Chapter 32: Lashing Thunder

Roran couldn't help but grimly acknowledge the fact that he had rather badly underestimated just how powerful and dangerous the unknown Claw hero's paramours would be, the abrupt and borderline feral response they had launched upon them containing no shortage of overwhelming strength that the majority of their forces simply weren't equipped to handle, relying on overwhelming numbers to close the gap.

And even that seemed to be a mere stop-gap measure.

The winged beasts had gone after the Faubley forces, the mounted cavalry retreating to the relative safety of their fortress equipped with primitive guns and cannons, a platoon of mages also holding fast to begin casting. Except neither of the monsters cared all that much about the firepower arrayed against them, the dragon leading the charge as gunfire uselessly sparked or deflected against her armored hide, a roar that shook the very ground leaving her maw as lightning arced from between her horns and fire spewed from its maw, setting alight anything that had the misfortune to get in her way as storehouses of ammunition and other flammable material merely added to the conflagration encompassing almost a quarter of the fortress walls.

The mages didn't fare all that much better. Even as they prepared to simultaneously chant and unleash a vortex that would smash the armored beast into the ground a blur of red, white and black flew towards them at a speed they barely had time to follow before magic casters began to fall, sliced and diced as they collapsed to the ground in smoothly cut pieces by the moth creature's razor-keen talons, the few magic casters that were fast on their feet launching spells at the marauding creature-

-only to gape in dismay as the winged-monster weathered the storm with little care, scales and fur shimmering with a scintillating light as it shrugged off the elemental assault the same way they would a bug bite, resuming the slaughter as they tore the resisting Faubley garrison to shreds.

A triumphant roar left Varsha as she smashed aside yet another row of artillery, the draconic woman finally feeling as if she could embody the fierce creature she had been born as, rather than a pale imitation. Not only had her master had to protect her from the Filolial Queen she had also failed him during the battle against the Whip hero, Sylphy dying in the process...but now? Now, as she marauded through the panicking and desperate enemies of her master Varsha felt as if she was finally living up to her vaunted strength and power as one of the most powerful monsters that walked the lands.

The Siltvelt forces—despite their much more numerous and condensed formation—were hardly in any more of a desirable position. Rather than a gigantic dragon or blindingly fast moth monster they had squared off against two women of unassuming stature and build but admitted beauty, one adorned in a blindfold and the other a pint-sized elf that looked like she could be blown over with a stiff breeze.

They'd killed three dozen in a quarter as many seconds.

The elf dived headlong into formation after formation, relying on her natural agility as well as her partner's casted spells to protect her from the occasional spear or sword that managed to find her body, golden blade lashing outwards like a furious snake as it dismembered, disemboweled or outright eviscerated any unfortunate soul its keen edge found, only the thickest of armor providing any semblance of protection and even then all such an inconvenience amounted to was an extra half-second of attention diverted to finding chinks in the plate, the end result a kill nonetheless.

Rather than try to focus on the dashing and rolling hellion that was the hyper-reflexive elf most Siltvelt soldiers eyed the blindfolded woman as she sedately strolled behind her smaller companion's path of carnage, each step measured and careful as most quickly realized—with no shortage of disbelief—that the foolish woman was blind. On the battlefield.

Twenty or so warriors gave each other nods of affirmation, thinking fast and quickly removing the noisiest parts of their armor or clothing before rushing towards the regal female, relying on the din of battle to mask their approach. They drew close, no more than a few steps away as they raised weapons to run their opponent through-

-and a deft twirl of her staff disarmed three Siltvelt soldiers in a single sweep, a languid murmur of, "First, Lunar Hammer," causing glowing bars of light to lash out in a circle around her, flattening even the toughest of assailants as if they'd just been slapped by a mountain, the one demihuman that managed to sneak through the woman's simultaneous offense and defense ramming his spear towards the base of her spine where a gap in her ornate armor existed...and almost felt his arms jar out of their sockets as a glowing shield of adamantine amber stopped his weapon dead, deft twirl of ornate staff smashing the assailant into twitching unconsciousness as Julietta marched onwards, barely slowed so much as an iota.

Beginning to panic the assembled force began to prepare a large-scale magic assault, two dozen mages chanting out a thunder-based spell as they set their sights on the blindfolded assailant, the elf moving too quickly among their number to accurately target without horrific self-inflicted casualties.

The sky rumbled, glowing with a geometric formation of magic power as a bolt of raw energy prepared to turn the less mobile female into a charred husk as the magic users initiated their attack-

"Zweit, Golden Wall."

-and the furious blast of elemental energy that would have turned a stone house into a fast-expanding cloud of burnt and smoking shrapnel was easily neutralized by a rectangular panel of shimmering light that faded from view a second later, the woman continuing her walk as calmly as she had from the start.

