Wizardquest 3 Part 15: Two Pronged Assault

Chapter 41

                >Tobias

                “Lord Commander, wait!”

                Blake turns around as you approach, his entourage of Order Heroes readying their weapons before relaxing as they see you. The man smiles when you walk up and asks, “Tobias, you’re not staying for the meeting?”

                “Eh, that’s stuff for dumb brainy smarties.” You say, waving a hand in dismissal. Rayleigh and Finn exchange a glance while Alice nods her head in false sagacity. “But to be honest, I thought I’d be more useful working with the DSS. They are technically my boss after all.”

                “Hmm, very well.” Blake says, waving over to a squire. “Prepare a carriage for us to the King. Send our regards that we are on the way.”

                The squire runs to do so, and Blake walks as if he knows his orders will be followed by the time he reaches the yard. In that spirit, he speaks as he walks with a steady gait, “I plan to send soldiers to Loveura. I imagine the King will send troops too, but the Order is well and ready to mobilize as soon as everything is planned.”

                “I understand.”

                “Which means there is little time to plan much else. Anyone who is going will need to be going soon.”

                “I understand.”

                “Which means if someone is going, they might not be present for the assault on the Cradle.”

                “I understand.”

                He stops and faces you. “Do you?”

                You look down, thinking it over. The fate of the world, or the fate of your family? Which do you prioritize?

                “There’s no shame either way.” Veronica says, clearly not bothered to inject herself into a conversation the Lord Commander is having. “There is certainly a tactical reason to save our cities as well.”

                “Which is why I’m sending Rayleigh and Finn there.” Blake says, looking at the two. They salute the man as he begins walking again. “Alice, you’re going to the Cradle.”

                “Oh? Very well.” She says in an uncharacteristically subservient fashion. “I understand, my lord.”

                “Bardam, you and I are following her.” Veronica says. The man merely nods his head before looking to the sleepy Mouse Girl near him.

                “What of Maya?”

                “They’ll need a scout.” Maya says. “The Cradle is unforgiving territory, a land based scout would be extremely efficient.”

                “I concur.” Blake says, nodding. “While other Heroes will support the push into Loveura, you will be on your own to the Cradle. I trust they’ll find an appropriate way in. You’ll be instrumental to help. I won’t let him say no.”

                “Of course, my lord~.” Veronica says, giving the man a smirk. He just smiles in return. Damn does that man have a pretty smile.

                “Err, wait.” You ask, not able to stop yourself. “What will you be doing?”

                Blake pauses for a moment as he’s about to walk into the stableyards. He sighs and says, “Playing politics, of course.”

————————————————————————————————————————————

                “Lord Commander, Lady Ascendant, we have been awaiting you.”

                Blake nods to the castle steward, who bows to him and Veronica. He looks at you with a strange expression before turning back to Blake. The man shrugs and the steward coughs into his hand.

                “A-and the Lord Shady.”

                “Thank you, Charles.” You say, which makes the man blink in surprise.

                “How did you-? Ah, well, if you’ll follow this way.”

                He leads you down through a side hallway into the audience chamber of the King. Veronica leans over and whispers, “How did you know his name?”

                “I didn’t, but it seemed appropriate.”

                She blinks in surprise and stifles a chuckle as you reach the door. You’re allowed admittance into the room, where unsurprisingly the King sits, dressed in royal finery. Surprisingly, however, you also see a man you don’t expect to see.

                Anderson stands next to the King, hands behind his back. He raises an eyebrow as you approach, though otherwise he looks unperturbed.

All three of you kneel before the King, who waves his hand for you to rise. “Lord Commander, I am grateful that you pay me a visit. I have heard troubling news.”

                “I as well, your Highess.” Blake says. “Your agent, Lord Shady, had informed me.”

                “Indeed.” The King says, he waves to Anderson. “I was informed myself off events in Loveura and Cair. Forces are being mobilized, but we are not able to provide meaningful aid in a short time frame.”

                “As soon as I return to the Hero’s Hall, I have Heroes ready to leave. I only pray we can get there in time to stop any danger. However-“

                “However?”

                “I believe we should prioritize Loveura over Cair.”

                The King looks surprised. “They are all citizens of Deleor. I will not abandon them to terrorists. Besides, the Galmathorians are likely to have engineered this chaos and will take advantage of the northern border. Solos forbid they get the Monster Nation involved.”

                “They won’t, your Highness.” You say, to which Anderson gives you a disapproving look.

                “The young, disgraced Shady.” The King says, frowning. “I understand you’re the one who took on the role of eliminating rogue illusionists. I also understand you married a Monster.”

                “That is correct, your Highness.”

                “What gives you the right to speak out of turn, then?”

                “Your Highness.” Anderson says. “He is a useful asset, if foolish at times. In the current situation, his skills are useful. He has recently returned from the Monster Nation as well.”

                The King looks at you with scorn before saying, “Very well. Speak.”

                You feel like your life flashed before your eyes. While you’ve fought with some seriously bad customers, this man’s animosity toward you is palpable. He really would execute you if given the chance, huh? Licking your lips, you say,

                “The Monster Lady has no intention of harming us. With a plot to subvert the government discovered in the Galmathorian embassy, support for aiding Deleor might be available. If we sent an emissary there, we could speak with the Monster Lady, or her daughter, and get their support to cover the northern border for a time.”

                “Or they may very well use that as an excuse to invade.” The King says. “No, I will not allow this.”

                “Of… of course.” You say, backing away.

                “Now then, foolishness aside, I suspect you’ve spoke with the Grand Wizard?”

                “Yes, we are all aware of what is happening. It appears that the mana going to the Cradle is fueling the Queen Alarune.”

                “Damn her, what is she planning?” The King growls. “I should have torched that place when I was younger. It was never worth the risk.” He waves his hand,

                “With pressure by Galmathoria, I don’t think we can send a concerted effort to the Cradle at this time.”

                “Nor would we wish to.” Blake says. “The Grand Wizard has a plan to end this threat. I am sending some of my most capable Heroes and the Ascendant to help him.”

                At this, the King seems visibly less worried. “The Ascendant? Well, with your help I assume you even keep that man in check and make this a success.”

                “I will perform my duty that Solos’s children may flourish.”

                The King nods his head. “Very well. Anderson, go with them and secure logistics. I will speak with the war council as the military continues gathering it’s forces. We’ll get reinforcements in as soon as possible.”

                The DSS agent bows and follows you out of the room. You feel uncomfortable as he walks along with you, eventually out of the castle and back to where the other Heroes are waiting.

                “Uhm, are you going to follow us all the way back?” You ask as you walk out of earshot of anyone in the castle.

                “The orders of the King. I am also annoyed with you that you knew what was happening and chose not to inform me.”

                “I told you to ask the Lord Commander and I do believe he explained things in that room.”

                Anderson gives you a flat look, you assume anyway, and looks to Blake, who shrugs. The man shakes his head and waves to your carriage. “Since we are working together, I will explain what we know as well.”

                You load up into the carriage, the other Heroes acting as guard duty on the outside, and the moment the door is shut he turns and says, “The King is too foolish to discount the Monster Nation at this time. Tobias, you are to use your contacts to speak with the Monster Lady and secure our borders.”

                All three of you stare at him in surprise. Even Veronica blinks a few times before asking, “Excuse me?”

                “The King is a wise man, but he does not trust Monsters. I do not blame him, but we need all assets we can. There is something large happening in the Cradle, is there not? That much mana being channeled there is for a purpose, one I wish to subvert, however…” He squeezes his hands together. “The lack of information worries me. It is strange to not KNOW things.”

                “It’s… okay?” You say, not sure how to handle him like this. “Not knowing things is pretty normal for me. You get used to it.”

                He gives you that look through his glasses again. You pretend to think he’s thank you. He’s probably not. Blake cuts in and asks, “What do you know?”

                “In relation to the Cradle, we had an asset inside before the barrier went up that took the mission you were given.” He says to you. “They were stationed within the town inside the Cradle. I do not know whether or not they are still alive, but I would assume they would have more information. I would also like to recover them, if possible.”

                “I will do my best.” Veronica says, meaning it.

                “As far as Loveura, we had always wondered if the Monsters there would cause trouble. We had assumed communications would be up, however and our assets there would not be compromised before we could utilize them. With a command from me they won’t use it.”

                “It?” Blake asks, concerned.

                “A herbicidal drug designed to be dumped into the water supply of Loveura. It would almost certainly kill all of the Plant Monsters present in town, or at least most of them. Harmless to humans and others, but deadly to them and all other plant life in town.”

                “That’s… horrible.” Blake says.

                “But perhaps necessary.” Anderson says. “If Loveura falls any assault on the Cradle will likely fail if any forces move in from the south. With the city back under control, we will be able to push our forces north to cover them.”

                He pulls out from his suit a letter and hands it to you, surprisingly. “You’re authorized to deliver this to the 7th district warehouse #4. If there is no other way, it must be done.”

                “Has the King authorized this?” You ask, hesitant.

                “If the King knew, he may have authorized it long ago.”

                The four of you ride in silence until you reach the Hero’s Hall before being let in, Anderson adjusts his suit and steps out of the carriage. Near the entrance is another carriage, where another agent opens the door and lets him in. He turns back to you and says, “Think on what I’ve said. We’ll be sending agents of our own. Good day, Lord Commander.”

                The door closes and the carriage leaves, leaving all of you confused and worried. From the side of the carriage, Alice leans over and asks, “What was that about?”

                “Options.” Blake says. “Now then, prepare to mobilize, you have your orders.”

                “Sir!” They say, moving into the Hall to prepare themselves. Veronica nods her head as they leave before turning to you, waiting.

                “What do you think, Tobias?” Blake asks, not looking directly at you. “You’ve been given power even I tremble to wield. Where will you go? What will you do?”

                Ugh… good question.

———————————————————————–

>Grand Wizard

 

A quick survey shows you’re left with Rommel, his familiar, Tabitha, Harmony, and Tobias’s group. While they seem fairly competent- you’ve heard the stories- their ages make you question that. Sure, Tobias himself is a fairly young man, but that Crow Girl, Clarissa? She clearly isn’t a fighter and you know for a fact that the Illoma’s aren’t exactly born fighters either. Probably explains why you’re able to score contracts over them on everything but weapons technology. Which is horribly ironic.

                The Badger Girl, Ginelle, seems tough and she reminds you of Hala a little… which might not be a good thing, while the man next to her you believe is the heir to House Fullvora? Not that you really care about the noble houses, but how good in combat is he? And then there’s Patricia…

                How exactly did they survive everything they’ve been through?

All in all, you feel a little odd to be talking about something so serious with them, but you’re broken out of your concentration as Clint begins to speak.

“Well, from what I understand, our biggest hurdles are going to be how we get through this barrier and then how we reach the Queen. While we have this rather well-earned reward from the Gods, is it really the only option we have?”

Ah, at least he’s astute. You look over as the Crow Girl speaks,

“Well… it’s something that can be used but… are you sure we should go there? Isn’t that something best left for professionals?”

“Hmph.” Ginelle says, shaking her head. “Given what we’ve been through, we might as well BE professionals.”

Ophelia sighs. “I’ll be honest, I feel like we’re a little in over our heads. I agreed at first to go to with Tobias because it was related to my business and then again because… because I don’t know.” Her floppy ears twitch as she rubs them, “But I do want to feel useful, given what I know.”

“There’s no shame in understanding your limits.” Tabitha says. “This is a large task, and there is much and more that needs be done. Isn’t the Manufactorum in Loveura? Wouldn’t it be helpful to devote your efforts to your home?”

“R-Right!” She says, sitting up straight. “You’re right. I might not be useful in the Cradle, but at home I think I can, or at least send some support your way afterward.”

Clarissa puts a wing over her shoulder, “I feel the same. Don’t worry about it! You and me can run communications. I’ll fly and you’ll do that weird magitek thing.”

“Magitek thing?” You ask, cocking your head.

“Oh, communications devices.” Ophelia says. “I’ve been using some recently and been tinkering with them-“

“Oh ho!” You say. “I forgot about those stupid- I mean, wonderful things. Might be useful in this situation, especially if we can signal boost between outposts. Can you get to work on something like that?”

“Uh… maybe?” She says before shaking herself. “I mean, of course I can! The Manufactorum prides itself on beating the competition!”

Your smirk steals some of her thunder, but you don’t push the issue further. Instead, you turn to Clint. “Sorry about that, what were you saying? How to get in and how to get to the Queen, right?”

“That’s the way I see it. Do we have a plan for either of those things?”

“Well, I feel like the hard part is getting in.” Rommel says. “Getting through shouldn’t be too bad. We have plenty of destructive power.”

“On their home turf? With Gods know how much extra power from the mana that’s being siphoned?” Harmony scoffs. “That does not sound like a good idea.”

“A stealth entry?” Rommel mutters, “I don’t think going underground will work given all the roots. I doubt this barrier isn’t omnidirectional either.”

“Well, don’t try the sky either.” Clarissa says. “I’ve flown around that place before, it’s too dense to see anything down there. You’d get caught in the branches if you’re going straight in.”

“A small team that we can’t brute force or fly in…” Ginelle mutters. “Which means going through the trees. The biggest issue is the ground will easily give us away the moment we step foot inside.”

“From the vibrations and the roots of the plants.” Patricia says.

“A shame it’s not water, I just made a great spell for that.” You chuckle. When everyone turns to look at you, you hold up your hands and say, “It stops vibrations in water, had to use it in Filliothea.”

