When seen from above, the cavern seems so much smaller; the forest, while a mess of thick mangrove trees, and ferns, and grasping vines, is only a few dozen kilometres thick. If the trees were gone, I’d see the wall on the far side.
The larger lake, while deep enough for the massive beasts to swim about, is not some vast ocean. The blue-gold waters glow bright, masking it’s true size and making it seem that much larger.
The towers of the city rise so high that some touch the stone ceiling and the upper lake where I now float, looking down. I see no gremlins crawling this high up, but I can’t be sure that they’re not just hiding.
This cavern is small.
Our war is small.
All of it meaningless in the greater schemes at play in the universe. Meaningless to everyone but us weak fools who are trying to make a home here.
I remember once, in high-school science class, looking through a microscope and seeing all the small bugs that lived and fought on that tiny pane of glass. A whole invisible war of survival going on everywhere but so small that we can’t see it. So small that to us, the beings living and dying don’t really matter at all.
This cavern is its own small world, no one else is bothered by it, but for us and a pair of goddesses watching us through their microscopes. Judging us small creatures from above and beyond. Perhaps even cheering me on.
My new mana has made me think more about power and its limits. About Frey in particular. She’s a mana form being that has settled into the walls and stone. Maybe even the air, though my mana sense isn’t good enough to be sure.
She’s most of the planet, even if she were only in a gaseous mana state, and she’s not, the volume of her mana would be… insane. Well beyond anything I can even hope to comprehend, while I’m struggling to learn how to control the more powerful flows of mana running through me. A tiny fraction of her power, and it’s too much for me to control.
I’ve had enough time with my new power to know my limits, and… it’s bad. I can’t wield this power freely, the mana is heavy and it flows fast. It’s like trying to drive an overweighted truck with floppy dildo as a gearstick, an old Wii remote as a steering wheel, and an engine which coughs like it’s somehow developed bronchitis.
With enough patience… it’s technically possible to move it around as I want to.
That said, I can’t use this much mana in a proper fight, even with all my practice and old Skills. While out gathering mana with Eshya and Vii I couldn’t really keep up with them, and if they hadn’t killed everything so quickly, I might’ve had some trouble fighting the beasts myself.
Even Skills like my ‘mana burst movement’ don’t work properly when I’m this packed full of mana, the massive increase in mana flow is simply too much for me to handle. Thankfully, my role in this battle remains unaffected by this new development.
I’m the Empress not a soldier, I sit on a throne above my armies, and I watch and wait. When the time is right, I will cast a spell powerful enough to erase my enemies from this small cavern.
While I’m casting I’ll give away my position but if Loekan attacks me I’ll have my target and he’ll be finished in that moment. If I fail to kill him with my first spell, however, I’ll be a target that’s impossible to ignore, and Loekan will not miss that opportunity.
If I can find Loekan, I win.
If he can kill me, he wins.
The armies now gathering in the cavern below me, are simply pawns moving around on the chessboard, trying to create an opportunity for each of us to steal that advantage over the other.
Is this what large-scale wars are like in the greater universe, or is this something unusual? On the ground, so many people going to die, all so that I can get a glimpse of Loekan, or so that he can get a brief chance at taking my life.
They all look so small from up here, the gremlins on the walls and in the city, the beasts scattered all over, and my own army gathering in the forest outside the city. Their lives fragile, so easily crushed.
I’m sure that with a single spell I could annihilate a good chunk of the city’s inhabitants, though it’ll take some effort to shape it and gather the mana from my heart and my talent.
I thought Loekan was simply being cruel when he called so many of his people fodder, but there’s a pragmatic truth to it. Their lives really hold so little meaning, their value in this war something miniscule.
Even my own warriors have so little value, yet I’m sending them out to fight anyway. Wasting their lives because I’m not yet powerful enough to do this on my own.
How many bakers will die today? How many smiths? How many gardeners? How many farmers? Scientists? Traders? Hunters?
Their talents and their potential wasted so that they can stand and fight as fodder in this war.
I’ve gathered together 52,798 mana, a rich sum, but still it’s not enough power to prevent this.
If I was smarter, I could find a better solution and keep my people safe without resorting to this.
If I was stronger, I could win this war on my own without risking so many lives.
If I was more skilled, I’d be able to find Loekan on my own ending this with only one death.
If I was an actual powerful Empress, then none of this would be happening. If I can one day make that lie into the truth, then maybe we’ll have peace.
If I could tear Loekan apart, and shatter his very soul, splitting it into parts and annihilating each fragment, letting the ash scatter, then I’d have peace.
