Lein attacked first.
It was only reasonable. This wasn’t a simple battle, though Lein had been in more than his fair share of those. In this case, it was something different. Lein’s objective here wasn’t just to win – it was to win quickly. After all, it didn’t matter if Aloetsdrimi died – if she bought enough time for Cinna to escape, Lein would have failed.
A spike of rock shot out from the ground, right underneath Lein’s enemy’s feet. She didn’t even know about his abilities, so she didn’t have any way of dodging such an attack. But he got unlucky. By the time the spike grew upwards, she was already running towards him, her axe in hand – and so, when the spike came up, it was just a few centimeters away from skewering her. At the sound, she stumbled and turned her head, and her eyes widened when she saw what was behind her – but it was only a moment’s hesitation, and she quickly resumed running at Lein.
In response, Lein made a gesture with his hand, and a wall of earth rose in front of him to stop Aloetsdrimi’s charge there and then. But before Lein could counterattack, something unexpected happened. The enemy flew to the side at superhuman speeds and charged forward once more, the obstruction no longer in her way.
Lein realized what she’d done, of course. She’d just used her magic to create a sudden force that would blast her to the side, letting her go around the wall. Still, he hadn’t expected her to be that quick on her feet, or that relentless with her assault.
She struck with her axe. But it wasn’t a simple, wild swing like Lein had seen bandits do before. Oh, the swing herself didn’t have much technique behind it – it seemed that for all her good points, Aloetsdrimi didn’t have much training with an axe – but it was clear what she was trying to do. She knew Lein could overpower her in a contest of simple strength, so she was using the other major advantage being a deira afforded her – range. She was attacking so that the tip of the huge axe would just barely cut Lein in half, which meant Lein couldn’t close the distance fast enough to hit her before she hit him.
Again, Lein couldn’t help but be impressed. But he had more than enough tricks up his sleeve for something like that to stop him.
The rocks underneath Lein shot upwards, sending him into the sky as well. He sailed above Aloetsdrimi’s axe, and as she looked up in shock, he prepared to raise a second spike of rock beneath her feet and be done with it-
Only to be blown away by a sudden, massive blast of wind.
Lein tumbled on the ground, even his great strength and enormous supply of experience not quite enough to land gracefully after a blow like that. He heard footsteps running towards him, clearly from Aloetsdrimi trying to take advantage of the opening she’d just created. But while it had been a good attack, it hadn’t been quite that good. He stood up even as he rolled away from her, dodging her first swing.
But still, she was close now. At this range, there was no guarantee any magical attacks would be fast enough, at least not on their own, so Lein had no choice but to defend himself in a more mundane way. Quickly, he drew his dagger from his hip and batted away Aloetsdrimi’s axe as she swung at him again. Normally, the difference in weight between their two weapons would’ve rendered such a maneuver impossible, but Lein’s strength made up for the difference.
Unfortunately, range was still an issue. If he just tried to rush forward and skewer her with the dagger while her guard was down, she’d still be able to jump away rather easily. So instead, once more, Lein raised a spike from the earth to try and skewer her.
Of course, it wasn’t the best timing. After that exchange of blows, Aloetsdrimi would’ve realized that she needed to retreat before she could be counterattacked, even without considering Lein’s powers as a geomancer. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Lein’s spike found nothing but air as Aloetsdrimi jumped back.
Which was why Lein was already prepared to create a second spike right where Aloetsdrimi would land when she retreated.
But he’d sent it upwards a crucial instant too early, when Aloetsdrimi was still in the air from her jump – and so, she had the tiniest moment to realize what was about to happen before it actually happened. And that single instant was enough time for her to create a wave of force to push her the tiniest bit forward, just before the spike found its mark.
Even then, her luck couldn’t hold forever, and it couldn’t be perfect. The spike still cut her on the back of her neck, drawing a pained gasp from her as red blood stained the rock forming the spike. She gritted her teeth and leapt to the side, clearly unwilling to get trapped between two of the spikes. It was a rather reasonable decision.
“So you can control the earth, huh?” she asked. “That’s not simple magic. There’s no way a simple mage would be able to do that that quickly and that effectively. And besides, a normal mage would’ve used another method of attack in the first place. And that strength, too…” She chuckled, and a small grin spread across her face. “Well now. I knew I was getting into a battle I couldn’t win, but I guess I really didn’t have any idea just how true that was. Still, I’m happy. Never thought I’d get to fight you.”