Rommel rubs his chin, “Imagine that, but for the earth. If we could cast something like that and have other means of obfuscation, we’d be rendered undetectable.” He leans back his head and groans, “But that kind of spell would be hard enough to use on one person, let alone a group.”

Tabitha shrugs, “Didn’t you just make a deal with the God of the Earth?”

The room goes silent. Oh right, you did just do that, didn’t you?

“It would be a boon, but for something so simple…” You mutter. “A-anyway, it’s something to consider.”

“Indeed.” Tabitha says. “Speaking of how to enter then, I believe it would be best to use the south. The forest there is difficult, but not as bad as the rainforest from the east.”

“Appropriate.” Patricia says. “I recall the maps advising against that too unless you were in sore need of a wife or you needed some rather rare plants. I hear the Jaga-Jaga head there from time to time too for that very reason.” She taps the table,

“However, no matter how much you plan on a path here, you’re going to run into difficulty. Due to the nature of the place, paths change from time to time. There’s no clear shot in.”

Tabitha nods in agreement.

“Well… that means the best we can do is prepare, right?” Clint says. “Be ready for anything, but don’t be surprised when it comes.”

All of you nod in agreement. Rommel holds out his hand, “Which brings us back to the issue of how exactly to breach the barrier. We have the help of the Gods to shatter it, do we need anything else?”

“Wouldn’t that bring Solos’s attention though?” Ophelia asks. “I mean, I guess them doing anything might call his attention, but shouldn’t you try to be more… subtle?”

“How so? It’s a barrier, you’d need to break it.” Ginelle asks, clearly confused.

“Not necessarily.” You say, musing. “Go on.”

“Well… like the barrier we have around this room, it’s usually one integral field. Break a part and you break the whole thing. But if you disrupt a section in a certain way, it won’t break but will open up and then snap back together, right?”

Rommel furrows his brow. “I understand the principal, but with something so big and powerful, I don’t see how we’d be able to manage that. I mentioned beforehand that I don’t think my spell could break that, especially not empowered as it is.”

“But if you focused it on one point, maybe it could?” She asks, hopeful. Her ears droop a moment later, “Or just ask the Gods if they can do that. Might be easier.”

“Definitely worth thinking about, thank you.” You say. “Of course, it might just work out well if mixed with my other idea…”

“Oh?” Tabitha asks, smirking. “Were you going to summon all the feces from Deleor and smash the barrier apart with the combined weight of the shit that comes out of your mouth and from Deleorian’s asses?”

“No, but I like your idea better.” You say, seriously considering it for a moment. But… you decide against that. “As I’d mentioned before, there was the thought of damming some of the flow of the mana through the leylines. While this would make things easier to break through, it would cause unintended consequences until we can free it up. However…”

You shrug, “There’s a particular part of the Verzian leyline which can likely be blocked, stopping much of the flow to the Cradle. The location of the nexus hub is kept mostly hidden within a city between the Cradle and the unsettled west. If we follow the track there, we could reach it on our way to the Cradle.”

                “But if I recall that would be rather dangerous, given how close that is to the Galmathorian border. If they’re truly making an invasion…”

                “Then we pray the guard holds the line and hasn’t diverted too many resources to Loveura.” You say, looking down with frustration.

                “It will also strand Helmscrag and much of the west which already depends on the leyways.” Clint says, shaking his head. “Even if we restore the leylines, if we accidentally destroy that hub doing this, the whole area will have problems again.”

                “It might just be worth the risk.” You say. “But we can decide that as we go forward, we’ll either pass through there or the forest to the south of the cradle anyway. We have multiple avenues with which to do this.”

                “But at least it’s something.” Tabitha says, nodding her head. “We should make preparations to leave as soon as possible. I’m certain Blake is preparing his team to leave for Loveura as it is.”

                “Do you think Tobias is going there?” Ginelle asks Clint, who shrugs.

                “I suppose Richard is there, isn’t he? I wouldn’t blame him.”

                “Then why don’t you go with him?” You ask, to which the Badger Girl blushes.

                “Well, I didn’t meant to imply that it was more important than this, because from what I understand, it isn’t but…”

                “But we know how Tobias works. If he’s going to Loveura, it be in our interest.” Clint says, tipping his hat. “Besides, I know that Ginelle is worried about Saya, and Loveura isn’t exactly that far from Kasin.”

                “If that’s the case, then our current party going to the Cradle will be you, Rommel, Harmony, myself…” Tabitha says. “It’s not very many, is it?”

                “No, but it’s not like we haven’t saved the world with less.” You sigh and rub at your head, “I wish Selene was here.”

                “Uhm, well.” Clarissa says. “I suspect there will be Harpies flying to the Monster Nation, right?”

                “Yeah.” You say, not convinced it would even be a good idea for her to come. Still, it would make you feel a lot better to have her here…

                “What about Sylphie?” Rommel asks.

                Your spine stiffens as your good hand tenses. A slow breath escapes your lips as you look up and say, “I don’t know what she’ll do. Given Mr. Ed’s state, I don’t blame her for not coming. I won’t force her.”

                “I understand.” Rommel says, and you know damn well that he perfectly does.

                “Well, we’d better get prepared then.” Tabitha says. “We’ll explain our situation to Blake and go from there.”

                “Right.” You say, rising along with the others. It feels the appropriate moment to say something witty or perhaps inspirational. All you can say, however, is “Thanks for the help.”

                Though you feel like an idiot, the smiles in the room are genuine. Beneath that is worry, fear, anxiety, but you have no doubt that they’re ready for this insane series of events. You suppose that’s all you can ask for, really.

                When you deactivate the wards and leave the chamber, Hero Fellows informs you that the Lord Commander left to the castle and hasn’t returned yet as far as he knows. Going with Harmony, you return to the quarters you’ve been staying in at the Hero’s Hall to gather your things. There really isn’t much for you to gather, so what you mainly do is gather your thoughts and take a potion to help with the pain in your arm.

                “You’re worried, aren’t you?” Harmony asks.

                “And you aren’t?”

                Harmony shrugs, “Not particularly. We’ve gone through a lot together, all of us have. And we all came out alright.”

                You look down at your arm and frown, “This time, it’s a little different.”

                She looks to the side, quiet at that.

                “But…” You sigh, turning to look at the trident you worked so hard to get. “We started on this path. We need to finish it, for the good of all of us.”

                “Heh.” She says, “I remember the awkward Wizard who kept his feelings bottled up and hidden. Where did he go?”

                “He got laid.” You say, wagging a finger. “And started a family, one which he intends to keep in one piece.”

                “So Sylphie…?”

                “I’ll think about. She seems intent to stay with Mr. Ed.”

                “I suppose, but I wonder if she’ll worry that much more if you-“

                A knock comes at the door, interrupting Harmony. She turns to you before going and opening the door to reveal Bardam standing there. He salutes and says, “Grand Wizard, the Lord Commander has returned from speaking with the King. He requests your audience immediately.”

                “That’s our cue, you say, placing the [Trident of the Sea King] back into your bag.

                You follow the man back to the meeting chamber where Blake stands at the head of the table, everyone reconvened. It’s been a few hours, but it only feels like it’s been a few minutes, all things considered. Is it your nerves? Well, no time to dwell on that.

                Blake stands straight and says, “The King has authorized, no, ordered the Order of the Heroic Brotherhood to engage in Loveura. We are devoting significant resources there alongside some of our Heroes.” He nods to Finn and Rayleigh. “Some Heroes are being sent to Cair, but a token amount, in truth. This leaves us with little forces to sent to the Cradle, however I would be hard pressed not to send you Veronica, Bardam, and Maya for their services in the Cradle.”

                The group going to the Cradle look visibly relieved at this information. Blake isn’t finished however as he continues.

                “The forces leaving for Loveura will depart immediately using horse-drawn carriages I’m afraid. Communications between here and Loveura will be established via Ms. Illoma once she reaches the Manufactorum, is that correct?”

                “Of course.” Ophelia says. “If you provide that information to your magitek engineers, I think we can establish a link.”

                “It would be nice if there was a more reasonable way.” Alice says, shrugging. “Like those sigils in Ectria the cult was using.”

                “I would have to smelt something together and inlay the spellform, which is doable, but not before you leave. Perhaps I can send some via harpy however?” You shrug. “Failing that, we’ll have to rely on the Illomas, which is not reassuring.”

                Ophelia frowns, but Blake cuts off the conversation with a stern look. “I have the utmost faith in Ms. Illoma. Now then, we have been asked to keep communications with the Monster Nation. I believe an appropriate representative is Ms. Clarissa, yes?”

                Clarissa nods her head and puffs out her chest. “No problem. Just need a little breather and I’ll carry whatever message you want to Carthos!” She deflates a moment later. “I just hope I’m in time…”

                I have confidence in your skills as well, Blake says, giving her a smile. It fades a moment later as he turns to Tobias.

                “Now then, the last piece in this is the decision of Mr. Shady. As a member of the DSS, will you use your authority in Loveura, or The Cradle?”

                “I…” Tobias says clearly conflicted. He reaches for his jacket unconsciously before pausing and looking down, realizing what he was doing. Closing his eyes, he takes a slow, deliberate breath before looking up and saying,

                “I will go to Loveura. We’ll clear up the trouble in the town and send aid up north as soon as we can. Hopefully it’s not needed, but we’ll regret it if we don’t.”

                He looks up and says with confidence, “Besides, my family is there and near there. I need to go.”

                Blake nods his head. “I understand. In that case I’ll have to work alongside Finn, who is am promoting to acting Captain on this expedition.”

                Finn blinks in surprise, “S-Sir? I don’t understand I-“

                “Have a good head on your shoulders, you just need to learn to follow orders better.” Blake shakes his head, “But at the moment, I need someone who can save lives more than someone who will blindly follow. Lead us to victory, Captain.”

                Finn salutes the man, looking a little concerned, yet proud of the praise. Rayleigh next to him beams, though at Blake’s look she deflates.

                “Don’t burn down the town. You’re being given a second chance.”

                “Y-yes sir.”

                He addresses the group again. “We all know the importance of both of these tasks. We were present for what seems the unimaginable, been through things no person should have to go through. And yet here we are, still standing in the face of it all. Even if it seems overwhelming, know that the person next to you will be by your side and that together, we’re put things right.”

                He raises a fist, “For friends, for our families, for Deleor!”

                Everyone can’t help themselves but join in to shout, “For Deleor!” Ah Blake, see, he’s always the one who knows how to move a crowd.

                “Now go!” He says, “Arrangements are being made for supplies. Captain, confirm with the quartermaster what you need while Wizard, you do the same.”

                “I will not let you down.” Finn says, standing tall.

                “Nor I.” You say, feeling the same strength.

                “And may Solos guide us.” Veronica says, finishing a prayer.

 

Chapter 42

                >Grand Wizard

                Thus energized, the gathered parties begin to make for their preparations. For your part, you’re already thinking over what needs to be done to get those damn sigils made. One set might not be enough… maybe two? Three? No, there’s no way you can make that in time. The spellform alone takes awhile and even then you’d need to get the design right and Gods know where you’ll find a goldsmith at this time of day-

                Lost in your thoughts, you barely notice Tobias fidgeting. His hand goes to his coat pocket again where he pauses before taking in a deep breath. Blake raises an eyebrow as he reaches in and with a flourish, pulls out an envelope.

                “Before everyone leaves!” He says, his voice magnified by what you assume is a simple illusion. Or maybe he just has good diaphragm control. Either way, he gets their attention as he looks at the envelope.

                “This would have come up eventually in the Loveura team but… I should say it here now.” He looks up and grits his teeth as he says, “In Loveura, there’s an herbicide that the DSS made. Quite capable of killing all the plants within the city if dumped into the water supply… including the Plant Monsters.”

                You raise an eyebrow as the man clutches the envelope hard. “I’ve been authorized to use it if needed.”

                Blake watches the man as he speaks. The others in the group murmur to themselves, unsure of what that means. By Veronica’s lack of surprise, she seems to know what’s happening also. Does the King know of this? No, of course not, Loveura would have been purged ages ago if that was the case. So why did the DSS keep this a secret?

                “Well?” Rommel asks, folding his arms. “Will you unleash it upon the city?”

                “Only if I have to.” Tobias says, tucking the envelope back into his coat. “But I want all of you to know that… one way or another, we’ll succeed.”

                “Heh, well if you don’t use it, I’d like to take a look at it.” You say, chuckling. “I have a few weeds that I need killed.”

                Blake gives you a flat look, which is mirrored by others in the group. You look around in surprise for a moment before coughing into your hand, “Ah, well, I didn’t mean it- listen, don’t you have places to be?”

                Tobias chuckles, “Sure thing, Pops.”

                “Listen here you little shit, you don’t get to call me that.” You say, thrusting a finger in front of his face. He steps back in surprise until you chuckle and pat his cheek, “Gosh, family is the greatest thing, isn’t it?”

                The man gulps and backs away, though you’re certain he knows you’re joking. You are joking, right? Ah well, what use is a father-in-law if you can’t bully the man boinking your daughter.

                Damn, you made yourself sad.

                The Loveura team heads off for their preparations, leaving you with your team and Clarissa. The Crow Girl looks between you and the departing Tobias with anxiety, though when Blake puts a hand on her shoulder, she stiffens and about jumps in the air before sinking back down, embarrassed.