Roran scowled, facing the two demihumans from no more than twenty paces away as he grudgingly admitted, "Guess that distant leash-holder of yours isn't an idiot after all, he certainly found quite the lethal group to back up his bullshit."

The Axe hero hefted his Vassal weapon, keeping an eye out for any signs of weakness before pointedly remarking, "Except you still have to go through me, little girls...and once I'm done with you I can tip the scales elsewhere."

The rabbit merely raised her weapon, eyes narrowing as she commented, "How confidant of you, when the rest of the battle goes poorly without exception."

"Funny you should speak of confidence, when the little fox over there seems ready to piss herself."

No sooner did he utter those words than aforementioned fox girl stiffened, hands pale from her white-knuckle grip on the spear as Roran unleashed a contemptuous bark of laughter.

"You talk and act big but when we get right down to it you're still that scared, helpless little runt that cried and sniffled when we tossed you into some slaver's cart, covered in her clan's blood."

The woman's jaw clenched so tightly that the Axe hero could have sworn he heard her jaw crack.

"And you really think you stand a chance against me? Face it, brat. You're still the same coward you were back then-"

"Of course she isn't."

The rabbit demihuman's words cut off Roran's tirade, her hand grasping her fellow demihuman's and offering a reassuring squeeze.

"Kayla? We can either talk around the issue all day...or you can prove it."

The previously trembling demihuman met her fellow's solid gaze, swiftly relaxing before quietly murmuring, "You're right...thank you."

Roran made to leap forward, relying on their moment of distraction-

"Zweit, Aero Fist! Zweit, Feral Flare!"

-and felt his eyes widen as the formerly sniveling fox whirled around, pointed her spear directly at him and shouted out a combination spell.

A combination spell that appeared far more powerful than what any individual magic user may have been able to muster, a wave of crushing fire washing over him with the force of charging warhorse, ears ringing with the sound of the detonation.

The Vassal claw's party members didn't waste another second, Lenia charging in after the assault while ignoring the stifling air, smoke and burning ground that kicked up embers where her boots briefly alighted upon it, blade prepped to run through the Axe hero where she had last seen him standing.

There was a shriek of steel, deflection of force and Lenia went skidding past her target, Roran having manifested a large, ornate axe that shone with a mirror polish as he remained largely unharmed by Kayla's initial assault.

"First, Quick Step!"

Buffing herself the rabbit demihuman dashed back into the fray at a blinding speed, Roran shifting his axe into two individual ones made of stone and adorned with feathers, wind gathering around the weapons as he met the demihuman's charge directly, each slash and swing of his arms altering and directing the current of wind around him, Lenia instantly buffeted and thrown off balance by the strange movements that instantly put her on the defensive, wildly trying to avoid Roran's retaliation.

"Zweit, Current Rider!"

"Zweit, Obsidian Arm!"

Thankfully she wasn't alone, Kayla casting a spell that nullified a great deal of the blistering air currents as she increased her own strength with Obsidian Arm, reducing her speed but considering it a worthy tradeoff as she ducked inside one of the Axe hero's lethal swings, scoring a shallow slash against his flank—the hero's armor managing to redirect what she had hoped would be a lacerating blow—that drew blood as the man snarled, disengaging as his Vassal weapon once again shifted forms, now a massive and crude hunk of sharp metal that moved with a speed belying its size and aerodynamics, Lenia's eyes widening as despite her increased strength her attempt at redirecting the first blow was met with startling failure, weapon almost ripped from her grasp as the armor on her leg was crushed by the weight of the strike.

"First, Blind Eyes!"

Kayla's support was right on time, a mask of darkness covering the Vassal hero's eyes as he stumbled slightly, Lenia grinning despite the pain in her leg as she swiftly whispered, "Drifa, Full Impact," before leaping forward, planting her feet directly in front of the Axe hero as she thrusted her arm forward, an ebon glow surrounding her blade as the tip struck the male's armor-

-and punched right through as if it had offered no more protection than a thin sheet of wood.

Flesh offered even less resistance, Lenia grinning in triumph as her weapon drew close to her target's heart...and promptly scowled as the man spun away despite his obscured vision, suffering a deep and bloody injury but still very much alive and in the fight.

Full Impact diverted all of her strength and power into a single, focused point of transferred force that could self-evidently deal a great amount of damage but it came at the cost of her mobility, the demihuman slow to reengage as she felt sluggish and stiff, Roran shifting his axe back into its mirrored and ornate form, the blindfold of energy swiftly dissipating as the opposing demihuman snarled at the rabbit, features contorted with battle rage.

"ENOUGH!"

