A small party of 4 were making their way through the wilderness. The area around them was a small valley, surrounded on all sides by tall hills that needed just a little more height to graduate to being small mountains. There were numerous thickets of pine-like trees strewn about, although they were far too disconnected to be called an actual forest. Green grass wet with dew covered the entire region as far as the eye could see, and the morning pre-dawn sun was just beginning to light up the sky. Overall, the terrain had barely enough cover to allow the small team of 4 people to move without being noticed from afar. Well, strictly speaking 2 of them weren’t really ‘people,’ even though they looked the part.
Far ahead of the group was Keira, wearing her standard-issue chainmail-and-leather armor, along with the dark green tunic that marked her as a member of the Hidden Arrow guild. She was the group’s designated spotter and scout, so she walked about 60 to 70 meters ahead of them. Far enough to warn the others of danger using Whisper Wind, but close enough to fall back to them should the need arise.
The other three moved in a tight formation, almost literally shoulder to shoulder. At the head stood the 2-meter tall, woman-shaped battering ram known as Lola. She wore a splendid set of dwarven-forged, half-plate armor that was of Superior quality - a ‘loan’ from her doting Warrior instructor. Blue-tinted metal plates protected her torso, shoulders, forearms and the front of her legs and thighs, while a light metal helmet perfectly concealed her short, black hair, but left her face wide open. Although lacking the protection of full plate, this armor allowed the wearer a lot more freedom of movement. Not to mention it would reduce the effects of any hostile magic aimed at its wearer purely due to being forged out of Azurite. Each piece of it was also enchanted to make it both lighter and tougher, making it the sort of equipment any first-rate adventurer would be proud to have.
Behind Lola was a male elf called Jules. Although of average height for his people at about 175 centimeters tall, he still looked particularly short next to the towering Lola. His short, scruffy beard and messy, unkempt hair made him look much older than he really was at a glance, mostly due to their dull gray color. This was merely his natural hair color, and the man himself was still in his early 30s. His lean body was mostly concealed by a dark brown traveling cloak. It swished around him as he moved, revealing the light, gray leather armor he wore underneath, as well as the small, shoulder-slung bag that rattled quietly with each step. Although not visible under the soft gloves he was wearing, he was also equipped with 4 magic rings that provided various minor effects. He walked along while carrying an ash-colored wooden staff with an engraved mithril sphere as its head. His choice of weapon made it clear he was a type of magic user, although his actual Job was made obvious by the 4th member of the group.
Floating idly behind him, with a thoroughly bored look on her gorgeous face was a succubus. She had white skin like alabaster and glowing yellow eyes. Her shoulder-length blonde hair was parted by a pair of pitch-black, ram-like horns. As for her body, it was as outrageously proportioned and scandalously clothed as one might expect of her kind, but the wings on her back marked her as rather unique. For they were not leathery or bat-like in appearance, but were covered in bright yellow feathers, much closer to those of a hawk.
Her name was Purupururin, and she was an Ivory Succubus, one of the few subspecies of demons that could use Holy magic. Her secondary Job was that of a Priest, and she wielded healing and defensive magic with great ease. The Ivory variant of succubi also had access to a special Skill called Demonic Invigoration, which allowed their healing Spells to restore a small amount of MP in addition to their regular effects. Well, they also ‘invigorated’ a very specific part of the male anatomy, but that was besides the point.
As for why a Warrior, a Warlock, his pet succubus and a Ranger were out here on the fringe between the Lodrak Empire and the Ishigar Republic, it was because the war was about to go into full swing. Keira, Lola and Jules were one of many recon teams dispatched to scout out enemy positions and numbers. Although a Ranger would undoubtedly cover more ground by themselves, that would only prove to be true if said ground was uninhabited.
“Enemy contact, standby!”
Lola motioned the other two to stop when she heard Keira’s quiet yet clear voice. The catgirl was using her Whisper Wind Skill to report her findings to her from a safe distance, although it was strictly a one-way communication channel.
“A group of 5 gnolls, 130 meters ahead of my position. They haven’t spotted me.”
That right there was the reason traversing this region alone was typically a bad idea. Gnolls were canine monsters that had the appearance of hyenas that walked on two feet. Although not particularly strong on their own, they were intelligent enough to wield weapons, wear armor and cooperate amongst themselves to secure prey. They were also known for building crude villages and even showed an interest in agriculture. Overall, they were surprisingly docile as far as monsters went. Unless, of course, one happened to intrude upon their clan’s territory. Which was precisely what Keira and company were currently doing.
