Humans clashed against dwarves, each side giving a rallying cry of their own. Shield clanged against shield and spears tangled together as the Imperial troops and dwarven ‘mercenaries’ fought in the middle of the street. Like two tidal waves of steel trapped in a small canal, they slammed into one another with all their might, neither willing to back down a single step. The housing on either side of the road resembled nothing more than smoldering ruins that were still alit with magical fire, despite the freezing rain pouring down from overhead. The only ground given or taken more less came down to footing as both sides gradually sunk into the muddy road.
“Bash‘n’bolt!” came out a deep yell.
The dwarven front line suddenly unleashed a unified Shield Bash Martial Art, blowing back the Imperial troops and breaking their defensive posture despite the height difference. What followed was a small volley of steel-tipped bolts released from the crossbowmen in the rear. They flew low over the objectively shorter soldiers’ heads and poised to strike the Imperial troops dead-on.
The humans, not willing to suffer any more blasted projectiles, took cover behind their shields, be they metal or magic in nature. The ones at the back defended successfully while those at the very front were still off-balance and took a few hits. However, these projectiles lacked a Ranger’s Skills and Attributes behind them. Even if crossbows were more powerful, the damage these guys inflicted was far less deadlier than that ungodly hail of arrows and explosions the Imperials had suffered through at the start of the battle.
The dwarven phalanx, not willing to let the enemy rebuild their formation, surged forward and once again clashed against them. At the same time a unit of 30 or so Imperial Wizards flew in dangerously low over the smoldering and/or collapsed houses and unleashed a rain of Fireballs on top of the dwarves, cooking many of them in their armor. The flyboys prepared for another salvo to finish them off, but were then struck by Imiryl’s Triple Chain Lightning as she was passing by. Arcs of purple-tinged electricity bounced between them, and at least a third of the humans fell to the ground while giving off black smoke.
However, Imiryl did not stop to confirm the damage, nor did she fly back around to finish the job, as the man codenamed Hook was vehemently giving her chase. She had expected him to be formidable given his station as one of the Gilded Hand, but still ended up underestimating him. This was, after all, her first time facing off against a Psionic.
Any and all Spells she tried to fling at him were either nullified, deflected, redirected or otherwise completely dodged. She had also attempted to get in close, grab onto him and use a point blank Paralyzing Shock, but the cocky human had just thrown her back with a flick of his wrist when she got close. His defensive capabilities were so absurd it made attacking him in one-on-one combat an exercise in futility.
Which was why rather than stay and fight the one guy, the High Elf had been doing her best to keep him at a distance while doing fly-bys on the Imperial lines. During their bouts she had discovered the output of the human’s Force Magic fell significantly the farther away his target was. Sure, he could still knock her flight path off-course or interrupt her incantations, but the actual damage inflicted was minimal. The man also seemed to possess potent Domination Magic, but the clarity of mind and magical defenses possessed by a Level 100 Wizard as well as her aerial prowess allowed her to either avoid or withstand all of his attempts to mentally dominate her.
But still, Hook did not give up and dogged her relentlessly. One of them had to run out of MP at some point, and it certainly wasn’t going to be him. And when that snooty bitch finally ran out of steam, he would be there to-
“Operative Hook!” blared a voice in his head. It was the telepathic link he had set up between himself, his commanding officer and the other Imperial VIPs.
“What is it?!” he responded without trying to hide his irritation.
“We have sightings of the Tempest of Rage in the eastern side of town! Disengage from your current target and go put a stop to that monster’s rampage! She’s mowing down our men like they’re weeds!”
Hook really did not like that order. He wanted to make that haughty bitch pay for costing him his left arm and leg during their confrontation years ago. Just thinking about that day made his magically restored limbs ache with the phantom pain of having them burnt off his body. He wanted to catch that cunt and put her through much the same, mostly for his own satisfaction.
“Weeds are notoriously tough survivors, Major,” he replied defiantly. “I’m sure they’ll be fine without-”
“Do it now, you cocky piece of shit!”
Hook disliked that stuck-up officer’s tone of voice quite a bit too. Did he even realize the man he was talking down to could turn him into a drooling vegetable even from this distance? Well, at the very least he had the balls to match his rank, and rank was pretty much everything that mattered in the Imperial army. Besides, as much as Hook was looking forward to making Imiryl scream, keeping his cushy job and fat paycheck were ultimately more important to him than his grudge towards the elf. At least the Major was a hundred times better than that slave-driver Edward when it came to bossing people around.
“Yes, sir,” he replied dissapointingly. “Disengaging and acquiring new target.”