Lein smiled. “So you’ve figured it out, I see. And I must say, I am rather impressed by you, too, Aloetsdrimi. Few others would have been able to hold out as well as you have.”
“Heh,” she chuckled. “You sure you’re not holding back, Lein? I’m not known for my humility or anything, but even I’m pretty sure that there’s no way I should’ve lasted this long against a Great Power.”
He shrugged in response. “Tales of our power tend to be greatly exaggerated. We are no gods, not really. We may have more power than others, but they are still limited, and they tend to be highly specific in nature. It’s no surprise that a skillful enough mage would be able to hold their own rather well.”
“Oh, please,” she smiled. “You’re a bloody Great Power, and you’re trying to be humble? Come on. If I hadn’t gotten lucky as shit, I’d have been dead three times already.”
“Perhaps, but your mind must be applauded nevertheless,” Lein responded. “Not many would have thought to try such a trick when faced with my defense.”
“Really? You flatter me,” she said, the grin still on her face. “Well, never mind. We were here for a reason, remember?”
“Unfortunately, you are correct,” Lein responded with a heavy heart. If she hadn’t been a Red, if she hadn’t been an evil person, Lein would have very much liked to get to know her better. It was a shame she had to die here.
But she did.
Before Lein could attack, she rushed forwards, leaping off the ground and using a blast of force to give herself a boost. Lein saw what she was trying. If he was the Great Power of the earth, it was only logical for her to try and fly into the air, where he couldn’t affect her as easily.
Unfortunately, it was a misguided plan. It was true that he wouldn’t be able to kill her with his geomancy as easily while she was up there, and she’d be able to see any attacks he did try. At first glance, it was a good idea. But she’d forgotten to take one thing into account.
She brought her axe down, aiming for Lein’s head. In response, Lein used his dagger to block the blow. With the inexorable pull of gravity joining forces with Aloetsdrimi’s might, even Lein buckled under the attack for a moment – but it was just a moment, and then he shoved Aloetsdrimi away. Thrown backwards into the air, she had no choice but to fall awkwardly on the ground, giving Lein a perfect chance to finish this battle.
But she didn’t. It must have been because she now knew for sure what Lein’s powers were, because she seemed desperate not to touch the ground – but whatever the cause, she frantically shot another blast of force, propelling herself through the sky again, this time away from Lein. She landed on her feet, gasping for breath in a slumped posture, clearly exhausted.
Of course. A mage was still limited, at the very least, by one thing – their own energy. No matter how powerful or skilled a mage was, they could not keep up an assault forever. Drawing magical energy into one’s body was not completely dissimilar from physical exercise, and it put stress onto the body in much the same way. It was inevitable that Aloetsdrimi would get exhausted eventually, especially considering the fact that she didn’t seem to be especially powerful – Lein had seen truly powerful mages at work, and compared to what they could do, even her most powerful attack which had sent him flying through the air simply couldn’t even come close.
In any case, Lein saw the signs, and he knew what they meant. This fight was as good as over. Maybe Aloetsdrimi could still hold out for a bit, but considering the fact that she’d had to use a spell almost every single time he’d attacked, there was no way she could last much longer. Even simply staying alive would require her to burn through more and more of her already drained energy, and it wouldn’t be long until nothing was left.
Not that it mattered, at this point. By now, Cinna had almost certainly escaped and was too far away for Lein to track her easily. Beyond simply removing one more Red from the world, Lein no longer had any reason to stay in this fight. Of course, that was motivation enough, but…
But it wasn’t the only reason Lein wanted to finish this. It wasn’t just because his enemy was a Red that he didn’t walk away – rather, more than anything else, he respected her. Even if she was on the side of evil, even if she was his enemy, she had shown great courage and loyalty in what she’d already done. And Lein knew her type. The sort who lived and died by pride and honor – the sort to whom an enemy beating them and leaving them to live was a far worse thing than to simply be killed. It wasn’t a mindset that Lein could understand, but even if he didn’t understand it, he knew what Aloetsdrimi would want him to do. And in this case, he was willing to follow along. He couldn’t leave someone like her with the sort of shame he knew he’d bring her if he were to just leave now.
Still, he wanted to finish this quickly. He didn’t like watching someone suffer, especially when that someone was a person he liked.
Aloetsdrimi recovered quickly and charged at him once again – though, even then, the exhaustion in her movements was clearly evident. In response, Lein created an entire line of spikes at once, the ground in front of him erupting with numerous deadly points. But before he could do that, the enemy sent herself upwards with a blast of force, sailing through the sky once more.
