On the battlefield surrounding Fort Yimin was a certain elven Druid. A man well into his late 30s, with dark green eyes and hair, clad in a padded gray robe and holding a gnarled wooden staff tipped with a globe carved out of jade. This individual had been drafted into Republic’s army along with his adventurer comrades. His role was primarily of a healer, while the rest of his party consisted of a Wizard to serve as a ranged attacker, a Rogue charged with scouting, and a Paladin to act as a vanguard. It was a balanced, flexible combination when it came to adventuring, but as it turned out, not so great in open warfare.
The Wizard had no MP to spare for offense and was entirely focused on providing cover for the Druid and other Republic forces immediately around him with various defensive Spells. The Paladin had gotten separated from the group during the chaos, and his teammates had no idea where he was or if he was even still alive. The Rogue had completely failed to report back after her scouting assignment 4 days ago, which meant she was either dead, captured, or a deserter. Whatever the case, it was unlikely they would see her anytime soon, if at all.
In other words, the party of four had been reduced to just two, and the most they could offer to the rest of their comrades-in-arms was support. Keeping as many people alive as possible was hardly what one would call glorious, but it was the best use of their combined magic.
“Elyon!” called out the Wizard that was standing almost back-to-back with the Druid.
He was one of hundreds of humans who had been drafted to help protect the Republic. While some of them rejected the draft and were deported to the Empire, this man had chosen to stand against his former countrymen. He was a man in his early 20s, although the completely bald scalp and X-shaped scar on his right cheek made him look much older and meaner than he actually was. He was equipped with a robe identical to Elyon’s, but used a short, bronze wand instead of a staff. Wands were a type of magic item that did not boost their wielder’s power, but were weapons in their own right. Channeling one’s MP through the short rod would allow the user to instantaneously invoke a singular magic attack that depended on the make and material of the wand. Streams of fire, shards of ice and sprays of acid were but a small fraction of what a wand was capable of.
“Healing Rain! What is it Nottley?!” snapped back the middle-aged elf as he finished his chant.
“It’s the signal!”
The one called Elyon shifted his field of vision upward and to the side, confirming that a series of bright red flares had been launched over the keep.
“That quake from earlier must’ve knocked down the walls,” he muttered as his feet carried him back through the sand-filled gap in the wall.
He knew that event was no natural occurrence. The force behind it was exceptional, and the elf was quite positive those tremors were probably felt kilometers away. At the same time, the power behind it was oddly focused and contained. It was most definitely caused by a person, and a troublesome one at that. The Level 42 Druid had, at the time, reflexively used a Mend Soil Spell to try and calm down the angry ground beneath his feet. However, this action did absolutely nothing, as if he was a child trying to stop a landslide by scooping it up with a small bucket. This gap in power proved that the one causing those tremors had a much, much higher AFF than his own.
And the culprit behind it was unquestionably that Shaman VIP mentioned in the briefing.
After all, Natural Affinity (AFF) was an advanced Attribute that was similar to Faith (FTH) in that only certain Jobs - such as Druids, Shamans and Monster Tamers - had access to. Unlike FTH, however, it showed one’s devotion when it came to serving and protecting the natural world as a whole as opposed to furthering some deity’s agenda. This difference in perspective was the reason those three Jobs sometimes butted heads with the clergy comprised of Paladins, Monks and Priests. Well, the Republic was a place where such quarrels didn’t really happen. Unlike other deities, the teachings of Nyrie almost completely aligned with the interests of those ‘Godless pagans.’ That’s why Elyon and his Paladin comrade got along so well in the first place.
The elf looked around his surroundings, but did not see that reliable man’s figure anywhere. Then again, the Republic’s retreat was not exactly orderly, so it’s easy he might have missed him. He and his Wizard friend were already inside the wall and had some breathing room, although the absolutely wrecked southern fortifications showed the Druid’s hunch was spot on. It wasn’t a small gap either, as pretty much the entire stone structure bridging the gaps between the two southernmost Hylt trees had turned to rubble.
