be against the pointless war.
Back at home, Callum spotted a blinking light on his communicator. Another message from his newfound elven acquaintance? Playing it back, it turned out to be orders. Apparently a group of demons had been spotted nearby, heading north. They had avoided interception and shook off all attempts at pursuit. That was strange; demons normally ran headlong into ambushes without a second thought, even if they detected them in advance. Enemies were things to fight, not to avoid. For that reason the army probably hadn't tried too hard at their interception, not expecting the enemy to evade, and had been caught on the back foot, losing their quarry.
Callum was being ordered to take a team and track them down. He snorted at that; that was nowhere near in scope of his job description. Nor was he being assigned any actual soldiers. There was no attempt to disguise what this really was; Callum was being booted out of the city until after the missile launch, or perhaps they hoped he'd actually make a serious attempt at intercepting the demons and get himself killed. Obviously he'd kicked up too much fuss these past couple of weeks. It was a blessing he wasn't being tried for treason. A demon who was behaving very un-demon-like, being sought by a human who was behaving very un-human-like? It was darkly humorous. Maybe he should take the few people who had voiced their support, those who had been judged truthful by the ears of his elven friend, and never return.
Ri'kizza worked his way down his checklist. Tools? He'd stored a few basic machines in his tunneller. Nothing anywhere close to the scale of the cutting edge mana forges he had built, but he only had limited space. He had enough to keep his hands busy while he lived out the rest of his life. Checkbox checked. Materials? A whole cargo bay of the tunneller was filled with ingots of steel, silver, gold, mythril, orichalcum, adamantite and hihi'irokane. The next time the stockroom was audited, there would be a real problem. It wasn't as if he would even be able to work adamantite or hihi'irokane with the tooling he would have available, but it would be nice to have it, nonetheless. Maybe he could sleep on it or something. Checkbox checked.
Living necessities? It was unfortunate, but he did have to take breaks from work from time to time to eat something. He'd packed enough dried rations to last for a couple of months, by which time he'd have the equipment up and running to manufacture more. He had what he needed to set up a home, not least enough of his own armour plating to carve out a hall occupying half the mountain. Checkbox checked.
That seemed to be everything. He'd depart tonight as soon as the night shift clocked in. Even if he was leaving himself, he did still want to support the dwarven empire, but he had good subordinates and they'd be able to keep production going without a hiccup, even without him. Arriving at the tunneller, he pulled himself into the cockpit. Which was occupied.
"Going somewhere, boss?"
"Oi, this is private property. Get out!"
"So are all of those ingots in the hold. You could get into some serious trouble if someone reported you for stealing all that, you know."
Ri'kizza stared. Four of his subordinates were seated in cockpit, obviously prepared to leave. "I didn't bring enough food for all of you. And this factory needs you to keep it running."
"Don't go giving us that. We packed more than enough food of our own. We can't all live off military rations like you can; some of us want actual food in our diets. And you designed this place so well that it can practically run unmanned. If you think you can run away without us, then I have to say I'm disappointed in how much you underestimate us."
This was annoying. If he vanished on his own, it could be written off as being eccentric. If he took four of his best subordinates with him, someone might come following. No matter. No-one else had a tunneller as good as this one. He'd make sure they weren't followed. "Fine, then. But you should know I'm only going to live like a hermit in an unoccupied mountain. It'll be boring as heck for you lot."
"Pah. We know you better than that. I give it about a month before you've invented some ridiculous device that will make the whole trip worthwhile."
Ri'kizza snorted, but didn't reply. Instead, he shifted the tunneller into gear and pointed it downwards. They were soon boring through the earth, on their way to solitude. Slightly less solitude now, admittedly, thanks to these four, but it would have to do.
A week later, it turned out that even that much was too much to ask. Why there hell were there a group of humans and demons working together to build shelters halfway up his supposedly deserted mountain?!
Mihell smirked. He'd seen the humans, even if they hadn't seen him. And then he'd just walked around them. Apparently that had completely blind-sided them; the thought of a demon not charging head first into their ambush hadn't occurred to them at all. He looked behind him, and yup, they were still there. Half a dozen more demons who had been waiting for him at the edge of the demon territories, and had followed him ever since, no matter how hard he tried to shoo them away. And they hadn't run off to attack the humans either. How odd. One of them noticed his glance and spoke up.
"Give it up. We're coming with you whether you like it or not."