The Vassal axe yet again morphed within his grasp, now resembling a pillar of shimmering, molten rock that turned the air around them into a stifling and burning hellscape, Lenia slowing in her already debuffed charge as she winced, falling back as her skin crisped and hair curled, Roran grinning sadistically as he made to charge-

"Zweit, Glacial Joust!"

-and Kayla had charged forward in desperation, slamming her spear into the unsuspecting man's back before channeling her spell through the weapon, a massive steam explosion occurring and causing the Axe hero to roar in frustration, whirling around despite the now visibility-impaired landscape as he wildly swung towards Kayla's shadow, the demihuman hastily retreating...just a hair too slow, the axe tearing through armor, cloth and skin alike as her flesh was simultaneously sliced and cauterized, a pained scream leaving Kayla's throat despite her attempt to remain silent, the fox demihuman blinking back tears as she snarled in defiance, mind running a mile a minute.

"Think, Kayla, THINK! What did master always teach us, that each and every form of the Vassal weapons has at least some weakness or tradeoff, to compensate for its greater power? The only ones without drawbacks are the least powerful, not at all what Vanil has been using against us!"

That thought firmly in mind she tried to ignore the pain branded across her chest and navel, keeping a wary eye on the Axe hero's approaching shadow, obscured as it was by the suffocating steam.

"This would be SO much easier if Lenia and I just had a moment to communicate!"

Unfortunately the battle had been swift and brutal right from the start, scarcely enough time to breathe, never mind converse. Holding her ground as Roran made to charge the demihuman prepared herself for a harsh series of blows that were not her forte-

-and Lenia's slim, hardy blade sprouted from Roran's navel, the Vassal hero's eyes flying wide with shock at the rabbit's sudden blitz. Not so shocked that he couldn't whirl around and deliver a brutal backhand across her fellow demihuman's skull that knocked her flat, body twitching and spasming as Kayla moved to capitalize on the opening provided.

"Drifa, Null Sense!"

Midnight mist descended around them, Roran whirling around in shock as all five of his senses were hampered and smothered while the fox demihuman bared her teeth, charging forward despite the agony gouged into her chest as she prepped her spear, praying that the gamble would pay off.

It did, the Axe hero shifting his weapon back into its mirrored form that freed him from the effects of her sensory deprivation spell, whirling around to face the charging woman.

Just a hair too slow, her spear ramming itself into the bleeding gash Lenia had earlier afflicted as Kayla offered a triumphant grin, the man's defenses suffering due to the magical nature of his currently manifested axe.

"Zweit, Aero Fist! Zweit, Feral Flare!"

Fire and wind manifested within Roran's body, the two naturally synergistic elements feeding off of the other-

-and the Axe hero's torso exploded outwards in a spray of burning flesh and hissing steam, shocked and disbelieving eyes meeting Kayla's fiery own as Roran made use of the last remaining breath in his lungs.

"Well fuck...look at the little girl who went and grew up…"

Then he collapsed without further complaint, upper half going in one direction and lower in another as the force of her applied spell took its toll on the strings of flesh still remaining, Kayla breathing heavily as she barely managed to stay on her feet, swaying dangerously as her mind tried to reconcile the facts of the current situation.

"I...I did it? I killed the man who...I actually did it."

Lenia slowly rolled herself upwards, wincing at the ache in her skull as she found herself empathizing with her master's constant complaints about head injuries. They were not pleasant in the slightest. But she worked through the pain and nausea, breathing a sigh of relief upon witnessing Roran's expired body...although a small, heartfelt smile graced her lips upon seeing Kayla standing tall over the defeated Vassal hero, body wounded and marred but expression victorious, the sounds and cries of battle slowly fading as group after group of soldiers on both sides of the conflict saw the seemingly indomitable Vassal hero fall at the hands of a mere two demihumans, their respective struggle against their own pairs of opponents not going particularly well.

And, one-by-one, they began to drop their weapons. At first it was just a few footmen on the front lines, swords or spears hitting the dirt and grass with muffled thumps...then their commanders followed suit, entire platoons and formations of soldiery abandoning their weapons with defeated expressions as the reality of the situation hit them.

The conflict between Siltvelt and Faubley was now and perhaps indefinitely on hold.


[What would your ideal world resemble, Narvas? One that balanced the inherit animalistic instincts and desires of people—to compete, fight and expand—with a world that's both kind and prosperous?]

I blink, caught off guard by the sudden question that's vaguely related to one of the topics we discussed in the past.

"Have we gone over this before? I feel like this is a somewhat familiar song and dance…"

Her voice contains a clear pout, the goddess complaining,

[Are our meetings so dull that you cannot even recall the topics covered?]

I can't help but smile slightly at her overly dramatic response, slowly running a hand through my hair before carefully responding, "I have an answer but would you mind giving me a rundown of some of the things you've tried in the past? Just so we're not giving the same answers here."