“Here, Clarity Potion,” said Nottley while tapping the distracted Druid on his shoulder.
The Druid accepted the crystal vial filled with milky liquid and downed it in one go. It was a sickeningly sweet concoction that quadrupled the user’s automatic MP recovery rate, but its effects would end the instant said user invoked a Spell or activated a Skill. It was more or less useless during combat, but was a cost-efficient way of drastically shortening downtime between them.
“You think Durothil survived?” asked the human Wizard.
“... I was just thinking about that. Normally I’d say yes, but… Seeing him flip out like that, I honestly can’t say.”
The calm and stoic Paladin charging into enemy lines while screaming ‘Fucking KILL!’ was unexpected to say the least. It would seem that the Tempest of Rage not only boosted one’s melee damage output, but it also had an adverse effect on their psyche. The vast majority of Republic troops could handle the influx of anger, but a few of them - such as the elf named Durothil - went quite literally mad with rage. No, perhaps this was merely their pent up and repressed resentment finally boiling over beyond their ability to hide or control it. Nottley might not have noticed, but the Druid was certain Durothil took the sudden absence of their female Rogue quite hard. Miria was his sister, so there was no way he wouldn’t get rattled by her disappearance.
“Look alive, people!”
A clear voice was heard over the buzzing crowd, which immediately went silent. This was a natural reaction, as the one speaking was a Centurion - a mid-ranking officer in the Republic’s army. One could easily tell his station by the large, crescent-shaped brush on his helmet and the knee-length cloak on his back, both of which were black in color. Take those away and he would look just like any other foot soldier of the Legion.
“The enemy will be upon us once again within minutes!” he continued. “Everyone here is to head inside the keep and aid in its defense! Those who can use magic or attack from a distance are to occupy the south and east facing turrets and towers and hold your fire. I repeat - all of you are to hold your fire at all costs! The rest of you are to line up the walls and deter the enemy from scaling up them. You are to focus on defense and stall the enemy as much as possible, just as before! Now move!”
“Yes, sir!” came a chorus of disorganized voices.
A number of Wizards flew into the air with magic, many of them carrying their allies up to the fortifications in question. A Wizard’s Flight Spell was very tricky to control, to the point where very few Wizards could use it competently in combat. Well, not unless they had the Aerial Combat Skill like Imiryl. Unfortunately, that was a Skill only available at Level 60 of the Job, so very few of them actually had the chance to learn it. The same applied to the Level 36 Wizard named Nottley, who was currently floating upwards with Elyon on his back.
“Tch. ‘Hold your fire’ he says,” he grumbled with a click of his tongue. “That’s my specialty you know!”
“Hey, at least you’re not a Pyromancer,” pointed out the Druid with a humorless grin. “At least you have other means of attacking.”
“Yeah, I guess… Still, it’s odd that we were told to not use fire.”
“The higher ups probably have some strategy in mind.”
“Something involving those green kids?”
Nottley nodded his head towards the still-smoldering Hylt tree that got enveloped by dragon fire earlier.
“Probably. However, I wouldn’t really put too much… stock in…” the elf’s voice trailed off as he squinted at the crowd far below his feet. “Huh? Durothil?! Nottley, look! He’s alive!”
“He is? Where?!”
The Wizard stopped the two’s ascent and his eyes followed Elyon’s outstretched finger. It was pointing directly at a heavily armored elf among the crowd of Republic troops making their way into the keep. His gilded and inscribed equipment was horribly dented or outright cut through in places. The gray tabard on his chest bearing a black eagle was dyed red with blood. His helmet had gotten blown off somewhere, revealing his scruffy brown hair and the fresh vertical scar on his face. He was missing an eye, limping heavily, and his right arm hung loosely from his shoulder, but he still carried himself with an air of dignity.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” exclaimed the Wizard.
“Quick! Drop me off and go pick him up!”
“Huh?! But he’s so heavy!”