                “Don’t worry, it’s just how this guy shows affection. If I recall, Tobias is a smart-ass too, isn’t he?”

                “Y-yeah.” She chuckles, before gulping and looking away from his miraculous smile. “A-anyway, what did you want me to deliver? I’m ready to go whenever.”

                “Ah, I need to make something first.” You say, wagging a finger. “A set of sigils to communicate over long distances.”

                “That certainly would be useful for the military effort.” Blake says. “How many can you make?”

                “About two networks and maybe a handful of them. They take effort. By the way, I need a forge and some raw silver.”

                “Oh, is that all?” Rommel says, digging in his bag for something. He pulls out a few chunks of silver ore and pulls them to his chest before tossing them to you. They hit your chest and clatter to the floor as you look at him like he’s an idiot. He remembers your sling and picks them up before handing them to you, gently.

                “Uh. Why do you have sil-“ You’re cut off as his fox familiar shakes his head at you. “Right… thanks.”

                “There’s a forge in the Hero’s Hall which has tools for silver working.” Blake says. “Ask the artisans, I’m sure they’ll help you out. Just say the Lord Commander asked nicely.”

                “Right then.” You say, waving to Rommel, “You can gather the necessary supplies for our trip right? Good Wizard.”

                “H-hey!” He says as you walk away. You feel magic spike from him for a split second, but nothing happens. Was he going to cast something at you? Nah, of course not.

                Your trip to the smiths is both as nice and as banal as you expected, or it would be if you had two working hands. It frustrates you how much you needed the smiths, who are more than happy to help a friend of their great Lord Commander, in making these sigils.

                The biggest issue with making these sigils is getting a form that will set the spellform correctly. The sigils you made in Ectria were both thematic and effective, but if you repeated their pattern you’d accidentally hook into that network… you think anyway. You haven’t tested it at such a long range. Which means you need something else that would work, but what?

                You lose track of time working with the smiths through various patterns. Selene was always better at this sort of thing, you just sort of make things functional. Aesthetics occur when you have the time to devote to them, and right now you really don’t have that time. And thus you direct them to work with you

                A few hours later, long after the sun has set, you look down at the small, silver sigil in your hand. The smiths give you weary looks as you hold it up to the light, looking over the trinket. It’s shaped like a heart, with runic patterns inscribed into it moving toward a focus in the center which is… a smaller heart.

                “Well this is embarrassing.” You say, looking over at the smiths. They don’t meet your gaze. “But at least it works.”

                Their shoulders slump and they high-five before heading to bed as you puzzle over your sigil. You’re not entirely certain WHY this pattern works, but you’re not going to question it. The theory is that the love in your heart is linked to why you need this and the driving force changes the spell form and yadda yadda. Either way, it works, or at least you’re pretty sure it’s going to work.

                “A heart, huh? Is that for mom?”

                You shake yourself out of your stupor and turn about to see Sylphie walk up to you. She sets down a tray of food before you at your table before sitting down herself, her tails brushing away debris from the table. She takes up a fork and begins to eat what you believe is a rather elaborately made turkey dinner. Damn Heroes live good.

                “It… technically is.” You say, setting it down. “I thought you were looking after Mr. Ed?”

                “He… told me to go get some fresh air.” She says, looking off to the side.

                “He means well.”

                “I know.” She sighs before taking another piece of meat up to her mouth. She chews for a moment before saying, “You’re leaving then?”

                “Harmony tell you?”

                “Seems obvious, but no it was actually Rommel. He asked me to bring you some food too.”

                “Hmph, well I guess he’s alright.”

                She smirks, “Yeah. Well, that’s how these things are.”

                You know exactly what she means but you keep it to yourself. You go to pick up your fork before sighing and setting your hand down. “Sylphie I-“

                “You’re going to ask me to come again?”

                She looks at you, chewing slowly. You look down before sighing and saying, “No. I was actually going to ask you stay here.”

                Her chewing stops a moment before continuing. “Is that… so.”

                “Yeah. I want you here with Mr. Ed, where you can support him. Where you can focus your attention on healing, both of you.”

                She swallows before spearing another piece of meat. Instead of picking it up, she just moves her fork back and forth while looking down. “Are you… going to ask Mom to come?”

                “If she’s willing. I don’t doubt your sister might though it might be best if both of you were to stay safe.”

                “That’s not-!” She begins before wincing and then taking in a deep breath. “I… I understand.”

                “I’m not doing this to hurt you.”

                “I know Dad.” She looks up at you with sadness in her eyes. “I know.”

                Before you can reach out to her, she takes your sigil in her hand and looks it over. “Hrm… so you plan to put a locus here and have it go through this pattern before being amplied through this repeater sigil? Don’t you need a counter-focus here?”

                “Oh don’t be silly you little girl, that’s no- well shit you’re right.”

                You stare at the silver heart for a moment, realizing your mistake. The Violet Sands sigils were a little different, so you forgot the placement of the counter-focus. Sylphie uses one of her tails to carve away at the silver before presenting it back to you. “Ah Dad, you’re hopeless without me.”

                “Says the girl who never left home for twenty years.”

                “And whose fault is that?”

                “… Chaika?”

                The two of you look at each other before snickering, and then breaking out into full laughter. You finish your meals in good cheer, Sylphie leaving you to return to Mr. Ed while you begin the spell forms on this sigil. She gives you one last hug before leaving, whispering, “I love you, Dad.”

                That’s enough to get you through the night, you think.

—————————————————————————————————————————-

                That next morning finds you dead tired, but with a working sigil. The artisans rejoin you, feeling well rested enough to follow your design until by the end of the day you have a handful of the sigils. Working the spell forms you devised for this is much easier after the first one, but you lament not having more to work with. Rommel’s supply of silver was not infinite, nor was your artisan support. Besides, devising more than two network spellforms wasn’t going to happen- you barely had time to make these before Harmony comes looking for you.

                “The others are ready to go. Are you coming?”

                “Bastards can’t leave until I do.”

                “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” She says. “Come on, we need to get going.”

                “Actually.” You say, placing something in her hand. “You need to get going.”

                She looks down at the handful of silver hearts before cocking her head. “Uhm. They’re pretty, but they clash with my eyes.”

                “Harr harr. They’re sigils. Those I need you to deliver to Tobias.”

                Harmony looks at you with those dispassionate eyes. “I don’t understand. I thought I was going with you.”

                “You can, but first I need someone to deliver these to Tobias so we can stay in contact. There’s one for Finn and you as well.”

                “I- but…” Her vocal unit becomes dejected.

                “Harmony, hey hey.” You say, patting her back. “We’ll be in touch, you can come meet us. Maybe drag that sorry excuse for a son-in-law with you, eh?”

                “Will you be okay?”

                “Harmony, please. I can take care of myself. Besides, there’s other people with me.” You pat her again, “Don’t worry about it.”

                “That makes me worry more.” She sighs, “But fine, I’ll deliver them. She holds up one of the sigils to her chest and closes her eyes. From your hand you feel a tingle and you do the same with one of the sigils. In your mind you hear the words, {If you die, I’m killing you.}

                She embraces you a moment later and you hug her back as best you can with one arm. She steps back and activates her flight unit before lifting into the air and away to the Loveura group. You watch her go until she’s out of sight before turning back and heading toward the others at the staging area.

                “Ah, we didn’t think you were coming.” Veronica says, hopping down from the wagon. She waves to Clarissa, who flaps on over to join her. Veronica looks about and asks, “Where’s Harmony?”

                “Delivering a sigil to the Loveura team. Should stay in contact. Speaking of which, catch.”

                You throw one of Clarissa, who looks it over. “This is… to keep in contact? Over long distances? How does that work?”

                “Magic.”

                She gives you a flat look, to which you chuckle and pull out a letter. “Here, take that for yourself and deliver this message to Selene, please.”

                Clarissa puts it in her messenger bag before saluting to you. “I’ll be there in no time flat. Fastest delivery in Deleor! Faster than even a Dragon!”

                You smirk and say, “I believe it. Good luck.”

                As she flies away, Alice walks up and asks, “Believe wha- ack!” She cries out when you throw sigil at her. She looks it over before blushing, “What a lovely trinket! But Mr. Wizard, you’re already married! How scandalous- hey, ouch!”

                She winces and rubs at her side as Veronica calmly punches her. The older Hero smirks and says, “A heart, hmm? I assume one is for Selene too?”

                “Why does everyone say that?” You mutter. “That’s just how they happen to look.”

                “How what happen to look?” Blake says, walking up. You toss one of the sigils to him and he catches it deftly before looking aghast. “Well, I had read a few pieces of fiction where you and I had illicit relations in Cair, but I never knew you felt this way.”

                Veronica and Alice snicker as you glare at all of them. “It’s a Sigil, you can use it to communicate with Finn and Tobias once Harmony delivers it.”

                “And you as well?”

                “Of course. There’s a different set for all of you and the team heading to the Cradle.”

                “Oh, a directly line for a secret rendezvous.” He chuckles.

                “Gay, everyone is gay.” You mutter as Alice whispers to Veronica,

                “The story is actually well written, the author goes into great detail about how the Wizard gives an amazing blow-“

                “Okay that’s enough of that.” Rommel says, hopping down from the wagon. “We should be going soon. You good to go?”

                “Sure, I’ll pass out in the wagon. Save me from this gay shit.”

                Alice smiles as you wave to the rest of the group. “Let’s load up and go.”

                “Are you sure you’re ready?” Blake asks.

                “As ready to get a Goddess really mad at us as ever.” You say.

                “Well, good luck then.” He says before holding out a hand to you.

                You look at the offered hand before grasping it with your own and holding it firm, the two of you looking each other in the eyes. Despite being basically the opposite of you in every way, you can say with certainly that Blake is your oldest friend. And you wouldn’t change that for anything.

                A loud yawn comes from behind you followed by, “Oh, it’s just like in that best-selling story where the gallant Lord Commander and the Wizard have anal sex-“

                Bardam covers Maya’s mouth, silencing the Mouse Girl. Both you and Blake look at your very manly handshake before shrugging and breaking away.

                “Gods speed, Wizard.”

                “Heh, they better still be watching.”

                With that, you wave back to the man and enter into the wagon you have, feeling the familiar sense of uncomfortable wood and cramped spaces beneath you. Once loaded, Bardam takes the reigns of your horses and leads you swiftly out of the Hero’s Hall, and then out of Sanctifrond.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

                Your course is set to take you directly along the leylines toward the Cradle. The decision hasn’t been made yet to visit the nexus hub, but discussion with Rommel brings you closer to thinking about this option. Given everything, it’s probably a safe course of action to take.

                While the going is rather slow, all things considered, without the leyways everyone else is going this speed. Contact with the Loveura team is established quickly, though you don’t like much of what you hear, you’re forced to keep going on your own path. Days pass with little issue as you plow forward, making great time due to what might as well be a road made demarcating the path of the leyway. It’s not the same but it doesn’t slow down the horses. Adding some [Sigils of Reduction] to the wagon bed help, of course.

                It isn’t until days later as you’re nearing your destination that anything at all happens. While resting, your sigil flares up, along with everyone else in the Cradle team who has one, namely Veronica, Rommel, and Maya. The latter is who contacted you, speaking through the system.

                {There’s some odd movement ahead. Looks like Monsters but they way they’re surveying the land makes me think they aren’t locals. They don’t really look like they belong out in this territory anyway. A rabbit girl and a Kitsune. They still out like sore thumbs, but I bet they run fast.}

                {What do you make of it?} You send through the sigil as the others listen in. Veronica closes her eyes and sends,

                {Do they have maps?}

                {Yeah. You’re thinking scouts?}

                {I’m afraid so. Keep an eye on them.}

                Veronica breaks the link and turns to you to say verbally, “Those might be Galmathorian scouts.”

                “Down here? What are they doing here?”

                Bardam curses, “If there’s scouts down here, then that means they aren’t that far from a larger force. Which means…”

                “We may have more problems than just the Cradle.” You say, looking at your map and the settlement that down the tracks from you.

————————————————————————————————————–

                With Veronica’s urging, you do nothing to harass the scouts. Should they fail to report in, whatever main force they’re from will cause you no end of trouble and honestly you don’t need that right now. Unfortunately, on the tracks there’s no way to stay hidden from any scouts, forcing you to go off the road toward the scattered copses of trees. While no true forest is around further north, it should be enough cover to keep out of sight.

                Maya keeps you appraised of the scout’s situation as she does her best to travel with you. Fortunately, they continue to move southward, looking for signs of military presence. From what Veronica tells you, Helsmcrag was the lynchpin of the defense in the north and losing the fort there hurt things severely. Many of the outlying towns became makeshift garrisons, using the leyway network to keep supplies and troops from the other forts incoming.

                Any support coming in from other forts would take time in coming and if they relied on older means of communication, it would mean delays that a sufficient push by Galmathoria could exploit. While the defenders of the border are powerful, they aren’t impossibly so, even worse if Phallia’s agents have caused more damage right under your noses.

                Because of diverting off the road, your pace slows down. Rommel’s magic helps move the pace forward by clearing the ground around you to create a makeshift road, but it’s tiring and at the end of a few hours he’s dead exhausted and needs Tabitha to comfort him. Gods you wish that was you with Selene right about now.

                Speaking of which, you hold onto your sigil connected to the outside network, wondering when Selene will receive hers. Did Clarissa run into trouble? Even if Selene gets it, will she use it?