Hook made an abrupt 90-degree turn as he broke off his aerial pursuit and headed towards the location given by his handler. Flying through the open air like that naturally made him a target, as arrows and Spells launched from the ground flew at him as he passed by. Of course, such disorganized and spontaneous anti-air measures had no hope of hitting him at his speed. Even if they did, they’d just bounce off his Force Field. In fact, given how even Imiryl gave up on attacking him, his invisible barrier was seeing far more work as an umbrella than a form of defense.
It wasn’t all bad, though, since Hook hated getting his threads wet.
As for the ground battle, it had more or less descended into chaos ever since the wall was toppled 4 hours ago. The elves had the advantage when it came to numbers and knowledge of the terrain, but the Imperial war machine was still going strong. The humans’ superior equipment and tactics regarding urban combat allowed them to hold their own through ambushes and landmine traps alike as they pushed into the city. Although air superiority was still being heavily contested by both sides, the Empire seemed to be slowly taking the lead on the ground as they encircled the city.
Well, aside from the place where the one-woman army called Hilda appeared. That place wasn’t hard to find, as Hook could practically hear her roaring over the sounds of battle. Having discerned her location, the Psionic rapidly decreased his altitude towards the scene of a gruesome massacre that had unfolded in a small alley. The cleaved bodies of what was once an Imperial unit were strewn about, while a lone dwarven Berserker stood right in the middle of them. The layer of blood, guts and filth covering her armor and axe was so thick that even this squall seemed unable to wash it all off.
Seeing as how the dwarf seemed to be catching her breath and had not yet noticed him, Hook decided he’d give her a little greeting.
The ground Hilda was standing on suddenly split apart. Two slabs of road rose up and closed in from either side of her as if they were a bear trap, smashing her between them. Needless to say, if an ordinary soldier had been hit by that, then nearly every bone in their body would have been broken in an instant.
“Bloody cunting cockfaggots!”
But, this being Hilda, she merely broke out of the ‘coffin’ while cursing her lungs out.
“Alright!” she shouted while looking around. “What suicidal twatface just signed their death warrant, eh?!”
Her furious, searching gaze instantly locked onto the Psionic floating some 15-odd meters above her.
“Was it ye up there, ye pooftah?!”
Without even waiting for the answer, the already revved-up Berserker grabbed a loose cobblestone from the ground with one hand and threw it straight at his head as if it were a cannonball. It collided against his Force Field with enough force to break apart into pebbles, but didn’t even make Hook flinch. A point that seemed to raise her already raging ire even further.
“C’mere, ye pajama-wearing pansy!” she taunted. “What? Think just cuz yer up in th’ air yer better ‘n me?! I’ll fuckin’ wreck ye, mate!”
“… Quite. Mind Crush!”
After finally obtaining a suitable target for his prided Domination Magic, Hook wasted little time in putting it to good use. Hilda dropped her oversized axe and fell to the ground writhing as the the human directly assaulted on her mind in an attempt to shatter her psyche completely. The strain it put on her was completely unexpected and unlike anything else she’d experienced. It was as if someone was trying to rip her brain out of her skull through her ears and nose, pulling on it in every direction.
The dwarf’s extremely volatile nature as a Berserker may have made her a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, but that was only at a physical level. It actually worked against her when it came to mental combat. Indeed, for all her martial might and force of will, she was ultimately nothing more than a loudmouthed toddler before Hook.
Something the sadistic Psionic had fully anticipated. His earlier irritation and being ordered to give up on Imiryl disappeared as he reveled in the dwarf’s roars of pain and impotent rage. He really loved easy wins like this. Honestly, was this really supposed to be a Level 100 adventurer? Was she seriously that unprepared for things like this?
In the next instant he realized that no, she wasn’t. He broke off his assault on her mind and dodged rapidly to the side as a Stalker demon tore through the air he occupied a moment ago. Her primary claws missed her mark, but her back-mounted scythes still managed to rip through the Psionic’s Force Field and cause it to collapse.
This entire scenario was actually a trap by the Republic specifically set to target Hook. Once his propensity for Domination Magic was found out, it was only inevitable that Imperial command would send him after Hilda. The dwarf served as the bait, while the Sandman’s loyal minion would move in for the kill. The vigilante himself was unwilling to personally confront the enemy, but gave his word he would intervene if the opportunity presented itself.
In other words, Boxxy really didn’t want to face a powerful enemy unless it was sure of its victory.
