Adrian paced across the floor of the Monitor Room as Ben fiddled furiously with one of the computers' settings. Nearby, Tash leaned against the wall, nearly bouncing with impatience, while Cristoph bore his usual mask of impassivity as he glanced at the iPhone still in his hands for what had to be the hundredth time.
"If we can't communicate with them, why did she ask for orders?" the ninja asked.
"Not 'orders'," Adrian said tightly, "Order. It's the name of one of Runoa's Sovereigns, and her right-hand man at that." He scowled. "Dammit, if their whole group got flattened once, then what chance does-"
His worried muttering was interrupted by Ben slamming his hands down in frustration and shoving himself away from the desk. "It's no use guys. I've been messing with this thing ever since the mission feed cut out, but it just does not want to cooperate..."
"Where are the techies when you need them?" Adrian muttered. "I must have paged Charis, like, twenty minutes ago."
At that, Ben snickered slightly. "Ah, Adrian..." he said awkwardly, "It's Friday. You're not gonna get ahold of her on a Friday night."
Adrian turned toward the agent and tilted his head. "What are you talking about?"
"She... uh... She likes to meet with Pete on Friday nights around this time. To, uh... you know... hang out together."
Tash made a sound halfway between a growl of frustration and a groan. "I'll go get her, you big babies, and I don't care if they're shacked up when I get there. We've got work to do."
The clearing had broken out into chaos.
Jasmine flitted through the treetops, dropping down to the earth to deliver tiny but critical jabs in the largest of the creatures, only to leap back upward to safety as the branches practically bent protectively to enshroud her. The trees of the Hills were secretive, but they also evil when they saw it, and did their best to aid the ones who opposed such unnatural, otherworldly beings as the creatures the gray-haired man from before had summoned.
She did not deny the rush of satisfaction that each jab against them brought her. Though the monsters were not Grey Guards, they reminded her of them enough that she could summon up her old rage against them when she fought.
This is for my mother! she thought viciously, ripping her dagger out of a Usurped's eye socket with a spray of something purpleish that might have been blood.
This is for my father! Though Jasmine knew now that her father was alive, everything the man had gone through in the elapsing time - losing his family, his home, his very identity - was surely something for his daughter to avenge, even now. Jasmine landed lightly on the back of an enormous Usurped, drove her knife into the tough hide of its back at what she hoped was its spine, and darted away.
This is for my sist- She stopped, briefly wide-eyed before scowling. Thinking of the illusion that was her "sister" Faith was a habit that was easy to fall into, and harder to get out of than it should have been for the length of time she had even been aware of the deception. Still, the painful memory fueled the fire in Jasmine's heart. A giant humanoid Usurped came crashing down as its Achilles tendon was cut, crushing its brethren beneath it.
But then it got back up again. And so did another, and another.
"There seems to be no end to these creatures," she heard Barda huff as he wrenched himself out of the grip of a Usurped that appeared to be nothing but a pair of enormously muscled arms. "How can we defeat them if they refuse to stay down?"
Jasmine glanced at the four women nearby who were also defending themselves from the hoard, though only two of them seemed to have any experience in fighting, and one of them, the tallest one with the wavey yellow hair, was not fighting at all, only desperately avoiding more damage. Monika leaped out of the way as one of the Usurped's axe-like arms sank deep into the tree behind her, and Jasmine cringed as she heard the tree scream in pain.
"You!" the wild girl shouted, heading towards the Society group. "Tell me what is going on! You said you could help us, but that man and his creatures came here looking for you and your friends! What have you brought upon us? What-"
"Jasmine!" She halted as she felt Lief's hand close around hers. She turned. "Jasmine, we cannot waste time arguing," said the young king. "We must work together if we are to make it out of this."
Behind them, Barda slashed at a great, lumbering Usurped, which staggered away momentarily before returning for more. Suddenly, the creature was thrown skyward by a blast of light emenating from Ezra's palm, but when it landed, scorched and smoldering, it was still moving.
Jasmine scowled at Lief. He was right, and she knew it, and she was almost angry with him for that. Almost. "Fine," she said sharply, though not as venomously as before. "What do you suggest?"
Under any other circumstances, Valerie might have been thrilled to ride aboard something as closely resembling a dragon as the giant Usurped that Order had summoned. As it was, from her position of being slung face-down over the neck of the creature like a bag of grain, the panoramic landscape of the whole of Deltora below her was more terrifying than awe-inspiring, and so very, very far down...
They flew west, into the rapidly setting sun, and though she refused to close her eyes against the stinging wind, Valerie clung to the Usurped with all her might.
One of the creatures raised an arm that was long and sharp as a sword, and Barda instinctively stepped in front of Lief, wondering what the hell that reckless boy had gotten him into this time and half-heartedly cursing the fact that he loved the young king like a brother. He blocked the blow successfully, but even Barda was forced to stagger under the thing's sheer weight, and he wondered how long they could keep this up.