                Three days into your off-road adventures, you take up for Rommel to keep the wagon moving at top speed when your sigil activates. You almost lose concentration and divert the flora in the wrong direction, which could have ended in the horses having broken legs. Thankfully it does not, but you stop the progress as you listen in.

                {This is Maya speaking. The scouts I’ve been following have left to return back north. I’ve been tailing them and it’s becoming more and more apparent that they’re headed to the town at the leyway hub.}

                {Where the nexus hub is too.} You groan. {I doubt they understand what they’re sitting on, but if they took over that town, we’re in trouble.}

                {Will report with more information later. Stay safe.} She sends the last part almost as an afterthought before disconnecting from the network.

                You relay this information to the rest of the party, who look about with agitation. Bardam shakes his head and says, “It seems likely then that they’ve broken through Helmscrag and pushed here to establish themselves.”

                “While the Galmathorian army doesn’t possesses the same magitek that our forces do, they are likely no slouches when it comes to combat. They weren’t stupid enough to make such a large push beforehand, but their timing is frankly impeccable.” Veronica sighs. “I imagine after their large gains, they’re making sure their position is solid before advancing.”

                “Or…” Tabitha says. “They could be waiting in case their handlers need them. The Cradle is very close to this location, is it not?”

                “We’re nearing the point now where we’ll need to decide if we should block the hub or go straight to the Cradle.” Rommel says. “Thankfully I doubt they’ve spotted us, but the closer we get, the more difficult this will be.”

                “How long would you say we have to go?” You ask Bardam.

                “At this pace? Three more days.” He says. “We’re likely to come by the forest to the east of the settlement. We could travel straight north through to the Cradle or go forward but…”

                “But we’ll see when we get there, hmm?” You say, trying to be cheerful, but you know you’re failing.

This isn’t what you’d planned for, and by the time Maya contacts you tomorrow, the worst is confirmed. A garrison force of the Galmathorian army has occupied the town at the leyway hub. The town itself is not the largest of the hub cities and is also not the most important. The garrison left there is unlikely to have been large, with more forces placed in other cities further down the leyway and the border.

 Which is why you get at least some good news. Maya’s estimations place that there’s no more than one hundred soldiers present, but it’s enough to keep the town in check. What’s left of the population at least. It’s well known that the Galmathorians take the men (either back home or as husbands) when they win a battle and the fate of women and other Monsters is dependent on how they’ll cooperate. Not much different than the old Monster Nation, is it?

“This town doesn’t have any walls given it was made after the leyway network was established.” Bardam says, going over maps. “Getting in and out wouldn’t be difficult for a small force, however we have no idea what kinds of Monsters they have in there. Since it’s a small force I’d imagine more scout- efficient Monsters would be present. Their main body must have moved to accost the fort to the west.”

“Think we can take them all?” You ask, though Tabitha shakes her head.

“Probably, but it won’t be quiet. Without a rather impressive plan to trap them all together, it’s likely that someone will escape and tell about what we’re doing. Which will make things messy later on.”

“But if we liberate this town, it will cause trouble for Galmthoria too, right? When reinforcements come from the south we can use it as a staging ground.” Rommel says. “Not to mention freeing our citizens.”

“Both have their merits.” Veronica says. She taps the map and turns to you. “Where would the nexus hub be?”

“Center of town, probably under the leyway station.” You say. “A small team could infiltrate and do the job, though I’ll have to be present. Just need some time uninterrupted to do… whatever it is I’ll need to do.” As you muse this, you look up at the others who look to you. A sigh escapes you.

                “It’s my decision again, isn’t it?”

                Rommel pats your back. “I’m just glad it isn’t mine.”

—————————————————————————

With a plan in mind, you make your way toward the town. Thankfully more scouts haven’t been seen in the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, neither do you see people within the farms and villages on the way to the town. It seems very likely that the people present either fled or were captured along with their provisions. If they were taken anywhere, it would likely be the town itself, being prepared to be shipped off to Galmathoria.

Maya rejoins you when you get close enough to the city to risk detection. She kept you appraised of the situation as you appeared but due to the flat lands here, there was little in the way of vantage and she didn’t want to risk getting caught within the town. Thankfully there’s no way anyone could intercept her messages so you got some idea of what’s been going in and out of the town.

“Namely, not much.” She reports with a yawn as she slumps over a cup of soup. “Those scouts returned but no one else has entered from our direction. Nor has anyone left the area either. They must be entirely on standby.”

“What about captives?” Veronica asks.

“I saw a few men being paraded back and forth, naked of course. Some public fornication, etc etc.” She waves her hand in a nonchalant fashion. “Oh, but I did see wagons around the town filled with crates. Not sure where they’re going however, I never say any of them leave the town.”

“Strange.” You say, rubbing at your chin. “Well, we’re just going to go in and do what we’ve planned on doing.”

“Are you certain?” Bardam asks. “Those are our people there being… violated.”

“As much as I agree with you, we don’t have that luxury.” Veronica says, shaking her head. “While liberation is important, without any method of transport, nor supporting forces in the area as of yet, we cannot effectively get anyone out of the town.”

She squeezes her hands in her lap. “Though it troubles me to say this, the Wizard is right. We need to focus on our goal. There will be a reckoning later.”

“Such as it is.” Rommel says, rubbing at his head. “So we’re to get in and out, right?”

“Right.” You say as you stand up and stretch. “So we might as well get this over with.”

“Eh? Right now?” Maya says, looking distraught. “I wanted to take a nap first!”

“Come on, Maya.” Tabitha says, grabbing the Mouse Girl by the collar. “We’ll be back before you know it.”

“Look after everything for us.” You say, tapping your sigil at Veronica. “If there’s trouble, get out of here.”

“I’ll say the same to you.” She says, smirking. “I seem to recall an incident years ago when you left me alone with a wagon.”

“You’re not alone, Bardam will be with you.” You say, pointing at the man who blushes and looks to the side, clearly knowing what you’re about to say. “Besides, I’m sure you enjoyed your alone time with your mace.”

“I always enjoy my alone time, Wizard.” Veronica chuckles, to which Bardam’s face deepens another shade of red.

She waves as you leave with Maya, Tabitha, and Rommel. The sun is beginning to set, but still casts enough light that you can be seen. You’d discussed using [Trick of Light] and [Privacy Barrier] to move without being seen into the town, but the drain on mana would be immense. Having to manipulate the wind with Aeromancy also is practically impossible as well in such open plains that even if you’re not seen, you’re sure to be smelled. All this together leads to why Rommel is present:

Tunneling.

And so you enter under the ground using [Trench], both you and he working in tandem to make your way to the city. You have to admit, seeing the man working his Geomancy again is quite the treat. He might not be great at other magic like your wonderful Plagamancy or Copromancy or hells, even Fulgromancy to a degree, but he really did pick the lore you’re terrible at. With his skill and detection skills, it takes relatively little time to tunnel yourselves to where Rommel believes is at the edge of the town.

“Wait.” Rommel says, holding up a hand.

The man turns toward you, somehow not sweating, despite his heavy coat. Ah right, he got that thing enchanted, didn’t he? Well… good for him.

He whispers, “We’re near the edge of town. It’s likely that our tunneling might attract undue attention so I want to try something.” He closes his eyes and you feel magic emanate from him. A moment later, the tell-tale “pop” of a [Privacy Barrier] is felt.

“Eh? It’s not like they’re going to hear us.” You say, waving a hand.

“Some Monsters have good hearing, but I think this is for something else.” Maya says. She crosses her arms and frowns, “Vibrations, yes?”

“That’s the goal.” He says, smirking. “I guess we’ll see if were spotted as we go along.”

“Great.” You say. “Confidence, always good to have.”

Shaking your head, you look up and open your [Mage Sight]. The traces of Rommel’s magic swim along your vision, along with other, smaller bits of magic or perhaps, magitek in the city above. You frown and scan about until you find what you’re looking for. A sickening mass of magic, the same as what you saw in both the Keep of the Forgotten and Sanctifrond. It’s not physical, but it might as well be to your eyes here.

“That way.” You say, pointing ahead. “Let’s get this little detour over with.”

Rommel nods and continues digging. For your part, you keep scanning with your magicked vision, watching the flows of power coursing through the corrupted nexus hub. It seems more energetic than that of the one in Sanctifrond, though you can’t exactly say why that is. This is just stealing mana, right? Perhaps this close to the Cradle, it’s just filtering more of the mana toward it.

As you move, the other Wizard tells you about the vibrations that he conveniently is feeling.

“Seems like a lot of traffic is moving the way we’re going.” He says. “Hooves probably, minotaurs, centaurs, or just plain horses transporting wagons. All toward the station? They feel rather heavy too.”

“Are they using the station as a gathering point? I don’t really know much about this place but I don’t think the station is very large. The town hall would make more sense.” You say, shaking your head.

“True.” Maya says. “This would make sense if the leyways were running, but they don’t have access to them either. Are they using it because the leyway system has become one big road now?”

“Would make sense. It could function as a decent loading and unloading dock at least.” You say. “Still, this is going to make things more difficult. We won’t be able to get ourselves out of the tunnel where we need to be.”

“Detour then…” Rommel says, feeling the vibrations and then moving his tunnel. He doesn’t have to go far before he finds a nearby area where he believes no one is present. He makes a small hole up to the surface where you throw out a [UFT] to survey the area. Yes, you have materials for that present. No, it does not smell good in a cramped ass tunnel.

Scanning about reveals you’re at the basement of a building with no one present. With that information, Rommel opens the tunnel wider, allowing you to enter the basement proper.

Maya and Tabitha go first, the Mouse Girl sneaking forward and checking for traps or people. When neither are found, Rommel closes the tunnel entrance and drops his [Privacy Barrier]. Only after doing so does he let his shoulders slump, the drain on his mana showing. Well, guess you’ll have to take it from here.

“Maya, scout ahead and see if the upper floors are empty.”

“Roger that.” She says, sneaking to the door into the first floor and disappearing around the corner. She returns in what seems to be only a few moments, a serious look on her face.

“We’re in a house. Place looks like it was a battleground for the most part with broken furniture and glass everywhere. Stains all over the place.”

“Blood?”

“Semen mostly. I think upstairs I can hear whoever did this going at it again.” She cocks her head, a wistful expression on her face for a moment before she says, “But otherwise clear. I think we have good visibility to the station from the first floor.”

“Very well.” You say, channeling your magic. “Let’s hide in plain sight.”

Though you’re not the best at it, you cast [Trick of the Light], just as Sylphie taught you. The spell hides your party from sight, but it is… not easy to maintain. Damn, you are proud of your little girl’s magical talents!

Moving to the first floor, you confirm that, indeed, there appears to have been a massacre in this room. That poor man’s pelvis, pulverized into oblivion by whatever Monster did this. Selene would probably hi-five Maya if she were here but for you and Rommel, you shake your heads, understanding. Loud thumps, followed by moans and laughter are heard from the floor above, muffled somewhat by the distance and you suppose a door, though why it would be closed, you have no idea. Making certain another [Privacy Barrier] is up, you make your way to the window and peer out.

Seems Rommel was correct. Multiple wagons make their way to the leyway station, filled with crates packed for shipping despite the sun having fallen. You assume foodstuffs are in most of them, probably forage for the moving army, while others shuffle on their carts, possibly filled with captives.

Soldiers in the livery of Galmathoria, a Green and brown that seems decidedly drab, lead the processions, their silvery armor giving at least some contrast. All of them are women, Monsters of course, of various varieties, however they work with the precision of a human-lead army. The hordes of Monsters from the Monster Nation would never behave in this manner, however from the sounds above you if they have any excuse, they’ll let their wild side out.

A Centaur-drawn wagon passes by the house you’re in and you hesitate for a moment as the driver, a Wolf Girl, stops and sniffs the air. She looks in your direction an squints, making you hold your breath. After a few moments, the Centaur gripes at her and they bicker before continuing forward.

Maya lowers her scope and points toward the station. “The leyway network… is broken, right?”

“Yes.” You say, looking at where she’s pointing. Taking the scope from her, you look out and frown deeply. “Of course, that begs the question of why they’re loading things ONTO a leyway.”

“Are they going to push it?” Tabitha asks. “Or perhaps use magic somehow?”

“Those things are way too heavy and they only respond well to the leylines. No, their Centuars would be far more efficient at moving things.” Rommel says. “You don’t think they have a way to actually use the leyways, do you?”

“It’s been a fear of Deleor that they’d commandeer part of the system, that’s true.” Tabitha says. “But it’s easy to block the tracks or destroy the leyways if they broke through, I doubt it was a consideration. In this case, I don’t think anyone considered it.”

“The extra power here…” You mutter to yourself. Could it be purposefully channeled to carry the leyways? If that’s the case then do the Galmathorians have a more insidious goal than you thought?

Looking up with your [Mage Sight], you find the building in the station where the hub is located. Conveniently, it’s not directly on the tracks, but off in a rather small, side structure. Getting in there and doing what you need to do undetected with all this activity is going to be rather… difficult however. And even then, you’re not certain what you need to do. There’s no way you can concentrate on keeping you hidden AND work on this. Gods forbid they have a Witch who could sniff out your magic either.

“Going in and causing a ruckus won’t be wise.” Maya says, looking about. “Though their security seems super lax. They aren’t even checking before entering the station, just glancing and waving through. Especially the ones with a man next to them, they seem rather… distracted.”

