The lone Fort Yimin was built around the only Hylt tree grove in the Clattering Plains, which consisted of exactly 5 of the ancient trees. Frankly speaking, it stood out like a sore thumb, as its surroundings were nothing but wide-open, grassy plains. It had existed on that spot since before the dissolution of the once-great Elven Dominion roughly 300 years ago, brought on by the still-fledgling Lodrak Empire that had united around their first Emperor. Although the Dominion lost the war when their royal family was assassinated, this particular fort never saw any real combat. The unsteady peace that had reigned between the two nations since then meant that its residents continued to live in relative peace.
However, on this morning, that centuries-old eyesore would finally get its first real trial. The Empire had fielded a massive force of 30,000 soldiers that had managed to arrive at their destination without suffering any significant losses, and were currently forming ranks on the surrounding plains. Fort Yimin’s defenders were also lining up atop and behind the walls. For many of them, this would be their first real taste of war, even if they were no strangers to combat. One would not fault them for being nervous or scared.
But such individuals were far and few between these 13,000 people. 7,000 of them were professional soldiers belonging to the 3rd Imperial Legion. Another 2,000 were the troops normally stationed at the fort, and had been temporarily assimilated into the Legion. The remaining 4,000 were adventurers drafted into service by the government. Compared to the opposing force that was over twice the size and comprised entirely of military personnel, they were both outclassed and outnumbered. And yet most of them were calm and resolute.
A single glance at one of the titanic Hylt trees was enough to fill them with the courage to push down their fear. The dryads, those legendary existences, were on their side. That fact alone was enough to help steel their hearts and minds for what was to come. And it was atop a relatively low but practically high branch that Faehorn had made his roost. He was using his Skills to carefully observe the enemy, and report what he saw through the Comm-crystal in his hand. The fact he was simply looking and not trying to aim meant he could focus his eyesight to a much finer degree, and easily see the faces of people that were over a kilometer away.
“I’ve confirmed the presence of 3 VIPs,” he said matter-of-factly. “One of them’s that Holy Necromancer, and he’s got his own division of roughly 300 Death Knights.”
The man in question was draped head-to-toe in a long, pale robe. A hood covered his ashen hair, while a cloth mask concealed all but his eyes. His arms held onto a bone staff that was modeled to look like a scythe. As for how he got an absurd moniker like ‘Holy Necromancer,’ that was because he had applied his Necromancy the ‘correct’ way. He performed rituals to sanctify any remains he used, and also called forth the spirits of the departed to obtain their permission and consent to use their bodies as he saw fit.
It was a long-winded ceremony that was a pain in the ass to do and required several expensive consumables, but the result was the creation of Hallowed Dead. One could easily tell these apart from regular undead because their forms and armor were bleached pure white rather than black. Not only that, but the living didn’t feel any of the revulsion one would expect. They weren’t particularly stronger than regular undead, but the nature of their summoning meant their master would not suffer the wrath of Mortimer, God of Death and Commerce. As such, not only did their master avoid being branded by the stigma of Taboo, but his minions were also no longer deathly vulnerable to Holy Magic. It still hurt them, of course, but it was no longer a critical weakness.
“The second is the ‘Loose Cannon,’ Lerion.”
A dangerous Wizard that specialized in long range, wide area magical attacks. He was essentially a piece of artillery that walked on two legs. He was one of the few VIPs whose Ultimate Skill was known - a nasty piece of magic called Particle Cannon. It was an energy beam powerful enough to punch a hole clean through Fort Yimin’s walls, and perhaps the keep itself.
“The last confirmed sighting is that ‘Black Tower’ fellow, Ruk’lunda.”
A Shaman, whose nickname came from his towering build, dark skin and tendency to fight topless. His upper body was covered in various ritualistic tattoos and markings. His weapon of choice was a massive wooden pillar, almost as tall as he was, that had various animal shapes carved into it like a totem pole.
What truly set him apart from the others was that he wasn’t technically part of the Imperial army, but a well-known adventurer. It was unclear how the Empire persuaded him to show up, as he wasn’t a man that could be easily motivated by gold or glory. In fact, the FIB had suspected him of being the Sandman due to his abnormally large build and altruistic nature. Well, that theory had went out the window the instant the vigilante in question had sent the elves his invoice, but that was besides the point.