Jasmine, Lief, and two of the strangers - the taller of the two blondes, and the one with unnaturally red-colored hair - conversed rapidly, while Barda and the other two strangers did their best to keep the hoard from coming too close. Half of the words the strangers used were completely unfamiliar to Barda, and as a guard, he had to be at least familiar with all common vernaculars spoken in Deltora.
"They'll definitely know something's wrong by now," Danielle was saying. "I'm not sure exactly where my iPhone landed, but it was somewhere in the Library, so it's really only a matter of time before a leader finds out why the Deltora fandom is locked."
"Doesn't change the fact that it's locked though," Monika replied grimly. "Even if they know something's wrong, there's no way anyone could get to us. I wouldn't anticipate a rescue."
Ari hissed angrily from her new position perched on a low-hanging branch, and it wasn't difficult to tell why. She had probably been trying frantically to teleport to the Library, and was furious with herself for not being able to, and for being similarly unable to rush to Valerie's aid herself. With Order's threat hanging over their heads, all anyone could do was hope she would be alright until some sort of plan could be made...
Lief frowned. "I am not sure that I understand, but are you saying you are trapped here?"
"Pretty much," said Danielle.
Jasmine looked at Monika. It was really more of a glare than a look, but only because glaring was the wild girl's default expression when Lief wasn't present. Lief was present, as it happened (and Monika smiled internally when she realized he was even holding her hand), but it was sort of a crisis, so the force of Jasmine's glare was only somewhat softened.
"You told me when we first met that you and your group had come here to stop a dangerous enemy to Deltora," said Jasmine. "Is this what you came to stop?"
Monika blinked briefly in surprise, but quickly understood. Of course they don't remember Camillia. Why would they?
"Yes," Ezra answered from where she was grappling in midair with a smallish winged Usurped, causing both girls to turn their heads. Ezra managed to free herself and throw the creature downward, but, predictably, it rose right up again. "Normally, though, our targets are not so numerous, nor so stubbornly determined to never stay the fuck down!"
Danielle gripped her staff tightly. "I'm going to go help," she said.
Monika nodded in reply. "Be careful." To Jasmine and Lief, the blonde said, "Normally we would have a lot of back-up to deal with even one of these creatures, but we did not expect to encounter Order when we came here. We're not equipped to handle this..."
"Order," Lief said. "That is the man from before who summoned the monsters and kidnapped your friend. And, if I understand you correctly, he is also somehow preventing you from calling for help from others like you?"
"That is right."
"Then can you not somehow stop him instead of wasting energy fighting his minions?"
Monika shook her head and tried to suppress the shudder that ran through her. Judging by Lief's face, she was not terribly successful at it. "We tried stop him once before, and it did not go well... Valerie looked after each of us personally, but we were still in the Med Ward for days..." She ran a hand through her hair and left it there, fighting the panic welling in her chest. "I mean... maybe if Ezra and Terrie were both at the absolute top of their game, we might be able to chase him out, but we didn't come prepared for this! We have nothing on us except what's standard protocol for a much less dangerous opponent! Valerie... Valerie might be at least able to defend herself if she had the motivation... oh god I hope she has the motivation, please don't let her be dead by now..."
Lief thought for a long moment. "...What if you were able to reach help?" he finally said. "Would we stand more of a chance then?
"Kree could send a message," Jasmine offered.
It took a moment for Monika to gather her thoughts enough to remember that Kree was the name of the blackbird that was never very far from Jasmine. The blonde agent shook her head. "Kree could not reach my allies. They are... too far away. They can only be reached by... a special device," she explained haltingly.
This got Barda's attention from his fight several yards away from them. With a grunt of effort, he knocked the Usurped backwards and slammed his blade home. The creature continued twitching, but didn't get up, and Barda took the opportunity to focus on the plan-making. "What sort of device?" he asked breathlessly.
"It it not something you have the means to repair..." Monika began.
"No," the guard interrupted irritably, "I mean did you have it on your person the whole time? Did Order never touch it?"
"That suggests he used some sort of magic to interfere with it, does it not?"
Lief's eyes widened as he realized what his friend had figured out. "And that means that if Order's concentration was interrupted, even for a moment..."
"We might be able to break through." Monika furrowed her brows in thought. She wasn't sure if natural Gary-Stu abilities, even freakishly enhanced abilities like those of a Sovereign, counted as "magic" of any sort, but it was possible. Valerie had called it ontological inertia, which was the tendency stuff had to continue being stuff. But this rule almost never applied to anything magical or in any way supernatural, energy being as volatile and fickle as it was. But... Suergy counted as a type of energy, didn't it? It certainly wouldn't have such a ridiculous portmanteau, otherwise...