“That’s something at least. Perhaps we could burrow into the building… though if it’s occupied that won’t work out too well.” Rommel says, furrowing his brow. “They seem intent to work through the night too.”

“We need to think of something quickly.” Tabitha says, thumbing over her shoulder. “The two above us stopped and I doubt we’ll be lacking for company soon.”

“Yeah.” You say, watching the people moving in and out of the station. “But it looks like our little in and out became a lot more important than we thought.”

“Well, I just wanted to block off part of nexus hub, but now we need to blow-up a leyway.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Rommel says, looking at you like you’re crazy. “There are likely some of our people in there. I won’t tolerate that.”

“Calm down, he meant just disabling it.” Tabitha says. Her eyes flick to you as she asks, “That is what you meant, right?”

“Yes, of course…” You mutter, watching the flow of good to the station. When Tabitha jostles your arm, you cough and say, “Yes, yes, I meant just disabling, geez.”

“Wouldn’t taking out the nexus hub stop it from moving anyway? Besides, do Galmathorians even know HOW to use one of those?” Rommel asks, crossing his arms. “You don’t think we had a defector, do you?”

“Not impossible, and the people here would know how to run one. But we need to make certain that’s not going anywhere in case the nexus hub proves… beyond my skills to block.”

“So how do you propose getting into both?” Tabitha asks.

“Would you kindly go upstairs and quiet down our hosts? Oh and bring back her uniform, I suspect she won’t be wearing it anyway.” You ask. Tabitha gives you a strange look before realization comes to her and she nods, heading upstairs. A punctuated sound of agitation comes before a few grunts and a few moments later Tabitha comes downstairs with a grey and green uniform with only a few stains on it.

“It seems our host was a rather drunk, rather belligerent Satyr.” Tabitha says, holding up the uniform. “I let the man she was with have some sleep also. He looked rather drained.”

“Hrm.” You say, looking over the uniform. “It’s a little too large for Maya.”

“Huh?” She asks, surprised for a moment. “Oh, you want me to infiltrate them and find out more information. Okay.” The lithe Mouse Girl cracks her knuckles and says, “I’ll be back.”

All of you watch as she heads to the back of the house. Confused, you hide under the windows to conserve mana with [Trick of the Light] off until she returns, dragging in a much smaller goat-like Monster, conveniently unconscious.

“Where did you-?” Rommel begins to ask before just shaking his head. Tabitha snickers as Maya goes about stripping her for her uniform.

“She was asleep on the job, careless really.” Maya says without a hint of irony or shame as she undresses and changes into the uniform. When finished she presents herself to the rest of you. “Scout Maya, ready to overthrow the tyrannical Deleor and find a husband.”

“Is that really what they say?” Rommel asks, to which Tabitha nods.

“Some do. Given it’s been about twenty years many of them see us as oppressors.” She looks at the uniform in her hands. “If the roles were reversed, we’d probably be equally as scared and angry.”

“We can wax poetic later, for now, go make sure everyone is properly tied and gagged.” You say after performing a <Fast scan>, just in case. Everything seems normal, at least with his one…

Tabitha nods in reply and heads with Maya to do the bidding. Sitting next to Rommel, you say to the man, “Right, so, how are we going to do this?”

“Why are you asking me, I thought you knew?”

“Well I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t know anything in front of your wife!”

“She knows you don’t know anything.”

“Well then I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t know anything in front of Maya.”

“She’s pretty perceptive.”

“Phah!” You say, throwing up your hand. “Okay fine, so everyone thinks I’m an idiot.”

“No, no, you’re not an idiot.” Rommel says. “You’re just… special.”

“I’m glad you left that damn fox of yours at the camp or else he’d probably ridicule me too.”

“Absolutely.” The man says, nodding his head. “Anyway, so I presume you had a plan with the uniforms at least.”

“Yeah.” You say. “If they aren’t keeping good track of the people coming and going, it’s possible that Maya at least will be able to infiltrate them and cause some mischief. Tabitha on the other hand…”

“She is rather imposing and that makes it rather hard for her to blend in.” He says, nodding his head with sagacity. “But that’s part of why I love her.”

“Uh, okay, but she also has a hard time blending in with feet made of fucking metal.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Damn now I wish your fox was here to ridicule you.” You say, chuckling. “But back to it. I think I have a plan in mind that will make everything a lot easier. You’re good at holding your breath, right?”

“Well I’m properly terrified now.”

“You should be. Anyway, here’s what we’ll do. ”

Tabitha and Maya return downstairs as you begin to weave your plan. The other three listen with disgust, then admiration, then disgust again. Eventually they resign themselves, knowing you and exactly how you work. With that settled, it’s time to get to work.

————————————————————————————————————————————

                You sit in the tunnel with Rommel and Tabitha, waiting for the signal. While you keep up a [Privacy Barrier], Rommel has a small opening in the tunnel where he’s tossed out an [Audio Tap].

                {Maya, how’s it going?} You send via your sigil. She responds after an agonizing few moments,

                {I’m in. As I thought, security is lax and no one really pays attention to a quiet little Mouse.}

                {Good. You have the package, right?}

                {Yes, and I’m afraid for it.} She sends back. {Will contact later.}

                She vanishes from the sigil network and you replace it while waiting in the hot tunnel again. While you could cool it down with some Glaciemancy, you need to conserve your strength for what lies ahead of you. Or perhaps, what lies a little above you.

                Heading back into the basement, you made your way under the ground to the building near the station. It seems the [Privacy Barrier] has been holding, though with all the added foot traffic, you can’t see how anyone would be able to feel those vibrations. Given all that, you might even be able to dig up INTO the building… if it weren’t for the fact that it’s filled with people.

                Rommel assures you this is the case, his magic allowing him to detect such things through the dirt and rock around you. This is not wholly unexpected, but at the same time, not ideal. Of course, you factored this into your plan as well.

                Still, multiple things could go wrong with this. Namely, if they have a Monster Witch around. It seems unlikely given you haven’t been detected yet, nor do you detect magic being used, but… well, it’s always good to have that worry in the back of your head. Of course, at this point, it’s a little late to back off. Oh well, guess you’ll just have to destroy everyone here if it comes down to it!

                It… shouldn’t come down to that.

                “Wait, I hear something.” Rommel says, listening in. He focuses for a moment before speaking again. “A soldier is talking with a guard outside the building. They’re asking why it’s so important to guard this shitty little building… the guard says they don’t know but the Captain ordered them to… four others inside are bored out of their minds and she’s pretty sure they’re just masturbating…”

                “Rommel, please.” Tabitha says.

                “Yes dear.” He says, focusing in again. “Seems pretty important to whatever they’re doing. Sounds like they can’t wait to ride this thing back to Helmscrag and claim a husband if they can. Damn, I guess they have engineers, but how are they using it- oh that’s convenient.”

                “What?” You ask.

                “They’re talking some shit about a higher-up who was buddy-buddy with their Captain and ordered them out here. Sounds like her name is… Rose? Why is that familiar.”

                Tabitha stiffens. “Didn’t Tobias mention a Galmathorian agent named Rose?”

                “Yes.” You mutter. “Is she here?”

                “No, I don’t think. They’re mentioning she was in Cair but-“

                {Alright, it’s set. Leaving as quickly as I can to the next objective.} Maya comes over the sigil, distracting you from what Rommel is saying. Tabitha has a concerned look on her face for some reason, but you quickly hold up a hand and say,

                “Get ready!”

                You don’t even need magic to hear the chorus of screams and shrieks above you. Even insulated in the ground, the overwhelming terror shakes Rommel and Tabitha. For your part, you stand there, grinning like an idiot. Any second now…

                “Oh by the fucking Gods!” Rommel says, pinching his nose. “Fucking hells, Gods fucking damnit, I’m going to puke!”

                “Ugh…” Tabitha says, holding a hand to her mouth. “Wizard you… you’re seriously vile.”

                “Thank you.” You say, fishing two [Plague Doctor Masks] out of your bag and handing them to your companions. They put them on and sigh in relief. A moment later, Rommel stands up straight and says,

                “Wait a damn second, you had those all along?!”

                “Yeah, I don’t really use them very often anymore. Don’t really need them, kind of inured to the whole rancid death smell thing, but I figured it would be good to bring along.”

                “Why didn’t you give them to us in the first place?!”

                A single snicker escapes your mouth before a serious look replaces it. “How’s things sounding on your end, Rommel?”

                “Fucker…” He mutters before concentrating on his spell. “They’re shouting to evacuate the captives. Order is collapsing, no one’s paying much attention to anything in their rush to get the fucking men out of the train.”

                “Hmph, cock-hungry sluts.” Tabitha mutters. She thinks you can’t see her shuffling her eyes back and forth for a moment there. But you can, you do, and you’re smirking at her. Ah this is a serious moment but you’re having fun. Gods you feel like you’re thirty-five again.

                “Right then, Rommel, open the breach, quickly.”

                The man nods and opens the tunnel fully, the three of you jumping out into a scene of chaos.

                Galmathorian soldiers are busy tearing apart their cargo crates to get to men that are inside. The Monsters with good senses of smell are basically incapacitated while other retch from the excruciatingly bad smell you little present had Maya load onto the leyway. Those who have the fortitude to stand shuffle the captive men, who look horrible as well, out of ground zero while other cargo lays scattered about, trampled in their rush to get away. Unfortunately, in some circumstances this means women and children are forced to fend for themselves, passed out from the smell or doing their best to crawl away, though at least they weren’t loaded onto the leyway- yet.

                As much as you’d like to do something about this, you have better things to do. With [Trick of the Light] active, you leave the hole, which Rommel closes up with little trouble. Anyone who saw a hole suddenly open, then close, clearly had more important things to do.

                Moving around the building housing the nexus, you see the guard, a Cat Girl, passed out on the ground, foaming at the mouth. The door to the building is open as well, the other guards clearly having left in a hurry. Nodding to Tabitha, she enters the building first and gasps, dropping down as an axe nearly takes her head off.

                “I SMELL YOU, YOU BASTARDS!” A female voice shouts from inside the room. You see long, twitching antennae appear in the door frame before the rest of her follows.

                She’s tall, far taller than you’d have expected, perhaps close to seven feet in height. She doesn’t wear the full uniform of the Galmathorians, instead only wearing the pants while her muscled, chest is left bare, her tanned skin covered by a strip of cloth over her ample breasts the same color as the uniform. The purpose of this is quite obvious when you notice her four, black, chitinous arms, two of which grasp a two-handed axe while the other two hold one-handed axes. Upon her back are long, insect-like wings under a shell while her feet are bare, revealing legs made of the same material as her arms ending in strange, insect feet.

                She stares at you with a visage marred by scars and framed by hair tied into a long-ponytail. Her nostrils flare as she looks directly at Tabitha, despite not being able to see her, before roaring and attacking again.

                The Lizardman draws her sword in a fluid motion, blocking the strikes of the massive Monster. The attacks coming from multiple angles cause the Lizardman some concern, as well as her senses being dulled from the mask she’s wearing. Still, she manages to keep herself in one piece before pulling back, sizing up her opponent.

                “Three of you? Phah!” The Monster says. “Hey you louts, give me a hand!”

                No one runs in to help her, instead running about and causing trouble. She looks momentarily confused, her figuring blurring as she turns about to see where her allies are. “The fuck i- shit!” She hurriedly raises her weapons to block a flurry of blows by Tabitha.

                “Where the fuck is everyone! It’s just a little stink you cowards! We have intruders!”

                “What the hell is going on here, Wizard?!” Rommel asks. “How is she not affected and how come she’s so… indistinct?”

                “Because, she’s a fucking Roach Girl and they live in this shit, and I extended my spell onto her!”

                “What? Why? I can’t see her now!”

                “For the same reason you’re still using [Privacy Barrier], now this is taking a lot of focus to cast this spell so poorly, so be quiet!”

                “What the- is this magic?” The Roach Girl says, looking about with confusion before spitting to the side. “Bah, no matter. I’ll cut all of you down!”

                “If you can.” Tabitha says, dashing in again. Keeping her fully cloaked while making just enough of the Roach Girl visible to strike her is extremely draining to your mental faculties, but you can’t risk someone moving in. Same reason that Rommel, dear sweet Rommel, doesn’t attack her with his magic. His geomancy is too difficult to keep from others seeing it and you’re a little busy to cast other spells. Which means it’s up to Tabtiha.

                The Lizardman drives her sword up, getting under the guard of the smaller axes, but is caught on the haft of the larger one. Her opponent strikes with the small axes, forcing Tabitha to drop down and to the side. He opponent drives a kick into her, which Tabitha takes, sliding back and throwing up a cloud of dust. A nearby Galmathorian solider looks at it, before rubbing her eyes and then vomiting.

                “You can do it honey!” Rommel shouts in encouragement. “Kick her ass!”

                “Thanks, dear!” Tabitha says, parrying more attacks. “Really helpful.”

                “You brought your husband to this fight? Damn you! I haven’t had a dick in years and now you’re taunting me?!”

                The Roach Girl roars and throws back her arms, her wings spreading out behind her. They flap furiously, sending up more dirt and debris. Shit, shit, shit, you can’t keep that under control! Someone’s going to notice!

                “Tabitha!” you shout, but she’s already on it.

                The Lizardman aims for the now exposed chest of her opponent, but as her blade hones in, the Roach Girl lifts into the air, throwing off her trajectory and allowing her blade to get caught by the smaller axes. As this happens, the Roach Girl shouts, dropping down with the full force of her axe.