“Nottley, he’s injured. He’s not climbing up all those steps without aid.”
“... Fine, but you’re paying for the next round of Clarity Potions!”
“Whatever, just go!”
The Druid dismounted from his teammate’s back, who had set him down atop one of the four corner towers of the keep. Nottley then returned to the ground to pick up their no-longer-missing comrade, as Elyon silently watched over the Empire’s movements from his vantage point. The tower he was standing on was a 20-meter tall structure, which made it one of the highest points in the area barring the five gigantic Hylt trees. Needless to say, it gave him a rather unobstructed view of what was happening on the ground.
Now, Elyon wasn’t a Ranger or anything, but even he could tell how screwed his side was. The Empire’s soldiers were about to start flooding through the holes in the walls, and were bound to completely surround the keep and block off any hope of escape. This naturally narrowed down his options for the future to being killed in action or taken prisoner. And unlike a certain High Elf, he would unhesitantly pick the latter if it came down to that choice. If there was anything mother nature valued above all else, it was the ability to survive at all costs.
“Still, those dryads really had too little impact,” he muttered under his breath. “I know they probably don’t care much about us elves, but they should be able to do more than that ‘catapult garden,’ right?”
Honestly speaking, while the appearance of those dryad quintuplets was quite awe-inspiring, their actual effectiveness was not. Elyon was one of many Druids assigned to tending to those Hylt seedlings in the initial stages of the siege, so he had more insight into the matter than the vast majority of his allies. Flinging rocks over the walls was a creative use of their power, and probably could’ve done a lot more damage if they didn’t run out of ammunition so quickly. Granted, he didn’t see first-hand what those rocks actually did, but he doubted their contribution to the battle was all that significant.
Was that really the extent of those legendary creatures’ ability though? It was entirely possible as those ‘green kids,’ as Nottley called them, both looked and acted completely like innocent children. Naive ones with poor judgement, to boot. It was bad enough they were following around a beastkin, of all things, but incessantly calling her ‘mommy?’ That was downright preposterous. Outrageous. Heretical even!
And no, he wasn’t having such bitter thoughts just because they completely ignored him when he tried to introduce himself, okay? This and that were completely unrelated.
Well, his envy aside, there was also the possibility that the higher-ups were keeping a lid on those dryads’ true purpose in this siege. If they were hiding a trump card of some sort, they would not dare show it to grunts like Elyon. That was just begging for the information to leak out, after all. It was widely believed that Underwood fellow had somehow gotten his hands on the rare Spy Job, so he was definitely well suited to sniffing out the Empire’s moles. However, the veteran Druid had no doubt that a few of them slipped through the cracks regardless.
“Elyon! Huff, huff! I’m back!”
Nottley returned with the near-crippled Durothil on his back. The Wizard’s face glistened with sweat, showing just how heavy his comrade really was. Elyon abandoned his thoughts of analyzing things out of his control and proceeded to apply his healing magic to his long-time friend. Even if his HP recovered, the fact he had fractured bones was a problem. Long-lasting injuries like those did not heal as quickly as battle wounds, and would take weeks to recover without magic. And although Durothil may have been a Paladin, he lacked the means with which to heal himself. He was more of a Warrior that focused on martial combat while championing Nyrie’s name, so he did not branch out into the magical aspects of his Job.
In the first place, Paladins didn’t usually have a lot of INT or WIS, so said Spells would be quite weak under normal circumstances. Well, that mithril gnome in the fort had healing magic as potent as a Priest’s, but that was mostly because she gained a good deal of those two Attributes from her Artificer Job. That and her fanatical devotion to that loony God of hers probably meant she had a high amount of Faith (FTH). After all, it was an Attribute that could easily be raised or lost depending on the individual’s actions. A trait which it shared with Elyon’s Natural Affinity (AFF).
“Sorry for taking off like that…” grumbled Durothil while the Druid was treating his arm.
“I know, you couldn’t help it. That Tempest of Rage got the better of you, didn’t it?”