Well then that means... But no, Danielle got that last message through before it closed off, so they'll be ready, trying to hack through... Yes, this could work!
"She won't do it," Monika realized. The others looked at her questioningly, so she elaborated, "Valerie. She won't attack Order, not even to save herself. Even with Seiryu, she can't bring herself to seriously harm another. She is literally not capable of it, even if it means her death. The only way she can even come close to hurting someone is in defense of someone else, not herself."
Lief and Jasmine both looked surprised at this news, though the latter also made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a choke. Barda, however, looked thoughtful.
"Then... perhaps we should give her someone to protect," he said softly.
"...What about the Usurped?" Monika replied after a very, very long pause, during which a variety of emotions had flitted across her face, too rapidly to interpret. "Order would not have left them here if he wanted interruptions."
Barda gestured briefly. "Look around. There are dozens of them, but only a few of them at a time actively attack us. If the rest of us are enough of a distraction, one person may be able to slip away..."
Monika looked between the three characters, and her three friends defending them. Of course, Barda was perfectly correct. The phenomenon of Conservation Of Ninjutsu was actually pretty common, if Aster's ramblings bashing the realistic merit of the few shounen anime series she had seen was any indication. Not to mention that Usurped were powered by the same terrible storytelling as Sues and Stus anyway, so the fact that it was happening now did make sense. Monika just never once in her life thought she'd ever be in a situation where it would apply.
It bolstered her hopes, frankly. If they could pull on that law of fiction, they might just have a chance.
"Right," she said quickly. "I'll go. I'll be able to reach Valerie fastest, and I'm useless to you here."
Barda looked the blonde up and down, and saw that she was very tall, but quite lanky, and without a lot of muscle definition. Add that to the fact that she was only armed with the lightweight bow strapped to her back, and he was inclined to agree with the girl's self-assessment. "Very well," he said, "but move swiftly. Even if these creatures were ordinary humans, I would not like the odds we face."
Monika nodded tersely. Barda gave her directions on the quickest route, and she turned on her heel and fled southward, towards the Great Road West.
A familiar tightness filled Lief's heart as he watched her go, although that probably had more to do with the fact that he could also feel Barda's stern gaze shift to him, as though daring Lief to volunteer to leave the fight as well. Of course, it was anyone's guess which direction was safer for him - dozens upon dozens of of inhumanly strong creatures that were monsters in appearance on one side, and one unimaginably powerful man that was a monster in spirit on the other - but that was not even close the the point of Lief's indecision.
As predicted, a handful of Usurped noticed the blonde's passing, and began lumbering after her. Jasmine aimed a ferocious smile at Lief as she expertly spun her dagger in one hand and jumped into the creature's path, green eyes flashing and her long, tangled raven hair flying about her face as she moved.
One thing, at least, was eternally certain: Lief would not ever leave Jasmine's side.
"This is hardly the time for daydreaming, Lief!" Barda growled as he blocked another hit. "Move!"
The young king blinked, then raised his sword and did as he was told, an idea forming in his mind.
The dragons were not at his beck and call, he knew. He was no more their king than he was king of the Granous, or the Capricons. The seven dragons allied themselves with him out of mutual respect—respect for Lief and for Doran's last wishes—and because Lief was the bearer of the great gems that connected them to their territory and gave them strength. They did as he asked when it was in their best interest, and in the best interest of the land, and nothing more...
But he had to try.
Help them, please! he cried with his mind, clutching the Belt tightly. These creatures intend to destroy everything, and if we cannot stop them here, they will march on the world and lay waste to whatever is in their path! These strangers came here to stop them, but they cannot do it alone. Please, if you are near, give them your aid. Help them fight what threatens us...
Under Lief's desperate fingers, the diamond seemed to grow a little brighter...
The journey took less than twenty minutes at the breakneck speed of flight, though it seemed to Valerie both like it took hours, and that it ended all too soon. Rather than land, the winged Usurped hovered in midair, rising up and down with each wingbeat to keep airborne. Order shoved Valerie off the creature's shoulders to the ground, and the healer landed in a heap, jolting her spine in a manner that left her winded and wincing in pain.
Order looked down at her in disdain before leaping gracefully to the ground several feet away from her. "With your friends you fight poorly; without them you fight not at all." He dismissed the Usurped with a wave of his hand, and with a great gust of wind from its mighty wings, it took off into the distance, back towards the Os-Mine Hills. "Rise, healer of the Society," said the Sovereign, "for this is where we will fight. As you can see, I have chosen a location that will give you the advantage, in an attempt to even the odds a little bit."
Still fighting to draw breath, and becoming increasingly aware of the cramps that had developed in her arms and back during their flight, Valerie attempted to look around. When she realized where they were, her eyes widened in near-panic. She now understood why the giant winged Usurped had not landed.