"I didn't even say anything. I was just checking if you were still following me, or if you'd run off into that ambush like a proper demon."
"Ha, why do you think we decided to accompany you? The 'proper' demons have no future. We all agree with you there."
The others nodded in agreement with their apparent spokesman. Mihell snorted, but said nothing further as he trudged towards the mountain he'd decided to make his new home. On his own, he could use his magic to hide his presence easily enough. With a group this size that was beyond his ability. Even if they avoided humans now, they'd be attacked for sure once they tried to settle down. How annoying... He'd finally found a demon who actually agreed with him, and six of them at that, and now he was leading them to their deaths.
A week of marching later, and Mihell spotted another ambush. No, 'ambush' would be too kind a description for it. In an ambush, the ambushers are supposed to hide and jump out on the quarry once they stepped into the trap. They weren't supposed to just stand up and casually walk towards their targets. They even left their weapons behind!
"Yo. I don't suppose you could do us a favour and knock us unconscious? We're kind of on the run, for the crime of being fed up of war. In return, we can send in a false report to get any more hunting parties off your back for a bit."
Mihell blinked, then burst with a volume of laughter rivalling the demon lord himself. Struggling to bring himself under control, he managed to ask, "and why would you trust us to play along? You've just walked up to us apparently unarmed."
"You've been avoiding confrontation ever since you stepped into the human territories. Not just soldiers who could fight back, but unarmed civilians too. You aren't here to kill."
"What a strange human you are. Strange, but brave. And apparently we have something in common."
"I wasn't going to comment, but yes, you are a strange demon."
Mihell guffawed. "Yes. Yes I am. But that wasn't what I meant; I have also been banished from the demon territories for speaking out against the constant fighting. What's your name, strange human?"
"Callum. Callum Dormer."
"Mihell. How about you join us?"
Mihell watched the shock spread over Callum's face. Of course it would. Demons and humans working together? The thought was inconceivable. The shock faded into thoughtfulness, and Callum looked back at his group. A couple of them gave him a thumbs up. He looked again at Mihell.
"Looks like we'll be joining you then. Let's go and grab our stuff."
Shawadrina listened to the trees. She could hear the poison, spread by the soul mages and infecting the mana of the forest. She listened to the sky, blissfully untouched by mortal hands. She listened to the ground, the solid foundation of the world. The forest may burn, but new growth would always sprout. No, wait, there was something else there too. The wailing of imprisoned mana, but not the discordant screeching of human technology. This was... a dwarven machine?
Shawadrina jumped to her feet. An attack! The dwarfs were coming from below! Why were dwarfs coming here? This was half a continent away from the dwarven front. She ran towards the council of elders, shouting on the way at anyone who would listen that dwarfs were tunnelling below. When she charged into the council building, the elders were sitting in session.
"What is the meaning of this intrusion, Shawadrina? If you want to make another rant about..."
"No, it's dwarfs! There are dwarfs tunnelling under the forest!"
The room fell into a shocked silence, in which the shouting and low-key panic from outside could be heard. After a moment's thought, the first elder spoke again. "Where, and how many? How long do we have?"
Shawadrina closed her eyes and listened. Where was it? It was right below them. How many? There was... one? Why would there only be one machine? That wasn't enough for an attack. Maybe it was some sort of bomb, and they wouldn't be engaging personally. And how long? That was... the sounds weren't getting louder. It wasn't moving upwards at all. It was passing by underneath the forest.
"They're directly underneath us, but they aren't moving upwards. No, I think they're leaving. A scouting mission? Or they're heading elsewhere and we just happened to be in the way."
The elders frowned, and the first elder said, "you had better not have just incited a panic for no reason. Can anyone else even confirm there's anything down there?"
The other elders shook their heads, none apparently able to hear anything. As the minutes went by, it became obvious the machine was moving away. The elders were wearing faces of frustration and annoyance, and the first elder snapped. "Enough is enough. Shawadrina, I'm starting to think that you're hearing things that aren't there. First you insist that our magic is harmful to us, despite the precautions taken and no-one else being able to corroborate your story, and now you send the whole colony into a panic with your talk of a mystery dwarven attack."
"What? No, I can hear the cries of mana. If others cannot, perhaps the reason is that they don't want to."
The first elder turned red, looking downright furious. "You... You... How dare you! Fine, I'll give you the opportunity to prove it. Since you can hear the dwarfs, you shouldn't have any trouble following them. Chase them down, capture them and bring them back. They can serve as your evidence that you aren't inventing the sounds that you hear. Maybe if you manage that, we'll even rethink the plan to use soul magic."