“Did you at least make those guys suffer for taking Miria?” butted in Nottley.
“I… Yeah. I must have killed about a dozen men out there… Not my proudest moment though… I lost my weapons somewhere along the way, but just charged at the enemy with my bare fists… I’d probably have died out there if not for the Sandman.”
“The Sandman? You saw him?!”
“Heh… I didn’t just see him, Nottley. I felt him.”
“... That’s gay.”
“Really, Nottley? Really?”
“It’s fine, Elyon.”
The three of them shared a moment of silence while the people around them prepared for the next part of the siege.
“So what happened with the Sandman?” inquired the Druid.
“Well…. Most of an Imperial soldier landed on me.”
“... What?” blurted out the other two in perfect sync.
“Like, just the upper half. Everything below the man’s waist was missing. Like it was bitten or ripped off. See this blood? This isn’t mine.”
The Paladin pointed to the red stains on his tunic. Looking at it closer it wasn’t just blood, but several bits were also stuck to the fabric, causing his comrades to dry heave a bit out of disgust. It wasn’t like they were particularly squeamish or anything, but as back-liners they weren’t nearly as accustomed to gore as a vanguard like Durothil.
“So anyway, being hit with that mess sobered me up a little, and I noticed that bits and pieces of people were flying all over the place. I looked around for the source and I saw that guy from the rumors towering over the crowd while mercilessly chasing down the humans who were running for their lives.”
“Running for their lives?” said Nottley while raising an eyebrow. “I highly doubt Imperial soldiers would do something shameless like that.”
“No, you don’t understand, man. That Sandman - he’s fucking terrifying. A single glance at him made my skin crawl. I can’t imagine what it was like for the ones that were right next to him, just that I was glad he was on our side.”
“Sounds like Despair Aura, a Warlock Skill,” noted the learned Wizard.
“Oh yeah, he’s definitely a Warlock. Had his demons out and everything.”
“Still, to send so many people fleeing at once… That’s no ordinary Warlock, huh?”
“I’ll say. The fear and anxiety from just seeing his blood-drenched form from afar completely overpowered my anger and brought me back to my senses. The enemy was so busy withdrawing that they just left the me who was knocked over by half a corpse on the ground while they fled for their lives. I got trampled pretty hard but... I would’ve died out there for sure if that man hadn’t appeared.”
“I see…” said Elyon with a sigh. “I guess we owe that guy one, huh?”
“Yeah, most definitely,” agreed Nottley.
“Either way, good job on making it back,” added the Druid as he finished treating the last of Durothil’s broken bones. He had also healed the large scar on his face, but the eye seemed like a lost cause.
“Heh. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
The Paladin nodded his head southward. The Empire had begun their push towards the keep and were pouring in through the holes in the wall. The catapult garden that Elyon had worked so hard on was being trampled underfoot. They also spotted the Shaman called the Black Tower, the very obvious culprit behind that earthquake from earlier. The man stood out like a sore thumb, so it was impossible not to notice him.
“Well, I guess I better go make myself useful.”
Durothil stood up and was about to head down the steps to the walls below, but Nottley stood in his way with crossed arms. It was obvious he wanted to keep him from leaving.
“And how exactly do you plan on fighting without weapons?”
“I saw Frankie on the way up. He’ll hook me up with some of his spare gear.”
The Paladin forcefully shoved his concerned teammate aside and strode off without so much as looking back. The Wizard looked like he was going to go after him, but Elyon stopped him by grasping his shoulder with a spare hand.
“Leave him alone, Nottley. He has his duty, and we have ours.”
“... Have I mentioned I fucking hate this war, by the way?”
“Only about 200 times.”
The two of them shared a brief chuckle before turning their attention to the oncoming Imperial troops. It wasn’t long before the two sides started exchanging Spells and projectiles in earnest. At some point the almost-fully-recovered Hilda had leapt off the ramparts and cut a bloody swathe through the enemy force before engaging the Black Tower in one-on-one combat. Imiryl herself was having a mid-air duel against that angelic Monk that Elyon saw fly overhead a few times.