This time, though, Lein wouldn’t let that stop him. One of the spikes in the line twisted and grew, its shape elongating, its point dancing towards Aloetsdrimi as she flew through the air. But she saw it coming, and at the last moment, she pushed herself out of the way with another blast of force.
Still, it wouldn’t be enough.
First of all, Lein let the rest of the spikes on the ground sink back into the earth. And then, the spike that had risen into the air twisted once more. It flew into the air, higher than Aloetsdrimi was – and then, it arched and came back down, piercing straight through her stomach before she could even see it coming. She gasped in pain, and her eyes bulged, and then the spike descended back down to the earth, completing the arch of rock. Aloetsdrimi was driven down alongside it, impaled on the merciless stone.
Lein walked towards her.
“As you know already, General Katherine’s attack on the rebels has failed,” Councillor Ihab said, speaking before anyone had a chance to say something stupid. “I don’t know what the rest of you think, but I believe what this reveals is clear: these rebels, no matter how much you deny it, are a serious threat. We must treat them as such.”
“No,” Councillor Mia said, “what it reveals is that General Katherine is incompetent. I mean, really? They allied with humans? Only someone who knows they’d have no chance of winning otherwise would do something like that, and even then, only if they’re completely shameless. The fact that she failed to defeat something like that is entirely-“
“Stop right there, Mia,” Ihab said, drawing a few shocked glances from the rest of the Council. “No. No, it isn’t her fault. Tell me this, Mia: would you have expected the rebels to ally with mortals?”
“Of course not,” Mia said. “But-“
“I think that makes it clear enough,” Ihab said. “You couldn’t have predicted it. I couldn’t have predicted it. So of course, General Katherine wouldn’t be able to predict it. The only reason you think otherwise, Mia, is because you’re a short-sighted idiot who wants instant results and refuses to see when that’s impossible!”
“Councillor Ihab…” Councillor Daniel warned.
“Apologies,” Ihab said with a sigh, inclining his head slightly in a small bow. He normally didn’t apologize for his outbursts, but he did hold a certain amount of respect for Daniel, and he did agree that, much as he hated to admit it, some amount of etiquette had to be maintained in these meetings. Otherwise, it’d all just dissolve into chaos. “That was out of line. But my point stands – I do not think it is General Katherine’s fault that this assault failed. She could not have possibly predicted that the rebels would do something like that.”
“Factually, you are incorrect – as the leader of the assault, it is entirely her fault,” Daniel said. “But I understand what you are trying to say. It may be her fault, but her mistakes were ones that she cannot be blamed for making.”
Ihab sighed. “Thank you, Councillor Daniel, for that much-needed clarification.”
“Regardless, Councillor Ihab is correct,” Daniel said, ignoring the sarcastic remark. “Their usage of this sort of tactic proves that the rebels are a threat. Not only will we now have the might of their allied human army to contend with, but we now also know that these rebels are rather intelligent, and willing to do things that we would not expect them to do. This makes them extremely dangerous.”
“You cannot possibly mean that,” Mia spat. “You really think a band of rebels who would ally with humans, of all things, are worth our attention?”
“As much as I do not want to admit it,” Councillor Gerhardt interjected, “Councillors Ihab and Daniel are correct. While the rebels’ tactics are cowardly, I must confess that they are certainly effective. One only needs to look at the outcome of this first attack to see that.”
“I agree as well,” Councillor Adrien said. “Even ignoring the outcome of this first battle, we would be fools to ignore an entire human army inside our territory. “
“At this point, it’s hardly our territory,” Ihab noted. “Haven’t you noticed? The rebellion more or less controls all of Redgate by now, and most of the surrounding area. Now that they’ve got an actual army helping them, I imagine they’ll take over even more land in the near future. The North isn’t really our territory anymore.”
Adrien frowned at that. “Yes, I… have noticed that as well,” he murmured. “They are making far too much progress too quickly for my liking. We can’t dismiss this as a simple rebellion anymore.”
“It passed that when they first got those humans on their side,” Ihab nodded. “You’re right – we’re not just suppressing a rebellion anymore. We’re fighting a civil war.”
Mia’s eyes widened so much at that that Ihab briefly entertained the thought of them popping out of her head. Adrien and Gerhardt were clearly taken aback at that, too, whereas Daniel and Yulia barely even reacted. That wasn’t unexpected – they’d probably come to that conclusion a long time before Ihab had brought it up.