“I see a possible 4th one,” continued Faehorn as he peered at the enemy formations. “A woman in dark leather armor and a blue tabard. She’s holding a plain metal staff, black with gold-colored tips at both ends. Her features are obscured by a hood, so I cannot see her face or hair.”
“Understood, sir,” came Underwood’s answer from the cube in his hand. “Continue to keep an eye out for the remaining two.”
The 5th one they were expecting was a nobleman with a questionable reputation, a Warlock that went by the curious name of Shinji. He was supposed to be an old man in a dark robe accompanied by a demonic entourage, but the elf saw no one that fit the description. Well, there were quite a few Warlocks with familiars among their ranks, but none of them really stood out. Typically the VIPs were given preferential treatment and basically put up on a pedestal so as to inspire the troops around them. If Shinji chose to hide away among his lower-Leveled colleagues, then confirming his presence was impossible by sight alone.
The 6th VIP the elves were expecting was almost a complete unknown. They knew he was an adventurer and that he was a dwarf, but not his name or appearance. Faehorn’s attempts to get eyes on someone like that were bound to be fruitless, so he didn’t even try. Instead he refocused his efforts into trying to spot any deception or ruse within the Empire’s movements. It would seem, however, that they were not planning anything clever, as they finalized their formations and began a steady march towards the fort.
Their blue-colored tabards, cloaks, robes and flags with griffin imprints on them clearly demonstrated their allegiance. Even the demons, undead and war beasts were given some blue-colored trappings or war paint. Which was good, because those dryads really struggled to tell people apart based on facial features. A fact which Faehorn found slightly ironic since only Keira seemed to be able to tell which one of them was which. The Ranger himself found it difficult, even after she explained that weird homing instinct of theirs. Then again, that girl had spent nearly every waking moment of the last few days with those walking plants, so perhaps that was to be expected.
As for the beastkin herself, she was currently nestled somewhere in the trees, along with the girls in question. She had pretty much demanded she be allowed to be up there and act as a coordinator, someone to make sure they stuck to the plan at hand. Their trees were bound to suffer some damage, so they might take action on their own if she wasn’t around to hold them back. Faehorn suspected the catgirl was just worried about them and wanted to be there to guide them through this turbulent time. His lips curled into a smile as he once again thought she’d make a truly great wife and mother some day, though he kept his opinion on the matter to himself this time around.
Such idle thoughts swam around the back of his mind as he watched the steadily approaching enemy force. As expected the vast majority - about half of them - were close-combat units. The rest were split between magical support, healers, and what was left of their Rogues and Rangers. Faehorn may not have been able to do much to stall them, but he and his teams at the very least had taken down 400 people, 300 of which belonged to the Empire’s scouting corps.
Once the Imperial army passed the 300 meter mark, both they and the Republic’s defenders triggered a number of large-scale transparent bubbles - magical shields to protect both sides from long distance attacks. In the Empire’s case, they were relying on their personnel, while the Republic used large barrier-generating magic items that were part of the fortifications. The latter were stronger and had more MP stored up than the former, but were too large and heavy to be moved around freely.
“Archers! At the ready!”
A dozen loud voices rang out among the silence that gripped Fort Yimin, followed by a momentary avalanche of clattering as 7,000 arrows were nocked. Even though it may not have been their main weapon of choice, the vast majority of elven soldiers had received training in using a longbow and had at least 10 Levels in their secondary or tertiary Ranger Jobs.
The ones atop the walls lined up their shots, while the ones on the ground behind them aimed at the sky. Even if their Attributes sucked, even if the power behind their shots was weak, even if their aim was lacking, even if they weren’t as mobile as they could be - none of that mattered in a siege. They just had to let loose and they were bound to hit something.
And then, when the forefront of the enemy vanguard crossed the 150 meter mark, it began.
A sea of arrows rose up into the air, glimmering with various colors as numerous enhancements, Martial Arts and other effects were used to imbue the power of each projectile. They passed effortlessly through the massive one-way barriers around the fort and drew grand arcs through the air before raining down on the approaching Imperial forces. The human Wizards, Priests and Shamans gritted their teeth as the onslaught of projectiles clashed against their defensive Spells, but the first volley had been succesfully neutralized at the cost of their MP.