As for the Druid himself, he was contributing by sitting cross-legged in the center of the tower’s roof and focusing on his Tranquil Presence Skill. It was something that slowly restored the HP and MP of those around him, letting them fight for longer than they would naturally be able to. Nottley the Wizard was finally free to hurl Spells at his opponents, although he had to stick to ice-based magic due to the Centurion’s orders from earlier. The rest of the magic users and archers on the tower with them did much the same while the keep’s barrier-generating magic item kept them safe from harm. For the moment, at least.
Down on the ground, the Imperial troops were gradually encircling the keep from all sides. Many of them lugged around steel-tipped battering rams to break down the doors on the east side. Others tried clambering up the walls either under their own power, or by using tools such as grappling hooks and siege ladders. The ban on fire-based magic was quite evident and a serious handicap in that respect. Not only were such Spells naturally devastating against living creatures, but they could easily turn that siege equipment into ash and cinders.
“Freezing Beam!” chanted Nottley, and a pure white beam shot out of his hand at the crowd underneath. It brilliantly bounced off some magical barrier or another, dealing a grand total of ‘fuck all’ damage.
“Tch. Okay, then let’s try… Chain Lightning!”
A flash of purple electricity arced out of his fingertips. It did even less than his previous attempt.
“Haah, no good as expected, huh?”
Even if Wizards could use a multitude of elements, each individual was naturally inclined to specializing into one, maybe two of them through Skill choices and Mastery training. However, as those parts of their arcane arsenal became more potent, the rest of it would lag behind and barely improve at all.
“Give it up, Nottley!” shouted his comrade from behind. “Just put your Mana Shield up already!”
The Wizard glanced up to see something like cracks forming in the air, a clear sign that the keep’s innermost barrier was about to break. As much as he disliked going on the defensive, he had to admit it was a much better use of his MP than throwing those pathetic Spells around. He still made sure to click his tongue in frustration as he and several others started layering the defenses on in preparation of that barrier being broken through.
However, they would soon find out that this action, although correct on principle, was ultimately futile.
A loud, deep something sounded out throughout the besieged fort.
The bizarre noise that was somewhere halfway between a groan and a roar rapidly rose in volume. Those with trained ears and senses would be able to tell that this disturbance had not one, not two, but five distinct sources, all making the same noise at that same pitch.
Scouts on both sides of the conflict started keeling over while the mysterious voices became so loud that they threatened to rupture their eardrums. It wasn’t just them, but pretty much everyone in the area followed suit. Humans, elves and dwarves alike were all momentarily paralyzed by the deafening noise that seemed to rattle them down to their very bones. Even the remaining VIPs - Zone, Imiryl, Hilda and the Black Tower - were all driven to their knees.
The very ground shifted and undulated unnaturally, causing more than a few people to lose their footing and fall over. Several gigantic roots burst out of the dirt, completely sealing the holes in the walls and trapping roughly 70% of the Empire’s remaining forces inside the fort. The cry that seemed to split the very air apart suddenly stopped, and a heavy silence hung over the battlefield. Combatants on both sides hastily rebuilt their formations, yet none of them dared to utter so much as a peep. Their bodies and minds reflexively tensed up as they scanned their surroundings. For even though only a handful of individuals knew what was about to happen next, none of those men and women believed even for a second that the auditory assault was the end of it.
A chorus of bizarre sounds came from outside the wall. It was short, abrupt, and sounded like a bunch of something had happened all at once.
Barely a second later, the noise repeated itself-
-followed by a scream. Lots of screams, actually.
That dreadful noise rang out once again, followed by what sounded like a widespread panic. Those inside the walls could hear the sound of the Imperial soldiers fighting something, but could not see it.
Zone, having regained her senses, spread her wings and immediately bolted upwards. She was already up and over the wall before anyone could do anything to stop or interfere with her. And what she saw on the other side of those roots was something that could only be described as one thing.