“We can take them easy, so move up to my position.”
“Keira found some more gnolls,” repeated Lola for Jules’ benefit. “She says they’re easy pickings, so we’re going to take them out.”
“She says that about everything though,” said Jules with a sigh.
Threat assessment was also one of the duties of a scout, and a vital one at that. A party could easily be wiped out if the one in charge of reconnaissance underestimated the enemy or overestimated their own ability.
“She hasn’t been wrong so far,” noted Lola.
“No, I guess not,” consented the Warlock. “I just get the feeling she’s getting overconfident. Those gnolls would rip her to shreds if they caught her scent, you know.”
The white-skinned succubus gave off a snort at the thought of a few bipedal puppies being able to defeat that.
“... Something you wanna say, Purupururin?” asked Jules when he noticed her attitude.
“Yeah. You guys are fucking idiots.”
“Charming as usual, aren’t you?”
Of course, even if she was aware of Boxxy’s secret, she wouldn’t dare reveal it for 3 very good reasons. First of all, it would ruin the fun. Second of all, the Big Guy would probably have her sorry ass on a platter if she dared to do that. Last, but certainly not least, that thing was her ticket to freedom. She was hoping she’d be able to work out some deal with ‘Keira’ that would make her master disappear and allow her to run free, but didn’t have the chance to even speak with it yet.
“Right, go back to keeping your cockhole shut and stay quiet.”
Unfortunately for her, said master knew how to handle a succubus. Jules had kept a near-permanent gag order on her ever since they were contracted years ago. Words were one of a succubus’s main weapons, after all, and the scenario she was planning was just the type of thing he wanted to prevent.
The trio climbed up the hillside, following Keira’s footsteps until they met up with their scout. The catgirl pointed in the distance, indicating a group of shadows moving between the trees. Lola nodded in understanding and unsheathed the longsword from her hip while reaffirming her left hand’s grip on her Azurite kite shield. She then took point as the group crept closer. Once they were about 50 meters from the gnolls, she looked over her shoulder to confirm the others were ready, then nodded at Keira. The beastkin nocked an arrow on her iron-reinforced hunting bow and took aim. She picked out the juiciest-looking target and let loose while activating a Martial Art with a murmur.
The arrow flew forward while leaving a trail of red light, nailing the tallest gnoll right between the eyes and killing it instantly. The other 4 immediately turned towards where the attack had come from and let out growls and howls as they ran for cover. Even if it had strong penetrative force, the trajectory of a Power Shot was far too easy to track, so that was likely going to be the only clean shot the Ranger would get.
Lola sprang forward from the undergrowth she was hiding in and dashed to intercept the rest of the gnolls. By the time she caught up to them, Keira had nailed another while Jules’ Shadowbolt and Ebonfire combo had finished off a third. The female elf slammed into the fourth gnoll with her shield, knocking it over in the process, and swung her blade at the last.
Overall, it took less than 30 seconds to wipe the gnolls out. An easy win, just like Keira said. They would have gotten by without a scratch, but the gnoll Lola knocked over with her shield had recovered much quicker than she was expecting. The Warrior finished it off, but not before the creature stabbed her in the waist with the crude knife it was holding. It wasn’t a serious injury as her armor covered her vitals and the wound was immediately treated by Purupururin, but it still stung like a bitch.
The group rebuilt their earlier formation and kept climbing the hill they were on. They ran into another, smaller group of gnolls that were also easily dispatched before they reached the top, at which point all of them could clearly see their objective.
A large force of Imperial soldiers had made camp along the road in the distance, over a kilometer away from their current position. The smoke trails rising from the sea of white tents signified some of them were already up and about, likely preparing breakfast for the others. A large number of blue flags and banners were strung up, signifying the force’s allegiance. Although they were not on Republic territory quite yet, they were close enough to cross the border after about half a day’s worth of marching.
Lola, Keira and Jules shared a few meaningful glances, after which the Ranger reached into her backpack. She pulled out a crystal cube that was about 8 centimeters on each side, as well as an Artificer-made spyglass. She tapped three times on the Comm-crystal and whispered the password into it.
“Folly. Ulgred. Berry. Ankrow. Rillis. Gorgon. Geomer.”
The cube sprang to life and projected the blue-colored transparent image of a male elf with short hair and a stern expression into the air.
“This is Keira Morgana, recon team 31,” she reported.
“This is Forward Command, reading you loud and clear, 31,” came the business-like response from the other end. “What’s your situation?”
“We have reached our destination and have eyes on the enemy force.”