And so, after Hilda raised a lot of noise and spread a good amount of death, the target showed himself. The instant he had his attention focused on the bait, Drea had launched herself towards his position using a slingshot made from her webbing and attempted to gut him. It was the right move, as the best and arguably only way to take out a Psionic of Hook’s caliber was to kill the bastard before he even knew someone was out to get him.
The human was no fool, however, and was able to pick up Drea’s presence through a Skill called Psychic Radar. It allowed him to sense the presence of any and all sentient beings within its range, especially those harboring malicious intent towards him. It was not as foolproof as a certain shapeshifter’s MLG, but it was still a powerful anti-assassination tool. He knew a demon was skulking about, but the sheer speed and angle she came at him almost caught him off-guard.
‘Almost’ being the operative word.
Having failed in her initial ambush, Drea landed on one of the tiled rooftops and immediately turned around to stare at her target face-to-face. This sort of direct confrontation with her lunch was really not to her liking, which she displayed by hissing loudly while clacking her mandibles and claws together in irritation. Hook immediately swung his favorite Mind Hand down on top of her, but the nimble demon dodged it by bolting off to the side. As she did, she shot a stream of white webbing from her left claw-hand, which attached itself to Hook’s right foot.
“Shit, my Force Field!”
Having his fun suddenly interrupted like that made the Psionic lash out at that annoying arachnid instead of rebuilding his defenses. The light-bodied demon then began rapidly climbing up the web line, clearly intent on carrying out her orders. Hook would obviously have none of that, and used a stunning Mind Blast Spell on her. Even if demons like Drea were highly resistant to mental attacks, it didn’t mean they were completely invulnerable to them. Indeed, the mental jolt he unleashed was powerful enough to stop the Stalker’s upward advance for a split second, which was all he needed. In the next instant, his Mind Hand wrapped tightly around the demon, breaking and mangling her nimble limbs in its mystical grip. Rather than trying to kill her on the spot, Hook instead made a throwing motion with his entire upper body, catapulting Drea into the distance. It was a one-way express ticket to the middle of the Rainy Woodlands.
Just then, he felt a tug at his leg. Looking down in a panic, he realized the thick thread that spider-girl had hit him with was still there, and Hilda had caught the dangling rope with both hands. One could practically hear the widening, evil grin spreading underneath her helmet.
“Get over here!”
The dwarven Berserker pulled on the thread with all her might. The enormous weight of her armor kept her feet firmly planted on the ground while the ridiculous strength in her arms overpowered whatever magic was keeping her opponent afloat. He slammed face-first into the cobblestone road some 6 meters away from the dwarf, sending mud, water and rocks flying everywhere. The human managed to put up a smaller, localised version of his Force Field at the last moment. It softened the crash considerably, but still left him reeling from the impact.
However, rather than pick up her axe and try to close the distance between them, Hilda chose to not give her opponent a chance to rebuild his focus.
“C’mon, boyo! Time to meet the neighbours!”
She tightened her grip on the rope-like thread and twisted her entire body around as she swung Hook around sideways, sending him crashing into a nearby wall. Readjusting her grip on the sticky thread, she twisted around in the opposite direction to fling him into the house on the opposite side of the street.
After being ‘introduced to the neighborhood’ a third time, however, the Stalker’s maximum-strength webbing finally snapped under all the strain. Finally being freed from his role as Hilda’s ragdoll, Hook was allowed the precious few seconds he needed to regain his wits and reassess his situation.
His arm was broken, he was bleeding internally and his potions were doubtlessly smashed into dust. To make matters worse his Psychic Radar detected a number of smaller presences making their way towards him, accompanied by a particularly gruesome one that was unlike anything else he’d felt before. Deciding this was enough ‘paycheck earning’ for the moment, Hook chanted a Flight Spell through gritted teeth. He bolted straight up into the air and soared back toward Imperial lines to recuperate while he had the chance.
Hilda bent over, leaned heavily on her knees and panted heavily with only the raindrops on her helmet and the puddles of Imperial blood under her feet for company. She had been fighting literally non-stop ever since the humans cleared that minefield, so she wasn’t exactly running on a full tank of gas when that guy showed up. He was also much more powerful than Imiryl had let on, so she felt she would have definitely bit the big one if the Sandman’s bodyguard hadn’t left her a lifeline like that.
“Heh,” she chuckled to herself in between gasping breaths. “That’s… Huff... two I owe that creepy bastard!”
