Vualla folded her arms to hide her hand that had balled themselves into fists. This farce of a meeting had gone on for far too long for her to sit still. Yet she was bound here, brought by Cail Tweocs, who stood beside her looked as just as content with bored as the rest of the assembled Commanders.
Yet right now… Vualla’s gaze flicked toward the door to the meeting tent.
Lord Miln favored Commander Terith with a sharp look. “I must insist that you had over the Nether Prince. Surely your current… results have made it clear that your methods are incapable of breaking its will. With the threat of the Nether King looming over us, it is time to put aside this foolishness.”
“I think I’ve already made my refusal clear, Supreme Commander.” Commander Terith replied frostily. Although he was certainly someone who was loyal to his commanding officer, Commander Terith’s pride made it so that he very easily took offense to this very direct dressing down. Especially when it occurred in front of his peers.
But still, now is not the time for this infighting, Vualla did her best to breathe out her nose and control her emotions.
Yet this specific argument wasn’t the reason that Vualla was so furious she was biting her lip hard enough to make her mouth taste like copper. Well, that was technically not true. Because it was this argument that was infuriating. It was the fact that they had time to bicker about this stupid thing while a million-strong army of Nether Beasts sent detachments of ten thousand to assault the Aether Force’s forward defenses.
Luckily, the fact that the Nether King broke through an Aether Key directly gave them an early warning and they had pulled out their emergency defensive armaments. It gave the forces an Aether another edge in a defensive battle, which was much needed.
Yet even though the initial numbers were extremely rosy in terms of loss ratios, that entirely missed the point: the Nether King was a foe far beyond the capability of any one individual on this frontline to battle. Even Cail Tweocs seemed somewhat leery at the prospect. And the forces of Aether only had about one hundred thousand troops stationed here, with at least half of those currently on rest rotation.
The early numbers might look good, but the forces of Aether would tire out. With numbers at their back, more and more Nether Beasts would keep coming and killing. And then, they would all-!!
Vualla had to press her eyes shut as the image of her father’s pale and deceased form appeared before her eyes. She bit her lip even harder. I will not cry here. I cannot.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” Lord Miln said lightly.
Commander Terith glared at Lord Miln but remained silent. A heavy moment passed between them as their gazes remained locked. Everyone else sat in various positions of polite listening, while not particularly willing to get involved on either side.
Seething inside, Vualla looked away… until her gaze settled onto the bushy and verdant form of Yggdrasil. Vualla had met the treant man a few times in passing since Randidly had left for the Great Rift, and overall she hadn’t given him much attention; in her mind, he was only another one of the images that was a part of Randidly.
Yet now, looking at his serene expression…
That familiar warmth of Randidly’s touch on her back returned to her. Peace and tranquility seemed to radiate off of the emerald leaves of the treant. And perhaps most poignantly, the emerald of the leaves reminded Vualla of Randidly’s pure eyes. The color of the leaves was slightly lighter, but-
But I can’t be tranquil. Vualla looked at the ground. Not when so many die while we waste our time here.
One of the other commanders coughed light. “Ahem. Perhaps we can table this matter for now. With the forces of the Nether King marching on us-”
“Breaking the will of the Nether Prince is of tantamount importance,” Lord Miln said.
The Commander that had seen fit to speak frowned at the brusque reaction from Lord Miln. “But our forces are currently grossly underprepared for the assault. At least issue an emergency recall of those on rest leave so we can-”
“The foot soldier’s job,” Lord Miln said sharply as he rapped his knuckles on his heavy desk. “Is to buy time so that we, the decision-makers, can move with the wisdom and clarity that befits our position. And let me tell you, the Nether Prince is how we win this war. So Commander Terith-”
“Those people will die,” Vualla cut in sharply. No longer could she stay silent, not when someone else had tried the argument gently. No, now that a Path had opened she would smash into it with everything she had. That was her choice to make. She straightened her back and prepared to meet Lord Miln’s gaze. “Does that mean nothing to you?”
Silence fell in the council as everyone turned to look at Vualla. Although many of the Commanders had brought attendants to the meeting, they all stood as far back as possible and kept silent. This was a place where only the Commanders had leave to speak. So to suddenly step forward meant that Vualla abruptly experienced the heavy gaze of all of the assembled Commanders.
The pressure against her built and built, but Vualla’s neck did not bend. Her time training with Cail Tweocs was something very near abuse, but that didn’t mean that she hadn’t grown from it. Especially in the last three months, since her father died, she had been able to internalize many of Cail’s lessons to great effect. Pressure flowed closer, but the tightly leashed aura of destruction Vualla controlled ate it away.
Just as Vualla’s jaw was clenching from enduring the strain, Cail stepped forward and spoke with his piping voice. “This woman is here with me. If she truly wishes to express her opinions… so be it.”