Save for the trails and patches of pale green grass that dotted the landscape, the field they were in was comprised primarily of brilliant, emerald-green leaves as broad as palm branches, dotted here and there with tiny purple blossoms. Valerie and Order were each standing in one of the grass areas - Valerie on a path that led in two directions before forking at the northern end, and Order on a roughly spherical patch about five feet in diameter. Valerie's hand was actually resting on the edge of one of the leaves nearest the grass path, and when she realized this, she yanked her hand back with a barely-suppressed shriek. The leaf twitched in reaction, but otherwise did not move.
A gripper field. He took me to a goddamn gripper field! Gripper, she knew, was the colloquial name for a carnivorous weed that bred like a plague all across Deltora's southwest, covetting deep earth and ruining good farmland. Stepping on their broad green leaves triggered the plant to open the deep, gaping "throat" that the leaves concealed, which was lined with hollow, fang-like thorns that shredded the flesh of whatever fell in. Even if you managed to pull your limb free from the tearing, sucking hollow, the thorns injected blood-thinners into the bite... and with gashes and gouges as severe as even a single gripper bite would leave, you'd be unconscious in minutes, and dead within a few hours.
"Why are you doing this?" Valerie asked in a small, terrified voice.
Order scowled. "The very fact that you ask such a ridiculous question is proof that you do not belong. So why are you still here?" The question was punctuated by a swift forward punch at the air, and suddenly the path of grass to Valerie's right was bisected by a deep gouge in the earth. She glanced at the gouge, then at Order.
Just like with Camillia, she thought frantically. How is he doing that?
"You cannot even dodge my warning shots!" Order shouted across the barrier of grippers that divided them. "Are you so incompetent? Or do you simply refuse? Do you want to die?"
Valerie swallowed and said nothing. She couldn't move.
The Sovereign scowled at her. "Death by my hand would be a fitting end for one so foolish. This is something I can accept."
The healer blinked suddenly and frowned. Something he can -
Without another word, Order leapt into the air, spanning the gap between them easily, and Valerie scrambled away to the left in order to barely avoid the smashing kick the Sovereign landed. Without waiting for the dust to settle, Valerie stood up and sprinted down the grass path, making sure to keep the setting sun at her right. South - the road would be south, and she had to get to the road.
Behind her, she could hear Order laughing.
"The road connecting Tora to Del is your best chance to reach them in time," Barda had told her. "Toran magic speeds travel down that way, keeping the connection between east and west strong."
Monika ran as fast as her legs would carry her. Ari wheeled in the air behind her, flitting through between occasionally to keep up. Monika felt like she was flying herself - the magic of this road was truly something else, allowing her to cover hours and hours of travel in a matter of minutes - but there was no time to enjoy it. Even with something of a plan in place, she couldn't help but feel like she was running to her doom, images from their last big fight at the Eizenburn Mansion running through her mind. Order terrified her - he hit where it hurt and didn't stop, almost as though he liked seeing his victms beg. But he had taken Valerie, and no one else was available, so what choice did she have?
Suddenly, Ari appeared, wings flared, right in front of her, and Monika wheeled her arms in an attempt to not fall crashing over as she skidded to a stop. She looked around, observing the trees lining the road and what looked like an enormous field beyond them, but little else. "Is this the place?" she whispered to Ari. "Is this where they went?"
Rather than answer, the little dragon glided silently through the narrow tree barrier and landed on one of the trunks on the far side. Monika followed as quietly as she could and searched her eyes over the direction Ari indicated, squinting against the uncomfortable angle of the sun.
There was a small tremor in the ground that made her jump slightly, accompanied by a spray of dirt and a brief scream in a familiar voice. And only a few seconds later, she could see a figure with long brown hair pelting down the hillside directly towards her. She didn't look hurt - yet.
They were right, Monika thought triumphantly. We're only a few minutes behind them!
In the distance, coming up just behind Valerie, another figure that could only be Order chased after the healer - at a much more leisurely pace, though it could be called "chasing" nonetheless. And Monika realized again that she had no idea what she could possibly do to help that wouldn't be considered "interfering".
"Well... now what?" she said, more to herself than anyone.
To her surprise, someone answered.
"Now you sit tight and let me do what I do best."
Monika looked up at the sound of the voice. Perched in a fork of the very same tree she sheltered behind was a boy, perhaps in his early twenties, with a silky mop of light brown hair, lavender eyes that sort of looked pinkish if she tilted her head right, and a pair of slim blades strapped across his back.
"Who are you?" the blonde asked with a frown.
Zero grinned down at her. "I'm the guy who's gonna save the day with a dramatic rescue of the distressing damsel. And ain't that just the biggest cliche you've ever heard of?"
Valerie nearly tripped as her mind was suddenly bombarded with images.
Do whatever you can to make his concentration slip! It might unlock the fandom so we could get help.