The dwarf shifted her gaze to the side, her body tensing up reflexively at that strangely squeaky voice. The intensifying rain coupled with her blurry vision made it hard to make out shapes and colors, so she wasn’t sure if the two dozen or so fuzzy figures approaching her were allies or enemies. At least, not until a random lightning strike made it abundantly clear that the one in the lead had a full head of crimson hair topped by two triangular ears. As they got closer she also realized that the growing white spot in her vision wasn’t a sign of her unstable condition, but was actually a mithril golem.
“Oh, if it isn’t the Merry Popper!” she said while relaxing her guard. “I forgot you and your trophy wife were around for a second there!”
“Miss Hilda! This is not the time for that!” complained Keira as she and the rest of her squad gathered around her. “Are you alright?! Where’s the enemy?!”
“Ran off with his tail between his leg. He got me good, but the tall creep’s pet helped me give as good as I got. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to lie down for a moment…”
Having given the bare-bones explanation, the dwarf fell backwards onto the wet ground as her ruptured mind could no longer cling to consciousness.
Seeing that unstoppable force called Hilda suddenly keel over like that momentarily stunned everyone, Keira included. Unlike the soldiers under her command, however, her reaction wasn’t due to shock, surprise or disbelief, but a sign of the monster-in-their-midst weighing its options.
Finishing off the Berserker in her current state and disposing of the witnesses would be frightfully easy. The rain would provide plenty of cover, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to blame all their deaths on the failed ambush. Not to mention that Fizzy would be there to corroborate her story, so there would be no danger to Boxxy’s Facade.
If the Mimic killed her, it would probably get a good amount of Levels and a chance at absorbing an absurd amount of Attributes or Skills all at once. At the same time, however, it had a literal human army to feast on in order to sate its hunger for power. Not to mention that failing this operation would cause the Sandman’s stock with the Republic to fall tremendously, leading to fewer or less profitable contracts. Not to mention that having a well-connected Republic VIP as Keira’s ally would prove to be extremely beneficial in numerous ways.
Having concluded that Hilda had more value alive than dead, Keira suddenly raised her voice.
“Well, don’t just stand there!” she shouted at the others. “Fizzy, Jax and Sparrow - heal her wounds! The rest of you, give them some cover! You, you, you and you - secure the interior of that house! Mikey and Sarya - I want eyes on the rooftops. Let me know the instant you spot enemy movement! Once the VIP is treated we’ll move her inside and consult with command! Syme - check the human corpses for an officer and see if they have anything of value on them!”
Shouts of ‘Yes, ma’am!’ and ‘Right away, ma’am!’ rose up from the gathered soldiers and conscripts as they scrambled to complete their assigned orders. Of course, a good number of them had some reservations about being ordered around by a young girl initially. Even if they knew better than to judge a book by its cover, it was still hard for them to accept a happy-go-lucky kid like that as their executive officer. Indeed, many of them believed her to be little more than a mascot, despite Fizzy’s assurances to the contrary. And as is the nature of things, such doubts and prejudices threatened to cloud their judgement when their original commanding officer had been suddenly killed in action and Keira had to assume command.
However, even though a third of the remaining unit now lay dead, not a single man or woman who was still there had any doubts as to the Decanus’s abilities.
Keira’s sound judgement and thorough understanding of her enemy had seen them through 7 separate clashes with Imperial units in this battle so far, and successfully routed all of them. It wasn’t like she was a master strategist, but rather that she wielded the troops at her disposal as if they were extensions of her own body. She knew the right moment to press the attack, didn’t hesitate to pull her men back to regroup when the need arose, and did not engage the enemy if there was no chance of victory.
Of course, looking at it objectively, her accomplishments were so negligible and small-scale that they did nothing to change the course of the battle for New Whitehall. Even if she had gotten her unit wiped out instantly, it still would have made very little difference in the greater conflict. But that’s not how the people doing the actual fighting felt. To them, Decanus Keira Morgana’s concise orders, caring personality and unrelenting covering fire had elevated the young girl from a perceived burden into a shining beacon.
A guiding light through the unrelenting storm called war.
Which was why not a single one of them batted an eye when she told them their unit would be taking part in an operation to trap and kill an enemy VIP. Their morale raised even further when they were told the awe-inspiring, albeit slightly nightmarish Sandman and unstoppable Hilda would be on their side. Adding Fizzy’s guardian-angel-like presence and Keira’s infallible command made them feel like the Goddess of Victory was on their side.
The Decanus then promptly called them idiots, reminded them that such a deity didn’t exist, and drove home the point that pointless bravado would only get them pointlessly killed. Their role was strictly to provide support and backup. If the enemy was powerful enough to overcome both Hilda and ‘Mr S,’ then there’s no way the rest of them could stand a chance. And watching the brief-yet-intense confrontation from afar had proven that Keira’s judgement was, as usual, right on the money.
