I sat up, bolt upright. Now? I thought. Why? I stood up, careful not to wake the others. For a moment Numen stirred, shifting a little before turning away. I stepped out of the tent, shaking my head to clear it. Page was right, the portal was open, I could feel the faint pull at the edge of my mind, pulling me away from the warzone.
I stared at the horizon, rubbing at my wrists. Now… it had to happen now… I thought to myself. Most of the army was still asleep, though the walls were still fully manned. I began to pace, idly wondering if the demon army needed to sleep. Though if they didn’t this war would probably have been over already.
[With the portal open, we can leave now.] Page said. [Why are you hesitating?] It asked. Its voice shocked me, not least because of what it had suggested. You want me to just… abandon them? [They do not need you to hold the line. From what we have seen the behemoths they talk about have yet to displace the army.]
I stared out at the warzone. That can’t last forever. I replied. If the behemoths do push it back the Alliance will fall. I crossed my arms.
[It is a possibility, but that doesn’t matter.] Page cut past my thoughts. [We will be away from here by then.]
I narrowed my eyes. “You can’t be serious.” I said aloud. Shaking my head as a few sentries looked to me curiously. You’re asking me to leave these people to die. I thought back. And after them, Numen, Rince, Frejr and Azarint.
[If you want to return home, you will need to.] Page said. [Remember what Oroc said about these portals being anywhere from years to centuries apart.] I can’t condemn them to that fate. [And can you condemn Oroc’s world to assured destruction?] Page countered. I frowned, pinching the bridge of my nose.
It was right. If I missed this window, the next one could take decades, centuries to appear. By then I’d be too infirm to do anything. Oroc’s world was in an even more precarious situation, halted only by whatever honour that silver god had. And yet… and yet… I couldn’t just leave them to their fate, not after what I’d promised… could I?
I ended up close to the edge of the camp where the forest began, behind me lay the camp, ahead of me the portal was out there… I gritted my teeth. “Dammit.” I muttered under my breath. Suddenly an earth elemental’s face appeared in front of my feet.
“Ah, Seraph.” The elemental cried from below, a distinct gravel tone to its voice. I stared at it, arching an eyebrow quizzically. What… “You are here.” It continued happily. “The Seraph… clone? Heard you had come, they want to talk to you, is that alright?”
I arched an eyebrow. Convenient. I thought to myself. “I see, that’s alright.” I said, and it smiled, a hand rising out of the earth to beckon me. As I moved to follow I saw one of the soldiers stare at me, mouth agape. He turned to one of his companions, tapping their shoulder. “We should probably hurry.” I whispered, breaking into a sprint that it soon overtook, the only thing I could see being its fingertips as they trailed above the ground, leaving dark green mana in its wake.
Once we entered the forest I began to slow down, it was hard to chase it through the underbrush. If I Delved I wouldn’t be able to see the branches, and Sense didn’t register its fingers at all. It rose from the ground once we’d moved deep enough, slowing down to lead me onwards. “How has the war been going?” I asked as we walked, Delving once in a while to see where the other elementals might be.
“It’s been alright, we don’t have the same advantage on open fields, so we’ve not been doing much since they turned the tide.” She said, waving her hands. “We managed to grow this in that time, so if the army falls back we have cover of a sort…” I nodded. “We also do battle with the Spectres, but recently… with the Behemoths, something is different, I’m not sure how else to describe it, the battlefield feels even more wrong than usual.”
I frowned. “Nothing can be discerned magically?” I asked, drawing my eyebrows together. Craning my head to Delve. I was too far, all I could see was a blur of aether.
“It looks empty, and that can’t be true with all the dead.” She said, turning around to face me as she drifted backwards, trees and shrubbery poking through her body as she did so.
“We don’t know what’s happening, but to probe could be worse.” The soul copy said as it appeared from nearby. The other elementals faded into existence, lighting up the forest. “It’s good to see you.” The soul copy nodded to me. “I imagined it would be a matter of time, though your arrival is timely indeed.”
“I was dragged here by my friends.” I said, the word felt odd on my lips, even now. “They’d heard of the behemoths and so wanted me in the fight. After they showed me the Aesor, I couldn’t refuse.” I continued, leaning against a nearby tree.
He nodded. “But you have doubts.” He said. My head snapped up for a moment, but I nodded. “You aren’t the easiest person to read, but you’re far from the hardest even without Sight.” He dipped his head once. “It’s no secret that their numbers have yet to cease growing, but the behemoths are not a new occurrence. In the last war their appearance was during the peak, that the army has managed to withstand it is a testament to how far they’ve come technologically.”
“But do they need me?” I asked, trying to cut to the heart of the matter. “Can they win?”