Shawadrina gasped. That was pretty much a banishment. Well... fine then. If the soul mage squad was going to fall into insanity, she would much rather be at a safe distance. The fact that there probably was no safe distance could be a problem for later. Closing her eyes again, she listened to the ground. The machine was moving west. There were no more forests in that direction, only human lands and a mountain range. She would have to leave the forest and cross human lands, but that was fine. She could disguise herself as human easily enough. They probably wouldn't let her bring any slaves, given how depleted their numbers had become. With her limited carrying capacity, she'd have to leave her lute behind.
She stepped back out of the council building, where soldiers were shouting that any reports of dwarfs were a false alarm, and to calm down and go back home. She returned to her own home, needing to move quickly if she wasn't going to let the machine get out of range. Not that she had any particular reason to follow it; she didn't really intend to attempt to single handedly capture a dwarven party, whether they were warriors, scouts or something else entirely. But she needed to pick a direction in which to leave, and that one was as good as any. Maybe she'd move into a human village, one with none of their horrible magic tools. She could probably hide successfully in a city even, but that would need her to poke out her own ears.
Stepping out of her house with a heavy rucksack on her back, she was greeted by a small crowd. One of them stepped forwards. "Excuse me, but were there really dwarfs nearby?"
"There were, but it wasn't any sort of attack. They were just passing by underground. Sorry, I heard them and jumped to a bad assumption."
He nodded. "Then, is what you were saying about soul magic true too?"
Shawadrina frowned. The thought of people disbelieving her about that cut far deeper than anything they thought about the dwarfs. "Of course it is. That soul magic is damaging not only the mages who cast it, but the forest itself too. I dread to think of the consequences should they cast it on the scale they have planned."
He sighed. "Yes, that's why we came. My mum used to tell me a bedtime story, 'the unfortunate soul magician', all about a mage who used soul magic for good, but each time he did, it warped his perception of what 'good' was. He ended up wiping out whole colonies with a smile on his face, convinced he was saving them from monsters. I always assumed I'd die at the hands of humans, but if we stay here, I'm worried we'll all be killed by our own kind. If you're leaving, can we come too?"
One person moving into a farming village might be believable, but not this many. Maybe they could pose as refugees? This was probably going to end badly, but that was true of any other available course of action too. "Fine then. We're heading west. Lets get going."
Callum struggled with the tree trunk, trying to strip it of branches ready for cutting into planks, or something resembling them closely enough to build some sort of shelter from. Meanwhile there was a demon no less than twenty metres away felling another tree with his bare hands. Hunting demons may not have been in his job description, but he was pretty sure that whatever this scene was wasn't in any job description. The plant life here was sparse, but at least there was enough wood around to build a roof of some description.
Food would be harder. They hadn't been intending to live out in the middle of nowhere, so they had neither seeds nor tools, or even enough rations to last more than a few more days. The demons could hunt without the need for weapons, assuming there was much animal life around here. A couple of people had gone out foraging, but this wasn't exactly prime land. There was a reason there was no-one living here already. Crops probably wouldn't grow even if they did have seeds.
A couple of hours later, their shack fell over. This was not going well, Callum decided. They may have camping gear with them, but why didn't he have anyone in his party with proper survival training? He wasn't even sure why Mihell had suggested they come along. The demons wouldn't be bothered by the cold, or even by the lack of food; they could subsist off mana. Even if they were helping them try to set up something, it wasn't as if the demons had any idea of what to do either. Their tents would be fine for a while longer, but they wouldn't be good enough for the winter. They would have to work out how to build a better shelter eventually.
Callum was distracted from his melancholy by a voice behind him. "Okay, at this point, this is just sad. I can't stand to watch it any more. Get your lot in over here with us."
Spinning around, Callum realised he was being addressed by someone no taller than his waist, yet still as wide as an adult human. What he was lacking in height he made up for in beard, sporting a brown bush large enough for a child to hide in. A dwarf? Where did he even come from? Despite being seemingly alone in the midst of a group of humans and demons, the dwarf looked completely nonchalant.
"Well, how about it? I can assure you we can offer better accommodation than anything you can put together from a couple of trees and a sprinkling of hope."
"Sorry, it's just that dwarfs don't generally pop up from nowhere and offer shelter. I didn't think there were any in this area."