Which led to the suddenly humbled troops taking refuge in a leaky, half-destroyed house as the battle raged on in other parts of the city. They were huddled around the unconscious but otherwise healed Hilda while Keira reported their status to Silus Underwood via Comm-crystal.
“I see,” he said after hearing all the necessary details. “It’s unfortunate he escaped, but we now have a better grasp of his abilities. For now, transport the VIP back to camp. Imperial forces seem to be falling back for the moment, so your way should be-”
The blue-tinged imaged of the elven intelligence officer’s bust suddenly went silent and turned his head to the side.
“What?!” he yelled in shock to someone out-of-sight. “Since when?! … Shit, they got us!”
He then turned his attention to the catgirl on the line.
“Belay that, Decanus! Your new orders are to take shelter immediately! Go underg͘͝ŕò̸͏u̵ń͘҉d̢͘, fortify your position and protect the VIP until y̢o̷u̢ ̵̨r̶͜e̸ce͏̶͞i̧v͏e̴ further orders!”
The signal that had suddenly grown strangely fuzzy and static was then abruptly cut off.
“You heard the man!” shouted Keira before any potential unease could set in. “Something big’s coming and we gotta be ready! Get the VIP into the basement and shore it up with magic! I want-”
Before Keira could finish giving out orders, one of the unit’s scouts suddenly ran in from the outside.
“What is it, Mikey? Enemy movement?”
“No, ma’am!” said the human Rogue in a panicked voice. “I spotted something strange, but have no idea what it is! I think you should take a look at it!”
“I have a bad feeling about this… Alright, I’m going topside to check it out! Syme - you’re in charge until I get back!”
The catgirl turned around and tossed the Comm-crystal to one of the elven soldiers who caught it without issue.
“On it, ma’am!” he said with a salute as he accompanied the others further into the house towards the basement.
Keira followed the scout out of the house and the two of them clambered onto the half-destroyed slanted roof. They carefully crawled over the slippery red tiles and peaked their heads over the roof’s ridge.
“Up there, ma’am! In the northeast!”
Following the rogue’s finger, Keira managed to locate the anomaly in the sky.
Which was blue.
The depressingly gray sky that had been overcast since last night and had been dumping freezing rain on top of Empire and Republic alike for the for the past hour had a blank spot in it. It was as if someone had pierced a hole in the heavens themselves, allowing the afternoon sun to shine through and cast a breathtaking rainbow over the battlefield. As for the clouds themselves, they seemed to be behaving oddly. Rather than closing in to fill the bizarre gap, they gave the odd impression that they were running away from it on their own volition.
Keira stood fully as if to get a better view. Her gaze was not locked on the bizarre weather pattern overhead, but rather on the ground directly underneath it. It was a spot off in the distance, well within the city and far behind Republic lines. And around that spot, clearly visible through the rain and smoke. swirled a thick, unnatural red mist.
“Do you know what that is, ma’am?” asked the scout, expectantly.
“No,” lied Keira, “but I don’t like it one bit. Find Sarya, get her to the basement and follow Syme’s lead! I’m going to keep watch for a while longer!”
“But I can’t just leave you here! If it’s about scouting-”
“Just fucking go, Mikey!” she insisted. “My eyes are better than both of yours and Sarya’s, and you know it!”
“... Understood, ma’am.”
The human hesitated for a second before saluting her and sliding down the tiled roof.
Keira returned her attention to the swirling red mist that was over a kilometer away. It was something that Boxxy actually knew about for once. Which was precisely why the Mimic doubted whether cowering in a basement would be enough to survive the inbound threat. Its devious mind had already come up with an alternate way to handle it, but the shapeshifter really didn’t want to go through with it.
After all, it was a stupid idea. One that it had entertained several times, but never actually thought to put it into practice. It was so abysmally terrible and prone to backfiring that its survival would be at serious stake. It didn’t necessarily need to do it either, as all it had to do to live through this was turn tail and desert the battle with all due haste.
And yet, it still wanted to do it. Because it was a chance. A chance to let Keira survive the inbound threat, let the Sandman secure his next Republic-funded paycheck and put those plagiaristic Imperials in their place, all at the same time.
And chances existed to be taken.
*Beep ... Beep*
“Hello, you have-”
“Carl! It’s Boxxy! Listen, I have an emergency!”
“Wah? Well- what is it?!”
The Mimic took a deep breath as it steeled itself for what was about to transpire.
“I need to make an appointment!”