“What?!” Mia snapped. “You would give them that much credit?! Fool! This is-“
“Motion to confirm that, yes, this is a state of civil war?” Ihab said in a deadpan voice, and raised his hand. A few of the Councillors looked at him strangely for that, but Daniel raised his hand too, and Yulia did the same after a bit of consideration. It took a while for Adrien and Gerhardt to come around to the idea, but eventually, they, too, raised their hands at almost the same time.
“Looks like we have the majority,” Ihab said, his voice flat. “Mia, I would thank you if you would refrain from denying the facts any further.”
She gritted her teeth in response, clearly itching to spit out a caustic rebuttal. But she said nothing. Probably, Ihab guessed, more because the otherwise-unanimous vote had cowed her into silence than out of any actual respect for the motion.
“Thank you,” Ihab nodded. “Now, how about we get back to the actual topic at hand?”
“Yes,” Yulia said, even her voice sounding a bit exasperated. “That would be wise.”
“Thank you, Councillor Yulia,” Ihab said. “For a start, there is one thing I would like to suggest.”
All eyes turned to him curiously. Ihab suppressed a small smile. When he said this, chaos was all but guaranteed to break out in the Chamber, and he couldn’t wait.
“I trust you will all agree – except Mia, perhaps – that this is a crisis greater than we have ever faced before,” Ihab said. “What is at stake here is not simple victory or defeat. If we lose this war, we will no longer be the rulers of demonkind. Aead will change in ways we cannot predict, and I doubt it will be good. So, given the stakes, I believe we must do all we can to combat these rebels.”
Ihab sat up straight in his chair and looked at the rest of the Councillors with a stern gaze. “Therefore, I must insist that I be allowed to lead our armies directly alongside the Generals.”
“Heh…” Aloetsdrimi chuckled, her voice a bit pained but not betraying a hint of fear even when she knew she was about to die. “Well, you win. Not that I didn’t expect this.”
Lein nodded to her. “You fought well. I am sorry it had to turn out this way.”
She smiled. “Well, you shouldn’t be sorry about this, should you? I’m an evil person, after all.”
“That was what I wanted to ask you,” he said. “You are an honorable, loyal, brave person. Why would someone like you side with the Reds?”
The smile on her face grew, only turning to a grimace for a moment as she spat a few drops of blood onto the ground. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I presume you are not going to tell me, then?” Lein asked.
“Nope,” she cheerfully replied.
“Very well,” Lein frowned. If she didn’t want to talk about it, he wouldn’t press her further. He simply steadied his hand, gripped his dagger more tightly, and aimed for her head.
“Hey,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. Lein could tell she was already fading by now. “Thank you, Lein. Never expected my last fight would be against a Great Power, but… I couldn’t be happier it turned out this way.”
“You’re welcome,” Lein replied. And with that last acknowledgement, he drove the dagger into her skull, ending her life in an instant.
For just a moment, he looked on in silence. He looked at her lifeless body, still impaled on the arch of stone. And he looked down at the dagger, the bloodstained weapon with which he had done the deed.
And then, he sheathed the dagger, its dirty work now done. He let the arch of stone sink back into the earth it had come from, letting Aloetsdrimi’s body rest peacefully upon the snow. He would give her a proper burial shortly. But there was something he had to do first.
He looked around at the camp. The rest of the Reds had used the opportunity to flee, of course. And Cinna had, of course, long since vanished. Experimentally, he reached out with his mind, trying to spot the distortion she would create on the planet – as a demon, a being which was not from this world, she was easy for Lein to spot. But he found nothing. As he’d expected, she was too far away already.
But there was one thing that caught his eye. A note written on parchment, half-buried in snow, seemingly dropped by one of the Reds as they ran. He picked it up, brushed the snow off, and read it. It was a note in broken language – not unexpected, since Cinna’s first language was Ancient Aeadean and she didn’t know any others that well – detailing Cinna’s plans, and more importantly, stating exactly where she was planning to flee to if she had to flee. A region in the distant south of the continent of Aphage, in one of the alkite nations that occupied more or less the entire southern half – more specifically, the nation of Altermin, the first alkite nation to ever have been founded.
This didn’t make sense, though. Cinna was too smart to leave such an obvious clue. She would never give her enemies a perfect chance to figure out where she was going like this.
Which, of course, could only mean one thing. This was a trap.
But the chance to get at Cinna – any chance to get at Cinna – was simply too valuable. After all, considering what she represented… there was every possibility that her living or dying would decide the fate of the world itself.
So, Lein would go to the place that had been indicated. And if it was a trap – no, it most certainly was a trap – he’d simply have to overcome it, whatever it was.