A mere 10 seconds after came the second volley. Sparks and crackling noises dominated the skies above the Imperial army as arrows clashed against numerous barely-visible walls.
A third volley followed afterwards. And then a fourth and a fifth. The repeated strain on the Empire’s magic users became apparent as their defenses started waning. Of course, their own Rangers and Rogues fired back, but they lacked the firepower to punch through the fort’s barriers. And then, on the sixth volley, the protective Spells above the center of the Imperial army finally caved in. There were numerous sounds like glass shattering as one after the other the Spells were broken through, and the arrows finally reached the soldiers underneath. They raised their shields, and braced themselves, but still suffered injuries.
Your arrow has pierced your target. Target HP -552.
Your arrow has pierced your target in a vital area. Target HP -361.
Your arrow has pierced your target. Target HP -173.
Your attack has been deflected.
Your arrow has pierced your target. Target HP -51.
Various hit confirmation messages were seen, signifying the Spells were finally broken through. Up in the lower branches of the Hylt tree, a certain Comm-crystal relayed the orders that its owner was waiting for.
“Faehorn, you’re up!”
Immediately after, his spectral arrow flew out like a beam, piercing one of the Empire’s Priests, ending his life in an instant. Hundreds of similarly blue-colored streaks of light flew out of the surrounding canopy. Their targets were the physically weak magic users. The soldiers in front of them attempted to cover for their comrades using their shields and various Skills, but the angle that the attacks came from made it impossible to defend unless the Spell-slingers literally ducked behind them.
“Snipe! Snipe! Snipe! Snipe! Snipe!”
Even that seemingly cowardly act wouldn’t save them from the stream of lights that came out of Faehorn’s ‘nest.’ Snipe was a Martial Art that imbued a Ranger’s shots with immense penetrative power and speed. And as expected of a Level 100 wielding an Artifact-grade bow, his attacks punched clean through shields, armor and people as if they were paper. He also aimed at the VIPs, but as expected they were different, and successfully defended against his long-range barrage.
The Imperial army suffered casualties, but they endured as the distance between them and the walls had shortened to about 60 meters. The hundreds of carts being pulled along were unloaded, and dozens of towering trebuchets were hastily assembled. Meteorites of fire, comets of ice and masses of darkness rained down from the heavens on both sides as their Pyromancers, Cryomancers, Wizards and Warlocks traded long-range Spells. The fort’s barriers deflected all of the incoming Spells, while the attacking force’s uneven magical defences only blocked about half of them, causing heavy damage to the humans’ infantry. As expected, the Republic had the superior position, but neither side expected them to last.
The trebuchets were completed with dizzying speed, and unleashed a barrage of stones that slammed heavily against the fort’s magical defenses. The repeated onslaught caused large cracks to spread through the bubble-like shields, a sign they were about to break. The rain of arrows never stopped, of course, but the Empire’s foot soldiers reached the base of the walls all the same.
And while this was going on, a cat-eared beastkin was crouched down while surrounded by bark and leaves. The five child-like dryads were huddled around her. The three of them that were closest to the invading force gritted their teeth, as their exposed trunks received damage from a myriad of sources. Of course they would be hit. They were the quite literal cornerstones of the base’s fortifications, so it was only natural the Empire’s attacks would affect them.
“Mommy… It’s itchy…”
Although they may have appeared as ‘just trees’ they were actually far, far sturdier than the stone walls and magical barriers combined. They still the felt arrows, Spells and stones that crashed against their Ironbark, but it was only at the stage of irritation and itchiness. They probably didn’t even take any actual damage. It was highly unlikely they would have woken up under normal circumstances if it was only this much.
“I know, sweetie,” said Keira while comforting them. “Please bear with it a while longer.”
The blue crystal cube in her hands lit up, and she immediately answered it. The image of Vera, the Prefect in charge of Fort Yimin, was projected before her.
“Decanus! Begin phase one!”
“Yes, ma’am! Alright, girls! It’s time to play ‘Catch’ with the blue people!”
“Yaaay!” responded the dryads in unison.