I sigh, letting these useless thoughts flow out with my wasted breath. There’s nothing more for me to do but wait and watch, getting used to my ‘Eyes of an Empire’ Skill. I’m going to be using it, even in its incomplete state. I’m fairly sure that I can hit a target semi-accurately, but there’s still a frighteningly real possibility of friendly fire.
"You have my back right?" I ask, looking towards Adler, who nods firmly. Her hair a floating mess in the water even though she’s tried to tie it down. Bessy, beside her, bobs happily in the water to show her own enthusiasm. Seia and Leia are with me as well, I was concerned about Seia, but she’s insistent that she’s feeling well enough to join the fight.
Luke is also nearby with Green-feet and a team of his warriors, together they form my personal defence team, and they’re all that stands between me and whoever Loekan sends against me.
"Let’s get started then." I whisper, swallowing my anxiety.
"Preparing the spell now." I send to my commanders, whirling up the mana in my heart.
This is a critical point in the battle. Loekan might notice me and attack before I’m ready to cast, if he does we could lose right this moment and there’s not much we’d be able to do about it.
Letting the annihilation feed into my heart I focus my minds on spinning it up into a variation on the same annihilation spell I’ve been dedicating myself to all this time. A blend of the net and the bolt.
With all this mana spun into the spell, I’ll be able to reach Loekan even if he’s in the next cavern over. I just need to lay my eyes on him.
The mana chugs along slowly, I feed it through my heart, giving it the purpose of destruction while watching the world keep moving below. My talent draws mana into existence to reinforce the spell and it takes even more focus to keep it under control.
The mana thickens into a slush, crystalising. I try to pay attention to the process, but it slips from my influence. While the magic is under my control, the mana within it belongs to the spell itself, it’s not mine anymore, but it lets me control it regardless.
Spinning this spell around, holding it back from casting, I turn my attention back to my eyes. The preparations are done. I can cast now if I need to, though it’ll be more powerful the longer I let it grow.
I face the battlefield on the ground below me and let the magic cycle patiently inside. It’s a slightly different process to cycling my own mana, a little easier in some ways, a little more consuming in others.
Eshya and Vii are down there.
So many of my people are going to die today, but I can’t stop it from happening. My own lovers could die, but I can only watch…
My heart thumps painfully as the ball of rage inside turns about, clearing away all stray thoughts as I imagine that world made real. I imagine Eshya and Vii dead in this silly little war.
Dead because of me.
Unacceptable. No world or universe should exist that should let them die. There should be no space without them, time should stop flowing. The threads of reality itself should be unwound on the day that my lovers die.
The message pops up, something that Nel received from that gamer elf who has finally gotten back to work. Something to help with the adaption process of the liquid stage development. It helps to categorise and analyse possible adaptions, making it a less touchy-feely process.
The message continues before I can set it aside.
~Annihilation Mana Vortex
-You will develop into a mana vortex, a point in space where annihilation mana floods freely into reality forming annihilation magic that will consume everything, even the space-time fabric around it.
-A mana vortex is not a conscious living being, but a natural phenomenon. This process will destroy your identity as a person, and you turn yourself into a natural force.
I blink, but the message doesn’t fade. I want to think that maybe the system is broken, but my heart tells me otherwise.
I imagine my lovers dead, struck through with wounds that will not heal. Gone, beyond saving.
My annihilation spell doubles in power while I struggle to keep it under control. The mana thrums through my soul, wanting to make the adaption real, the only saving grace keeping me from falling past that cliff edge is the fact that I’m only imagining their deaths.
"Frey, Arduelle. I know you have your own thing going on, but please watch over my lovers, if they die… I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive you, and I think… I think I might just lose control."
"Asking favours?" Frey asks grumpily, "Making threats?"
"I’m a broken person, Frey." I say meeting her eyes as she forms, floating in the air before me. "They hold me together. If I lose any of them, then what’s left of me afterwards will be… annihilation."
Even as I say it, I feel the new beating in my heart, the new transformation of my soul tempting me. I’ll lose everything that I am, becoming a vortex of annihilation mana spreading through everything around me. It would be liberating. I would be free from the pain that comes.
Nothing would be able to stop me, nothing would rule over me, and nothing more could be taken from me. A selfish, destructive existence.
"Frey. If they die, then so do we all." I say, meeting her eyes. "I’ll destroy everything."
She flinches back from me, her figure hazing a little.
Arduelle appears at her side in a flash of magic.
"Kyra." She says, her voice steady. "If you want to survive then you’ll have to get used to people dying. Even those you love. It’s a lesson that you need to learn."
"I don’t want to survive." I say, feeling the cold beating of my heart, growing strangely steady. "I want to change everything until I’m comfortable with the world that surrounds me. If they are not with me in that world…"
"Kyra…" Arduelle struggles to find something to say, her mana stirring around in strange forms visible magics more powerful than even I can manage. Spells that I don’t understand the purpose behind.