“Can you verify their numbers?”
The catgirl laid down on the ground, set the cube down next to her and looked over the large camp with her spyglass. She took an approximation of the number of tents, and took into account the average number of soldiers that would fit in a single one before she gave her estimate.
“Seems to be 2 regiments’ worth, at least 4,000 people. Maybe 5,000.”
A shadow passed over Jules and Lola’s faces when they heard that. This was twice the number of soldiers they were told to expect during their briefing.
“Understood, 31. Can you make out any heraldries?”
Each noble house of the Empire had a small, standing army of their own. And while the Emperor had ultimate authority over them, each house was directly responsible for its own soldiers. As such, they made a point of displaying their respective colors alongside the Empire’s blue, griffin-adorned flag whenever possible.
“Yes, sir - two of them,” reported Keira. “One’s a set of three white horses on a green background while the other is a crossed hammer and sword. Seems only about a quarter of the soldiers belong to the former.”
“Anything regarding their composition?”
“I see a lot of horses. Can’t get an accurate count, but there’s far too many for just the supply carts, so I expect a cavalry detachment. I don’t see anything that looks like siege weapons.”
“How can she tell so much from such a distance?” whispered Jules while Keira kept going on with her report.
“Because that’s her job, Jules,” answered Lola in a similarly low voice.
“Well yeah, but it’s so dark I can barely even make out the tents!”
“Her eyes are much sharper than an elf’s you know. Besides, she got that spyglass thing from the muffin lady especially for this mission, so you really shouldn’t be so surprised.”
“Muffin lady? You mean that holy golem I keep hearing about?”
“Yeah, her. Apparently the two of them became friends at some point.”
“Huh… Come to think of it, is she participating in the war, too?”
“Probably. She’s part of the Consortium like us, you know. Besides, there’s no way that psychotic battle junkie would pass on a fight like this.”
“Acknowledged, 31,” came the voice from the Comm-crystal once Keira was done with her report. “Your orders are to monitor the situation and send word the instant they start marching, at which point you are to track and report on their progress. This is your main objective.”
“What about enemy contact, sir?”
“Avoid conflict at all costs. Retreated and fall back to base immediately if the enemy commander learns of your presence. Understood?”
This order was intended to prevent them from being captured and leaking information to the enemy rather than out of concern for their well being.
“Very good. Forward Command, out.”
The image of the stern-looking elf disappeared, and Keira swiftly put away the cube and the spyglass back inside her pack. The team then made a basic camp while they waited for the army to start marching, and ate their field rations cold since building a campfire was out of the question. They had to stay on alert the entire time, as it was unclear whether enemy scouts would show up. Realistically speaking though, that was more a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’ A thought that seemed to disturb Jules. The Warlock alternated his gaze between the serious-faced Lola and the strangely smiling Keira before he spoke what was on his mind.
“Have you two… killed before? People, I mean.”
All of them had fought plenty of monsters by now, but the question of murdering one’s fellow man was a touchy one.
“We have, yeah,” admitted Lola. “Our teachers had us fight brigands and bandits to… prepare us for the war.”
“Ah, I see… I’ve never actually hurt a person though.”
“Well, you better not hesitate,” cautioned the Warrior. “It could cost us all our lives if you choke when the time comes.”
“I know, I just- I’m not sure if I’ll forgive myself if I have to murder someone. I can’t justify that with the war as an excuse, even to myself.”
Oh my fucking God! yelled Purupururin inside her mind. You’re a fucking Warlock, damnit! A wielder of ruinous powers that could melt a man’s face clean off! Start acting like it, already!
She absolutely despised her master’s noble spirit. Being forced to heal the poor and the needy free of charge felt like a huge waste of her potential. In her completely unbiased opinion, it was far better to mount a man or two and keep wringing them dry of their cum while simultaneously using her magic to keep them alive and ‘energetic.’ Her personal record was a session that lasted a whole 4 hours and 20 minutes before her partner was finally allowed to die, and was forced to ejaculate inside her pretty much the entire time.
“Just think of them as bugs,” said Keira suddenly.
“Yeah. They’re nothing but a bunch of big, four legged roaches that should be crushed on sight, lest they eat all your food and lay their eggs everywhere.”
Lara gave a short, dry laugh. That description was entirely way too fitting of the Imperial army’s reputation.