The healer blinked in surprise. How do you figure he's causing it mentally?
Wild guess, but it's the best we have.
Valerie stopped running briefly and chanced a glance backward. Order looked as though he were walking, not running, but the speed at which he was apparently travelling disagreed. The overall effect was actually quite eerie, and the healer did her best to keep her breathing steady.
But what about-
There others will be fine for now. Conservation Of Ninjutsu is in effect.
Oh thank god!
Steeling herself, Valerie took a few deep breaths, then whipped around and released four arrows in succession. At this distance, and oweing partially to the trembling of her hands, only one of the shots made contact, but Order didn't even try to bat it away. The bolt fizzled away on contact, doing no damage at all.
Shit! Now what?
"Well now," she heard Order say snidely. "Finally willing to fight me, are you?"
The goal is to surprise him, Ari said. So do something surprising!
Valerie scoured the area for something, anything she could use. But there were nothing but carniverous plants in every direction, and the treeline was still a good distance away. Even if she could get there before Order caught up with her - and she had no doubt in her mind that Order could catch her any time he wanted - what refuge would it offer? None.
For a split second, she felt a tickle of moving air at the back of her neck, and something very deep and instinctual screamed at her to move!, so she did, just in time to hear a faint sonic boom pass mere inches away from her right shoulder. She stared at the gash in the earth that Order's attack created, the grippers in its path sliced nearly in half and leaking clear fluid, but still straining upward, searching for food...
Without thinking, Valerie spun around and fired twice. The first energy arrow, Order batted away with ease. The second landed at the Sovereign's feet, leaving a much bigger hole that he nearly stumbled into, but caught himself and leapt lightly over it onto the next patch of pale grass.
"This irritates me," Order said as he dusted off a shoulder, and Valerie wondered if she was actually somehow getting to him before he continued, "At the mansion, your arrows at least stung a bit. Now it is as though they are nothing but a breeze."
Valerie gulped, but as the Sovereign was no longer moving towards her, she lifted her arms again and readied another arrow. Seiryu worked by using her own body as a conduit for the ambient emotional energies she naturally absorbed. Order, as uptight as he was, barely felt emotions at all, and the stray hints of superiority or annoyance he did let off did not make for powerful arrows. With little other choice, Valerie shut her eyes, this time concentrating with all her might on gathering every stray emotion within range.
Her eyes opened wide as she came across something familiar.
Wait a minute, what-?
A flurry of energy shots landed on Order and exploded on contact in a bright violet light, and they didn't come from Valerie's bow.
The healer's jaw hung loose for a moment. "You have got to be kidding me."
"Hey guys!" came a cheerful voice. "Sorry I'm late. Traffic was a nightmare."
Zero sauntered in - really, sauntered was the only word for it, with his hips canted and a smirk playing about the corners of his mouth - and hefted one blade onto his shoulder. "But seriously, a party like this, with some of my absolute faaaavorite people in the world-" (Order twitched.) "-and nobody thought to invite me?"
Valerie groaned, caught between relief and an intense urge to bang her head against the nearest wall. "Oh my god, can you be any more of a cliche??"
The clone grinned and bowed slightly. "Tis my job, miss! Not that we all haven't indulged ourselves at some point or another. Speaking of which, please don't say 'I had it under control'. I always hate it when the rescue-ee says that." It seemed he was being deliberately catty. Order's red-faced expression was bordering on apoplectic.
Valerie rolled her eyes. "Do I look like a liar to you?"
"Point. Whoa look out!" Another invisible blade of destruction had surged toward the empath out of Order's outstretched fist; Zero had picked Valerie up and pulled her out of the way just in time.
"What did I say about interference, you little traitor!" Order screeched, drawing his fist back for another attack, this time aimed at Zero himself. Zero scowled briefly and closed the distance between himself and the Sovereign in the blink of an eye.
"Hey now," he said with a fierce smirk as he knocked Order's knife of air aside, "Clearly you know I was watching, so don't pretend like I didn't hear you. You clearly said 'If any of you Society folk interferes'." Zero held out his arms in a look-at-me gesture. "Do I look like Society folk to you?"
"You are clearly no ally of mine!" Order snarled.
"You don't have allies," Zero said evenly. "Just superiors and subordinates. Forgive me if I don't want to be either."
"Then you are my enemy!" Order charged forward, feinting with one fist and hooking with the other, followed by a low, sweeping kick. Zero dodged all three motions easily, avoiding the last one with an honestly quite impressive leap, springboarding off of Order's shoulder and landing gracefully behind him.
"God, those were obvious," he commented lazily. "Has it occurred to you that you might be more flexible if you took that enormous stick out of your ass?"
"You bastard delinquent!" He charged again, faster this time, and Zero once again dodged or parried every blow, though with slightly more effort, it seemed, and he was pushed backward once again. "I will take pleasure in destroying you!"