Immediately the pressure vanished like a veil had been drawn around Vualla. Some part of her wondered if Cail Tweocs had done something directly, but she suspected that wasn’t the case. Even at the best of times, Cail was extremely arrogant, too much so to bother with both speaking and acting on her behalf. No, the more likely answer was that Cail’s words were enough to completely distinguish the ire of the Commanders.
Sorta fucked up I was so focused on my father being gone that I never paid attention this Xyrt Brigade, Vualla thought bitterly.
“…fine,” Even Lord Miln seemed to pull back somewhat. He looked her up and down before shaking his head. “Say your piece, girl.”
“You know what?” There was a fire in Vualla’s chest now, put there by Lord Miln’s indulgent tone. “Fuck you. You don’t deserve for me to point out that you are a shriveled, empty husk of a person who is too afraid of letting your carefully laid plans fail than saving a life. Someone like you should never have been chosen as the Supreme Commander of a battlefield. If we have to wait for you to order us to live, everyone but you will die.”
Vualla could feel it in her gauntlets. The aura of destruction that Vualla carried with her began to leak outward. Compared to when Vualla had activated in an exhausted state these past several months, this destruction fueled by rage was incredibly dangerous. The fire of rage ignited her, and the world around her brightened into sharp clarity. The beast in her chest called for a hungry destruction, with grasping claws and red-rimmed eyes that would dismantle this useless command structure that bound it.
So she lashed out, almost hoping that Lord Miln would move to meet her in combat. At least then they wouldn’t simply be sitting here while soldiers died. At least then she could let this growing fire out of her.
There was a second of numb silence as everyone heard Vualla’s words and realized that it was a bared challenge against Lord Miln. In this second of confusion, Lord Miln displayed the same look of confusion. Then, as the words were given time to sink in, his face became warped by rage.
“Hah…” Cail sighed. Immediately, Lord Miln’s face went blank.
Vualla’s rage spiked upward. I don’t need you to protect me… isn’t this what you always wanted? For me to just give in to rage and let everything go? So why-
“If that’s how you feel,” Lord Miln said slowly. “That is something you have to settle with your own conscious. Are you truly angry at us girl… or are you angry at yourself? To be weak is a tragic thing, is it not?”
“I’m-” Vualla began, but then she snapped her jaws shut with an audible click. This fuck obviously didn’t understand the first thing about her, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t right. Part of Vualla’s rage was because she was forced to come here to this meeting by Cail Tweocs, but had he really forced her to come?
Right now, she could go fight.
But the enemy was a Nether Gatekeeper. Even if she had grown-
Even so, this destruction that she felt now around her, so hungry and familiar, seemed to whisper that she could do it. As long as she gave in to her most destructive impulses, Vualla could rival a Nether Gatekeeper. Hell, maybe that wasn’t her limit at all. She could rival all of them, so long as she trusted in this destruction.
“Then I guess I’ll be going,” Vualla said shortly. Without another word, she turned on her heel and walked out of the command tent and looked up at the sky. The air above the Aether forces was dense with the weight of the Great Rift. And beyond that, she could see the rippling sea of blue tentacles that stretched outward from the Nether King’s assembled forces.
Then she lowered her eyes toward the horizon and looked at the column of troop smashing into the hastily assembled defenses that the camps had created. The grand formation that gave the soldiers their Nether stars had been activated defensively for now, giving up the creation of stars and instead projecting a heavy restriction against the forces of Nether.
Even so, screams and rumbles echoed out from the front lines. The Nether Gatekeeper was making his presence known. And in the absence of a Commander to stand against that foe, the forces of Aether had no choice but bunker down and endure.
With the increased pressure from the Great Rift, large chunks of land were beginning to levitate upward from the rocky ground. So it seemed like as the Nether forces marched forward, the lands themselves were rising to give them aid. The high metal wall fortifications that the Aether forces brought out for emergencies appeared to have been constructed without issue. The grey metal barricades were sturdy things, but they began to warp and bubble as Nether crashed against them and Nether Beasts dug their claws into the physical substance for purchase.
Images clashed against the Nether Beast, sweeping them off the wall. For a few seconds, the forces of Aether had time to catch their breath and prepare for the next battle. But then Vualla spotted the Nether Gatekeeper and her stomach dropped like a stone.
It was a humanoid figure with six tails lashing back and forth. Each swipe of the tail left a deep gash in the metal barricades. Then the Nether Gatekeeper paused and gathered all of its tails together in one large swing. The Nether energy gathering in that tail caused electric distortions in the surrounding physical space with its power. When it cut, the entire barricade split and a sea of Nether Beasts forced their way forward to fall upon the shocked defenders.