                Tabitha drops her sword and twists her body in a fluid motion, throwing up her adamantium legs. The axe strikes and slides off, throwing the Monster off balance as Tabitha drives her other leg into the Monster’s abdomen. She gasps and crashes into the ground, her axes flying away as she slides to a stop in front of you while you hurriedly try to control the debris with your spell.

                “H-hey.” She says, looking up at you. “You smell… pretty good.”

                “Sorry, someone has already claimed this dick.”

                “Damn.” She says before Tabitha’s foot comes crashing down on her head, silencing her forever.

                “Tch.” You say at the blood stains now leaking from the Roach Girl. “Hurry, get her into the building. I can’t keep this spell up forever.”

                Tabitha and Rommel grab the dead Monster and drag her into the room as you follow. Once the coast is clear, you close the door and breath out a sigh of relief, dropping the spell. Damn is that a hard one to keep up. Catching your breath, you look around the building.

                Boxes stand piled around the edges of the room, most of them opened and ransacked. Seems this place was being used as a storehouse, possibly to hide the true intension. Searching around with your [Mage Sight], you find what you’re looking for, hidden in the corner of the room. A metallic grate lays to the side, having been pried off the well-like structure, though within you view an inky nothingness… or you would, had you not had your sight open.

                The sickening feeling of the infestation in the leylines fills you again, but you preserve and place your good hand on the side of the hub. You take a few, deep breaths, and turn to Rommel.

                “Keep me safe.”

                “Just hurry it up.”

                Turning back, you let your magical senses slip into the infested pool and-

                You find yourself wrapped in a sea of vines. They coil around you, doing their best to crush you the moment you enter. From all directions they pull, grabbing your arms, legs, neck. They stretch and pull, trying to enter your mouth, enter your very body as they seek to rip you apart any way possible. You try to scream but nothing comes out as more and more of the vile plants dive into you.

                Vomit and bile fill your mouth around the plants. Panic fills you, deep and terrifying panic as pain wracks your form. Eyes darting back and forth, you reach within yourself and let out a burst of whatever power you can.

The plants recoil from you in a violent fashion, throwing you out into the sea of power. You soon find yourself in an inky darkness, surrounded by writhing tentacles of vines, infesting every corner of this place. And yet… you sense something in the darkness. Reaching outward, you grab hold of something invisible, but firm. A moment later, a valve appears in your hands, attached to nothing at all, yet still firmly in place.

“I see you…” A sickly sweet voice says. It makes your skin shudder.

“That’s really fucking neato.” You say, hands shaking on the valve, unable to turn it though not because it’s stuck, but because you can’t seem to make your arms move. “And who are you?”

“You’re delaying the inevitable. Her will is inviolable, her reach, infinite. Interference is… temporary, at best.”

“Uh huh.” You say, trying to turn this damn wheel. Why isn’t it working? “I assume you’re talking about Phallia, whoever you are. That bitch is not going to kill Dollora, not on my watch!”

“Dollora’s purpose has ended. She is a blight upon this world. Only Phallia is worthy of love. Without her, life could not exist.”

“And without Dollora, life wouldn’t be worth living!” You shout back.

“Then perish.” The voice says as a wave of dread fills you.

Swarms of vines rush at you, seeking this time to finish the job. You gasp and throw your self fully into the task of turning the valve. A cry of anger and purpose fills you as the vines close in until, as they’re by inches away, the valve creaks.

The vines vanish. The darkness around you begins to grow pale as the valve twists on its own, going faster and faster, the light around you getting brighter in time with the turns. You feel your consciousness drifting as it does so, but the voice you heard before speaks one more time, if faintly,

“Temporary, at best.”

You gasp, sucking in a heavy breath before coughing and collapsing onto the hub. Rommel grabs your shoulders and shakes you.

“Hey-hey! Are you okay?”

“W-what?” You ask, looking about in confusion. Sweating dripping off your forehead, you look down to see your injured arm in its sling before reality hits you. “Oh… oh it was… oh.”

“What the hells happened?” Rommel asks. “You started screaming and then was muttering to yourself.”

“I uh… I’ll tell you about it later.” Turning back to the hub, you hesitate before opening your [Mage Sight]. It sits inert, the leylines leading off it it fading as they find themselves unable to connect outward.

{Your little present is wearing off.} Maya sends over the sigil. {You’ll need to get out there, and quick.}

{R-right.} You send back. {We’ll meet you outside of town.}

“Can you even use magic at the moment?” Rommel asks, holding you.

“Just enough for one spell, I think.” You say, gritting your teeth and staggering on your feet. “And it’s not going to hide us.”

“That’s going to be a problem.”

“Not really.” You say, concentrating with the last shred of your magic. Fire appears in your hand, folding and concentrating into a ball. When it’s complete, you hold it over your hand and walk outside. Utterly unconcerned about being seen, you pull your arm back and throw the spell toward the leyway farther in the station. The ball of fire rolls into the car and sits there, pulsing with energy as a few confused Galmathorians look about, not certain as to what it is.

Without even looking, you walk over to your tunnel you made earlier as Rommel opens it, allowing the three of you in before sealing it. As you walk, you hold up your fingers. Three. Two. One-

The ground around you rumbles, dirt falling down in the tunnel, forcing Rommel to reinforce it. He looks at you with concern, but you just keep walking, feeling incredibly drained. The two behind you exchange looks before following after, not saying a word as you trudge your way out of town.

———————————————————————————————————————————-

                You arrive back at your camp feeling exhausted. Maya reached first, though she went in detail about what you’d done with Veronica, Bardam, and Erwin. Not that she really needed to as the explosion heard from the encampment.

                “By the Gods, what did you do? Collapse half the town?”

                “Leyway detonation from a [Fire Bomb]. You say, collapsing into the wagon. “Even though the leyline is down here, they won’t be able to clear that anytime quickly and the lingering effects of the Plagamancy are going to be felt soon.”

                “What exactly was in that box anyway?” Maya asks, concerned.

                “I placed in that box one of the most vile concoctions I know how to make, concentrated and easily aerosolized. I’m very sorry for making you open that box.”

                She shrugs, “I was prepared for it, though… it certainly did spread.”

                “And the other objective?”

                “Ah.” She says, holding up a few empty vials. “I poured it into a few supply crates as I passed by. I can only assume it’s one of your concoctions as well?”

                “You had her poison them?” Tabitha says, incredulous. “What if they feed those supplies to the captives!”

                “Calm down.” You sigh, rolling over in the wagon. “It wasn’t poison… not really. It’s just going to cause a really, really bad stomachache. Won’t be as obvious as poison and will cause more debilitation as they try not to shit themselves.”

                “They’ll know something is up when they find the Roach anyway.” Rommel says.

                “They’ll know something is up when their little ‘higher-up’ tells them what happened, depending on… whoever that was…” You trail off as you say this before shaking your head and asking, “By the way, you were saying something about this Rose, right? I didn’t hear you earlier.”

                Rommel’s face becomes grim. “Ah… right. The guards were confused, because she coordinated the attacks in Cair and yet their captain believed she’d left to go… somewhere only a few days ago.”

                “Oh.” You say leaning back and looking up at the wagon, wondering what the implications of this are as you’e fighting drifting off. Did they use Harpy mail? Speaking of Harpies, why haven’t you heard of anything from Clarissa, but you can hear from Blake and Tobias?

                As your fight against weariness fails, you mutter before fading to black,

                “That’s bad.”

Chapter 43

                >Tobias Shady

                The group under the newly minted Captain Finn left as soon as the order was given. It didn’t take him long to gather up supplies and the troops granted to him by the Lord Commander. Though he appeared a little nervous when doing so, his force of fifty heroes and your group, some of whom were a surprise to be joining you, were quickly organized and set off within a few hours after being ordered.

                He always exuded an aura of leadership, but never seemed to step out of his bounds. You assumed he followed orders diligently, but perhaps what Blake was referring to was his past incident that ended him up where he is now. Well, you know the man, at least you think you do, and you think he’ll do a good enough job to reclaim Loveura.

                Of course, now that he’s in charge, you don’t really know what to do.

                The wagon you’re in isn’t exactly spacious, but it’s not crowded either. Compared to some of the other ones carrying Order Heroes, including Rayleigh who is with Finn, there’s plenty enough space to stretch and lay back, looking up at the covered roof. Normally you’d be doing some kind of… leadership… something, or at least thinking about it, but that’s in someone else’s hands. You’re just the guy with the orders to devastate the whole city if you need to. In some ways, that’s much worse, now that you think on it.

                “If it took time for that letter to arrive, what do you think the current situation is even going to look like in Loveura?” Ophelia asks as she tinkers with something. “What if we arrive and there’s nothing left to salvage?”

                “Loveura is a pretty big city with a fair amount of open spaces. Despite the Plant Monsters having a large population, I doubt they’ll be able to tear it down.” You say, trying to be optimistic. “The town guard is probably holding the important locations at bay until the military forces arrive from the garrisons to the north.”

                “The civilians have probably been evacuated also.” Clint says. “Possibly to Kasin, but I imagine some are coming toward Sanctifrond.”

                “And they’ll probably follow the tracks.” Ginelle says. “So I suspect we’ll run into them at some point.”

                “Who knows, maybe your mother will be part of the group?” You say to Ophelia.

                She looks up from what she’s tinkering on and you notice that it’s just random bits of metal interlocked together to form… nothing. Her furred hands wrap around it and you notice her shaking.

                “I always hated my mother, but I never expected there to be an attack in Loveura, not really. I never thought that something might… might…”

                You sit up and put a hand on hers. This is something Clarissa would have done, or hells, even Patricia had she not stayed home to help look through the libraries again. Seeing as neither of them are here, well, it falls to you to be her rock. Saya will understand.

                She wipes at her eyes with her other arm and chuckles, “Look at me, knowing that a Goddess is trying to get her sister killed and here I am crying about my family.” She smiles at you, “Seems familiar, honestly.”

                “It’s not a sensation I care to feel, but it seems to keep happening.” You sigh. “But this time we’re here for support. We’re not saving the world or anything, nor are we fighting any magical horrors. We’re helping the Heroes reclaim the city and then… then we’ll figure things out from there.”

                “That’s right.” Clint says, pulling his hat down. He leans back and rests his arms behind his head. “Might as well rest up as best we can. It will be a few days before we reach Loveura anyway. No sense fretting about until something happens.”

——————————————————————————————————————————————

                The sergeants leading the squads under Finn’s command form a surprisingly good encampment at night. You’re making good progress across the path of the leyway but it’s still going to be some time until you reach Loveura. All you can hope is that nothing happens on the way there.

                About two days after you set out, an unexpected delivery comes in the form of Harmony. The construct causes a mild degree of panic as she circles overhead before landing down in front of the convey. Outriders bring her back where Finn clears her to deliver small trinkets to Finn and yourself.

                “And these are…?” Finn asks, looking it over.

                “Sigils designed by the Grand Wizard. They’ll keep you in contact with him and the Lord Commander.”

                “Why are they hearts?” You ask, holding the lovely, but confusing piece of silver in your hand.

                “The Wizard is a strange and degenerate man who does things we can’t hope to comprehend.”

                “What she means.” Ophelia says, her eyes on the construct the whole time. “Is that the spellform could only take that shape to be effective… hey, could I look at your aetheric flight unit again?”

                Harmony shuffles a step away from the inquisitive Rabbit Girl as she explains how to use the enchanted item. You concentrate on it and feel the item resonating as other voices enter your consciousness.

                {Lord Commander, this is Captain Finn reporting in. Can you… hear me?}

                {Yes Captain. I am getting used to this thing as well. What is your situation?}

                {We’re making good time toward the city. No hostiles encountered, will proceed as ordered.}

                {Good work, continue for-}

                {All of you are loud! But that’s how these things work, huh?}

                You cock your head at the new voice. That’s the Grand Wizard, right?

                {Good, these things are working. Okay, nothing to report yet? Us either. I’ll keep an eye on the sigil network if anything changes.}

                {Indeed.} Blake sends. {The military is making ready to mobilize as well. Their goal will be to reinforce the northernwestern borders. Hopefully everything is resolved before they get there though.}

                Everyone agrees and you remove yourself from the sigil network, feeling a little off for a moment. It’s something you’ll have to get used to, you suspect. Turning to Harmony, you ask, “When are you returning to Cradle team?

                “I’m not, at least for the moment.” She says. “The big oaf wants me to keep track of you and provide transport if needed.”

                “That’s nice, but I don’t think you can lift a wagon.”

                Her unmoving face would be frowning if she could. “I’m glad I have years of dealing with smart-asses like you. Either way, I’m here to lend aid for now.”

                “Well, we’re glad to have you.” Finn says, a sentiment echoed by the others who have heard of the construct’s bravery.

                “S-since you’re here.” Ophelia says, eyes shining. “Do you think I could take a look at your chassis? It’s said that yours and the other construct that the Grand Wizard keeps around are different than all the others made. It wouldn’t be too much of an issue just to take a peek, hmm?”

                Harmony looks to you for help, but you just shrug. “You said you had years of experience dealing with this sort of thing.”

                She groans, “So I have. So I have…”

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

                With Harmony’s flight added to your group, you’re able to survey the areas ahead of you much better. By the next day she spots down the tracks a group of people and wagons headed your way. They aren’t moving very quickly, but when you reach them you find out why.