She turned around in the air and stared silently at the soldiers - her fellow countrymen - below her. Her trademark ice cold expression was shattered, and her face showed a mix of spite, anger and fear.
What she had just witnessed was something she could neither fully comprehend nor handle. But she still wanted to do something. Anything.
But what? What could she possibly do against that?! Her mind spun along at great speeds looking for an answer, but came to a grinding halt when she realized the ghastly noises had stopped, leaving behind nothing but silence. It was a sign that whatever powers were at work here were finished with the people outside.
Which meant that they would undoubtedly-
-move onto the inside.
Hundreds of slim roots sprang up from the ground. Each of them had impaled a single Imperial soldier from below, skewering them completely. Metal, flesh and bone - all of it was pierced completely as if it were nothing but paper. The targets were chosen seemingly at random, and they all let out that terrifying sound at the same time. A few of the sturdier ones clung onto life, letting out a few disgusting noises or spurts of blood before the spear-like roots retreated into the ground with the same blinding speed with which they appeared. It wasn’t until the humans’ punctured bodies - living or otherwise - hit the ground that their allies began to realize the grim scene in front of their eyes was, unfortunately, a reality.
A second wave of spears followed the first one almost immediately. The Imperial soldiers flew into an uncoordinated panic. How were they supposed to fight an enemy that used the very ground beneath their feet as shield?!
Several of them realized the trees were at fault and started attacking them in earnest. However, a Hylt tree’s Ironbark was not to be underestimated. That tough natural armor effortlessly absorbed any and all attacks and Spells that came at it. A few of them managed to chip or singe it, but that was it.
The human Wizards realized it was futile, and immediately followed Zone’s example and bolted into the air.
“Shoot down the fliers!”
A commanding voice rang out within the Republic’s stupefied ranks. Adventurers and soldiers alike felt their bodies jolt as if struck by lightning, and immediately targeted the flying Spell-slingers.
The humans who tried to flee were riddled with wounds and lost their lives in an instant. Those of them that were closer to the outside wall, Zone included, were able to shamelessly escape the Republic’s deathtrap.
The same voice rang out atop the keep walls, clearly audible over the chaos beneath its walls. The Republic troops followed it without question, and halted their attacks. It was quite clear by this point this is what their superiors were plotting, so all they had to do was simply follow those orders
They just silently watched the Empire’s plight, with a mixture of horror, fear and awe.
It was like being in the eye of a hurricane of death.
None of them dared to move or even utter a peep, lest they raise the ire of their betters.
Many of them tried closing their eyes, but doing so was somehow worse.
It just made that horrible sound even more pronounced.
SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK SHUNK
It had taken a mere 2 minutes to completely decimate nearly 15,000 people. Their mangled corpses and discarded weapons littered the ground. The upturned and hole-filled soil eagerly drank up all their oozing blood, and the terrain on the inside of the fort walls steadily became a bloody swamp. There was a loud rumble as the giant roots that prevented the soldiers’ retreat went back whence they came, revealing that the scenery beyond them was the same hellscape. The only survivors outside the keep were the handful of the Republic’s troops that leapt off the walls after following Hilda’s questionable example, the dwarven Berserker herself, and the shaman known as Black Tower. He didn’t know it yet, but the Shaman’s habit of going around topless had excluded him from the dryads’ game of ‘Pop the Blue Things.'
“So… uh… Elyon?” muttered Nottley as he struggled to find his voice.
The Druid in question had, almost without thinking, gotten right up next to him in order to get a better view of what was happening below. It was a decision he was regretting immensely right now.
“What were you going to say about those dryads earlier?”
“... That they were weaker than expected?”
“So… How does it feel to be wrong for once?”
The elf vomited violently over the side of the tower.
“Yeah. Urp! That’s, uh, about right.”
The human Wizard could only sympathetically pat him on the back while doing his absolute best to keep his own breakfast down.