"Yes, because that gets you off. Or do you need orders from mommy to do that, too?" The twin rapier hilts on Zero's back were suddenly (already?) in his hands, their ends lighting up in a silent hum of violet energy edged with yellow as the ethereal blades sprang to life at his command.
The battle that ensued moved faster than the eye could perceive at times. This time it was Order who closed the distance between then, opening with a variety of punches and kicks that Zero either avoided or met with his swords. Zero took every opportunity to slash and stab, using spins and circular motions to give his blows more force - the back of which Order did not hesitate to exploit. Zero only just noticed the attack on his unguarded back in time, turning the motion into a ducking roll instead and scrambling out of the way and following up with a short-range energy blast from the tip of his weapon, which sent Order skidding a short distance away, just to the very edge of the grass patch.
Valerie, who had long-since perfected the art of invisibly ninja-ing away from practically anything and was doing just that, head low to the ground and completely unnoticed, risked a glance badkward. As she turned, a silver glint caught the corner of her eye, high in the air. When she looked again, there was only blue sky, slowly darkening as the sun went lower and lower.
The beginnings of realization hit her, but Valerie shook her head clear before her tumultous questions delayed her further, and ran for the road.
Ahead, she could just make out Monika's ashen face, frantically beckoning her through the trees.
Behind, a ferocious streak of silver flame bolted down from the clouds.
Charis was working frantically at her station. Phoenixia, who had since wandered in from a mission, was helping her.
The monitor blipped, a tiny break from the regular pattern of static. Phoenixia looked up.
"Did you see that?"
Charis looked up as well. "See what?"
It blipped again. Twice. "There!" Phoenixia pointed.
In tense silence, they watched. Once. Twice. Four times. Then twice again.
"You think there's a pattern?" Charis asked.
"Maybe. If we can predict just the right moment to hammer it at its weak point..."
Zero didn't consider himself to be an expert fighter, exactly. The moves just sort of came to him, especially when he had someone on-hand to impress. Just part of being a Stu, he supposed, but any idiot could see it was a useful trait. Especially when Order was in one of his hissy fits.
"DAMN YOU!" the Sovereign shouted again as he lunged forward to punch at the empty air where Zero's head used to be. Zero didn't bother responding, but didn't stop to roll his eyes either. That one actually came rather close.
The blast of sparkling silver flame came out of nowhere and disentigrated the ground beneath their feet. Both combatants leapt reflexively into the air, away from one another and into the vibrant green leaves of the gripper plants. Zero's eyes widened as he saw the carnivorous plants approaching from below and fired half a dozen energy blasts from the tip of his sword to sear the ground mere seconds before he landed. It was not enough to kill the grippers, but it did blast the earth about a foot deep, where their "stems" narrowed considerably and he could walk on the spaces between them in relative safety. Nevertheless, the sight of the scorched ground peppered in dozens of round red "throats" that were actively writhing in pain at the loss of their upper halves was not a reassuring sight.
Order lacked Zero's quick reflexes and landed just on the edge of the grass patch, but not quite close enough. His feet were both planted solidly, but his right arm, which he had put down out of habit for balance, had plunged up to the elbow into the maw of a gripper, which immediately set about sucking the limb down further and chewing the flesh to ribbons. A sheen of sweat appeared on Order's forehead as the pain hit, and with a shakey grunt he yanked the limb free. It was not a pretty sight.
Even worse was the glare he aimed at Valerie, already an acre away, just passing through the treeline onto the road with Ari on her shoulder and Monika at her side.
A deafening screech hit them, and for a moment Zero was sure the scream came from Order, judging by the look on his face alone. But the Sovereign too looked up for the source of the sound, and gaped in genuine surprise when he saw a blinding faceted silver-white shape dive out of the sun's glare, jaws blazing.
"Forta..." Valerie whispered in awe.
The dragon of the diamond was only the size of a large horse, scarcely out of its infancy, but it was a dragon all the same, and Deltoran dragons were very protective of their land from those they deemed hostile invaders.
Zero grinned evilly, and got the hell out of the way.
Forta screamed its fury. Glittering white flames scorched the ground clear of grass and grippers alike, and only a swift kick and a slicing gust saved Order from the same fate. The residual heat came off the razed earth in waves, and for the first time, the Sovereign looked afraid.
The dragon wheeled around in the sky and turned for another pass, this time much lower. Again the blinding fire poured out of Forta's maw, blackening the earth and creating veritable shockwaves of blasting heat that even the agents could feel pushing against their backs as they ran. Again Order just barely managed to shield himself, breathless and sweating bullets from the exertion and blood loss.
"Cowardly beast," Order murmered venomously as he struggled to remain upright. "Disrespecting the rules of engagement..."
Forta turned again and pumped its wings to take it well into the sky, directly above the Sovereign. It's juvenile wings shaded the already darkened battlefield.