[Hmm, fair enough. Well my experiments were myriad, none of which were as successful as I had hoped they would be. My first attempt was to encourage and propagate the concept of gladiatorial games and events that could vent aggression and bloodlust into spectacle and controlled environments. Needless to say it failed rather spectacularly in time enough. The system became ripe for abuse and exploitation, slavery and subsequent slave uprisings and rebellions proof that the system had become unjust and not at all what I envisioned, people pushed into increasingly dangerous and hedonistic trials not through honor, pride or nationalism but by a poor luck of the dice and the station of their birth.]

A sigh from the goddess, voice melancholy as I raptly listen.

[Another of my grand projects was to allow for small-scale wars, to break apart the largest kingdoms and have the natural aggression of people be vented through battles that would be tiny and ultimately confined to just a few. This was extremely wishful thinking on my part and within a few decades several of these small tribes or caravans had been violently annexed or eagerly allied with others, leading to the rise of kingdoms and factions every bit as large as they had been previously. To this day I still kick myself over this plan."

I nod, fully aware that when it comes to bringing people together nothing works quite like happily joining hands and collectively shitting on the mutual enemy of the day.

[Imagine that, sentient beings having will and wants of their own. In all honesty I had begun to give up hope that anything other than the most basic and hands-off approach to guiding the world was a lost cause.]

"Well I'm definitely not going to pretend that I've given this kind of topic any kind of overly serious thought—it never really entered into my daily stream of contemplation, imagine that—I've been thinking about it here and there since coming to this world. And I have something that might work...although I'm basing that off of less than zero applicable evidence or prior experience."

[Wonderful, you begin much as I did.]

Her joke causes my lips to quirk briefly, continuing a moment later with, "I want to be a benevolent god, overseeing and guiding the world to a utopia. The problem is that short of some kind of massive, world-spanning hypnotism or illusion I see no real way to have that kind of utopia be anything remotely feasible or possible. Setting aside the rather significant and nigh-unsolvable issue that is people's individual will and wants there's another proverbial elephant that we need to address...namely that, if everything is all warm and fuzzy with no hardship to be found…"

I can only shrug, asking, "Is that even really a utopia? Like we talked about last time if there's no context to the happiness does it even really count? If you've never experienced pain or misery how do you tell when those things are absent?"

[I have it on good authority that birth is a rather trying ordeal for the mother.]

That drags a smile from me, nodding in acquiescence as I nonetheless push on with, "Fair point, although I'd like to think that it's a little bit more complicated than merely having your vagina scream out in agony as you pop out an equally screaming baby."

[You have a cock, your opinion doesn't count.]

This time I genuinely laugh, surrendering the argument with raised hands as Xephina giggles.

[My teasing of you aside, how would you attempt to balance the very real issues of individual competition, expansion and strife that would get in the way of this supposed world?]

"Honestly I was thinking of keeping the Waves or something similar around."

There's an understandable moment of silence from the goddess.

"In my experience the best way for people to unite is in the face of a common adversity. Few things are more potent than shared experiences, especially those that are painful. But the risk of that is self-evident in the way humans, demihumans and all sorts of other races are constantly at odds with each other. Shared pain, yes, but much of it negatively directed at others they should be allied with. The Waves or similar natural disasters are just potent enough—if we can put an end to the rampant strife between the various peoples—that the species of the world will have to unite against this very real and very lethal foe."

Xephina hums in contemplation as I continue my argument, adding on, "The most crucial part of this, though, is that while the 'evil' has to be faceless and amorphous it also has to be suitably recognizable without drawing negative connotations to those that live in this land. Marauding, implacable monsters, terrain-altering storms, quakes and floods...these are threats that will ideally have people banding and uniting against them, an outlet for the ingenuity and drive that so defines the various species of the world."

[In the most basic terms possible, the world needs a target for them to pin their malice and hatred on.]

"Pretty much, yeah. I don't think people would function all that well without SOME kind of hurdle to jump over."

Xephina is quiet for some time, eventually speaking up with a quiet reminder of,

[This course of action will all too likely lead to millions, billions...perhaps even trillions of deaths for however long it lasts. Is that a risk and battle you're willing to accept?]

I force myself to adopt a humorless smile.

"Well, I'm about to get a lot of practice with Melromarc, aren't I?"

A sad hum of acknowledgment leaves the woman, words firm as she says a moment later,

[It won't be a burden you have to share alone, Narvas. Our agreement was that we shall rule this world together and that means a share of the guilt and blame.]

It's a nice sentiment that provides some measure of comfort as I gaze off towards where a distant series of battles are no doubt taking place.

Yeah, alright then...it's time.