“No.” The soul copy replied. “With you, with the aether blade I see, I expect them to take years to force them back into the breach, unless the army is somehow decapitated. Without you. They will fall. In this mild environment the demons will thrive and eventually overrun the defences.” He said, sweeping his arm outwards. “The threat the environmental hazards their plane poses alone is comparable to the war itself. Without it…”
“What do you mean decapitate?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. I couldn’t afford to fight here for years, I barely had a day to solve this. If there was a way to break the demons I needed to hear it.
He stared at me for a moment. “Their leader.” He said after a long pause. “Uniting them under a single banner is difficult, it would have taken an Edratchi of exceptional power to unite them.” He explained, turning away from me. “They are overconfident, they view the Alliance as soft and easily beaten compared to their home. While there are a few smart enough to band together the death of their general will result in a splintering of their ranks, which may provide the chance to remove them altogether from the face of this plane.”
I brought my right hand up, running it across the faceplate before settling it on my chin. “I cannot recommend this strategy.” The soul-copy said. “You would require surgical precision to kill them and remove few enough of their forces to leave them still confident.” I paced, it could be possible, I couldn’t commit to the plan just so, but maybe… if the Aesor performed as well as it should… “You will most likely die, it is not worth it.” It said urgently.
“You don’t know that.” I said quietly. “If I don’t…” I bit my tongue. Then I will die here, far from home. My memories sprung back to the library, to her dress as she spun through that door. My parents as we celebrated my graduation. I gritted my teeth.
[You cannot have it both ways.] Page whispered to me. [It is too unlikely to succeed, too foolhardy, too stupid.] I don’t care. I thought back. I have to try. Page seemed to grit its teeth. [Please… Your survival is paramount, if you throw your life away like you did for Greil again you will not survive.]
“There is too much risk involved!” The soul copy continued to protest. “What possible benefit could there possibly be to killing them that would outweigh the risk of losing you?” It asked, almost pleading. I ignored both of them, turning to leave. The elementals didn’t stop me, but the way they watched me suggested a certain amount of caution. “At least tell me why damn you!”
I stopped, taking a breath. Of all people, he knew the most of me, he deserved the truth. “I’m not from this world, and I just gained another chance to maybe return home. It won’t last long, maybe a day, maybe two, maybe even half. If I don’t take it, I may never have the chance again.” I said, turning around “I can’t leave them to die, but maybe I can do this, break them, and still have another chance at home without my conscience weighing me down.”
He had paused, his arms falling to his side. “There is no other time then?” He breathed, then grimaced as he turned away. “And yet you would do this?” He looked down for a moment, I thought I saw his eyes squeeze shut. He turned to me. “You understand the risks?” He asked, gaze holding my own. I nodded, and he sighed. “Can’t tell you if you’re being brave or being stupid. Good luck all the same, you’ll need it.” He said, fading back into the forest. “We’ll do our best to help you.”
When I trudged out of the forest, some soldiers sat up from their positions, some poking at friends sitting besides them, while others just looked disappointed. “Didn’t you sat there was going to be an elemental? All I see is an irregular.” One of them whispered a little too loudly. The other person slapped them across the back of their head, looking at me out of the corner of their eye.
As I turned my head deliberately to face each group they either dispersed or turned away. I rolled my neck, sighing as I lay down to sleep.
The next day was a flurry of action as the army readied itself. The general had approved my action, his resistance dropping after my insistence. Orders were barked and voices were raised as the final touches were being put into the plan. Groups changed places as their leaders worried over where they would be most effective and least endangered. Pep talks were given individually by squad leaders and lieutenants. I stood at the makeshift wall, staring out at the Edratchi.
[You’re not going to reconsider then.] Page said. No. I thought back. I’m committed to this course. [If only you were as committed to your goals proper.] It said, in a stony tone.
Mid-afternoon, when they were finally ready, the general came to me, ahead of the rest of the army. “Can’t tell you where their general is to be honest.” He said. “You’re embarking close at least, but we don’t have an exact location.”
“That’s fine.” I said. “They’ll come find me eventually.” I strode forward, and across the scarred lands a large number of eyes followed me. I took several more steps forward, crossing the threshold of where the spectres lay. “Well… show yourselves.” I whispered, Delving.
For a moment I thought I was alone, the magic plane seemed serene, calm. The magic thicker here than I’d ever seen it, until it began to coalesce. A huge soul pulling itself together from the aether across the plain. From behind me a shout went out. “What in Qwell’s great right tit is that?!” I had to smirk at that, even as the absurd spectre pulled itself out of the ground. It stood as a blurry form of arms and claws. Two flickering yellow orange eyes in a body almost six times my height.
“That’s far greater than what we’ve faced before!” The general shouted from behind, a quaver in his voice. A tacit implication. You can retreat if you want to.
I gave a grim smile, letting the Aesor loose, a brilliant blue blade forming from the aether, almost hard light in comparison to the flames the Aedolon and the Aen used. Hope it measures up Gaven.