"Come down here before I make you-" Order hissed up at it.
The dragon dived.
The Sovereign moved.
Forta was disturbingly silent as it hit the scorched earth and didn't get up again.
Instead, it was Valerie who cried out piteously as she, too, stumbled and fell, overloaded by the striking down of a fellow dragon.
Monika moved to catch her friend, struggling under her weight and looking backward in increasing panic at Order flashstepping their way, the trail of blood from his arm giving away his next position. The Adrian-lookalike from before barrelled into the Sovereign's side out of nowhere and rolled away before he could retaliate, though not quite quick enough. With a snarl, Order executed a strange series of sharp movements, and the cutting air from his left fist slammed Zero from behind, driving him right into his blood-soaked right fist.
Zero's eyes bulged as the blow connected, and as he rolled away, curled around his soft midsection, Monika couldn't tell if the blood on his clothes was Order's or his own. Then the Sovereign turned on them.
Ari shrieked a challenge, small wings flared. Monika held Valerie tightly, swallowed her terror, and pushed.
Order stumbled as the empathic barrage hit his mind, amplifying his pain and feeding him Monika's fear. Teeth bared, he closed the gap between them. Ari was suddenly the size of a bear, but he smacked her away just as easily as the much larger diamond dragon.
And then he was lifting Valerie up by the throat with murder in his eyes.
Monika screamed -
(stained-glass windows crashing)
(bodies littering the cold marble floor)
Order's grip on her throat relaxed as his eyes went wide in reflexive panic, and Valerie greedily sucked in air. Monika winced at the exertion, but pressed on.
(people watch in horror as those nearest to the windows are disembowled, slaughtered, even eaten. they try to get out of the building by any means necessary - making a mad dash for the doors, slicing themselves on broken glass in an attempt to climb out through the windows, trampling those too slow to get out of their way and leaving them to the slaughter in their place)
The Sovereign made a choked sound and gripped his head with his bloodied palm, doubling over -
(one of the creatures leaps toward a girl, someone i know from school, though only by face. she doesn't even have time to scream, though i swear she attempts it through what remains of her windpipe after it tears out her throat. the monster's jaw unhinges like a snake, grotesquely wide, impossibly wide, and it begins to feast. blood sprays as it does, proof that her heart still beat, and i know that, for just a moment, she was still alive as pieces of her vanished down its maw)
Valerie slipped out of his fingers into a pile of limp limbs on the ground, and a hoarse yell escaped his throat -
(the screams of those i love echo around me, and i am outside, valerie pulling me by the hand into a vehicle. we are taken away, and they give chase. terrie screams as something lands hard on the roof, and the surrounding forest is set ablaze. the thick, viscous shadow in the driver's seat remains, and for once i stare into it as hard as i can. pain, pain, the shadow pushes back, snarls, cuts the wheel hard to the right, we flip, and -)
Those black eyes rolled back in his head as, for a fraction of a fraction of a second, Order blacked out.
"There it is! Now!"
Order snarled as he whipped around and immediately spotted a head of flaxen hair as its owner tumbled to the ground - still conscious, but barely, and bearing a look of abject terror in her glazed-over eyes. Valerie choked out her friend's name and tasted blood. Zero scrabbled to get his legs back under him. Ari flashed between both girls rapidly, trying anything to get them to move, to retreat. None was fast enough to intercept what happened next...
The Sovereign readied a fist and pointed it at the healer. "That's it! She dies!"
"Librarian Art 6 - Shield of Silence!"
All sound rushed out of the world as Order's blow connected only with solid air, the shockwave creating a perfect semicircular outline of the shield. At its forefront stood Adrian the Librarian; the Library's computers had hacked their way back into the fandom at last, and he had flashstepped to their location just in time.
Other agents quickly followed suit, standing between Order and his targets. Rhia tapped the edge of a frying pan at least 18 inches across into one hand threateningly. Cristoph was just behind her, ninjato raised, while Michael mimicked his stance with his own broadsword, shadows pooling eagerly at his feet. Ben stood wide and loose, fingers itching to point nuclear winter at something. Tash alighted at Adrian's side, flaming wings of the phoenix spread, Nephethys held loosely in her hand.
"Are we done here?" she asked, quiet and casual and dangerous.
Order considered as he met her gaze, though she seemed to wobble sickeningly in his blurring vision. His head throbbed in time with his arm which, he realized, had been spraying blood all over the landscape and continued to relentlessly pump it out of his body with each passing moment. Weakness from the blood loss was catching up with him, and it was beginning to show. As though summoned by the realization, one of Order's knees buckled without warning; he held himself upright, but only barely.
Tash nodded. "I think we're done," she said, and lifted Nephethys high. "Jurai-ken-"
Order was gone, plotholed away, before the strike hit.