Far below them, on the ground within the Fort’s walls, in a freshly planted grove of young Hylt trees, were a myriad of large stones and rocks strewn about. The 5-meter tall seedlings began moving and bending like clay as their trunks and branches creaked. The elves immediately cleared the area so as to not get in their way. The trees bent over and grasped at the rocks as if they were gigantic hands. The stones and boulders were then flung into the air with enough force to very nearly uproot the trees themselves. Their haphazard trajectories easily cleared the walls and rained down on the Empire’s unsuspecting troops, crushing hundreds of them in an instant.
A squad of Druids within the ‘Catapult Garden’ quickly used their magic to heal the disturbed soil and revitalize the young trees, which bent over and repeated the process. This phenomenon was Control Vegetation, a Skill exclusive to dryads that served as their main form of offense. It wasn’t just their own bodies, but pretty much any non-sentient plant within their domain that could be made to bend to their will. And considering an ancient Hylt tree’s root system could span kilometers in every direction, it went without saying that the entirety of Fort Yimin fell within their range.
Back outside the walls, however, the Empire was steadily gaining ground. A large number of the barriers that protected the defenders had shattered, and the Republic soldiers had to deploy their own magical defenses. The invading army had pretty much crashed against the thick, 10-meter tall stone walls like battering ram. Those at the front were already busy attacking the enchanted fortification using various maces and warhammers, while powerful Spells crashed against its surface overhead. Even if it was little by little, they were steadily chipping away at it.
Of course, the Republic would not let them have their way so easily.
“Alright, boys!” rang out Fizzy’s metallic voice. “I think those meatbags outside need a bath!”
A dedicated squad of 90 or so siege engineers replied in unison, and they began ferrying pots of boiling oil up the stairs and onto the walls. The elves already up on the ramparts made way for them, and the scalding mixture was dumped onto the soldiers below. The cries of pain that rose up proved they had been successful, but that was only the first step. With practiced ease, the siege engineers took a number of stick-like bombs out of their pockets and pouches, pulled the pins on them and threw them over the edge. The metal tubes burst open not with explosive force, but bright yellow flames. The oil that covered or had splashed onto the humans below and that had formed small puddles in the hard-packed soil caught fire, enveloping the base of the walls in a raging, persistent inferno. The heavy brown smoke that rose from the flames lingered around the area like a thick smog, choking the life out of anything that still drew breath.
The combination of an Artificer’s craftiness and an Alchemist’s knowledge led to some truly nasty creations.
Just then, there was a gathering of bright, blue light among the Empire’s forces. The man known as the ‘Loose Cannon’ was charging his signature move. The Republic forces immediately launched attacks at him to interrupt it, but the Empire’s magic users had converged around him to provide cover. It was a tense few moments, but their efforts proved to be enough.
A conical beam of pure energy shot out from the man and approached the walls of Fort Yimin with near-light speed.
“Mirror of Kalandra!”
Just before it hit, a gigantic, oval-shaped ornamental mirror sprang up in front of the walls. The beam bounced off it, and washed over that section of the Empire’s force. It scorched the ground, and turned nearly 600 of them into ash, all in the blink of an eye.
A message popped up in Imiryl’s consciousness as the flat surface before her floating body crumbled away. The power of the human Wizard’s Particle Cannon had been reflected by that of the High Elf’s own Ultimate Skill, although the ‘Loose Cannon’ himself seemed to have survived, even if barely. The two high-Level Wizards glared at each other across the momentarily silenced battlefield.
“Tch, I wasn’t told that bitch would be there,” muttered Lerion with a click of his tongue. If things were like this, then he wouldn’t be able to use his Ultimate Skill until she was dealt with.
Since his MP had been almost completely depleted and his HP suffered from his own magic, he turned to retreat. No matter who it was or how powerful they were, any combatant in this world. would be able to heal from their non-crippling injuries and return to the battle after 10 to 15 minutes of rest. They still wouldn’t be able to use any powerful Skills that had cooldown periods or afflicted their user with heavy penalties as compensation, but for the most part they could return to the fight in the blink of an eye.
None of that was relevant to the Ascendant human Wizard, however, as a spectral arrow bore a hole clean through his skull. A second one pierced his heart before his body could even hit the ground.
“Confirmed kill on VIP Lerion,” reported Faehorn from his perch.
“Good work, sir,” replied Underwood.
“Thank Imiryl if you have time to blab, Silus.”
If it wasn’t for the High Elf’s perfectly executed counter, bringing that man down would have been a much more difficult task. Breaching his defenses and those of his colleagues was something a lone Ranger was incapable of accomplishing by himself.