Jules, on the other hand, was struck speechless. Hearing that a sweet-looking child say such things with a calm voice was more than a little jarring, but this was the reality of their situation. The Warlock was one of the few elves that was truly hesitant to be fighting in this war. Even if he realized the reasons and circumstances, none of those would help ease his guilt if he were forced to attack and kill another person. That was why he signed up for recon duty. Scouting teams typically saw little-to-no-combat if all went well, though he realized that surviving this conflict without shedding blood was nothing but a fantasy.
The 5,000 strong force Keira and her group were monitoring started moving an hour after sunrise and recon team 31 sprang into action. They kept several kilometers ahead and kept relaying information towards Forward Command, who were currently in the process of assessing just how bad it would get. According to the intel they had managed to gather, the Imperial army had fielded an estimated 120,000 troops for this invasion. In terms of fighting strength, the average Imperial foot soldier was estimated to be anywhere between Level 20 and 40. Veterans went above Level 50, while certain elite groups were assumed to be around Level 70. There were also about 60 or so powerhouses that had gone beyond Level 100 of their main Job, and had to be treated with special attention.
The elves on the other hand barely had 90,000 men and women at their disposal. About half of them were conscripted adventurers like Keira. Although that meant that, on average, their Level was higher than that of the Imperial soldiers, those people were completely unlike the Empire’s army that consisted entirely of professionally trained soldiers. There was a difference in training, equipment and experience that could not be overcome with just Levels and Attributes alone. Objectively looking at it, the Empire had the definite advantage when it came to both the quantity and quality of soldiers at their disposal. Not only that, but they had very formidable commanders that had seen actual war with other countries.
However, that only applied to open warfare. Republic High Command wanted to avoid any large-scale conflicts, and would instead employ hit-and-run tactics to disrupt and slow down the Empire’s invasion. Republic lands were lush with young and old Hylt tree forests that could be used as ambush spots, a sort of natural fortification. The Imperial army would either have to suffer heavy losses clearing their way through them, or they would need to go around those forests entirely. Either way, the Republic’s goal of stalling them would be fulfilled. They were going to buy time until the harsh, northern winter set in and put a stop to their advance until spring. However, the elves seemed to lack an answer as to what they would do once spring came and the snow and ice melted.
The humans on the other hand were looking to occupy as much territory as possible before the snowfall started. They would use the following months to fortify their position, such that it would be nigh-impossible for the weaker Republic to retake those lands. Whether they would renew their assault afterwards was not set in stone, but seemed highly likely. Morale among the troops was high, as many of them were looking to get payback for the Calamity of Monotal. Not only that, but they were also led to believe the elves could unleash another devastating attack like that in the future.
Boxxy, much like every other Republic soldier, was aware of their motivations, which it found to be rather strange considering their religion. Humans, for the most part, worshipped Teresa, and while not quite at the level of a theocracy, her Church of the Hammer still had a lot of political power at their disposal. It was probably entirely within their power to put a stop to this war, and yet they didn’t.
Teresa should be well aware of the truth behind the Monotal incident, courtesy of a certain loudmouthed God of Probability. Yet she and her clergy allowed a war perpetuated on a lie to move forward unhindered. Not only that, but they actually seemed to be supporting it. Surely the supposed goddess of truth and justice should be stopping this, right? No, come to think of it, Charlie did say the other deities appeared to be tied up in some sort of political struggle among themselves, so maybe this was part of it? After all, elves worshipped Nyrie, so perhaps Teresa saw them as competition?
Ultimately, the Mimic didn’t know nearly enough about the struggles of the Gods to come to discern her motives, nor did it have the power to do anything about them, anyway. Therefore, it put that particular quandary into a corner of its mind and focused on the task at hand.
Keira’s recon team shadowed the Empire’s detachment for 3 more days and kept feeding information regarding their progress to their higher ups. Jules was quite relieved, but also distinctly nervous that they had not come into contact with enemy scouts by now. Keira did report she found tracks of humans moving ahead of the main force, but the group hadn’t run into any of them directly.
Well, that was mostly because Boxxy and Drea were discretely hunting and devouring such scouts without letting Lola nor Jules realize what was going on. Keira had to show good results and earn considerable achievements if the Mimic was to be trusted with acting alone, which meant the catgirl’s missions had to be completed flawlessly and to the letter. In other words, as long as she officially avoided all contact with the enemy, then her ability would undoubtedly be recognized. Of course, killing off the Empire’s troops wasn’t the ideal solution, as the humans would definitely notice their absence. However, it was still better than the alternative in which Keira’s team went into open conflict with them.
So while the human commanders did indeed realize something was going on by the 4th day they were being tracked, they were too little too late, as they marched right into the Republic’s ambush.