Dusern Crown City
“It was like Gideon predicted,” Jim said hurriedly, “The source of the soldiers is distributing them through the Umbra, and its definitely Divine in source.”
“But you can find it once we need to open a Gate, right?” Gideon said impatiently, “Honestly this is probably going to be the easiest part compared to actually fighting a being on the same level of power as the Dark. A High Priest turned to combat.”
“Actually I don’t think they’re as powerful as Laer,” Jim said, a bit more hesitantly, frowning as he tried to recall the precise details of what he’d seen, “Laer is… about twice as strong I think. Just in terms of sheer power I mean.”
Gideon noticeably started, then frowned.
“If Ytilaer is stronger than a being that can threaten all Five Kingdoms simultaneously, then how much stronger is the last one?” The Cursed Mage’s voice trailed away as he refocussed and turned his attention to Thaum Lore who had arrived to hear their report, along with a multitude of other adventurers who were, presumably to join the assault. Jim noticed his teachers among them, slightly worse off for wear, but clearly ready for battle.
The Dusern Guildmaster frowned slightly, seemingly deep in thought, before coming to a conclusion.
“If Jim is certain of his ability to find the source again, then we could theoretically launch our counter-attack at any time,” the veteran explained, “however, even a being with just half of Ytilaer’s considerable power is too much for us to attempt to take on without the element of surprise. Our hope had been that this entity would not notice Jim’s searching, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“You have just witnessed firsthand how dangerous the Umbra can be to travel through. We’ll have to draw its attention elsewhere before we can attack.”
“With all due respect,” Gideon said, his face darkening as Lore went on, “why were we not informed of this beforehand. I, at least, was under the impression that you were merely waiting for us to confirm so that you could begin your strike. If that is not the case, then what is your intention?”
In spite of himself, Jim somewhat agreed with the Cursed Mage, and from what he could sense of Seána and Cray, they felt likewise. Standing at the base of what had once been the Hubnet, in the centre of his own city, Jim felt that something was distinctly wrong with the situation.
Jim felt the whorl of Darkness a moment before Motnahp rematerialised from the Umbra. Watching the artificial wraith as it took a hooded, faceless form beside its master, Jim suddenly realised what felt wrong.
Spinning around, ignoring the others reactions, Jim spread his perception over the city. The place was already desolate, bereft of much of its population, but now there was almost nothing. Even the Palace and the Guild appeared to have been evacuated.
“Draw their attention elsewhere,” Jim repeated, turning towards the Guildmaster, “Except its not ‘elsewhere’ is it? Maybe being able to find it in the Umbra is useful, but not as useful as the ability to bait it into coming to a particular place. Gideon and I, two powerful individuals, just randomly entering the Umbral from the site of a ruined city, in the middle of a war? You were trying to draw its attention to here, a city already ruined and evacuated, so that you could strike from somewhere else, somewhere it isn’t looking.”
From the corner of his eye, Jim saw Gideon look at the Guildmaster with something bordering on respect. Thaum Lore himself hesitated before sighing.
“Trying to fool someone who literally has the power to perceive things, is almost impossible. Not for long, at least. I apologise for the deception Jim, but a High Priest of this level of power was almost sure to detect your search and there was the risk that they would have been able to capture you and read your memories before you could exit the Umbral.
We in AEGIS have, as you guessed, decided to draw a significant portion of our enemies attention here.”
“With respect Guildmaster Lore,” Cray said uncertainly, “I’m presuming that the Umbra is impassible at the moment for transport purposes, in which case how are we going to get away before it attacks us?”
“We aren’t,” Lore said quietly, drawing a plain longsword from thin air and idly spinning it in one hand, “If Jim isn’t here, then it will emerge from some other site. Once the attack begins, our priority will be to evacuate Jim and you others, Gideon included, to the Larel Old Capital to guide the actual assault force. Meanwhile the rest of us will stall it here for as long as we can.”
“What about the Six?” Seána broke in sharply, “Why isn’t at least one of them here?”
“The Dark remains unreachable, the Light is overstretched leading and defending the now-unified Larel States, the Principality is maintaining the defences on a few particularly valuable strongholds, the Tide is locked in battle in the ocean and the Bard is preparing to lead the assault team itself,” Lore answered, “The Other is… they’re helping where they can. We are all that can be spared to hold the line here.”
Jim felt his spirits sink as he looked around at the gathered adventurers. There were at least ten S rank adventurers and more than thirty A ranked ones gathered, more than he’d seen anywhere else. And they didn’t believe they’d be able to hold off the attack when it came, only delay it.
“In the meantime, please get ready to start running at any moment. Every second is important…”
Jim heard the words, but his power began alerting him to an approaching presence.
“No time,” he said, looking up towards where the top of the Hubnet would have been, just as gaping maw opened in the sky, “They’re here.”
Jim blinked. The moment the words were out of his mouth, he’d found himself just at the edge of the city. Seána, Cray, Gideon and, surprisingly the Master of Applied Gifts were there as well. The mystery of how they’d gotten there was answered before he could could consider as the silent teacher vanished as abruptly as they’d arrived.
They looked back towards the centre of the city just as the first attacker emerged from the hole in the air. Unlike the soldiers or airships that had appeared before, it took the form of a huge serpent the size of the Hubnet tower, but many times as long, as it spooled out and out of the hole.
Twisting, weightless in the air, countless eyes, ranging from the size of a coin to as big as carriage wheels, opened along its body, flickering every which way until one of them, Jim wasn’t sure how he knew, saw him.
The head of the creature turned towards him, opening a cavernous mouth lined on the inside with an irregular carpet of jagged teeth. Before it could do anything though, a fireball almost the size of the Gyre smashed into it from below.
The explosion, which could be clearly felt from where they stood, broke Jim from the horrified fascination with which he’d been watching. Of the four of them, Gideon alone seemed to be undistracted as he stared in the opposite direction. Just a moment later the shape of one of the Cursed Mage’s artificial wyverns descended into view and landed in front of them.
At Gideon’s impatient urgings the got aboard the flying reptile and took to the air. Around them, scores more of the creatures gathered and scattered, trying to cover which direction they were fleeing in.
Their mount banked sharply mere moment before a globe of some glowing liquid hot enough that Jim could feel it from over ten metres away swept through where they would have been. The unlucky wyvern that was struck in their place was dissolved instantly, the globe not even slowing as it passed right through it and splashed onto the ground below, destroying several buildings.
Risking a look behind them, Jim saw that the first serpent had been joined by three more while a monster that looked like a colossal spider with wings in the place of legs dropped through and began firing glowing threads at the gathered adventurers.
One of the serpents began to spit another orb of the burning liquid at them but someone, Jim was pretty sure it was Troid, smacked into the side of its head, throwing off its aim.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Gideon said tonelessly, “Nothing except follow the plan.”
“We know that,” Seána snapped, glaring at their old foe, “Although I’m surprised you even care.”
Surprisingly, the accusation seemed to draw a slight response in the Cursed Mage.
“You are right,” he said quietly, “I don’t really care. Not about people. But I have learnt that it is… unwise to dismiss them entirely. Even if you do not believe me capable of empathy, you may ascribe to me a will to live that demands I at least partially respect other individuals. The Earth Mage and the proto-wraith that were with you before, Nickel and Ruth, did not strike me as the types to flee without a word.
“I wonder where they are now? If I had to guess, I’d say that they are trying to find a way to help you. But since I, by my own admission, don’t care about people, the fact carries no particular weight. Just another factor to be noted for consideration. Just like how unwilling you are to discuss their location.”
While the three adventurers worried at how close the Cursed Mage’s guesses were, they flew onwards towards Larel once more.