                The people look scared, but mostly tired. When the outriders met them, they wept with joy at seeing the Order of the Heroic Brotherhood approaching. One of the men greets you as your wagon approaches, Finn meeting as the leader of the group.

                “My Lords, thank you for coming.” The man says, bowing to Finn, though the Order really doesn’t have such formalities for field commanders.

                “Are you from Loveura?”

                “Yes, my Lord.” The man says. “We are only a few days from the city, but we made it out soon after the commotion began. It… we didn’t expect it.”

                “What happened?” You ask. The man scrutinizes you, but speaks at Finn’s prompting.

                “It was just a normal day like any other, nothing was wrong at all when suddenly the leyways shut down and the Communion Matrix was inoperable. We were confused but figured things would come back as normal when some of the Alarunes in the city began to act strange. They grew agitated, began to push people away from them. Eventually some began to scream or cackle madly, it was the most horrible sounds. When the town guard came to help them they lashed out and attacked them.

                He shudders, “It wouldn’t have been so bad if it was an isolated incident, but like a damn plague, all of them, no matter the species, began to go berserk. Entire sections of the town became overgrown with vines and the flora around them was used as a weapon. Efforts to contain quickly moved into evacuation as the areas near the Arboretum became overrun. Some of us who lived near the edge of town got out quickly but I don’t know much else.”

                He looks Finn in the eyes, “What in the name of Solos is going to happen now?”

                Finn trades a look with you before nodding back to the man. “We have been sent by the King and the Lord Commander himself to quell this threat. Don’t worry, we’ll return your home to you.”

                The man nods and is escorted back to his wagon. Once they’ve been properly encouraged, the group leaves back to Sanctifrond with a few of your outriders for protection. They leave with some hope while you leave with only more questions.

                “All of them progressively went berserk around the time the leylines became congested.” You mutter in your wagon. “It can’t be that they needed the mana coming through it, that’s silly. But the mana is only being transferred to the Cradle right? It’s not like it can be used for anything else, right?”

                “I don’t know.” Ophelia says. “I only know how to have things access the Communion Matrix for information and how to leverage the leylines in leyway magitek. What’s going on now is way beyond my understanding.”

                “Well, it’s not something we can shoot.” Clint says. “But it could be a connection. I don’t know how useful that information is though.”

                “I wonder if they know what they’re doing.” Ginelle mutters, crossing her arms. She sighs, “Hopefully the Bee Girls are safe.”

                “Even in this situation, you think about honey, huh?” You say, smirk on your face.

                “It’s a habit I just can’t kick.” She says, shrugging. “But at least I can kick my way to it. Once we save the city, I’m getting me some of the fresh stuff.”

                Clint chuckles, “Whatever you want, dear.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————

                You report this information to the other groups as you continue onward. While you meet no military or official presence on your way to the city, you find two more groups of refugees who tell similar stories. While most had come from the city, some from the outlying farms had also fled in fear that whatever was happening would spread. Some of them had been harassed by Monsters who live out in the fields, but Finn sends at least one Hero to guard them going forward. You’re not certain it’s best to deplete your forces in this manner, but he thinks it’s for the best. Well, he is the leader this time around.

                Harmony returns from a survey several days after leaving Sanctifrond and declares that Loveura is within a day’s travel. Sections of the city appeared burned from the air, but there was no active smoke pouring out, which meant that any fires had ceased burning some time ago. She didn’t get close enough to notice much in the way of movement, thought it appears that a barricade of sorts is made over the northeastern gate, where you’re headed toward. Otherwise, there was something else strange-

                “In an area of the city with a large, glass dome, there appeared to be a large concentration of mana.” She taps the [Mage-sight Goggles] over her ocular units, one of many pairs you had acquisitioned from the Order storehouse. “Can’t tell much else about it, however.”

                “Very well.” Finn says, taking in this information and a map of Loveura. “We’ll get closer and then decide on how best to proceed.” He turns to you,

                “Tobias, I’d like your input since you’ve been here before.”

                “You got it.” You say as he places the map on his makeshift table in his wagon.

                “There’s multiple entrances to Loveura, located at the intermediate directions where the rivers are flowing through. The only cardinal direction is from the south, however there’s no direct land route in there and only for river traffic.”

                “Right, and the leyway tracks pass through the northeast to southwest.” You say. “We’d have to cross a river to go from any other entrance.”

                “But Harmony believes a barricade was made against the wall there.” Rayleigh says, squeezing her way into the conversation. You give her a quizzical look, but Finn just brushes it off. “I have a hard time to believing that the plants would make something like that.”

                “So you believe it to be defenders? Hold outs?” You ask.

                “Possibly. I’d hate for it to be otherwise though. If it was, I could always burn-“ Rayleigh catches herself before coughing. “Use controlled practice of pyromancy in order to allow us a way in.”

                “The other possibility is the canals.” Finn says, pointing at the various river entries into the city. “We can send some of our forces in through the water, assuming the gates are open, and scout out the city before bringing in our whole force.”

                “Can’t the construct fly us in?” Rayleigh asks.

                “Another possibility…” Finn considers. “Well, our immediate tasks are to find survivors, get them out of the city, and then find the reason for the rampage. Should it be unavoidable, we will cut down all of the Plant Girls as necessary.” He looks at you,

                “Does that sound amenable?”

                You chuckle, “Did you forget who is in charge?”

                He blinks for a moment before closing his eyes and clenching his fist. “It’s hard to remember sometimes. It’s a strange feeling to be back in the saddle again, so to speak.”

                “It’s not easy either, but we have to go with what we feel is right at the time. We can second guess ourselves later.”

                The envelope in your pocket weighs heavily as you look over the map. Loveura is a city you’ve come to hold quite dear to your heart. To see it in this state hurts you more than you can express. And that part of your family lives here is… difficult to forget also. Especially since you don’t know how he is. If only you could go, on your own and find out- but no, this isn’t the time to be selfish, nor is it the time for extremes. Not yet anyway, not until you have nothing left to lose.

                There yet exists something more dangerous than what lies in the warehouses anyway. Something that frankly should never have been allowed to exist any longer. With that in mind, your decision is fairly easy.

                “Our purpose here has always been for support and special operations.” You say, pointing at the south of the map. “The Order and the military are the ones who are here for the support of the people and to secure the city. Which means that using us as a smaller party would be more beneficial than keeping us with the main group.”

                Finn looks at where you’re pointing. “You want to secure the Manufactorum?”

                “Yes, because I’m both afraid of the magitek there falling into the wrong hands, and because we can leverage some of that magitek for our own means.”

                Ophelia narrows her eyes before sighing and nodding her head. “It’s not a bad first move. I would… also appreciate it.”

                “Alright.” Finn says, placing his own finger on the map, tracing upward and toward the main district of the city. “Ideally we’d take city hall, but given the reports from the Captain here, it would be too difficult. I’d like to make sure we can secure any survivors first too, so moving slowly and establishing a better bulkhead would be best.”

                “I’d imagine these buildings could be pretty defensible.” Clint says, tapping the map. “Good visibility from there if I recall, not too far from here. If you clear this area then you can sit pretty as you move forward.”

                “I’m just worried about those Bee Girls.” Ginelle says. “When can I beat their faces in again?”

                “A fair question.” Finn says, chuckling. “But they do pose a problem for us. For that reason I’d like to keep Harmony with us as a scout and for aerial defense.”

                “Hmm? Oh that’s fine by me.” Harmony says. “Would you like me to scout out the hive?”

                “As long as you don’t get bogged down in it.”

                “What about me?” Rayleigh asks. “Want me to help with the Manufactorum.”

                Ophelia shakes her head, a horrified look on her face as Finn sighs. “No, you’re going to help sweep the streets here. We’ll need your ability to clear cut the plants and help against any assaults.”

                “You got it, sir.” She says, saluting.

                “Don’t burn down the city.”

                “I won’t.” She huffs. “Probably.”

                Finn gives her an even look, to which she looks down and says, “Sir, I will not burn down the city, sir.”

                “Excellent. Now then, we’ll make plans to reinforce this area tonight, and then push forward in the morning. I’ll have scouts check out the areas Clint mentioned while we maintain here.”

                “Have them go in groups of two.” You say. Finn gives you a confused look for a moment before clacking his tongue.

                “Ah, of course.” He begins to make a few notes before asking, “What will you do?”

                “We should move the Manufactorum now during he confusion and the nightfall.” You turn to look at the rest of your group, who nod in response. “Besides, the longer we wait, the more trouble we could run into.”

                “Go with the Gods then.” Finn says, saluting you. Of course, you salute back, which makes the man smile. “I’ll have this weird device on me if anything happens.”

                “Roger that. Although, just in case.” You nod to Ophelia, who pulls out two communications devices. “We’ll leave this with you too.”

                The man nods and gives them to some of the other Heroes before going back to the map. He seems rather focused as he makes notes on the map and discusses with his Order advisors.

                You slip away from the table, gesturing to your friends to do the same. Walking to the edge of the little camp you’ve made, Clint chuckles and slaps your shoulder (a little too hard.)

                “Well now, doesn’t he look like he belongs there.” The other man says, tipping his hat. “Don’t you miss making all the decisions?”

                “Pshaw.” You say, waving your hand in dismissal. “I WISH I could stop making all the decisions. Or do you want to be in charge of this little operation?”

                “Hmm.” Clint says, thinking.

                “Y-you’re not actually thinking about it, are you?”

                “Well, I mean, it seems like I could probably lead pretty well. You were complaining beforehand, right?”

                “I- I mean.” You say, coughing and looking to Ginelle, who shrugs.

                “He is fairly good at being a noble. He’s rather commanding just about everywhere actually, only time he’s more submissive is around you and in the bedroom.”

                “Heh.” Ophelia chuckles. “As amusing as that is, let’s not bully Tobias too much.”

                “Thank you Ophelia.” You say, adjusting your suit. “I’m glad someone has the voice of reason.”

                “Although Clint is pretty dashing…”

                “Phah!” You say, throwing up your hand. “We’re moving out, come on.”

                The Rabbit Girl giggles again as you make your way from the makeshift camp out toward the Manufactorum. Ginelle takes point while Clint is in the back. You and Ophelia are in the middle, the Rabbit Girl’s ears listening for signs of trouble while Ginelle sniffs for danger.

                The Captain wasn’t kidding when he said this area wasn’t a big problem. The buildings you pass on your way there are empty as far as you can tell, but the vegetation begins to thin out the closer you get. If you remember, there weren’t many Plant Monsters in this area, so perhaps they still haven’t spread too far and are only causing trouble in certain areas? Of course, you did see one get hoisted around beforehand, so maybe they also just left to find better prey.

                Sticking to the shadows, you make your way forward, finding the once bustling city eerie in the quiet. Ophelia’s ears twitch every now and then and her face turns to the northwest, though she merely shakes her head when you try to get more information.

                Ginelle stops at periods to range on ahead, checking out parts of the canals and buildings ahead. While the waters in these parts seem clear, some of the buildings she advises you to steer clear of. Even you can hear some of the sounds from inside of them such as fits of disjointed laughter or moans that lead into crying. You’re fairly certain some of the voices are male as well…

                But unfortunately you’re not on a rescue mission, at least not for them. Clenching your hands, you move on forward to the Manufactorum and what awaits you within. When you arrive at the end of the street leading into the wide, open area around the Manufactorum, Ginelle stops you as she looks outward. You manage to get a look as well, frowning at what you see.

                Multiple constructs, the large, heavy models used for cargo transport, lay on the ground in various states of disrepair. Despite this only happening recently, some of them look like they had been there for ages, covered in plant life the way they are. Others are merely deactivated while some dismantled.

                “No core energy…” Ophelia mutters, looking through her [Magesight Goggles]. “Those constructs are well and truly out of action. I wonder if there was a battle here?]

                “Smells like blood.” Ginelle says. “Blood and semen.”

                You and Clint share looks of disgust. Steeling yourself, you point at the entrance to the Manufactorum, which appears to be torn open. “Looks like we might have company.”

                “Hopefully they just took some of the workers and left to have their way with them.” Ophelia says, much to your surprise. At your reaction she sighs, “I’m not saying that I want that to have happened, but given the options it’s the best case scenario. I have to think like a company head at some point.”

                “That’s nobility for you.” Clint says, still sighting through his rifle. “Coast appears to be clear. We should get a move on before anyone decides to look out over this battlefield.”

                “Right.” You say. “Okay, let’s move quickly and quietly.”

                The four of you break pace out into the open field, running low in the night. Your heart pounds in your chest as you constantly scan for sighs of threats, but thankfully you find none. With the Manufactorum getting closer and closer, it looks like the easy part is about to-

                “Down!” Ophelia hisses, her ears going straight.

                Without question, the four of you hit cover behind some of the broken constructs. It takes only a moment for you to realize what she’d heard as loud, buzzing sounds come to you from above. You risk a momentary glance and see two figures hovering in the air above you, their wingbeats so fast you cannot see them against the moonlight.

                Bee Girls. What are they doing here?

                They sweep around the area, spears held in their hands as they do low, lazy circles. The four of you shift about, keeping your eyes on the Monsters and doing your best not to get caught. For the Bee Girls’s parts, they don’t seem particularly keen on finding anyone here, merely doing their best to circle about and check the open terrain.