The diamond dragon, it turned out, had razed more of the ground than suspected, and the number of plants it actually landed on were few. Those grippers that remained found the beast far too broad and tough to properly bite into. Forta bled a great deal whilst unconscious, but was not seriously hurt, and flew away without much difficulty once it realized the evil in its land was gone.
Valerie simply lay down for a long time, eyes closed, putting her mind and emotions back in order and trying not to cry from relief.
Adrian leaned down to offer her a hand. "Well done," he said as he pulled her shakily upright.
Valerie closed her eyes. Praise was the last thing she deserved. "It was Monika," she said hoarsely, rubbing her bruised throat. "She's the one who took him down."
"What?" came a shaky voice. The blonde in question had awakened, and shaking just a bit in obvious relief. "All I did was get here in time, and then..." She trailed off, eyes unfocused, before snapping upright again. "But you're safe, right? We won?"
Valerie and Adrian exchanged a glance, and the healer sagged against his shoulder. "Just..." she said finally, "You deserve the credit for this one. It couldn't have happened without you."
Michael opened up a plothole. "We'd better get to the others and finish the cleanup," he said.
One by one, the leaders and agents stepped through. As Valerie was about to follow suit, she remembered something, and glanced around hurriedly.
But of course, Zero was already gone.
Enough agents were dispatched through the newly opened plotholes to dispatch the remaining Usurped in the Os-Mine Hills, though not without considerable difficulty. It took three Scene Transitions, a Plot Device, and a blast from the Canon Cannon to get rid of most of them.
The dragon of the topaz had handily eaten the rest.
Camillia Anastasia Jessica Zara Chipatatwe'e Jenkins-Walnut was found - still in three pieces - and placed in a body bag for transport out of the fandom.
"Who is that?" Lief asked, eying the parody sue with a curious expression.
It took a long while before the healer answered. "Just someone who got caught in the crossfire of someone else's war," she answered finally. To Adrian, she added in a soft voice, "Someone should contact Camillia's author and tell him what happened."
The Librarian nodded. "I'll see what I can do."
Valerie nodded, looking away, then turned back around. "Oh! Lief, before I go, I wanted to ask you something. Marilen is your heir because she is your nearest relative on your father's side, right?"
"Yes," the king replied. It was common knowledge, after all.
"Okay. But did you ever consider the full implications of the Tale of the Masked Ones, from Josef's book?" Lief tilted his head, so Valerie continued, "If Bede is decended from Ballum, as Josef suspected, and Ballum was the brother of Adin's great-great-grandson, then would that not make Bede your nearest cousin instead of Marilen?"
The positively dumbstruck look on the king's face told the healer that he had not considered that at all. Valerie couldn't help but snicker as she opened a plothole.
"Just something to think about," she said with a grin, and stepped through.
Back at the Library, Monika was practically bent double laughing. "Is that really true?" she asked between breaths.
Valerie chuckled. "It might be that Lief's choice of an heir is taken into account. Goodness knows Bede would make a terrible king, even if he isn't a prissy ladykiller anymore. But it was never even addressed in canon, and I just wanted to bring it up. It would've been bizarre if Lief had died in the underworld in series two, and the Belt never shone for Marilen no matter how long she wore it." The healer stretched upward and yawned. "But he has kids in the end, so it's all moot point now, I guess."
Terrie rolled her eyes with a smile. "You think about things waaaay too much, Val," she said, and stepped out of the monitor room, probably off to her own rooms to take a nap. One by one, the others followed, until only Valerie and Monika were left in the room.
"So..." Monika said after a long pause. "You gonna tell me who that guy was?"
Valerie bit her lip. "...No," she said softly.
Monika nodded. "Okay then. I get it."
Valerie closed her eyes tightly. "Please understand, Mon, it's not a matter of-"
The blonde took her friend's shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. "No, seriously, it's alright if you don't want to. He helped us, and that should be good enough."
"I will tell you someday," said the empath firmly. "I promise."
Monika smiled. "I know."
Some time later...
"You're sure about this?" Adrian asked soberly. "You don't know if he'll come after you again. He caused a big enough mess here; maybe Runoa'll rein him in. Hell, maybe he'll go back to hunting Silri for a while. That's possible, isn't it?"
Valerie did not smile. "The nature of chaos is multiple things happening at once," she said. "Order... isn't capable of that."
The Librarian regarded her with a critical eye. "Good to know you appreciate the gravity of what you're asking," he quipped, with an expression Valerie supposed was meant to be forbidding. She did her best anyway to pretend she didn't know exactly what he was feeling and why. "So I'm going to be equally serious when I say: I don't need my best healer putting herself in the line of fire. That is not a tactically sound choice to make."
"I sort of think I don't really have a choice this time," Valerie said, without expression.
"No," he agreed softly. "You don't."