"If you don’t want them to suffer then why do you let them fight?"
"I will not smother them." I say firmly. "To live, they need to be free to choose for themselves. I would not keep them as one keeps a pet. Nel chooses safety, Eshya chooses to fight, it is a part of them, and I would not destroy that."
"But you would destroy the world because they die?" Arduelle asks, growing confident. "No, you wouldn’t. You would find another person to love, while protecting those that still live. You’re bluffing."
"I’m not sure I get to choose." I say, turning my gaze down towards the city, watching the forest move past from Vii’s eyes as she observes the gremlins on the walls. "I’m not entirely in my right mind. So please, protect them for all of our sakes."
Arduelle turns to Frey with a serious look on her face before Frey disperses and Arduelle disappears.
I’ve made all the appeals that I can, now all I can do is restrain myself and stick to the plan.
"Was that true?" Nel asks in my mind. Apparently, she’s been listening in on me. "That you’ll destroy us all if any of us dies?"
"Maybe." I admit, my head hurting as I grapple with the feelings raging through me. The uncertainty, the fear, the rage, everything feels so much more powerful as I let the annihilation magic stir to life inside, held in an infinitely growing loop ready to destroy Loekan and everything else that threatens my people.
"I can feel it inside me, Nel." I say. "I can change myself into something mindless. I can become… nothing. A magical being that’s an ever-growing annihilation spell, destroying everything around me. If I lose them…"
"They’ll live." Nel says with a blind confidence. "We’ll all survive because we have to, and if the worst does come to pass, then please think of me and the future we have. Whatever happens, don’t lose yourself, Kyra."
"I’ll try." I say.
"Everything will be okay." She sends back.
Her words are strangely fortifying, my doubts losing their edge as my confidence grows. They’ll live. Loekan will die, and everything will have a happy ending.
It’s how it must be.
On the ground just outside the city, my army sits ready. The warriors anxiously shuffle around as Lakesh looks over the formation. It’s not like back on earth where spearmen are lined up in blocks, everyone has space enough between them to move freely.
There are still layers behind them, reinforcing them, ready to step in with a stab or a potion if it’s needed. I’ve given my commanders an order that they prioritise surviving this war over winning it. Their role is only to get Loekan to show himself, or give the scouts time enough to find him, there is no point in them dying just to slaughter a few hundred gremlins that our enemies consider worthless fodder.
We have teams together to deal with the enemy elites. Specialist squads comprised of our most powerful warriors that can subdue or eliminate the most dangerous of our enemies.
Yes, subdue. We have the possibility of taking the enemy alive rather than killing them.
While their spy has been rather quiet in response to my attempts to reach out to her, the others have made some efforts to respond. The mage, Roach, and Beetle in particular seem affable to the idea of swapping teams, though not enough to outright accept.
If they can be subdued, they should be willing to sit out the fight and accept my authority, though their surrender will have to be treated cautiously. Giant, while open to conversation seems resistant to the idea, but maybe being knocked around a bit could change his mind.
That said, I’m not risking anyone’s life on this. If subduing them safely is possible, then we do, otherwise the safety of my people comes first.
I watch as Lakesh orders the forwards charge, seeing the world below through a thousand eyes, making sense of only a small fraction of it. Lakesh is in control of the larger army, while Red battles on the frontlines, leading her own team of powerful warriors.
Her task is to lead the teams that are focusing on the enemy elites, while taking part in the struggle herself. It might seem that she has the lesser role here, that Lakesh is fighting the more important battle by leading the larger army, but it’s not that simple.
In this battle, numbers mean little compared to personal power. The elites are the real trouble here, the fodder that make up the army are just a diversion and a speed bump.
My warriors march forwards, keeping pace with one another while watching for traps and enemies. Lakesh watches over them carefully, eyes everywhere.
When they break through the forest, and the gremlins on the walls finally notice them, the battle formally begins.
Red’s teams of elite-hunters fly over the walls where the defences are weakest, while Lakesh’s army marches on the gates. The gremlins that see them screech in a panic, striking bells and calling for help. In moments the city gates are opened from the inside, and the first wave of enemies come flooding out, reptilian beasts that had been caged inside for just this occasion.
The first blades strike flesh, and the battle begins as the first beast dies.
I watch on, my cold heart beating in a calm pace as I resolve myself for the worst. Annihilation magic fills me as I watch for Loekan through the eyes of my people.
The moment I see him, this battle will be over.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Skills & Stats
Current mana density: 52,798 units
Mana sense: 0/100%
-Tag and Film
-Mana surge movement
-Annihilation flame burst
-Eyes of an Empire
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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