The dwarf sniffed. "There weren't, up until yesterday. Speaking for myself, since when do humans and demons work together? Can't say I'd be making this offer at all, had I not seen that with my own eyes."
"They don't, up until yesterday. We're just a bunch of exiles, hiding from the war."
"Ha. Join the club then. The name's Ri'kizza Ironbeard."
"Callum Dormer. And over there is Mihell, leader of the demons."
"Oh? The leader isn't the biggest of them? Well I guess we really are just a bunch of misfits. Now all we need are some elves, and we'll have the full set."
A new voice joined in, as a group of elves materialised out of the air. "That could quite easily be arranged. Shawadrina, of the central forest. A pleasure to meet you all, and to see you in person, Callum. I have to say, finding you at the end of my journey was not what I expected while following the trail of Ri'kizza here."
"Huh? What trail? I didn't leave a trail."
"Shawadrina?! What are you... following the dwarfs?"
"The elders got fed up of my doom-saying about their new soul magic toy and I got kicked out. I would have fled anyway; with the poison that's spreading, that forest is a loss even if no-one attacks."
"Oi, don't go changing the subject. What do you mean you were tracking me? I built my tunneller to be undetectable!"
Mihell, watching the antics of the other three races, burst into laughter once more. "Who'd have thought? What I've been looking for all of my life, I've finally found here in the most desolate of places."
A panicked elf burst in to the mages chamber. "An attack by the humans! They've launched missiles. The elders command to deploy your weapon against their cities immediately, before the missiles impact!"
The mages frowned. One of them asked, "this isn't a repeat of the dwarf 'attack' of a couple of days ago is it? We're supposed to be running against smaller targets first, to make sure our protections can cope with larger castings."
"No, there's no doubt about it. Impact is projected in forty minutes."
The mages gasped and sprang into action. They had already finished most preparations, so all they needed was to aim and gather more slaves for the larger required sacrifice. They were ready to go in only thirty minutes. The slaves screamed as their very souls were ripped out and fed into the ritual circle to power the weapon, the massive blast of magic launched eastward at the nearest human city. The mages immediately began to rearm, preparing for the next shot, not even stopping to inspect the results of their first firing. Nor did any of them notice the cracking sound that came from the bracelets on their wrists as the enchantments were overwhelmed and shattered.
A missile impacted, releasing its monstrous cargo into the heart of the colony. Elves screamed as they were torn apart, their magic completely ineffectual. Hearing the screaming, one of the mages ran out of the ritual chamber and looked upon the horror. It took only a split second decision to decide what must be done; normal magic was useless, and if left unchecked, that monster would kill everyone. It would be better to sacrifice a few to save the many. He drew upon the souls of a few of the panicked civilians running past him and blasted the monster. It fell, along with the elves he'd used as sacrifices.
More missiles landed. Again, it would be better to sacrifice a few to save the rest of the colony, so the mage immediately took care of them. But this sort of responsive action wouldn't help; if they could just keep launching more missiles eventually he'd run out of sacrifices. He needed to destroy the source, and they'd only had enough time to cast their new magic at a couple of cities. There were other cities that weren't even in range of it. He needed something else. This wasn't the only elven colony in the world, so the next logical step would be to sacrifice this one to save the others. With each use of soul magic he could feel himself growing stronger, and now it was simplicity itself to call upon the souls of the whole colony. He would wipe the humans out of existence himself, and following that the dwarfs and demons. Elves would rule supreme!
Shawadrina closed her eyes, remaining focused for a few seconds before nodding in satisfaction. Once she'd run through the place and located and fixed even the smallest gaps, the enchanted plating of this place stopped her from getting through at all. It was perfect; in here they'd be protected from the weapons of all four races.
She had heard the screams of the dying souls coming from the elven forest and human plains. So much life had been lost these past few days. Then the humans thought it would be a good idea to launch a few of their monstrous creations into the demon territories, which was the point at which the dwarfs had struck. It was hell out there, and she was glad she was well out of it.
Not that it was perfect in here. Whoever heard of elves living underground? The dwarfs had plenty of... food was too strong a word for it. Nutrition tablets might be better, and Ri'kizza was the only one who chewed them without any obvious sign of disgust. The humans could just about manage to eat them, given the alternative of starving, but to the elves they were inedible. Thus the humans had lent food to the elves in exchange for the dwarven rations, and now the elves were using their magic to set up fields and orchards below ground, artificially accelerating their growth. Soon everyone would have decent food, and no-one had to starve. A small amount of cooperation, perhaps, but a couple of weeks ago the thought of any cooperation at all would have been laughable. And at least the orchards meant there were some trees, even if there was no sun or stars. Once they were sure of their survival, perhaps she could find someone willing to carve a new lute?