“Heads up! The Hallowed Dead are encroaching on the walls!” shouted the High Elf.
“Can you take that Necromancer out?”
“No dice. He’s been using his minions as shields, and they’re too hard for me to- Wait, he’s personally going to the base of the wall!”
A magic user who goes to the very front lines willingly could only mean one thing - he was about to unleash an Ultimate Skill. And since this man’s ability was unknown, it immediately sent the elven officers into high alert. However, they were unable to pass orders down the chain of command fast enough to react, and the white-robed man reached the foot of the stone wall unharmed.
The alchemical fires that had been started by the fort’s defenders had already subsided or been cleared away, but the Empire’s soldiers had not approached this section of the wall again, so he had no cover from the army. He didn’t need it though. The man’s towering Hallowed Death Knights were currently using their huge shields to shelter him from the rain of attacks that came from above. Although he had lost about a quarter of his minions getting this far, he had reached his goal without much difficulty.
He raised his right arm and placed a pale hand on the chipped, battered and scorched surface of the walls. He then let out a low voice, almost like a whisper.
“The Goal Of All Life Is Death.”
In the next instant, everything within 15 meters of him died. The elves within range of his Ultimate Skill immediately lost their lives. It wasn’t just them, but even things that were not technically alive were granted ‘death.’ Their armor and weapons rusted over and crumbled to nothing, the ground and stone around him turned to sand, even a part of his own undead platoon succumbed to the effects of the Ultimate Skill and collapsed. The very air itself became stagnant with anti-life, and even the person that brought about this world of death nearly choked on it.
The Necromancer who was not completely exempt from the effects of his own magic collapsed to one knee. The Death Knights that were outside the range of his ability ran to his side to provide cover. He heard thumping and clanging noises overhead, as numerous attacks bounced off their thick, heavy shields.
“Owww! That! Hurt!”
In the next instant, he heard a high-pitched, childish voice that sent him on high alert. It had come clearly to him over the chaotic noise of the battle around him, but he neither saw nor felt any living presence around him other than his own. He quickly dismissed those words as the enemy using Whisper Wind to unsettle him. It was a strategy many Rangers employed, but not one he would fall for so easily.
He stood unsteadily, using his staff to support his weakened body. Looking up from the sandy ground and peering through the gaps between his minions, he confirmed that the walls before him had collapsed to leave a gigantic, gaping hole in the fort’s defenses. He smiled under his mask, as his mission had been completed and he would be allowed to fall back from the front lines.
Assuming he survived the trip back, of course.
The necromancers let out a shrill yell in response to the shooting pain in both his feet. Looking down in a panic, he saw that something had pierced clean through them, effectively nailing him to this spot. How was such a thing possible? Everything underneath his position should have been turned to ash and sand. Whatever traps the elves might have laid should have ceased to function, regardless of the magic they might have held. Even high-Leveled opponents would have had the life drained away from them unless they were practically overflowing with vitality.
The man’s high-speed thought processes were cut off as he coughed, gasping for air. He felt weak and dizzy, far worse than the side-effects of Final Goal, his Ultimate Skill, should have been. His limbs felt cold and his body grew heavy as he realized both his HP and MP were rapidly dropping. It was as if whatever had pierced his feet was sucking the very blood from his flesh, but he possessed not the strength with which to tear himself away.
In a fit of calculated panic, he ordered his Death Knights to cut off his own legs, which they did without hesitation. The man stifled the screams of pain as their ivory blades dug into his lower body, just above the knees. Separated from his limbs, he fell over backwards into the waiting hands of his Hallowed Dead, who began carrying him away with all due haste. He reached for the Regenerating Potion on his belt - a high class mixture that was capable of instantly regrowing lost limbs while simultaneously restoring all HP - and moved the bottle up to his face.
Moments later, the ivory-colored troop of Death Knights crumbled into piles of dust and bones, which blended into the yellow sand underneath. However, their master was nowhere to be found. All that was left of him were a pair of bloodied shoes, a white robe stained red, and a trail of moist sand connecting the two points. An uncorked crystal vial lay on the ground, its pink colored contents draining away into the sand. It was as if the man’s body had disappeared into thin air.
It was the price he paid for daring to harm a dryad’s roots.