                One of them lands nearby, their chitinous feet making clacking sounds as they walk through the broken constructs. They walk over to where Ginelle is hiding and you see the Badger Girl doing everything in her power not to leap out and tear her in half, which you’re certain she could and would do. All you can do is pray she’ll keep her cool, though with Ginelle, that’s kind of a crap shoot.

                “Disgusting.” The Bee Girl before Ginelle says as she licks a flower growing out of the construct. “There is no flavor, no beauty to these growths.”

                “It is not our way to question. The Queen has spoken, and thus we will comply.” The other Bee Girl, who lands next to her says. “At least the plants themselves have sweet nectar, though their methods of extracting such are not as ideal as the pollen of a male.”

                “Of which we have been given quite few. I do not question the Queen, but nor do I like this deal.”

                “Come, there is nothing to be had here. The Princess will question if we are gone too long.”

                The two Bee Girls take to the skies a moment later, their buzzing growing quieter until it can no longer be heard. When Ophelia gives a sigh of relief, you know that you’re in the clear. She nods to the rest of you and you make your way to the Manufactorum entrance without any further delay.

                Clint slides up to the side of the ruined doors, his rifle over his chest while Ginelle takes the other side. She nods to him and charges in while the man sweeps with his rifle, covering her. Nothing comes out to greet them, so you’re both waved in.

                The entrance hall to the Manufactorum is best described as a mess.

                Papers are scattered all over while broken piece of magitek, either from lights or constructs litter the floor. Here and there you see pieces of the tiled floor broken and shattered while a wall or two has gouges in it. You’re certain there’s more blood too. No bodies however, making the only visible sign of life the various overgrowth of decorating plants and some larger roots running through the walls. Which not an uncommon sight in Loveura, it still makes you shiver.

                “Damnit.” Ophelia says as she looks around, her ears twitching. “I didn’t really expect to see anyone here but… damnit.”

                Her gaze goes to the side hallways, where the offices are. She nods to Ginelle, who follows close to the Rabbit Girl as she makes her way through the halls, carefully listening before moving forward. Each time you hit a split in the halls, you look through the hall to see more messes and more eerie quiet. Unsettled, you continue forward until you reach the executive offices.

                Ginelle takes point, moving slowly through the hall, her nose sniffing for signs of anyone or anything. More of the same greets you, however, and you move forward until Ophelia signals a stop before two closed doors. A name plate next to them reads, “Emma Illoma.”

                The Rabbitgirl touches her ear to the door and closes her eyes for a moment. She reaches out to open the door but finds it locked. A look of relief comes on her face and she motions to Ginelle. The Badgergirl rolls her neck before charging forward and shattering the doors open in a spray of splinters.

                Nothing greets you. The once organized and orderly room is now covered in broken pieces of the fancy door but there is no outcry, no shouts of joy, terror, or anger. Just more quiet, lifeless, office furniture.

                “Seems your mother wasn’t home.” You say as you enter the room, looking about. Ophelia frowns and brushes pieces of wood off the desk. A few papers discussing nothing all that important lay there, unsigned. It doesn’t seem like she left in a particular hurry, almost like she just left for the day with every intention to come back.

                “Well… that’s a blessing in one way.” Ophelia murmurs. “Though in another I’d be more afraid if she was home when this happened.”

                “We’ll find her.” You say, putting a hand on the Rabbit Girl’s shoulder. She gives you a wan smile before going back to searching the room.

                “Think she’d be further in?” Ginelle asks, picking splinters out of her clothing.

                “Maybe.” Ophelia says, reaching under the desk for something. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

                A clicking sound is heard and a moment later something bursts out of the closet. Your party reacts immediately, Ginelle moving up front to confront the danger while Clint trains his rifle on it. Ophelia is one to cry out, “No, wait!”

                “Mistress Illoma, so good to see you home again.”

                Soft dulcet tones come from the construct before you. While not as refined as Chaika or Harmony, the construct has a very feminine presence and wears maid clothing as she bows to your party, heedless of the danger to her unlife.

                “Oh, thank the Gods, it’s just you Georgia.” Ophelia sighs. “Why were you in that closet? Wait, when did mother put you back together?”

                “Repairs began soon after you used a lightning caster to destroy me. As for my internment in the closet, your mother had asked me to stay there until you returned.”

                “Where is she?” Ophelia asks, hope in her voice.

                Georgia nods and walks over to the table, to a metallic box that you know is the speaker unit that her mother used to listen in around the facility. The construct flips a few switches an a moment later the device begins to play back sound it had recorded.

                “Ophelia, if you’re listening to this, then it means that everything’s gone to the hells. The Leyways aren’t working and the Communion Matrix is offline. Strange energy spikes are being detected by my engineers and some of the Plant Monsters have begun to complain of headaches and agitation. I have no reason to believe that anything good will come of this.” Her voice crackles a moment as Georgia adjusts the audio.

                “The mayor is asking me to look into this but I wonder if there’s anything I can do about it? If there’s more here than I fear, I might not make it back. In that case, I need you to dispose of the Blitzers. You’re the only one who knows how to enter the vault and work with those constructs.”

                A pang of pain enters the voice on the recording. “Oh, Ophelia. You’re the brightest and loveliest of my children. I know I always gave you a hard time about finding a husband, but it’s because I care about your happiness. I know you’ll find this recording, though I hope you won’t have to. If worse comes to worse and I don’t return… then know that I love you so very much.”

                The recording cuts off from there. Georgia ends the playback and bows to Ophelia. “In the occasion this would need to be played, I have been authorized to transfer all authority to Ophelia Illoma, as per the orders of Emma Illoma. Please mistress, what are your orders?”

                Ophelia stands there, staring at the device which just played back her mother’s voice. You can see her fighting back tears, as her hand gently caresses the metal box. She closes her eyes, licks her lips, then shudders before saying, “Take us to the vault, Georgia.”

                “Of course, mistress.” The construct bows and begins to walk outside, seemingly oblivious of the destruction of the doors.

                Ginelle places a clawed hand on Ophelia’s back, the Rabbit Girl shuddering for a moment more before standing up straight and saying, “We don’t have time for this. We need to be going.”

                “Ophelia…” Clint says, tipping his hat. He says nothing more as the Rabbit Girl strides forward, stopping at the broken door to look back at you.

                “Well?” She asks. “Are you coming or not?”

                The three of you look to each other before nodding and heading after Ophelia and Georgia.

                All pretense of stealth is gone, though this was probably the case when Ginelle smashed down the doors. It’s doubly the case now that George is with you. While more advanced than most constructs, Georgia still whirrs with her servos as she walks, making it obvious in the echoing halls that she’s coming.

                Still, nothing greets you as you move through the workshops, seeing the machines turned off, the workers nowhere to be seen. You hope most of them evacuated, though there’s just no way to tell. As you pass through a familiar hallway, Ophelia stops Georgia and stares at a door to a workshop.

                The last time you saw this door, it had been blown apart, but now a nice, new door sits in the frame. On it are the words, “Ophelia Illoma’s workshop.”

                The Rabbit Girl looks at it for a moment before walking forward and keying in a passcode. It clicks open for her and she enters to look around. You peek your head in, cheeks flushing as you remember that time you first met Ophelia and… no, no you’re a married man now. No thinking about how nice her body felt back then.

                The Rabbit Girl looks through a few things on the workbenches before picking up a large piece of magitek that she has some difficulty carrying due to the weight. She flips a few switches on the device and it hums to life, magitek power source whirring as it crackles with aetheric energies.

                “Isn’t that a lightning caster?” You ask as the Rabbit Girl hoists the device.

                “Yep, I made a few modifications to the power source since last time I was here. I figured it could come in handy.”

                “Affirmative, such a device has excellent destructive power at short range.” Georgia says. “It can easily tear apart my frame.”

                “Yes, and let’s hope we don’t need to repeat that.” Ophelia says. “Alright let’s continue forward again.”

                “Are you sure you’re okay lugging that around?”

                “Oh, of course.” Ophelia says, smirking. “My back is only screaming in pain, but I’ll be fine.”

                “Uhh… okay.” You say, following her as she walks behind Georgia.

                After Ophelia’s workshop is new territory for you. More workshops filled with other varieties of magitek line the halls, though a few have open doors and various fluids along the walls. You can’t help but nothing drag marks along the ground too, something which clearly bothers Ginelle. There’s more than just one set along the floor and following them leads you to a large cargo elevator at the end of the hall.

                “This can’t go up, can it?” You ask, looking at the device as Ophelia calls it.

                “No, down. Down to where we keep the real important things.”

                “In this vault, huh?”

                “That’s one place, at least. Mostly leyway tech down there, but the vault is where we keep the magitek we deem too dangerous to keep elsewhere. Magitek such as the Blitzers.”

                “What else do you keep down there?”

                “A few early prototype war constructs. Durable, but we removed their weapons systems. We keep them down there in case we can find a use for them.”

                Ding!

                The doors to the cargo elevator open, and Ginelle makes a disgusted noise. It hits you too, though not nearly as bad.

                “Oh Gods, what is that smell?” Clint asks, pinching his nose. The cargo elevator is empty save for some scuffs and pooling of some dried fluid in the corner however. Where could this horrific stench be coming from then?

                Ophelia’s face blanches. “This elevator only goes down to the vault level. Something must be down there.”

                “Like what?”

                She gulps and holds up the lightning caster. “I don’t know but… we have to find out.”

                You enter the elevator, doing your best to try and forget about the smell. Maybe you can trick yourself with an illusion to… ah forget it. It won’t work, you just can’t get over how bad this is. It’s like a corpse rolled around in feces.

                When the elevator reaches the bottom floor, you’re assaulted by the stench, just magnified. Ginelle, bless her, keeps herself upright but you know many Monsters who would have passed out from this stench. It reminds you of something the Grand Wizard would have done, ugh. And if your stomach wasn’t queasy enough, the sight before you in the flickering magitek lights makes things worse.

                The large hallway in front of you with a huge, vaulted ceiling is covered with vines. They writhe and wriggle every now and then, pulsing as if they were veins. At intervals you see large, vase-like flowers, which swarm with flies. Ginelle’s disgust confirms that these are where the smell is coming from, but looking down the hallway you can see there’s too many for you to bother to destroy. Besides, they seem to be originating from somewhere deeper in the halls, from a large door inset to the walls.

                “No!” Ophelia says, despite herself. “The vault is open!”

                “It would appear this is the case. Brute force was likely applied.” George says.

                The flowers and vines around you writhe at the sound of their voices. The ground rumbles softly and you hear a groan coming from down the hall, and into the vault. Looking between each other, you nod and head slowly toward the vault, ready for anything. Of course, what you find when you look inside you’re not at all prepared for.

                The vault is huge, easily able to fit multiple leyway cars inside with a huge, vaulted ceiling. Unpowered Blitzer constructs sit in housing along the walls while various other pieces of magitek lay on tables, their use and contents unknown. But this is what you can see that ISN’T covered in plant material.

                Swathes of pulsating vines and corpse-smelling flowers line every corner of the room while clouds of flies buzz about, feeding from the large flowers. Many of the constructs are interwoven with the vines as well, pieces of them being infested by the vines too, as if trying to grow inside of them like a snail in a shell. But that’s not the worst of it, no, here and there interspersed are human men, attached to the walls by layers of vines, their faces blissful despite their circumstances, the vines about them stained white by multiple layers of ejaculations.

                They moan softly as you enter, completely unaware of anything but the constant pressure on their cocks. The groaning sound you heard before comes again and the floor around you shudders. Ophelia gasps and points upward, your eyes following the gesture until you see what is clearly the root, pun intended, of all of this.

                An utterly massive Alarune sits attached high up on the far wall. Her flowers, which are a pale green on the outside but the color of raw flesh on the inside surround a body that is oddly enrapturing. She has a demure frame and yet large breasts and long, white hair that falls across her face. Her eyes are closed, yet as the rumbling continues, she slowly opens an eye to reveal a red pupil that doesn’t seem to focus on anything.

                “Lady Rose… I am sorry but the constructs are not… ready.”

                “What the hells is she talking about?” Ophelia asks, horrified.

                “The men… they say their cores are inert. I tried. I could only activate these…”

                A rumbling is heard as vines slither past, revealing alcoves where four constructs are interred. They are rather large and don’t have much of a form beyond being humanoid, but their armor looks intact despite being infested with plant life. They stir and pull themselves from their alcoves, fingers digging furrows into the metal.

                “I am sorry… so sorry…” The Alarune says, beginning to weep red tears.

                “This is bad.” Ophelia says, stepping backward. “Those constructs don’t have any weapons but they can still tear a person in half. We should get out of here.”

                “You are unauthorized to be here.” Georgia says, stepping forward. Her metallic feet crunch a vine, causing it to spray green, disgusting fluid as she does so. The construct is heedless of this as she walks forward, continuing to speak. “You are requested to leave the premises immediately, or security will be notified.”

                The Alarune’s eye suddenly focuses and she fixes on Georgia, recognition coming to her expression.

                “You… you’re not lady Rose. You’re… not… not!” She puts her hands to her head and screams, the whole room shuddering, the man interred on the walks letting out orgasmic groans.

                “NOOOOOOOO! GET OUT! GET OUT! GETOUTOUTOUTOUT!”

                The petals of her flower constrict around the Alarune, shielding her while the constructs which were activated turn to you, arms raised as if you grab and tear you apart. Gulping, you take a step back and say, “Well, any bright ideas?”

                “Uh, you’re the one in charge, remember?” Clint says, his rifle at the ready.

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