Another problem for her personally, if not for the other elves who didn't have such sensitive ears, were the tortured sounds of the mana down here, trapped in the dwarven machinery. She could barely hear herself think above the noise. With their new home properly secured and isolated from the outside world, doing something about that would have to be her next project, so she went to find Ri'kizza. After explaining to him how she had tracked the tunneller by the sounds of trapped mana, he had become... focused. Apparently she had given him a clue to something. As soon as he saw her, he grabbed something from his work-desk, without even giving her a chance to speak.
"Here, how does this sound to you?"
Shawadrina looked at the small plate she'd been handed. It had some sort of dial along one side, and was obviously enchanted, giving off a nasty sounding hiss. "It's got the usual nasty hiss of a small scale enchantment. Why?"
Ri'kizza reached for it and adjusted the dial. "Better? Worse?"
The hiss had got louder. "Worse."
He adjusted the dial the other way, and it quietened. "Now?"
"That's better; it's getting quieter."
"Right, tell me when to stop."
He continued twisting the dial, and the hiss faded away to nothing before starting back up again.
"You've gone past it. A little the other way... Yes, right there."
Ri'kizza stared at the disc as if it was some sort of miraculous treasure. "Incredible. You can hear the misalignment. If we could build machines with the enchantments perfectly aligned, the efficiency would... It would be revolutionary! We must repeat this on all the machinery of the base!"
The excitement receding momentarily, Ri'kizza looked at Shawadrina properly for the first time. "What was it you wanted, anyway? I doubt you stopped by just to say hello."
Shawadrina grinned. "Oddly enough, I wanted to repeat that on all the machinery of the base. The constant hissing and screeching gets annoying."
The thing that used to be an elf left the decaying remains of the forest. Yes, that one had died, but it didn't matter; there were other forests. It was a worthwhile sacrifice in order for him to gain the power to stand up against the enemy armies. Flying through the air, he headed east deep into the heart of the human territory. His target was the human capital; best to start there and then take out the major cities one by one. But he was still at a distance when he saw that the capital was already under attack, a humongous battle tank positioned deep within the city, with swarms of mechs moving behind it. He grinned to himself; an opportunity to deal a blow to the dwarfs at the same time. He pointed a hand at the city and pulled, wrenching the souls of all living things there right out of their bodies. It had no effect on the mechs, soulless creations of metal and enchantment, but that didn't matter. Using the energy he'd just absorbed, it was easy enough to launch a burst of disruptive mana, smashing every enchantment in the city and reducing the dwarven weapons to mere lumps of metal.
The tank didn't stop. It spun around, directed its weapons at the flying soul mage and fired. He was forced to dodge, forced to flee. Him, who should be stronger than anyone. Anything. Apparently he still needed more power. No matter; there were still plenty more souls around here to feed him.
Callum looked over the list of intercepted messages and shuddered. With the dwarven technology, improved further by Shawadrina's weird ability to hear mana, and his security access codes as a human minister, they'd been able to listen in on a lot of communication. What they heard wasn't good, and Callum couldn't see how anyone would win the war. Cities in all camps were falling one after the other. The demon lord himself had started chasing down some mad elf, declaring him to be a worthy challenger, while ignoring the human monsters that were tearing through the demon territory. A large swath of the centre of the continent had become a desolate wasteland, stripped bare of all life, apparently the doing of that same mad elf.
Mihell, on the other hand, was his usual jovial self. He seemed to take everything in his stride, and Callum was somewhat envious. Was there not anyone outside he was worried about? Almost everyone Callum had known who wasn't here were wiped out in the first elven attack. Mihell caught his look, and asked, "so what do you plan to do when the war is all over?"
Callum blinked. "Over? I doubt it'll ever be over."
Mihell waved his hand over the transcribed messages. "Are you reading the same stuff as me? That's not a war, it's a massacre on every side. Give it a few more weeks and there won't be anyone left. We'll have the whole world to ourselves."
Callum blinked again. The war would be over? Done? Finished? What a strange concept. Shame all it would take was the erasure of all intelligent life. No, not quite all... He looked around at the sight of all four races working here in harmony. But it wasn't just the intelligent races that were in trouble out there... The tunneller the dwarfs had was supposed to be invisible, right? And with Shawadrina's help, even she wouldn't be able to track it at a distance now. Perhaps they could run a bit of a rescue mission? "Mihell, I think we should go back out there to gather up what plants and animals we can, before they all get killed off. Turn this place into an ark, so that once the war dies the whole planet doesn't die with it."
Mihell grinned. "Now you're talking."
The thing that used to be an elf traded blows with the demon lord. How could anything be that tough? Its magic was even less use on the demon lord than it had been on the monsters the humans had created. Trying to rip his soul out had no effect, the demon lord strong enough to resist the magic. It launched waves of flame and ice. It tried to pierce him with spikes of earth. It blasted him with waves of pure destruction that should have shattered his soul into pieces, and in the midst of the destruction, the demon lord laughed.
"I was right! You are a worthy challenger indeed! Come, you monster!"
Monster? If there was a monster here, it was the demon lord. Not just him, all the other races. The elves were the only true race, everyone else mere beasts wearing a thin veneer of intelligence. The soul mage launched more waves of magic, then turned its magic inwards to boost its own strength, attempting to take out the demon lord with physical force. They traded blows, and first one arm and then the other of the demon lord snapped. The soul mage gave his own laugh, a hollow, haunting noise, before aiming a final blow at the demon lords face. The demon lord was still grinning as he spun and, using his tail, smacked the mage from the air. The mage went sailing over the wasteland, landing in a lake. Pulling itself out he began to fly back towards his enemy, but happening to glance down it spotted another beast below him. A mad, rabid animal, naked and snarling. Hah, the demon lord had called for reinforcements? It didn't matter, it would triumph over all. It launched a blast of magic downwards, not even realising that it was looking at its own reflection.
In the shelter, the ark, Callum looked at the store rooms full of seeds and eggs or small animals in suspended animation. They didn't have space to keep breeding populations of the larger animal species, but it had turned out they didn't need to, with the senior researcher who'd followed him from the monster lab aiding Ri'kizza in coming up with a design for something to reproduce them from samples. They'd even scrounged up tissue samples of some of the earlier casualties of the eternal war. It was frankly unfair. They had Ri'kizza's cutting edge tunneller, optimised even further with Shawadrina's help, occupied by a contingent of demons who could hop out anywhere, grab what they wanted and duck back in without having to worry overly much about their environment. It was reaching the point where Callum felt he wasn't contributing anything to this alliance.
In fact, he was thinking about a different problem. The world had already gone to hell, and he was in full agreement that it wouldn't last much longer. At best there would be scattered bands of survivors, but if the mad soul mage went any further off the deep end, there wouldn't even be that. If they tried to restore the world to its former state following that, would it not once again devolve back into war? Shouldn't they try to do something to preserve it?
He made sketches on a bit of paper. Could they ever stop people from going to war? What sort of thing could they do to discourage it? What caused war in the first place? Humans never fought amongst themselves. Nor did the other races. What if there was only one race then? And even if they did fight, what if they didn't have the level of technology developed by the humans and dwarfs, or the magic of the elves? What if they were more like demons, with great personal strength, but no means of projecting that strength to wipe out whole cities with one spell or strike? Could they build some sort of rails for civilization to operate on? Some sort of system that applied sets of hard rules that would discourage war and ensure that even if it did break out it wouldn't cause damage on a global scale?
The demon lord watched the mad elf in disappointment. It seemed to have completely forgotten about him, launching attack after attack into the lake. What was it even trying to do? It was looking more and more frustrated too. How could he have a decent fight when his opponent was so obviously insane? What a waste. There was no point in sticking around here, so he turned around and prepared to depart.
That was the point at which the mad elf screamed, and the world ended.
They felt the blast even in the ark. Thankfully no-one had been out in the tunneller, and Shawadrina had used her abilities to plug up even the smallest weaknesses in their protective shell. Beyond some headaches, everyone was unaffected.
The same could not be said for the rest of the world. The communicators went dark. Shawadrina stepped outside, and could hear nothing but silence; there was simply nothing there to hear. The mad mage had consumed even himself, ironically succeeding in destroying the reflected beast he had targeted.
The other residents of the ark stepped out after her. Mihell looked down from their spot on the mountainside. "Well then," he commented, "time for the hard part."